An interview with the casting V.P. for MTV's 'True Life'
There's been much discussion and speculation about a casting call for Furries to appear on MTV's reality show, True Life. Erika Dobrin, casting VP at the show's producer Asylum Entertainment, was nice enough to give me 30 minutes to answer questions about it.
The phone app I used didn't record (I blame an app update), so this is paraphrased from notes and approved by Erika. I would say that the answers were very, very on-message. I did ask personal stuff to make it relatable - perhaps some responses would boil down to "just doing a job", or it might have caused shyness about getting personal. (Understandable, considering that the casting call has gotten hate mail.)
I aimed to ask tough questions, balancing sympathy towards the challenge of putting out professional media with being a Furry fan who's shamelessly obsessed with fursuiting.
Patch Packrat: Thanks for offering a few minutes out of your day, Erika. I work with a lot of young people interested in getting media jobs, so I want to ask you questions that might inform them.
Erika Dobrin: I hope we can keep this very positive!
PP: Can you tell me about your job? What's your work like?
ED: I love working here and meeting all kinds of people. We want to show that subcultures are made of regular people who aren't that different from everyone else. I have a lot of free reign at my department. Asylum trusts us implicitly to find the right people.
PP: Tell me about the show you're casting. What do you personally think the goal should be?
ED: We want people to be very comfortable. We bring no judgements. It's about the story that YOU want to tell.
PP: Do you have a favorite model of the show you'd want to make?
ED: I spent a lot of time working on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and absolutely loved it. The experience was very positive and I think we changed a lot of people's lives. It was fun to meet a lot of characters. If I could work on that forever, I would.
PP: What power does your job give you to help tell people's stories? Is it personal, or is it more about doing a job?
ED: The relationships with people are very, very personal. People tell me things they have never told their closest relatives.
PP: Can you tell me a little about the relationship between Asylum Entertainment and MTV?
ED: Production companies are contracted to deliver shows... that's how they're made these days. Asylum has done commercials, shows for National Geographic, WE, The History Channel, A&E Bio, and many feature and documentary films. We aren't restricted by one kind of content.
PP: How did you first learn about Furry fans, and what was your reaction then?
ED: Oh, I've always known about them. It seems like it's full of creative people. I've talked to artists, people working for the Department of Defense... I'm very impressed. But it's been very hard to get people to work with us! I really want to keep things positive.
PP: Does Furry fandom give you any thoughts about why people express themselves the way they do? Does it make you think about identity?
ED: I see self-expression, creativity, imagination. I think it has saved people's lives and made them feel accepted. It seems almost like a family.
PP: You mentioned you've "always" known about Furries- does that go back to the 90's? Was there any particular first introduction? Was it just through your job?
ED: Well, I guess you just hear things... it was probably through the media. I know that the media has done people wrong and there are untrue rumors... it isn't even about dressing in fur suits, not everyone does that. It's SO MUCH MORE. We have learned a lot about the fandom and want to show people that Furries are no different than you and I.
PP: Do you have any opinions about exploitation shows (like an icon I saw all the time in the 90's, Jerry Springer)?
ED: That stuff is just entertainment. It isn't real. I guess some people like it, but I don't watch it.
PP: How do you respond to criticisms that compare you to that kind of show?
ED: We want to make pure documentary... not staged, paid, or made up. We'll spend six months of shooting with someone to show what their life is really like.
PP: Six months! That's a lot of time to edit down into one half hour show. It sounds like you really give a lot of effort. Can you tell me what power MTV has to direct what kind of show you deliver? Are they part of the editing process?
ED: It takes months to film and follow real life events, and it will go into three segments per show. I tell people that if they don't want to be an idiot, then don't be an idiot... I can't edit someone to be that way if they aren't that way.
PP: Does the editing happen in a different department?
ED: I'm here to cast someone who wants to tell their story.
PP: Do you have opinions about editorial viewpoints in documentaries? I've heard Michael Moore's compared to the editorial section of the newspaper.
ED: Well, there's always two sides to a story. We want our show to be accepting.
PP: Do you have any message for young people aspiring to a professional media job? I'm curious if I can learn anything to pass on to students.
ED: Take anything and everything you can get. If it's an unpaid PA job, take it. Talk to people, meet people.
