Welcome to the Chockalife podcast. My guest today is Bill Pruitt, nominated three times by the Producers Guild of America as non-fiction producer of the year, and Emmy-award winning producer of shows The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, and Deadliest Catch.
He has produced television all around the world, filming on nearly every continent on the planet. His adventures as a producer have included following contestants racing around the world, candidates vying for a job working for Donald Trump, truckers in the high Himalayas, perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide in France, crab fishermen on the Bering Sea, alleged terrorists in the Congo, pot growers in the Emerald Triangle, gator hunters in the Louisiana swamp, and commercial spear fishermen diving deep into the Gulf of Mexico.
Hi, Bill, thank you for talking to us today about working in Hollywood.
Bill: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing now?
Bill: I’m working on yet another adventure reality series concerning commercial spear fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. I’d say, sort of a throw-back to the ancient practice of going deep into the ocean to find one’s bounty. It’s kind of Shark Week meets Deadliest Catch, and it’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
What’s the most challenging about it?
Bill: The weather, Mother Nature. You can go about the business of concocting the most advanced production schedule, refined, everyone on time, on place, where they need to be, and Mother Nature will come in and just turn it all upside-down. She can, and she will.
Right. What’s your title on this show?
Bill: I’m the executive producer.
What does that mean, exactly?
Bill: I oversee the creative entity. I bring together a crew of people; I hire them, they’re all creative, or logistical kingpins. They do their job very, very well. They need to collaborate with one another, and that’s not always the easiest thing for them to do. I lead them to one singular, creative vision; inspire them, motivate them, and if I need to, cajole them into adhering to that vision on time and on budget.
Let’s go back to when you started out in the business. Did you always want to work in, say, reality, or had you started in a different mode, and what got you to where you are now?
Bill: I began my career in the entertainment business working for Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. It remains a haven for independent-minded filmmakers who work outside of the studio system, and literally have to will their image onto the screen. This scrappy introduction to the world of entertainment suited me pretty well. I followed one of the founders of Sundance to Columbia University, New York City, where he chaired the screenwriting and directing program, and the masters of fine arts program there, in the school of the arts, thinking that I would be an independent filmmaker like many of the people I encountered at Sundance, and admired.
It’s a hard road, and becoming a father certainly changed my view on life. I had been a war correspondent for a time, too, and my appreciation for life changed, as well. I began to understand that you just take it where you could get it. When the documentary world of E! Entertainment television came along and offered to hire me, pay me, to do something creative, I snatched it up, and that turned me on to non-fiction storytelling.
I found that the truth is often stranger than fiction. It’s more bizarre, it’s not as concocted, and you can get, certainly, a lot more meaning out of it, because it did happen, it’s real. I grew fascinated by the documentaries I saw at the Sundance Film Festival, where I continued to work on a seasonal basis, and then eventually began to realize that with the onslaught of reality TV, that you can make a pretty decent living doing this. That, as much as it would be great to have 300,000 people turn up at an auditorium to watch your tiny, spirited documentary film, having a big audience watching something you’ve produced along with countless others, to great affect, can equally be satisfying.
I realized that they were pretty much the same thing, just for a different medium. Documentaries are two-hour stories told in dark rooms with a collection of people; television non-fiction is basically the same thing, squeezed between commercial breaks, and there are over twelve million people sitting at home watching.
It sounds a little bit like you also got addicted to the on-the-fly, which is reality. You just deal with what you get, and you make a show out of it.
Bill: Absolutely. You wake up in the morning, you don’t know what your day’s going to be like. As much as the call sheet tells you, yeah, you’re going to be here and do that there, it’s really the reality, as God has given us, to put it in that regard. We just don’t know. Mother Nature, whomever.
When you started out, before you went to Sundance, had it been a goal for a long time, to make creative films?
Bill: Absolutely, yes. Since I was fourteen years old, I wanted to fuse picture, music, dialogue, acting, into one collective vision. Film does it better than anything. It’s not quite like music, which I consider to be the last rapture. It’s a very convoluted medium in many ways, because you can have a great story, but the music can come along and subvert it or enhance it, but the filmmaking tradition is what I’ve been enamored with. I’ve always wanted to do it, partake in it in some way.
How did you get into Sundance? That’s very competitive, isn’t it?
