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LYDIA TENAGLIA - When It Comes To Embracing New Frontiers In Nonfiction TV, The Producer and PGA Member Has No Reservations

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, October 25, 2017

First things first: the G is silent. “Te-NAL-ya,” she corrects me, proudly rolling the word around the L like a Calabrian street vendor. “It means ‘pliers’ in Italian, which I somehow think is very fitting,” she smiles. ”It feels like a good match for my personality—tenacious. Tenaglia.”

Having tenacity as a birthright seems like a pretty good starting place for a producing career, particularly one that’s based in the highly competitive and ever-shifting world of nonfiction television. A post-college, entry-level stint at legendary documentary company Maysles Films provided the next step, schooling her in the finer points of the classic verité style. She put that education into practice out in the field while still employed at Maysles, serving as camera assistant on the acclaimed 1992 doc Brother’s Keeper.

After graduating from NYU’s graduate film program, Tenaglia started to hone her producing chops at the late and lamented New York Times Television, graduating from the edit bay to story development and field producing. Along with creative partner (and later husband) Chris Collins, Tenaglia began to look for material the duo could expand into larger work. She struck gold when she picked up Kitchen Confidential, the charged, abrasive, intensely readable memoir of then-chef Anthony Bourdain, which pulled the curtain back—way back—on the New York restaurant world. Upon learning that Bourdain was proposing an Innocents Abroad-style travel journal as his follow-up, Tenaglia saw the rich narrative possibilities of the idea and picked up the phone. The ultimate result of that cold call was A Cook’s Tour, which aired on The Cooking Channel for two seasons before hitting its stride as No Reservations following its pickup by the Travel Channel. Today Tenaglia, Collins and Bourdain’s flagship show lives at CNN, under its third title, Parts Unknown.

While Bourdain’s ongoing gastronomic exploration remains the mainstay of Tenaglia and Collins’ production company, Zero Point Zero, the enduring appeal of the series has allowed its producer to refine her style and expand her own creative horizons. Shows like Meat Eater and The Hunt with John Walsh showcase Tenaglia’s skill at building innovative, culturally engaging series around fiercely distinctive voices, while feature work such as Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent and Fermented leans into the culinary cachet she’s earned through her championing of Bourdain. We’ll learn even more when she and Bourdain take the stage as two of the headliners for the Producers Guild conference Produced By: New York, on October 28.

So, very few producers start out with the idea that they would be producers of either TV or movies. What was the original plan for you?

I’d say early on I was always interested in the field, but I took a circuitous route. I went to undergraduate at Smith College, and then I took two years off and worked at Maysles Fims. There I became interested in cameras and editing and got my first real sense of unscripted production.

Had you done any scripted stuff? Theater stuff, even?

No. When I was at Smith, I had started to dabble in producing short videos for friends who were doing thesis projects and who wanted a video component. I realized that I really liked being behind the camera and trying to tell a story in that way, through a visual medium. So that was my very first intro to producing, all self-taught. And then I had my Maysles experience.  Six months into my job there, I met some documentary filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and serendipitously ended up on their film called Brother’s Keeper, as a camera assistant. So I got a chance to explore camera. Bruce was also a great editor, so I would go into the edit room and watch him as he did his thing. So I kind of created my own internship that way.

After Maysles and the Brother’s Keeper experience, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of film production, so I went to grad school, NYU Film and Television, and started making my own short films. I found work as an editor around the time production companies were pushing the model of “preditors,” editors who could also produce their own material.

Right, yep.

Do you remember that?

Some folks still use that word.

Yes, it’s still used! There were “preditors” and then there were preditors who coud also shoot, so it was really the trifecta of fun, there! I did producing-shooting-editing at New York Times Television for a while and really got my footing producing stories. I rose up the ranks and started series producing and then executive producing. And then at one point my husband Chris Collins—we worked together as a producing team, as friends, before we were married—and I had this crazy thought, as many people do, “Hey, maybe we should try to go pitch our own stuff.”

And very fortuitously, our paths crossed with Anthony Bourdain, almost 18 years ago. I had read Kitchen Confidential and thought it was a great read, and heard that Bourdain wanted to do a follow-up book called The Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel around the world. So I went and I met him. Cold called him. He was still working in a restaurant at the time. And I pitched the idea of trying to make A Cook’s Tour into a television show.

He’s like, “Whatever. What the hell. I’m just a writer who happened into a book that made a splash. I’m still working in a kitchen, for God’s sake.”

Chris and I ended up shooting a 10-minute demo at Les Halles, the restaurant where he was working at the time. I edited it together and we pitched that, and that went forward as a series. That was the start of our production company, of our relationship with Bourdain. We formally created Zero Point Zero Production in 2003, and the Bourdain series really became our flagship show. It started at Food Network, where it was called A Cook’s Tour, and then moved  to Travel Channel for eight years as Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and now we’re on CNN for the last few years as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Many producers don’t have the luxury of that kind of steady anchor series.  Its consistency and longevity is a  production company’s dream, allowing it to grow and evolve. But we had that good fortune. We have about 150 people working at Zero Point Zero now, working on different series for a variety of networks. We continue to have a fantastic partnership with CNN and are working on a few new series for them right now; two are in production and will be announced next year. So that’s that!  My career in a nutshell. [laughs]

Producer Lydia Tenaglia and Anthony Bourdain, en route to the next exotic location and revelatory meal. (photo: Chris Collins)

Can I skip back and visit some points?

