In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Now in its 12th season, Project Runway has become the premier fashion competition show, handily besting pretenders like NBC’s Fashion Star. Part of that is due, of course, to host Heidi Klum and contestant mentor Tim Gunn, but the show’s success also comes largely from its level of talent: Designers on Project Runway appear to have what it takes to actually make it in fashion. Hell, a few even have.
But what keeps that level of competition so high? And why hasn’t Project Runway fallen into the trap—save this season’s Sandro Masmanidi—of casting loose cannons to drive ratings and drama? Moreover, is what viewers see on the show what really happens in the workroom? The A.V. Club talked to one of the show’s producers, Sara Rea, about the timeline, accessory wall, and “make it work” moments.
The A.V. Club: What’s a typical day like for a Project Runway contestant?
Sara Rea: It changes daily, but I’ll give you the averages.
They usually get up about 5 a.m., if not earlier, and there’s “morning reality,” which is what we call it, where we shoot them getting ready and talking about their day and preparing for their day. Then they go receive their challenge; they meet Tim or Heidi or whoever, depending on who is setting it up—we’re very transparent. There isn’t a whole lot of behind-the-scenes that isn’t onscreen.
Anyway, we shoot while we travel now, so that’s all documented. They get their challenge, they sketch, they go to Mood—we’re shooting them while they go to Mood—they come back to the workroom and they’re literally in that workroom until 11 or 12 at night.
During that time we do have mandatory lunch breaks. We’ve learned that we have to make them eat because they’ll get so focused that they won’t eat, and that’s not good for them or us or anyone. We just do rotations so that everyone eats at different times within the same hour block.
Then Tim [Gunn] does his critique, then the models come in, and, at the end of the day, they go home and we shoot more reality with them as they’re winding down. That’s usually quick because they’re exhausted.
The show is so focused on process. Unlike a show where you’re cooking or doing photography or modeling, the designers literally have to be in that workroom working on those clothes. It is a process. So we’re shooting a lot, and maybe you can hear a pin drop a lot of times, but it’s a part of what they have to do before there’s a runway the next day.
The following day they get up probably around the same time. They’re usually in the workroom by 8 a.m. and then they have three hours where they’re rotating through hair and makeup and doing their final touches. Then they exit for the runway.
We have a small break that is just logistical for us to get all of our cameras moved down and set up. They don’t get to work on the clothes during that time, and they’re separated from their models. The designers eat then, but it only takes about a half an hour for us get set up, and then we shoot the runway show a couple of times without the judges just to make sure the audience gets enough views of the garments.
I know this sounds boring, but it’s all pretty much what you see on TV up to the runway day. There are no real tricks in our world because of our time constraints; we shoot an episode every two to three days and we don’t take a day off in between. They finish a runway, someone’s eliminated at 8 p.m., and the next morning they’re up again, and they get a new challenge. And that happens for five to six weeks straight. Within that we may have three interview days where they get a chance to breathe and do interviews. But it is grueling. It’s pretty much what you see, because we really do shoot 12 episodes in five to six weeks.
AVC: So when Tim says, “Okay, you have till 11 o’clock tonight,” is that because, otherwise, the designers would work all day every day, or is that for union labor purposes?
SR: We have a mandatory turnaround. It’s not mandatory from anyone but us, but we’ve decided that we have to have a minimum six hours for the designers to sleep. And that’s minimum.
But, yeah, they’re up at 5 a.m.—and some of them are up earlier to get ready. They’re working to midnight, and by the time they get back it’s 12:30 a.m., and if we’re shooting reality it’s 1 a.m., and then they’re back up in the morning. So we have to shut it down.
We also can’t have camera crews all night. There are probably four hours total where no one is at Parsons on a given day. We have to wrap out and clean everything up from a production standpoint, and then people have to get in and prep before the following morning.
AVC: Do you have camera shifts?
SR: We have multiple, multiple crews. We have morning shifts and day shifts and nighttime shifts. Every crew has 10 hours where they work, with a break.
AVC: Why can’t the designers take work home at night? Is it because you can’t be there to film it or because they would run themselves into the ground?
