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There's Laguna, and Then There's MTV's 'Laguna'

November 05, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

"Laguna Beach" executive producer Liz Gateley said her idea was to create a reality version of "Beverly Hills 90210." Gateley, 38, said she sought to replicate her own experience growing up in Palos Verdes and wanted to show the workings of an upscale alpha clique. Laguna Beach was her second choice after Beverly Hills didn't pan out.

Gateley and co-executive producer Tony DiSanto also wanted to add something new to the reality genre: a narrative feature style. To avoid the documentary look of most reality shows, they established a guide for lenses and music, tightly editing from film shot over six to eight months. Through interviews with applicants, the members of the dominant social group became apparent; but it was pure luck that a romantic triangle had just formed among three good-looking students willing to be filmed: Colletti, a charismatic athlete; Conrad, a wealthy "good girl"; and Cavallari, a sexy power player.

"They came at the right time," said Conrad, who, like the others, sounded just like her TV persona. "The thing with Stephen and Kristin was just happening. Me and Kristin really hated each other. We didn't know he was involved with both of us."

Despite persistent skepticism by some viewers and critics, producers said nothing, including dialogue, is made up. Still, many wonder how far MTV and the producers go to encourage the drama. "There are times when something big goes down the night before and we'll ask, 'Can you wait until the camera's there to talk about it?' " Gateley said. They may suggest a restaurant that will allow filming, and they help pay for dinners. The cast receives "a nominal fee," but no residuals, DiSanto said.

The cast members are never shown doing homework, and only rarely interact on camera with parents. (None of the parents contacted for this article returned phone calls.)

That some cast members appear intoxicated when they're shown partying is a realistic result of their own actions, DiSanto said. "Obviously, we never provide the kids with alcohol. If they happen to be drinking or appear intoxicated, we try to edit around it, but we sometimes can't. High schoolers do what high schoolers do. Our policy is that we do not show it, do not provide it, and do not make it a part of the story."

Though sex is implied in scenes in hotels and cast members' homes, with couples retreating behind closed doors, DiSanto said "this show doesn't go there." The intention is "more subtle suggestion," he said. "Sure the characters talk about it, but there's no need to see it."

The backlash started in February 2004, right after MTV came under fire for the Janet Jackson Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction." "Parents were absolutely furious" about their kids being associated with MTV, Ostensen said.

As school board Assistant Supt. Steven Keller sees it, since MTV would have proceeded regardless of the school's participation, some involvement may have helped matters. "I am confident -- almost certain -- the show would have been more focused on the academic pursuits of an eclectic student body if the school district and MTV were partners in this endeavor," he said, adding that he did not mean the district should have approved such a partnership.

"My assumption is, the current show has turned out to be racier than what was originally discussed," Keller said.

Fame on these terms has come with a price for some of the cast. In October, Cavallari, now a student at USC, was pictured in a Playboy-style photo in Rolling Stone along with unflattering copy describing her as a talentless blond with a "sneering mouth and a nearly incomprehensible Valley Girl drawl, which is all to the good since most of the time she's not saying much anyway." Back in town, cast members deal regularly with hostility. "Reactions are tough down there," said Colletti, who posed for Teen Vogue in September. But Schmitz said he was also grateful. "I don't know where I'd be without the show," he said. He said he has started an annual charity event, Running Home 4 Teens, that raises money for teens suffering from depression, suicidal tendencies or substance abuse. "I get notes from kids that I've saved their lives."

The next generation of cast members will have a tougher time, Colletti said, simply by virtue of knowing in advance that they are appearing in a soap opera drama.

Shooting will begin again in a few weeks, earlier than the other seasons, in order to gather even more footage this time.

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