“You want me to get this done?” Doug asked Aimee, with the camera hovering over him as he wired a lamp. “Move the camera, move the lights.” For the first time, Doug was visibly pissed off. “You’re yelling at me; you’re getting edgy already.” Up until this moment, Doug and his producer had interacted like teasing brothers and sisters. Now they seemed like a couple who’d been together for so long they forgot why they liked each other.
“I’m not edgy,” Aimee replied. The room was silent. Then Aimee asked Doug a question.
“Hold on, I don’t want to think right now,” Doug snapped.
“O-K. Let me know, then,” Aimee said, and left the room.
Although it sometimes seems as if the designers on Trading Spaces treat their rooms like throwaway canvases, what I saw from Doug was a lot of attention to the details of his project. During on-set downtime, if Doug wasn’t outside signing autographs, he was usually in the room working. Aimee’s crew worked extremely hard, too.
An episode of Trading Spaces is created exactly like a movie: The episode is broken down into individual scenes, planned, set up and then shot and often reshot until they’re right. The lighting has to be right, the sound has to be right, and most of all the cast members need to know what they’re doing. Sometimes it takes a half-hour or more to set up a scene. Then after the shot is done everything has to be taken down and moved to the next location.
The seemingly obvious problem with this is that Trading Spaces isn’t a movie, it’s a reality-based TV show, one that comes off feeling like a documentary, featuring real people, real houses and really hideous paint jobs (and sometimes even moss or hay) on the walls. That the show looks so real may explain why people feel cheated when, for example, they find out that the show is not always shot chronologically.
In Houston, for example, in front of the camera, Doug asks carpenter Amy Wynn Pastor to make him a bench. The bench in question, however, is sitting a few feet away, almost finished. They are, technically, lying—but not being untruthful. Doug did indeed show his plans to Amy Wynn earlier, and she did build the bench. They just held off doing it for the camera.
Amy Wynn, Paige and the designers—and even the homeowners—all handle these on-camera lies really well. After lunch, Mendi heads outside to help Amy Wynn work on a shelving unit for the bedroom. They’ll act as if Mendi has helped Amy Wynn with this entire project. As the crew heads to the backyard for another scene, I hang back and ask Amy Wynn how she feels about the fact that, on camera, she just let a homeowner take credit for her work.
“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it,” she says, continuing to work. She’s wearing jeans and a tight sleeveless shirt with a deep neckline that exposes a lot of her amber skin. “It’s fine with me; it’s all part of the game.” She compares it to the way she ostensibly takes credit for the work of Eddie Barnard, the other carpenter who’s never mentioned on camera but appears in the credits as Prop Master. He handles some of the more intensive work, helping to ease a workload that would be near impossible for one person. When Amy Wynn first started with the show, she says, taking credit for Barnard’s work was a source of guilt. “Every single day at the end of the shoot, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
“The magic always happens after lunch on Day 2,” Laurie Hickson-Smith, the shoot’s other designer, says when she comes in from next door to look at Doug’s work. For most of the two days of filming, the room was just blue. In a few hours, though, it has what looks like a brand-new bed and furniture, funky lamps hanging upside down from the ceiling, a designer entertainment center with crown molding and new artwork. Now it’s time for the final two scenes: the Designer Chat and the Reveal, where the completed rooms will finally be shown to their owners. On the living room couch, where we’re all waiting while Paige gets ready to interview Doug about the room, Mendi asks if anyone has a Pepcid.
“I’m nervous again,” she says.
I ask why. “I guess I’m just nervous because they can’t do a redo.” A few minutes later she’ll continue to worry out loud: “If I say something stupid, it sticks.”
A room in her home has been completely redesigned—it may have hay glued to its walls or broken glass used as a design element—yet she’s worried about her on-camera performance. Her focus seems to be a bit off, but she’s actually being really smart: Mendi knows what is permanent (the tape of her reaction, which will play again and again in reruns) and what can be undone (her room). She also knows what the producers know: This is the one shot that cannot be redone; reactions can’t be faked.
For this reason, the crew is very protective about what is happening on the opposite set; they must prevent the homeowners from getting even a hint of what is going on next door. They’ll be kept inside while someone checks to see if the other crew is shooting outside, or if Amy Wynn is working on something for their room. Crew members and visitors must check their shoes for revealing paint stains. The entire show rests on those final moments when the homeowners open their eyes and see their brand-new rooms for the very first time, and no one wants to spoil that.
Upstairs, two lights are set up near the foot of the bed, where the two camera operators are standing; Mike the sound guy is behind them. When they open their eyes, Erik and Kim will see more people and equipment than furniture. Doug says what I’m thinking: “Are they going to be able to see that there’s a bed in here?”
