Marty and her husband Kurt were about to audition for a television commercial that required 6 weeks of work in an exotic land. Each was fantasizing about the assignment.
“In my head, I’m thinking this dreamy little island in the Pacific,” said Marty, a commercial actress.
Kurt, an independent film producer, had never appeared on television. “I thought they were going to fly us to Nice and we are going to stand next to a car, and then they’ll fly us to Paris, and we’ll stand next to a car,” Kurt said.
“Then they said come in Banana Republic outfits.”
What Nissan had in mind was more “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
To the right husband and wife team, the Japanese car manufacturer was offering a paid road trip that would serve as the theme for six documentary-like commercials featuring its Pathfinder truck.
Kurt and Marty Anderson, who live in Topanga, were selected from about 500 couples to drive the truck through 6,500 miles of freeways, dirt roads, swamps and jungle paths leading from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro.
Film crews from the Venice advertising firm of Chiat/Day--who flew into various remote locations to shoot snippets of the trek--captured the couple slogging through Hurricane Gilbert, getting flown over Central America in a C-130 military transport plane and having a powwow with the never-before-filmed Waiempee Indian tribe along the Amazon River.
But condensing a 44-day trip into six 30-second commercials required that viewers miss most of what really happened. Some of Kurt and Marty’s experiences along the way were so bizarre they would have required parental guidance to be shown.
Things first started getting interesting when the couple strayed from their planned route to take a side trip to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
They got lost.
“We bounce down this mountain--and I’m talking bounce,” said Kurt, 33. “People came out of their huts to watch us drive through the pits that only the donkeys can get through. So we get to the end and there are a hundred villagers with machetes looking at us like we just landed from Mars.”
“And that’s how we felt,” said Marty, 35. “We never ceased to draw a crowd in that truck.”
The villagers--who didn’t speak English--had gathered to discuss upcoming elections when Kurt and Marty dropped in for a visit. The couple were sent into a tiny, white building.
“Inside there was a Mayan statue, and it’s the God of Death,” Marty said. “He’s a bad dude. He’s got a big, old tongue hanging down to the floor. Nasty face.”
“And skulls all over his head. Real human skulls,” Kurt said.
“All these skulls, bones, weird stuff were all stuck together in a clump,” Marty said. “It was absolutely terrifying.”
Then one of only two people accompanying the couple--they traveled with an interpreter and a guy Friday--pulled out his camera and took a picture. “They freaked,” Marty said. “They started screaming. That’s when we were scared.”
After talking their way to safety, the group headed on a 200-mile trek to the Lost City of Yaxchilan where they were scheduled to meet a film crew and tour the largest excavation of Mayan ruins.
There were no roads the entire way, and the final leg of the journey required a canoe ride through a blackwater swamp. Few people have been there.
“The first thing I see off the boat is a chicken racing past with a tarantula in its mouth being chased by four or five other chickens,” Marty said, laughing. “Tarantulas as big as your head. No kidding. And snakes with four nostrils. You hope they bite you on a limb so you can hack it off in time to live. Just a horrible, horrible place.”
Fleeing Yaxchilan, Kurt and Marty headed for Belize, where they took a flight over Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the rest of Central America to avoid the civil wars there. Southern Air Transport--the airline connected to the Iran-Contra scandal--was in charge of flying the couple, their two-man crew and their truck to Belem, Brazil. From Belem, it was just a barge ride up the Amazon to see the Waiempee Indians, a tribe discovered only 20 years ago.
They spent 3 days introducing the 250 tribesmen to the truck’s power windows and air conditioning and the music of Beethoven, Sting and INXS. All were big hits.
The Waiempee, in turn, fed Kurt and Marty a citrus porridge made from the root of a manioc plant. “We were up at like 5 a.m. and drinking fermented manioc root,” Marty said. “It sort of looks like thin oatmeal. You kind of gotta go with it.”
Marty was even given a nickname--Tohnshi, which means “white stone.” “I had the whitest face there, so that was my name,” she said. Kurt didn’t get one. “Tohnshi’s husband I guess,” he said.
For $5,000 worth of wheelbarrows and other goods, the Waiempee allowed Chiat/Day to film the exchanges, marking the first time the tribe had been photographed. “They were the highlight of the trip,” Marty said.
The couple made it to Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 30, and the final commercial showing their arrival is airing this weekend.
Very little of the “Road to Rio” campaign was scripted. Viewers were allowed to believe Kurt and Marty were from Chicago because Nissan felt it was more representative of middle America than Topanga.
Only a couple of scenes were taped more than once, and minor changes were made on their truck. The engine and electrical wires were sprayed with silicone to prevent any water from causing an electrical short, and fog lights were added. But just about everything else during the trip was left to fate.
“Before I left on this trip, everybody at work said I was going on a vacation,” said Dick Sittig, 29, Chiat/Day’s television director, who flew in for location shoots. “I tried to remember that whenever we were waist deep in mud or in a pouring rainstorm or out in the middle of nowhere literally covered by chiggers. This was no Club Med.”
Sittig said Kurt and Marty were chosen largely because they both have a good sense of humor. “We were actually casting for best friends. Besides the demographic stuff of a married couple in their 30s, we were looking for people who could laugh when things didn’t go as planned.” They were each paid Screen Actors Guild wages of $366 a day, which helped.
For their final audition, Chiat/Day sent Kurt, Marty and a camera crew to Griffith Park’s Travel Town. “I figured I didn’t have a chance,” Kurt said. “I thought they would want a male model and not a slightly overweight, zany guy.”
But zany is exactly what they got. “We did sort of a bogus documentary,” Kurt recalled. “There was a brush fire over the hill so we interviewed the firemen. We told them we were the Travel Town news team.”
“Kurt convinced them to all be there the following week for the Travel Town bikini contest,” Marty said.
Marty grew up in Encino and graduated from Birmingham High School in 1971. She “put in some time” at UC Santa Barbara art school before beginning her acting career. Nowadays, she is a full-time real estate agent and acts in one or two television commercials a year.
Kurt spent his childhood in Hayward. He came to Los Angeles to work in the entertainment industry in 1982 and eventually got a job as an agent before becoming a movie producer. His second film, “Party Line,” opens in area theaters next week.
The two met at a Santa Monica hangout and have been married for almost three years.
Before “Road to Rio” they hadn’t traveled much. “I begged him to take us to the Galapagos Islands on our honeymoon,” Marty said. “We went to Lake Shasta instead.”
Chances are Kurt and Marty will be hitting the road again soon. Nissan reports Pathfinder sales are up 25% since the ad campaign began in October, and there is already talk of a possible sequel.
Kurt and Marty say they’d like to drive the Marco Polo route through central Asia. “We talk about it constantly,” Kurt said. “I was ready to leave 2 days after I got home,” Marty said.
In the meantime, Nissan is giving them a Pathfinder for local adventures. “They decided they can’t have Kurt and Marty driving around in a Jeep Wagoneer,” Marty said.