Tuesday, September 18, 2012

1994: The Wonder Year - Taxicab Confessions - Part 1 - The New Reality

"Oh, can you see the real me,  can ya?
Can ya?
Can you see the real me, can ya?

-The Who

On the HBO show Cinema Verite, the 1973 PBS show featuring the Loud family, titled An American Family, is credited as the first reality show. While communications professors might agree, there was not a rash of similar shows to follow in the Seventies. The show is credited with inspiring MTV's The Real World 19 years later, which might be the better template for the mindless reality shows that now fill our airwaves.

I certainly wasn't thinking of the Louds, or even MTV, when I got a phone call from two brothers from San Francisco in the Spring of 1994. They were going to be doing a show for HBO, and they were looking for a production coordinator.

The pair were Joe and Harry Gantz, and at first meeting, you would hardly think them brothers. Joe was a photographer whose work had received some acclaim, serious to a fault. Harry, to me, was an aging hippie, not a pejorative in my book. I had always gotten along with people who fell into that category, from the talented director of "Hair" and other plays, Tom O'Horgan, to the puppet-theater creators I had worked with in Allentown, PA.

It would take me the run of the show to realize how well they worked in unison, how where one ended, the other began. Truth be told, I never got that close to Joe, a really talented guy with laser-like focus that I found to not always be approachable. I was much closer in personality to Harry, and since he handled a lot of the logistics, I spent most of my time working directly with him.

Joe Gantz, Harry Gantz

We met at a little Italian espresso place on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, at a time when before Starbucks became the interview halls for those sans office.

I sat as they explained the concept to me. They would put five wireless microphones and a few (I forget the number) lipstick cams in a taxi. They would pick people up, and tape the ride, then pick the best ones for air.

Nice idea, I thought, but, frankly, I didn't see how it was going to work. First, what interesting ever happens in the back of a taxicab, unless the guy in the front seat has a Mohawk haircut and talks to himself in mirrors. I kept that reservation to myself, something I learned from recent experience.

As a practical matter, I was curious how they would get releases from people. This was before the spate of shows that made people celebrities for acting stupid on television, before everyone was aching to prove Mark Twain correct, that it was better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Sure, it was the height of the newly-minted "trash TV" shows, such as Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, and the late Morton Downey Jr., who I always found the most fascinating of the bunch if only because he was such a character himself that I always expected as much weirdness from him as from his guests. I always assumed it took forever for those shows to cast and find those people, and that once they did, they probably paid them decently to look like fools.

We would not be casting people, and we would not be paying them, the brothers informed me. They had first tried this sort of thing out with a short they had done in San Francisco, where they would set a camera on a street corner, pick people at random, and ask them about their lives. The concept was more fleshed-out than that, but they had tested it, and it worked. Furthermore, they had done a pilot on a shoestring for HBO the year before, and it had worked out well.

They already had a contact with a taxicab company in Queens. One cab would be outfitted by Mitch, the technical director who had done the pilot the year before. The two would follow the cab in a van, where they could listen to the ride, as well as communicate with the driver, a real taxi driver, via earpiece. At the end of the ride, a woman riding with them would get out of the van. The driver would have explained the basics at the end of the ride, the woman would seal the deal and get a release, which we would also tape for verification.

Having a young woman was crucial, they had learned, since both men and women signed more readily when a young woman approached them than a man. There would also be a PA to help.

I was to help find the PA and the girl getting the releases, as well as find them inexpensive office space. They would ride for 30 nights straight - sunset to sunrise. If mama always said that nothing good happened after midnight, our reality was that nothing interesting happened before sunset.

The young lady we found, Felicia, went on to production coordinate for the show in subsequent years.

I worked mostly during the day, reviewing tapes, looking over their notes, helping prepare them for the next night, filing, and being the go-between with HBO. I went on parts of some rides in the beginning, and on one or two full evenings later on to get a feel for what was happening.

The executive producer for HBO was Sheila Nevins, and one of the uncredited handlers on the project was Susan Benaroya. While I always consider specific budgets to be propitiatory, I can say that whatever you think the budget was, it was significantly less, certainly less than almost any of the low-budget features I had worked on. Both Nevins and Benaroya had backgrounds at PBS, and as such, understood how to manage the relatively-new documentary division of HBO on a small budget.

The original office space I found was tiny for what we were paying, and I felt cutting into money that could be used elsewhere. I lobbied for an office at HBO, and eventually, an available space opened. The new space was hardly bigger, but the proximity to people at HBO and the fact that we weren't paying for it freed money elsewhere.

I also helped negotiate the rate, and everything else, with Mitch. It seemed like during the filming of the pilot, some tension had arisen between Mitch and the brothers, the origin of which I was never able to objectively track down.  All three were consummate professionals, but over long hours, these sorts of things pop up from time to time. The three have subsequently worked incredibly successfully over the years, so I assume those tensions were worked out after the first year. That year, I acted as a bit of an intermediary, something I had done many times in my experience as line producer and assistant director.

Once we started, I found everything Joe and Harry had said to be true. I was amazed at the number of people who signed releases, even after revealing embarrassing sides that most of us would prefer to keep to ourselves.

Time and time again, I would watch a ride in the morning and think to myself, "He is never going to sign," only to find the person in question cheerfully signing away their image.

One of my favorite examples was a well-dressed man who got into the cab with a younger woman who was clearly not his wife. She seemed to know he was married, as they actually joked about being out on the town, and how the wife would never know.

Sure enough, when they got to the end of the ride, there is Felicia with her clipboard. He asks when it will air, and Felicia gave him the closest to what we knew, which was about six months later on HBO. "Ah, six months, I'll be able to talk my way out of it by then," he said.

For legal purposes, there was some concern that he may have been drunk - he certainly had been drinking - and I was asked to follow-up with him the next day. I caught up with him at his workplace on the phone. "Oh, you're the television folks from last night. That was cool." He assured me again that there was no problem with his release, but he did ask if he could contact "that cute girl with the clipboard."

In  Part 2, I will answer some of the more common questions people have asked me about Taxicab Confessions, as well as talk about some rides that did not make it on the show, including one that was truly heart-breaking.

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