Friday, September 21, 2012

1994:The Wonder Year - Taxicab Confessions - Part 2 - Backseat Undercover

We learned about love in the backseat of a Dodge,
The lesson hadn't gone too far
-Harry Chapin*

Context is everything, and when looking at the first season of "Taxicab Confessions," the only season I can speak of from first-hand experience, it is important to remember that it originated on HBO as part of their "America Undercover" documentary series.

"America Undercover" was the series that early on brought us documentaries like "Death on the Job, " "Asylum" "Skinheads: USA Soldiers of the Race Wars,"  and "Multiple Personality Disorder: The Search for Deadly Memories." These were meant to be gritty looks at the unpleasant side of life most of us were never meant to confront.

Somewhere along the line, they began to lean to the more salacious, with shows like "Mob Stories,"  "Atlantic City Hookers: It Ain't E-Z Being a Ho" and "Hookers and Johns: Trick or Treat".

Not surprisingly, audiences showed more interest in the latter. Pornography and horror are two genres that clearly show that we enjoy watching the the seedy, dangerous and unpleasant side of life if we also get a little titillation to sweeten the mix.

It was in this atmosphere that the powers at HBO and "America Undercover" embraced "Taxicab Confessions." If one were to describe reality shows as revealing people in the midst of bad behavior, then "Taxicab Confessions," is a reality show. However, I know that Joe and Harry Gantz, the creators, looked at it from more of an anthropological angle, or an answer to that definition of character that is what we do when we think no one is looking.

As smart producers, they also had an aim to please, and I think the first episode was a balancing act. Subsequent episodes seemed to give in much more to the prurient, culminating with people finally having sex in the cab some years down the road.

There was talk about that happening during the first season, and it is here I will begin to address questions I have received over the years when I reveal I worked on the show, which certainly showed me the power of television. I have worked on dozens of feature films, but if you were to ask my extended family what I have done with my life, it starts and ends with "Taxicab Confessions."

So, here they are, all those questions you wanted to ask, or that many people have asked me over the years. All of these answers apply to the first year; I simply cannot speak to the rest.

Did people know they were being taped?

Simple answer: no. Over all the rides we did, not once did we ever tell people we were taping them before the end of the ride - not once. We didn't put words in anyone's mouth, or encourage them what to say.

During the ride, Joe and Harry followed in a van, listening to the ride. The taxicab drivers, who were real drivers who had to have hack licenses, were not professional actors, though they turned out to be damned good, Joe and Harry would prompt them to either pursue a line of questions or to drop it if they felt it wasn't interesting. The drivers did a lot of a improvising, and much of that was for the best.

This is one of the many things that separates "TC" from reality shows - these people did not know they were being taped, and so had no incentive to improve their image or establish a "character."

C'mon, really? They didn't notice at all?

In order to get a quality image, extra lighting had to be put into the cab. The bullet-proof divider was also removed, This gave the drivers the perfect explanation for the extra lights - that the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was trying out better lighting to see if it helped with safety. This was the first show of it's type, so, unlike rides on "Cash Cab" now, where people get in and guess, "Oh, my God, is this that Cash Cab," people had no reason to believe they were being taped.

So much for a more innocent time.

Did you pay people?

We never offered money to encourage people to sign, and we certainly didn't pay them to embellish their stories. There was one ride where the customer was paid $100 by the producers, but it was not to get her signature, It was one of those many rides that I wish had made it into the cut; it did not.

The woman was a hooker who revealed that she had a young daughter and she had AIDS. In 1994, that was still a death sentence.

When the driver asked if she felt guilty turning tricks and possibly spreading the disease, she said she knew she was going to die, and needed to put as much aside for her daughter as she could before that happened. She was neither proud nor repentant, just realistic. Now, that's reality.

I remember watching the ride, and I still get chills as I write this. It was as sad as it was brutally honest. In today's reality television, "brutal honesty" can be something as simple as confronting someone for not doing the dishes. This was the real deal.

As with other rides that were not used, I have no idea why it wasn't chosen. Maybe the HBO legal department was concerned - we had a lot of back-and-forth with them.

The producers gave her money out of their pocket simply out of concern for her. Everyone was moved.

Were there any rides that you wanted to use but the people would not sign?

