Showrunner Jeff Keirns discusses the producers’ strategy for both cast and crew, ongoing misdirection, raw gambles, and two weeks of stress that kept this season's ratings-climbing, format-breaking season from exploding in their faces
The progenitor of all reality shows, “The Real World,” is having a renaissance.
“The Real World Ex-Plosion,” the 29th season set in San Francisco now airing on MTV, tore down the fourth wall to reveal crew and producers on screen, jettisoned its graphics and opening titles, and broke its pure hands-off format with a producer-initiated twist that defines the season: moving five of the cast members’ exes in to the house midseason.
It's working. Ratings are up. Press interest is renewed.
At the midway point in the season, Co-Executive Producer Jeff Keirns (right), a 15-season veteran on the franchise, reveals who they had to keep in the dark (the crew didn't know), the inverted contracting process of making cast offers first and getting agreements signed afterwards, and the timetable and mechanics of pulling off the surprise amidst an emotionally and technologically connected cast.
TheWrap: When did you first tell the exes that they were moving in?
Jeff Keirns: Two weeks prior to them actually moving in to the house.
Wasn't that a massive gamble? That's a long time. Weren't you crapping your pants that the secret would get out?
Absolutely. Every phone call, every email that we're documenting, (while the roommates were) in communication with their exes…we're worried that something is going to slip out and the original roommates would figure out what was happening. We got lucky that that didn't happen and we were able to pull it off.
What was the thinking behind giving the exes 2 weeks to spill the beans versus waiting until all the roommates were off the grid on a house boat and out of touch?
We couldn't tell the exes too soon, because we didn't want it to be revealed, but we can't tell them too late either because, you know, they have real lives as well. (Thomas’ ex) Hailey was in school and some others had jobs they had to give notice for, so we had to figure out and decide what the best time would be and we thought basically two weeks would do the trick.
Those following two weeks, it was very crucial that we were wondering if someone was going to slip up and let the originals know what we were up to, but it didn't happen. We got lucky.
What if everyone said no?
That was a risk we had to take. During casting, when we were talking to the exes about their former relationships with the person that we were considering for the show, we talked about the fact that like ‘Hey, how often do you guys interact? Would you want to come and visit?” so we knew ahead of time about the availability of potentially moving in or even wanting to be around it.
That's how we would think about even putting in the originals – based on the relationship that they had. When it came down to pulling the trigger on this two weeks before moving (the exes) in, we definitely risked them saying “no” at the last minute. I say luck was on our side.
How far off the grid were the roommates when they were put on a boat during the days when their exes were actually traveling to the house to surprise them?
When we put them on the vacation on the house boat we removed their cell phones. They didn't have access to cell phones or the internet. That was the point of putting them on a trip that was basically off the grid – which they all loved. They wanted to go off camping, they wanted to be outdoors, so that actually worked to our benefit.
Did the exes sign the same cast contracts that the original roommates signed? Wasn't having them sign a thick cast agreement a tip-off that something was in the works beyond just visiting the house?
As soon as the exes said “yes,” we sent them cast contracts just like they were cast on the show from the beginning. They got the same contract the originals had.
Did the crew know that the exes were moving in?
No. They were not told. To keep everything a secret, we had to also keep it a secret from the crew as long as we could. They were all notified two weeks prior to the arrival.
From a creative standpoint, if the cast had started talking about their exes on Day 1, people you knew that were moving in to the house but the crew did not, had you previously directed the crew to really focus on those conversations?
“The Real World” has always been about relationships – it's your parents, brothers, sisters, your boyfriend, your girlfriend and your ex. So we told the crew that this season that, yes, this season we definitely want to remember that we're focusing on relationships.
(We said things like) “those phone calls and interactions with the exes back home is definitely a story that we want to tell, so we want to make sure that we're covering it,” without letting them know specifically what our intent was.
The technical considerations (cameras, mics, number of crew) in shooting 6 cast members is a lot different than shooting 11 cast members. Did you bring on additional crew leading in to the “ex-plosion” and if so, did the original cast notice that suddenly there was new and different crew members?