Yeah! Of course.

So just going back to Brother’s Keeper, what was that first documentary experience in the field like? What was it about that gig that made you feel like, okay, I’m in my element. This works for me?

Well, even getting on that film was very fortuitous. I was working at Maysles at a really low-level, entry position. But I had become good friends with the guy who managed the equipment there, Marcel Dumont. He taught me a lot about film cameras—how to film load and focus pull, a lot of good AC stuff. Bruce and Joe were also both employees at Maysles at the time; Joe was heading up the sales and marketing department and Bruce was an editor. They happened upon this murder mystery story up in Munnsville, New York and drove up there on their own to check it out.  The quickly realized that they had a good story on theor hands.

So they very quietly gathered a small crew, as cheaply and economically as possible. The DP, Doug Cooper, was incredibly gifted but young at the time and willing to commit to the long hours and low budget.  And so was I. Having been at Maysles for over a year, and watching their verité style of filmmaking secondhand (from my desk chair!) I really wanted the experience of being in the field. So I threw myself into the project. For 10 months, every weekend, the four of us—Joe, Bruce, Dough and I—would load up the van and drive five hours to Munnsville. We’d spend the weekend there, gathering the material for Brother’s Keeper. I was just plunged into that whole world, feeling like: This is really cool. I felt viscerally connected to that kind of storytelling, that kind of camaraderie with a group. That was very eye-opening for me. It was what made me apply to grad film school. I think back on film school now, and honestly? I probably could have done a year of that and gotten the same amount out of it. I don’t regret going. But it’s really an apprenticeship industry. You learn by connecting yourself with people in the industry, a good editor or a good DP or a good producer, and just saying, “I’ll get your frickin’ coffee. I will do whatever it takes. I just really want to learn.” The industry has always been based on that apprenticeship style of learning.

It’s a craft.

It’s a craft. Exactly. It’s a craft and you learn by connecting yourself with the craftsperson. What I learned most by being involved in Brother’s Keeper and observing Joe and Bruce in the field is how, as a filmmaker, you walk the very fine line of connecting with a subject, but then pulling back quietly into an observational role. Working on both sides of that line, you come to understand something very deep about people.  That was unbelievably fascinating. That kind of verité storytelling can be so powerful, so compelling, so riveting. I think my personal producing style probably walks its own line between Maysles-style verité and something more produced. I definitely lean toward wanting pieces of the story to have a more constructed beauty via recreations... but damn, Brother’s Keeper was a masterpiece.

Lydia Tenaglia with iconoclastic chef Jeremiah Tower
on location in Mexico (photo: Lydia Tenaglia)

Being able to integrate that in a way that feels coherent and organic is a real skill and a real challenge. In terms of bringing Anthony into the picture, what was it that sparked for you, that made you pick up the phone and make that cold call?

His writing was very funny, very sardonic. It was brash, almost punk. Kitchen Confidential was flung out there with no sense that it would have any consequences or ramifications. It was very unfiltered but also so smart. Clearly there were lots of references to books and films. So when I heard that he wanted to write A Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel the world despite having virtually no travel experience, I was intrigued. Bourdain’s entire career up to that point was 25 years in various kitchens of New York. And suddenly he’s asking, “How does the rest of the world eat? What do they think about food?” I thought maybe there’s a series here, where we follow this guy around as he sort of stumbles through the world. And that in fact is exactly what the show became. We found Bourdain at a point in his life where he was really traveling for the first time. Everything was new, everything was different and strange and outside of his comfort zone.

I think we were able to capture that. At the same time, the show would not have worked quite the same way if Bourdain didn’t already have an encyclopedic knowledge of films, of literature and history... he was able to draw from all those references. As producers, Chris and I were feeding off of those creative references. We found that rhythm with Bourdain pretty early on.

By the second location of A Cook’s Tour, Vietnam, we had hit our stride...The minute we landed and exited into that airport—an airport that we’d seen all through images of the Vietnam War—there was an immediate connection to that location for him. He’s a very avid reader of Vietnam history, especially the war period. He had a strong connection to works like Apocalypse Now and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. He had all these references that he started to pull from, and from there, he came alive—and the show really came alive at that point. We ended up doing two seasons of A Cook’s Tour. Then the Food Network’s mandate shifted, and they asked Tony, “Could you try to do more domestic shows? Maybe a barbecue show?”

How did he take that idea?

