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HBO's ‘Cinema Verite': When Reality TV Was Real?

The directors of the movie chronicling “An American Family” say documentary ethics aren't what they used to be

Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman began their careers making documentaries before moving into narrative films and winning an Oscar nomination for the screenplay to "American Spendor." That film was itself based on autobiographical comics by Harvey Pekar, and the couple's experience in exploring the lines between fiction and non-fiction led HBO to them when the channel was looking for directors for "Cinema Verite," its exploration of the groundbreaking and controversial 1973 PBS series "An American Family."

Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer BermanThe series, widely credited as being the first example of reality television, was created by producer Craig Gilbert (played by James Gandolfini), who persuaded Southern California couple Bill and Pat Loud (Tim Robbins and Diane Lane) to let him film their daily lives. Gilbert's cameras rolled while the marriage broke up and the Louds' son Lance became perhaps primetime television's first openly gay presence. The result found the Louds facing nationwide scorn, while Gilbert was charged with sensationalism and manipulation by his camera crew of Alan and Susan Raymond.

Also ReadDiane Lane on Playing Reality TV's First Real Star, Pat Loud

Why do you think this material was a good fit for you?
PULCINI The story was close to our hearts. We were young married documentary filmmakers at one point, and we had heard so much about the series "An American Family," but we were unable to see it because it just wasn't available. And the themes that were in the script were things that we encountered as documentary filmmakers, and things that we discussed when we were working in that arena.

What things were those?
PULCINI When we were making documentaries, there were a lot of scandalous films that people said had too much re-creation, or weren't accurate, or people were coached to say things onscreen. Now, I think there's more of an acceptance that all documentaries are an individual's or a team's perspective.

BERMAN We faced a lot of our own moral questions when we were making documentaries, which is why we felt some connection to Craig Gilbert and the Raymonds, and understood their issues. We faced the issue of getting close to your subjects, where the big questions become, 'How is that impacting the way you're making your film?' 'Are you using your friendship to get more out of them, or are you protecting them when you shouldn’t be?' So we certainly understand those moral questions.

Most of the people depicted in your film did not participate in the process with you, did they?
PULCINI The Raymonds were consultants on the film, and they had been prior to us getting involved. HBO had approached the Louds and Craig Gilbert about being involved, but they had both declined.

BERMAN That was before we were involved in the project. But we had so much footage to watch, which was incredibly exciting. Even though it was very time-consuming, it was amazing. And it wasn't just watching the actual "American Family" documentary, it was watching as many of their TV appearances as we could, and reading books, and articles that Craig Gilbert had written. It was really a lot of stuff.

PULCINI And interestingly enough, James Gandolfini found Craig Gilbert and struck up a friendship with him, and would represent a lot of his perspective about how things went down. The interesting thing about the story is that none of those parties seemed to agree about how events unfolded. So it was interesting to have Jim tell us Craig's perspective, which fed into a lot of the way the script changed in pre-production.

As I've said before, there was a "Rashomon" quality to the story that we really had to wrap our heads around.

Cinema VeriteBut if you're getting Gilbert's perspective from your actor, are the Raymonds then saying, "Wait a minute, that's not what happened?"
BERMAN Yes. You can't even imagine. The Raymonds would violently disagree with Craig Gilbert's perspective, and he would violently disagree with their perspective.

PULCINI And there were a lot of disagreements about what was accurate and what was not accurate in Pat Loud's book. There was a lot to go through and analyze and try to find a fair way to represent the story.

Even though the story has a "Rashomon" quality to it, you can't do what that film did and show all the various perspectives, one after another. You’re putting one version of an incident on film, and by doing that you're suggesting that this is what really happened.
BERMAN Definitely, that was complicated. But I don’t think we ever for a second tried to represent it as the truth. Because nobody knows the truth. There are scenes that happened between Craig and Pat Loud that only Craig and Pat Loud know what happened, and they probably disagree with each other. There's 40 years of hindsight and rewriting history involved, and bad memory. So I think our idea was that this is a fictionalized version of what happened, based on a variety of sources.

Even as a documentary filmmaker, I never thought that it was possible to portray truth. Because the minute you put a camera on something, you're putting things in the frame, you're excluding things from the frame, you're putting your perspective on it.

PULCINI it’s as true as any movie can be. Is "The Social Network" the truth? Is any movie based on a true story really the truth? It's a narrative that's based on a true story. And that's really a theme of the movie, how perspective plays into storytelling. When you represent someone, who's the author of that representation? The person you're representing, or the person who’s making the film?

It probably makes since to leave some doubt, since you're documenting something that was itself accused of misrepresenting the events it documented.
BERMAN Exactly.

PULCINI We're offering a different version of the story. Maybe there'll be another one. This story is very fertile.

The usual shorthand says that "An American Family" was the first reality show. With the landscape for reality television so dramatically different now, do you see any similarities between it and the shows that followed?
PULCINI Well, Craig Gilbert didn't set out to invent reality television — he set out to make a verite documentary. But I do think there's a similarity in the reception of the show, the way the audiences reacted to the show. The headlines on "An American Family: were the divorce and the homosexuality, which were deliciously scandalous, and that's what drove the ratings. It was the first time we discovered that voyeurism could have such power and get such a huge audience.

BERMAN Back in the days when they were making "American Family," there was a desire to follow some documentary ethics, and represent some aspect of the truth. And the question was, how far did they go? Did they go too far?

In reality television now, the truth doesn’t even factor in. it is completely entertainment, with no higher goal in mind. There was at least an attempt at some kind of anthropological perspective on "American Family," and now it's about creating scenes and fictional moments and entertaining people.

PULCINI  I mean, the whole notion of even having a discussion about reality-television ethics is quaint, now.