The New York Reality TV School is a series of classes taught by Robert Galinsky out of an unassuming storefront in Manhattan. Although Galinsky, the "executive facilitator," has little experience with reality TV and has had no popular success in the field, he decided to start the school after a dog groomer asked him for advice on becoming a reality TV star. Fueled by ego and unbridled confidence, Galinsky opened the small space on Avenue C in 2008 and today shares what little, occasionally detrimental, knowledge he has with the city's aspiring reality TV personalities.
Filmmaker John Wilson took it upon himself to document Galinsky's school, approach, and students in his short film How to Act on Reality TV. Over the course of a one-day workshop, we are introduced to a new group of students, including a legally blind singer, a male-revue dancer, and "a homeless guy who sleeps by the Bronx Zoo."
Wilson creates a bizarre cocktail of awkwardness, discomfort, and vulnerability in what quickly becomes a meta movie about truth and identity. He deftly captures those elusive moments that make reality TV great: ludicrous statements, stranger-than-fiction situations, and mind-melting reactions.
Part Nathan for You, part Waiting for Guffman, part informal PUA conference, How to Act on Reality TV is an uncomfortable, hilarious look at real people doing real things that you really can't believe are real—on camera.
Check out my interview with filmmaker John Wilson below to see his thoughts on reality TV, the hidden truths behind the film, and other fun stuff.
VICE: How did you first meet Robert Galinsky?
John Wilson: I initially found Galinsky when I was surfing the web and stumbled across his website for the reality-TV school. I was fascinated by the entire concept and gave him a call to talk about making a show based on the program. After that, we met up a few times, and within a couple of months, we shot a pilot episode.
The fact that Galinsky started a reality-TV acting school while having basically no industry connections or experience makes him, to me, authentically oblivious or accidentally gangster. What exactly is your take on his take on what he does?
I think Galinsky is an incredibly savvy guy and wants to live within the world of reality TV in one way or another. I genuinely feel that he has their best interests in mind, but unfortunately has to do a lot of role-playing in the program to prepare them for crass producers. There is a lot of weird profiling that happens in the casting process of any big production, and I don't think there's enough conversation surrounding that. I also feel that reality TV has a way of simultaneously insulting the intelligence of both the subjects and their audience, so if someone is really determined to enter that world, a program like this can educate them on how unnatural and manipulative reality-TV production can be.
The group of prospective reality stars are as diverse as they are wonderful. Which ones do you think have the most breakout potential and why?
They are all really interesting in different ways. I really like how talkative and unfiltered Shannon [Seal, the male revue dancer] is, while Danny [Brosh, a former drug addict] has this wild energy that's hard to predict. I actually had to hire half of them from Craigslist the day before we shot because turnout was going to be low that particular afternoon. Headlee, Ulachi, and Shannon were the first people to reply, and they all showed up the next morning.
So how "real" is what we're seeing on screen? The people seem so genuine and earnest that it screams stranger than fiction, but some of the situations they find themselves in are beyond odd.
I basically told Galinsky that I was going to show up with my crew and shoot his introductory class from beginning to end. I knew he wanted to do some exterior field tests, but I mostly followed his lead as he improvised challenges based on the student's strengths/weaknesses. The only time we really intervened was when the pizza came for lunch.
Do you consider yourself a documentary filmmaker, and if so, what is your definition of "truth"?
I guess so. I like the term "nonfiction film" a bit better, but it doesn't really matter. It just bums me out when some people hear "documentary," and they think Blackfish. I showed this movie to a group of people I had no connection with, and they all thought it was scripted. I guess the truth is always revealed somehow by your subject, whether it's staged or observed.
One of the nine commandments is to "groom hairy PITTS (Personal Issues to Tease)." Do you have any PITTS that would make you a great reality TV star?
I'm not sure. I usually display all of my personal issues in little memoir films.
Have you ever or would you consider being on reality TV yourself?
I thought it would be really funny to find my way onto The Bachelorette somehow and be the guy that is only there to make friends.
Watching this, I can't believe it's over. Have any of them made it? Is this ever going to be a real TV series? Is that something you're trying to do?
I'm not really sure where they are now. A handful of them actually left in the middle of our shoot to audition for the next season of The Real World. I'd really love to turn this into a TV series if we can find the right company. The bulk of programming for a lot of major networks is already reality TV, and a show like this may be pulling the curtain back a bit too far. I think it has enormous potential, but I also kind of like it as a self-contained piece.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a film about a recent court-TV appearance I had, but I'll never be able to put it online because CBS could sue me for a tremendous amount of money.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.