Behind the scenes of reality TV: ’You’re a little bit daft to apply’
11th January 2017
Simone Lee Brennan married a man she’d met only moments earlier, before a television audience of nearly 1 million viewers. But the happiest day of her life came later — when she moved out of his apartment. Brennan, a Sydney makeup artist, appeared in the second season of Australia’s Married at First Sight.
Last week she published a blog post about the experience that, she warned, threatened to “ruin reality TV for you forever”. To get the right shots, she had walked down the aisle four times, said her vows three times, and kissed at the altar twice. Forced conversations concluded as soon as the cameras turned off.
Dinners presented as planned by her “TV husband” had been set up by producers. Brennan was not even legally married: unlike other versions of Married at First Sight broadcast around the world, the Australian couples’ “weddings” are commitment ceremonies, owing to legal restrictions. After a honeymoon and a month’s cohabitation, Brennan chose not to continue with the relationship, and moved out of his apartment.
“One of the happiest days of my life to date,” she said. The lesson, she said, was to leave any relationship that made you question your . But, as many reports of her “reveal” remarked, another might be not to start a relationship on a reality television show.
Even — perhaps especially — the most ardent fans of reality television know it’s not, you know, real. Part of the discrepancy is structural. No one can be completely themselves in front of a TV crew, and hours of footage can never be done justice to in or episodes.
But another part is strategic: real life doesn’t necessarily make for good TV without a little help. A reality show begins with the casting, landing on the right mix of heroes and villains for chemistry. A reality television producer who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity said she looked for a range of strong characters — personalities, types, show ponies, good blokes the audience would get behind — who were “really open emotionally” and invested in the show’s premise.
While shows such as Married at First Sight had inherent drama, casting was of particular importance on cooking or renovation shows “because the premise is so boring”. But even the biggest characters need a little help: “You are playing with people’s emotions quite a lot — that’s sort of the name of the game. ” People who apply to appear on reality television do so for a reason, she said once it’s clear what that reason is, it’s easy to manipulate them.
Sarah (not her real name) auditioned twice before she was accepted as a contestant on a reality show some years ago. “It wasn’t until I was broken down and a shell of myself that they went: ‘Excellent, you’re ready’,” she told Guardian Australia. “My agenda was desperation.
” Other agendas included vanity, fame, financial gain, the motivation of a physical challenge, a break from the monotony or mediocrity of life, she said. “For a lot of people, being in a reality television show is the most interesting thing they will ever do, and they will cling to that for the rest of their life. ” An absence of instincts — an element of vulnerability — is par for the course.
“[You’re] a little bit daft to apply, and a little bit daft to go through with it,” said Sarah. “You don’t agree to be half naked on television and humiliated without there being a level of desperation. There is a certain level of dignity that is surrendered to be part of that process.
“I know there was with me, anyway. ” In all sorts of shows, said the anonymous producer, contestants have to be kept from quitting as they realise they’re in over their heads. Married at First Sight UK was repeatedly pushed back as participants got cold feet and withdrew.
That’s part of the production process, as is setting the stage for compelling television. Sarah said the most successful producers have to be “master manipulators” prepared to set aside any concern for the participants for the sake of the show. “Your commitment to the story has to be greater than your commitment to the characters.
” Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the creator of the acclaimed Lifetime series UnREAL, drew from her experiences as a producer of The Bachelor for her . She told the New Yorker last year that her job was to get the contestants to “open up, and to give them terrible advice, and to deprive them of sleep”. She lied to the women about their chances, groomed them to think of particular songs as “their song” with the bachelor, and carried jalapeños or lemons to make herself cry and hopefully start a chain reaction.
Nick Baylart, now of Melbourne, said food and sleep were routinely withheld to ensure “interesting performances” for the sixth season of The Mole, broadcast in late 2013 after a absence from Australian screens. He was selected as one of 12 contestants after a application process. Production took a further three months.
