Reality television. From THE X FACTOR to AMERICAN IDOL to SURVIVOR, it's been saturating TV Land as one of the biggest genres in the last decade. Millions tune in every night of the week to see the socially awkward assemble and cry their eyes out in a “diary room”. The world watches as manufactured boy bands warble their way to record deals before a panel of celebrity judges. This so-called reality dominates our screens. But what if a producer, his moral compass broken by a world where ratings are the be all and end all of his career, decided to take people's lives into his own hands and play god?
Meet REALITY SHOW's Mickey Wagner.
Showtime's new series REALITY SHOW, the brainchild of writer/director/producer and star of the show Adam Rifkin (DETROIT ROCK CITY, CHILLERAMA, UNDERDOG) debuts this Thursday, November 1 in the US, and promises a pitch-black satire of reality television as we know it, or at least as we think we know it.
Yesterday, I hopped on the phone to discuss the series with creator and star Rifkin, whose show LOOK: THE SERIES also aired on Showtime a couple of years ago.
Check out the trailer and my interview with Adam below:
BRITGEEK: Congratulations on REALITY SHOW.
ADAM RIFKIN: Thank you, thank you.
BG: I've watched the trailer a good few times, but obviously I can't watch it when it airs on TV over there [laughs], so I'm just going to have to sit it out and wait for the UK TV airing.
AR: It'll be there, it'll be there soon enough [laughs].
BG: Well I'm very much looking forward to it.
AR: Thank you.
BG: So starting from the beginning for the benefit of readers who may not yet be familiar with the show, what is REALITY SHOW about?
AR: REALITY SHOW is a very dark satire about the world of reality television and it follows a reality show producer named Mickey Wagner, who I actually play, and [he] has what he believes is a brilliant idea to reinvent reality television. He's going to reboot reality. He knows better than anybody that reality shows are all fake, they're all staged; everything in them is written by writers and producers, and he knows because he's produced tonnes of successful reality shows, but he's sick of how phony they are and he wants to produce a reality show now that is genuinely real. He wants to throw the idea of everything being contrived out the window and he wants to photograph real life.
He feels that that would be revolutionary, that reality television actually reflects reality, and the way he's going to do that is he's going to pick an all-American family and he's going to put them under all-encompassing surveillance without their knowledge. He's going to hide cameras all over their house, he's going to hide cameras all over their cars and all over their work, he's going to follow them everywhere they go with a team of surveillance experts filming them from cars and long lens cameras and hat cams and glasses cams. Everything they do is going to be captured. And he feels that not being aware that there's a camera in their face and not knowing that they're the subjects of a show, that that will elicit a much more compelling product; that the real life human drama that emerges will be far more fascinating than anything a team of Hollywood writers and producers could cook up.
Unfortunately, he finds out very quickly that they're boring and that this is exactly why reality shows are manipulated because people just aren't as dramatic as they need to be week after week. So, he little by little starts to betray his own conceit and starts to inject conflict into their lives, just to spice up the show a little bit, and every little bit keeps working so he keeps pushing it more and more and more. Now, the people have no idea why all this bad luck seems to be befalling them out of nowhere, but Mickey Wagner is thrilled because the show keeps getting better and better the more conflict he throws in their paths, and it starts to get very dark as the family starts to spiral out of control. Mickey Wagner's rationalisation, of course, is that no matter how bad it gets – and it gets pretty bad – that all will be forgiven in the end because, once the episodes start airing and these people are rich and famous, fame will heal all wounds.
BG: Now this isn't your first project that is based around surveillance. A couple of years ago you had your series LOOK, which also aired on Showtime, and before that your film of the same name, and I guess even going back to WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOOD to a degree, with that whole documentary aspect. So what is it about surveillance and the documenting of lives that interests you so much?
AR: Well, especially with LOOK and LOOK: THE SERIES, I find the idea that people are being watched without their knowledge fascinating. We're all voyeurs, especially now more than ever, the internet has basically just embraced our inner voyeuristic tendencies and it's just exploded. Everybody's a voyeur and to a certain degree most people seem to be exhibitionists as well in addition to all the surveillance that's going on, and obviously you guys know more about surveillance than anybody with London being the most surveilled city in the world.
