BEHIND THE BARS: SEASON THREE BEGINS!
Welcome, dear friends and fans, to the first entry into what I hope will be an enlightening and entertaining look at what goes into making our series, Beyond Scared Straight. My name is Paul J. Coyne and I serve as Co-Executive Producer and as one of the (Emmy-nominated) editors of this documentary series, one that critics seem to adore and my mother has to cover her saintly ears to watch.
Each week I will be unlocking the Reality TV cuffs to tell you about the many difficult months it takes to pull together a single episode of the series. Whenever an episode airs, I jump on the web and, like so many of you, read the Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and message boards to see what our viewers think.
This blog will hopefully allow me to answer some of your questions (I’ve tasted prison food and it really is that bad), clear up a few misconceptions (no, we don’t hire ACTORS to appear on the show!) and maybe give you a chuckle or two (yes, my camera crew once accidentally forgot about me and left me in a locked cellblock with 100 screaming inmates.)
In future installments, I’ll focus on the various elements that go into making this show – how to shoot video in a crowded prison, what goes into editing TV without a script, and the challenges of interviewing a group of teens who often don’t show up for the interviews.
I was in 8th grade in the spring of 1979 when I saw the original Scared Straight, an Oscar-winner produced and directed by Arnold Shapiro, who is the creator and Executive Producer of Beyond Scared Straight. The film’s raw honesty made me want to become a documentary filmmaker. I was just a small town kid from Massachusetts and now, decades later, I get to experience firsthand the positive changes that these teens go through – and they actually do make incredible strides. You don’t always get to make a positive difference in the reality TV business, so I consider myself pretty lucky.
Every episode of Beyond Scared Straight takes about 5 months to complete. We first contact jails to see if they have diversion programs already in place that might be worth documenting. In fact, out of the first 1000 we contacted, only 13 were available or fit the standards we had set for our series.
And we only had one person making those phone calls. And it wasn’t even in her job description. Don’t worry. We gave her a promotion.
We then scout the jail to watch a tour in action. I visited one jail in the upper Midwest that consisted of a 3-hour slide show. Then, two inmates were brought out to meet the teens. The inmates asked the kids if they had any questions. None of the teens raised their hands. The inmates said okay and the tour was (finally) over. Not exactly compelling television. I sat through it just so you wouldn’t have to.
We then need to find teens to attend the tour. We do not “cast” Beyond Scared Straight in the traditional TV sense. Teens are introduced to us by the jails. Most of the teens had already been signed up to take the tour before we had even contacted the jail about filming. From that small group we select 6 or 7 that we think the viewers might relate to, that would most benefit from the experience and yes, since this is television, can answer our interview questions honestly.
Then it REALLY gets interesting.
We honestly never know what’s going to happen on the day of the jail tour. Let me say that again in case you missed it.
WE NEVER KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.
Once the day begins, we just document the experience. We are very observant flies on the wall. We don’t create moments and we don’t ask inmates or teens to do things over. We are as much at the mercy of the inmates as are the teens. We have the best camera crew and field producers in the business. They never miss a moment.
One memorable incident from our series was in the episode taped at the female prison in Chowchilla, California. (Who can forget Green Eyes and Diabla?) Cecelia, a young girl headed down the wrong path, suddenly encounters her mother, an inmate in the prison. We had no idea that her mother was behind bars. One of our cameramen noticed out of the corner of his eye that an inmate had dropped to her knees in front of Cecelia, begging for her to change, and he ran to capture it on tape.
Everyone was completely stunned, and our hearts broke for Cecelia. I don’t think a shoot has gone by where our production crew didn’t drop a tear at least once.
Our golden rule is: “Truth is always the better story.”
The premiere of Season Three (August 20 at 10/9C!) takes place in another ferocious female prison in Boston, not far from my hometown. I’ve wanted to shoot in Boston for years. Bostonians are opinionated, colorful characters and know how to make a great roast beef sub. And if you have never met an enraged Boston female, consider yourself lucky. They are every bit as frightening as their male counterparts in The Departed. This isn’t Good Will Hunting.
It’s a thrilling premiere. There are tears from teens you never expect will break, a violent inmate with a Boston accent so thick you could cut it with a buttah knife, and a scene involving a piece of food that makes all of the teens turn on one of their own like rabid dogs. As we say in the old country, “It’s wicked awesome.” I think this is one of our best episodes – but then again, I think that about all of our episodes.
And, there is a moment at the end that is so sweet and so unexpected that our cameras almost missed it.
One little inside piece of trivia: I love eating at diners, but in California there aren’t very many classic diners around. Since we were shooting in my old stomping grounds, and we knew we were going to shoot a father/daughter dinner conversation, I suggested we film it at a great old diner I knew of near their house. I had eaten corned beef hash there many times.
As the father and daughter walk up to the diner he says, “It’s wicked awesome that we are eating here. I shined shoes in front of this place for years when I was a kid.”
We call moments like that accidental miracles. Like I said, we never know what’s going to happen.