Beginning at the End
By Paul J. Coyne, Co-Executive Producer
Whatever you do, DO NOT miss the last 5 minutes of tonight's episode of Beyond Scared Straight, which takes place in Fulton County, Georgia. Of course, you should watch the whole episode to know why the last 5 minutes are so amazing. The episode airs at 10pm/9c on A&E, of course!
Even though we are a documentary series, we try to plan as much as we can for the shoots. We work with families to arrange times for interviews. We know what day we are filming at the jail. We meet with inmates and deputies to tell them to just be themselves and we will stay out of their way as much as possible. When you are flying a film crew to a location, you do need to have some semblance of a schedule to make sure we get what we need to tell each teen's story in a compelling and honest way.
On our series, each shoot is guided by two amazing "field producers," who conduct all the interviews, take notes on the day of the jail tour, direct the camera and sound crews and jump every unforeseen hurdle that pops up when dealing with the kinds of teens we meet. You would assume that, on a series as gritty and unpredictable as ours, we would hire two huge biker types, guys riddled with tattoos and missing teeth, to be in charge of these jail experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Both of the field producers for the first three seasons of Beyond Scared Straight are the sweetest and most likable women you could ever meet. I have worked with both on a few different series and they do the job better than anyone I know. That is proven time and again on our series because we go into every shoot with so many unknowns, meeting so many teens who have never had big cameras in their face before, and somehow these two ladies manage to bring back footage that is raw, emotional and always surprising.
They each approach their jobs in different ways and for each of them, their methods work. One comes across to teens as a motherly figure, sometimes comforting and sometimes the boss. She is a mom herself and knows how to deal with kids. She doesn't let teens walk all over her and calls them out on their B.S., but she can also be there when things get emotional and lend a sympathetic ear.
The second field producer is a bit younger than the first, with a warm Southern drawl and a big smile. She somehow finds ways to instantly become a teen's best friend. Once the teen has warmed up to her, being interviewed is no different than chatting with your buddy on the street corner.
It's can be hard for our field producers to maintain an emotional distance and objectivity from the people and stories they meet in each city. This is not just a job to them, it's a cause, it's a mission. They both sincerely want to change every teen they meet. They also get frustrated when the teen, given the gift of seeing where a life of crime could lead him, goes back to his old ways and shrugs off the experience.
Each field producer has met with hundreds of kids since Beyond Scared Straight began and they remember each and every one. Sometimes relationships with the teens are formed that are unbreakable and the field producer's continue to offer support when the teen needs it. They really do go above and beyond their job description.
The field producers are also humble people. Every so often, we are forced to include a little bit of them in an episode, whether it's asking a question off camera or, as seen in a recent episode set in Jacksonville, Florida, offering a hug to teen Johnny, who cries when his sister begs him to quit drugs. We try not to include these moments in the series but this was so powerful, and such a turning point for Johnny, that it was unavoidable.
This week's episode presented us with another such challenge... and it lead to a life or death decision that our field producer found herself in the middle of.
I do not want to give too much away but when we went back to shoot the epilogues, to catch up with our teens a month after the jail tour, one of our teens received a phone call in the middle of being interviewed that forced our field producer to step in and try to save someone's life. Everything was heading toward a violent confrontation that could not have ended well.
These moments, as you will see in the episode, take everyone by shock. Cameramen try to decide what needs to be filmed and what should remain private. The field producer makes the decision that, after all, this is just a TV series and when someone's future is on the line, keeping to a schedule and getting the shot just doesn't matter that much anymore.
As best she could, this field producer (the "mom") offered counseling and advice to the teen, allowing him to make decisions about his own life. She reminded him that he had the power within himself to change the course of his own life, for better or for worse.
Of course, the field producer shows up briefly toward the end of the show and, of course, she's humble about her cameo appearance, feeling it unnecessary. In my book, no matter how things turned out, she kept things in perspective and tried her best to not let things result in violence. She knew that ultimately she was powerless to stop this teen from doing whatever he was going to do, so you will just have to tune in to find out what eventually happens.
The moment really shows how close we, as filmmakers, all become to these teens and how invested we are in their lives. At some point we have to let go and just hope things turn out okay for our many TV children.
I'm lucky to have such dedicated people working on our series in the field. I do think they are a key factor, in addition to the inmate and deputy influence, in the changes these teens decide to make in their lives.