Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini on the Start of Reality TV
Why did you decide to tell the story now?
ROBERT PULCINI: It's really relevant. Reality television has taken over the entertainment business in a way that nobody could've predicted. It's a good time to look back and see how that genre of entertainment was born. And it was born with the Louds.
What was the source material for the behind-the-scenes conflict?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: The screenplay was written and researched by David Seltzer. We came in afterwards and caught up with the original documentary footage and Pat's book. But we relied on him.
Was it difficult to find name-actors who could capture real people who've already been seen on film?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: We've done something similar in 'American Splendor' when we had Harvey Pekar actually in the movie with Paul Giamatti. The most important thing is to find great actors who are able to capture the essence of a character, not a literal imitation.
ROBERT PULCINI: Every actor I've ever worked with has wanted as much information about their character as they could get their hands on. There was a wealth of information for them to pull from in 12 hours of documentary footage.
There was no precedent for this, so no one had any idea what it would turn into.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: Except for James Gandolfini, whose character Craig Gilbert doesn't really appear in the footage.
ROBERT PULCINI: Though he was able to meet with him and spend time together in person.
Do you think Craig Gilbert was preying on the Louds or were they willing participants?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: There was no precedent for this, so no one had any idea what it would turn into. Sure, he had a vision to tell this story in a distinctive cinema verite style, but I don't think he or the Louds had any idea how much of a phenomenon it would become or how much backlash there would be.
Did he exceed the bounds of acceptable filmmaking?
ROBERT PULCINI: Certainly not what's acceptable today. Now people get paid to do what he did; it's an asset. At the time there was a different code. People saw documentary filmmaking in a more pure way, and there was a lot of discussion about what you could do and what you couldn't. When you're making a documentary film, you don't want it to be boring, so you'll naturally try to explore what would make the most interesting film.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: As a documentary filmmaker, I understand his situation and I wouldn’t be one to judge. It's very hard to remain completely objective as a documentarian. There's also no one version of events. It’s like 'Rashomon.' Gilbert has his version, the Louds have theirs, the Raymonds have theirs.
Lance was the first openly gay person on television, and he's also just an incredible character.
Do you think the show got extremely lucky in capturing the disintegration of the family on tape, or is the filming what caused it to happen?
ROBERT PULCINI: I think the camera influenced the rapidity with which things happened and why they happened the way they did. It's clear from her book that Craig had an unusual relationship with Pat and they spoke often. I also wonder if the camera gave Pat the courage to take control of her own life. Who knows what would have happened if the camera wasn't there? I do think it's interesting that they spend their years now together.
How would you describe the role of the Raymonds in this?
ROBERT PULCINI: They were very young and idealistic, but also may have been more seasoned in filmmaking than Craig was. They really believed in the goals of true verite filmmaking and the rules that go along with that. They felt very compromised. They also felt a great deal of affection towards the family who they were supposed to expose.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: They shot them constantly for seven months. It would've been impossible for them not to establish a relationship with these people. But as a filmmaker, it puts you in a very complicated position.
How do you convey to a modern audience how revolutionary Lance's depiction was?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: Lance was the first openly gay person on television, and he's also just an incredible character. He's so compelling, funny, charming, and so many things. He was open and completely committed to being who he was. The only thing we could do was to show that.
What was the reaction to Lance like at the time?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: It was pretty horrific. The things that were written about him in major newspapers and magazines were shocking. They were overtly attacking not only him, but also Pat for accepting him how he was. This wasn't hundreds of years ago, this was 1973.
ROBERT PULCINI: Lance also had a very interesting relationship with the camera. In some way, he got it more than anybody. When you watch the documentary, he's the only one who talks directly to the camera, as he refused to not acknowledge that it was there. You see it in the first moment of the show when he takes the crew to a subversive drag show at La MaMa theater. There was a method to his madness.
This show really took its time to tell the story and every week 10 million people watched it.
There's a lot of attention to detail in how the film recreates the era. Was it fun for you to put together?
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: Bob and I are from the ‘70s, so this was fun for us. We grew up watching TV shows that had these amazing Southern California backdrops. So the entire crew set about recreating the era. Our production designer Patti Podesta was from the area and our costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb actually raided her mother's closet. Our cinematographer really captured that California sunshine that Bob and I envied growing up.
ROBERT PULCINI: The ‘70s is an era that's often lampooned for having bad style, but one thing we learned from watching the Louds, is that they were very stylish people. Pat especially was a very stylish woman, and their house reflected her good taste. They were well-traveled and smart people, and their settings reflected that.
Do you credit 'An American Family' with inventing the genre? Michael Apted's 'Up' series was around a few years earlier.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: Craig Gilbert didn't create cinema verite. He used its philosophy as a starting off point to tell a story. The difference between 'An American Family' and the 'Up' series is that the latter is more about class than family. They'd interview kids from across different English classes and follow up with them every seven years. There is an anthropological overlap, but I think Gilbert had an entirely different idea to live with a single family.
What distinguishes 'An American Family' from contemporary reality television?
ROBERT PULCINI: One thing you learn from watching contemporary reality TV is that the attention span of America has really waned. The documentary series is actually pretty slow, and the way it's edited, you really have to acclimate yourself to it. Now there's a mad rush to hit the conflict as soon as possible, and to identify people as types immediately so you already know who they are. This show really took its time to tell the story and every week 10 million people watched it.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: I watch some reality TV, but I don't think of it as truthful. All of those situations have been created. On 'American Family' they generally tried not to manipulate the events as they unfolded.
Do reality television shows offer any redeeming value?
ROBERT PULCINI: I have trouble watching them. I like writing.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: I like it for a purpose. It's great for mind-numbing entertainment. But it doesn't take the place of documentaries.