Winter 2009: Of Note
Lights, Camera, Reality
Students dial up first-year drama for Emory television
By Franchesca Winters 10C
On a surprisingly warm November afternoon, the fourth-floor hallway of Turman Hall has become a rehearsal studio. Nearly a dozen rowdy students glance over scripts while chatting about Saturday night plans and debating whose dorm room is clean enough to film in. Flanked by two cameramen in the middle of the crowd, an impeccably calm Stephen Beehler 10B is describing a scene to his leading man. The All-American Heartthrob has apparently just taken the blame for a raucous party thrown by the cute brunette he has a crush on.
This is the set of Druid Hills, the pseudo-reality show that Beehler launched last spring after witnessing the popularity of scripted reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills. Like the casts of its MTV inspirations, the stars of Druid Hills become overdramatized versions of themselves while the cameras are rolling. They film at real locations, but act out situations that, while loosely based on their real lives, are essentially made up. In fact, the biggest difference between Beehler’s on-campus creation and anything MTV could cook up is that Druid Hills is actually believable.
“Knowing the students at Emory and what they like and what entertains them, I was like, ‘Why not do this here?’ ” says Beehler, a college junior. “I thought it would be a fun, interesting thing to do, and Emory students loved it—much more than I thought they were going to.”
Beehler first tossed out the concept of a freshman-centered reality show to fellow decathlete Brad Pruente 11C. After being cast in one of the lead roles, Pruente recruited his closest friends to join the show, including Sarah Noyes 11C, who would play the Emory equivalent of Laguna’s good girl Lauren Conrad and one of Brad’s love interests. But even with Emily Martin 11C, Kyle Brown 11C, Preston Phelan 11C, Sara Dicker 11C, and Scott Ebbott 11C rounding out the cast, the show still needed a second leading lady to complicate the relationship between Brad and Sarah. In other words, they needed someone who could play the requisite mean, manipulative character.
That’s where Liza Carter 11C came in. Although Carter’s real-life personality is a far cry from the scheming girl she plays in the show’s first season, she quickly embraced the role when Beehler, one of her hall’s sophomore advisers, approached her with the offer. “He did warn me ahead of time that I would be playing the character that wouldn’t really be seen in the best light,” she recalls.
With Carter on board and only a semester’s worth of weekend afternoons to film, Beehler set to work on the show’s storyline. Much like Laguna Beach, each thirty-minute-long episode of Druid Hills focuses on the love triangle between the girl next door, her best guy friend, and that guy’s pretty-but-conniving girlfriend. Simply put, Sarah likes Brad, but Brad’s dating Liza, and Liza hates Sarah for interfering with their relationship.
Although Beehler wrote a formal script for the first episode, he ultimately decided to let the cast improvise their lines. “I put them in an environment that’s going to create the drama and the conflict,” Beehler says. “Then I say, ‘By the end of this scene, make sure the audience gets the point that you’re mad at him, that he just broke your heart, and you can’t stand her because she’s all over your man.’ And then I’m just like, ‘Go.’ ”
With the freedom to be themselves in front of the cameras, the Druid Hills stars are far less a cast than a tight-knit group of friends who just happen to have their lives—and shenanigans—taped.
“There was a scene where Kyle was coming out of the shower and somehow ended up using only a washcloth to cover himself,” Pruente says. “It was so funny because that was at the point in the season where Beehler was giving us a little more leeway with what we wanted to do. Kyle just took it over the edge.”
With ad-libbed lines, impromptu hilarity, and more drama than a high school theater club, Druid Hills catapulted its stars into the campus limelight within days of its premiere. “People would just come up to me at parties and say, ‘So this is going to sound really weird, but are you Sarah from Druid Hills?’ ” Noyes says. “I couldn’t believe that people were actually watching it.”
About 1,500 students tuned in to the show’s EmoryVision (the University’s closed-circuit television station) premiere and the first season drew more than 10,000 hits online. Throughout the semester, giggling girls called out Pruente’s name while he walked to class, and the cast was approached by students wanting to know whether Liza really did that to Brad.
“The hardest part about being the terrible person on the show who ruins everyone’s lives is that people forget that it’s acting,” says Carter. “I had friends who would watch the newest episode and be like, ‘I can’t believe what you did to Brad last night. That’s just a low blow.’ But it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s not really what I did to Brad. Chill out.’ ”
Druid Hills made such an impact on campus, online, and on its stars that Beehler jumped at the chance to produce a second season. This time around, he held auditions during the first week of school. “I wanted a new cast because I really wanted to focus on the freshmen,” says Beehler. “A group of freshmen coming from all over the country to a new place—there’s a lot more story to that. I like focusing on how they get out of their shell and develop friendships.”
With students banging down his door to help write, shoot, and edit the new season, Beehler no longer has to manage everything himself. But that doesn’t mean he’s leaning back in a cushy producer’s chair while everyone else is doing all the work. Beehler still oversees every aspect of the show and is on set for every scene the camera operators shoot.
One of Beehler’s proudest moments came when a visiting high school senior approached him while he and the new cast were filming on the Quad earlier this year. When the prospective freshman learned they were working on an episode of Druid Hills, he announced that he had seen the show online. “That’s awesome. He lives in New Jersey, and he’s heard of my show,” Beehler says.
Beehler attributes the success of Druid Hills to the appeal that all reality shows offer: the chance to delve into someone else’s world. With shots of students playing Frisbee on the Quad, partying at fraternity houses, and dining on Dobbs University Center delicacies, Beehler’s show is an entertaining, somewhat sensationalized interpretation of freshman year at Emory.
Carter, however, attributes the show’s success to the dedication of its creator. “He put so much blood, sweat, and tears into making Druid Hills work,” she says. “The only time we had to shoot was a couple hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and he put together a five-episode season. If anybody from our show is going to go somewhere post-Druid Hills, it’s going to be Stephen Beehler.”
Beehler, who has created three television programs for EmoryVision, spent last summer interning at the Mark Gordon Company, which produces shows like Grey’s Anatomy, and plans to return to Los Angeles this summer.
“A lot of people have a passion. These people get up and they’re like, ‘I’m moving to Hollywood. I want to make it big.’ Well, I want to move to Hollywood, and I want to make it big, but I’m approaching it as smartly and wisely and as well prepared as I can be,” says Beehler, who hopes his business degree and film studies major will give him an edge when it comes time for the post-graduation job search next May.
Back at Turman, one of the camera techs adjusts his lens and, as the light shining in from the window dims a little with the late afternoon sun, presses the small red “record” button.
The rest is reality.