Get Real

The unlikely marriage of documentary filmmakers and reality TV

Dionicio is a heroin addict who was terribly abused as a child and turned to drugs and crime when he was a teenager. Now, he speaks directly to the camera about his struggles, then ties off his leg while filling his needle with heroin. David Van Taylor, the documentarian behind the superlative documentary film Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest, captures Dionicio’s every move. Moody music swells.

But this is not a scene from Van Taylor’s next documentary. It’s an episode of Intervention, the A&E reality show about people whose addictions have nearly destroyed them. Because it is reality TV, inevitably a counselor is brought into the family circle to try to bring Dionicio back to the world. Viewer discretion is advised.

Van Taylor is not alone in his embrace of reality television. A growing number of high-minded, often cinema vérité, documentarians are going to the lowbrow depths of docusoaps and the like. These directors and editors once labored only on films for PBS, or for limited release in art-house theaters. Now they are working within a genre that many cinephiles regard as our culture’s nadir. “Every documentary editor I know is booked now doing reality TV,” says Syndi Pilar, an editor who has made the move herself. “It used to be the only work was documentaries, and you were lucky if you got on a paid doc.”

The crossover from docs to reality television is largely the result of how difficult it has been to get funding for documentary films during the recession; money from nonprofits and other backers is even tighter than usual. But this is not the cue-the-violins tragedy that you might think. Documentarians have always had to struggle to earn a living, and most have at some point taken jobs outside of filmmaking to do so. Reality TV is in many ways just the latest, and arguably the most lucrative, chapter in that story. Instead of getting a real-estate license, documentarians can now edit cooking competitions. One filmmaker estimates that successful independent documentarians can make from $50,000 to $100,000 a year. They can double or triple that as a staff member of a reality show.

But unlike the filmmaker who sells real estate on the side, this is a collision of universes that are at once familiar and alien. Both are, of course, filmmaking. But whereas documentaries are known for their links with advocacy and social justice, reality TV tends to be associated with high drama and yes, embalmed-looking women who scream at one another in restaurants.

The similarity, though, runs a bit deeper than it seems. The style of the great works of American documentary of the 1960s is often referred to as “the observational mode.” Directors like Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, and Shirley Clarke filmed hundreds of hours of footage, acting as proverbial flies on the wall. But they always imposed a dramatic structure afterward, carving those dozens of hours of footage into two to three hours of cogent narrative. Wiseman even described his shooting and editing as “highly manipulative.” If there was artifice behind much of what is regarded as classic and great documentary, there’s also unexpected authenticity in shows like Intervention. You could even say that reality shows are the uncouth heirs of the observational tradition.

Nevertheless, the documentarians I spoke to know they are no longer in the Kansas of PBS. As Syndi Pilar says of one show she edited, “We’ll be feeding the people lines, making stuff up that never happened in the first place.”

Pilar cut documentaries for directors like Ric Burns. Now she edits Mob Wives on VH1 and was supervising editor of Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane for two seasons. Her crossover began in 2006, when documentary work “was very, very slow”: Pilar landed a job on a reality show on the Style Network called Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?

The objective, shared by most of the filmmakers I spoke to, was just to make some money and perhaps help fund another documentary project. But the allure of a regular paycheck proved hard to resist. “That’s where the work was and that’s where I stayed,” Pilar says, “though I wanted to go back and forth from doc to reality. Anyway, I am seriously booked for reality. The market is huge. I get called every day.”

For David Van Taylor, Intervention was the gateway drug into reality TV. The three episodes he directed were successful, so he “got a foot into that door,” as he says. Now his production company, Lumiere, has created and produced a pilot for the Lifetime channel that is “without any doubt a reality show. If it’s a smash hit,” he says, “it will provide me with regular income. One that’s not dependent on grants.” The show sounds promising: each episode features married couples who must have sex for seven days in a row.

The experience of editing or filming these programs is not always so positive. Melissa Hacker, forty-three, is a documentarian who made a film about Jewish children who were sent from Germany and Poland to England without their parents immediately before the Holocaust. Yet she has also edited the reality shows Wife Swap and Things I Hate About You.

When she worked on those shows, Hacker says, she tried to import some of the techniques she uses in nonfiction film. She’d cut interviews with subjects so they’d last a few beats longer, letting their silent, telling expressions fill the screen. Inevitably, though, Hacker says, her stylings were cut down or out, to fit into the show’s time limit and to quicken the whip-fast pacing, which is key in “reality.” When she’d let a scene linger, she’d get notes from her bosses asking, “What is this dead air?”

For Hacker, the gap between the two forms was too great, and she swore off reality work. “Documentaries are traditionally about observing reality when you shoot, not changing what is unfolding before the camera,” she says. “In reality [TV], it’s okay for producers to set up situations that would not happen naturally. It is okay for producers to tell characters where to go.”

For instance, Syndi Pilar says that when she was working on Kimora, about music executive Russell Simmons’s ex-wife, “if there’s a hole in the story, we’ll shoot an extra scene, with Kimora talking to execs at the perfume company. It’s all something that ‘might have happened.’”

Some of these problems—if that’s what they are—arise because the shows’ producers aren’t familiar with documentary standards. But there are also more fundamental reasons for the disconnect.

Reality shows are made for and by corporations, so their legal departments are inherently more conservative than the typical documentary filmmaker or producer. They blur out logos when there is “no real reason to blur them out,” as one filmmaker put it. Bigger clashes come when editors and directors try to put their documentary imprint on these shows, as Hacker did with the lingering camera shots. Sometimes this culture clash can be comical. David Van Taylor told me he once did a reality show “for a high-profile cable network” about a beauty pageant for children: the show had no narration (vérité documentaries eschew narration). “The executive who watched the show without narration loved it,” he said. “He thought [the form] was something new.” His supervisor, however, told Van Taylor, “We don’t do cinema vérité! Go slather some narration on that thing.”

Van Taylor says he tries to get to know the people on the shows he makes so that he’s not forcing a “back story,” as they say in television, but rather letting the subjects’ personality unfurl as naturally as possible. Even by using the word “subject” to describe his interviewees, though, Van Taylor shows his roots in documentary. “Reality” people tend to use the term “character” instead, even though that word is usually the province of fiction.

The documentarians now leaving their higher ground for reality television do tend to see their films as all about “characters.” For example, docu-personae like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock—both are always cartoonishly effective “characters” in their own films—have helped to blur the line between reality television and nonfiction film.

In some ways, the creators of reality television and documentarians now share the same struggle. Forty-five years ago, when the great “modernists” of documentary film were at their apex, the media-soaked period we live in was just beginning. It was the start of the now evergreen (albeit slightly musty) debate about journalists altering stories by their very presence. As Pilar puts it, “things are getting cheated in docs as well—as soon as you train your camera on something, it’s less real.”

Today, it’s only gotten more extreme. The woman or man on the street is perpetually ready for the proverbial close-up. “Everyone living in New York City,” says Van Taylor, “now knows what’s expected of them when you turn a camera on them.” He could be speaking about most of America.

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.