SR: Well, it’s both. It’s really more about the sleep, to be honest, because we’ve had seasons where they didn’t get as much sleep and we’ve had ambulances. In season eight they were exhausted mentally and physically, and it’s so intense emotionally and creatively that it wears them out. By episode eight, we always have someone breaking down because they’re burned out.
So we have to manage them to make sure they go to sleep, because some of them would work all night. They’re just thinking about the immediate, but it’s a marathon. So we have to help manage that.
AVC: You mentioned going to Mood in the morning. Is the show there before Mood even opens?
SR: No, Mood closes for us. We have a very close, long-term working relationship with them and we make sure we’re posted on their schedule so they don’t close too early. We tell them, “Hey, we’ll be there in 30 minutes,” and they start closing down the store for us. It’s very, very kind, and it works out well for us for obvious reasons.
AVC: And how does it work at Mood? You have to be cashed out within that half an hour? Have there been problems with designers not having their material cut in time?
SR: We’ve had times where—and this rarely happens because Mood staffs very well for us—someone cuts their own fabric because they’re all frantic. But it’s only been an issue once in the seven seasons I’ve done.
AVC: There’s been an issue on the show in the past with people bringing pattern books. What’s the rule about what they can bring, preparation-wise? Does Parsons have a library they can use?
SR: It’s all in their heads. We don’t want them relying on other people’s designs or other materials, and we don’t want anyone to have an unfair advantage so we limit their resources to what the necessities are with their dress forms and their scissors and their sewing kits. We want them to create from what they know, not from a pattern book. It doesn’t help them and it could also be derivative, [and this rule] puts everyone on the same playing field. You have your sewing kit and your creative minds: Go to work.
AVC: How do you come up with challenges? And how do you know how much time or money to assign to a challenge? On Survivor, for instance, they have the staff test the challenges out.
SR: On shows that have stunts and things like that, it’s very important to test them out. Here, we just use our working knowledge of, “Is this doable?” Tim is a great partner as far as, “Can they do this in this timeframe? Is this budget fair? What material should we give them?” We rely on him a lot.
We usually have a good idea of what is and isn’t doable, but sometimes we’re very nervous. I remember season six—which is the first season I did—we did a newspaper challenge. The only material they had was the L.A. Times. I was a nervous wreck, but I sat there and watched it, and they blew our minds—and that’s the beauty of it.
The greatest challenges are when we put them in what seems like unbelievable situations and then they blow us away. That’s the fun of having them make clothes out of something you’d find in a grocery store or a party store. They can do it. We’re very mindful of what we put them up against, but we like to push them in order to get results that blow us and the audience away.
AVC: When you’re doing an unconventional challenge, how do you choose the materials?
SR: It’s a process. We have a team of people whose main job is to sit around and come up with ideas, and they bring them to us and we try to visualize all the different materials. I always like it when they present it to us as a list of what’s in that store. Like, what’s in a hardware store? It helps you say, “Well, what would I do? What could they use to make something?” And then we go with what we think would be the most fun and we try to make it different from a previous season.
We just try to do what feels right and what we feel will have the best result.
AVC: How much time do the designers have in the workroom on a one-day challenge?
SR: It’s up to 10 hours of work time for a one-day challenge. We never want to give them less than eight hours because that’s not fair, unless we own it and that’s been a part of the challenge. One time we did a five-hour challenge, and that was really hard. But we rarely do anything under eight hours, because it just doesn’t give them the time to do anything impressive. And if they don’t do anything impressive, then the show doesn’t work.
AVC: What happens after the designers leave the workroom? They get separated from their models, but do they see them again before they hit the runway?
SR: Backstage, they get five minutes of what we call “last looks” which we shoot and air when it’s relevant. They’re last-minute touch-ups, just like any designer would do for their show.
AVC: And how do you set up the order of who walks when in the show?
SR: We try to make it an interesting runway show for the judges. We don’t want to too many things that look alike one after another. We try to mix up the look so we don’t have three pair of pants walking and then three dresses. We’ll mix those up, so it’ll be a visually interesting show, just like a designer would if they were doing their own show.