AR: But this awareness that everything is being photographed, people's behaviour has changed to be very exhibitionist for these cameras as well, thus all the sex things that [are] occurring and all the voluntary surveillance people put themselves under when they tweet every single thing that they're up to every day, and Facebook every single picture of themselves doing something embarrassing or funny or heinous, so I feel that it's a part of the zeitgeist right now.
With LOOK, first with the movie, I really got interested in the idea that everybody is caught by so many surveillance cameras every day. In America it's about 300 times a day, I know in London it's many, many more than that. I thought, what if somebody had access to all the surveillance footage, and what if the story of your life could unfold just from a culmination of all these surveillance cameras? And that's how LOOK came about. I actually got a red light ticket from a red light camera here in Los Angeles and they send you the ticket along with a photograph of yourself running the light, and I thought it was very intrusive and I started to think, 'Well, what other cameras are catching me without my knowledge?' And I just started paying attention, and everywhere I went there [were] cameras everywhere, I mean everywhere I went. Then I did a little research and I learnt that the average American [is caught] about 300 times a day, and I thought, wow, that could be an interesting way to tell a story if I just told the story from the point of view of the surveillance footage.
The movie LOOK did really well, it won a bunch of awards, played the arthouse circuit very successfully, and then that spawned LOOK: THE SERIES, and [that] as well was all shot from surveillance cameras, but LOOK: THE SERIES took it to the next level and also included social media and the camera in everybody's pocket and their phone and Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, and all this self-surveillance that's going on, so whereas LOOK the movie was mostly Big Brother, LOOK: THE SERIES was very much a combination of Big Brother and Little Brother.
I actually thought pretty much that I had played out surveillance with LOOK and I really figured I had explored all there was to explore, but then I thought, well, one aspect of it that I didn't ever really explore was somebody being intentionally put under surveillance, and that's when I started to think, well maybe there's something interesting that could be experimented with there, but what would the framework be? Why would somebody be surveilled so comprehensively? And then I thought, well, could it be a private detective surveilling somebody [who] they're being hired to watch? Nah, we've seen that before. So I thought reality television could be kind of fun. The idea of just out and out lampooning reality TV, that wasn't where the idea came from originally. Reality television is already a parody of itself, it doesn't need me to parody it for people to realise that reality television is crazy, but I thought that a reality show producer putting a family under surveillance could get dark very quickly, and I thought that could be fun and interesting, and in the process I could have some fun making fun of reality TV as well.
BG: So you're certainly not much of a fan of reality TV, then.
AR: [laughs] Well I don't want to be a hypocrite and say that I hate it because, hey, I've watched it too. We all watch it, it's just a part of the culture right now. Everybody loves a train wreck, right? In the same way that it's fun to watch wrestling every once in a while, you know it's fake, but you watch it. When you watch these two housewives of Sheboygan tackling each other at one of the kid's bar mitzvas, you know it's staged for the cameras and yet people still watch. I've watched here and there. So that's what I wanted to make fun of. I wanted to have some fun with that.
BG: And what's crazy to me is that, having seen the trailer and the clips of your character in the series injecting people into this poor guy's life and this poor family's lives just to mess with them for the benefit of ratings, as extreme as some of the situations in the show look, it really isn't that far removed from what happens in our own reality because, like you said, we have shows that claim to be real yet are staged to a degree that isn't even worth thinking about, and then you have things like BIG BROTHER which is edited in a certain way to make situations look the opposite of what actually happened.
AR: Absolutely true, and they all do that. And listen, I don't feel that the concept of my show is all that far-fetched from becoming a real reality show someday. I could absolutely see a network or a reality show producer deciding that putting people under surveillance without their knowledge is the next level of reality TV and fucking with stuff to make the show more interesting, I could see people really doing that. I wanted to comment on it with satire, but I could totally see them doing it for real.
BG: Oh yeah. It's like when THE RUNNING MAN came out, you'd never imagine in a million years that anything close to that would ever happen, but now, as extreme as that may be, compared to back then it's actually closer to one day happening.
AR: Absolutely, and my favourite example of this is a movie called NETWORK, which was directed by Sydney Lumet and was written by Paddy Chayefsky, and it was made in 1976. It's a biting, biting satire about television news and television ratings. At the time that it came out, people thought it was outrageous that news would actually be competing for ratings and news would be manipulated to attract bigger sponsors, and people thought that was nuts. Of course now, that movie is one of the most brilliant movies ever made, but you show that to an audience today and they don't necessarily understand what the big deal of that movie was because all television is like that now. The 24-hour news channels are all manipulated for ratings and sensationalised, vying for sponsors. Everything's manipulated to be applicable to the implanted angle of the network, all these kinds of crazy things. So that movie was a real prophecy and I took a little inspiration from that movie for REALITY SHOW. I also took a lot of inspiration from Albert Brooks' film REAL LIFE, which I love as well.
