'Real World' Creator Jonathan Murray on Show's Changes, Remembering Diem Brown (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
What started as a novel concept -- seven strangers picked to live in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real -- when The Real World first premiered on MTV has become a new reality altogether. “When we started this back in ’92, none of us had any idea it would continue even maybe past the first season,” creator Jonathan Murray (aka the “Father of Reality TV”) tells ET.
In the 29 seasons since, Murray and production partner Mary-Ellis Bunim created the show, reality TV has evolved from sticking cameras in people’s faces into a highly conceptualized form of entertainment with people stranded on island, battling it out for a million dollars and California girls blurring the lines between reality and scripted television.
Ahead of the premiere of Real World: Skeletons, the long-running series’ 30th season, Murray opens up about the show’s biggest changes and what the deaths of longtime Challenge stars Diem Brown and Ryan Knight means for the MTV family.
ET: Up until EXplosion, the format of The Real World had pretty much been the same. But now you’re changing up how the dynamic works in the house. Can you talk about why that is?
Jonathan Murray: When we started The Real World back in ’92, there weren’t a lot of other reality shows on the air. And what we were doing at that time – putting seven people in a house from different backgrounds – was very different from anything else in the television landscape. Our story came from their inexperience of living with people different from themselves, and that resulted in conflict, and that conflict resulted in growth, and that was our story arc. Flash forward 28 seasons later, there are lots of reality shows on the air now, and we were feeling like our show was feeling a little quaint. And part of it was our own fault, because by featuring people from diverse backgrounds we had actually helped, at least our young people, change their perspective on diversity.
Today’s MTV audience embraces diversity. They love diversity. So, some of the stories that we were telling just didn’t feel as relevant for our audience. Someone struggling with coming out and living openly gay, that was somewhat revolutionary in 1992, but not so much now. We felt we needed to find another way to really get deeper story. So, starting last season, season 29, we added a theme to the season and last year’s theme was exes. This year it’s skeletons. We still cast seven diverse people. Much of the show is still the same. We don’t direct them, we don’t tell them what to say, but we added this element – last season with exes and this season with skeletons – that allows us to delve deeper into what we think is a relevant story for our audiences. In the case of EXplosion, your ex is often the first person you had sex with, the first person you felt that sort of truly life-changing bond with, and you often measure every future relationship by that first relationship, so there was something there to explore that we found interesting. With Skeletons, we’ve all had unfinished business in our life with people. We’ve all done things that maybe if we look back, we weren’t completely proud of. So with Skeletons, each week someone is going to show up at the house who has unfinished business with one of our cast members, and that is going to allow us to explore an interesting issue.
With that in mind, are you worried at all that it’s no longer just seven strangers in the house? You’re introducing a lot more characters and potentially distracting the cast members from that core concept.
No, not at all because we saw with last season that actually the outside people coming into the house in some ways bonded our cast members much quicker. Also, the outside people don’t start arriving until about week four. The house is pretty much bonded by that point. We’ve already seen relationships develop, and then is when we are ready to introduce the new element. We were really, really pleased with how EXplosion went, and we are even more pleased with how Skeletons has gone.
Is the change a reaction to the fact that, now that the show has been on for so long and people have seen it, they know what to expect or play a certain character thinking that that’s how they will be portrayed on TV?
I haven’t found that to be the case. It’s very hard to portray something when you’re in the house for as long as you are on The Real World. Our job in casting is to really get to know the people we’re going to put in the house and to really make sure we’re convinced that who they are in casting is who they are going to be when they walk in that house. Even if there’s a momentary thing, where maybe they’re playing to the camera, we’ve found that’s going to fall away very quickly because you can’t just keep up an act for multiple weeks in the house.
Let’s talk about casting a little bit. When I talk to all of my friends, we’ve all auditioned for The Real World at some point. Everybody has submitted a tape, or has gone to the open casting calls. What’s the casting process like now? Do you only scout and look for people who you think are going to be good for the show?
We don’t do the big open calls anymore, and we actually do much more outreach now where we actually go out and find those interesting
people who we think would be good on the show. We’re still looking for diversity, that’s important to us, but in the case of EXplosion, we had to find people who had an interesting history with their ex. In the cases of Skeletons, we had to find people who had unfinished business with people in their lives.
In casting the show, do you cast for both The Real World and the Challenges?
No, we really don’t think about The Challenge when we’re casting The Real World. With both EXplosion and Skeletons we’re so focused on
making sure that we had good cast members for The Real World season that it’s not even a thought. But, that said, generally the things that make a good Real World cast member – someone who is willing to lead their life openly and honestly in front of the camera, someone who has a strong personality, but is open to other people, a person who has a sense of humor, a person who is a bit of a risk taker – all those things, all of those qualities that make someone an interesting Real World cast member obviously also make somebody an interesting cast member for The Challenge.
