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On the Set : STRANGERS IN MTV PARADISE

July 03, 1994|ROBERT COHEN | Robert Cohen is a Berkeley-based free-lance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It's a quiet Friday evening on Lombard Street in the bay city's Russian Hill district. On a third-floor terrace in a white neo-Italianate townhouse just down from the stretch of Lombard billed as the crookedest in the world, seven Generation X'ers gather in a circle.

Voices and gentle laughter drift outside as the group passes around a hat containing scraps of paper. Cory, a UC San Diego student who looks like an Ivory Soap model, fishes out the first one.

Holding it up to the lamplight, she reads the scrawl handwritten by one of her companions. "Have I changed at all in the past few months?" She pauses, blushing. "Gosh, so much. I can't relate to that goodie two-shoes who walked in the door. This must be growing up."

Inside the townhouse, on the floor below, Cory's image flickers on a pair of color television screens in a control room jammed with monitors, cables and a large mixing board. Gazing intently at the video display is George Verschoor, a lanky 33-year-old sporting a baseball cap. At Verschoor's side are two assistants with crackling walkie-talkies issuing radio instructions to the cameramen and crew upstairs.

Behind Verschoor, a woman taps in staccato bursts, logging all the action unfolding on the TV monitors into a word processor. A plate of half-finished roast-beef sandwiches occupies a plywood table in the middle of the room.

For the last four months, Verschoor, the director of MTV's reality-based docusoap "The Real World," has been chronicling the lives of these seven 20s plucked from 30,000 hopefuls vying for a chance to share MTV's plush subsidized living lab.

Their story, which began unfolding a couple of weeks ago, will continue its voyeuristic eaveslooking through the summer and fall, for a total of 22 episodes.

The house at 949 Lombard provides postcard views of San Francisco landmarks, includingTransamerica's pyramid, Coit Tower and the majestic Bay itself. Approach the entrance and you pass a "For Sale" sign and an ornamental amphora. Climb a flight of stairs and you enter a living room that looks like it just stepped out of an Ikea catalogue, with funky thrift shop finds tossed in. A large pool table dominates the adjoining room.

The camera now pans slowly around the terrace, settling on Rachel, a doe-eyed brunette nuzzling up to goateed fellow cast member Judd, a budding cartoonist from Long Island, N.Y. The hat arrives on Rachel's lap and she shuffles the scraps of paper, gamely pulling one out. "What do I most regret doing in 'The Real World'?" she asks.

A production assistant in the control room gasps: "Oh man, We're going to be here all night now." Rachel can't hear him, of course; the surveillance only goes one way.

On screen Rachel grimaces. "The only thing I really regret is kissing Puck." Judd chuckles. Puck, a rowdy San Francisco bike messenger isn't around to be insulted. Mohammed, a poet/rapper, announces that he's splitting for a party. It has nothing to do with Rachel and Puck. He gets up and leaves.

The rest of the "Real Worlders" include Pedro, a gay Latino living with AIDS; Pam, an Asian-American medical student, and Jo, a transplanted Brit, who will replace one of the original seven who will be asked to leave mid-shoot by the artificially thrown-together housemates.

Verschoor turns away from the monitors. With a far-away stare he ponders the fact that the shoot will be ending the next week. "There's going to be a lot of evaluation, a lot of grieving. The intensity's going to be over and it's going to be a letdown. Not only for the cast, but the crew too. They've gotten very attached over four months."

Verschoor speaks from experience. He's directed all three seasons of "The Real World," the first in New York, and last year's L.A. chapter in Venice. He speaks of the cast as if they're family, which is what they've come to represent to him after the many intense months of forced intimacy.

"This cast was wonderful. They're the best and brightest of what's out there," he says. "What's strange is that we know almost everything about them, but they know next to nothing about us. But you need to maintain a proper distance; otherwise, you contaminate the process."

He recalls an incident when Rachel and Pedro flew to Rachel's home town of Phoenix, Az. "They ended up at the wrong airport--San Francisco instead of Oakland. And Rachel was very upset when she realized they'd completely screwed up. She turned to the production crew who'd come along and said, 'You guys knew all the time, didn't you?' They smiled like cats who got the canary and didn't say a word.

"But we can't be their parents. They have to be responsible for themselves. We do have our rules in 'The Real World.' "

"The Real World" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. with repeats Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at noon and 6:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. on MTV.

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