Inside the celebrity boardroom bitch-fest

With the grand finale airing tonight, Nine’s end-of-year ratings push has been led five nights a week by the FremantleMedia-produced Celebrity Apprentice. Georgina Pearson visits the set during the show’s six-week Sydney shoot to find out how the series came together.

Celebrity Apprentice is an interesting concept; one that perhaps, on paper, could be deemed a marketing nightmare. For how can you take B-grade Australian celebs and replicate the hugely successful multi-billion dollar Donald Trump-helmed hit?

The crew shoot a challenge episode

For the unfamiliar, the premise is fairly simple: 12 celebrity contestants, each vying for a final prize of $100,000 for their chosen charity. Entrepreneur and founder of wealth management company Yellow Brick Road, Mark Bouris, presides as the ultimate boss. Guided by ACP Magazines’ Deborah Thomas and Bouris’ long time right-hand man Brad Seymour, Bouris puts the contestants through their paces with a series of team challenges before gradually eliminating them in a boardroom showdown.

Initially created in the US by Mark Burnett Productions and billionaire real-estate tycoon Trump, The Apprentice shot to success in 2004 and has since spawned over 20 global imitations.  Down under, FremantleMedia produces the franchise as part of a larger deal with Burnett that gives them the local rights to all of the producing powerhouse’s formats.

In 2009 series one of The Apprentice Australia aired on Channel Nine concluding with Bouris hiring auctioneer Andrew Morello. While the first incarnation never managed to crack the magical million mark in the ratings, the celebrity-driven version is clearly faring better.

On set with the celebs

For the Fremantle production team, the hours are long and the workload demanding. The sun is barely up most mornings of the six-week shoot when the 65-strong crew converges on Sydney’s Fox Studios.

Fremantle’s director of TV content Marion Farrelly says, “some days I sit and look at my friends who have fabulously tall, handsome boyfriends and I don’t because I’m at work all the time. But I don’t mind because I love making television. I really love when shows actually work.”

On set, Farrelly’s primary focus is story. “My concentration is less on everything that happens around us. What goes on to that screen, and what makes people want to watch it, is our driving force.”

This series comprises 21 episodes and largely follows the US format, apart from being stripped across weeknights.  “It has stayed true to, but is not as volatile as, the US version,” director Jo Siddiqui explains. “In terms of the way it is approached technically, it is much the same.”

Months of speculation about the celebrity cast preceded shooting with names including Peter Andre, Shane Crawford, Kristina Keneally and even Brendan Fevola being thrown about. The casting process, a joint effort between Fremantle and A Cast of Thousands, led to the line up including politician Pauline Hanson, comedienne Julia Morris, publicist Max Markson, The Block contestant Polly Porter, songstress Deni Hines and former Miss Universe Australia Jesinta Campbell.

Onscreen dynamics are predictably fiery resulting in captivating viewing. “These people have massive egos,” executive producer Karen Warner says. “They are used to being the biggest personality in the room and then you put 12 of them together and it’s like no, no, look at me. From that point of view it has been really easy to cut. And there have been some incredible fiery boardroom scenes.”

Series producer Amanda Bainbridge says that while very little puppeteering is required to create the desired drama, the producers are more than happy to stoke the fire.

“There are certainly instances where we will put people in conflicting situations,” Bainbridge explains. “For example, in one of the challenges we put Polly and Deni in the same car because we knew there was tension there. Of course the tension exploded and we got this great bit of content.”

Shot on Sony XD800 cameras, each week of production encompasses two main elements – the boardroom and the challenge. A challenge is created over two to three days and filmed on location with four cameras. The all-important one-on-one interviews are conducted later in the day in the contestants’ hotel.

The boardroom shoot requires additional technical knowledge and utilises a custom-built set at Stage 4 of Sydney’s Fox Studios.

In the previous series, dramatic wide and overhead crane shots created with a jib heightened the boardroom drama but the team has opted against this method, instead relying on seven stationary cameras.

“We wanted to really keep the mood and the atmosphere in the space so we didn’t use a jib at all,” Siddiqui explains. “This means a much more intimate setting. We haven’t got cranes flying overhead. It’s like they are actually just in a boardroom.”

Close to the set is an innocuous de-mountable building that houses the control room. Inside is a frenetic hub of activity. At one end of the room, a huge screen displays live feeds from all seven cameras and glued to the monitors, a hierarchy of production crew. Seated at the front are Warner, Siddiqui and Bainbridge, followed by a team of supervising and assistant producers.

The crew shoot a challenge episode

For the contestants, lack of sleep coupled with the pressure to perform inevitably boils over in a complete boardroom bitch-fest much to the amusement of the production team.

A common excuse from contestants causing a collective eye-roll is “the girls in production never told me that”. This means Bainbridge has to be one step ahead.

“I’m out on the set all of the time, so I know all of the stories,” Bainbridge says. “I have a document which details a list of everything that happened, and what the consequences of that are. If anything is challenged by the celebrities, then I’m there to say well actually, this is how it happened.”

Despite precision planning, the nature of reality TV means the crew must be prepared for the unexpected at all times.

“It’s like a race where you all start on the start line, people can run in every direction and you have absolutely no idea which way they will go,” Farrelly says. “You know there is a finish line but getting to it is very difficult.”

“There are certain things you just can’t plan for,” Director Jo Siddiqui agrees. “Disasters in reality TV are sometimes a joy. You have to think on your feet a lot. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

Unexpected outcomes are especially the case when it comes to crunch time in the boardroom. “It is Mark’s decision who he fires,” Farrelly says. “We obviously have a way we want to hit a storyline from what happened in the challenge but we do leave it to him. Often this is different from what we anticipate.”

The final piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the most crucial, is the post-production schedule. With close to 30 hours of footage shot each day on multiple cameras, the editing team has a mammoth task to accomplish.

Running Avid Media Composer in 16 edit suites, it takes three weeks to cut a challenge episode and two to cut the boardroom. The turnaround time is tight and only half of the episodes were in the can when the first aired.

“We have a team of six editors who are working on the challenge and a team of four working on the boardroom,” supervising post-production producer Phil Dickenson says. “We then have a further two people solely cutting the two parts of the boardroom that go into the challenge episode.”

Once the raw footage is divided, the storyline is built during the offline edit. “When the story is locked off we go into the online edit and start the grading of the picture and application of any graphical elements and music,” Dickenson adds. The episodes are then delivered to Nine on DigiBeta tape where they are digitally ingested for broadcast.

“We are really lucky to have, every step of the way, people who are passionate about television,” executive producer Warner says. “We have created a great framework both on location and in the edits for the story to be told.”

Hit or miss?

Inside the boardroom shoot at Sydney’s Fox Studios

Within today’s cut-throat television landscape, both Nine and Fremantle have much riding on the success of the series. Nine’s decision to ‘strip’ the show and air it five nights a week was a major risk. “This is the first Apprentice anywhere in the world that has been stripped,” Farrelly says.

In the first week of the show’s debut in the 7-8pm timeslot, the series attracted more than one million viewers on three out of five nights, a tremendous result given the inability for stripped shows such as The Renovators on Ten to do the same. The Fremantle team have no illusions about the likelihood of success but believe they have the right mix for a hit.

“You never know whether shows will work. There is no secret formula,” Farrelly says. “My rules for television are fairly simple – make me laugh, make me cry and surprise me. Then there are the four Cs: conflict, comedy, consequence and characters. Ideally, if you have all seven of those in your show, and you pay attention to them, then you have a fighting chance of winning. I think Celebrity Apprentice has all the elements to make a great story.”


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