Outside the sometimes demanding challenges posed within the show, the real tests were boredom, the repetitiveness of shooting, sleep deprivation and poor eating habits — par for the course for film and television production, but especially gruelling for those new to the industry. “The number of times the producer shouted at us, ‘This is what you signed up for,’ whenever we were whinging — and we did whinge. ” Plus, Baylart said, the producers weren’t at pains to put the contestants at ease when frayed nerves made for better television.
“If they can twist a necessary element of production into something that will make the contestants a little bit more ready to fight, they’ll do it,” he said. For one challenge, shot at an amusement park in the Melbourne beachside suburb of St Kilda, contestants were made to wait in the car park for over five hours. “We had food, and we had a but we had nothing to do but wait.
” Another task, on the Gold Coast, took place three blocks from the group’s hotel. The drive there took nearly an hour, going round and round in circles, so that the contestants were fed up with each other on arrival. GoPros were filming within the car but none of that footage was ever used.
“You know what they’re doing, but you can’t help it,” said Baylart. “It’s human nature. ” There have to be elements of reality for the show to work, said the anonymous producer (who had no connection to The Mole).
“You don’t script everything, because they’re not actors. If you were getting people to lie all the time, you’d be getting a really shitty melodrama. “You can tell when people are having a moment or when they’re falling in love.
People aren’t that good at acting. ” Baylart described it as “massaging” reality. The Mole’s producers were never so blatant as to antagonise individual contestants, but those who were known to particularly dislike each other would find themselves repeatedly paired up.
Those tensions had been established at the casting stage. Baylart said there were a lot of fights on and off camera. “On TV it seemed like we were being spiteful for the hell of it … but we really didn’t like being in each other’s company,” he said.
“We had to come back to film the finale and we were all then — but after that, there were a lot of Facebook blockings. ” He made it to the final six before he was eliminated. He was surprised and sad — but “it was exciting to go home, because it meant it was over”.
He was also 8kg heavier, after having availed himself of the food truck while waiting around in between challenges. Another contestant put on 10kg. Baylart was struck by how much of what they’d shot had gone unused (“whole plot lines”) — and how little he’d known about what was going on with the other contestants as it was unfolding.
Every contestant had recorded a “confessional” piece to camera of between 90 to 120 minutes with the producers in “the diary room” each night. “You got a sense of them hunting out for commentary about particular interpersonal relationships but you might not necessarily know anything about them,” said Baylart. “There’s this weird sense of isolation.
” Tom (not his real name) called it the “fishbowl effect” where, cut off from the outside world, “everything starts to circulate”. He appeared in the Australian production of a popular international franchise in 2012. He and the other contestants spent a week in a hotel in Sydney in “lockdown” before production started, in the care of “handlers”.
The men had been asked to grow beards beforehand some were told to shave, others weren’t. Tom was styled with a “creepy moustache”. It didn’t end there.
The show’s producers had specific roles or looks in mind for each of the contestants. Tom was designated an outfit which, he said, he would never choose to wear. One contestant was asked to wear glasses that were not fitted with his prescription.
Another, with whom Tom remains friends, played the guitar: “They gave him a ukulele and said, ‘You play the ukulele now.’ He’d never played a ukulele in his life. ” One episode of this series was watched by more than 1 million Australians.
If contestants’ personas were at all informed by their real personalities, it was only loosely, or by coincidence. One producer had worked on Big Brother and told Tom that an audience favourite of one season had been “the biggest asshole in real life”. “On our show, there was one guy who was a massive prick, but he came across really endearing.
” A “week” in the show was three days. Gaffes were put forward as representative of particularly the female contestants’ intelligence, or lack thereof. “Others just play it up for the cameras because they want a role on Home and Away.
” Tom said he “generally didn’t play ball” with the producers, who’d contestants for particular scenarios or tasks. (Possibly relatedly, he was eliminated in the fourth episode.) They’d call it “actuality” as in, “We’re going to go and shoot an actuality scene.
” Why not reality? Tom laughed. “Because it’s not reality. ” • Some names and identifying details have been changed.
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