This is the second part of a two-part interview with Bill Bryan, author of Keep It Real.
In the first part we talked about his career. For this part I focused more on questions related to this book.
He also threw me a curve ball near the end which I had to address. Dang TV writers giving me more work to do. Grr…:)
The book’s acknowledgement starts with this comment:
I would like to express my deep gratitude to those people who gave me the inside dope on Reality TV, but unfortunately they are all terrified of being sued and screwed if I mention their names.
Can you elaborate on your acknowledgement? Reality TV people would dish to you but not with their names attached? Was that paranoia or justified fear?
It was completely justified. As I mentioned before, CBS and the producers of Kid Nation just bared their over-whitened teeth to remind everyone to keep their mouths shut about what transpired on the set. Google “Mark Burnett” and “lawsuit” and then stand back in case your computer starts throwing off sparks. One mid-level reality producer who has done the hiring for many shows told me that she was shown a blacklist of untouchables – employees who had been heard criticizing reality, or revealing things about the way it is made.
In LA, there is and always will be an inexhaustible supply of eager young beavers willing to work long hours for low pay in order to occupy some tiny corner of the entertainment business. The genius of reality – from a business perspective – is that you can produce an entire series using only such people – no need for expensive, temperamental actors, nor for drama or comedy writers, whose talents are annoyingly rare and therefore difficult to replace. No need for unions, either – the networks have created separate divisions to buy and produce their reality shows, and of course those divisions have no union contracts. Since reality shows are so much cheaper to produce, they have proliferated like crabs at Woodstock. So if you’re relying on show biz to pay your rent, you’d better be willing to work in reality. And if you want to work in reality, you better be willing to shut your pie hole.
On page 264 you describe reality television as being 50 percent coaxed confessions? Is that really the case? Can you elaborate on how they do this?
I must have been in a charitable mood to pick a number so low. The backbone of every reality show is made up of interviews with the contestants, and those are conducted by field producers who understand better than anyone that they are in the turning-water-into-wine business. I heard lots of stories about coaxed confessions, but here’s something I like even better: On the show High School Reunion, the producers basically held two contestants hostage at an isolated location and poured drinks down them until they had sex. What made this a great storyline was that the two had formerly been high school sweethearts; what made it sort of naughty is that the woman was at the time engaged to someone else – who presumably owned a TV.
What TV shows are your current favorites?
My wife and I only watch pay cable. Currently, we’re into Entourage, Big Love, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Californication, Brotherhood, and Weeds, although the latter is on probation. We’ll try pretty much anything on HBO and Showtime, and sometimes we pay dearly for our loyalty, such as when we recently gave a four-episode benefit of the doubt to Tell Me You Love Me. While watching that show, I’ve spent more time staring at scrotums than in the rest of my life put together – and that’s counting my own.
Is Groundhog Day really your favorite movie or was that just the favorite of your main character? Why do you like it so much?
Setting aside all the standard disclaimers (i.e. my favorites list gets constantly rearranged over time and according to my moods; the whole concept of favorites is kind of childish, etc), yes I think Groundhog Day is The Greatest Story Ever Told. It is both very funny and very profound, two things I like to pretend that I am. It’s about a smart, selfish, impatient guy who learns – the very hard way – to give without regard to what he might get in return, to see the beauty all around him, and to cherish each day as if it were his last. That pretty well sums up my moral code, and if I manage to learn even a tiny fraction of what Bill Murray’s character does, I’ll die with a smile on my face. (Unless I happen to check out like Elvis – you can’t smile if you can’t poop.)
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a spec screenplay, the first one since I was a student at UCLA 25 years ago. I had the good/bad luck back then to become a professional Hollywood writer-for-hire before I graduated, so I never developed the discipline of writing without externally imposed deadlines. I think I subconsciously believed that I couldn’t do it, until I sat down and wrote Keep It Real. With that under my belt, a mere screenplay doesn’t seem so daunting. To further ease the pressure, though, I’ve given myself permission to write something really crappy. And I won’t stop until I do!
Do you plan to write another novel?
Yes, definitely. I love writing in my own voice, and not worrying about how it’s going to be interpreted, or by whom. It’s hard to make much financial sense of the book business – I would advise anyone who’s in it for the money to get a real job instead, like selling Girl Scout cookies. But with a little luck, I’ll find the time and inspiration to do it again – all it took last time was getting cancer.
What? Cancer? Leave it to a TV writer to add a twist at the end of the story? Please elaborate on this. You had (have?) cancer? How did that factor into the writing of this book?"
A few years ago, I started having terrible heartburn. Originally, I accepted my teenaged son’s diagnosis: “Dude, you’re old.” But eventually I sought another opinion, and an ultrasound exam showed that my spleen was roughly the size of an adult raccoon. It had pushed my esophagus into a horizontal position, which is not ideal if you subsist primarily on Mexican food and Diet Pepsi. The cause turned out to be a fairly rare – and fairly treatable – form of leukemia.
The doctors put me on chemotherapy and told me to avoid human contact as much as possible, because my immune system would be temporarily out of commission. Being stuck at home eliminated most of my favorite means of avoiding work, so I decided to sit down and write something.
I’d been threatening to inflict a novel upon the world for about thirty years, and learning that you have The Big C tends to force a reexamination of your To Do list. So I wrote Keep It Real in about three months, and I’m now both a published author and a cancer survivor – neither of which really seem possible. Somebody please pinch me. Ow, not there!