BG: Oh right, absolutely. And I see that you've created your own fake series within REALITY SHOW, and perhaps scarier than anything we've just discussed, Stripper Moms of South Beach was one of the fake shows you've created, and I can actually imagine a show like that airing on MTV or something.
AR: [laughs] Absolutely. Real Stripper Moms of South Beach. We actually joked around when we were making the series because we made so many fake clips from reality shows: Real Strippers Moms of South Beach was one of them, Hobover, which is a hobo makeover show, we did one called The Womaniser, which is sort of like THE BACHERLOR, American Imbecile, which is like AMERICAN IDOL but people are competing to be the biggest idiot. We were thinking, god, we could probably sell half of these as real shows [laughs].
BG: I think you could [laughs]. When you created the character of Mickey Wagner, did you draw inspiration perhaps from people you've met in the industry?
AR: Absolutely. Hollywood is sort of the Oz of amoral behaviour. I think it has a higher concentration of genuine psychopaths than just about anywhere else. Maybe Washington, D.C. is second. There are more amoral sociopaths succeeding in Hollywood than just about anywhere else, and I've known many producers in the TV world, movie world, agents, managers [who] are fascinating to me because they would not give it a second thought about destroying someone's life for the sake of “Would it make a better show? Would it get better ratings? Would we make more money? Would we get more sponsors?” And it's not that they're immoral, it's not that they're thinking this is terrible, I'm betraying my moral core but I'm going to do it to get rich, they're amoral, they just don't have any morality about it whatsoever, and that's what's really kind of creepy about it, you know?
There's one story that was part of the inspiration for REALITY SHOW. None of this story made it into my show, but it's a true story and it got me thinking about people like Mickey Wagner. So a friend of mine had been working on a reality show where they recreate actual 911 calls. So they would take a recording of a 911 call and then they would re-enact it while listening to the call and then they'd interview the people involved. And the 911 call involved a horse that had fallen down a ravine that needed help getting out and they brought a helicopter in, strapped the horse to the helicopter and [it] took the horse out of the ravine to safety on land. In shooting the recreation, the horse fell out of the harness and plummeted hundreds of feet to its death, and the producer of the show – my friend told me this who was working on the crew – raced to every bystander around who was videotaping it with their phones and their video cameras, and paid them all on the spot to delete all of their footage, so that it wouldn't hurt the show, and then the segment as it aired, of course, is the happy story of the horse being rescued, but the real story is that the horse was tragically killed. He was much more concerned with protecting the show and protecting the ratings and protecting what the concept of the show was than letting the real story out, and that sort of behaviour is part of the inspiration for Mickey Wagner, and Mickey Wagner is a horrible guy. He's the villain of our story. He's willing to do whatever it takes for his show to succeed no matter how many people are hurt in the process.
BG: Ah, that's crazy. And did you always have yourself in mind to play that character?
AR: I did. I always intended to play the part.
BG: I don't believe you're a trained actor, are you?
AR: I am not an actor, I do not consider myself an actor. I'm not a very good actor, but there's a certain kind of role that I feel relatively comfortable playing, and that's sort of a heightened version of myself, so Mickey Wagner is just kind of the dark side of me, so it was not too big of a stretch to be able to pull off.
BG: What was the casting process like? I noticed that you cast a theatre actor in Scott Anderson as Dennis.
AR: Yeah. We wanted all unknowns for the roles because we wanted it to feel real, so we looked everywhere where you're hoping undiscovered talent are there working, waiting to be discovered. We checked local theatre, we asked all the agencies who do you have who's good who has never made it and is looking for their break? Who are the young up-and-comers who have just come to town?
The family's made up of Dennis Warwick, the dad, played by Scott Anderson, and he was a theatre actor in Chicago who sent us a YouTube link of his audition and he was just so good he got the part. He sent it in based on the suggestion of our production designer. The production designer Brett Snodgrass and myself, we went to high school together in Chicago, so he told me, “Yeah, I know an actor in Chicago who's really good, why don't I have him send in an audition?” He did an audition, put it on YouTube, sent us the link and he got cast. We called him up, we said guess what? You're going to be the lead in the Showtime series. He was blown away.