We did bring in additional crew, but we did not bring on the additional crew in front of (the original cast) until the exes arrived, so we did not reveal anything too soon.
So the originals didn't see any new crew faces until that day they got home that day?
Did Ashley (a cast member who left the show before the exes moved in) have an ex that would have moved in had she stayed?
So that “ex” lost out on the chance to be on “The Real World”?
(Ashley) kind of escaped that one. That's for sure.
Was it one of the exes who had already appeared on the show? One of the “yacht” guys? Or was it someone else?
It was someone else.
For the first time in 29 seasons, the traditional opening titles where the cast says “This is the true story of 7 strangers…” is gone. Did you even shoot a “This is a true story…” show open for safety, so you had it in case things changed during post-production?
Not the original opening dialogue and opening titles, no.
This is the first time we've seen cell phones on the show, something that's tethered to everyone in this demographic. How many cell phones did the cast have all together? It seemed like they just had one and they were sort of sharing it.
We're trying to keep the show as contemporary as possible. In this generation when people go out, they have a phone with them to interact and take down numbers and take photos and document their experience from their perspective. We just felt that this season we have to allow them to do that. We didn't want them to all have separate phones. We just gave them four phones that they could share amongst themselves. It turned out to be great.
Everybody this generation when they go out, when they're drinking they take photos and videos, but they don't necessarily remember their night so there's been tons of moments this season where they wake up in the morning, pick up the phone and say “Wait, what did we do last night?” and then take look at their own phone.
What is the thought on being able to hear the producer's voice asking questions during interviews?
Showing the audience that we are a true docu-drama, docusoap, and showing a little bit of what we do to prove that we are not scripted. We are a true documentary reality show and showing the crew doing their thing and the interview questions coming from the interviewers (shows that). Some of those moments that happen in interview before they actually say the answer are priceless as well. Jay is a very good example of that. It's him trying not to answer the hard questions about what's going on with him. It allows you to reveal a little bit more about the personality of our cast and how they're responding to the question.
At the time that Jay's mother passed, had you already talked to his girlfriend Jenna and did she already know that she was coming to the show but had to hide that from him during his mother's wake, funeral, and family gathering?
No. Not yet. That was earlier on. Jay's mother passed away two weeks after Jay found out that he was on the show. It was something that none of us expected. It was a true “Real World” moment where you can't write these things. It was a devastating shock to everyone, including our cast and our crew. We all felt for Jay. Regarding Jenna, we had talked to her during casting about possibly participating in the show – coming out to visit – but not (talked to her) about actually moving in yet.
So on top of all the other stress at the time of Jay's mother's funeral, that wasn't an awkward secret that Jenna had to keep from him?
No. Correct. At that moment, it was too early for her to know that we wanted her to move in.
There's a huge trade-out presence for Subway on the show. Does the crew get in on the Subway deal too?
The crew got a little bit.
What do you want TheWrap's industry audience to know about the production and this season?
Working on this show, particularly this season, was a real team effort – from casting to the crew all the way through post.. The success of the show hinges on the dynamic cast that we have, but also the amazing crew that we have assembled to collaborate and put this thing together. I'm just excited that the audience is being reactive to what we're doing. Our ratings are going up which makes us all extremely excited. With (creator and executive producer) Jon Murray, it all comes from the top and Jon Murray is the man. He's just amazing, such a talent. It's been an absolute pleasure to get to work with him all these years. I couldn't ask for a better job.
Last question: Are the exes “Challenge’ eligible?
Yes they are. They are now officially a part of “The Real World Ex-Plosion Season 29” cast, so they are eligible for any MTV related shows.
“The Real World” airs new episodes on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on MTV, before not as many wall-to-wall repeats as MTV used to broadcast.
Editor's note: Mikey Glazer, the reporter on this story, started his career at Bunim-Murray Productions, producers of “The Real World,” in casting and production. He sat two tables (they did not have desks) down from Keirns on location in Hawaii for six months while shooting that season when he was a coordinator and Glazer was the producer's assistant. Glazer has not worked with Keirns, the show, or Bunim-Murray in 14 years.