Bill: Not at all. When you’re in Utah, and that’s where you grew up, they’re happy to have you. It was destined to be a regional filmmakers venue and lab, originally, so just by virtue of having grown up there, by luck and circumstance, I got to work with them. I wasn’t selected as much as I worked on the staff and worked with other selected filmmakers there.
Right, so you worked your way in, and then learned by the people you met, and then eventually got into educating yourself, it sounds like.
Bill: Yup, exactly.
Did you have any particular mentors, then, that helped you along the way?
Bill: Certainly. There were two: Sterling Van Wagenen was the Executive Director of Sundance, and he was also a filmmaker, and he was also a family man. He would produce movies like The Trip to Bountiful, with Geraldine Page and Carlin Glynn, and go back to Sundance and help foster the film program there. Then he would go and do a family gathering. The way that Sterling navigated his life was very inspiring to me as a man.
Probably a better mentor for me would be Frank Daniel, who as I mentioned before, is the chairman of the Columbia University film division program. He was a big shot in his native Czechoslovakia as a screen writer. He and Milos Forman were basically collaborators on projects there, and they came to America and have dominated in Eastern European cinema as storytellers. Milos Forman of course is well known as the Academy Award winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, among others. He taught at Columbia as well; Frank brought him in.
Through Frank, I learned the pillars of storytelling, the basic aspects of structure and character. That’s carried over into the work I’m doing right now on this spearfishing show. I’ve got cards up on the wall that determine what the story’s going to be. Every single application I have in organizing the story here, I learned from Frank all those years ago.
It’s always storytelling, whether it’s reality, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. You still have to tell a story.
Bill: That’s right. We prayed at the altar of intention and obstacle. That’s generally where all the best stories come from. What do they want, what’s in their way? In this case, it’s sharks.
Have you always really just gravitated toward the creative, or storytelling side of it? Have you ever done any of the technical fields? Have you always done the other, creative side?
Bill: It’s generally been with the clay. When someone picks up a camera and starts talking about S Stops and gigabytes and that kind of thing, my eyes gloss over. I’m enamored with those people, that they can do that so well, but the technical aspects of it, these are tools. If you took a crayon and drew on a wall, and did it well, and it moved somebody, you’ve done your job as far as I’m concerned. Those technical aspects of it do matter; they become tools, but they become tools for the greater, over-arching need to tell a story, to move somebody. To the extent that they are useful to me in that regard, I am interested in them, but no more.
Back to, what was your very first job, paid job, let’s say?
Bill: Working in a restaurant, washing dishes.
No! (laughs) Right. No, let’s get to the exciting Hollywood job.
Bill: Like many people, I started out at the bottom. I was a production assistant, and I think I was a production assistant for way too long, because I didn’t see anything between me as a production assistant and the guy at the top who had the singular vision, whose story they got to tell, as being all that interesting.
Costume design, very fascinating world. I’m a big connoisseur of fashion, having observed it for many years, doing documentaries about fashion. I really appreciate what goes into costume design on a feature film. Lighting and grip were always important, but again, just didn’t really appeal to me.
The assistant camera operators got to see most of the action, and that was why I thought that might be a way to go at one point. I’m a pretty good logistical planner, so being a production manager or an assistant director, which I’ve done, had some satisfaction, but again, it wasn’t as creative as I wanted it to be.
Those middle-of-the-night decisions about what a character’s going to do or how you’re going to stage a reality scene or edit two pieces of material together to make an entirely new idea, or how to cut time out of a length reality program. It’s got to be forty-two minutes, and it’s right now clocking in at fifty-five. That’s where I wanted to be, so I had to bypass all of those positions, all of those trails, to get to where I wanted to be. I stuck it out on the bottom as a production assistant, waiting it out, for far too long; thinking that the story would come, or the opportunity would come.
How did you … Production assistant on a feature film, or on reality docs?
Bill: I did features, I did commercials. I never worked as a production assistant on any reality doc, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t, because it’s pretty grueling. I tried to shadow directors in episodic television, thinking that might be interesting. I did it for awhile, but then I realized that as soon as you do that, you just have to go over there and stand in line. You’ve proved yourself, but there’s many who’ve come before you, and I’m not a patient person, which is also why reality and non-fiction appeals to me. Because something’s always happening, and I’m always working; I work constantly.
I’m thankful for that. I stuck to learning about the technical aspects, and the constructive filmmaking world; who does what, what the purposes are, what the hierarchy is all about as a production assistant on other kinds of programming and material.
