Real Cancun: Hollywood’s First Reality Feature

The ad for the new reality movie reads: It’s fun and sexy, unscripted and uncensored, but more than anything, it’s The Real Cancun.

Each year, over 40,000 college students travel to Cancun, Mexico for Spring Break. But this year, for the first time, sixteen people spent together eight days in a beachfront villa for the ultimate Spring vacation.

The cast included:

Alan, 19, from Texas, the archetypal “good boy,” who’s never got attention from women and hasn’t had a drink in his life.

Casey, 25, an aspiring model from Miami, who has never held a steady job and, with his cool attitude, views life as one long Spring Break.

Roxanne and Nicole, 19, fun-loving twins from Texas.

Heidi and David, 18, innocent friends who have flirted with one another but never hooked up.

Jeremy, 22, from Arizona, a self-professed “ladies man,” training all his life for Spring Break.

Jorell, 21, and Paul, 20, lifelong friends from Los Angeles who have never been out of the U.S.

New Line’s The Real Cancun is the first reality entertainment for the big screen. Sixteen people, chosen during open auditions at colleges across the country, immersed themselves in the Spring Break revelry of Cancun with the understanding they would be followed 24 hours a day by six camera crews.

The film was produced by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, who helped pioneer the reality TV genre in 1992, with the hit series, The Real World, which recently completed its 12th season. The weekly MTV series brought together a group of diverse strangers in their early 20s and asked them to live together for several months in a major city (the first show was in New York), while every aspect of their lives was taped by camera crews.

The format of The Real World proved so adaptable that it recently earned the strongest ratings to date. Its unqualified success led Bunim-Murray to create the popular series Road Rules, and provided the inspiration for numerous Reality TV shows, which currently dominate the Nielsen ratings.

With the rise of Reality TV, a reality feature seemed the logical step in satisfying audiences curiosity for “what goes on behind closed doors.” “This film is a natural outgrowth,” explains Jonathan Murray. “In creating years of reality television, we’ve been training for this film.” Director Rick De Oliveira adds: “Going to this movie is like watching your favorite reality show on steroids, but everything is bigger. And you don’t have to be a fan of reality TV to enjoy the movie because it’s so accessible.”

Though for the past decade television has been pushing the envelope of what can be depicted, the medium is still limited by standards and practices. The types of stories that can be told have to fit within the constraints of a 30 minute or one hour frame. Wishing to adapt their TV format to the big-screen, and sensing that with the current wave of Reality TV, the timing was right, Bunim-Murray set their sights on creating the first reality feature. “Making this movie represents an unprecedented opportunity to kick up the bar in terms of the kinds of stories we want to tell,” says Mary-Ellis Bunim. “It’s exciting to break TV’s chains and deliver a more dramatic and sexy theatrical product.”

“In developing this project, it was important to place the participants in an environment that would let them be themselves,” notes De Oliveira. “Spring Break has a natural storytelling element –it begins the day they get there and ends the day they leave. The eight days frame was a perfect match for our idea.” They decided that Cancun’s legendary nightlife and white sand beaches, with the thousands vacationing students as “extras,” would provide the perfect setting. Cancun is the number one fantasy destination for Spring Break.

In fall 2002, open casting calls were held in twelve college towns, including Tempe, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; Athens, Georgia. Casting producer Sasha Alpert, who had cast The Real World, came up with a list of colleges. “In casting this film,” Alpert explains, “it was imperative to find students who were actually on Spring Break–to make sure their psychological state was fresh.” While nearly all the final cast is composed of college students, it’s rounded out by some colorful characters who were just too irresistible to pass up.

Using icebreakers and group activities in the casting calls, the team sought to see how the students interacted in a collective atmosphere. Alpert arranged “getting to know you games,” subjecting the Spring Breakers to questions like “what is your most embarrassing moment” “If someone is willing to tell a complete stranger their most embarrassing moment,” she says, “we know they’re likely to be uninhibited. We were looking for emotionally available people that could create chemistry. Along with big personalities, we wanted people who can’t help but be themselves.” The director told potential members: “I promise to take you to Cancun, give you an amazing place and a wonderful experience, and in return you promise to let me film you 24/7.” After seeing about 10,000 hopefuls, 30 people were called back from each city. In February 2003, three weeks prior to shooting, the list was narrowed down to 40 finalists who were then videotaped.

