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Actual Reality: A Day in the Life of R.J. Cutler

By David Essex

In 1999, I called up R.J. Cutler, and I puzzled when he answered the phone, saying, "Actual Reality," which is what he'd christened his production company. In reality, the company amounted to Cutler's rented Hollywood house and a handful of agreements with Fox Television. But that would change quickly.

Cutler was already a well known documentary maker, one of the major forces behind the Oscar-nominated The War Room (1993), and director/producer of A Perfect Candidate (1997). He'd gotten into television through MSNBC, creating and producing Edgewise, a weekly documentary program. But the Fox show, American High—a year in the life of a dozen high school students-was to be a much more massive and complex operation that would convert 3,000 hours of footage into 13 episodes of documentary TV. Cutler had to wrangle field crews, editors, a story department, post-production personnel, a rich variety of network executives, school administrators and several dozen teenagers and their often concerned parents. The result earned great critical acclaim and an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program.

When American High wrapped, Cutler, anticipating the need to expand, moved Actual Reality to an eccentrically designed Culver City, California complex. His operations now occupy four floors. Cutler then produced Military Diaries for VH1, a project in which 90 men and women in the military during the action in Afghanistan recorded video diaries over a one-month period. Their testimony, a step closer to reality than later "embeds," created powerful television, and the series was nominated for an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award.

Doing what they had learned to do well, Cutler's crews also followed resident interns at UCLA Medical Center through their first intense year for The Residents, a 13-part series for TNT. The crew spent this past academic year at University of Texas in Austin shooting a sort of logical sequel to American High called Freshman Diaries, for Showtime.

More recently, Actual Reality's highest profile productions are two shows featuring Roseanne Barr. The Real Roseanne is ABC's 13-episode reality show about the comedienne's attempted comeback with Domestic Goddess, a celebrity-driven "cooking show" that is slated to air on ABC Family. The Real Roseanne is essentially a making-of documentary, although, since Roseanne chose to involve her family directly in the process, it's also a reality domestic sitcom and a mordant take on Hollywood. Begging the question "Is the comedienne ever not giving a performance?" The Real Roseanne exists somewhere in the authenticity spectrum  between The Osbournes and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Back-to-Back-to-Back Meetings

It's the Monday before The Real Roseanne's August 5th premiere, and, in a room paneled with dry-erase boards filled with Roseanne's story beats, Cutler starts the week with successive meetings with the staffs of both the Roseanne shows and Freshman Diaries. Thrice the room fills with several dozen bright, focused, funny young people; thrice Cutler calls the room to informal order and works steadily through an agenda, trying to get everyone on the same page as he reports the latest edicts from the several networks. My personal favorite: "From now on, we're going to X over the mouth on any full-facial ‘fuck' or ‘shit,' so I'm afraid we're going to have to generate an Official Full-Facial Fuck/Shit Report." 

After such network realities came down, Cutler hears from the department heads on the progress of episode cuts and a dizzying variety of technical tasks: the Film Look process; titles, bumpers and credits; the implications of the network squeeze; music; the websites; on-air promo packages; the supertease; the format for "next-ons," etc.

Since Roseanne is simultaneously out stumping for the shows under discussion, Cutler pauses several times for Good Morning America and Regis on a big screen in the corner. Roseanne gives more or less the same spiel that she had on The Tonight Show the week before: "It's a documentary about the making of my new cooking show, or maybe it's an eating show. I just love food and eating..." On Good Morning America she adds a new tidbit, suggesting that the boyfriend who appears prominently on the show is now history, which answers, perhaps prematurely, one of the narrative questions carefully left open by the first episodes. Cutler looks astonished and the staff laughs ruefully. It seems that they had been somewhat inured to surprises by this particular project. The very last thing the Domestic Goddess says is, "Oh, and it's being produced by Actual Reality Pictures, the same people who made The War Room."

Cutler kills the tube, laughs and shakes his head, saying, "Pennebaker isn't going to like that." (For the record, Cutler conceived and produced the campaign documentary; the directors, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, do not work for Actual Reality or on The Real Roseanne.) Then he returns to the agenda.

After the last meeting, Roseanne editors Allison Elwood and Greg Finton seem a little shell-shocked and joke at the coffee urn about the frenetic schedule: "The last episode is going to come straight off the Avid to the network feed."

In Cutler's surprisingly utilitarian office, one wall comprises dry-erase boards from floor to ceiling, and the most prominent feature is a project-status chart that notes the progress of various concepts from inkling to closed deal. I ask Cutler how he decides what to develop, what to pitch and to whom.

"We're aware of the marketplace," he responds flatly. "And we do some analysis, but we try to find projects that we're passionate about and sell those. We work too hard; if you're not turned on by the project, why bother?"

