The gig came in shrouded in secrecy, with little to go on besides the acknowledgment that it was going to be demanding, pro bono work, tempered by the confident assurance of a good friend: "This is something you're gonna wanna do."
It was—and how. Five-time EventDV 25 all-star Steve Fowler of VideoExperts and Steven Fowler Films describes the most ambitious and exhausting project of his award-riddled 25-year career—the behind-the-scenes film he shot of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in June 2009—as "Extreme Makeover: Home Addiction." An addiction is exactly what the project became, not just for Fowler and his crew but also for the entire community of Suffield, Conn., which delivered 4,000 volunteers to 7 exhausting days of 'round-the-clock home building in the region's rainiest June on record. And get this: With only 2,500 jobs to go around, 1,500 of those willing volunteers actually had to be turned away.
If this sounds to you like a Woodstock for the Aughts, you couldn't be more wrong—more than anything, this was a week of work. If, on the other hand, it sounds to you like a gut-check version of the rousing, Amish-country barn-raising scene in the '80s Harrison Ford thriller Witness, you're not far off—just imagine it a couple states removed, with a different ethnic mix, more difficult weather conditions, and two camera crews.
And how did Fowler and camera crew No. 2 get involved? Fowler had shot not one but two weddings for the family of Kent Pecoy, founder of Pecoy Signature Homes. After Pecoy's company had signed on to spearhead the remodeling effort for Extreme Makeover's northern Connecticut episode, Pecoy tapped Fowler to shoot a behind-the-scenes film of the project.
Extreme Makeover maintains a tight seal of secrecy around its shows in advance of the taping; even after the producers set their sites on a region and narrow down their list of families who may benefit from their largesse to five, the family they do choose doesn't find out until the day that taping begins. All Pecoy told Fowler was that ABC would need a behind-the-scenes production team for "Project 701," that the show would chronicle the building of a home for a deserving Connecticut River Valley family, and that the purpose of the behind-the-scenes film would be to "rally the troops, highlight the key people, and show what really happens" on a project such as this.
On Pecoy's recommendation—and after realizing that the recession-era summer of 2009 was the rare wedding season when business was slow enough to allow him the flexibility to do pro bono work—Fowler took the job. And he was glad he did because, for all its TV trappings, this was a great project—and a great community project at that. The mission of this edition of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was to rebuild—in 7 days, with all-volunteer labor and donated materials—the too-small, decaying home of Suffield's 13-member Hill family into a residence that was both big enough to accommodate that many people and safe, healthy, and comfortable as well.
Image by Robert Charles Photography
But Fowler also soon found out exactly what Pecoy meant by documenting “what really happens”—and, more to the point, how “what really happens” would differ from what ABC’s version of events would portray. Fowler quickly got a crash course in the surrealism of reality TV.
For one thing, Fowler discovered that the hosts of these shows are, first and foremost, actors. They don’t build, and they don’t remodel. If you see the host finish sanding the leg of a table on camera, odds are that’s all he’s done to it. And the interviews the hosts do with the show’s subjects are anything but reality-based; Fowler notes one instance in which the show’s producer pulled host Ty Pennington aside during an interview with the mother of the Hill family and said, “We’re not getting what we want here; we need her to cry,” and Pennington turned on the emotion and got exactly what his producer had asked for. From one side of the camera, this kind of manipulation is obviously a little too Broadcast News for most people’s comfort, but at home in the living room, it’s just good TV.
Another thing that Fowler found fascinating, he says, was how the ABC camera crew handled two of the key moments of the show: the “door-knock,” which is the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes moment when they knock on the door of the family (one of the five finalists who are told to stay home and await the knock) and tell them they’ve been chosen to have their home remodeled on the show; and the “reveal,” when the family’s new home is revealed to them. Specifically, Fowler was shocked by the number of times ABC’s crew had to shoot it to get it right—the life-changing-surprise moment of the “door-knock” alone took four takes, and there were four instances of backing up the bus and putting the family back in the house, just to get the shot right. Fowler—a 25-year veteran of the one-take world of wedding filmmaking—watched, dumbfounded, as ABC’s six-camera crew called for take after take. He turned to his second shooter and said, “They didn’t get it the first time? This isn’t reality!”
