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5 Things I Learned from Directing Reality TV (And How They Helped Me Make a Documentary Feature)

5 Things I Learned from Directing Reality TV (And How They Helped Me Make a Documentary Feature)

It might be commonplace for filmmakers and people in documentary circles to look down on reality TV, but many shows shine light on the authentic experiences we share as humans. As someone who works in both non-fiction film and TV, what I love most about my work in both mediums is having the ability to witness people really going through something and see myself in them and their situations. People are naturally funny and tragic and loving and evil. Those of us who work in non-fiction hear over and over, “You can’t write this stuff,” and that’s true.

READ MORE: Here’s Why Reality TV is An Ideal Day Job for Indie Filmmakers

I’ve had the opportunity to work on several shows and branded content, but my first experience working as a producer in reality television came with the show “16 & Pregnant,” which led to my field producing and directing the “Teen Mom 2” series – both shows which use a lot of documentary techniques – unscripted scenes that emerge from verite and follow-doc methods.

When I set out to direct “Hotline,” my first feature documentary, which concludes its North American film festival run tonight at DOC NYC and is available on VOD and iTunes on November 17, there were many things that I learned about directing a nonfiction film from my experiences producing reality TV:

1. Building relationships and trust in the subjects.

It takes a lot to step in front of a camera, let alone share intimate details and personal stories as yourself. Taking the time to establish a safe place for those featured in non-fiction film or TV to open up about their experiences is crucial in getting the honesty a viewer can connect with. 

When discussing “Hotline” with potential film subjects, I came across people who felt that their work was being misrepresented in the media or were reluctant to talk because of social stigmas. Finding a phone sex operator was especially difficult. Most phone sex operators were tired of seeing their profession shown in stereotypical ways – disinterested women with a baby on their arm, vacuuming while talking dirty. Tonya and Gypsy, the phone sex operators in the film, were eager to share their stories. It was important for them to explain that they did business differently.  

READ MORE: Ms. Cleo Comes to Hot Docs

Taking the time before the camera rolled to hear these concerns and to navigate the narrative they wanted to tell about themselves as well and sharing with them my own perception and interests, allowed them both to be very frank on the days I showed up to film with them. From these phone sex operators to Ms. Cleo to the prayer hotline in the film, the subjects of the film had to know that I was interested in presenting their truths to an audience and that it was not my intention to cast judgment.   

2. Planning moments to document that would be viable as authentic representations of the everyday.

A camera can’t be rolling all the time and you have to be somewhat economical – especially on a film like “Hotline” where there were many subjects and locations spread across the country. My years of planning docu-reality shoots have given me a lot of experience capturing small, intimate moments on camera and using them to build an honest portrayal of a subject’s life, which ultimately gave me the ability to trust my instincts.

Picking the right time to do an interview and spending time with the subjects of “Hotline” was challenging, but that preparation allowed for much more spontaneity. We filmed Jeff, One Lonely Guy (a man who has taken over 150,000 calls and texts to his personal cell phone) at a time when he was at a breaking point and wanting to find ways to transition away from taking so many calls from strangers all by himself. But what surprised me while talking with him was that he had developed a strong relationship with one of his callers and she was coming to visit him for the first time in New York City. By arranging to spend time with them during her stay, we were able to get a lot of insight into the struggles Jeff was having with his one-man hotline and explore the intense and genuine relationships that sometimes develop over the phone and which are also prevalent in operators at many hotlines. It also allowed us to get some insight on why people were so intrigued by Jeff’s fliers that they called.

3. Scaling back the crew.

After working with crews of 8-10 people, I knew that I wanted to keep the number of people making the film to the bare minimum. There have been so many times when working in TV that I place myself in the shoes of the subjects and think of how crazy it is to be living your life with a room filled with strangers and equipment – let alone all of those people watching at home. A couple having a fight about child support with a sound guy checking his Instagram and eating craft services in the corner can really take you out of “reality.”  Having a larger crew makes behind-the-scenes production much easier, but is sometimes invasive in sensitive situations. It was helpful to be able to pare down when spending limited time with our subjects.  

4. Working with allies who are invested in the project.

In reality TV, field directors and producers collaborate with their counterparts in post-production, the story producers. They are the crucial bridge between what is being shot in the field and what ends up on the small screen. Sometimes story producers are very open to field producers letting things happen as they happen and exploring in the field, but increasingly tight production-to-broadcast schedules demand that they also focus on and shape the edit even before the cameras roll. This “shooting for the edit” sometimes leads to a loss of subtlety and nuance, since when you’re just going after what you need, you close yourself off to the unexpected — which is often the most compelling footage My producers on “Hotline,” Lauren Belfer and Bryce Renninger, were not only in the field supporting me, but akin to the best story producers. They were always a sounding board for determining if what I was getting was in line with the story I was trying to tell, and also knew when to pull the plug or inspire me to push further. 

When working in TV, I don’t work with the editors at all, and usually only see them at wrap parties. As with most film work, though, I knew the opposite would be true on “Hotline.” I was fortunate enough to be extremely connected to the edit and to work extensively with Charlie Dugan, who is a talented editor of both feature films and reality TV. He cuts very quickly, as is required of TV editors much of the time, but more importantly, on “Hotline” he was key in shaping the story. Because we had Charlie for a limited time, being able to shoot for edit, a skill essential to reality TV, was helpful to maximize our limited time with him. He watched every minute of footage that was shot, which is impossible for a reality editor who is usually handed selects or string outs, but for this film Charlie knew all of the subtleties of each character. Hashing out a story with an editor is something I wish could happen more often with directors in reality.

5. A sense of responsibility.

The first time I watched a show that I directed on MTV, I knew that millions of other people (and not just the teenagers the show was geared towards) were watching too. And while I always felt an extreme moral obligation to deliver something worthwhile to the wide audience, it was in that moment that I really felt the importance of creating content for mass consumption.

A challenge I faced early on in “Hotline” was that anonymity and confidentiality are at the center of many hotlines, so while I want an audience to understand the complexities and let them “eavesdrop” on hotline calls, it was also very important for me to conceal identities by only using the recorded audio from calls and refrain from identifying the caller. Luckily, with an independently-produced documentary, the filmmaker has the power to avoid misrepresentation and focus on authenticity. As a reality producer, I strive to create work that is responsible and can resonate with an audience without manipulation or exploitation. It was important for this to carry over into “Hotline.”

Tony Shaff is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and former telephone psychic and suicide hotline volunteer. His work has screened at festivals across the country, and he received a Student Academy Award Nomination for his film “Get Outta Here!” Staff served as a producer for the groundbreaking MTV docu-series “Teen Mom 2” and “16 and Pregnant,” as well as other specials. “Hotline” is his first feature documentary. More information on “Hotline” can be found at www.hotlinedoc.com. “Hotline” is available on VOD and iTunes beginning November 18.

READ MORE: 5 Must-See Documentaries at DOC NYC

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