Difficult as this is, Cutler and his company have gotten increasingly good at it. This is partly due to Actual Reality's vice president of development, Belisa Balaban; she and her staff sift and refine ideas, constantly moving them towards the pitch. The output sits on Cutler's bookcase under the American High Emmy, a shelf crammed with black binders and pitch books for the various shows. Once the concept has been fully worked out, Cutler himself does the final writing, then sets up meetings with various networks.

"They have to live in the real world," he says of his projects. "I'm still a documentary filmmaker, so even if there's a level of contrivance, we're still following a story that's out in the world. Also, I focus on characters at crossroads. In The War Room you had [James] Carville and [George] Stephanopolous definitely transitioning. American High followed kids in their last year of high school. We've followed people through their first year of college, of medical residence, and now Roseanne coming back to TV."

  There is another problem inherent in Cutler's preferred method of working. In real lives, drama often takes a long time to develop, even at the crossroads. By the time you're ready to tell the story you've followed, the network executives who bought your show may have moved on. The new regime may not have the same loyalty.

"It's not as bad as the movie studio," Cutler says. "The new heads can't just sweep the boards. The networks still have to come up with content."

But the way things happen at networks can still cause problems. A new regime at Fox dropped American High early in its run because of low ratings—after scheduling it against Big Brother. And TNT recently backed away from The Residents. "It's a really good show," Cutler says ruefully. "But they fired the guy who bought it and the new guy didn't like it."

Cutler has responded to this problem in several ways. "We're resilient," he says with conviction. "It's an amazing time right now. I feel like what we do should really be in theaters, but there's a market right now on this incredibly broad, popular medium. Reality television's still inventing itself. It's sort of a toboggan race, twisting and crazy, rough and tumble with huge challenges every few months. So a lot of projects have to find new homes, but we're getting good at this. Rescuing American High [by taking it to PBS] was very satisfying. I'm proud of that as anything I've ever done."

More recently he's found new homes for The Residents, which Discovery Health Channel picked up, and for American Candidate, a series in which the American public will choose a US Presidential candidate in 2004, which FX paid to develop and from which they then backed away.

The Contrivance Quotient

It's time for Cutler to head out to the sound mix for several Real Roseanne episodes. His assistants hand over his cell phone, his notebook computer, Mapquest directions and a binder of materials on tasks at hand. As we head for Santa Monica, his car giving him directions in a purring voice, I ask Cutler about "contrivance"—just how does it figure into his productions?

He uses American Candidate to illustrate. Simply put, it's a sort of a political American Idol. From their pool of ten thousand applicants, Actual Reality will extract a more manageable sampling and follow these candidates as they hone a message on the direction they'd like to take the country. Over the Internet, the American people will vote, eliminating candidates until there is only one. It's a blueprint for democracy as devised by Philip K. Dick, perhaps, but it should make for great TV.

"So, it lives in the world," Cutler explains. "Maybe it wouldn't happen without us, but it's about something we didn't make up-real people trying to get across a real message."

Another dollop of contrivance should arrive on the Bravo cable network in the form of Underexposed, a sort of Project Green Light for shorts. At a Santa Monica stoplight, Cutler conjures the concept: "It opens with us coming to the door of a filmmaker. We say, ‘Okay, here's some money, here's a truckload of equipment—now make your film.' We stay in their home town, get to watch them cast it, shoot it and finish it, and then we show the film they made."

As for future projects, "We're doing a pilot for Comedy Central, Payback Inc., where we find aggrieved parties and send out a sort of A-Team of pranksters to get revenge, letting the punishment fit the crime. We've got a blind deal at AMC for two projects yet to be worked out. And The Learning Channel has ordered three Entrepreneurs." Apparently, the idea there is a competition: various would-be capitalists are given the same amount of money and challenged to create the highest (legal) return in an allotted time.

As we pull up to the sound studio, he says, "I'll be doing less of this sort of thing, more shaping the projects, the direction and building the company. I like the level of activity now, the chance to work with so many creative people. "

"When I miss being in the field, I go into the field," he adds. "[Filmmaker] Ted Skillman and I went to Nashville and shot some stuff of [acclaimed country rock musician] Ryan Adams and then ended up following the band for ten days on the road. What will happen to all that I don't know, but it was great. It was like running away to the circus."

Later, Cutler is engrossed in the sound mix, very determined to get the tiniest touch exactly right; it's difficult to see him ever relinquishing such responsibilities. Still, when the receptionist brings in four pages of faxed notes for the impending development meeting, it's hard to see how he couldn't. He studies them during a few minutes of restless, crashed-program downtime and checks his email on his PDA. "I'm easily bored," he says blandly, and we all laugh at the understatement.

His cell phone rings. "They can't do that," he says to the caller, in evident distress. "I hope they didn't put that in a press release. I can't be on anybody's campaign committee. I'm a documentary filmmaker; I have to maintain some semblance of being impartial."

He smiles and shakes his head.   

Editor's Note: As we were going to press, The Real Rosanne was officially cancelled.


David Essex previously worked for R.J. Cutler for a year, on American High.