For the last ten years, I’ve made a living in reality TV. Now I’m making a fictional movie about reality TV. As it turns out, they’re not that different—many of the methods I used to get the subjects of my show to open up are equally effective on actors.
The film is called Inner Demons, and it explores the terrifying results of a reality production gone wrong. The film gave me the opportunity to explore some of the tensions I felt working in reality TV; specifically, I knew that even when the shows had real social value – and despite the reputation of reality TV, many of them do – in order to reach people, the show had to get ratings – i.e. had to be as entertaining as possible.
My job, as a field producer, was to befriend the cast, gain their trust, draw them out in interviews, and ultimately turn them into compelling television. (In reality TV, field producers are the equivalent on directors in movies and scripted TV, running the crew while directing the cast.)
Producing reality TV can be psychologically challenging, with long hours, grueling schedules, and, on serious shows, exposure to a range of traumas that we had to do our best to document objectively. As dramatized in Inner Demons, different members of the crew react to the stresses of the job in different ways – some distance themselves by vilifying the subjects, others with gallows humor, and others sympathize with them so much that they threaten the objectivity of the production.
Directing Inner Demons, I had the opportunity to pull back the curtain and explore some of the tricks that reality producers use to draw emotion out of their subjects. I found that a lot of the same methods work with actors who are stuck on a difficult scene. Here, then, are ten tricks that we reality producers use to generate onscreen emotion:
Remind them of their privilege as stars of reality TV
One way to get interview subjects to invest emotionally in their own stories is to remind them that in our society, the opportunity to appear on television is the greatest privilege bestowed upon its citizens. Once they understand what an honor it is to be able to communicate their personal experiences on TV, they’re often willing to share more deeply than when they feel that the interview is a chore or a test. This is especially helpful after four straight hours of interviews, when the subject is exhausted and just wants to get home to shoot up.
With milquetoast interview subjects, you need to raise the blood pressure, and sometimes this means challenging their strongly held beliefs. For example, on a show I recently produced about a family from rural Georgia that relocates to Los Angeles, the cast takes it for granted that grits are delicious. When I challenge them, declaring that grits are disgusting and that Hollywood’s famous “skinny omelet” is a much more satisfying breakfast, their blood boils and they give me the kind of angry, reckless soundbites that got them on TV in the first place.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2006, I took an acting class and quickly learned an idiosyncratic but foolproof way to induce tears. Sometimes, during interviews, I discovered that by letting my eyes get a little watery, I gave my subjects implicit permission to do so as well. I found that I could do the same on Inner Demons, when I was helping actors prepare for emotionally taxing scenes, and often this mirror-neuron bond was all that was necessary to release the waterworks.
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