Originally set to have 12 cast members, the producers enlarged the cast to 16 (8 female and 8 male). “We found great stories in all these people,” comments producer Jamie Schutz, “We decided to bring them all and have a great time. At the end of the day, we couldn’t focus on 16 stories, so we had our leads, our supporting cast, our bit players–just like in any feature.”

The main set and operational “home base” was the Baccara Hotel on Cancun’s notorious Hotel Strip. It was taken over by the production team, who decorated, repainted and refurnished the hotel, giving it a Mediterranean look. One side of the hotel was used for the crew, while the cast lived on the other side. Each room on the cast side was rigged with microphones and cameras capable of infra-red to capture late night activities.

On Saturday, March 15, 2003, the 16 members flew to Cancun to begin their adventure and meet their fellows. The members moved into their assigned rooms and, one-by-one, came to grips with their accommodations. During their 8-day odyssey, they rode horses, played with dolphins, danced, drank, partied, changed partners–and then partied more–gearing up for the inevitable hook-up. They were also treated to performances by Snoop Dogg and Simple Plan in outdoor concerts.

Spring Break is thought of as a rite of passage for youngsters. College students usually come home with a little different perspective on their lives. “I knew before I went on the trip that I would have to deal with some things when I got home,” explains cast member Alan. “I knew I’d come back a different person, and I did.”

“The house was beautiful,” enthused cast member Paul. “I felt like a king. We were in this house with a pool table and chess and a stocked bar and everything was free, including the liquor. I usually don’t drink much, but I did that week.”

During their first dinner together, the cast was introduced to Jay and Chris, the Sun Splash tour operators who led the activities and helped spark the fun. Since the crew couldn’t communicate with the cast while shooting, the guides served as liaisons between the cast and producers.

Although a rough blueprint of daily activities was drawn up, the producers encouraged the members to give their input. If the cast didn’t feel like going to a club, they would change their schedule. The cast had access to a phone dubbed the “Bat Phone,” which rang into the control room and let the members speak to the producers about any concerns. Any time cast members wanted to leave the house, they were required to call so that production knew where they were at all times.

Each morning, the crew received a memo called “About Last Night,” which provided a quick recap of the previous night’s highlights from the members–who did what with who. This allowed the crew to catch up and document any progression in the story.

The production of the hotel consisted of two editing rooms, a story editor room, sound storage, and control room. The control room, which operated 24 hours a day, was set up with 44 monitors that let the team see inside every room. There were three larger monitors connected to each hand-held camera, and to hear conversations, sound in each room could be brought up from the control room. The control room let the producers and editors be the crews’ eyes and ears as they moved through the hotel. If the producers saw or heard something exciting in one room via monitor, they could radio the location to a camera crew to move in for a closer look. “It is like watching 44 different soap operas at once,” says Jamie Schutz.

The story editors were crucial to the process. While narrative films start with a script, a reality-based film works in reverse–scenes are shot first then the story is created. The editors tracked storylines and characters and reported back, giving them directions for editing. Each of the six camera crews had a story editor in charge of tracking actions.

Every morning during the shoot, the story editors met with supervising editor, Eric Monsky, to analyze what had occurred and tag developing storylines. With a 500 to 1 shooting ratio, the story editors had the complicated job of filtering through, cutting down, and shaping 500 hours of footage into a 90-minute feature.

One challenge on such an intense shoot was audio. Shooting 24-hours a day, the producers wanted to make sure they could hear their actors at all times. The cast wore portable microphones but being so close to the beach caused a challenge. “In shooting around the clock we also had to mic them around the clock,” explains De Oliveira. “When they’re going out and wear a bathing suit, can we hide the mic and boom them When they are going to sleep, we have to ask are they really going to sleep or should we keep the mic on them Seven experts were available to decipher what’s real and what’s not so real, because sometimes they wanted to take the mic off. We always had to stay one step ahead of them.”

Considering the film’s unscripted nature and being surrounded by the craziness of Spring Break, the shoot experienced few hitches, such as occasional showers. The members immersed themselves in their surroundings and grew at ease with the constant presence of the cameras. Lending an almost epic backdrop were the thousands of Spring Breakers who served as the film’s willing “extras.”

The experience was so exhilarating that by the time shooting wrapped, the cast wasn’t ready for it to come to an end. Though no member was paid, they all perceived their week together as real fun–and educational too.