He … politely pushed away from the table. [laughs] God love them, that stuff has worked very well for Food Network. Nothing against barbecue shows! Because hey, we did a barbecue show. But Tony’s like, no, I’m really enjoying this international thing. Fortunately, we were able to continue making the show with other networks.

After doing the series for so many seasons, how do you work to keep the format fresh?

The format for the show actually forces us to keep it fresh. For each location we travel to, we ask: Is there a reference that we want to tap into for this particular place? Several years ago, we did an episode of No Reservations set in Rome. We did it all in black and white, very much fashioned after that Italian neo-realist style. That was the starting point. How do we shoot a Rome episode using Italian neo-realism as our reference point? That’s the starting point, I think, for every episode. Is there a film reference, a book reference, an historical reference we can use as inspiration? Is there a filmmaker we really like? Bourdain a fan of Wong Kar-wai, for example, so our Hong Kong episode became an homage to Wong Kar-wai films. Darren Aronofsky, the director, wanted to accompany Tony to Madagascar so that episode had its own texture and tone.

Hit Madagascar with Darren Aronofsky. Cool, cross that off the bucket list.

[laughs] Exactly. I mean, the only real format to the show is: It’s Bourdain and we go to a country. That’s it. The rest is asking the questions: What’s the story here? Who are the characters in that place who can tell that story? The show has moved way beyond just sitting down to eat food at the table. We did an L.A. episode where we concentrated the entire show in a three-block radius of Koreatown. We just made the entire show about that world of characters who live there.

Yeah, that neighborhood is a real crossroads. In terms of prep, how far out are you planning these shoots? Obviously you need to have some control over your shooting environment, but so much of the best nonfiction work comes out of spontaneity and improvisation.

Prep can be anywhere from five to seven weeks, depending on the location and how difficult it is to access. It’s important to find good fixers on the ground who can help get that inside access, and find characters who can tell the story of that location in a unique way. If we have a strong visual conceit, like in the Wong Kar-wai episode, that will inform the kind of cameras and lenses we use, along with the color palette and style of shooting. That part gets carefully thought out. When shooting each individual scene, there is a tremendous amount of improvisation, but there is also a lot of structure in the way a particular story is going to be told.

Can you talk a little more about that? What are some times on location when you had to scramble, where you wound up somewhere unexpected?

I can answer that question pretty literally, in fact. [laughs] But I have to first note that I’m not physically producing that particular series anymore. It’s produced in the field by an incredibly skilled team of directors, producers and cinematographers, led by executive producer Sandy Zweig, who are putting their own personal and very unique aesthetics into each episode. But very early on when we were doing A Cook’s Tour, it was just me and Chris and Tony in the field. For one episode, we were in Cambodia and suddenly had this opportunity to fling ourselves into the unknown—the fixer said, “If you want, you can take a boat ride up this river and it’ll take you to this interesting little town in the jungle on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.” Now, this trip was not included in any of our preproduction research, but we thought, sure, let’s see where this goes. We made our way down to the shoreline in a very remote location and suddenly this man pulls up … in full military fatigues. That was our boat. The three of us got on with him. He spoke no English. And we made our way up this river, deeper and deeper—it went on for a long time, hours and hours. The sun started to drop. The boat suddenly stopped. In the middle of nowhere, we picked up another passenger, a male passenger, also in miliraty fatigues. And at that point, we looked at each other and we were all a bit freaked out.

Now as producers, you can either sit there and be completely freaked out—and we were—or you can be freaked out and then try to make a scene out of that. Up until that point, we had been mostly shooting the scenery along the way, but then  we decided to tap into what was actually happening there, tap into our fear and trepidation in that moment, and make that a piece of the story. We started prompting Tony, trying to shoot him in a way that hovered between fear and fascination with the situation and what we were all feeling. That became one of the strongest scenes in the episode.

That was nothing we ever could have pre-produced. It was not on any outline. I think that is the strength of the Bourdain series, the way it walks that tightrope of improvisation.

So if as you’ve said, Bourdain has provided the foundation for Zero Point Zero’s work, how have you tried to build on that?

Across most of our work, we definitely lean in the direction of character-driven stories. The characters have a really strong personal voice. Eight out of 10 times they’re actually very good writers; they’ve either written books or they’re accomplished journalists. So from the start, there is a strong editorial point of view and a strong writing style. We’ve done a series called Meat Eater, a hunting show, for six years now with a guy named Steven Rinella. That was a subject that I thought I had no affinity for and certainly had my own preconceived notions about. He walked in the door of our office that frst day and I was like, Oh, here comes the hunter guy. I already know what this is going to be. But I started to read his work. He’s written several incredible books about the ethos and philosophy of the hunter. He’s probably got a more honest relationship with food than any of us does, and he was able to articulate the world of hunting in a way that really attracted us to the subject matter.

He surprised us, just like Tony did with food and the table. Food and the table was just an entry point to talk about something bigger. It isn’t just about that banh mi you’re eating in Vietnam, it’s about what is contextually happening around it. It’s sociopolitical, it’s cultural. Steven Rinella was able to articulate the story of the hunter to us in a very similar way. Hunting is just the way in to talk about a particular philosophy, about a personal ethos.

