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HBO’s Cinema Verite Portrays The Beginning of Reality Television


Cinema Verite airs this weekend on HBO.
In 1971, for the first time in history, an ordinary family welcomed television cameras into their home for the purpose of creating a program others would watch.

On Saturday, April 23, HBO will air Cinema Verite, a movie about seven months in the life of the Pat and Bill Loud family of Santa Barbara, that produced PBS’s 12-hour documentary, An American Family – the first reality television program.

Producer Karyn McCarthy calls the film “a biopic of a genre.”

Hollywood has given us numerous documentaries about the making of a film, but this may be the first film about the making of a documentary and, indeed, the birth of a genre.

The film stars Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, and James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert, the great persuader who talked the Louds into opening their home to the cameras, and PBS executives in New York into funding what for them was an expensive venture, and for the times was a radical and even bizarre experiment.

Near the film’s conclusion, we see actual footage of an episode of the Dick Cavett Show featuring the entire seven-member Loud family. The year is 1973, An American Family has already aired and the Louds are making the talk-show rounds to explain that they are not the broken family the nation has spent 12 enraptured weeks watching unravel. As he wraps up the show, the normally unflappable Dick Cavett, who had a ringside seat to the 1960s and 70s, has a bemused look on his face that speaks volumes about the genie he’s just seen released from the cultural bottle.

Indeed, “actual footage,” presented a huge challenge for the below-the-line crew of Cinema Verite. Directors Shari Springer and Bob Pulcini (American Splendor) ultimately used footage from An American Family to help tell the Loud’s story, sometimes juxtaposing it seamlessly with the footage they shot. The film opens, in fact, with a sequence of Gandolfini as Gilbert viewing raw footage of what will be his documentary; at times the images on Gilbert’s screen cut back and forth between actual PBS footage and HBO’s filmed footage. We also see Gilbert watching footage on two screens side by side, with actual footage on one screen and filmed footage on the other. It’s a ridiculously high bar in terms of matching and verisimilitude.

Below the Line interviewed production designer Patti Podesta (Memento, Bobby, Recount), and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) as well as producer Karyn McCarthy (John Adams, Syriana) about how they met the challenge.

Below the Line: How did you approach this film knowing that all these hours of documentary were in play and how focused were you on creating a look that was authentic?

Patti Podesta: Right away you get into the question of realism. Every director I’ve ever worked with has said to me, in so many words, “Patti, I want to redefine realism.” And they each had a completely different take on what “realism” means.

Suttirat Larlarb: We weren’t recreating the documentary but we knew we’d be commenting on it. All that footage exists and it’s out there, so there were certain elements we needed to copy. I’m a research hog anyway and I far prefer actual photos like family snapshots to magazine tearsheets or anything like that, so I watched all 12 hours of the original broadcast three times. Once for flavor, the second time with a technical mind and the third time, after going over it with Bob and Shari, to fill in the blanks. I took 986 screen grabs for all the characters, and I printed them and cut them out like playing cards. So I began with the original footage.

Karyn McCarthy: Bob and Shari are from New York and they were certain (from their viewing of the documentary many years ago) that you could see the ocean from the Loud’s house. It was just the clouds in the background but there is this idea that the Louds live in southern California so of course you can see the ocean from their house. So right away we’re talking about what is real in the documentary and what we make up in our minds, and then what we want to imply in our movie.

Costume designer Suttirat Larlarb
BTL: Are there times when obedience to what really happened, or how it really looked, can get in the way of doing the right thing for the film?

Larlarb: There are many reasons you don’t want your movie to look like a Xerox copy. If an actor does not have the same body type as the character they’re playing, or the same skin color or hair type, if something about them doesn’t go with what’s in the actual footage, then of course you have to adapt. Even though there is footage we are going to have to match to some extent, we are still creating characters and therefore we have to own them.

Then there are times when the documentary is so expressive you just can’t top it. The boys are teenagers and they have a garage band, and in one scene they give a back yard concert. One of the boys is wearing a pseudo glam rock outfit – a T-shirt with a homemade lightning bolt stitched on, shiny tights, Converse high-tops, and a cape. If I had made it any less than that it would have been a disservice, and more would have been dishonest. So we just matched it.

Podesta: Researching Bobby, we discovered that the pantry at the Ambassador Hotel had been painted shortly before Robert F. Kennedy was shot there, and it was very white. But we think of it as not nearly as bright because the cameras and the stock they used to capture those images made it appear very blue. So we painted it an icy blue to help the cinematographer make it look bluer. Yes, we were using our tools to produce a scene that is recognizable, but it can go the other way too because what we are after is the emotional quality that makes a scene or a movie true, not just the static appearance of it.

McCarthy: In 1971, Santa Barbara was a small town and so we had to face the issue of how much traffic we would show there, how many extras would we use on the streets. Some of us were afraid it would look like zombies had gotten to the town if there were no people. Or people might think we didn’t have enough money to make the movie (because we left the streets unpopulated). So that’s the question of what serves as “reality?” Ultimately, we put more extras on the streets than were in the documentary, and it was out of a choice to not distract the audience.

