By Tim Ryan
JUSTIN, 21, a Harvard law student and gay activist, huddles over a telephone talking nostalgically to a female friend some 5,000 miles away in Boston. He's recalling good times, discussing philosophy, reminiscing about long car rides, debating constitutional law, and pondering whether or not to leave Hawaii.
The slender man rambles about a seriously ill relative "I have to visit" on the east coast and how "things just haven't worked out here like I imagined." Justin has pretty much felt this way since January.
"I don't know, maybe I should stay, but what's the point?" Justin says. "No, if I go, I won't come back. Why should I? I'm packed. Do you think I should stay?"
Why would anyone walk away from a free stay in a three-bedroom, four-bathroom, $10,000 a month beachfront house at 3169 Diamond Head Road?
Welcome to MTV's "The Real World." The voyeuristic series puts seven young strangers in one camera-filled house to "watch what happens."
Justin's dark eyes narrow as his musings become more personal, emotional. Smoke from cigarette after cigarette seems to hang around his pouting upper lip before curling around an angular nose, then disappears. If Justin leaves he will be only the second roommate in the show's eight-year history to exit early.
This is not a decision he or the show's production staff take lightly. In fact, there's a caveat in the housemates' contract with Bunin/
Murray Productions -- "The Real World" producers and creators -- that allow them to temporary leave for emergencies.
Some 50 feet away in the property's more modest two-story guest house fronting Diamond Head Road, a half-dozen production crew sit in front of 27 monitors watching Justin and listening to his conversation. A camera and sound crew are in the beach house a few feet from where he talks with his friend.
"We think he really just wants to leave, but is using the sick relative issue as an excuse," says Matt Kunitz, supervising producer. "This is really something special happening. Someone leaving the show just doesn't happen."
Hours can be filmed with nothing significant occurring, he said.
Both ends of Justin's telephone conversation are taped and played clearly through speakers in the production office where the crew seems mesmerized at this crucial moment after four months of filming some 24 hours a day.
If any of the seven "Real World" roommates use the lone Apple G3 computer on a den desk, whether it's to compose a letter or go on the internet, everything that appears on the computer screen also appears on a screen inside the production office.
What is it?"In 'Real World' nothing, except the most private of moments, goes unfilmed," Kunitz said.
"We film every moment of their lives," he said. "They give us their whole life."
"The Real World" was forerunner to "The Truman Show" and "EdTV" -- and is MTV's top-rated program. There are more than 2,000 hours of footage from which 22 half-hour shows from Hawaii will be gleaned. The first episode airs in a one-hour special June 15.
"People like to live vicariously through other people's lives," Kunitz said.
"The Real World" is part soap opera and documentary that follows the housemates 24-hours a day depending on the drama. The show, launched in 1992, also has filmed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, London, Miami, Boston and New York City.
The housemates represent a diverse crosssection of people, ages 19 to 23, from across America, including Hawaii. The crew, too, is young.
"If you keep it a young, hip group you'll put out a young hip product," Kunitz said. "And you have to be young to keep up with the housemates. When one of them goes running down the beach we have to be with them carrying a 40-pound camera. When Colin goes surfing, which he learned here, we go out with an underwater camera."
"Real World" essentially declines all media requests for interviews with the roommates or photos until the production is completed. Past attempts to photograph the group at the home and at clubs have been thwarted by security personnel, and with cameras everywhere, blurting's of "Intruder Alert!"
Today is a media day when the roommates are finally allowed to talk with reporters. The production finished filming Saturday.
Hawaii woman is a 'first'The seven roommates were chosen from 23,167 applicants in 20 cities, including Maui and the Big Island. There are a number of firsts in the Hawaii show, including having the first roommate from the area where it's filmed.
"It's just too easy for a roommate to deal with issues if they're a local," Kunitz said, referring to a built-in support network of family and friends.
The local girl cast is 21-year-old Ruthie. (No last names are released to protect the housemates' identities.) Ruthie was attending Rutger's University when at the last moment she contacted "Real World" producers to tell them she was sending a videotape.
"She was awesome," Kunitz said. "We had to include her."
Ruthie has turned out to be a significant member of the cast who -- as viewed in a preview tape provided by MTV -- provides some of the show's most heartfelt, dramatic moments. Ruthie, a bisexual, is reckless, fragile, tough and often lost.
The Hawaii production didn't have to wait long before some very dramatic moments.
"Drama from day one," said Kunitz who asked that the major issues not be specified before the first show airs. "Let's just say that throughout the show there's a major issue regarding alcohol with one roommate and it's all on film. It's dramatic, tragic, frightening.
"What happened was hard, but one of the things we do here is tell a very important story totally relatable to American youth. In this case it's about overdoing things like drinking and the consequences are poignant and, I hope, beneficial."
It was also evident from the outset that nudity would be a part of daily life for some roommates. Ruthie, Kaia, and Teck let it all hang out day one, so much so that "Real World" staff had to design necklaces to hold the tiny wireless microphones necessary to pick up their conversations.
When Ruthie and Teck first arrive at the $6 million home, "They hadn't even ... opened the door and they were like 'Hey, there's the pool, let's go swimming,' " Kunitz said. "They just ripped off their clothes and hopped in."
The producer was elated at the spontaneity.
"I knew that if they're this comfortable being nude within one second of being here with the cameras rolling that they were going to be very open with other things we would be filming," he said. "It verified that our casting was right on. You never know until the cameras are rolling"
Baring it allWhen other roommates arrive later that day, Ruthie and Teck are still swimming naked. Kaia, the 21-year-old dark-haired U.C.-Berkeley student from Chicago, also doffs her top, leaving Amaya the lone-clothed female.
