When you hear the title of Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro’s documentary American Cannibal, you might assume that it’s some sort of horror movie. In some ways it is, because it documents the conception of a reality television show by writers Dave Roberts and Gil S. Ripley, and how it takes a sharp downwards spiral when they get involved with Kevin Blatt, the pseudo-pornographer behind the famous Paris Hilton tapes.
It’s somewhat of a surreal film in that it subtly explores what is real, what is fake and what is enhanced for entertainment purposes, and in some ways, Grebin and Nigro were put in the same position with their documentary. When ComingSoon.net spoke to the duo behind this fascinating film, it became a weighty discussion about reality TV that might be as interesting to fans of those shows as the documentary itself.
ComingSoon.net: Reality TV is such a large part of popular culture these days, so how come there haven’t been more documentaries about it?
Perry Grebin: I think maybe because reality TV is such a television-based medium and most people see it as a television-based medium.
Michael Nigro: Even when we were pitching investors and trying to get this thing under way, people were like “How is this going to translate to the big screen?” Having worked on reality TV, we said, “Trust us. We know the ins and outs of how this stuff is put together.”
Grebin: We had worked in television for a long time. I’d worked on the news for ten years before I even met Michael, then we met working on some MTV stuff and we did a few reality type things but most of what we saw was a much larger issue that related to culture and related to why people watch the news the way they do and what they take away from it. How in the world is real life presented on television, as it’s cut and edited and twisted all around? This is a big screen issue. This is very much a cultural issue.
Nigro: We felt that with reality TV, a lot of people are saying, “Well it’s absolutely just entertainment. What’s the big deal?” My response and Perry’s response too is that it’s pervasive in our culture, completely and utterly. The paradigm of reality TV, of selling the worst thing or bringing out the worst in people, is throughout the news in politics. It’s that paradigm that it seems to be that we need to sell the notorious or salacious or worst to get ratings.
Grebin: It’s true and I think almost every documentarian has some platform to stand on. They have some issue they want to advance. In our case, I think it’s that it’s a difficult world to live in when you’re mistaking entertainment for the real thing. We sort of mixed that up, because we’re really good at hyping reality to the point where it’s not reality anymore but just entertainment. Taking that as the opening, that’s how we started this whole thing.
CS: So basically the idea of this movie was to try to find a reality television show at its inception and follow the process of it getting made?
Grebin: No. Actually, it started because we really wanted to go into the television world and see how shows get made. There’s a lot of low-brow junk on television and even the news is trying to scoop up ratings right now, and they never used to do that. 50 years ago when television was invented, you were looking at the greatest educational too that was ever invented. Nobody had ever seen such a thing, how we could bring information into people’s homes with pictures and sound simultaneously, it was unbelievable. Television eventually evolved into a ratings-driven enterprise. No, surprise, it’s a commercial thing. You saw it happen in our lifetime with A&E and Bravo. They came out to support the arts, and in fact, they’re showing “Top Model” and “Queer Eye.” I’m sorry, but when did that become arts? That’s cool, it’s entertainment, but let’s not make the mistake that it’s arts and entertainment. I mean, “Growing Up Gotti” wasn’t exactly their testament to the arts.
Nigro: To go back to the original question about the way we started it. We wanted to take the idea of a show and follow it through, but I guess the milieu of TV at the moment was all reality, and we were sucked into it, too. It seemed that people were wanting to have this discourse of “What passes for entertainment?” On a bigger scale and what we wanted to discuss was “What passes for truth in documentary and news?” We’ve gone on these bigger shows like “Dr. Phil” that once we start talking about this, we have people coming up and thanking us.
Grebin: When we do these TV things, it’s kind of nice that we’re speaking for the invisible makers of television. I’m sure that 99% of the people out there are trying to make a really good TV show, but there’s a bottom line that has to be met, and that usually means that we have to find the most eyeballs as possible. We’ve become so good at hyping reality and imitating it that we prefer the imitation to the real thing.
CS: How did you first meet Dave and Gil and how did you pitch them on the idea of following them around with your cameras?
Grebin: We had met them through friends years and years ago, ’cause we had worked and written for TV and they had done some shows. Their first show was that thing for VH1, “Homerocker” in 2000, like a sitcom with a rock ‘n’ roll family and it was really funny. It was almost ready to go and then “The Osbournes” came around when everyone wanted reality. It was bad timing. We wanted to know what makes TV tick.
