By Will Weissert
The Associated Press
CANCUN, Mexico - With dozens of wildly popular reality shows crowding the television airwaves, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took a crack at its own version of "real life."
The two-producer team that created MTV's The Real World has taken the phenomenon south of the border, throwing 16 college students together in a hotel and taping every minute of the spring break insanity that follows.
The result will be a movie much like reality TV - only longer and uncensored, and with a raunchy twist on the wholesome '60s beach movies like Beach Blanket Bingo.
"There's not really time to wonder how all these random things are going to tell a 95-minute story," said Real World co-creator Jonathan Murray, whose company is producing the film, titled The Real Cancun. "The cast is living their lives day to day, and the movie takes shape day to day."
Producers are trying to beat another spring break reality movie shot in Cancun and directed by Mike Fleiss, executive producer of TV's The Bachelor and Are You Hot? Fleiss was not available for comment on the competition.
And in June, From Justin to Kelly hits theaters, starring American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini.
While that's not exactly a reality movie, it draws on the Fox show's success. Clarkson and Guarini play aspiring singers who meet during spring break, fall in love and spontaneously burst into song.
Short production time
The race to the box office means a crew of mostly Real World veterans has just a few weeks to hammer out their finished product. The Real Cancun, which New Line Cinema will distribute, finished taping March 22.
There seems to be no real hurry, though, because the reality genre continues to fascinate viewers. In summer 2000, 51 million people watched Richard Hatch win the first season of Survivor. Earlier this year, the Joe Millionaire finale drew about 40 million viewers, and 20 million people watched Trista Rehn choose her made-for-TV Prince Charming on The Bachelorette.
Industry watchers say these shows are appealing because they throw ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances.
But The Real Cancun producers insist there are few situations more surreal than spring break: a week of nonstop sun, sex and shots where everywhere you look there's an excuse to get naked - usually in full view of thousands of strangers.
Reality TV is "popular because people know it could be them doing these things," said producer Rick De Oliveira. "We are taking spring break in Cancun to the people who can't be here."
Cast members, aged 18 to 25, were chosen from more than 10,000 applicants nationwide. Camera crews spent four days following them on their college campuses, then eight days on location.
The set was the 27-room Hotel Baccaka, across the street from Planet Hollywood. It took three weeks to install more than 100 surveillance cameras, 50 microphones, dozens of high-intensity lights and 5 miles of cable.
From a control room on the top floor, producers stayed glued to 44 TV monitors to watch the action. Besides stationary cameras, they used walkie-talkies to send six camera crews scurrying from room to room to shoot the most exciting action.
"You want (him) naked?" producer Jamie Schutz asked head editor Ben Salter, as a cast member stepped from the shower. He pressed a button to record, then said, "You've got him."
The cameras missed little. Some students were shy about changing clothes when they knew they were being taped; others freely strutted around nude. One woke up with a bottle of booze in his hands, while another had never done a shot before going to Cancun.
Producers have banned publication of interviews with cast members before the movie is released. They also barred a photographer from taking pictures of the set, where students shared suites that normally cost up to $450 a night.
Their living quarters featured beds with microphones fixed to the headboards, balconies with built-in hot tubs, and kitchens stocked with munchies and beer.
Lots of excursions
But they spent most of their vacation away from the hotel. Producers hired a tour group to organize daylong excursions that took the students to the nearby coral island of Cozumel and let them swim with dolphins, among other adventures.
Shooting spring break wasn't always easy. Once, when the cast was leaving a nightclub after 3 a.m., 300 college kids spotted the cameras and rushed the fleet of Suburbans waiting to take the movie's stars back to their hotel.
When the cast traveled to another hotel to watch wet T-shirt and bathing suit-switching contests, producers had to rope off beach chairs so their stars wouldn't get lost in the crowd.
And when much of the cast decided to have an alcohol-soaked party on the deck of their hotel, the crew scrambled to get outsiders who showed up to sign waivers allowing themselves to be taped.
"We can react to anything, turn any problem into part of the story," Schutz said. "The more difficult things are for us while filming, the more exciting it will look on the screen."
Editors began molding rough footage into a movie after just three days in Cancun, and writers piecing together a plot had to write and rewrite a working script to account for new developments.
Knew the plot
"After a few days of filming, we basically knew where the story was going," said story supervisor Eric Monsky.
Even real life had to make concessions to show business. Students wore wireless microphones day and night, had to call producers in the control room before leaving the set for unplanned activities, and were ordered to change if a certain brand of clothing wasn't cleared for taping.
Producers also manipulated the action often. A key example came when they made sure the students were out partying until dawn, then woke them up at 8:30 a.m. by letting a mariachi band invade the set. The reason: A cranky cast would be apt to bicker.
"We have to make sure things stay funny," De Oliveira said. "There are no boundaries in this format, but we still want to finish with a movie people will come see."
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