Update: At the request of the author, this piece has been edited since publication to avoid revealing confidential information.
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.
Share their point of view
Reality TV subjects are sometimes embarrassed to share unpopular or politically incorrect opinions on camera, unless they believe that you feel the same way. For example, on a dating show I once produced, I knew the guy getting ready for the date was an awful misogynist, but he was careful not to reveal it on camera. I didn't want him to get away with it, so at a certain point during an interview I sent a female colleague out of the room, and when it was "just us guys," I let loose with some casual sexism, and he picked up right where I left off and dug himself a nice little grave.
Sometimes, if you're quiet and patient and allow the silence to become uncomfortable, reality subjects will tell you everything you need to know. It's hard to do this, given the breakneck schedules of most reality productions, but it can pay dividends. Sometimes the most emotionally honest admissions came in the silence after an interview subject answered a question, when the implications of his or her answer began to sink in.
When you start telling an interview subject about your personal life, it encourages them to tell you about theirs. This is a technique that also works great with actors on set. During my first rehearsal with the cast of Inner Demons, I opened up to them about my work in reality TV, my own experience with drugs and alcohol, and my father's recent death. This was my way of telling them how much this movie meant to me, and what I was willing to go through emotionally to make it work. I thereby created a circle of trust with the actors that enabled them to open up when I said, "Action."
Feed them lines
The open secret of reality production is that much of what characters say in interviews is written by a producer, sometimes by an entire writers' room. Even when you don't intend to put words in their mouths, interview subjects often grow frustrated by producers' efforts to draw out a specific kind of sound-bite, and I've been asked more than once to "just tell me what you want me to say." Sometimes it's a more concise version of what they just said, other times it's a joke you've thought up that would work well to set up a scene. After spending weeks or months talking to a subject, I trust myself to know his or her voice.
Check your phone, yawn, flip through your notes, unwrap and start eating a hoagie, and force the interview subject to get your attention. You can even go ahead and tell him you're bored. Get him to tell you something interesting. If he asks, "Am I boring you?" you can nod and say, "Yes, you're boring me. Give me the dirt." This usually results in a heavy sigh, and the beginning of a good soundbite.
Hold up a mirror
On Intervention, one of the first questions I asked the addicts and alcoholics when they sat down for their interviews was, "What do you see when you look in the mirror." Their answers provided shorthand for the rest of the interview: was I dealing with denial? Anger? Self-pity? As I became a better interviewer, I realized that showing my subjects an actual mirror could lead to deeper, more honest and more complex answers.
Tell them you might not use their interview
Subjects of reality shows are often in competition with the rest of the cast to air their version of recent events and family history. When an interview subject is reluctant to spill the beans, I've let them know that other interview subjects have gone deeper and revealed more personal feelings, so those are the stories that will probably end up in the show. For example, an alcoholic might open up about a childhood trauma if he believes that without his version of the incident, it will go on record as a minor episode that he's exaggerated to justify his drinking.
At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings about the manipulations used to elicit emotion from interview subjects, but I was proud of the work I did on Intervention. The majority of the addicts who appeared on the show are still in recovery, which is a remarkable success rate. And it was gratifying, with the film Inner Demons, to depict the tensions inherent in reality TV production, exploring a worst-case scenario onscreen that I was fortunate to avoid in the field.
A graduate of Princeton University and New York University's film program, Seth Grossman wrote and directed the award-‐winning short film, Shock Act (Best Narrative Short, 2004 Tribeca Film Festival) as well as the feature film The Elephant King, starring Ellen Burstyn. He directed the thriller The Butterfly Effect: Revelations as well as the mockumentary $50k and a Callgirl.
Grossman co-‐wrote A Late Quartet, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken. Between film projects, Grossman directs and produces reality television, including A&E's Emmy-‐winning addiction docu-‐drama Intervention.
Inner Demons opens in select theaters and on VOD this Friday. Here is a clip:
[Image by Jim Cooke]