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COVER STORY

Saucy and Sassy

July 25, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since 1984, British director Roland Joffe has made such serious dramatic films as "The Killing Fields," "The Mission," "Fat Man and Little Boy," and "City of Joy."

So who knew that underneath all that somberness, the two-time Oscar nominee is really a wild and crazy guy? Joffe gets to reveal his lighter side as the executive producer of MTV's sexy new daily series, "Undressed," which premieres Monday on the cable network.

"I've always liked MTV," says the 53-year-old Joffe by phone from Paris, where he is filming "Vatel," starring Uma Thurman and Gerard Depardieu.

"There is a sort of freshness to it I've always been fond of," he adds. "One day I was watching one of the 'Real World' episodes which I found a lot of fun in many ways, and thought it would be interesting to do a show that addresses that MTV audience about the kind of foibles of human nature and the strangeness of being a human being."

People, he says, tend to take things too seriously. "But in actual fact, most of the time we are sliding around on banana skins," says Joffe. "I think that is what fascinates me--the way human beings try to keep their dignity in [strange] situations or pretend that everything is alright when it isn't. It is all those wonderful ways we have of trying to deal with life that are really contradictions."

John Miller, senior vice president of original programming for MTV, recalls that Joffe came to the network saying he wanted to do innovative television. "We told him he was in the right place," says Miller, after he got over the fact that Joffe had called at all. "I was more shocked and honored than surprised [he came to MTV] . . . Having a professional relationship with him is fantastic."

The 30 episodes of the first season of "Undressed" feature 105 speaking parts by actors and 23 story lines addressing such issues as one-night stands, bisexuality and loss of virginity. Each episode includes three separate plots--one dealing with high school students, one set in college and another post-college.

"We're downright cutting edge," says supervising producer Dale Robinson, who is also one of the series' directors. Robinson envisions "Undressed" as "sort of like 'Slacker' meets 'Love, American Style.' "

For example, he says, the plot featuring two high school students trying to score in a van seems finished after the first three episodes, but will make a return later in the series. The story arc about the post-college couple who are having trouble with their love life after living together for six months vanishes after four episodes.

"So we are constantly fading in new characters and fading out old characters,' says Robinson. "The cast is always changing."

Miller believes "Undressed" owes far more to the serial genre than the anthology format.

"It just makes smart television sense," he says. "People want to be emotionally invested in good characters. What we have strived for us is to create characters you can invest in as well as themes that people are really hungry for, especially people within our viewerships. It is not just undressing bodies, but undressing relationships step by step."

It's also very sexy, says Joffe. "The fact is most of our lives are a little saucier than we generally think," he says. And sex, Joffe adds, can be extremely funny.

"Sex wasn't arranged for efficiency," Joffe says. "When you come to think of it, it is wonderfully funny and bizarre. It pops up or pops out in unexpected places."

Miller points out, though, the network doesn't want to push the sexual envelope with "Undressed."

"We want to push the programming envelope," Miller explains. "If you look at 'Loveline,' [MTV's relationship advice show] what they talk about every night is a lot saucier than 'Undressed.' "

Joffe, who has overseen the production being shot on three sound stages in Los Angeles, says his main role on the project has been to say to everyone: "Don't fall into the expected. In a situation, look at the things about it you don't recognize. Look at different ways of telling a story. The idea is always what we think we know is usually what we don't know."

"Undressed" has been cast purposely with unknowns. "The fun of it was to look for something fresh," say Joffe. "These are people we have not seen a 100 times before. We are actually playing on humanity, the wryness, fun and the fondness of humans and their foibles. Therefore, the undiscoveredness of the program is really important to us."

Despite the fact that the series is made primarily for the MTV audience, Joffe believes all ages will enjoy it. "The lovely thing about MTV is that its reach goes well beyond what is generally considered to be its audience," he says. "That's part of the fun of the station."

He already knows of one fan of "Undressed": his 13-year-old daughter, Nathalie, who watches MTV "incessantly." When she learned he was doing the series, Joffe recalls, she said: "Dad, that's pretty cool."'

"Undressed" air weeknights at 11 p.m. on MTV. The network has rated it TV-14SDL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for sex, suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

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