The funny thing about The Challenge is that the original concept was kind of like an All Stars version of both The Real World and Road Rules. Now, Road Rules doesn’t air anymore. Do you miss the being able to pull from a second show?
You know that’s obviously why we did Fresh Meat 1 and 2. One, we needed to get an influx of new cast members. If you look at some of the people who came out of those Fresh Meat seasons, they become real dynamos in our Challenge format. Someone like Diem became a really great competitor in The Challenge, and there were others. I would obviously still love to be able to pull from Road Rules. I wish Road Rules was still on the air. There’s probably rarely a week that goes by where someone doesn’t ask me about that show because they have a lot of affection for it. So who knows? Maybe someday it will come back.
Since you mentioned Diem, I want to discuss the passing of both Diem and Knight. Diem in particular, had such an impact because the story about her cancer was largely told on the show, and we haven’t had an impact like that since maybe openly gay and HIV positive cast member, Pedro Zamora, from the San Francisco season. How does a death in The Real World family affect the show or production?
It’s hard on everyone. We get very involved in these cast member’s lives, and we’ve known them - whether it was Pedro, or whether it was
Diem, or whether it was Knight – we’ve known them for years, and we sort of watch them mature. It’s devastating for all of us. But we feel it’s important to, you know, they loved being on The Real World or on The Challenge, and it’s great that that video of them, that story of them actually exists on video.
In an interview you did with Entertainment Tonight when the show first started, you talk about how you have to coax stuff out of the cast, at least at that time. Do you still feel like you have to do that now?
Oh, people are much more comfortable to being open in front of the camera. I think back to Norm from the first Real World. You know, when we met him he identified as gay. When he showed up at the house he was bisexual and then gradually he became more comfortable. Overall, people are much more comfortable being in front of a camera. Look at the way this generation sort of exposes their lives through Instragram, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s just not unusual now for people to share sort of their lives with others. But there still are, like in the case of this season of Skeletons, there were a couple of the stories that we were dealing with that were a little raw and a little deep down for some of the cast members. So, in the interviews that we do weekly, our producers have to work hard to get the cast members to open up about something maybe that they hadn’t dealt with in a while.
Over the course of the evolution of reality TV, you had a show like The Hills that blurred lines of scripted and reality. Did that force you to rethink how you were approaching The Real World?
No, but I remember having conversations with MTV at the time because that show was eclipsing us certainly in the ratings, and it was the
much talked about show. The difference between The Hills and The Real World is that The Real World thrives on conflict, and from that conflict you get growth, and you get story. The Hills was not a show that was thriving on conflict. It was a very different energy to that show, and to me, the moment we start scripting something on The Real World will be the death of the show. When you do that, you as a producer are the ones making the decisions, not the cast members, and you’re going to get blamed if they don’t like what they see. Also, you’re going to get something that’s much softer than the kind of show we like to make, and the kind of story-edge that we like to have. But again, I didn’t work on The Hills, so I don’t know their specific methods. I have no idea, but I just felt like the energy of that show was very, very different. From what I could see, it felt like there were a lot of decisions made as to where they wanted to shoot certain scenes.
Looking back on the past 30 seasons, do you have a favorite location or city?
I love the cities that have great public transportation and walk-able neighborhoods, so my top cities certainly would be New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Those cities just are great to shoot in. But I guess, for me personally, because I spent so much time that first season in New York that probably had the most meaning to me.
The house has obviously become more elaborate over the years, but is there one design that sticks out to you the most?
I really love when we have to adapt something. So this season was Chicago. This was a nightclub, and we had to turn it into a living area. We kept some aspects, or certainly paid tribute to some aspects of its nightclub vibe. I love in this house that there is an upstairs that overlooks sort of the downstairs, where when it was a nightclub, people would sort of hang out and watch who’s coming in the door and check out who they were interested in. It’s interesting how it played out this season, because each time a skeleton rang that doorbell they would run. They didn’t necessarily know that it was a skeleton, but every time that doorbell rang, people would run along that railing and look toward the front door to try to get a sense of who it might be. So, it worked very well for this season.
As far as other locations, I loved the wharf we were on in Seattle. The lighting was so amazing, because the living area was surrounded by water on three sides, and we used this incredible metallic paint inside. It just picked up he light in such an interesting way.
Since you mentioned Skeletons, what would you say to longtime viewers or fans who used to watch the show back in high school or college to compel them to watch now?
I think in some ways, for some of those viewers that complain, “Oh my God, all the show is about is hookups and hot tubs.” I think the skeletons, in a very strong way, make each episode about something a little deeper. Yeah, the show still does have young people who are exploring who they are, they’re still going out and partying, but there’s something that sort of grounds each episode that I think is really interesting, and that is very relatable and relevant to anybody that watches the show.
Real World: Skeletons premieres on Tuesday, Dec. 16 at 10 pm ET on MTV.