The new Lifetime series UnREAL goes behind the scenes of a reality TV dating show, along the lines of The Bachelor. Constance Zimmer plays the cutthroat producer Quinn. Shiri Appleby plays Rachel, the field producer reluctantly coming back to be Quinn’s big gun to manipulate the contestants into the drama she wants.
UnREAL was created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who sold the pilot based on her SXSW winning short film Sequin Raze. Lifetime paired her up with Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to take UnREAL to series. We spoke with Shapiro and Noxon after their panel for the Television Critics Association in January. UnREAL premieres June 1, 2015 and airs Mondays at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
So you cast the two most beautiful women as the producers, not the contestants. Did that make it hard to then cast the contestants?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: [Laughs] “It’s very much a different kind of beauty I think. You know, the show talks a lot about beauty and women’s body image and women’s image of themself. We were just talking about this. Rachel and Quinn characters both perceive themselves as workers, not as wifeys or contestants. It’s just a very different kind of beauty but I agree, they’re very beautiful.”
Did you have experience in the reality world where you knew there was this drama behind the scenes?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “We know, I think, just in general that there’s drama behind the scenes in almost every profession but especially in Hollywood. So it wasn’t reality specific but I think we draw on a large experience in the industry in general.”
Marti Noxon: “Yeah, I’ve never worked in reality but I know a lot of people who have and different stories that I’ve been told. So there are some things that are specific to the unscripted world, like trying to get certain things. There’s a great bit on This American Life, a woman talking about working on a show where she was supposed to make two people fall in love. That was what the producers wanted and it was her job to set up the circumstances to make that happen. And I remembered that when we were talking. A lot of times the job in ‘unscripted’ is to make what the upper management has decided has to happen. You have to sort of make the scripted happen anyway. So that to me is fascinating, that job.”
This sort of reality TV has been around for about 15 years now. Had you thought about doing a show like UnREAL much earlier?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “It’s funny, we do get the response often, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ I think that again, for us, really the key to that is this is a character drama. There’s something like Burning Love which is a pure satire of reality TV. And it’s relevant and it’s in the zeitgeist, but it’s just really a world for us to have a show. So I hadn’t particularly thought about it before, but I know it’s been on people’s minds.”
Marti Noxon: “I think there have been other attempts. There’s always that show that you think, ‘That should really happen. Why isn’t anyone doing a fixer show, the person who comes in and cleans up political messes?’ Well, Shonda nailed it, or House of Lies or Ray Donovan but there were those scripts going around for years. I feel like we just got lucky because the two of us really had a vision and Lifetime was really excited by Sarah’s short. It’s really helpful when you have someone like Sarah’s material because you have a benchmark to keep going back to and saying, ‘No, this is what we mean.'”
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “Actually, the feedback I had gotten when I was pitching was that a lot of people had pitched this before. I think it’s been pitched a lot, but that nobody had found a character to follow into the world. Marti’s saying the fact that we had an artifact and we said no, that’s the character and we’re going to follow her. She could be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever. It’s a girl in her life trying to live. This is her job. I think that was helpful too, being able to say that’s the character we’re going to follow.”
So is UnREAL really just a workplace drama?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, there’s comedy too.”
Marti Noxon: “I think it’s a workplace drama but we’re also pulling back the curtain on a specific genre. I think that’s very enticing about it because I think there’s a lot of curiosity about what really goes on behind the scenes on those shows. The people who see it who aren’t reality TV watchers are still intrigued.”
Have audiences become savvier to how reality shows are actually made, that they aren’t “real?”
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “I would say absolutely there’s a vague notion that they’re probably not totally real.”
Marti Noxon: “It’s kind of like reading the tabloids. Every time I want to just really take a break from reality and yet feel somewhat grounded in it, I only let myself read certain tabloids when I’m on vacation, when my brain can take a rest. There’s fun in kind of toying with the idea that it’s real but some part of, especially me knowing people who are in them sometimes, going, ‘Oh, that’s not real.’ Or I’ll be like, ‘No, pretty close.’ It’s sort of fun to play the game of what’s real and what’s not.”
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “There’s a suspension of disbelief that goes into some of those shows too where people like to believe. It’s fun. It’s not what we hang out hat on with our show. Pulling back the curtain on a genre is cool but this is a character drama about people. It’s not just an expose.”
Will they or won’t they is a TV question that goes back way before reality dating shows. Does will they or won’t they get complicated when here’s a dozen or 20 will they or won’t theys on the show?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “What gets complicated for us is that it’s not just the contestants. There are people behind the scenes too.”
Marti Noxon: “It is complicated but that’s part of the reason we love it. Playing will they or won’t they with just one couple now would feel boring, right?”
Constance Zimmer’s character is very into labeling all the women as types. Did you think about types when you wrote the characters?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “Absolutely, and I think that’s something that we abhor but also totally understand that women get put into those boxes.”
Marti Noxon: “You see in the promo that the Mary character says, ‘Oh, I get it. I’m the old desperate one.’ Rachel’s like, ‘No,’ and then you of course see that yes, that’s what she was cast to be. I think there is a sophistication of people who go on these shows and people who watch them knowing, ‘Oh, she’s been cast as the villain and is that a role she’s decided to play? Is it who she really is?’ All that stuff is really fun. What if you think that someone is going to be your bad guy and they end up not conforming to that? Then you’ve got to scramble. What are you going to do? Those layers and layers are super fun to play with.”
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “It’s kind of fun too, it’s again a little meta, because the women behind the scenes are also trying to find what box do I fit into? Everyone’s like okay, if she’s a wifey, she’s sweet and cool and I would marry her because she’d do your laundry and she’s cool. Or am I the hot bitch? It’s sort of talking about the damage that does to us as we just put each other in these boxes.”
Did a lot go into designing the control room, down to where technicians had their coffee placed?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “Yes. Absolutely.”
Marti Noxon: “A ton. The set design, it’s funny because it’s deceptive because it looks like you just filmed that. But you kept saying, it was really funny, that we had to keep asking people not to clean the set. People would come in just out of habit and go around and start cleaning up a hot set. You’d be like, ‘No, don’t sweep the set. Do not clean the set. That is actually all set dressing.’ The set was our set plus our set was our set. The lines got very blurry.”
Was it actually a working control room?
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: “Actually, live feeds come in if we need them to, but it’s a set. What was really great and super fun for everyone, everyone who worked on the show got kind of electrified by the fact that we were making a show about a set. Because they are people who live their lives on set. When they actually clicked into it and they go, ‘Oh,’ and our reference is all around you. Just turn around. Our real craft service is our real craft service. It gets complicated because we have to reset and have continuity so we need things to be sort of in place, but there’s this passion for it because it was talking about a world that is their world, and their romances and their interests. They know how it is to get four hours of sleep and be on location for two months. So the crew had so much passion for the project because it was about them. We had a funny day too where we had 50 background extras. We would have to actually call out, ‘Raise your hand if you’re background,’ because we could not tell the real crew from the background.”
Marti Noxon: “That’s right, I remember asking a non crew member a question, like, ‘Where’s the ladies room?’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know. I’m not on the crew.'”
Marti, does it trip you out that people still have the soundtrack to “Once More With Feeling” and they’re still listening to the parking ticket song today?
Marti Noxon: “No, not at all. Some day, there’ll be a Dr. Horrible 2 because I also got to be in Dr. Horrible. I’m always like, ‘Can the Parking Ticket Lady be the big bad?’ Wouldn’t that be amazing, a Buffy/Dr. Horrible crossover? But I was a singing newscaster in Dr. Horrible, so I’ll sing for Joss [Whedon] anytime.”
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