We’ve done The Hunt with John Walsh about the search for criminal fugitives. John, of course, did years of America’s Most Wanted, and I had had my preconceived notions of who John was. But he came in and really started to articulate his world in a powerful way. He made us all understand deeply the importance of his work for the last 25 years, And we realized that there’s a way to redefine this subject matter from a new and very particular point of view.

How so?

What you realize when you speak to John is that his strong passion to capture criminals emanates from a very personal tragedy, and he has an ability to articulate that experience from the point of view of the victim and the victim’s family, So The Hunt is really about the internal life of the victim and of those left behind after something tragic has transpired.

We don’t put John in the field like in America’s Most Wanted. Instead, we inteview him in this very gritty, raw space, where he’s able to comment on particular cases in a way that cuts straight through to the audience: This victim was a living, breathing person with feelings and dreams and a family... and this is the aftermath when a person’s life is tragically cut short. The people around them are left in a state of internal chaos and despair.  The criminal who perpetrated this crime ran away from what they did. They must be found and must face what they have done.

The series is very powerful and very effective.  The audience becomes invested in the hunt and engaged in the process of calling the tip line.  In the three seasons we’ve been on, the show has been directly responsible for the capture of many criminal fugitives.

Tenaglia (second left) and Anthony Bourdain (second right) celebrate a delicious Vietnamese meal at Com Niue Saigon with hosts Dinh Hoang Linh (left) and Madame Ngoc (center), and producer Chris Collins (right). (photo: Diane Schutz)

That kind of material requires a really delicate touch.

Yes. I really credit the two showrunners, Shawn Cuddy and Ted Schillinger, for the way they crewed up the series.  The teams they hired are highly skilled at riding that delicate line between caring for the victims while also getting the material they needed to tell their story.  Not easy.

So, having done this for 17, 18 years, you’ve been able to watch whatever we call “reality television” cycle around a bit.

Yeah, we’ve watched a pretty big cycle go around.

How have you guys adapted to those cycles?

I think it’s more like we purposely haven’t adapted. During the years where everyone was perhaps hovering around a certain kind of reality television, I think we held our own, in large part because we’ve never been any good at pitching to the mandates. We just don’t. We can’t. A network will send out their signals, ‘This is what we’re focused on,’ but we can only pitch in a way that we truly can get excited about, that we find interesting, and that we feel like we could produce in our own Zero Point Zero style. Of course, that doesn’t always work out for us. Networks certainly have their own brands of storytelling. If our style meshes—great. If it doesn’t, we move on. But we’re not going to re-imagine the show in a way that’s less interesting to us just to fit a network’s brand identity. I’m sure a lot of production companies can relate to this.

That can be tricky when trends dictate that “food programming” means cooking competitions and recipe shows.

Yeah, in general, I would say most of the networks that we deal with here in the U.S., aside from CNN, do feel more comfortable with domestic-type programming. It doesn’t preclude them doing things that are international, but there’s an emphasis on trying to keep stuff closer to home. Whereas partners like Netflix, for example, who are inherently global by the nature of their platform, are looking for programming that can appeal to audiences all over the world. So I think they like what we do and know that we can do it well, and they believe that the material we create can be re-versioned for their different global markets. So that’s why we like working with them. The same is true of CNN. I mean, CNN’s a news organization. They’re not going to say, “Make another barbecue show.” They’re telling us, “Yes! Go to Myanmar. Go to the Congo.” Other networks more likely say—with complete justification, since they know their own brand—you know what? Our audience is not really interested in the Congo or Myanmar or what’s happening there.

What would you say to other producers who are looking to expand the boundaries of the form – geographically or in whatever other way?

Don’t be afraid to defy convention. Don’t be afraid to break the mold. You see a lot of networks decide, “Oh, that’s working,” and then everyone falls in line. “Let’s try to repeat that.”

TV is very good at that.

[laughs] It’s very good at that. I’m not trying to sound arrogant or whatever, but if you believe in trying to push the ball forward, then push the ball forward. Don’t be afraid to put your inimitable stamp on something. If someone pitches me an idea and they’re like, “Hey, this is the next Deadliest Catch” or whatever … Well, I don’t want to do the next Deadliest Catch. Because they already did Deadliest Catch, and they did it really fuckin’ well. Why do you want to do the next Deadliest Catch? Move forward. Find somebody who can tell you a story that only that person can tell, then build a world around them and push the damn ball forward.


- photography by Noah Fecks

Tags:  cover  fea 

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Statement From The PGA Presidents

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 16, 2017

From Gary Lucchesi and Lori McCreary, Presidents of the Producers Guild of America, on behalf of the PGA National Board of Directors and Officers:

"This morning, the PGA's National Board of Directors and Officers decided by unanimous vote to institute termination proceedings concerning Harvey Weinstein's membership.

