Witty, Pretty People
The real deal on Austin as a reality TV casting mecca
When the first season of Survivor, the reality competition show, hit the airwaves in 2000, I was smug. I watched it, of course. I watch TV so that I can write my "TV Eye" column week after week for the very newspaper you're reading now. But I hated Richard Hatch. I had no idea how he could possibly win, and I listed the many reasons why he wouldn't to anybody who would listen the week before he was (ahem) anointed the winner of Survivor: Borneo before a live studio audience and millions of others watching at home. Survivor went on to become a big hit, introducing the reality TV genre to a new audience. Sure, MTV's The Real World had been running since 1992, but to a much smaller audience on cable. Other precursors were even more limited in their reach. In a FlowTV.org post by Zoë Druick (Jan. 22, 2010), she reminds readers of "actuality drama" pioneer Allan King. His A Married Couple first appeared in 1968, the precursor to Craig Gilbert's An American Family, which is typically cited by media historians as the provenance of reality TV. There were other shows, such as Candid Camera, which now seems downright quaint when compared to the theatre of exhibitionism that is the dominant trait of most popular reality series these days (Jersey Shore, anyone?).
After season one of Survivor, I continued to lambast reality TV. I said it wouldn't last. I said it would fade, fall out of favor, die a quick, unremarkable death. But I was wrong. Again. Reality TV is thriving now more than ever. And as if that isn't annoying enough, I frequently get notices from reality TV producers (a very spirited bunch) imploring me to tell readers that their hot new reality show is looking for contestants. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Momma's Boys, Property Virgins, The Next Food Network Star, and Toddlers & Tiaras are only a few from recent memory. The bigger shows come to town and stay awhile. Austin was home to The Real World in 2005, and reality juggernaut American Idol held auditions in Austin in 2005 as part of its fifth season.
I won't lie. I continue to be annoyed that something I was sure would die persists with no sign of ending anytime soon. So it's probably kismet that I, a once active person who can barely do a cartwheel, found herself as a "celebrity judge" for a new martial arts reality show, The Next Dragon. I said yes to the gig in part because Janell Smith of Iron Dragon Productions has a track record of making things happen but more importantly because I wanted to get an inside look at the process and maybe prove that I am right about this: that Austin is a go-to place for reality TV casting agents.
A Girl and Her Gun
But first, I wanted to understand why. As in, why would people put themselves in some of the positions or situations – at times über-revealing, terrifying, even life-threatening – that reality shows demand? Pop psychology abounds on the subject.
"Reality TV thrives on the need for social connection," assistant professor C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky wrote in 2009 for the online version of Psychology Today. An entry on the Media Psychology Blog (a project of the Media Psychology Research Center) points to the desire for a sort of electronic Schwab's Pharmacy, where anyone situated at the right place at the right time can claim his 15 minutes of fame. It's the antithesis to the old saw that hard work, determination, and perseverance will earn just rewards. In today's "get famous fast" reality TV climate, why go to all that trouble?
The dream of beating the odds, the enduring need for hope in trying times, the desire for tribal bonding (aka being able to participate in workplace or online chatter about a show), and an appetite for redemption stories are other themes that recur again and again in the discussion of reality TV, their contestants, and their viewers. Maybe most convincing is the argument that humans need and want to see moral codes enacted: What's right, what's wrong, and how the behavior modeled is later considered. In the past, moral codes were passed along through the telling of myths and fairy tales around the campfire. Today, you could argue the same thing happens with reality series that we watch around the electronic glow of our televisions or laptops. Druick's FlowTV essay delves deeper: "If anything, today's reality television naturalizes rather than questions the Social Darwinism of competitive capitalism and the governmentalized social context of neoliberalism that it exposes."
Maybe so, but all reality-TV-show-hopeful Melody Lopez wanted was to learn how to fire a gun. It wasn't until she was an adult that she took training. Little did she know that following her lifelong dream would lead her to Top Shot, a new reality show in production for the History Channel.
"If you are skilled with a pistol, rifle or any other firearm, you could be on TV's first marksmanship competition show," the notice read. Producers stated they were "looking for anyone with mind-blowing shooting skills and a big personality to take on exciting physical challenges with multiple guns and mystery projectile weapons."
Encouraged by her shooting instructor, her husband, and her friend Jeff Stolhand of Expressions in Video, Lopez started filming her audition reel.
"It was such a good fit for me," Lopez said of Top Shot in a phone interview from her Austin home. "I thought it would be good backstory development for the creative project I'm working on [a screenplay]. And Jeff said, 'You're nothing but personality.'" It was Stolhand's idea that the opening hook in her audition tape should highlight the fact that Lopez is a stay-at-home mom. "It's not a secret that I'm a screenwriter, but I didn't want to play that angle," she said.
"Angle"? So much for capturing raw footage of "real" people in candid moments. Competition for 15 minutes has become fierce. Stolhand agrees. His Expressions in Video has been in business since 1987, and he's seen a noticeable spike in queries by potential reality show contestants.