Nigro: We told them not a lot of what we wanted to do. Early on we found out that turning the camera on changed everything. It changed reality. It wasn’t necessarily real. We just said, “Look, we’re going to follow you guys and you’re basically our control group,” and they were game because we were getting them into meetings and making them seem more important than they were. It was interesting. All of a sudden, you turn the camera on and people act so differently. You look at the Jumbotron at any baseball game and the camera swings over, you go “YEAH!!!!” and then it goes off and [you’re back to normal]. It’s totally different and that’s what we were finding. I guess with this culture of all these kids with celphone cameras, it’s so pervasive that we really have to be aware of what’s real, what’s not, what’s entertainment and what’s documentary? I will say flat out that we manipulated stuff in this, but we’re a microwave culture. We need instant gratification and we wanted to put together the most entertaining 90 minutes to get these points across, so people will have a discourse on this stuff.
Grebin: That was our big hope that two people would talk about the real life they see on television and in the media just a little differently than they normally do.
CS: Okay, so you start following these two guys around with cameras
Grebin: The history was that we started following a lot of writers aroundthere were about a dozen of themand Gil and Dave were by far the most enthusiastic and engaging. They were also the ones that made themselves more available to us. Initially, with no particular agenda or money, we really just wanted to research the topic and go into these pitch meetings. It was there that we started seeing the camera changing people. You go into a pitch meeting, there’s an agent, there’s a producer, there’s a TV executive sitting at his desk or not. Could be standing at the window talking on the phone or doing his Email. They’re not paying attention to anyone pitching. It’s really insulting and degrading in a way. Granted, they’re very busy, but why have the meeting then? Most pitches don’t last more than 15 minutes. The people who were being pitched were much more well-behaved [when the camera was on them] and Gil and Dave were very happy about that.
Nigro: And people listened to them. They really listened to them. Another writer sold something during one of our pitches with the camera in there.
Grebin: A documentary is like a lot of other films, where you want to start the editing process early so you can find your narrative thread and story, or you’ll end up with over 100 hours of footage. In our case, it was 300 hours because video makes that possible. We started with a good half hour of these pitch meetings just to see what the dynamic was and it turns out that stuff is incredibly boring to watch. But they had already pitched Kevin Blatt at that point, so we decided to move him to the front of the movie, and suddenly we had this dynamic. We had two people who wanted to make something cool and the devil that they had to shake hands with. You see them about to meet for about 20 minutes, and then they meet and then the movie gets going.
CS: As impartial onlookers, at any time did you feel that you might need to take Gil and Dave aside and say something about how badly things were going? After all, whatever bad situation they ended up getting into, you’re kind of dragged along with them.
Nigro: We went to Miles (head of the show’s production company)–and this will be on the DVD, because it’s so ridiculous–we said, “Dude, this show is tanking.” He’s just sweating and he talked for almost 20 minutes non-stop, contradicting himself. It almost doesn’t make sense cause he’s such a blustery guy. We were fans of Gil and Dave, but we also saw how it was going to go. When we got down to Puerto Rico, we didn’t think it was going to go as bad.
Grebin: Puerto Rico’s not a good place to shoot a TV show. Turned out that after we got back, I talked to a few people and they were like, “Oh, another reality show shooting in Viecas. I shot one there.” We heard that there were several shows that shot in the same places. They’re all promised the beautiful beach and then their permits are revoked before they start shooting. Once you’re on Viecas, it’s too hard to get off, so you’re at their mercy. It’s a great place to vacation I’m sure, because people go down there to forget about time, but that’s the one thing you cannot forget about during production. I’m sure that the crew had a harder time than we did, but Kevin Blatt gave us permission to be there and we were guests of the production. We certainly abused that because our agenda was to get as much footage as possible of these people doing things. Once the show tanked, we had several months to figure out what we were going to do, ’cause the story is not done until you decide it’s done. At some point, you have to pull the plug and wrap the movie up.
Nigro: When we first started this, I said, “This should be an easy project, three months” and you were like, “Dude, at least six.” Two and a half years later, closer to three, this is where it went. It goes back to what I said before that we just kept turning the camera on and the more we did that, the more the story unfolded.
Grebin: But also the more we turned the camera on, the more we learned about how the camera changes things. You walk into a room with a camera and things change. We all know that but we forget it, because it’s so ubiquitous now. It’s such a part of our daily fabric that we don’t even see it.
CS: What has the reaction been to the movie from the different people actually in the movie like Kevin Blatt? Has he seen the movie and commented on it?
Grebin: He’s been begging us for a copy of the movie, ’cause he knows it’s coming out.
Nigro: He saw it at Tribeca. The only reason we knew he was there was because we said we’d save two seats for him at the back of every screening, and the first screening, we didn’t know he showed up but he did.