As required by the PGA's Constitution, Mr. Weinstein will be given the opportunity to respond before the Guild makes its final determination on November 6, 2017. 

Sexual Harassment of any type is completely unacceptable.  This is a systemic and pervasive problem requiring immediate industry-wide action.  Today, the PGA's National Board and Officers -- composed of 20 women and 18 men -- created the Anti-Sexual Harassment Task Force specifically charged with researching and proposing substantive and effective solutions to sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

The PGA calls on leaders throughout the entertainment community to work together to ensure that sexual abuse and harassment are eradicated from the industry."

Tags:  Harvey Weinstein  pga 

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PGA Dodger Day 2017

Posted By Michael Q. Martin, Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Updated: Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On Saturday, August 26th, 101 PGA Members attended our annual PGA Dodger Day, as the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Dodgers planned a “bullpen game” as starting pitcher Ross Stripling was filling in as the 5th starter, and has bounced between starter and bullpen all season.  Stripling pitched 3 scoreless innings before the bullpen took over.  In the 5th inning Dodger reliever Josh Raven gave up a two run home run to Orlando Arcia.  In the 8th, Dodger reliever Luis Avilon gave up a double to Neil Walker, which plated Herman Perez.  The Dodger bats could not unravel Brewers starter Zach Davies and ended up losing 3-0.  PGA members still had a good time in the Coca-Cola All You Can Eat Right Field Pavilion and feasted on unlimited Dodger Dogs, Nachos, Popcorn, Peanuts and Soda.  The first 40,000 fans also received a Great Dodger Moments Coin (#7) featuring Rick Monday Saving the American Flag from being burnt.  Hope to see you next year at Dodger Stadium.   

PGA 2017 Dodger Day by Michael Q. Martin On Saturday, August 26th, 101 PGA Members attended our annual PGA Dodger Day,...

Posted by The Producers Guild of America on Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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BOTH SIDES OF THE LINE - Mainstream Media and Transmedia Aren't Speaking The Same Language. Rhoades Rader Can Translate

Posted By Kevin Perry, Tuesday, September 5, 2017

At the intersection of big-screen crowdpleasers and second-screen obsession lurks a little something called the audience. We navigate from viral cat videos to Oscar-winning movies like a tech-savvy Tarzan, swinging from one digital vine to the next with curious abandon. So, who can tame our wild ways?

Enter Rhoades Rader.

My first impression of Rader was a gleeful blend of self-deprecation and irony. Before we met for the first time, he emailed me a helpful tidbit. “I’ll be with a white fluffy [dog emoji]. So I’ll be the one looking like a super villain, only less super and not as intelligent.” Moments later, he indeed strolled up with his trusty canine companion (Falkor) at his side. Rader sported a vintage grey T-shirt that read, “Another Sleazy Producer” in disco orange font. Falkor wore a fetching pink collar.

Sleazy producer, eh? We’ll see about that.

Rader embodies the link between mass media and the very digital revolution that challenges its hegemony, and he has welcomed this clash of contradictions for years. While at UC Santa Barbara, he switched from a double major in religious studies and economics to filmmaking, but never abandoned the lessons of his former concentrations. “My focus has really been on storytelling,” Rader explains. “That’s where my religious studies came from. It’s all about narrative structures and influencing people’s minds and trying to figure out what gets people excited and how they identify narratives in their own lives and apply them to the world. That sort of relationship about language back-and-forth is what’s always excited me.”

One of Rader’s first major credits was Executive Producer of the blockbusteriest of blockbusters, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Ben Stiller. Rader worked at Stiller’s production company Red Hour Films for years, but he was always searching for the forgotten quadrant of the audience who may not have dipped, ducked, dove and dodged their way to the multiplex. “So that’s when I went into independent films.” He decided, “This will be a great place where you can tell stories that you couldn’t tell elsewhere. There’s an appetite for them, a hunger for them, and there’s an underserved market.”

After producing several indie features, Rader studied the migration of his audience and followed them to their ultimate destination: the Internet. But he didn’t abandon his comedy background when he began charting the digital frontier. “The best delivery system for any idea is comedy,” he states. “You can get a Republican and Democrat to laugh at the same joke. If that joke has a particular spin or angle or piece of information in it, you’ve just delivered an ideology to two very different people through one particular narrative structure.”

Rader applied this philosophy (not to mention his mastery of harnessing star power and online influencers) to one of the worst problems facing the world: the water crisis. No biggie, right? So how do you make light of such a serious topic? Answer: go straight to the toilet. The campaign enlisted Matt Damon to hold a (fictional) press conference in which he announced that he would no longer go to the bathroom until the crisis was solved. But one comedy clip wasn’t enough for Rader. “We got a bunch of [YouTube] influencers to come in and they all got 15 minutes to film with Matt Damon. They could do whatever they want and put it on their channels, and we did the cross-promotion.” Grinning, Rader admits, “All the influencers wanted to fuck around with Matt Damon.”