How did you make the leap, then, from PA to writer/producer?
Bill: After a short stint trying to cover wars and carry out some sort of Hemingway fantasy abroad, I came back and got a job as an associate producer on the E! True Hollywood Story. This came to me via a friend in an airport who introduced me to somebody who said they were making documentaries for E!
Documentaries for me had always been that David Wolper thing over there, or the Maysles brothers. They would never be making documentaries at E! Then I quickly found out, oh, it’s the E! True Hollywood Story, and that was sort of cool. The person who I was going to be replacing left to go and make a movie for Robert Evans that she had written, so I thought, well that’s kind of cool. She got in with him by virtue of doing this tawdry documentary. Worse things can happen.
I had just moved to Los Angeles and needed to have a job, so I took off with them. I really remember that first day of getting hired, because I had been working in an audio visual department at a hotel in Beverly Hills at the time. I realized, I’m going to be working on something in a creative capacity. How joyful is that? It doesn’t happen for all of us. You can go to the lengths that I did and get a very expensive MFA, and still come out with nothing to do, no opportunities.
You make them if you can, but when the world calls, you take the job and you go for it. It’s a real blessing to be working in a creative enterprise, getting paid to do it. I realized that then and I realize it now. I started out working for E!
If you look back at those, that was a great proving ground, I would think, for someone wanting to do what you ended up doing, because those were actually really wonderful stories. They went, they had a beginning, middle and end, and had a great arc every time, and they were well done.
Bill: There’s a gentleman named Jeff Shore who ran the program. He was the executive producer of the E! True Hollywood Story. He oversaw all of us, and we were a kooky, quirky bunch. I like to call him “The Roger Corman” of reality TV, because so many of my colleagues and my contemporaries came out of the True Hollywood Story. They’re now running their own production companies or studios, or they’re making great reality series alongside myself and others.
This was a real breeding ground for non-fiction storytellers. We learned from Jeff, and we learned from each other, and we learned from the stories. Jeff was cognizant of my own quirkiness, to give me the stories, the E! True Hollywood Stories that were different, that involved some sort of character flaw … Well, they all involved character flaws, but where it was kooky, or there was something about it.
I got to do Herve Villechaiz, the little guy from Fantasy Island, and Jeanne Carmen, who was a B-movie queen, and was such a kook, but was alive and well, and sharing her story with us. Then I got to do Bob Fosse, who was the creative genius with the character flaws, and put it all out there in his work. These were stories that I gravitated toward, and Jeff thankfully gave to me to produce. It was a wonderful time. It felt like college.
That’s the interesting thing, is that I was always told when I was starting out, look at who’s involved in the project. Don’t necessarily look at the project itself, because like you said, it’s really who’s involved, because you’ll learn a lot. You can end up doing great things, even on a project that maybe you didn’t think was going to be much to begin with.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
It’s interesting that you said you got your MFA from Columbia, which is a fantastic school, but it sounds like you had to go through the same things that everyone else has to go through to start out. You didn’t come out an executive producer out of MFA, a wonderful MFA program, working with top flight people. That’s an interesting thing for people to know, as well.
Bill: I think I should add that the MFA programs at UCLA, USC, NYU and Columbia were at the time grinding out students. All the studios went right to the film schools and snatched up the kingpins there to direct their movies. It was happening. It was in the late eighties, early nineties, and people like Phil, who is now directing commercials, mainly.
They invited people like Spielberg, and they had their USC student film under their arm, and they walked right into the studios and they made movies. At the time, it was happening. There were also people going out into the independent world, directly out of NYU, particularly, and Columbia, and they were making really dramatically, well-crafted movies that played at places like Sundance.
There was an influx into the filmmaking world out of film school. Then, just like a faucet, it turned off. It became about commercial and video directors. You probably remember that whole thing. It was like you had gone and made a P. Diddy video, then you got your directing career, that kind of thing.
I was kind of off the mark when it came to that. I think I had the opportunity. My film won awards all over the world, and played at Sundance itself, but with respect to representation and how to self-promote, I wasn’t in that game as well as I could’ve been. Again, I’m happy. I’m happy to be working, and telling stories.
Speaking of that, is there anything that you would do differently?