AVC: This season, you guys had Sandro Masmanidi, who was a bit of a loose cannon and ended up having to leave the show.
SR: He had a lot of personality.
AVC: It’s a credit to you guys that you’ve seemingly always cast for talent and not for crazy reality characters.
SR: We’ve had loose cannons before, but he was particularly loose, or particularly a cannon.
AVC: How do you cast the show?
SR: We have a process of what we look for. Talent is first and foremost.
We have closed casting calls, so we have to invite you. We get portfolios and home tapes, and those are vetted by casting teams as well as fashion experts, and then we decide what people we want to look at more closely and have them come be a part of our casting process. We travel all over the country and look at those people and their clothes. If you’ve seen the casting specials, that’s what that is. We’ll have Tim and we’ll have a Marie Claire expert and a former designer. They really vet and ask questions about their looks, like the judges would. We’re looking at their talent and we’re looking at how strong their convictions are about their clothes. Are they fresh, are they new, what’s their design aesthetic? Sometimes you don’t just look at clothes to find that out; you have to talk to them about it.
And it’s important for us to have diversity and personality for obvious reasons: We don’t want 15 of the same person, and we also want diversity of design. We don’t want 15 people that make evening wear; we want everyone to have a distinct point of view that’s original and unique, and I think that’s a headline for our casting. And that usually comes with different personalities. A different person makes bridals than the person who makes sporty, everyday wear, or the person who makes edgy street wear.
We’re lucky we’re in a field where personality comes with the territory. There aren’t many boring fashion designers. It’s not an easy field to get into, and you have to be very passionate and good to want to be a part of that. And it’s also a very diverse field and people from all different backgrounds are on the show. We’re never looking for diversity specifically; it’s just there. That’s one thing I love about the show. It’s such a diverse group of people coming to apply, so that part is easy; it’s just making sure the talent level is high enough.
AVC: Do producers have a sway in judging?
SR: I’m not going to tell Heidi Klum what to do. That just doesn’t work. The judges decide. We would lose integrity if we started basing it on, “Well, so and so…”
AVC: “They have potential…”
SR: You just can’t.
I think the judges will normally give people a chance if they’re interesting. It’s better than someone whose design might be boring. This season you had Timothy [Westbrook], and he was kind of wacky and his ideas were out there, but it was interesting enough to see if he was going to go with it. And by that third episode, the judges were like, “We’ve given him three episodes, and it’s not going to work out.” I do think they naturally want to hold onto the people who are sparking their interests, because that’s what it’s all about, being creative and unique.
AVC: How long does judging usually take?
SR: From runway show to elimination is about six or seven hours. There are breaks in between to move cameras and stuff, but it takes about seven hours.
AVC: Then the designers go home and sleep, sleep, sleep?
SR: Yeah. We have cameras on them most of those nights, but we try to let them get some sleep.
AVC: On the show it’s always a big deal when someone gets to talk to his or her family. Is that always on camera?
SR: We normally try to get it all on camera, because it’s who they are. Our families are a part of who we are and those relationships help the world see the designers as human beings, not as designers. There’s much more to them than, “I can make a pretty dress.” They’re people with families and loved ones, so we try to get those conversations on camera as much as possible.
AVC: Is there a limit to how much they can talk?
SR: We manage it. They let us know they want to call someone and we make sure the other person is available—it’s much easier if we know they can get in touch with the person.
AVC: Do designers have access to the Internet or TV or newspapers or anything during filming?
SR: No. We want all their inspiration to come from the things we leave for them and what they can see. We don’t want any outside influence to sway what they’re being inspired by or what their emotional state is.
I mean, they see billboards every time they go down the road so we have to say to them, “Okay, so this thing happened in the news,” but we try to balance it so it doesn’t affect them in a negative way. One season, Michael Jackson passed away and we didn’t want to tell them in the middle of a challenge. That sounds so silly, right? But, at the time, you don’t know if that’s going to affect someone negatively and we didn’t think it was fair to say that in the middle of a challenge. So we waited until the challenge was over and then told them the next day. We like to be very careful about not disrupting their focus. We don’t want to be cavalier about the information that they get.
