Fans of reality television and game shows will find the two mixed together in James Ronald Whitney’s “Games People Play: New York,” a very modestly budgeted video-shot picture that presents itself as a pilot for a TV series. In it, a group of six actors picked from an open casting call vie to win a game in which they must persuade people from the street to engage in unusual, often very explicit activities in order to rack up points. The encounters are all recorded in “Candid Camera” style as the game proceeds, and the contestants also periodically reveal secrets about their unhappy pasts to a therapist, until a concluding twist brings the game to a close.
“It’s completely real,” Whitney said emphatically during a recent Dallas stopover to promote the picture and audition potential contestants for another installment of the series (he’s already completed the second, titled “Games People Play: Hollywood”). “AMPAS (American Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has rules and regulations set up for reality, non-fiction [films], and I adhered to every single one of them. So what is intimated and appears to be real in this film, is [real], or it’s disclosed in the film that it’s not. It’s all real.”
“Games People Play” was not a big-budget enterprise. “It was filmed in seventy-two hours. Couldn’t even do pick-ups because the characters changed, the locations changed, the settings changed. The unsuspecting victims, I didn’t even know how to contact them unless I went back to the releases. It’s very, very real. It’s also very raw, very unpolished, very un-glossy, not sugar-coated, not much money at all in production, because I wanted real content, not what people are used to on TV, which is the only reality programming you get. I make a distinction between a reality film–and I think this is the first reality film–and a documentary. A documentary is reality, but it’s its own animal. It’s when you go back in time and you do a film about an election, an Olympics, a war, or something in the future that would organically happen anyway. Even in ‘Real Cancun,’ spring break is going to happen; ‘Spellbound’’s spelling bee was still going to happen. Those are not events that were created by a writer who then decided, ‘I’m going to make a movie about this event that I have created.’ So that’s how this is different, to me, from a documentary.”
Whitney exults in the fact that the final product includes moments that run the gamut from farce to tragedy. “People go to a movie…to laugh hard, to cry, to have peaks and valleys, high-highs and low-lows,” he said. “I really go for those extremes. I want people to laugh because something seems hysterical and absurd, and then I want them to turn around and cry and feel tugged at the heartstrings because something has emotionally affected them.” And he feels that using the reality-based format, in which he sets up a premise and then lets it play out with its raggedness and uncertainties, is most likely to reach that goal. “A traditional feature is not usually so exciting for me as a reality feature, because even [though] in every dramatic arc you have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, I never know what my ending is going to be. In fact, in these sketches [that make up the movie], I don’t really know what the result in each sketch is going to be. So I can’t get bored in the first ten minutes of making the film. I don’t know what the outcome of the beginning is going to be, let alone the middle, let alone the end. That’s a very exciting thing.”
While in Dallas, Whitney was auditioning potential players for his third “Games” feature, “Games People Play: The Bible Belt,” to be filmed in three states (“most likely Texas, Mississippi and Georgia”). Though he wouldn’t be too detailed about what he had planned, he did say, “It’s going to be funny, it’s going to be outrageous and politically incorrect, and everybody–including me–will learn a lot from this next journey. I think that in one state, at least, the cast will end up in jail. I can’t imagine it not happening. Not that they should be.” Then he reconsidered. “Yeah, they should be,” he added.