Bill: I think that what I neglected because of the glamor aspect of it was the documentary film. My goal now will be to make … If I were to return to the feature film world, and I do intend to, it would be to direct a documentary, because they’re every bit as elegant, they’re every bit as moving when they’re done the right way. They’re compelling, and again, they’re real.
When I was in school, I remember there were people doing documentaries, and I was like, “Good for you, good luck with that,” like, “You’ll be on a university campus somewhere, showing your film, and that’ll be just great, and I’ll be there, I’ll watch it, because I love them.”
Then I noticed when I went to work for Sundance, year after year, to work for the film festival, I neglected to see all of the dramatic features in favor of the documentaries, because those were going to go away. Those were the rare gems that disappeared, and now they’re back. They’re on iTunes, they’re on Netflix. You can download them, you can watch them, you can have those experiences, and those same people are out there, grinding away. Now I know those people, and they’ve won Oscars.
It’s so amazing to be able to do that, and shape the world with these powerful, socially relevant documentaries. I would do that. That’s absolutely what I would do, because you can’t just sit around and wait for Nicole Kidman to say yes to your script. You just can’t. You got to do something, and the documentary, non-fiction world allows you to just go and do it. Just do it.
Right. Like you said, now there are so many outlets for them, and people are watching them in all different ways. Before, it was a lot more difficult to get them seen. Incredible opportunities now.
Bill: It’s incredible, but it’s also crowded.
Bill: All the good stuff is getting … It’s hard to filter through all that stuff, and I’m not really qualified to talk about that, of course. I think the same thing could be said for reality television. There’s so much of it on now, and the good ones have to stand alongside the lowest common denominator programs that, everyone’s calling about bringing down society and such. We don’t need to talk about that.
Right, no (laughs). Just going to that, what’s the most fun you’ve had in your career? Most fun thing that’s happened to you, or thing you’d celebrate?
Bill: Fun is a relative term. I can be just enjoying hanging out in the production office with a really, extremely talented crew of people after a satisfying day at work, and that can just be joyful. I could be, as I was often on The Amazing Race, you know, standing in the middle of the desert in Morocco, seeing an incredible sunrise. Listening to the call to prayer. As a kid growing up in Utah, what the hell? I would never be experiencing something like that, dreamed about it, even, and yet, there I was.
The travel aspect has always been first rate, but it’s caused schisms in my personal life, in relationships, in keeping consistency in friendships and love relationships and what-not, it’s been tough. There’s always a downside to whatever is fun. Seeing a story come together and watching people react to it is probably the best.
I used to have screening parties at my house. The editors are particularly notorious for being closed off in their dark rooms, with their big computer screens, cutting away. They are really the true storytellers in reality TV. More than anybody else in the crew, I maintain. They put it together. You oversee that, and you help them, you collaborate with them.
Some of them are button-pushers, but the good ones will sit there and piece-by-piece put these episodes together for us to enjoy. Then they go home, then they come back the next day and they sit in their room. They’re isolated, they’re cut off.
I used to host parties at my home, where I would invite friends who had no inkling of what the story was, even, and watch The Apprentice, or mainly The Amazing Race, and I would cook ethnic food based on what country we happened to be in in that episode. This was the episode that this editor had put together, and I made sure that they would sit front and center for everyone else around them to watch, and to watch the reaction of these people to their work.
It was joyful. That was just magnificent, to see people not just gratuitously applauding, or laughing when they needed to, but really sitting there and enjoying it, and having the editor soak that in, and see that and feel that.
I used to direct a lot of theater, and I loved the immediate reaction that you got from the moment. That would happen regularly at these dinner parties. It was fun to see. That’s probably the best.
Speaking of that, the editor is definitely the unsung hero, because if you’ve ever been out in the field, and you go out shooting, and then you think, “Oh, I didn’t get anything on that shoot,” you come back, and then the editor makes it something magnificent. They can absolutely make or break whatever you did out there, whatever you created. It is pretty incredible to see what they can do.
Do you feel like you’ve gone to where you want to go, or do you feel like you have farther that you want to go in your work in Hollywood?
Bill: It’s a good question. I do think that for me to transition into a feature documentary seems inevitable. At some point, to have something more lasting. The problem with making non-scripted, reality TV is that it’s so disposable. Because it happens, and it’s such an immediate condition when you’re watching it; teams racing through the world, or sitting in a board room with Donald Trump, it’s happening. That’s part of the joy and the wonder of it, is that it feels so immediate, but then it’s over. Someone’s been eliminated, or somebody caught more fish than somebody else, and then it’s done.
