This is part three in a five-part series about the MTV show “College Life.” Read the intro to the project here. Read part one here. Read part two here. Interviews have been edited, condensed and arranged by topic to allow a coherent story to emerge.
DAVID WEXLER (show creator, writer, producer): I never really wanted to work on reality shows, but I thought, “What if I could redo the whole reality format?” I came up with this tagline, you know, “You’ve seen reality; this is real.” So to me, that was sort of compelling, because, whether you know it or not, this whole reality craze, people sort of started falling in love with the documentary again. I don’t think enough was said about that.
JAMES FRANZONE (area coordinator for UW Housing): It never really felt like it was grounded at UW-Madison. Because they could only film inside their rooms because the university had limited what they could show. I remember one scene when one of our residents was in a library, but it was the Edgewood library. We could tell that.
TRICIA DICKINSON (marketing director, UW Communications): We did not allow them to film on campus. Some of the b-roll you see are actually shot at Edgewood College.
DAVID WEXLER: You have to work on story arcs. As much as this was real – and it was, there was nothing reenacted; it was as real as reality shows get. But you still need story producers to help mold and help tell the story. To tell the story is a really difficult thing that you wouldn’t realize.
JASON SMATHERS (managing editor for The Badger Herald in fall 2008): We saw some of the trailers and I think we started spotting things like, “Oh, that’s definitely not a dorm room here.” I don’t know if that was ever figured out, but it seemed like some of the shots that were taken were definitely of dorms elsewhere. I could have sworn I saw a Mizzou character somewhere. I was like, what the hell, did they think no one would catch that?
JAMES FRANZONE: At times we would look at it and go – you’d see stuff in windows and go – “I think that’s the University of Missouri showing right now.” It was never really Madison.
JORDAN ELLERMAN (cast member): I hope I don’t get in trouble [for talking about MTV's editing], because I’m just going to be 100 percent honest with you, because I don’t really give a shit. So I hope I don’t get in trouble. But yeah, some of the stuff – you know, it all happened, that’s why they added it, but there were some things as far as my storyline goes that were misrepresented.
JAMES FRANZONE: We knew when they were faking stuff. They’d show scenes [when there] was a policy violation being confronted. I think there’s a scene when they have the house fellow knocking on the door. Well, they can’t film that so we knew they had recreated it. So it was a little disappointing. We were getting a little bit of the curtain pulled back from reality TV. We were like, “Yeah, that kind of happened and you kind of recreated it for the show.”
ANDREA ENDRIES (cast member): They were honest; they did portray my life. I mean, everything I filmed, everything they showed, was all my footage. Like, that’s all true. But what’s interesting to me is how they are capable of editing. … Let’s say I had close to 60 hours of footage, they used about an hour. You know? So they can take anything they want and chop it up and put things from October with things from December and things from August, and then they can put people’s names in. [MTV has] the liberty … to do all that. So it’s just, it’s my story, it is! But it’s made more dramatic.
JOSH HICKSON (cast member): It reflected bits of [the cast members'] personalities, but not, like, the whole person. Every storyline focused on something instead of the overall person.
JORDAN ELLERMAN: I think they said my mom worked three jobs to put me through college, and that just wasn’t true. … That wasn’t really an issue like they made it seem. They made it seem like I was going out and being selfish and spending all this money on my tattoo when my mom’s working these three jobs to try to put me through college, when in reality I paid for my tattoo with some of the money that I made from the show.
KYRA SHISHKO (UW freshman in 2008): [Their portrayal of Jordan was] pretty accurate, from what I knew of him. He took me on a very mediocre date, just like he did with a girl on the show (laughs). But yeah, I mean, Jordan liked to just hang out with friends, partying with friends, he really likes electronic music and dubstep, and that’s his jam. And he may not have been a particularly interesting character to watch, but I mean, who would? He’s a normal guy.
JORDAN ELLERMAN: There’s one episode where I get, like, super fucking smashed, and I’m, like, drunk as shit on the floor of a bathroom. I’m mumbling into the floor and they subtitled it, but they subtitled it completely wrong. … I was making out with some chick earlier, and they captioned it like I was saying “I could have laid her.” And I was saying “I could just lay here,” I think. I mean, I’m not a caveman, even when I’m drunk, so I don’t know why I would have said that I could have laid her. Just little things like that.
ALEXANDRA REED (ex-Badger Herald writer), in a 2009 feature about the show: Alex – the Texan that struggled with a boy on the first show – decided to share her story without MTV feeding her lines because she felt strongly about the campus knowing what was happening behind the scenes. “I thought I was going to get a chance to film things that mattered,” she said. … However, when the stream of content entering the editing room started changing, Alex felt penalized. “I was basically given an ultimatum. They said my footage was lacking and indirectly told me there was not enough drama in the content that I was filming,” she said.
MIKI HIRANO (Lindsay’s roommate early in the show’s run): I feel like [Lindsay Zadra, who took over the bulk of Alex Viser's time on the show] definitely – she told them what kind of character she wanted to be portrayed as. She wanted to be portrayed as the goody-two-shoes who is very studious and who is at the library all the time. (Zadra did not respond to requests for interview.)
ALEXANDRA REED, in a 2009 feature about the show: As the majority of her film continued to be “lacking,” Alex explained she and MTV came to a mutual agreement that she would no longer be a large part of the show. “I’m still filming now, but I already know that I’m not going to be a significant part of the series, and I’m perfectly fine with that,” she said.
MIKI HIRANO: [Lindsay] made me look like a high maintenance bitch and whore. I went to the gym and had a boyfriend at the time and so he obviously is changing his gym clothes and left his jeans and stuff on my bed. And then she videotaped like: “Oh my gosh, there’s clothes on the bed.” So it looks like I was just messing around with guys and stuff.
JAMES FRANZONE: We had heard producers were encouraging more exciting things to happen. That’s when we kind of worried. We worried that people were being prompted to try to do things to encourage drama.
DAVID WEXLER: We would sit with them and go over everything: “Do you want to say this, do you want to do this thing”? And that was important, it’s something you don’t really get in reality shows.
JORDAN ELLERMAN: I saw every episode before it aired, and I got to OK all of the footage. We did do that, we’d shoot footage, we’d turn it in, and we’d kind of sift through all this footage and kind of explain what was going on to the producer.
MIKI HIRANO: Some of my relatives don’t even talk to me anymore because I look like I represent the family as a whore. … It ruined a lot of the relationships I had even within my family.
JAMES FRANZONE: Giving college students cameras to record their lives sounds like an exciting idea unless you really know what college is a lot about, which is kinda hanging out, watching TV, studying and going to class.
DAVID WEXLER: We were really proud of these students and we didn’t want to show them in a negative light. The idea was, I wanted to follow their progression through college. At the end of the day, that was it. Why highlight negative aspects?