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Q & A with the director Sally Blake

Why were you interested in this subject matter?

It actually started as something completely different. Jeannette and I wondered why so many people were willing to go on Reality TV - LONGED to go on Reality TV in fact.  We had just finished producing our own reality show called ‘Groomed’ that turned unromantic, boorish slobs into perfect gentlemen for their wedding day.  It was a process that required all the participants to reveal very personal and intimate moments to hundreds of thousands of strangers, not to mention undergo humiliating “exercises”, all for the entertainment of the television viewing public.  Personally, I was often disturbed by how much we used the personal lives of our participants for our own profit, as well as to satisfy the insatiable appetites of an increasingly voyeuristic public.  But the guys loved to do it!  And they were using us just as much - to get their 15 minutes of fame at any cost. 

Then we came across a Reality TV fan convention in Nashville and headed down to see if there was a story there and we came across Hal who was researching his book.  We started talking about ‘peep culture’ and the idea that people were using and consuming individual lives as mass entertainment, not just on TV, but online, in books, magazines, basically all media.  Why were we seemingly jettisoning privacy and modesty in favour of a tell-all culture?  How was it affecting us and how we lived our lives?  Suddenly the relatively small proportion of Reality TV participants we were originally interested in became part of a much bigger idea that encompassed all of us to more or less degrees.  After all, what is a Facebook page if not a broadcasted version of your life?  That’s what really clicked for me as a filmmaker and I realized we had a bigger story to tell.

What was it about Hal that you found interesting?

Absolutely nothing - and that was exactly why I found him interesting.  He’s a low-key, rumpled, average-looking guy who drinks a bit too much but apart from that has no other vices.  He’s married, has a child and owns a house.  He’s just about as normal as you can get.  If we had tried to pitch him as a participant on ‘Groomed’ the broadcaster would have rejected him immediately - too boring!  But that was so obviously the point from the beginning - if a guy like that could have hundreds or even of thousands of followers online just by revealing the details of his humdrum life then he was the perfect example of peep: we all have the possibility of offering up our personal lives in exchange for fame.

How did this project/film evolve?

Initially we wanted to film Hal’s experience researching the themes of Peep Culture for his book, but it took too long for us to get the financing together.  Our first day of shooting was his book launch!  One of the big critiques of his book though was that he was overly critical of something he basically didn’t “do” himself.  When we first met him he didn’t have a Facebook account, he didn’t use twitter and he didn’t even have a cell phone.  After he wrote the book Hal realized that to really understand the allure of peep culture he should do it himself, in a meaningful way. So we decided to create a somewhat artificial space for him - his own Reality TV show of sorts - where he would plunge himself into “deep peep”.  We installed cameras throughout his house and connected them to an interactive webpage where viewers could watch him 24/7, chat with him online and follow his blogs and vlogs.  I didn’t want to shy away from this artifice, but instead to present it as part of the film: one of the first scenes is Hal reading and signing his film contract for the first time. (The reactions you see are real - it dawned on him for the first time that he was signing the rights to his life away.)  Like Big Brother or Survivor, we set the situation up and then turned on our cameras to see what happened, occasionally stirring things up to see if we could get more of a reaction out of him.  His reactions are all real, but some of the scenes are totally faked - like any show on TV, or like half the photos on your Flickr page.  You have a life, and then you package a life in a certain way to present the message you’re hoping to convey.  And this process really spoke to one of the key themes in Peep Culture - what happens when you start to document your life?  Do you begin to live your life differently if you know you’ve got followers and fans?  What is then “reality” and what is “for the cameras” - or do they blend into one long indistinguishable version of The Truman Show?

What stories do you have from making the film?

I woke up the morning after we installed the surveillance cameras in Hal’s house, switched on my computer expecting to see Hal asleep and got a big fat black screen instead. I checked all the other cameras and still nothing.  Was there a technical problem?  I phoned Hal who, after a bit of interrogation, ‘fessed up to having turned the cameras off and sneaking back upstairs to sleep with his wife.  I was so pissed off.  Was Hal just going through the motions of this film so he could promote his book?  Was he really going to make an effort?  I lost my temper and told him to get his ass in front of the camera.  We caught the encounter on tape and you can see a bit of it at the end of the film.  After that, Hal smartened up and then, very, very quickly, he got into it.

Another moment was the battle-royale over the can-cam. Hal agreed but only wanted it to show his waist up. I was filming at the time and called him on it - if you draw the line here then what else is off limits?  What else are you hiding?  We tried a lot of different placements of the camera but he eventually gave in and the can-cam became the most watched camera in the house - he got over 4000 views in the first week alone.  We had lots more scenes of the can-cam in earlier cuts of the film but the CBC vetoed them. Peeing is apparently a viewer turnoff.