While I know people are watching Duck Dynasty over and over again on iTunes, and God bless them, that disposable element is a little bit unnerving for me, so I think that something that has more durability like a documentary is probably forthcoming. I just don’t know what the story would be; there’s a lot of them out there, circling. That’s a big risk for anyone to take.
I do think about production companies that would fold in all of these ideas, and possibly steering my own ship in that regard one day. I don’t know that I have the temperament to run a network, though I often think about it, because I often wonder what the people in charge are thinking. I’m not sure. I’m pretty happy, I have to say that.
You keep very, very busy. What would you say if someone wants to work on reality shows? What kind of advice would you give for that?
Bill: Again, the fun, it’s a relative thing, to work it out. I’ve known people who walk in a room, and just by virtue of their charisma, get a job, and that’s something I’ve seen happen over and over again in LA, especially. I’m not one of those people. I’ll probably step on my tongue, just as I have now, more often than anything else, and have to convince somebody doing my work, or my effort, that I deserve to get a job, or that I’ll be productive in the long run.
I think that, like you were saying earlier, when you find out who’s working on a shoot, and let’s just say if Spike Jones is doing a commercial, let’s say, and you really like Spike Jones movies, go and work on that commercial. Work on that commercial for free. Do it for three days, make an impression, make sure he knows that you’re the guy who got his coffee, and that anybody surrounding him who is looking out for him and protecting him and his vision, knows that you are the guy who’s interested in this kind of work, as well.
Make those associations, and make them stick. Follow through, and continue to pursue them, because it’s not exactly necessarily who you know, it’s who they think you know, as well. By virtue of having that kind of run-in, you can get a lot of mileage out of that, and then you can go and talk to somebody who talks to somebody and knows somebody.
When I was starting out, I went to New York City specifically for that reason, and it paid off for me. When you’re in Los Angeles, you’re on the 405 with the windows up, stereo on, two hours away from that other person. The chances of communicating and connecting in that big vastness is daunting.
In New York City, on Manhattan, on Thursday afternoon, there’s ten million people walking around. They’re coming in and out of buildings, in and out of subways, and I happened to be actually in Brooklyn, on Smith Street, coming out of a train station. I ran into somebody who preceded me at Columbia, but I met him at Sundance. I asked him, “What are you up to?”
He said, “I got a chance to direct my movie. Kevin Bacon’s in it, Mary Steenbergen’s executive producer. We start shooting in a couple of months down in Arkansas.” I said, “I’d love to join you, can I come to work on it?” And he said, “Absolutely. Talk to this guy, and you’ll be a production assistant,” and that’s what happened.
Then it started, and it worked and worked and worked and worked. If you’re good, and you continue to pursue it, but I also think you need to put yourself in the place where you can be available to people, to work. It’s hard to do that from a corn farm in iowa.
Bill: The other thing I would say is, when you’ve gotten to a place, and you’ve got your vision and your story intact, and someone’s willing to bank on it, be anywhere that they will want to put their stamp on it. There’s an inordinate capacity, whether it’s film studios, TV networks, publishers, and what-not, to turn the finest wine, vintage or not, into distilled water. They think everyone wants to drink. You got to hold out for wine, you got to hold out for what’s real, you got to hold out for the thing that you are trying to tell, the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t let them subvert that, because they will.
You can go to all the trouble to try and get to the place, having PA’d on countless shoots, done what you’ve done, and surrender your vision in a heartbeat, just because you finally got there and someone said, “Yeah, but that’s not the story I thought we were going to tell.”
Ask yourself what is the story you’re going to tell. The analogy that’s been expressed to me is, Hollywood is like climbing a huge mountain of manure, slipping and sliding, only to get to the top and find that single red rose. You pluck it, sniff it, and find out; you’ve lost your sense of smell.
Along the way, you’ll encounter all kinds of dreams and visions and people and power, and you need to sustain your own sense of what the story is, who you are, and how the two matter. You know what I mean?
Yup. I couldn’t end it on a better note. Thank you so much, Bill. I can’t wait to see that documentary.
Bill: Thank you, Ingrid. Thank you very much, me too.
If you have questions for Bill, or about reality TV producing, go to Chockalife.com.