In her audition reel, the delicately boned Lopez speaks easily, dressed in an army-green T-shirt and camouflage pants. Her comfy living room with floral drapes and the Hill Country beyond that are her backdrop. But you don't really get the message that Lopez loves her guns until she lifts a thick Glock into view. It's so huge in her hand it seems that firing it would break every bone in her hand. Among the mandatory things she covers, Lopez reveals that she adores the smell of gunpowder, relating it to her childhood and the Fourth of July when her father, a Marine, brought home "a ton of fireworks to celebrate the Bicentennial. ... That smell of gunpowder was like magic to me. ... Any time I'm on the firing range, I'm that little girl again."
Scoff if you like, but I found myself rooting for Lopez, and not just because she owns guns and knows where I work. I don't share her enthusiasm for weaponry, but I do know what it means to be consumed by something you love – how it defines who you are and how, when given the opportunity, you will eagerly show it off. That may be a very human need as well: to share knowledge about something you've mastered with others.
Although Lopez got a call from Top Shot producers, their interest appears to have waned. She's satisfied that she caught their attention. They may have not selected her, but gunpowder still smells sweet. On to the next project.
Facts vs. the Truth
"Reality TV production in Texas is hard to track because they are not included in film production incentives," explains Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission. One of the criteria for receiving incentive money is that film and TV productions must hire local crews. Since reality TV productions are quick-paced projects, they typically roll with their own nomadic crews, already schooled in the methodology of fast and furious filming on the fly.
"You know, I don't have statistical information; I just know what clients tell me," says casting director Karen Hallford of Casting Works LA, based in Austin. Her reality TV credits include I Survived a Japanese Game Show, Elimidate, and five episodes of The Apprentice. Although she's not limited to Austin or Texas talent, she does see an increased interest in the "real" people Central Texas has to offer. Dallas may get the bulk of the reality shows, she says, but here "we have a nice sampling of various types of people. And everyone in L.A. likes to come here. It's a cool city."
Maybe it's because she has a burgeoning reality project to promote, but The Next Dragon's Janell Smith is more direct in claiming that Austin is "the casting mecca" for reality TV casting.
"Austin has so much great raw talent," she said by e-mail. "This is a city of very smart, fit, and witty, pretty people. My last feature film was with a company from India. I was able to draw them to Austin by our easygoing and hard-work way of living. (Hippies but not.) I love Austin and I am going to bring more action films to this town," she declared. "Hopefully Jet Li or Jackie Chan will be in town soon to work with me on The Next Dragon."
Oh, Janell, no need for the hard sell. You had me at "Would you be a celebrity judge ...?"
'The Next Dragon'
It was not hard to find The Next Dragon auditions. All I had to do was follow the barefooted, karate-robed throngs. Actually, the bulk of those people were there for the Lone Star Open, a periodic coming-together of various martial arts practitioners, from youthful, charmingly awkward beginners to poised adult masters. Smith herself is a fitness professional, and it shows. An award-winning martial arts practitioner with a third-degree black belt in Tukong Moosul and a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do, Smith immediately telegraphs her years of study in her assured gait and her petite yet powerful stance. Along with mentor and teacher Grand Master Wonik Yi, she helped launch a stunt-fighting academy for actors looking to nab some work in action films and for martial arts specialists who want to learn how to perform in front of the camera. (For more on the academy, see Sofia Resnick's cover story "Energy Forward," Jan. 11, 2008.)
Aside from continuing the work at the stunt-fighting academy, and as a woman who doesn't seem to sit still for very long, Smith has added production development to her long list of things to do.
"The Next Dragon," she explains, "takes the best elements of American Idol and America's Best Dance Crew and uses it for action films. Our show will be much more exciting because you will see us actually groom the Next Dragon or action star. Viewers will see them go through the process of stunt training. ... We will have guest hosts, choreographers and directors to direct them in short action films, [and] the audience will decide which is best."
Many of the potential contestants for The Next Dragon that day came directly from the Lone Star Open tournament: talented people at ease with performing risky moves in front of an audience.
"As a general rule, I would say reality TV show contestants are daring," Hallford said in a phone interview. "They are people who want to be seen, and to get that, they have to be extremely flexible because some of the things [reality TV productions] demand from contestants require secrecy or being isolated from family and friends for long periods of time."
Without naming names, Hallford admits that some reality show casting jobs she's had have been "nasty." She's learned to read the signs of a truly "loser" project and is not averse to turning down a job, even in this economic climate.
But "loser" and "nasty" is not what I encountered at The Next Dragon auditions. Perhaps because of the general formality of martial arts and the goal of bringing the best of your abilities to the floor, the contestants I met were poised, polite, earnest, and altogether mind-blowing in their grace and power. No, I may not know specifically what they're doing, and I certainly don't aspire to it, but there is something deeply compelling in seeing and hearing someone who is feeling the pleasure of being seen and heard – all because of something they do well. In a culture where our attention is pulled every which way, that's an appealing experience, and I know I'm right about that.