Welcome back, cellmates, to a behind-the-scenes look at Beyond Scared Straight.
This week, our series returns to St. Clair, IL, home of inmates Ice Mike and Hustle Man. Ice Mike, you may recall, is a hulking, ferocious inmate who forces teens to put orange-flavored drink mix on their lips and then threatens to kiss them (check out the scene on YouTube - insane). Not someone you invite over for a family picnic.
Also, head over to AETV.COM and check out some bonus clips from the upcoming episode. It's so darn good that we had leftovers.
A few weeks ago, some of the editors on staff went to the Emmy Awards, having been nominated for best editing for an episode that aired last year. I wanted to let everyone working on the series know that this is truly a team effort and that I appreciate all the stress they endure in pulling an episode together. I handed out Thank You cards to everyone on staff, with a little personal note saying that "A nomination for one is a win for all," and I included an enclosed gift.
It was a packet of orange drink mix. Just to let them know I care.
I work with some really great people, who work under difficult deadlines and deal with families that often decide at the last minute that they don't want cameras detailing their faults.
They are cameramen, producers, editors, schedulers and my favorite person, the production assistant who hands me my check each week. I don't know why I like her most, but I do.
It's not an easy job we have. We don't just sit around, watch TV and eat lunch.
It has been said that producing a TV series is really just putting out a series of fires, and that is certainly the case with Beyond Scared Straight. There have been times when every teen scheduled to take part in an episode drops out the day before we are to begin filming.
Following are actual reasons we have been given for kids dropping out at the last minute:
"My son was busted a few days ago and he is now under house arrest."
"My daughter ran away yesterday because she doesn't want to go to the jail."
"Oh, I didn't realize this was going to be on TV."
"I watched an episode the other day and I don't want my son to get yelled at. He doesn't like that."
"I have to work that day."
"Oh that's tomorrow? Can we do it next week instead?"
"You need to buy me a GPS for my car or I'm not doing the show."
"I think you are really in cahoots with the FBI and you are just trying to take my son away from me."
So, kudos to the people in our office who never get knocked off their feet and make sure we actually have teens show up on jail day. It's something that evolves until the very last moment. More than once, these valiant staffers have been on the phone with parents, moments before the shoot, giving driving directions as the family heads toward the jail.
I've worked on dozens of films, reality shows and documentary series and I firmly believe that the people I work with now are the best in the business. There are no egos or personality conflicts. Everyone works as a team and only wants to make a great, life-changing series.
But in order to do that, they have to listen to inmates screaming at work every day. Our series is a raw and honest document of real lives, but it IS edited for TV. There are no "bleeps" in the raw footage. There are graphic descriptions of violence, murder and rape that are impossibly hard to stomach, and are ultimately never seen by the viewing public. There are revelations about the teens' home lives that legally we aren't able to broadcast, since they accuse people of crimes and we don't have releases from those people.
It is a brutal series to piece together. The crew that shoots episodes in the field meets the teens face to face and, since they are human, want to save each and every one. Back in the office, where we are booking new jails, finding teens and editing the series together, the halls echo with inmates' curse words that would make Scarface blush.
Once, my 77-year old mother was visiting from her small hometown in Massachusetts. I invited her to see a bit of what I actually do for a living. I took her to a sound mix to let her witness how our audio geniuses clean up the sound, mix in the music and bring the jail to life.
I have never heard my mother swear. I warned her at the outset that she was about to hear language that could give her a heart attack. There are certain words we can never say on TV and the audio mix is our last chance to bleep those words. As we listen to the mix, I will call out things like, "I think I just heard the F word." Only for clarity, I don't say "the F word". And I don't say "fudge" or "poo-poo" either. That would really diminish my street cred.
It was far more stressful for me than it was for my mom. I spent most of the day eating fun size candy bars and avoiding her Catholic stare.
In the office, we do things to fight the emotional stress that the show puts upon us. We have Hawaiian shirt contests, monthly birthday parties, several family dogs roaming the halls, free bagels on Wednesdays and lots of humor at inappropriate times. We also have all had to realize a certain level of distance from the material in the series. It's up to the jails, inmates and officers to save these kids.
It really is a heavy responsibility we carry as filmmakers. We have a duty to help change the lives of the teens on our show, in addition to reaching the hearts and minds of families across America. We have a responsibility to our very supportive network, A&E, to deliver a show that maintains a level of quality we can all be proud of.
The greatest stress release I have is my two-year old daughter. She has visited the office a number of times, eats some lunch and runs around with the dogs. A few weeks ago, we were playing at home and she invited me to go to her "office." I asked her what she did for a living.
"Sit down, watch TV and eat macaroni and cheese," she responded.
I'm glad she understands.
As we begin airing a new batch of episodes, all of them AMAZING, I am reminded how lucky I am to be doing what I've wanted to do since I was a kid. Using whatever minimal talent I possess to make a difference in the world. And I get to do it with the most hard-working, stress-free, dog-loving people in television.
As you watch these new episodes, praise the deputies and inmates for investing so much passion in their mission, and tip your hat to my colleagues for bringing the series to TV and making it all look so easy.