The campaign went viral, attracting celebs like Jason Bateman, Jessica Alba, and Bono. Its success made Rader deservedly proud, leveraging the digital space to make a difference in the real world. “If we can make people laugh, then they’re gonna share it. If we can have more people see it and share it and like it, then more people will donate,” he recounts. “And that’s what happened. It was a very successful campaign. The reason it caught fire was the influencers and the traditional [producers] came together and promoted each other.”

Rhoades Rader shares an unsettling moment with cast member
John Michael Higgins (as Cotton Mather) on the set of Crossroads of History.

In addition to the little matter of saving the world, Rader’s comedic chops also served him well at Maker Studios, where he contributed to the Emmy-nominated series Crossroads of History. The show’s creator and star, Elizabeth Shapiro, had nothing but glowing reviews for her studio executive. “Rhoades is one of the great people of the world,” she says earnestly. “He’s the kind of executive you dream of getting, someone who fights for your vision of the show.” To be graphically specific, Shapiro recounts a piece of feedback in which Rader’s only notes came in the form of an email with the subject line: This time with more anus and less talking.

Rader’s work at Maker reached fans by the tens of millions and put him in the room with Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. Having worked in both traditional media and the new transmedia sandbox, Rader was the liaison between two worlds, a role in which he excelled while maintaining no illusions about its perils. “Both sides of the equation had a lot of disdain for one another,” he recalls. “Each thought that they knew better than the other side of the equation. Being someone who had worked on both sides of that line, that’s where the opportunity was.”

Rader turned proverbial lemons into digital lemonade, producing several viral series to support the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as the current talk show hit Marvel’s Off the Rack. But the disconnect between mass media and transmedia was still weighing heavily on him. “Right now,” Rader asserts, “transmedia is just marketing opportunities. It’s not true native storytelling based on its platform.”

Never one to complain idly, Rader took his know-how to Mitu, a social media channel that racks up an estimated (and whopping) 2 billion views per month across its various platforms. One recent viral sensation was a shot-for-shot remake of the dance scene from Beauty and the Beast recast with Hispanic actors, scored by a Mariachi band. “Here is mainstream iconic American storytelling,” explains Rader. “Simply by taking that and putting a Latino point of view on it, you’re immediately firing up Latinos who never got to see themselves in that role before.” A sense of authenticity is the essential ingredient of his most effective work. “Successful content has to speak authentically to a group of people,” he observes. “The more you’re trying to do broad-based content, the more it feels like an advertisement, the more it feels fabricated, the less real it feels. The whole nature of social publishing on these digital platforms is that you have a real relationship and investment with the content you’re consuming and engaging with, in a way that literally didn’t exist five years ago. In fact, the digital content space is built on that personal relationship.”

A casual visitor to the Mitu Snapchat Discover tile will soon learn a buzzword that rings loudly in the halls of social media: chisme. Its rough English translation is “gossip,” but it means far more to Rader. “Chisme is a glue that holds communities together, holds ideas together; really it’s a fuel of conversation. When people are talking about something, it becomes more real, more interactive, more participatory. You’re helping fuel it. This is how communities are developed.”

Rader shakes hands with president Barack Obama prior to the President's sit-down interview with
Gina Rodriguez (left) for digital content platform Mitu.

But sometimes chisme cuts both ways, as Rader and his Mitu cohorts learned when they were tapped to conduct an interview with then-president Barack Obama. The one-on-one was conducted by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, who didn’t pull any punches on the topic of immigration. Obama fielded the inquiry by urging all Latino citizens to let their vote speak for the millions of undocumented individuals who couldn’t participate in the election. It was an admirable sentiment ... until the piece got re-edited by the alt-right. The resulting hack job appeared on Fox News and Breitbart, the deceptively cut clip giving the impression that Obama was encouraging undocumented people to vote. “It was one of my first interactions with how reporting can be chopped up and fabricated to say something that’s not true,” he recounts.

For a guy with substantial and effortless comedic chops, Rader was surprisingly soulful during our epic chatfest. He spoke of the mindfulness he attains during meditation, espoused the inherent kindness of the human spirit and bemoaned every lost opportunity that languished on the cutting-room floor over the years. Still, he balanced any hint of regret with eternal optimism like a champion perfectionist/dreamer hybrid, boiling it all down to a perfect producer’s bottom line: “My failures are forgotten but my successes are cheap.”

Rader announced that he left Mitu just a week before our meeting. So what is he going to do with all of the expertise that he’s accumulated from across the spectrum of his varied media endeavors? “I’d like to take what I did at Mitu and expand it to broader conversations, larger audiences, a bigger platform. I feel like that’s really my calling. I really do. Filmmaking is so far in the rearview mirror now. If I could go work for Facebook and help run the way they do video, that would be awesome.”

Social media giant, meet socially conscious humanist.

Case in point: when the conversation turned to gun violence and its depiction onscreen, Rader grew emotional. “Content creators have a huge responsibility to stand behind the ramifications and the implications of the content that you create.” He took a breath and then continued, “I personally take that stuff very seriously and strive very hard to work with people who are also aware of that. I’m trying not to cry right now.”