The woman who plays the mom, the character's name is Katherine Warwick, her name is Kelley Hensley, she actually of everybody had a legitimate career. She was on a soap opera called AS THE WORLD TURNS for many, many years, and we said to her, you're too hot for one to be believable as this character because this mom needs to be much more frumpy and much less in touch with her sexual side, and we fear people may recognise you. And she said, “Well let me frump me up and let me go in disguise and let me transform and I promise you no one will know it's me,” and she was right. She put on a wig and glasses and wardrobe and she gained weight, and she just completely transformed into another character, which was amazing.
Amy, the daughter, is played by Monika Tilling and she, like I was saying, is one of the young talents in LA. They come to town in bus loads and the good ones get discovered real quick and we got real lucky in that we discovered Monika real quick because she's definitely going to be a star. It took months to cast because to find really good people is tough, but we found all really good people. We got really lucky.
BG: I think it's an excellent decision to cast unknowns because I think, like you said, it boosts the element of realism and, I guess like a horror film in a way, something is taken away from the unpredictability if you have famous faces as the protagonists.
AR: Absolutely. I completely agree.
BG: How do you find working in television differs from making films?
AR: It's pretty different, although my personal experience with television is different than a lot of other people's experience with television because [with] LOOK: THE SERIES and REALITY SHOW, the process was very much like making a film at times. I was given the same freedom that I'm given when I'm making an independent film because our agreement with Showtime is if you can bring it in for a low budget, in exchange we'll give you creative control, and to me that's always a worthwhile exchange. Television episodes are very expensive. Episodes are DEXTER are 3 or 4 million dollars an episode. Our whole season is a fraction of the cost of one episode of DEXTER … And then you start getting into network shows, like NBC shows and CBS shows, even bigger money, even bigger PR budgets, lots of cooks are in that kitchen and it becomes a much more collaborative process, but my two experiences making these two series have very much mirrored my experiences making independent films, which has been great, really creatively fulfilling. I'd love to do bigger television shows, it's just a different process, and I love to do big movies. I've written a lot of very big studio movies and those are much more collaborative as well, which is great, I love the process, it's just different. When you make a small independent film, it's more of a singular voice than when you start getting into giant films with many, many, many, many millions of dollars at stake.
BG: Well certainly no one could accuse you of making the same thing over and over.
AR: [laughs] Thanks.
BG: You really have dabbled in just about everything. I'm sure many people would never assume that the guy who wrote MOUSEHUNT also made WADZILLA, but that's a good thing.
AR: [laughs] Thank you. Listen, creatively speaking, it's been fantastic and I've been very lucky that I get to do all kinds of different things. Professionally speaking, it's been a bit of a liability because Hollywood loves to pigeon hole people. They love to know that, oh, he's the guy who does horror films or he's the guy who does gangster movies or he's the guy who does gross-out comedies, and they just like to see you in one light and then if you're that go-to guy, any time they need a new horror film they think of you to go to. You can succeed very quickly. I like to tell all kinds of stories. I like big stories, small stories, serious stories, funny stories, and I have to go wherever my inspiration takes me, and like I said, that professionally can sometimes be a challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I've been lucky that I've gotten to do all the things that I’ve wanted to do so far, but there's a lot more that I still hope that I get to do.
If you love what you do and you do it because your passion demands it, it's not a job. I don't think I've ever worked a day in my life because I love what I do so much I can't ever, in good conscience, call it work. But if I was just cranking out sausages just because that's what I know would pay the bills and that sausage happens to be a tried and true genre that I have come to be relied upon to crank out, but my heart's not in it, but it's a good paying gig, that wouldn't be me.
BG: So what's next for you?
AR: I am about to start on my passion project, my biggest passion movie so far to date. I can't tell you what it is yet, but I certainly will very, very soon. I'll tell you this: it's a drama, it's going to break people's hearts and it is a love letter to movies, but beyond that I can't say another word.
Many thanks to Adam for his time.
So there we go, an intriguing way to cap off the interview. An ever-intriguing interview in fact for me and any fellow Britons reading this since we can't actually watch REALITY SHOW, but I can't wait to see it.
REALITY SHOW starts November 1 on Showtime. Check your local listings.
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