The Amish Diaries: Real Reality vs. TV Reality
How a producer deals with the death of a cast member.
There is nothing in the reality TV producer’s handbook on how to deal with the death of a cast member of one of your shows. So when the phone rings and you are told that a teenager has died, you are forced to make some tough choices, ask people to do some difficult things and you hope to find some sort of balance between respect, responsibility and entertainment.
This week’s episode of Amish: Out of Order, entitled “Living Fast” forced us to confront this very issue. And to be totally honest, I don’t exactly know how we did it or that we did it perfectly. But I do know, this was the hardest hour of television I have ever produced, and I know that the cast and crew of this episode fought through their emotions and delivered some remarkable work.
And I know that I’m probably going to reveal a little too much information here about what goes on behind the scenes of a television show, but I think its important to let you know what went into creating “Living Fast.”
As the co-owner of my company, Stick Figure Productions, even though I come up with most of the ideas for my shows, because I’m overseeing a number of projects and developing a bunch of others, I don’t often go on location for them. So that means that I don’t always meet the cast members of my shows.
To be totally truthful, sometimes the cast members of our reality shows don’t always feel like real people. We think of them not in terms of flesh and blood, but as “cast” and “characters” and “story lines.” I see them first from casting tapes, or interviews. I learn about their day-to-day exploits by reading “hot sheets,” a daily summary from our field team that tells us what was filmed each day.
We arrange a 10-episode series like Amish: Out of Order into a series of note cards on a large corkboard. Each episode is broken down into “A,” “B” and sometimes “C” story lines. A character and that character’s story are usually represented on note cards with a Polaroid, or a screen grab. And that’s how most of the characters remain in my mind. As story lines. Sometimes, we move a story line around. Johnny is struggling with a relationship with his father; what if we used that story in episode 4? It could make a nice parallel to this other character that wants to talk to his mother. We pull out Johnny’s note card and move that character to a different spot on the board. We make a call to the field team. Go spend some more time with Johnny, ask him about his father.
When events occur that throw that bulletin board into disarray, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. The network already approved that board and we have a schedule to keep. Ideally, you want stories that cause enough drama and disruption to make for great action on screen, but don’t cause any real problems for production. In the military they call it a “million-dollar wound”: an injury that causes enough damage to keep you out of action but doesn’t cause permanent harm. And on Amish: Out of Order, we already had our million-dollar wound. One of our cast members, Jonas, got involved in a terrible car wreck, so we were able to see how our characters dealt with trauma and the possibility of death, but luckily, Jonas was able to come out of the accident without any permanent injuries.
So when the call came in that one of our cast members had been killed in a single car accident on an early October morning—that his car had struck a deer and gone over an embankment, that he had been killed instantly—you go through a lot of different emotions and processes in a short period of time.
The first thing that happens is shock. A life has been lost. A teenager has died. I don’t know what the comparison is. This was someone that I hadn’t met, but yet I felt a connection to him that isn’t quite describable. He was one of my cast members. You feel responsible. He didn’t know my name, but I had seen hours of footage of him, watched his exploits, had conference calls discussing his “story lines” and made decisions that would affect his future without his ever knowing of my existence. And now the call came in that he was gone.
But instantly the reality sets in. How do we handle this? Where does this fit in on the big board? Quite honestly, these are the moments when “real” reality intrudes on the business of reality television.
We were suddenly required to make dozens of decisions that affected people who were distraught. The Amish burial, funeral and grieving process is unfortunately exactly part of what the show Amish: Out of Order is about. If we were truly going to be honest with the spirit of this series, we had to try to document it. And we had to do it quickly, or the moment would be lost. So we had to ask our cast and crew to allow us a window into the most challenging times of their lives. We didn’t have time to let people mourn naturally, we had to push to be there to see it, and to film it, and that’s not an easy thing to ask people to do.
What occurred over the next few days and weeks was a remarkable display of openness, access and raw emotion. We had our production team, who did have a true bond with the young man who died, fight through their own grief and show a professionalism that can’t be overstated. The rest of the cast, who are already reticent about allowing cameras into their personal lives, seemed to instantly grasp the fact that this was unique, that this was something that had to be shown and that allowing us into the process of grieving for their fallen friend would create a lasting memorial to him. I don’t want to reveal exactly what occurred in the episode, other than to say that some of the most incredible moments, access and intimate stories that I’ve ever been privileged to work on happened in this episode. I have no idea how our team was able to pull it off. I can’t speak for what was going on in their minds, but I do know what I was going through. And I won’t pretend that I had the most difficult job; maybe I even had the easiest one, but the swing of emotions takes you to some places you don’t expect when you start to make a television show.