Podesta: In Memento, the main character lives in motel rooms and Chris Nolan was insistent that the motel rooms we would see would look just like motel rooms actually look right after people have checked out of them. But his concept of a used motel room was a lot busier, messier than how they really are. So I sent people in there to photograph a huge number of motel rooms right after people had checked out. He knew what he wanted and it was terrific, but strictly speaking, it wasn’t “reality.”

Larlarb: Essentially, what you have is the actors interpreting the script, and if they are conscientious, which on this film they certainly were, they’ll look to the source material plus the script. Our jobs, as providers of the world they live in, is furnishing the clothes they wear, and everything else, and helping them make their own interpretation, rather than an impersonation. Impersonators do a carbon match, that’s why an Elvis impersonator, for instance, his stock and trade is how exactly can he recreate the appearance of Elvis. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re finding something deeper and more emotional than that.

BTL:  How do you find that emotional hook, and did the actual documentary play a role in that?

Podesta: Early on, I spent an afternoon with the Raymonds (the husband-wife team hired by Craig Gilbert to shoot the documentary) and they told me something I should have figured out from watching An American Family, but hadn’t put together yet: the house was for the kids. Pat was the mom in the neighborhood where all the kids wanted to hang out at her house. That became a touchstone in many ways. For one, Bill Loud had no place of his own in the house. At one point someone suggested we make an office for him in the home, which he did not have in real life. We never created it for him, and in the scene where Pat throws him out, he goes to a drawer to get something, but there is nowhere else for him to go. He is always coming in with suitcases and leaving with suitcases, a function of how long this sort of open relationship has been going on.

Larlarb: In doing those really anal-retentive screen grabs of each of the characters, I noticed a couple key pieces of clothing shared among the family members. An American Family was instrumental in tearing the family apart, and here I was looking at something that was a physical and tangible link, not an empty aesthetic gesture, but one of familiarity and closeness. It never announced itself, it’s so familiar an action that it doesn’t have to be in the dialogue – “Hey, Mom, can I borrow your belt?” But if you look carefully, there it is. One of Lance’s shirts winds up on Pat. A belt that you see on Grant, you then see on Delilah and then on Patty at home with a pair of shorts.

Podesta: In the documentary, there are languid sub-textual moments with people that go on and on. Most of today’s audience would be completely bored by it. There are pauses when people think as they get up and walk across a room in an unstudied way. How could I create that in the Cinema Verite house, and yet not take away from a sense of liveliness it also needed to have. Since the home was all about the kids, I thought of homework. It has that languid quality. It takes forever, yet it’s really important. So we had set dressers actually doing the homework assignments so the papers and the books would be real. We made sure all the spaces in the Loud house were really inhabited and used and loved and touched.

McCarthy: The house was incredibly important to all of us on many levels. We had to adjust for the times in the house we chose. In 1971, living spaces were smaller, kitchens were more rudimentary, and if we had simply matched the house, it would have looked to a present-day audience as if the family was far down the socio-economic ladder from where they actually were.

BTL: Pat Loud was, on one hand, a Republican housewife from Santa Barbara and on the other, a modern, rebellious woman. How did you go about dressing Diane Lane for this role?

Larlarb : This all took place during a moment for women in the history of fashion. Skirts and dresses were still a requirement (for someone like Pat Loud) yet, here was a woman who was quite worldly and well-traveled, and we see her go to New York where she is a very different person. She accepts her son Lance, (who is coming out), in a way none of the other family members could. She’s not necessarily a fashion plate, but she has a Bohemian attitude.

I remember seeing a picture of Barbara Walters at that same time. She was wearing an amazing pantsuit, chic, classic, not fussy, not wacky 70s, but not the swinging 60s either. Pat was dressed like that – someone with taste and a little bit of money, but who is not showy and ostentatious. So for us that meant cotton-linen mixes, Mexican peasant shirts, much more conservative knit polyester shells with geometric patterns, but she never goes all the way with those. We had to make her strong visually and decisive, like a woman who doesn’t need to follow anyone’s fashion cue.

Meanwhile, Bill dresses like someone who is on the make. At one point he comes home from what was supposed to be a business trip wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and you think, “Where did that come from?” Clearly, he was on holiday. It’s interesting because despite his repeated denials, (about other women), in his dress he never tries to disguise anything.

BTL: Karyn, you’ve called Cinema Verite, “a biopic of a genre.” What do you mean by that?

McCarthy: In the movie’s first scene you see Craig Gilbert persuading Pat Loud to allow the cameras into her home. We see one of the girls asking if the cameras will go into the bathroom. It’s a child’s question, but in some ways it has to be asked because this has never been done before. We see Gilbert persuading the executives to fund the show and them asking, Who would want to watch real life? Have we ever seen on screen the first moments of the first Western? Or thriller? Or film noir? I think that’s what people loved about Social Network. We saw the beginning of the creation of something that is now part of the fabric of our lives.


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