Our show survives because the designers want to be great at what they do. Our job is to support them so they can be the best that they can be and we go to great lengths to do that.
AVC: When Sandro Masmanidi burst out of the show, he walked by what looked like a backstage accessory wall. Are there more accessory options than just what’s on the wall in the workroom?
SR: That’s actually on camera, but we don’t show it unless there’s some relevant reason. But, yeah, they have a lot more accessories because they need a lot more quantity. We have a lot of shelves full of shoes and different sizes and belts and bracelets and all different kinds of stuff so they can have as many options as possible.
AVC: Were you working on the show when it moved from Bravo to Lifetime?
SR: I started when it moved to Lifetime.
AVC: How did the show change between networks? It was a different production company, correct?
SR: Yes, it was a different production company. The directive that we got from Lifetime when Bunim/Murray took over the show and I became the showrunner was, “We want the same exact show. We didn’t buy this show to change it. It’s successful.” So it was the same, the same, the same. We heard that to the point of ad nauseam, to be honest. But then a few seasons later, we got to start making changes and updates.
AVC: How hard is it to get something through the network? Like season 11 was all about teams. Did you have to sell that?
SR: There are a lot of voices. The Weinstein Company owns the show, so it’s Bunim/Murray, the Weinstein Company, and Lifetime. We’ll all come up with ideas and get on the phone and decide what works best. It’s a collaborative effort.
AVC: How did you get this job?
SR: I did a show for Lifetime called America’s Psychic Challenge, which you may or may not have heard of or seen. Right after we finished that show, Lifetime bought the rights to Runway. I was working with Bunim/Murray on America’s Psychic Challenge and Lifetime brought in Jon Murray and myself to talk about Runway with the Weinstein Company. I think they talked to several different production companies and producers and then they asked Bunim/Murray and me to sign on. And that was five years ago. I’m still here.
AVC: How many people are on a camera crew?
SR: A camera crew consists of three people: a camera operator, a sound mixer, and a camera assistant, so each crew has three people and we have anywhere from eight to 12 [crews] on a given day.
AVC: So you have someone in the sewing room, someone in the workroom, something like that?
SR: Yeah, multiple ones floating. With 16 people you need a lot of eyes and ears.
AVC: Did Parsons just give you guys a whole floor to use?
SR: Yes. It’s actually more than a whole floor, because we’re a big machine. Don’t ask me how many people are on set because I won’t know the answer. It’s up there. So we’re more than a floor. The stage is on another floor.
That’s why we shoot in the summer, when they have academic programs going on, but the school isn’t as busy as it would be during the traditional school season.
AVC: You guys are probably driving a lot of applicants to Parsons.
SR: We have a good relationship with them.
AVC: You’ve done Project Runway All-Stars, but do you think we’ll ever get to see something like Project Runway Masters where Zac Posen would compete against Michael Kors?
SR: I think there’s always the opportunity to do something new and different. It’s just when that opportunity comes and if we can do it that’s the million-dollar question. It’s a fun show and it’s a fun genre, so who knows?
AVC: Casual viewers might not know this, but something like eight or nine different designers get to show at Fashion Week, just because of the schedule and so the final three don’t get spoiled. Do you provide all the designers the same amount of money to make collections, and do they all have to make the same number of looks?
SR: They get the same amount of time and money as a finalist. They also create the same number of looks for their collection. Otherwise, people may be able to figure out who is “in” and who is a “decoy” or an eliminated designer.
AVC: How much time is there between the last episode pre-finale and Fashion Week? How long do designers have to work on their collections?
SR: This past season they had a very quick turnaround of about five weeks.
AVC: How much money do the designers get to make their collections?
SR: They get $9,000 each.
AVC: Is judging for the finale any different than judging during the regular season?
SR: It is a more comprehensive process, because they are talking about and judging a larger scope of work versus an individual look. Also, the decision is a very big one and is life-changing for the winning designer. The judges take the whole process very seriously to make sure the best designer wins.