Grebin: He did see the movie. I saw it on a UK movie blog. Someone saw it in New York and he said that he’d been in the back row sitting next to the pornographer that’s in the movie, Kevin Blatt and his girlfriend, and that’s how we knew Kevin was at the movie. He came to the first one but we didn’t find out until the next day, and he said later that he was so concerned about how he would be portrayed that he couldn’t even tell if the movie is good or not.
CS: I thought at one point he tried to stop your movie from being shown at Tribeca.
Grebin: What happened was that Kevin Blatt issued a statement to the press to say that he was going to try to stop the film from being seen at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is a major event at the time, especially to us, and there were like 9 different networks trying to get a story out of us because Kevin said that his Paris Hilton secrets, where he got the tape from, is going to be revealed in the film. We had refused to show him a copy of the film. We’re not beholden to him to show him the film. As much as I’m thankful that he’s in the film, he’s a pornographer sleazebag who doesn’t have any say in our documentary. I don’t want to sound like a bad dude, but he was patient and generous and shifty, so we kept things away from him since we didn’t need to show him. He comes out and says, “I’m going to sue you guys and stop you from showing the movie at Tribeca”, the news media hears “Paris Hilton,” they hop all over it. They come here, networks, cameras, reporters asking us questions. There’s a press conference, it goes on 1010 Wins and all of a sudden, the movie’s all about Paris Hilton. It’s the “Paris Hilton movie” that no one wants you to see.
Nigro: We were mortified. Everyone kept saying, “So how much do you reveal of Paris Hilton?” We’re like, “Nothing.” “Well, how much is she in it?” “She’s not.” “Percentage wise, of 90 minutes, 20%? 15%?” We’re like, “SHE’S NOT IN THE MOVIE.”
Grebin: They just wanted to write a story where Paris Hilton was in a movie and nobody was going to let you see it, and that was going to sell their papers that day.
Nigro: So finally, we talked to Kevin, and he’s like “Isn’t this great publicity?” and we’re like “No. Dude, what are you doing?”
Grebin: Fact is that it did get us attention but at the cost of looking shabby. We didn’t even know he would come. He was here for the Howard Stern Film Festival, ’cause I didn’t think he’d want to give us credit for drawing him to New York, but it turned out later that he was writing a biography and he wanted to tell those secrets, and this was publicity to pump up his book. We benefited from it, but at a big cost because Tribeca was suddenly like, “Dude, you have to calm this guy down.” But he’s a wild cannon, and it would be bad for him to be on the loose like that.
CS: But he does make a good documentary character.
Nigro: We would not have a documentary without him.
Grebin: It is a double-edged sword, it’s true.
Nigro: In that sense, I am indebted to him, but he used us as much as we used him.
CS: Have you talked to any of the other people in the movie since making it?
Nigro: Neil Degrute, who directed [the show], he’s still directing reality TV, I think he’s directing “Beauty and the Geek” or “The Biggest Loser.” He said to us that he heard the movie is great and said, “I hope it ends my career in reality TV.” He makes so much money on reality TV.
Grebin: He’s one of the few people who’s fearlessly vocal about how much he hates it. There’s a lot of interviews in the film. We probably show 16 or 20 people at the most., but I think we interviewed 50 or 60 people to get all the stuff and these range from psychologists to network executives to contestants, producers. One or two of them we’d been close friends with from our years in television and one was a highly-placed guy at a big network and he said, “I would love to help you out on this. I think it’s a great project, it sounds great. I’d love to tell you everything about reality TV but if I’m honest with you, I will be fired from my job. If I told you how I really felt, everybody would know that I’m just a big hypocrite.” He hates it. He thinks it’s terrible, and he can’t be honest with us on camera.
CS: About the title of the movie, “American Cannibal”, it’s basically taken from the name of this pitched reality show but it’s a title that immediately grabs the viewer’s attention. Can you talk about how it relates to what we’ve discussed about reality TV?
Grebin: It turned out that it worked well as a metaphor, because our culture is now eating itself alive in the form of entertainment. We think we’re celebrities and we want people to watch us. We’ve turned ourselves into the meat we all watch as entertainment.
Nigro: We didn’t struggle with it. We just felt like we’re consumers and we’re consuming ourselves. We’re putting ourselves out there to be eaten up.
Grebin: It’s also kind of funny if you think about it because the public is also swallowing all this stuff as if it were real. The tagline on the poster has become “Some people are so hungry for fame, they’ll swallow anything.” It works on the level that we’re all swallowing these shows as if they were real, then also people will do anything to get closer to what they think is fame, which is in fact this plastic imitation of fame that the producers are holding up.
American Cannibal opens in select cities on Friday, March 16.