Behind the Scenes of Reality TV with Joke Productions

Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina are the husband and wife team behind the very successful production company Joke Productions. You may not know them personally, but you know their work across the television landscape with such hits as VH1’s Scream Queen, CW’s Beauty and Geek, Style Network’s Foody Call, E!’s Celebrity Drive By and others.

They’re executive producers with ideas and they know how to get a show made.  What’s different about these pros is their willingness to share their experience and help others.  They agreed to an interview and I jumped at the chance to get a look behind the curtain of Reality TV making.  Here’s Joke and Biagio.

As executive producers/show runners what are the specific hats you wear and how do you divide them amongst each other?
Joke: We both handle big-picture creative in terms of content, overall vision for each show, etc.  On a more day-to-day level, I oversee most of the logistics, scheduling, budgeting, staffing and managing crew, on top of dealing with both casting and story departments.  Biagio has a knack for dealing with talent, so he is their producer, doing pick-ups etc.  As the resident master editor, he’s also much more involved with making sure we get all the shots we need, so he’s point for the director and DP in those situations.

Biagio: Yeah, I’m really lucky I married Joke! She is a genius. She’s creative and great with planning/logistics.  I’m creative and, well, I’m creative. However, we’ve both run entire productions by ourselves, so we’ve each had to handle creative and logistics on our own. I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done method to help me be ALMOST as good as Joke logistically, but when we can both work together on a project, I dive for the writer’s chair, director’s chair, or the edit bay. I’ve also self-taught myself motion graphics, and often end up editing and creating 2D and 3D elements for  our shows.  I tend to do all the graphics work on pilots. On series, I usually do quick supplements to what the graphics company provides.  In low-budget situations, Joke and I will do the filming ourselves, and I will edit, mix, and create the graphics.

When it comes to reality TV, one of the first steps is casting real people.  Why is casting so important to the success of a Reality TV show, and what do you look for?
Joke: Most, if not all, reality shows live and die by their cast.  Our job as reality producers is to create a world our cast can live in, set up boundaries, but then let cast members run free within those boundaries.  That’s when the magic happens…when you let the cast be themselves within the world you created.

For that to be a success you need people who don’t self-censor. Reality TV cast members must be comfortable with who they are and be willing to share their true opinions and feelings.

We look for those who are excited about the journey they are about to embark on. They must be truthful about their strengths AND their weaknesses.  And yes, they have to be open about both because that’s what makes them relatable, rootable or despiseable to our audience.  Anyone who comes in faking or hiding who they really are is out. We’ve learned to spot the fakers.

Remember, not everyone is right for a reality show.  Not everyone is exciting enough, or open enough, and that’s ok!  Not everyone is meant to be a pro-athlete either.

Biagio:  Choosing cast members is a puzzle that takes weeks to solve.  Every show has it’s own demands.  For instance, when we cast Beauty and the Geek, we had to find a group of Geeks who were socially inept, extremely smart, but still willing to open up on camera–a tall order for brainiacs who don’t like to talk to people as it is!

Plus, they had to have great make-over potential, and the ability to learn something from our Beauties.  Likewise, the Beauties had to be beautiful, not exactly book-smart, and be willing to live in a house with a bunch of geeky guys. AND we had to believe they’d grow and change over the course of the season and learn something from our Geeks.  Finally, all Beauties and all Geeks have to be unique from each other, so you’d remember them.  This means some potentially great cast members don’t make the show because they look too much like another person we’re casting that season.

For Scream Queens, on the other hand, we need girls from a wide range of acting backgrounds and geographic locations who could potentially appear in a major motion picture.  We have to ask ourselves:

Are they a good enough actress?

If not, do they have enough raw ability to become a far better actress over the course of the show?

Do they look like a Scream Queen?

Does everyone in the cast look different enough from each other?

Being an ex-actor myself (I played the dorky next-door neighbor on Kenan and Kel) I know how hard it is to go out for audition after audition.  Seeing what a grueling casting process Scream Queens has been makes me happy I became a producer instead!

Joke and Biagio with Zombie on SQ set (3)_2

Joke and Biagio with Zombie on Scream Queens set

When producing a reality show how much of the story gets determined in post production?
JOKE:  Someone said that a scripted show gets written 3 times, once on the page, once during shooting, then again in the edit bay.  You can say the same about reality.  We go out there with a sense of what we’re going to get, we develop the challenges and can predict certain reactions from the cast to those challenges.  But, when shooting, everything can change at any moment. That’s the exhilarating part about reality, and many times they story we would have never thought of is much better than anything we could have predicted.

Also, when we get to post, and we comb through our hours and hours of footage, we find these gems we didn’t even know we had.  With cameras running at all hours of the day, you can’t possibly see and hear everything, so it’s fun to discover new nuances or insights in the bay.

