Cameras In Cancun

Rick de Oliveira didn't exactly major in reality TV. But in 1993, the recent college grad snagged a production job on MTV's "The Real World: Los Angeles." That's when the reality bug bit and he's never complained about working an 18-hour day since.

Now he's directed and coproduced the "reality TV" movie "The Real Cancun," which opens today. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke to de Oliveira. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: "The Real Cancun" differs from "The Real World" in a few ways.

Rick de Oliveira: In "The Real Cancun," we took a stylistic approach of trying to do it without interviews. We wanted to make it a comedy, which it is. We try not to take it too seriously, we try to make fun of ourselves. There are some silly moments in there. One girl gets stung by a jellyfish, so what we did was take some stock footage of a jellyfish and made like a kind of "Jaws" parody. And it's just silly. And it's meant to be just silly, so that people would have a good time and laugh. It's not meant to be a social commentary on spring break.

You have some future projects that are more serious.

We have some stuff in development that is more meaningful to college students. Backpacking across Europe with a group of people who need to make some decisions in their lives.

What is it about reality programming that grips us?

People like to know that it could be them. People enjoy watching other people like them, and say, "Hey, that's me!" Whether [or not] they're a person who goes out and has sex with 10 girls, there are people like that. Or if they're a person who's really romantic and wants to find Mr. Right, they [can] be voyeuristic and live through those people. The thing is, it could be them. It's like watching your neighbor next door versus watching Courtney Cox, who you'll never be. You'll never be Brad Pitt. Those people are 1 percent of the population. Reality shows take up the other 99 percent and give them the hope of being on television.

But at the end of the day, the casts are selected and the reality is staged.

Not really, I disagree a little bit. In our casting of "The Real Cancun," we have a bunch of different people.

Different, maybe, but they sure are all more beautiful than average.

We have to have telegenic people. Telegenic is not pretty, telegenic is not skinny. As long as you don't have a big boil on your face ... We always want to make sure that the camera likes your appearance. It doesn't matter if you're skinny, tall or fat. Nathan Lane is not the most attractive man in the world, but he's telegenic. He's got an interesting face and an interesting perspective.

The other thing you need for reality shows and movies is people who are extroverted. If you're introverted and quiet, it's not going to work in the medium. [And] I tell all the cast members before they go, "Listen, be yourself, I don't want you to be anyone else other than who you really are. Don't try to come on here and be a character who you saw or who you think you want to be because people will know you're a fraud. Be who you are."

Also, you need to wear your emotions on your sleeve. If you're upset at something, you've got to tell us. The camera doesn't know if you're upset.

As a director of reality programming, how do you control the process?

Basically, we try to gather material. During the week of shooting, we get 500 hours of material; we track stories where we discuss what's happening with each of these characters because we can't follow everybody every minute of the day. We're basically telling their story. [And] there are some stories that we left on the cutting room floor. One of the girls, who's not in the movie so much, was a very sloppy drunk. And we basically just wanted to make sure she was safe.

You didn't steer the cast at all?

No, we just let the week play out. What we wanted to do was place them in a real environment with real people that would give them a real experience.

Producing these shows is really economical, right? You shot in eight days, edited in two and half weeks, and paid your cast next to nothing.

It is pretty cost-efficient. But it all depends on what kind of show it is. This movie has tremendous music in it. The music budget's not cheap. But it has that franchise effect. If this movie is successful, and we decide to do "The Real Cancun II," we don't have to pay Jason Biggs $10 million to come back and play his role. We'll take a new group of people, go to a new location and find out more stories. Which is kind of why "The Real World" reinvents itself every time. People say all the time, "Well, it's not as good as the first couple of seasons." Well, that's because people have changed. As more reality has come out, people are more self-aware of who they are, which is the hardest part of doing this now.

Reality TV is an established phenomenon now. How is it affecting television and film in general?

The economics of it make it worth it. The economics of doing a reality show are always going to be less than the economics of doing "The West Wing." I think what's going to happen, both in film and TV, is going to be the big-tent theory. You're going to have "The West Wing" and "E.R.", but at the same time, those will be offset by reality television. In the studios it's the same thing, of course. "The Matrix" is going to be out there, that's always going to be there, but now we can do three or four of these less-expensive movies and fill in time with our product during the year. That's why I tell people that good shows will always be on. "The Sopranos" are not going anywhere. But what [reality shows] do is offer the networks an alternative and also allow them to do it at a better cost so they can keep "The West Wings" on for longer.

Who should see "The Real Cancun"?

People who want to see a fun comedy, aged 18-35. If you've had a good time and you've been to the beach, this won't disappoint.

Why should they see it?

Because I need to make a house payment.

Seriously.

It's a comedy, you'll have a good laugh. Hopefully it'll take your mind off all the things that are happening today.

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