The team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulchini were nominated for an Academy Award and won the Writers Guild Award for their adapted screenplay for American Splendor, which they also directed. The duo also wrote and directed The Nanny Diaries starring Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney and The Extra Man, starring Kevin Kline.
Their new TV movie for HBO, Cinema Verite, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the groundbreaking documentary series, An American Family, which aired on PBS in 1973. It was literally the first reality show, and it would be years before the genre really took off, probably because of the backlash this 12-part series incited.
In 1971, Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) agreed to allow filmmaker Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) to follow their family around and film them, no matter what arose … and what ultimately arose was Pat telling Bill she wanted a divorce.
Shari Springer Bermand and Robert Pulcini spoke with us at the TV Critics tour about the challenge of capturing a 12-episode documentary into a TV movie.
How big a hit was An American Family when it first aired?
Shari Springer Berman: It was actually, I believe, one of the highest-rated, if not the highest-rated show ever on PBS, which actually might not be saying that much, but it was huge.
Robert Pulcini: I believe it got about 10 million viewers on some of the episodes. So it was really watched, and it had a huge cultural impact.
Do you watch reality shows?
Shari: I totally watch them. I admit it. He makes fun of me.
Robert: I watch them when she watches them.
Shari: No, you do not. You yell at me, and then occasionally I drag you in. I love The Real Housewives. I like Dr Drew, and I think I’ll stop before everybody loses any confidence in me. But I like reality TV and watch a fair amount of it.
Can you speak about this being the very first reality show and now you’re making a film about it?
Robert: Yeah, there was no precedent for this. This was a big experiment, and it was kind of the birth of a genre that no one saw coming. There was a big gap between when it happened again because this show was so enormously expensive. Imagine shooting a reality show today on film, and that’s what they did. They shot on film and went through hours and hours of footage to put this together.
Since there is footage when you’re depicting the stuff that was actually shot, are you being word-for-word faithful to what we’ve seen? Or are you taking some creative license so that it disperses better with the non-documented drama?
Shari: It was a 12-hour miniseries, and this is a 2 hour movie. So obviously, we had to take some creative license, but that being said, we were very guided, all of us, by the documentary. We all watched it religiously, Tim even more, I think he can recite it by heart. And it really was that spirit that we tried to honor. We couldn’t do it word-for-word, and that was though. It was tough cutting it because there’s so much amazing stuff there.
Was this show shocking in its time?
Shari: It got judged in its time. The things that this family did on television, it was aired in 1973, would be banned by today’s standards. The oldest son, Lance, was openly gay, and that was, I think, the first time that was ever [spotlighted] on television. People wouldn’t blink an eye at that now. In those days, it was incredibly scandalous.
When you read the criticisms of the original An American Family and where they went after the Louds, it was for things like Pat Loud accepting her gay son, or Pat Loud getting a divorce. So it really says a lot about our culture and our time to look back on it with some hindsight now and see where we’ve come culturally, as well.
Did Lance come out on the show?
Robert: Lance Loud did not come out on the show, but that’s the way history has interpreted it. There’s a scene in the show where he’s with his mother walking in Central Park, and he’s talking about his feelings and about why he felt like he didn’t fit in in Santa Barbara.
For some reason, that has always been held up as the big coming out scene for Lance, but he was who he was when the cameras started rolling, and in a way America came out by watching this guy just be himself, and that really shocked everyone.
Do you handle the on-screen footage and the behind-the-scenes footage differently as far as what you’re showing us?
Robert: One of the things I think is very interesting is seeing how these very ordinary people represent themselves when the cameras are rolling and how different they are [when they’re off].
One of the things that I think Pat Loud was really criticized for is that in this famous scene where they tell her husband she wants a divorce on camera, she’s very cold. Is she cold because she’s in front of a camera? Or is she cold because that’s her nature?
It seems like America really criticized her for her personality and who she was based on how she was representing herself in the film. And then, she wrote a book and really poured her feelings out about this whole experience.
As filmmakers, we also shift the perspective with a look and sound when the cameras are rolling, and when the cameras stop, we have a different look for the film.
I’m very curious now to see the original series, is it available?
Shari: It’s not on DVD. It is not available anywhere except in some libraries, and it’s unfortunate, because it’s a really important historical document.