An Interview With Grand Benders’ Director Robin McKenna
Robin McKenna is the director of GRAND BENDERS. We sat down with her recently for this exclusive interview.
Q: Robin, this is your second season directing GRAND BENDERS. What brought you back?
A: I guess I’d say the challenge of putting together a character-driven series over many episodes and with no guarantees about where the story will take you. Besides, if you’re going to spend the summer working, the beach is a great place to be especially with characters who make you laugh, and talented creative collaborators.
Q: Is Grand Benders your first docu-soap? What is the different between a docu-soap and a reality series?
A: I’ve worked on other docu-soap series, like “Dust-Up”, which followed a family of intrepid pilots who fly crop duster planes in Saskatchewan. Docu-soaps take more of a documentary approach than reality TV, following the characters and their real challenges and stories, as opposed to “producing” their lives for them, putting them in situations you created for them.
Q: Why do you think docu-soaps are so popular?
A: Are they? I wish more people were making them! I think audiences are drawn to these shows because they feel less stagey and forced than more reality TV shows — and, as opposed to dramas, they’re made with real people we can relate to. A show like GRAND BENDERS, although it’s a fun, sexy beach show, actually explores some deeper dynamics that are universal — like father-son relationships and the pressures involved, and what it means to grow up and evolve from a kid to someone in a position of responsibility.
Q: What unique challenges did you encounter while directing Season 2 of GRAND BENDERS?
A: Often in these situations, the show doesn’t get green-lit until the last minute. So you’re thrown into the situation without a lot of time to plan or prepare, which was the case for Season 1, and happened again this summer. You find yourself in the middle of the action, having to make decisions without a lot of lead time and if you don’t capture it while it’s happening, you won’t get another chance! Sometimes that makes things feel a bit chaotic but that’s the challenge I love, knowing how to negotiate that chaos and see the themes and character arcs underneath, and figuring out how to capture it in a way that will reveal those things to the audience.
Q: GRAND BENDERS is shot during the summer from June to September. That’s a pretty tight shooting schedule. How do you prepare for something like that?
A: I’d say the best preparation we did was making Season 1, getting deep inside the characters and the material, thinking about the place and what it means, seeing what works and what doesn’t. So approaching a second season, you’ve done a lot of the homework. Then of course we brainstorm/write an outline for our ideal series, knowing those things… how we’d like to expand, add new characters and locations (this year we wanted to spend more time outside the family business and get into other aspects of Grand Bend) and think about how we imagine the characters’ stories might unfold. You make your best guess at how you think things might happen, try to prepare for that/be in the right place… then you just have to be prepared to change your plan according to what actually happens.
Q: How much of GRAND BENDERS is scripted?
A: Nothing is scripted. The approach we take is documentary. Sometimes we’ll encourage things to happen… like, bikini contest sounds like a great idea, let’s do it! But we don’t tell people what to say and do. We follow what’s actually happening.
Q: Grand Benders is shot cinéma vérité style. Is there a trick to getting good footage?
A: Some of the show is shot “vérité style” and some is more stylized (there are jib and dolly shots and even helicopter shots!) The beauty shots create a sexy atmosphere and show the beach town of Grand Bend at its best. In terms of capturing good vérité footage, both director and crew need to stay very attuned to the characters, really listening to what’s happening in the moment, and also able to anticipate what might happen next. Then to get good footage, it helps to have great characters, and a setting that’s visually interesting, which luckily, we totally have.
Q: Still GRAND BENDERS must be hard to shoot. After all the main characters are running a family business, and a busy restaurant/bar/nightclub/hotel. How does it all get done?
A: Yep. We can be very demanding, asking people to do things for us and sometimes they tell us to get lost! Mostly the process is pretty collaborative. We’re aware of their schedule and what they need to get done, and we have to work around that as best we can. Then when we need something from them, they’ll do their best to accommodate. Luckily, we’re not always around. We show up for a few days, they know it’s going to be a pain in the ass for awhile, we beg and plead, and they tolerate us.
Q: Do people behave differently when they know they are being filmed?
A: Some people are a bit more self-conscious, especially at the beginning. Our job is to try to become as invisible as we can, so people forget the camera is there. As for Mickey, he has a natural instinct for what’s funny or interesting (he’s riffing and improvising out front with his customers all day long… it’s what keeps him entertained). That’s what makes him such a great character. We can hang around and know something funny or unexpected will happen.
Q: What are the three qualities you need to be a director?
A: Good question! There are different kinds of directors, of course, but for a show like this, you need people skills. You’re always trying to convince people (including your crew) to do unreasonable things, to let you film things they’d never normally expose, share their deepest feelings and fears, and make themselves vulnerable. You need an instinct for story… looking at ordinary life situations and knowing how to structure them in a way that’s interesting or funny or that resonates with people. And I guess I’d say creativity — the ability to be inventive visually, to take an original approach to what problem you’re solving, to be willing to take risks and have the confidence to assume responsibility for them.
Q: Did you get to go swimming while you were shooting in Grand Bend?
A: Ha, I would have loved to spend more time at the beach. It’s a gorgeous beach, and I love cold, deep lakes. There wasn’t a lot of time for that kind of thing, but I did have some memorable swims, like at sunset swimming choppy waters, with a storm coming. Grand Bend has some serious waves, you know. Also nights walking along the beach, with a huge sky full of stars… sometimes stopping by a campfire, or walking with my feet in the water coming home from a late-night shoot.
Q: Have you ever been on a grand bender while in Grand Bend?
A: Hmm… I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me! Of course we had some fun there. That’s what the show is about. But things can’t get too crazy when you have to get up for another day of shooting.