The phone rings and you fumble for the receiver.
A cheerful recorded voice tells you this is your wakeup call and wishes you a wonderful day.
You slowly open your eyes and start taking inventory.
You see the blue 70’s rug that made you laugh the first time you walked in. Yep, must be Providence. Oh wait, maybe that was two days ago? You stagger up and open the shades. The architectural monstrosity known as the Meadowlands stares you in the face and then it all comes rushing back…. the late night flight to Newark, the 2am check in.
Reality TV isn’t just about bitter housewives, pawn shop owners and cooking competitions. There’s a whole alternative reality going on which never gets captured on digital bytes. Its stars are the producers and crew who leave their loved ones behind and hit the road trying to make a little TV magic.
I just got back from that type of road trip- an intense 4-city, 10-day whirlwind for a show I SP:
If you ‘re the type of person who likes to go to bed and wakeup at the same time every day; if you like to eat three square meals and work regular hours, then stay far away from the film/TV business.
I know I am going to skip lots of meals and sleep over the next ten days, so it’s fitting that our flight has a cruel 7am departure time.
The good news is that we’re on Jet Blue, the only airline that actually has enough leg room for my 6’3” frame.
We land at JFK and after an annoying series of shuttles and trams get our rental car and head up to Long Island.
Our first shoot is two days away and as soon as we land I start feeling that good nervous energy.
The producer on my team, Marla, feels it too so we decide to delay the hotel check-in and start meeting with some of the characters we’ll be working with.
This is one of the best parts of the job.
Two hours after landing, we find ourselves in the office of a small newspaper publisher who paces back and forth, lecturing us on the relative merits of different fast food hamburgers. He is incredibly passionate on the subject. Marla and I exchange furtive glances, enjoying the spectacle. This man will make good TV. Anyone with a strong world view makes good TV. Great TV happens when you get someone with a strong world view and a healthy lack of self awareness. That combination is not easy to find.
Later that night, knowing this may be our only chance, we head to Manhattan with the crew for some dinner. Riding back on the Long Island Rail Road is like being trapped with all the people who auditioned for Jersey Shore but didn’t quite make the cut.
On the west coast, people are way too media savvy and you sometimes get the uncomfortable feeling they’re playing a part instead of just being themselves. I’ve interviewed so-called real people in LA who will ask, ‘I should put part of your question into my answer, right?’ I happen to be against that interview approach, believing it leads to logical rather than emotional soundbites, but it is a common reality practice and it’s kind of disconcerting that these ‘regular’ people know that.
This, fortunately, is not a problem on the east coast. I spend the day with the people we’re going to be shooting with the next day. Marla and I immerse ourselves into their world and fall in love with these unique, salt of the earth characters. On the drive back to the hotel, we debate who our favorites are.
That night we cram for our big shoot day, re-watching videos, going over everyone’s bio, making sure we know every piece of relevant information about their lives.
Our call is for 6:30 the next morning so at 11 we pack it in.
The hotel wake-up service rings at 5:30 but I’m already up. I’m usually a good sleeper, but I tossed and turned all night. Opening day jitters, I guess.
We get to the shoot location and start pounding Dunkin’ Donuts coffees.
Shoot days are like game days for athletes. There’s a certain energy on a set that’s hard to beat. I walk the DP’s and lighting people through the various locations we’ll be shooting in and they get to work.
The day goes by in a blur. I can’t eat on shoot days so by the time we wrap late in the afternoon, I am completely drained.
But we’re not close to being done.
Marla and I jump in the car and drive to JFK.
Next stop- my home town of Boston.
We arrive at Logan at around 11pm and pick up our rental cah.
We meet our next subjects for a very late night drink and immediately fall in love with them and their world.
At 2am we stagger to our hotel and check in, putting an end to a grueling 21 hour day.
We check out of our hotel at 10, feeling a little bit refreshed and drive up to Providence to spend the day with some new reality characters.
Again, we find salt of the earth people with big personalities and a compelling story.
This may sound strange, but I’ve learned you always have to find a way to like your subjects, or at the very least be able to put yourselves in their shoes and see life through their eyes.
I learned this the hard way when I tried to pitch a documentary to HBO about 7 years ago. I had cut some tape of my subject and I thought it was pretty funny but the executive said, ‘It’s good but I get the sense you don’t like this woman.’
I was confused. “Well, this person is kind of delusional and crazy. Why do I need to like her for it to be good TV?’
‘You need to have empathy for her. And if you don’t have it, the audience won’t.’
It’s July 4th and I take the afternoon off, taking a train from Providence back down to Boston to catch a game at Fenway Pahhk. I went to Boston University and skipped many classes to sit in the bleachers and cheer on the Sox, forgiving the team for torturing me throughout my childhood. This time, we have lower box seats and despite the intense humidity and John Lackey’s horrendous outing, It’s fun to be back .
That night, I start feeling the pressure.
We have a very ambitious shooting schedule- Providence in the morning, Boston at night, and I want everything to be executed perfectly.
Another early call. Lots more Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. The Providence portion of the shoot goes great.
Later, in Boston, we have a couple hiccups and a few scary moments but get everything we need. It’s been a twelve hour day and I feel completely drained.
I’m neurotically obsessing about a couple of the things that didn’t go as planned and realize I need to take my mind off things. With a late call the next day I go out with the crew for a couple beers.
Sipping a Sam Adams at a North End dive a drunk girl with a hardcore accent asks where I’m from.
‘I live in L.A. but I’m originally from Brookline.’
‘So you’re Jewish.’ She slurs. Ah, I miss Boston. Some things never change.
‘Well then you’re not really from Boston.’
I’m still not sure what that means but decided to slide down to the other end of the bar and not crawl deeper into that rabbit hole.
We spend the day shooting with our Boston characters. I love these guys. Unlike the townie girl at the bar, they make me feel nostalgic for my hometown.
That night we say goodbye and it feels melancholy, like the last day of summer camp.
We are in Newark, New jersey, the final stop of this whirlwind tour.
This shoot has concerned me for a while.
For some reason, I could never connect with these people over the phone. I’ve been hoping that will change when I spend time with them in person. Thankfully, it does.
It’s the final shooting day. I’ve now moved to that phase beyond fatigue. Five hours of sleep suddenly feels like a luxury and I have no appetite until dinnertime.
In the morning I hit the gym and weigh myself. I’ve lost three pounds. Could I market a reality road trip diet plan?
The shoot goes well and as soon as our production manager calls out, ‘That’s a wrap!’ I feel a thousand pound weight drops from my shoulders.
We go back into the city and celebrate the end of the shoot.
I am supposed to meet a girl I went to college with for lunch. I rummage through my suitcase and find exactly one clean shirt and match it with a baseball hat and a pair of jeans I’ve already worn a few times. I haven’t seen this person in (mumble, mumble) years and she will either buy my story about this ten day trip or walk away thinking I’m homeless.
Maybe I’m trying to compensate for my dirty appearance, but I pick up the check and then leave the credit card at the restaurant. I don’t notice this until I try to check in for my flight but at this point I’m too ragged to care.
I get home and crawl back into my own bed. I slowly doze off, feeling good. Good, that the shoots went well. Good, that I’m lucky enough to tell stories for a living.