"In the first few days Kaia had her shirt off most of the time," Kunitz said. "After a couple months she got it out of her system."
(The nudity is blurred for television broadcast.)
Another first for "Real World" was having two roommates -- in this case Amaya and Colin -- engage in an intimate relationship. That led to problems with Colin's roommate, Justin, since Amaya became a frequent visitor to Colin's top bunk.
"It didn't improve Justin's attitude about being in the show either," Kunitz said. "It wasn't a comfortable environment for him."
So how does "Real World" deal with intimate sexual moments?
"If a couple is kissing, we're there filming like when Amaya and Colin were in the jacuzzi making out pretty heavily. The crew followed the couple into the house and even the bedroom but when the lights went out so did the camera," Kunitz said. "But if the lights go back on we're there; or even if they start talking we'll turn the lights back on to film."
One shot Kunitz wanted was the couple's first kiss. One evening the couple sat on the sea wall fronting the pool with the cameraman a few feet in front. The director told the cameraman to slip behind the couple for a silhouette shot of the kiss.
"We knew we had the moment," Kunitz said. "Then the cameraman backed away a few steps for more space."Unfortunately, that dunked the photographer and his $130,000 Betacam in the pool. The camera was destroyed.
And there are rules:
No television is in the house to prevent boring footage;Roommates also notify production staff -- usually the director on duty -- if they need private time or plan leaving the house. Phones in the house have a direct connection to the production headquarters.
No music is played because that would affect audio;
There's a zero tolerance for drug use;
No physical violence against another roommate;
Casual conversation between roommates and the production crew is not allowed other than a "good morning" and "good night";
No cell phones.
On one night, Kaia is in the kitchen when she picks up the phone to say she's going to her room to take a nap. The crowded production room goes quiet when the phone rings.
"Hi Kaia," Kunitz says. "OK, see ya later."
"She pretty much thinks I'm here alone," the producer explains. "In fact, the roommates have no idea what goes on in here. They might think we even live here. They don't know the extent of the cameras."
There are two cameras monitoring the pool area with its gas-torch volcano; one at the jacuzzi, above the $10,000 pool table. Others are in the kitchen, gym area, seawall, den and front gate; and two more in the living area. All are transmitted to monitors in the production office.
Gotta make a livin'What has been widely publicized about the roommates is that they've been working at the new Local Motion store in Waikiki running their own cafe and performance space, booking local music acts under the production company name Seven Strangers Productions.
They were paid by Local Motion and they also will receive some "minimum wage-like stipend" from "The Real World" for their story rights. The cost of rent and transportation was paid, but roommates were responsible for their own entertainment expenses, food, alcohol and long-distance phone calls.
One criticism of "The Real World" has been that the Hawaii accommodations, including a $15,000 saltwater aquarium, $66,000 waterfall and pool volcano, $12,000 front gate, and $14,000 plasma television -- it just showed three different changing scenics -- are far from reality. Kunitz agrees.
"This is a fantasy house and we never say this is the real world. What we do say is that what happens inside the house between roommates and on the outside between them and other people is very real ..."
Would Kunitz want his life under such a microscope?
"Are you kidding!," he said. "Absolutely not, never."
And does Justin leave? Tune in.
Love 'em, or love to hate 'em,
here's the scoop on the group that's
giving us a slice of their lives on TV:RUTHIE, 21, Honolulu, one of triplets and the only local in the cast. She was raised in a foster home by a strict Filipino family. According to Ruthie, her foster parents favored their biological children and discouraged Ruthie from educating herself.
During high school, she enrolled in an "Upward Bound" program which boosted her self-esteem. After high school, she left her foster home and did not contact her foster family until she enrolled at Rutger's University.
She hopes to run her own magazine and has won awards for her freestyle rapping and performs spoken word poetry. She is bisexual and has a girlfriend, Jess, who lives near Honolulu.
AMAYA, 21, of Oakland, a UCLA graduate. She's described as a "sassy, sarcastic, sexual young woman," who suffers from a poor body image and struggled with bulimia in her early college years.
KAIA, 21, Chicago, a student at UC-Berkeley. She changes her name from Margaret after living in Tanzania. Her adopted name means "stability" in Swahili. She majored in African-American studies. She maintains a strict diet and exercise routine, is an excellent debater and likely to challenge any idea with which she does not agree.
COLIN, 19, of Thousand Oaks, Calif. His parents divorced when he was very young forcing him to split his time between two households. He attends UC Berkeley and is preparing for a career in sports casting.
TECK, 23, of Peoria, Ill., is the son of a minister whose energy and humor are contagious. He considers himself a lady's man. He hopes to become an entertainer and segue into politics where he wants to be a positive black role model. He's currently producing, financing and starring in a low-budget film in Atlanta.
JUSTIN, 21, Boston, is a child prodigy who found it hard to socialize with his peers in his hometown of Houston, Texas. His frustrations with the intolerance of his schoolmates and a lack of academic challenges led him to Simon's Rock College at age 15. He's a second-year law student at Harvard University. As a politically active gay man he is involved with social issues like HIV/AIDS education, gay youth rights and same-sex marriage. He feels that he's missed out on a lot of the fun of being a kid.
MATT, 22, Del Mar, Calif., is an outspoken writer with self-deprecating wit. During high school he interned at a radio station where he performed well enough to get his own show. He's majoring in political science and sociology and hopes to become a screenwriter
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