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Paris unruffled by invasion, MTV style

'Real World' finds a relaxed pace in keeping with a laid-back European lifestyle.

June 04, 2003|Nancy Tartaglione | Special to The Times

PARIS — Filming anything in Paris can be a formidable task. The authorizations, the kilometers of red tape, the often aloof civil servants and the innumerable mayoral signatures required typically are infuriating. Now try filming an unscripted American TV show about a group of kids, with no set shooting schedule or locations, during a time when Franco-American relations are strained to the maximum and what do you get? An educational, cultural, Zen-like experience, bien sur.

The 13th installment of MTV's hit series "The Real World," set this time in Paris and premiering this week, ended up an enriching and calming time for pretty much all those involved. Go figure. About the only real challenge to emerge during the 18-week shoot was getting a household of fast-food consumers to adjust to the two-hour French lunch, according to producer Tracy Chaplin, who has been with the show since season No. 8 and who also produced last year's "The Real World: Las Vegas."

MTV had considered Paris as a location for several years, and decided this finally was the year for the second venture outside the States; "Real World" went to London for season 4. "After the excess of Vegas, we wanted to contrast that by coming to culture. Vegas was extreme and we wanted to sort of ground the show again," Chaplin said.

The show, for those unfamiliar, was a pioneer of unscripted, so-called "reality" television, the forerunner to all of the current shows purporting to capture the drama of real people in unusual circumstances. A group of American college-age kids is cast to live together for several months and is filmed 24 hours a day wherever the group members are. Contrary to shows such as "Big Brother," the cast is not confined to its house and there is no prize money at the end. "The Real World" is not a competition, more of an intimate look at a cross-section of today's youth.

The house Chaplin chose for this season is set in one of the most beautiful suburbs of Paris, called Le Vesinet, where a Sunday afternoon is punctuated by lazy silence and the sight of families out pushing strollers and walking dogs. One would think then that a bunch of twentysomething Americans being followed around 24 hours a day by a camera crew could have wreaked havoc in the tranquil village.

Apparently not. Said an employee at the mayor's office in Le Vesinet, "We are very used to local film shoots. The only thing that was a bit out of the ordinary was that it had this American aspect, but for us it's a bit routine."

That may be, but there's history behind Chaplin's explanation that "we really try to keep a low profile for two reasons: to protect the integrity of the show and for safety's sake."

He points out that when news got out that the show was filming in Chicago in 2001, rocks were hurled at the house and drunken kids took to ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night, which was "very disruptive to the process."

Sitting in his office in the exquisite three-story manor house whose grounds also include a rose garden and stables and which is currently being refitted to its pre-"Real World" state, Chaplin noted, "It's been a blessing to be here. It's like the early seasons where we had a lot more anonymity."

Despite the big dumpster outside the gates adorned with signs advertising this past weekend's yard sale -- the production is flogging everything from couches to sheets to batteries used by the cast and crew -- passersby seem oblivious to what went on for months at the house. A young, hip-looking girl who lives next door says, "I thought they were shooting a movie. I didn't notice anything particular about them and nobody really talked about it."

Because "The Real World" doesn't allow the cast to have music or television, noise levels were kept to a minimum. Chaplin admits there was some excessive drinking but says, "It was a different party style, not like the American college bar scene. Things are a little more refined here."

And they weren't at the house all the time. As a way to get them to bond, and to explore Paris, cast members were each given a job with Frommer's travel guides as writers. The production rented out an office for the cast members in Paris's 9th district where they could write and meet up during the day. Le Vesinet is a good half-hour train ride from Paris and so it made sense to have another base in the city center.

The cast, which includes everyone from a 19-year-old (female) virgin to a Georgia party boy, spoke no French prior to the experience. Chaplin noted that the pace of the show was entirely different from the U.S.-set seasons because of the more laid-back approach to life in Europe. "We're used to everything being so quick. In the States, the kids eat at McDonald's, which only takes 15 minutes, and here lunch means two hours."

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