I remember one of the first things we filmed was Hal at home being the “everyman”. I wanted to present Hal’s life as it truly was: humdrum, nothing special.  Some gardening, some putzing around in the kitchen, some napping, taking a shower etc… But it’s hard to film all those things “naturally” because he might not do them all in a day, we’re on a tight schedule with a film crew, we have to worry about lights etc.  So I basically got him to go through the motions and we filmed it over and over again and he’d have to keep trying to remember what he said and how he felt when he said it… by the end of the day he snapped at me to stop saying ‘action’ all the time because it was creeping him out.  The next morning a very long detailed explanation of this process appeared on his blog and I remember feeling mortified - and very exposed.  These were the “dirty secrets” of documentary filmmaking splayed out in the open for all to see! But the more I thought about it the more I came to embrace it as part of the film, and to be open about it, because transparency is an interesting element of peep.

It was fascinating to watch Hal start to love the spotlight.  He started meeting people online and then he actually got ‘fans’.  The process of video blogging was like doing your own TV broadcast every day.  And there’s ALWAYS somebody who wants to watch you.  Very quickly Hal adapted his life to the cameras. He was always thinking of a new “show” to do - ‘Cooking with Hal’, ‘Chatting with Hal’s Brother’ etc. and eventually this kind of thing catches up with you.  By the time we went to LA Hal was at the zenith of his online popularity and consequently believed he truly deserved all the attention he was receiving.  So when he tried out for Sheila Conlin’s Reality TV casting call he was 100% positive she thought he was great, when in actuality she completely trashed him. Hal only saw that scene long afterwards and was honestly surprised by her reaction.  So, here’s a guy who had gone from a literary, Luddite recluse, to believing he was seriously worthy of staring in his own Reality TV show in under 3 weeks!

By the end of our experiment we had literally thousands of hours of Hal’s life caught on surveillance camera.  There was no way I could go through it myself so we assembled a team of five loggers to each take a camera and make detailed notes.  It took a month for them to get through everything and by the end of the process they were honestly traumatized.  They knew way too much about this guy’s life and felt disturbed, repelled and also quite guilty - they didn’t think they had the right to watch what they were watching. It was a fascinating offspring of too much peep.

What do you think about Peep Culture?

I download peep culture, but I don’t really upload it.  Not much anyway.  I think exposing small doses of yourself to the world at large is fine.  I have a Facebook page, I occasionally blog on our website and I’m not averse to putting the odd video up on Youtube.   Since I gave birth to my son in April I’ve been living in Paris, France, and using a lot of social media to stay connected with friends and colleagues.  I’ve also met a lot of new friends here by reaching out on the internet. For me, social media or the internet doesn’t equal Peep Culture - what we’re talking about in the film is when you start broadcasting your life as entertainment for strangers:  When you turn yourself into a product, when you have more fans than friends, when the benefits of shopping your life, and the lives of your husband, wife and children, to a Reality TV company, suddenly outweigh any previously held concepts of morality and privacy.  When being “famous” is the holy grail of your life, as if nothing else in the world mattered.

What do you say to people who feel Reality TV and online sharing is a fad?

If you think 11 years is a fad then I hate to think how long a trend is.

How do you feel about privacy issues?

Like Adam says in the film, our privacy isn’t being invaded, we’re actually voiding it.  It was one of the key questions for me - why are we so willing to reveal all, even the most humiliating and private moments?  What are we getting out of it?  It’s what led me to Janna Malamud-Smith who speaks very eloquently in the film about how we all need to be “witnessed” in life.  This is an age-old human need, and one that was much more easily satisfied when we lived in small communities.  But in the post-industrial age our communities have expanded and fractured – we no longer are born, live, marry or die with the same constancy of people and place around us.  It used to be literally AGAINST THE LAW to live alone, and now we have to make concerted efforts to keep in touch with living, breathing human beings.  It’s like we suddenly have TOO MUCH privacy and we need to balance against that.  This is why we’re out there tweeting and posting pictures, and I think that’s a healthy side. Even Hal discovers that in the film.  But of course it’s never that simple, and the multiplying forces of social disintegration coupled with the insatiable demands of the entertainment industry and our own obsession with celebrity is the perfect storm of peep.

 

PEEP WINS AT GEMINIS!

PEEP CULTURE wins Gemini for Best Picture Editing! Congratulations to editors: Sally Blake and Avril Jacobson!

Big thanks to all that made it possible including Hal, Rachel, Elly, Andreas, Lisa, Sean, the Vancouver peepsters, David Lyle, Conlin Casting, Rob Galinsky, Reality TV school, Solitary producers Lincoln and Andrew, and countless others who allowed us to witness them!

ALSO! 

PEEP CULTURE will be screening at the San Francsico Doc Fest in October 2011, Kansas City Film Festival, Brantford International Film Festival 2011, AND Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival! 

To date Peep has won a Silver Ace at the Las Vegas International film festival and had its US premiere at the Arizona International Film Festival, April 1–20, 2011 in Tuscon, Arizona!

 

About the Doc

Peep Culture is a one-hour documentary film that is an insightful romp into a world where the internet and reality TV can make you a star.  Youtube and Chatroulette are high-speed versions… more…»

 

chocolate box entertainment

Chocolate Box Entertainment is the yummy fusion of two award winning producers – Jeannette Loakman and Sally Blake. Together we’ve got 20 years of television experience. We’ve hosted chat shows, produced current affairs, programmed television stations, commissioned as well as written, produced and directed a number of award winning films.
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