We hope everyone’s readying their tv sets to watch Shanghai Rush, China’s first English-language reality show, which premiers tonight at 8pm on ICS. While others have taken a sneak peek at the first episode – in which we’re introduced to the ten teams of two that will be gracing our televisions for the next twelve Sundays – we decided to have a chat with the man behind the scenes: Eric Ransdell, director.
Ransdell took time out of his absolutely insane, 20-hour day schedule to talk to us about filming reality tv for the first time, battling overeager ayis, combating Shanghai weather, and trying to bring a new side of the expat community to the small screen.
So tell us a little about what you were doing before you signed on to Shanghai Rush.
I used to be a print journalist and was a foreign correspondent for U.S. World News Report. When I moved to Shanghai in 2001, I decided I wanted to get into making film. I did a couple of documentaries – one called Shanghai Gloaming, which was about Greg Girard, a photographer based here who was recording the disappearing parts of Shanghai…
Then in 2004, my partner Norman Wong and I started Fly Films. We built this production company up doing either corporate work here for foreign companies – such as Nike, Dunhill, Johnny Walker and Intel – and also doing broadcast production and support for people like ESPN, BBC and the Discovery Channel.
That’s kind of the way we built up the company. Then around last year, ICS approached us saying “We want to do a reality show, would you guys be interested?” It was something we’d never considered… So we started talking to him, and lo and behold, four months later, we’re shooting Shanghai Rush for ICS.
Is this your first time doing a reality show? What was it like?
Definitely our first time. Yeah, it’s a huge project. We shot 12 (one hour) episodes in 17 days, which is kind of an insane schedule.
I think when we started out, we had something like 90 people – the contestants and about 70 crew. It got a bit smaller as we went on… from 10 teams with 10 camera men and 10 story editors down to the final team and one camera man and one story editor…. It was a massive production that was definitely one of the biggest things we’ve ever done.
In fact, it’s probably one of the biggest reality shows China’s ever seen. I know there’s a couple reality shows that have been filmed of people living in one house, but I don’t think this genre – where you’ve got people moving all over cities running from place to place – has been attempted at this scale.
What were some of the challenges filming a show like this?
Um… it was a lot. First off, it was working with ten different camera men and trying to get everybody to have a cohesive look so you didn’t come back with ten wildly different shots. We brought over a Director of Photography from Italy, Stephano, who worked with the camera men for about two weeks, experimenting with different looks and different lights. These guys turned out to be great; really good freelance cameramen who hadn’t had the chance to work with this level of expertise before. They would go around Shanghai, shoot for six or seven hours and then come back and edit for another three, four more.
It was the same story with the story assistants. We had to train these people in a week or two to be able to follow contestants a whole day and keep a log of what happened – who started crying at what point, who said something funny, who fought who here… we ran a lot of workshops leading up to the show. Karen Lee, our story editor, did a fantastic job of training story assistants. A lot of them were young kids out of college that could speak English. She worked with them to get them up to speed and so they would know how to tell us what that team’s story was that day.
Also, cleaning ladies turned out to be our worst enemy. The thing about reality t.v. is, your episode takes place over one day and you can’t just stop it midway. We’d send our contestants somewhere and find out the Ayis had cleaned up all our clues at that particular location. We’d go and hide tickets in the basement of the Pearl Tower, and they would have thrown them away!
Oh yeah, and the Shanghai weather! We shot this in March and there were some terrible weather days.
And last, it was the schedule. I think more than anything, it was the schedule. We’d be up at 5:30am, 6am to get to location at 7. Then we’d shoot through the day, wrap at 9 or 10 or 11 at night… and by the time we got to bed it’d be around 2:30 in the morning, just to get up for the same schedule the next day. It was like we, the crew, were on a race ourselves. Pretty much everybody in our office has lost between three to seven kilos each.
It was very intense. But it worked and we’ve got a fun show out of it… something no one’s seen out here before.
What are some of the kinds of challenges we’re going to see these contestants go through?
I don’t know if I can be very specific (you’ll have to watch the show!), but ICS worked very closely with the different district offices in Shanghai. Each show is set in one district – one is in just Minhang, one is in Pudong, one is in huangpu etc. Because ICS got permission from the districts, we were able to film some of the most amazing locations in all of Shanghai – the Tennis Masters Center in Minhang, the Maglev in Pudong – we got to pick all of our dream locations for Shanghai and they made it happen.
Any funny moments or stories from the set?
We had GREAT contestants actually. They would’ve worked on any reality series in the world. They come from all walks of life – we got a mother and son team from the States, we had a couple from Brazil that’d only dated for six months, and we had these two guys who had only been in China maybe a combined month or so.
They were one of our funniest teams because they had no idea what they were doing, how to get anywhere… I mean, imagine. You barely speak the language, you haven’t even been here very long, and suddenly you’re trying to find clues all over the city. But, surprisingly, they actually did alright.
What was your inspiration for doing something like Shanghai Rush?
Our point wasn’t to make a reality show where people fight and scream at each other all the time. We weren’t trying to cause people to act terribly. We really tried to make the show about these contestants racing around Shanghai, really getting immersed here.
What we really tried to do was show foreigners in a different light on Chinese TV. Usually if you see a foreigner on China, they’re either getting on stage to show off how Chinese they are or they’re some expert trying to sell something. But really, the funniest moments, I think, is watching foreigners just try to get around in this city.
What we really tried to do was something… a lot of foreigners on television in China is either them getting on stage and do Chinese things. We tried to do something completely different from that. The funniest moments is watching foreigners try to get around.
Right now, you see the kid who can speak perfect Mandarin or the foreign doctor or the dumb laowai pengyou… But these guys, our contestants, are the expats you know. They aren’t integrated, but they aren’t completely clueless either… and suddenly they’re stars of this TV show.
I think people are going to be surprised by this. We certainly haven’t seen them acting the way they’d normally act on TV.
Is there any team you were especially rooting for?
Haha, I’m the director so I can’t pick favorites. They were all good! We auditioned more than 100 people for this thing and we chose 20. and they all worked out. There were some teams that we were worried about that turned out to be the best TV ever. There were some people where, as soon as you put a camera on them, it’s like they’d been on reality tv all their lives. They knew what they were doing – or they had always had a desire to be on reality tv.
They really kind of represent the way Shanghai is now. When I moved here, it was still a little wild… it was getting more sophisticated but was still rough around the edges. But now it’s transformed, and it’s closer to New York and Hong Kong and Tokyo. They represent the kind of city that Shanghai’s become. You don’t see these kind of people a lot on Chinese TV.
I think we’ve created something unique.