EXCLUSIVE: It has often been said that audiences like to see versions of themselves reflected back when choosing something to watch, so the pervasiveness and popularity of reality TV isn’t all that surprising. Take a flip through your channels and you’ll see something that speaks to you with reality shows now based on almost any niche you can think: losing weight, philanthropy, hoarding, coupon cutting, tracing your family tree, getting a job, making cupcakes, running a restaurant, running a pawn shop, living as little people, bounty hunting, being a rich housewife…it’s endless. In fact it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t a constant navel gazing on the behalf of television programs or even when it was considered controversial or revolutionary. But back in the early 1970s PBS broke ground with “An American Family,” a 12-part reality series centered around the daily life of the Loud family — a so-called “typical” American middle-class household, but each member had their own secrets. The show drew 10 million viewers and just as much notoriety but people couldn’t stop tuning in. The Louds were first reality TV family and their lives were profoundly and forever changed by the experience.
It’s a fascinating story, and one largely forgotten by the audience that today laps up the seemingly infinite hours of reality programming out there. But leave it to Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the directing team behind “American Splendor,” to get to the meat of the story of what happened in front of and behind the camera. Starring Diane Lane, Tim Robbins and James Gandolfini, “Cinema Verite” is a solid based-on-true-life story that has the kind of details you couldn’t just make up, making for a fascinating look in an important part of television history. We recently chatted with Diane Lane about the film and how reality TV has changed in the decades since “An American Family” aired.
To help prepare to play family matriarch Pat Loud, who perhaps more than anyone else profiled had her life the most significantly changed by “An American Family,” Lane watched the PBS series “incessantly” and she quickly zeroed in on what the monumental find of that documentary was. “I realized that there were twelve hours of aired footage, but there was three hundred filmed — or something in the neighborhood of that — and this was incredibly edited, by necessity, and invariably with an agenda,” she said. “I think really the biggest discovery here is that the appetite is for the weakest link, the Achilles heel, the controversy, the potential for disagreements parentally or interpersonally — that’s the appetite that was the discovery in the marketplace.”
However, most bracing for Lane was just how much of a blank slate the Loud family were before going in front of camera. Where now, programs like “Jersey Shore” are practically scripted or least staged to such a degree to get the footage the producers want, “An American Family” was guerrilla by comparison.
“I really enjoyed the lack of guile that there appeared to be. There’s no real innocents putting themselves in front of the camera today. People are savvy about what to expect. They know they’re coming up against an angry mob basically who can’t wait to watch them suffer so I think that there’s something to be said for [that],” Lane said. “What I found very endearing was, it was a different time and people didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves yet. They weren’t quite aware that they should be afraid of being boring. You could see everything just under the surface. Their discomfort with the camera there, their wish for better communication, their sense of disappointment at a moment not going the way they wished it had. These are human traits that you don’t even need to speak the language to have them be conveyed because it’s in the timbre of the voice or in the body language or you can see it in the tiny muscles of the face. It’s incredible because it was a much more subtle range of expression, but people were dialed in to this subtlety.”
And while Lane didn’t meet the real Pat Loud until the film was in the can, she’s very aware of the responsibility on the shoulders of herself, the cast and the filmmakers to do a bit of justice to the Loud family who have spent a lot of time since “An American Family” aired trying to counter the very skewed perception of their family.
“It’s a very tricky peace to make. And I think that we actually managed — hopefully — to add a grain of sand to the other side of the scale…to balance out their experience,” Lane told us. “I think that they feel, hopefully, a tad vindicated because comparative to today’s standards, truly they were unwitting and guileless and refreshingly candid and I find them incredibly endearing. They did take on a mythical proportion for us because we were representing their plight but at the same time meeting them was incredibly rewarding. And I did have all these maternal feelings for [the Loud family members] that were a bit older than me that which is odd [laughs]. That’s the way it goes. I studied them so much and felt so protective of my children.”
It’s truly an intriguing tale, a story of fractured family that unfolded both in front and behind the cameras, and continued for years after it aired. You can check out “Cinema Verite” when it debuts on HBO on April 23rd. The trailer is below.