Morgan Spurlock Gets Connected on AOL
There's a moment in the AOL online series Connected when Rosie Noesi, a 34-year-old radio and television host from Edgewater, New Jersey, learns some devastating news from her doctor: She has multiple lumps in her breasts.
Connected is an online documentary series and Noesi is a real person living her life in front of a camera. While this moment is difficult, for executive producer Morgan Spurlock, it's one of the most touching in the show.
"You see this beautiful supporting boyfriend that she has, who is there, who is like, 'No matter what, you know I am here for you.' I mean, these are, these are things, that I think we have all gone through, of triumph and tragedy."
In a time when reality programming has given way to "assisted reality," Connected presents something viewers rarely see: cameras recording people's everyday lives with no artificial story arc shaping the process. Connected offers an especially intimate look, since the cast filmed themselves.
Connected began in Israel in 2009, where it became a sensation and has run for several seasons. The production company behind it, Koda Communications, has successfully produced the show in a variety of countries. Koda manages the edits for each production, since it knows the formula that makes the show work.
Video has been at the forefront of AOL's efforts to reinvent itself, and while the company has created online series with a variety of celebrities, including Heidi Klum, Nicole Richie, and Steve Buscemi, it's always created short-form content. Connected is a departure from that, AOL's first stab at long-form video. Connected was picked up by Ran Harnevo, AOL's former president of video, and is now overseen by Dermot McCormack, who has taken Harnevo's place.
The show presents six New York City-based storylines and attempts to show, without any behind-the-scenes manipulation, how all our lives are connected. There's Nina Ferrer-Mannino, a newly married photographer starting a family; Derek Gaines, a struggling stand-up comic; Eli and Ido Bender-Taicher, two dads with two daughters; Lori Levine, a successful CEO married for the first time at 44; and the previously mentioned Rosie Noesi, a divorced woman struggling with commitment. The sixth storyline is about Jonathan Bricklin, the 37-year-old owner of a New York City Ping-Pong social club, dating 67-year-old Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon. If news reports from early March are correct, filming Connected put a strain on their relationship, but Bricklin told reporters they haven't separated.
The cast of Connected: Jonathan Bricklin, Derek Gaines, Lori Levine (front), Nina Ferrer-Mannino, Eli Bender-Taicher, Ido Bender-Taicher, and Rosie Noesi.
Filming Separate Lives
Since Spurlock wasn't shooting or editing the footage, his role on Connected was completely different than in his previous projects. He needed to keep track of hundreds of different elements and direct the editing from afar.
"We will get a rough storyline, a rough edit of things that are in there," Spurlock explained in an interview when the editing was only halfway completed. "We will be getting reports of things that have been happening in the field. So then we will ask about certain things—we ask things that we have read about, that we're missing, or things that we feel like could be valuable in terms of bridging gaps—things that they already have. Then, they [Koda] come back to us with new cuts."
Spurlock was surprised at the way the cast gradually changed in front of the camera. As the filming went on, they because less guarded and more comfortable.
"One of the things that we have done and the guys at Koda have done from the beginning is involve the people who are in the show in the viewing process," Spurlock said. "Once we get a lot cut, we show it to them so they can see what the show is like, so they can understand how it is being put together, and it's emotional. It's very raw. It's a hard thing for them to see, but I think it's a beneficial part of the process."
When he first heard the idea for Connected, Spurlock confesses that he was angry—angry that he hadn't thought of it first. While he can rattle off documentary projects that tried to get an honest look at real lives—such as R.J. Cutler's American High TV series—he doesn't know any where the cast did all the filming. The result is that the cast tells their own stories, and Spurlock finds that beautiful.
"One of the things that I am a big advocate for is authenticity, and I think that what you get with this show is such a level of authenticity that it's almost disarming when you watch it," Spurlock said. "Places you get access to, the things people talk about—it's infinitely more honest than the majority of the shows that you see on television. Once these people get this comfort around the camera they just open up because they are by themselves. They're basically talking to this device and it becomes almost like this therapeutic session of them being able to share some of their innermost thoughts, concerns, and emotions. It's a powerful format."
For a show about regular people and regular lives, viewers might wonder how Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon fits into the mix. It seems like AOL is gaming the system by adding a celeb whose private life is no stranger to the tabloids. But Spurlock says it's not that way at all. In casting the show, the production team was looking for an up-and-coming chef, and someone suggested Jonathan Bricklin, whom Spurlock had already known for a few years.
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