As told to Boxoffice:
I'm a producer in reality competition shows and right now I work on Wipeout, which is about 24 normal Americans asked to complete a gigantic obstacle course. Twenty-four is the same number as the tributes in The Hunger Games and the men to women ratio is also pretty balanced. But our contestants are all over 18—no kids. Basically, I watch the contestants on the course and then I spend time back in post with the editor trying to put together a hilarious show about people falling down.
I also worked on Big Brother, which is a show where people are in a house for three months and they're on camera all the time. There are cameras everywhere, every minute, and they never get to get away from them. There's even a camera in the bathroom just in case they decide to do something tricky in there. Part of working on the show is you sit in this control room with all these cameras trying to see what everybody is doing, to figure out what story you want to tell.
I was definitely thinking about my job when I was watching The Hunger Games. Obviously, that's not set in the world we live in. We see the violence and only feel disgust towards it. And the producer of the Hunger Games—Seneca Crane, the gamemaster—seemed like a bad guy. We don't want to identify with him at all. We just want to laugh when people fall down, but in the world she created, hungry hordes are dying to tune in to see people get ripped apart. But if you imagine for a minute that we don't live in our current time, if we lived in the future when the world has seen this horrible apocalypse, maybe human life would mean something different to us? Maybe it's actually not that much of a stretch?
Suzanne Collins said she was inspired to write The Hunger Games by a reality competition show, though she's never said which one. The Hunger Games are a little bit of Big Brother and survival shows with some Wipeout mixed in, if Wipeout were flames and hellbeasts rather than big inflated balls and mud pits. It's closer to Big Brother because the premise that that you're going to be on 24 hours a day live and showing absolutely everything. Wipeout is more like a montage of the best moments of people falling in ridiculous ways. So while Wipeout has physical obstacles and people having to compete, just like in the Hunger Games, that Big Brother-eqsue eyeball that's always watching you definitely seems like a stronger parallel. She did a good job of drawing from the reality competition shows we already have, and then taking away the value of human life to make a show that seems kind of realistic.
I'm a big fan of the books and I think that it's interesting that in this future world that she created, we don't know about any other kinds of entertainment people have. There's no mention of traditional films or scripted television shows—reality TV is the only entertainment people have, as far as she says. And today, I think most people can name at least one competition reality show that they find themselves watching. They get sucked in because there's something about that competitive edge that people love. And the same thing with the schadenfreude. You're literally delighting in the misfortune of others—it's always funny to see people fly head over heels into a giant mud pit and come out looking like some sort of mud creature. There's something natural about it, you can't help it. It will always be funny to me to see people running across the big balls—always.
As far as what the producers of the Hunger Games did that I was really impressed by, that camera in the tree was amazing. Just having that level of disguise for the cameras makes it so people forget that they're really there so they can act like themselves. And being able to conjure anything you want in this ridiculous control room was pretty cool. Not that I want to go conjuring hellbeasts, but if I could be like, "Oh, a giant sweeper bar would be really great here, let me just summon that up," that would be awesome.
On the other hand I was definitely confused by all the shaky-cam action within the Games themselves. I mean, this is a sophisticated production with tiny POV cams all over the place. There are no cameramen running around following them. If there are camera operators, they're on a track, behind the walls and sky. So I guess they wanted us to feel emotionally stressed out and used the handheld camera thing to get that effect. Really it was just distracting.
Kind of like how Seneca creates the fire to force Katniss to move, we'll use some sort of motivator. Like in the beginning for when somebody got up on the big balls and hesitated, we developed a hidden platform that swings up and knocks the people off, forcing them to cross the big balls instead of tentatively trying to step on them. That works. In the movie, I don't think Katniss even really knows that Seneca Crane is the producer, the main guy. I'd say we're more connected to our contestants. Probably has something to do with the fact that we're not killing them.
There's that stretch in the middle where Katniss is made television-friendly. I think it's Cinna who tells her she should just be herself and that will make people like her. That definitely carries across to reality contestants. People show up and they think they know what's going to make them the funniest. They're like, "I'm going to wear this big giant hat because that's hilarious," and really it'd be much funnier if that person was just comfortable being themselves rather than trying to guess what everyone is going to like. Being yourself is the best advice for any reality contestant.
