Scripting Reality: "An American Family" comes Full-Circle
40 years ago, in 1971 in suburban Santa Barbara, TV history was quietly being made as cinematographers Alan and Susan Raymond, along with producer Craig Gilbert, brought their cameras into the home and lives of the Loud family. The culmination of their work, the 12-part An American Family, aired on PBS in 1973, and has since been considered the first true "reality" series. Now, the genre comes full circle with a fully scripted version of the story as HBO premieres Cinema Verite, a docudrama about the making of the documentary starring James Gandolfini, Diane Lane, and Tim Robbins.
In this Archive interview clip, Alan and Susan Raymond discuss meeting the Louds for the first time in New York and realizing how groundbreaking depicting an openly-gay Lance Loud on television would be:
The Archive of American Television interviewed the Raymonds (who continued to change the cinematic landscape with other acclaimed documentaries featuring grainy handheld footage and other techniques we take for granted) for four hours in 2010, just as Cinema Verite was in production. "It's going to be another life experience," they said. "First you see Steve Bochco take your footage [from The Police Tapes for the opening of Hill Street Blues]. And then you see the guy who makes Cops take your footage. Then you see reality TV like Real World, springboard from your work. So now there’s going to be a narrative version of you, in which we're characters in the movie."
Cinema Verite trailer:
Again, as a sign of the times, apparently Craig Gilbert is not thrilled with his portrayal in the film. Hopefully, there was a crew filming a reality show of the making of the docudrama to help sort things out.
A reality TV footnote: in the Archive's very recent interview with executive Tom Freston, who headed MTV as The Real World was developed, Freston mentioned that the series came out of an idea for a scripted soap opera featuring young adults. The concept proved too expensive, so the network opted to mount cameras in a house, and let the script write itself. The more things change....