- First of all, after you send the team into the field, you make the call to the network. And you hope that your judgment about it is correct. You hope you have a network that understands that despite what is at stake with your television series, we are still dealing with real people and real lives, and you let out a huge sigh of relief when they say to you, “Do whatever you have to do to handle this sensitively and respectfully, don’t worry about the schedule of other episodes. We’ve got your back.” And you tell your team that you got lucky that the National Geographic Channel understands that there is more to making a TV show than schedules, budgets and numbers.
- As you watch the footage of the show slowly come in, you realize that you have something exceptional, that you have an episode of TV that is as real and raw and meaningful as anything you have ever produced, but you also realize that maybe it doesn’t fit in as well with the rest of the series as the other episodes. So you dig in and you ask your field team and your cast for more, and you reshape it, and you find another angle to take and you don’t know where it comes from but they find the ability to give you more, because on an episode like this, no one bothers to look at the clock or notices whether it’s a weekend, they just give you everything they have.
- But then as some of the shock wears off, the reality sets in about the fact that one of your key cast members is dead. And some of the practicality comes into play and you realize, damn, you didn’t get that one interview you needed and it makes an earlier episode worse because of it. And then you feel like shit, thinking about how the death of a teenager makes your job a little more difficult, but the fact remains that you have to go back to the big board of note cards and shuffle some stuff around and make a “B” story a “C” story, because you realize that you can’t get that pickup interview, you can’t get that one extra scene that you need, because the guy on the note card isn’t around to do interviews anymore.
- And then you wake up a few nights later at 4 a.m. with tears in your eyes and you remember that it was you who originally moved the note card on the big board with the teenager’s face on it from an “A” story to a “B” story, and you wonder, if you had just kept him as an “A” story, then maybe he would have been filming with you that night instead of driving alone at 5:30 a.m. exhausted on his way to work a double shift on a dark and winding road. But you blink away the tears and you go back to sleep and you try to reassure yourself that life just doesn’t work that way.
- And the day before the series is ready to premiere, you panic about revealing too many “spoilers” and have a tense exchange with a cast member, asking him to take down a post on his website memorializing his deceased friend, and then you spend another sleepless night wondering if you’ve gone too far for the sake of a damn television show.
- And as the season progresses, you ache every time some frustrated viewer wonders why there aren’t more stories with that one charismatic young Amish boy, and you know that it’s because he is buried under 6 feet of Missouri dirt, but you bite your tongue and just thank people for watching and tell them to keep tuning in.
- And then you take an afternoon off from work on a sunny Friday in early June, and you look out the window and try to write an article that summarizes your thoughts. And you try to balance the fact that you want people to tune in to this episode more than you have ever wanted people to watch anything you’ve ever done, but you also don’t want to make it seem like you are exploiting the death of your cast member for ratings.
- And when the words don’t flow as easily as they do in the other articles you’ve written, you pop in the DVD of the episode and you watch it for the first time in a few weeks for inspiration, and you remember why you are doing this in the first place. You remember sending your team off to film a funeral of their friend. You remember asking the editor if he could edit around those sobs. And you know that you need to do everything you can to make sure that people understand what went into making this show. And to be honest, you don’t know if it’s necessarily the best episode of television that you’ve ever made, but you can say with 100 percent certainty that you are as proud of it as anything you have ever done in your 15-year career as a producer.
- And you hope that the people who watch it feel some small shred of what went into making it.
So as this week’s episode airs, I will be watching alone, thanking the incredible team who made this show. For having put in such tremendous time, effort and emotional sweat to deliver it. I specifically want to thank our field team of Jeff Hoagland and Kerthy Fix, but also Jake Abraham, Ari Abitbol, Ross Kirtley and Yvete Morales. And Michael Cascio, Richard Wells and Howard Owens and the rest of team from Nat Geo who were so supportive in allowing this episode to become something unique. And the cast, Amos, Mose, Rueben, Gideon, Jonas and everyone else for opening up their lives during this tragedy.
And I hope everyone appreciates the episode for what it is and forgives us for what is not. As for me, as I watch, mostly I will be thinking about a young life lost, wishing that I were prepping a season of note cards with his face on them.
Instead we are left with one of the most extraordinary hours of TV any of us have ever been a part of, and one that we all wish we never had to produce.
Amish: Out Of Order: Living Fast premieres Tuesday June 12, at 9PM on National Geographic Channel.
For previous entries of the Amish Diaries by Daniel Laikind, click here.
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