All contestants say that they think they're going to win, and sometimes I wonder if they really believe that that's true. Some people are like, "I'm here to prove to my boyfriend that I can do this," or "I'm here to prove to my brother that I can do this." When I try to guess at the beginning who will win, I'm almost never right. It's always super surprising who makes it to the final three, and then at that point, it's really anyone's game. People of all shapes and sizes and ages have made it to the final three. It's like in the later books of The Hunger Games when you meet some winners that no one expected.
Winning a reality show is all about the psychology, Hunger Games especially. Wipeout is more luck, and maybe a little physical prowess, but in a show like Big Brother, alliances are a big deal and a psychological game plan has to be in place from day one. People will stay up all night with one person and say, "Oh yeah, it's going to be you and me in the end," and then a few weeks later they'll be passing someone else on the way to the bathroom and be like, "You and me need to talk later," and that's the person they're really going to build the final two alliance with.
And competition shows are like you see in the Hunger Games where after getting rid of the first wave of weak people, everyone goes after Katniss. If you're strong and you haven't aligned yourself with someone else who's strong, then you just seem like a threat. It's easier for someone who doesn't appear like a threat to make it to the end-Foxface is the perfect example of that-where they're not really worried about finding her because who cares? She never confronted anyone, she just stayed out of the fray. If she hadn't eaten the berries, she probably would have made it to the end-I don't know how they would have caught her because Cato was never looking for her.
It seems like it's hard to believe they've never had a crush subplot on the Hunger Games before. You have all these teenagers who know their lives are probably going to end and they're being shoved together—you'd think that alliances would form and friendships would form and then romantic relationships would form. You do see the blonde girl, Glimmer, sleeping next to Cato, but Katniss and Peeta seem like the first time that's ever happened? I guess Peeta was the only one to announce it ahead of time, so it seems more real and less circumstantial.
The Hunger Games is streaming 24 hours, and we already have that. You can buy a subscription to Big Brother and have it on all the time. But something they had in the books that I wish they'd had in the movie is how the Capitol is choosing what stories they want to tell. Katniss talks about that she's sure when she's arranging the flowers around Rue that the cameras have cut away from her. The idea that in the control room, they're like, "Cut away! Cut away!" because they don't want to show her treating a competitor with love. So much of reality is in the editing room. I remember that any time during Big Brother when someone would start singing a real song, we'd have to be like, "Go to a different camera!" because it's copyrighted material and we can't have that. But we didn't really get an idea of what the producers of the Hunger Games were editing out.
I also would have liked to see more of how the two hosts—Caesar and the other guy—narrate the commentary. Clearly, when you're watching the show, you would definitely rely on those two guys to provide answers to a lot of the questions you have. What are the berries that Peeta almost ate, because to a viewer, that would have been super important. And I've always been interested in who the sponsors are. Do they do a quick interview with the person who sponsors them? Does Haymitch come on and say, "Yup, we got this medicine and it was sent in by so-and-so." As a viewer, you'd definitely want to know that. At Wipeout, we have a sports reporter type guy, we have the color commentary—a comedian—and then we also have a sideline reporter, a friendly girl-next-door type, who represents more of an audience's reaction to things. I wonder if that's the part that the movie doesn't show: a girl in an evening gown who flies in and interviews the sponsors and asks, "Well, why did you choose Katniss and Peeta—are you rooting for them?"
As for the ending of the Games, I think the producers would have used audience participation to solve it. Like unbeknownst to the contentions on Big Brother, we'd ask the viewers, "Do you think that a person should get a special prize this week?" and they would vote who their favorite is. I could see the Hunger Games producers asking viewers to vote on what they think should happen. Or if people on the Big Brother tried to arrange a tie, we'd ask them alone, "Do you want to split your prize with this person who's been your partner this whole time, or do you want to keep it yourself?" It's positive because it's not that they were forced to eliminate their partner, it's that they made a selfish choice to keep the prize for themselves. But a partnership wouldn't happen on Wipeout—after a long day of falling down into cold water, somebody always just really wants to win.
At first, reality shows seemed so shocking, especially to someone looking to write a piece of criticism about something new that was on television. Now they really are the norm. People have accepted them as the kind of entertainment that they want. Wipeout has extremely broad appeal—everyone wants to watch their high school principal fall down. And people are really used to it. I don't think there's very much that could raise that kind of ire as it once did. If you were to tune into your average network competition show, it'd be hard for anyone to feel outrage—we have to look to future post-Apocalypse reality TV to be shocked.