That’s when I noticed tears welling up in Rader’s eyes. He sat back and adjusted his ironic “Sleazy Producer” T-shirt pensively before collecting himself. For Rhoades Rader, media isn’t just an abstract construct, and it certainly isn’t just a job; it’s a matter of life and death. “Another Sleazy Producer?” Far from it. 

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SECRET IDENTITY - From Procedurals To Comedies, Josh Berman Is Ready To Dig Beneath The Surface

Posted By Jeff Bond, Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Josh Berman started shopping his idea for Drop Dead Diva, a comedy about a shallow spokesmodel who dies and comes back to life as a plus-sized attorney, he got some confused reactions. After all, Berman had spent a combined 10 years conjuring up bizarre ways for people to die on CBSCSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fox’s Bones—even creating dark procedurals like Killer Instinct and Vanished in the process. Wait, youre our dark procedural guy.Why do you want to write a one-hour comedy right now?Berman recalls associates saying. But unlike, say, CSIs Gil Grissom, those people just werent paying attention to the clues.

A native of Encino, California, Berman actually got his start riffing off of and working on comedies, from a YouTube takeoff of Ally McBeal (called Allan McBeal and made while Berman was a young executive at NBC) that got him his first writing job offers, to a brief stint on the Lauren Graham sitcom M.Y.O.B. (the show Graham headlined right before Gilmore Girls). Like Graham, Berman jumped to a new show right after M.Y.O.B. floundered— in Bermans case, a weird little procedural that no one expected much out of: CSI.

I loved writing but I also had a strong bent for science,Berman shares. What drew me to CSI was it was the first show I ever heard of that made science sexy. I thought, What an opportunity here, to bring science to the masses in a very commercial way.’” Berman met with producer Carol Mendelsohn and was quickly hired as an executive story editor. The show had a very small budget because everyone thought CSI was going to very quickly fail and they didnt have the money to hire upper level writers, so I was lucky to be hired at a low level. There was no one between me as an executive story editor and the executive producers of the show, so I quickly had a lot more responsibility thrust on me than I normally would have.

Of course CSI quickly became one of televisions biggest hits, running for 15 seasons and spawning so many spin-offs (including one appropriately named CSI: Immortality) that CBS was in danger of becoming the CSI network. Berman became one of the flagship seriesexecutive producers, sharing Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in 2003 and 2004 and a Producers Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television Drama in 2005. He parlayed his six-year stint on CSI into a highly successful career as a show creator (Killer Instinct in 2005, Vanished in 2006, The Mob Doctor in 2012 and most recently ABCs Notorious) and producer (Bones, The Blacklist, Daytime Divas).

Josh Berman (front right) discusses a scene with director Michael Engler (left) and cast member
Piper Perabo (seated) on the set of the Notorious pilot.  -Photo by Eli Joshua Ade 

Berman credits Carol Mendelsohn not only with hiring him on CSI, but also giving the young writer access to the shows nuts and bolts, providing him with experience as a producer long before he might have otherwise had the oppritunity. He still cites Mendelsohn as his primary mentor in the field—one of a number of strong women who helped inspire him and set him along his career path. She taught me everything,says Berman. There was no part of production or writing that she didnt include me in. For the first season of CSI, I spent virtually every weekend at her house, and we would write and look at cuts together. At a low-level position, she taught me the job of being a producer, and then I stayed on CSI until becoming an executive producer on my last season. When the executive producers were away, it fell to me to run the writers room by default. Even as an executive story editor, I went to every mix, I went to playbacks, I went to casting sessions, I had a lot of set time, and I think I wrote six episodes the first season just because they didnt have the manpower, which was really lucky for me.

Berman’s mother, a former English teacher who later went into nursing, also inspired the producers appreciation of good writing, working with him to rewrite his grade school English essays word by word until they were as perfect as they could be. Its what inspired me to be a much better writer, when I saw how language and words could transform an average essay into something really great,he recalls.

Berman’s inspiration for his left turn into offbeat comedy on the cult hit Drop Dead Diva was another female family member, his maternal grandmother. The beautiful model who dies in the show is named Deb after my grandmother. My grandmother was a chubby, 5-foot-1-inch Holocaust survivor, who carried herself like a supermodel. I knew no one wanted to buy a show about my grandmother, so I took the spirit of what made her so unique and infused it into the lead character of Drop Dead Diva. So I really had a model to write from and a point of view.

The Lifetime comedy pivoted on something Berman says hes always drawn to: the theme of identity. What makes us who we are and the person we show the world versus the person we are inside? Even going back to CSI, I wrote an episode about a woman who suffered from the real-life werewolf disease, where inside she felt like a scared little girl, but outside she looked like a monster. And I think thats a great way to encapsulate what I look for when attacking material—how were perceived versus what we really are.