I do not think so, An irony that arose is that the few people who were difficult about being taped were boring rides that we would not use anyway. This included one obnoxious female lawyer who threatened to high heavens about her privacy being invaded, even when we assured her that without her signature, we would not and could not use her ride. I really wanted to say to her that as boring as she was, it was unlikely we would consider it anyway.

Is the story from the paramedic about the subway car true?

If people remember any ride from that season, it was this one. It was so powerful that Homicide: Life on the Streets did an episode around it with Vincent D'Onofrio, simply called "The Subway", for which he was nominated for an Emmy.

For those who don't remember it: when asked what was the worst things he had seen, he tells of a person caught between the subway and the platform, the bottom half of them twisted. They are still alive, in fact, not in pain, but the truth is, once the train is moved, their body will untwist, the organs permantly damaged, and they are going to die. They are asked if they want to contact loved ones. (LINK Below - it won't embed)

That guy told a number of stories, and all the same way. He had no reason to make it up. I've had people tell me that it was more urban legend, but the specificity with which he recounts it, and his point about people of 'all ages, even young people' makes me believe it.

I never doubted he would make the episode. None of us did. I still think that story may have been what got the show the notoriety it later achieved.

How come there were so many hookers, transvestites, etc?

We weren't interested in "Gee, I had a long day at the office," - and viewers would not have been, either.  The rides were all at night, and many of the best ones were as the clubs and bars were closing, The cabs spent a lot of time down by the Meatpacking District, where you were going to find more colorful characters.

Did you go on the rides?

I did very few entire rides; more parts of rides. Years of being in production makes you a bit jaded, so that the "action" of being on set is not as important. I needed to be at the office most of the day, and you can't be up day and night.

It was interesting to go on the rides, but, much like filming a narrative, there is a lot of 'hurry up and wait.' For every ride that was interesting, there were a ton of yawners, just like people coming to watch the "excitement" on a film set get quickly bored watching two characters walk down three stairs and saying the same line twelve times,  It's not as exciting without the editing.

What part did you play?

I had no creative input or contribution, per se. I logged tapes, made sure the folks had supplies for the rides, followed up on paperwork and was a liaison with HBO, including any legal questions we had for them. The biggest impact I had, if any, was using my budgeting background to make the case that we could do the extra days Joe and Harry wanted for a minimal amount of money, a case I made to Sheila Nevins. I always found that laying things out on paper made it easier for people to say, "yes."  Did they wind up using rides from those extra days? I don't remember.

Any rides you wish they had used?

The mean side of me makes we wish that they had used the ride of the guy I referenced in Part 1, the one who was cheating on his wife and said he would "be able to talk his way out of it," by the time the show aired. I would have liked to have seen that.

There was a violin player who closes the show - most of his ride is used with credits over. His was an extremely long ride, and one of my favorites, and I know the creators and the rest of us loved watching it. I wish more of it had been used, though I understand why it wasn't.

Felicia went on to do what I did for a few years; not surprised, she was very bright. I met one of the production coordinators from a few seasons later, who had his own stories, but I won't share those, as I can't verify them.

I know when the show began to lean more heavily on sex and alternate life styles, I became less interested, which is probably why I am the perfect person not to be in focus group for a reality show. I'm not the least bit prudish, but I find the fantasy of sex more exciting than the raw truth to watch, which most of us can attest seems nothing like it does in the movies, either porn or romantic, being less athletic than the former, and less soft-focus than the latter. I've always appreciated the sexual tension of movies like the original The Postman Always Rings Twice, where there was very little doubt what was going on, and you didn't have to be a genius to imagine what happened next.

Call it documentary or call it reality TV, I'm proud to have worked on "Taxicab Confessions," and think the world of the talent of Harry and Joe Gantz. I'm glad they had a very good narrative television show in "The Defenders," and look forward to the work they will continue to put out there. I thank them for giving me a peek into a world I was not familiar with, and for proving to the non-artistic side of my family - which is pretty much all of it when it comes to blood relatives - that I did have, yes, a real job.

NB: I noticed that Joe and Harry have a Kickstarter for a documentary entitled "American Winter" about the working poor. I never push people to support Kickstarter projects, but do pass along those that I find of interest - what you do is up to you. Link is below:

*C'mon, you really thought I was going to get through this series on "Taxicab Confessions" and not work this in?

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