PP: So you want to work with someone who's aiming high and wants to be a pro?
ED: No, we're not looking for an actor. We want to show your life. But definitely, we don't want to work with someone who doesn't want to be on TV.
PP: I think that since you're looking for a furry, it's about the love of it first of all- it's a fan interest.
ED: Exactly. We do want someone with a compelling story though. Maybe it's someone who's young and hasn't told their parents, and we can show how their parents love them.
PP: When you said that an aspiring pro should take "anything and everything", it reminded me of an article I read in VICE magazine. Well, they have a reputation- some of their stuff is respected as journalism not from a conventional source, and some is less respected as "hipster" stuff... anyways, the article was by a guy wondering about what would have happened if he had taken a role making out with a 500-lb woman on a trashy talk show... and was it a turning point in his life? I guess... there is a line, and people wonder if they should cross it. I think some of the reaction is treating your show that way. What do you think about that?
ED: Oh, there is definitely a line. I know, people will say "our fandom isn't about sex," But if you look online... there is some aspect. We don't want you to show us bad things... we want you to show us what YOU love about furry fandom. But, we have to deal with the people who come to us... it might be up to you!
PP: I think there is some aspect that people want to keep to themselves... after all it's a very personal interest, not something that comes from leaders, it's all about individuals socializing on their own level. So, I'm curious... can you tell me is there any aspect of furriness in you? Do you have a favorite cartoon? Kids, nieces, nephews who do? Do you have pets?
ED: Well... no kids... I do have pets! A chihuahua, and a lab. I love them. I can totally relate.
PP: Is there anything else you'd like to say in conclusion?
ED: I hope this helps... please, can you help us find a wonderful furry?
Erika told me they have been trying to cast the show for around two years. It makes me ask: would the process be so difficult, if they were just trying to pay a puppet to do what they wanted?
Documentaries can show a side of people they value, but may not even tell their own closest relatives about. I don't know if anyone will ever agree if furries belong in a documentary or who's best to make it, but whenever there is one, it gives the public a look past that boundary I have to be careful about whenever something sets off my "furdar".
Do you have "furdar"? One of my professional roles involves young adult art students, who occasionally, reveal a clandestine Furry interest. They don't know I know, but I do. You can tell by their drawing style, or terms they let slip (like calling cartoons "anthro"), or clues like fashion. To keep things professional, I respect their privacy and don't pursue it or reveal my familiarity. They'd have to bring it up themselves. But that boundary gets fuzzy if we collide at a Furry event outside of work, especially if they've finished school.
Imagine such an awkward, funny meeting at a Furry convention or party. It's happened to me more than once. At its most absurd, I was in a fursuit, and I knew their face, but they couldn't guess who I was. It causes bafflement, curiosity, teasing, and fun.
Furries aren't that common among art students. It's a small fandom. But many lurk below the tip of the iceberg of people with active profiles, and I suspect that a lot of creative young furries go to school with professional aspirations. If a student is into it, there's a good chance it can set off my "furdar". It's a moment when the door cracks open between public and private, fan and professional.
A student's talent brings optimism that's often coldly interrupted by the gap between pre-school hopes and jobs after graduation, when many are challenged by a tough and competitive market. I've heard a decent comparison - Pixar-type jobs, "sexy" jobs that tempt kids to follow their dreams... that's like aiming for major league sports. Not many make it, nor should they. There's only so many studios, and not every artist should sell their lives to be creative on bosses' hours. There's also bread-and-butter type jobs cranking out more modest stuff; those take talent, too.
Importantly, when jobs are increasingly outsourced while schools create more and more grads, most will end up outside the professional world, unless they're persistent enough to come in through the side door of freelancing and independent work. Such work seems to stay small and tough to sustain for a long-term living. This creates a lot of artists hungry for work.
In young and student-heavy furry fandom, a class of artists take commissions, build fursuits, and do whatever keeps them going as part time income and part time hobby. Many started art school with optimism at heart. Do some aspire to "be the media?" In light of the hopes of this young, creative population, it's curious to see negative opinions ("Media vs. Furries"), often without direction conversation with said media. That's why I reached out for a phone interview with a pro: to add a personal perspective from inside the media world, looking out at Furry fans.