Berman has been able to successfully blend his insight as a writer and artist with a hard-nosed, MBA-oriented approach to production that emphasizes attention to detail. I scrutinize my budgets and Im very collaborative with my line producer. I think that gives me a competitive edge in this business. I meet with my line producer multiple times a day during production and figure out how we can get the biggest bang for the buck, and I push and I push and work with locations. If Ive set a scene at a bowling alley but they have access to a fantastic basketball court, Ill happily rewrite that scene, as long as I dont sacrifice content. I think you have to be fluid in TV and willing to rewrite a scene a day or two in advance if you can get a better location, or if it means moving things around so you can get an actor or another talent youve been chasing.

Josh Berman (left) consults with director Michael Grossman (center)
on the set of Drop Dead Diva. - photo by Bob Mahoney 

Despite the pressures of TV production and his oversight of every aspect of the shows he works on, Berman describes his approach as calm, measured and collaborative. “I’ll take ideas from anyone. I remember on CSI, I was writing an episode and trying to figure out visually how to explain how electricity worked, and it was a hard idea for me to grasp. I was talking to one of the grips on the set who told me about this experiment where you can electrocute a pickle and it demonstrates how electricity works in a very simplistic way, and that is the experiment that Grissom, played by Billy Petersen, did on the episode. I literally took that grips idea and put those words into Billy Petersens mouth. Now my kids know that scene, and thats how they talk about how electricity works, by lighting up a pickle.

After 17 years in television production, Berman has seen the standards for writing and the medium, skyrocket. I think people talk about peak televisionor the golden age of television because we have producers who are holding their TV shows to the same high standards that feature producers have held their features to for years. I fight for budgets,he declares. “I’ve written letters to musical artists hoping that they would drop their prices on songs to let me use them on my shows; that has been successful more often than not. I write when I want a specific actor to play a guest star, or I get on the phone with them—I do what I can, and you just cant leave any aspect of television production to chance anymore.

Balancing his duties as a writer and producer remains one of the most challenging aspects of the job, and Berman confirms that writing has to take a back seat to production once a seriesfilming is underway. When Im in production, production comes first,he states. Everything Im doing during the day is in advancement of the current episode were producing and the episode we have in prep.That means writing has to be done in the producers spare time. I will do it at night or I will bring my laptop to the set and write between takes. You try to fit in writing where you can, but when the show is up and running, its full speed ahead. I want to make sure the current episode is in perfect shape so thats where my attention lies.Berman says writing remains the number one priority when the show is in prep, eight to 10 weeks before filming. I feel like a good show will have six to eight scripts in the can before you start shooting, and that alone gives you the leg up that you dont have to be writing every second. Im still writing probably five to six hours a day, but if theres an issue on the set, I can never slow down production just because I need to write.

Berman has seen the relatively static characterizations in procedural shows evolve into complex, multilayered individuals who reveal deeper aspects of their personalities, their flaws and obsessions over the course of a season or series. Differences in the way people take in TV series episodes on DVRs and streaming platforms also have changed the expectations of audiences. I feel like shows do need hooks, whether its character or story hooks at the end of an episode, so if the show is being streamed, you know that the audience is going to want to watch the next episode right then—you want to make that next episode undeniable.But with those added pressures come additional opportunities, particularly on cult shows like Drop Dead Diva. Drop Dead Diva aired on Lifetime,Berman recounts, but its since been bought by Netflix, and when I go on Twitter and read viewer comments, most of the people watching Drop Dead Diva believe its a Netflix original show. I find that fascinating. I think the fan base of Drop Dead Diva has probably grown tenfold since Lifetime because Netflix has such an expansive audience. I think thats a fundamental change in our business—the afterlife of a show is more powerful than the life of the show.

That might be particularly important for Bermans ABC series Notorious, which was based on the real-life careers of CNN reporter Wendy Walker and defense attorney Mark Geragos. Notorious had its run of first-season episodes cut short out of the gate by the network, after its debut last October and was cancelled in May. The show may have suffered from the same predicament as Netflixs House of Cards, which has been overshadowed by real-life events this season. I feel like Notorious may have come out six months before its time,” Berman admits. “Notorious dealt with themes of news as entertainment. We even had storylines about fake news before the notion of fake news became so pervasive in our society, and we talked about how peoplestweets became news on the show, but I didnt realize that we were ahead of our time.

Berman is still rolling with another diva-related show, serving as a producer on VH1s Daytime Divas, inspired by Star Jonesexperiences working on the morning talk show The View. He just signed a four-year deal with Sony with partner Chris King (producer on Penny Dreadful) to develop a series of new projects. “I’m tackling themes that I always wanted to, and thanks to Sonys support I have a couple of IPs that I think are going to be really terrific. I feel like what I really want to dig into this season is shows with genuine emotion, and I think if theres an aspect that unites my development this season, its really digging deep and unpacking complex, multilayered characters.Thats something that Berman has been doing successfully for the past 17 years—getting his narrative hooks in us. So whether theyre airing on networks or being binge-watched on Netflix, Bermans next moves are likely to be undeniable”—theyre already on our Watch List. 

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