The producer from the other house, Laura Swalm, directs me to the bathroom, where the monitors for the two cameras are set up, cables snaking from them over the bed to the cameras. Amy Wynn comes in and jumps up on the high ledge of the large soaking bathtub, and Doug soon joins us. Three days of work has come down to this, two people looking at their new room. This is their bedroom, and they’ve let strangers invade it and maybe destroy it.
In the bathroom, we have our eyes glued on the monitor. I doubt anyone is breathing as Paige brings Eric and Kim—eyes closed—into the room. My heart is beating furiously; there’s a lot of tension as we wait for the one moment over the three days that will be a complete surprise. Paige tells them to open their eyes.
Eric’s first words are, “Blue—I like it. I like the blue, I really do.”
It takes a minute for Kim to say anything, because she’s choking up. Is she going to cry? Scream? Alas, no: “Oh, it’s beautiful!” she says, her eyes wet. Doug smiles at the monitor. Amy Wynn looks thrilled, too, and so does Laura and the rest of the crew.
“Cut,” says Laura as their comments start to trail off. But the cameras continue to roll. Laura has requested the “fake cut,” a trick producers use only for the Reveal. Pretending the cameras are off is designed to get the homeowners to speak up and talk more openly.
Three days ago I would have been appalled by this technique, but now it makes sense. Over the past two days Aimee never told Mendi or Boyd what to say or how to react, but she really had to work hard to get them to express themselves when the cameras were on. More than once, after Joe pulled the camera off his shoulder, Boyd or Mendi would say what he or she really felt about, say, the shade of blue Doug selected. They’re acutely aware of the camera’s presence and the film’s permanence. Even when they had to repeat a scene, they’d stick with their original reaction, maybe phrasing it in a slightly different way, being honest in a reserved and supercareful way.
Laura asks questions, trying to get Eric and Kim to elaborate on their feelings. They do, and finally Laura says, “Cut. Real cut.” The crew stops filming and starts to move the equipment next door. Immediately Doug walks into the room and Kim hugs him. “Thank you so much. It is so beautiful.”
After the Reveal next door—Boyd and Mendi both love the room Laurie designed for them (“That is awesome!” “Oh my God!”)—Paige closes the show and the cameras finally stop rolling tape. There are hugs and pictures and thank you’s. It feels like the last day of summer camp as the crew packs up; everyone’s anxious to leave, but it’s depressing that everyone is going home.
Janet Malcolm’s famous book The Journalist and the Murderer begins with a proclamation: Journalists prey “on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” It ends on a less definitive note, though, after having waded through the murky relationship between a journalist and a subject, finding that both those who seek to document people’s lives and those who are documented are complicit in the outcome.
Malcolm’s flaw, however, is that she leaves out the audience—the reader, the viewer—and the audience might really be the most important part of this now ubiquitous and rather dysfunctional triangle. In a way, both the subject and the documenter seek the audience’s attention and approval—the murderer wants to be proved innocent; the journalist wants to write a good story—or else they wouldn’t exist as subjects or documenters.
The audience? Well, we’re fickle, curious creatures, demanding, in the case of Trading Spaces, captivating reality. Yet we often act indignant the moment we discover exactly how the show has been produced. During the first season of Survivor, a photograph of a camera operator and other crew members hovering over the cast illustrated this perfectly; we knew that people were there filming, but the camera’s intoxicatingly singular point of view makes it easy to forget just where that footage came from, never mind how it was edited. The show looks so good to us, so real, that we’re taken aback when we discover that it’s not quite a transcript of real life.
Maybe we’ve grown so disgustingly arrogant that we actually assume our lives are flawless and fascinating enough to just be recorded raw and then broadcast to millions of viewers. But that’s never been the case. From the most innocuous documentaries (the most insipidly dry nature show) to the most argumentative nonfiction shows (anything by Michael Moore) to trusted sources of information (your local news), documentaries and other forms of nonfiction TV are all about shooting and editing footage that pushes viewers in a certain direction. Raw footage is not television—it’s a home movie. On Trading Spaces, the crew will spend maybe 30 hours working on the rooms. From that, only eight or nine 30-minute Beta tapes will be recorded in each house, providing roughly eight to 10 hours of footage that will be edited down to 44 minutes. What happens to make that compression successful doesn’t make the results fake, it just makes it TV.
Walking through the aisles of Lowe’s with Doug, I asked him about the one thing that has become the show’s trademark: the designer’s removal of ceiling fans, sometimes to accommodate new fixtures, other times for aesthetic reasons. During this episode a total of three ceiling fans lost their lives between the two houses, despite the homeowners’ pleas that this is Texas, for crying out loud.
“What is it with you guys and ceiling fans?” I asked.
“I know they’re practical, but they don’t look good,” Doug said.
What’s practical doesn’t look good. There probably isn’t a better explanation for why the show is constructed the way it is. Watch an episode of Trading Spaces and you will be deceived, but you will not have been betrayed.