Biagio: We’re both writers, and part of the reason we wanted to get into documentary and reality TV was that real people are always more interesting than anything we could ever make up.  We wanted to expose ourselves to people from all walks of life to help us become better writers and story-tellers.  So casting real people and then telling them what to do would go against the whole reason we started producing unscripted TV in the first place.

Are there reality shows on TV that are heavily scripted ahead of time? I’m sure there are. But again, that’s not why we wanted Reality TV to be part of our repertoire.  The whole allure of making an unscripted show is the excitement of not knowing what’s happening next.

Do we cast people we think will have interesting chemistry, stories, and conflicts with each other? Of course.  Are we guessing that a challenge where girls are covered in cockroaches will get a rise out of the cast?  Yes.  But do we say, “Okay, now you say X, you say Y, then get in a fight and break something” to our cast? No.

What do you look for in a director for your shows, and what’s your collaboration process?
JOKE:  The need for a director in reality varies from show to show.

When you’re dealing with a docu-series, having a producer who can also tell your camera operators what to shoot is much more cost effective.  You do need to rely more on your cam ops at that point to frame pretty pictures, but a strong DP in the A cam position usually gets it done.

When you’re dealing with a multi-camera situation (more than 3 cameras) a director/supervising producer is needed to manage all those bodies and decide who will be shooting what.  Whether that’s a senior story producer directing cameras on where to go in a during in-house reality, or a supervising producer/director setting up camera positions for format elements like challenges and eliminations, it’s a role that involves lots of communication with other departments.  They must talk to the AD, the DP, Story, Art, etc.

We look for people who can work as part of a team, are cool under pressure, know their stuff and are fun to be around.  Going into production is like going into battle. You want someone you like next to you in the trenches.

Biagio:   I like directors who are also great photographers, and who’ve carried a camera on their shoulder at some point in their career.  If the have editing experience, BIG PLUS.  Too many directors have never sat in a bay.  I want a director who knows first hand how to make a scene work in post.

Story sense is also hugely important.  Often times in reality, a director gives you what they think is good coverage, but all they’ve handed over is a bunch of angles un-connected to the story. It’s a nightmare!  Aspiring reality directors: shooting pretty pictures is not enough! Please, listen to the story that’s unfolding.  This isn’t scripted, you actually have to adjust your angles to the reality of what’s happening.

You’re about to produce the 2nd season of VH1’s Scream Queens, where the challenges are often terrifying and always unique.  Who creates the challenges?
JOKE:  This is again a collaborative process.  We have a challenge department, a story department, we bring in experts to tell us what’s doable in terms of SFX, etc.  Ultimately there are lots of brainstorm sessions where we try to “crack” the challenges. We then present to the network and have a collaborative back and forth with them.

On Scream Queens in particular, we also consult with the judges who add their own ideas or bring to light interesting perspectives or feedback on some of our internally created ideas.

Biagio: Challenges for reality TV have to be big and visual.  A straight up acting challenge is a very boring thing.  Throw in a leap from a forty-foot window and now you’ve got something.  When brainstorming challenges, we have to ask ourselves:

Will it look compelling on TV?

With it cause an emotional reaction in our cast?

Will the challenge itself create great reality moments later?

That last one is important.  If the cast isn’t affected enough emotionally by a challenge to be learning from it, talking about it, debating it, and arguing about it later, it’s probably not a good challenge.

Production work can sometimes be 24/7 – so I have to ask, does being married make it easier or more difficult to work together?
JOKE: For me personally, easier.  My parents worked together in their own business all my life, so did my grandparents and 2 sets of aunts & uncles.  It’s all I know.  To me home is wherever Biagio is, so whether that’s on set, or on the ride home after a long day, it makes it easier.  I couldn’t imagine my life not working with my spouse, not sharing everything, not working towards the same goal.  But it’s not for everyone. There obviously are times we disagree and that’s why we work extra hard at communicating effectively.  When we’re tired or hungry, we’re not always that effective 🙂

Biagio: My parents divorced when I was 14, and it was the hardest thing I ever went through.  I decided I’d never get married unless I met my soul mate.  I met her. A woman named Joke.

I wanted to build a life with someone who I was not only madly in love with, but who I also liked enough to be around all the time.  A best friend.

Joke is my best friend, my business parter, and my wife.  And the truth is, I feel like I married way out of my league!  Every day I’m thankful to have a constant companion who’s just so freaking awesome.  The hardest times are when we’re apart more than a few hours.  I think since we married in 2001 we’ve spent less than 10 days apart, and every one of them sucked.

Admittedly, it’s not easy when the person who means everything to you says, “No, I don’t like that graphic you made.” Or I say to her, “I really think that schedule is wrong.”  But we’ve learned not to take it personally, because we know we’re stronger as a team.  We make each other better, and that makes our projects better. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you Joke and Biagio!  For more information about Joke and Biagio visit Joke Productions.  If you want information on how to be a producer, breaking into Hollywood, storytelling and much more visit their blog.