Reality TV: 8 simple rules
Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz of the production company Magical Elves have worked on reality hits such as ''Project Greenlight,'' ''Top Chef,'' and ''Bands on the Run.'' Here, they share what eight years in the biz has taught them
1. Making reality TV is like fishing.
We started saying this on Project Greenlight, when we shot 3,000 hours of footage to make 12 half-hour episodes. There is always a lot of waiting around with lines in the water, hoping for a bite, and just when it seems like nothing is happening…something always does. And that continues to this day. Just when we think the designers on Project Runway are just going to sit around and sew, something will happen — like Laura will accuse Jeffrey of cheating, and we’re off to the races (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor).
2. Not being in control is part of the fun.
That’s the point of reality TV — you don’t get to write scripts in advance, and you don’t know what people are going to do. You just have to trust fate and casting. And you know as a producer that when you can’t wait to see what happens next, the audience will probably feel the same way.
This complete lack of control was something we learned to embrace while working on Project Greenlight. Everyone always assumes that we as TV producers chose the director and writer who would make the best show. This was not the case. They were picked by Ben [Affleck], Matt [Damon], [movie producer] Chris [Moore], and whomever else you saw on the panel, and they really tried to select the team that would make the best film. We had no say in the matter, and were just sitting there watching, hoping that whoever they picked would be a compelling subject for the next nine months of shooting, with thousands of hours of footage devoted to everything they did from commanding a set on their first day to rinsing their armpits in the sink before a big meeting. That being said…
3. Sometimes you just get lucky.
On season 2 of Top Chef, one of our favorite candidates was not able to be on the show due to some issues with his background check. We wailed and raged and put in calls to the highest level of NBC Universal begging for the ban to be overturned. No luck. Instead we had to cast another chef. We were not sure he was compelling enough, but he got his shot. That chef’s name? Marcel Vigneron.
4. If something big goes down, make sure the camera is on.
There is a little red light on the front of a camera, which is lit when the camera is on. It’s worth checking on it if something big happens, because once in a while, in a moment of excitement, camera operators will hit their button twice and turn the camera off rather than on. This is how we missed most of a massive fistfight that had been building up for eight weeks on Bands on the Run, and how we missed the one time Efram and Kyle, the passive-aggressive directors on season 2 of Project Greenlight, got in a real confrontation with [Battle of Shaker Heights producer] Jeff Balis.
NEXT PAGE: The call that comes at 4 a.m. is never a good one…