Most of all, Fowler saw the remarkable divide between the people who rebuilt the house and the ABC crew that made a TV show out of the rebuilding. Fowler describes excavators who donated $150,000–$200,000 in services to the project, arrived with their polished, “ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” equipment, only to have the ABC crew put gaffer’s tape over their logos lest they upset Sears and the show’s other official sponsors. “It’s a great deal for ABC,” Fowler says. Virtually the entire community turns out to donate their time and services and do the project for free, and ABC “films it and makes money off it. It’s
a little disheartening.”But that's where Fowler's film comes in: "My job is to show the people who really donate their time and energy. To see volunteers at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain, handing sod, arm-to-arm, from the front of the house to the back, doing it for free, all smiling," Fowler says, was simply one of the most inspiring things he's ever seen.
Fowler approached the project the same way. "This was a volunteer production," he says. "I could have shot one camera, shown up one or two times, and that's it. But I thought, ‘If I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it right.'" He says that one of the greatest things he got out of this project was simply the experience of taking on, contending with, and completing a production of this magnitude. "This is the largest production we've ever done," he says. His team ended up with 19 hours of footage and 5 hours of interviews or comments made directly to the camera, which turned into 27 transcribed pages. Fowler says he struggled with how to handle all this material, but he found the answer in a motivational seminar he'd attended, hosted by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. In explaining how he and his staff had handled the unprecedented challenges of 9/11, Giuliani said they had no plans of contingencies for a disaster of that magnitude, but they had smaller plans for how to handle most of the parts of it, so they just tackled it in sections. "When we got this whole big project," Fowler says, "I said, ‘First thing, we gotta sort it all out. What is a direct comment, what's B-roll, what's random footage. Put them in bins.' We took the production and broke it into modules, just like we do with event work, with a theme to each one."
Fowler also learned how to work with a big crew putting in extremely long hours: 12-17-hour days, he says. Crucial to the project were the contributions of his fellow Professional Videographers Association of Connecticut (PVACT) members, who donated their time to make sure he had a crew of three at all times throughout the weeklong 24/7 project. Even though the ABC crew worked only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, he says, important things were happening all night to get the job done in such an impossibly concentrated time.
Fowler says he also learned a lot about interviewing unprepped subjects. "When you're interviewing people that aren't expecting to be interviewed, you really have to work it out of them to get the sound bite." On the other hand, with all the emotions flowing at the end of the project, even the subjects who were the toughest to interview during the first couple of days had plenty to say. Of his ordinarily tight-lipped friend Kent Pecoy, Fowler says, on the last day, "I couldn't get him to shut up."
One of the stipulations of the project for Fowler was that he stay off ABC's turf. Among other things, this meant staying out of the finished house, so the remodeled interior is something you don't see in his finished film. He also was supposed to focus on the community volunteers but not the Hill family, whose house was being remodeled on the show; still, he got some great interview material from them. Fowler recalls one moment with the father of the Hill family as he was leaving his old house before the remodeling began in earnest. "That house really was a dump," Fowler says. "It was falling apart. There was a foot of water in the basement. People shouldn't have been living there." But as he was filming the father walking out of the old house for the last time, Fowler says, "He put his hand on the wall as he's going around the corner and said, ‘Goodbye, old house.' He loved that place—the memories he had there. As one of the builders said to me, ‘The Hills already had a home. They just didn't have the house.'"
And though this probably goes without saying—he captured both sentiments in one take.
Image by Robert Charles Photography
Fowler's film has begun making the rounds, beginning with a dinner and "airing party with 1,500 attendees," coupled with speeches and discussions about the project and the community's involvement with it. He says Pecoy is also doing a "mini-tour of the Extreme Makeover project where they do private viewings of my movie for 100 people. So far we've done three." They also made 800 copies of the DVD and sent it to sponsors who donated more than $5,000 in funding, services, or materials. And ABC's production crew even asked for a Blu-ray copy, just so they could see what the production—which ABC shot in 4:3 SD—might have looked like in high-def.
It's almost a cliché that pro bono work pays you back in paid gigs later on, but it's one that's rung true for Fowler. He's done several construction shoots as a direct result of this project, and he is now doing work with project sponsor Bay Path College in nearby Longmeadow, Mass. But it's not just the work he's gotten; it's who he is to these people. "They know me. They trust me. I'm not VideoExperts; I'm Steve," he says. "I didn't get into this to get anything out of it. But I'm gonna get a lot."
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV-TV.