Production Diaries: Deviant drivers

Project: Road Rage School
October 1, 2005

Project: Road Rage School
Description: An 8 x 30-minute series in which Dr. Lisa Dorn tries to cure drivers of their road rage. Subjects are selected by family and friends who think their loved ones are a little too close to the edge.
Exec producers: Grant Marshall and Nick Shearman, RDF Media (U.K.)
Series producer: Rukhsana Mosam, RDF Media
Commissioning editor: Maxine Watson, BBC (U.K.)
Budget: About £60,000 (US$107,000) per episode

If you’ve ever pined for James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 – the one Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger – just so you’d have access to an array of machine guns and other weapons of mass destruction, there’s a chance you’re suffering from road rage. In fact, it’s more than likely. A recent study in the U.K. suggests 95% of drivers suffer, or cause others to suffer, from road rage. It’s only natural, therefore, that the condition be prime territory for a factual series.

At least that’s what London’s RDF Media thought. But rather than do another clip show of drivers behaving badly, they decided to be more proactive. What about a show meant to cure road rage? After all, it’s about anger management, and that’s treatable. So why not get friends and family to nominate out-of-control loved ones, then get an expert to tackle their issues in a school for slightly psychotic drivers?

Early March 2005: RDF director of programs Grant Mansfield pitches the idea for Road Rage School to Jo Clinton Davis, senior commissioning executive for documentaries and contemporary factual at the BBC. Beyond working on the popular Driving School series a decade ago, Mansfield recently did the acclaimed Love Me, Love My Kids series for the Beeb, and knows the pubcaster is trolling for similar content for the 7 P.M., pre-watershed slots. Davis and her team are favorable to the pitch, so Mansfield gets the wheels in motion, as the Beeb wants an August delivery date.

Mansfield brings on EP Nick Shearman and series producer Rukhsana Mosam to head up the 8 x 30-minute series. Mosam recalls hearing of her assignment the week before she and Shearman had holidays planned. On-time delivery is a concern. ‘I remember having a bit of a heart attack,’ she admits.

Both producers realize the biggest complication will be casting. It’s hard enough to find people for feel-good docs, but for Road Rage School RDF needs a group of outed rage-aholics. Notes Mosam, ‘Reality shows have an endless stream of people willing to go on camera. They want to be stars, and they really believe telly can make them into one. This show has more in common with the old kind of factual, where the people on tape don’t really want to be on telly.’

Mid-March 2005: Manic casting begins. Mosam brings on a researcher to start work while she’s off, but little progress is made by the time she returns. The tried and true – adverts in radio and newspapers, etc. – aren’t working. Mosam and Shearman use the RDF Casting Desk, but the prospects don’t pan out. They resort to flyering at events. ‘I was sending researchers off to quite hardcore, heavy metal racing events and biker cafés,’ says Mosam, ‘and they were coming back – these well behaved, middle class media types – feeling rather intimidated. They had all sorts of terrible candidates, who kept baseball bats in their cars and were happy to show up on telly.’

The producers have casting preferences, which help direct the process. For example, Mosam says they were looking for what’s termed in the U.K. as the ‘Chelsea tractor driver’ – the mom who drives all the kids to school in a 4×4. One researcher stations outside two schools in Highgate, flyering cars and tackling potential moms.

They also try websites like, but when that doesn’t pan out, they try professional email lists – nurses, car lovers, etc. – ‘lateral’ casting, as Mosam describes it. That finally leads to solid candidates.

Once a candidate is found, phone interviews follow. Hundreds of candidates are whittled down to a few dozen, which are then filmed, ideally in their cars. Although the producers offer to fix up any unsafe cars, they’re only offering participants a chance at therapy, not cash. ‘In the grand old British tradition,’ notes Shearman, ‘participants are not reimbursed in any way.’

With eight episodes to fill, the filmmakers decide the ideal number of candidates is seven. But it’s going to take more contenders than that. Characters quit with little notice. Recalls Shearman, ‘We had one or two people drop out because they were worried about the impact on their jobs. And one or two people who had quite serious problems just decided they didn’t want to take part.’

‘It became apparent that they all had really deep psychological problems,’ affirms Mosam.

Eventually, three woman and four men are chosen, but what was meant to be a five-week casting process has stretched to 10 weeks – well into May.

April 12, 2005: The BBC officially greenlights the series. Debate over format continues. Should the stories play out over the whole series, or should each episode have a single character and its own pay-off? ‘In a half-hour program, can you really get the range of development that you need?’ asks Shearman. ‘Will it feel like we have taken everyone through a real process?’ It’s decided that the story lines should play out over the whole series.

May 2005: Crews are assembled. With average factual budgets sitting around £60,000 (US$107,000) per half hour and time limited, manpower is key. Initially, the plan is for two directors and some shooting aps so that at least three teams will be capturing footage at any time – whether that’s in-car footage or shoots at the ‘School,’ which is just outside London at Cranfield University.

June 2005: Tape rolls. Although shooting is scheduled for four weeks, it stretches to eight, with a four-week gap in the middle largely caused by character drop-outs. While the bulk of shooting doesn’t happen until July, crews are busy capturing potential characters and doing interviews. They are also trying to capture car-to-car footage of road ragers in action. It becomes immediately apparent it’s not going to be easy; angry drivers don’t stick around to be filmed.

Due to the time crunch, a third director and lots of runners are added. Each car shoot involves at least two mini-cams: one on the driver and/or passenger, and a POV shot through the wind screen. The pov shots work well, which makes up for some of the shortfall in car-to-car footage.

June 23, 2005: An expert is inked. Dr. Lisa Dorn is director of the driver behavior center at Cranfield University and, notes Shearman, is willing to adapt. ‘There were a few people who wanted to be quite academic in terms of the tests they put together,’ he explains. ‘Not only was Lisa good on camera, she was willing to work with us to create tests that would be interesting television as well.’

July 2, 2005: The first day of shooting at the school. Mix angry people, film crews and a short production window and interesting things happen. No one discovers Cranfield University is also home to Cranfield Aerospace, where aeronautical research is conducted. Students learn to take off and land helicopters during shoots. Once, a rock concert begins unexpectedly in an aircraft hanger. And, although they have permits, one team is detained by police while shooting in central London. Terrorism has law enforcement spooked, and people pointing cameras out of cars raise red flags.

One of the biggest onscreen problems ends up being profanity. The series is aiming for a 7 P.M. slot on BBC1, and the curse words are flying. (The women, notes Shearman, were especially bad.) Bleeping the audio is a half-measure, as it doesn’t take a lip-reading expert to recognize the F-word. The producers decide to use horns to mask the swearing and drop British road signs over potty mouths. Whenever possible, the Beeb requests rdf remove all evidence of profanity.

Mid-July 2005: BBC CE Jo Clinton Davis leaves to become head of commissioning at UKTV, and the series is given to BBC CE Maxine Watson. Understandably, Watson has concerns about coming in mid-stream. The characters and expert are already chosen, so her only real influence will come in the cutting room. Watson dives in and takes measure: ‘You look at things that might need changing – and can be changed at [that] stage. You also look at how they are going to shoot it. [For example], there was a bit of concern that they didn’t have any low-loaders – the outside shots. There needed to be more of those.’

July 18, 2005: Editing starts. The team becomes legendary within the rdf family for the amount of footage they collect. ‘We’ve been told off about that, actually,’ says Mosam. ‘Somebody said [we had] more footage digitized for program one than would normally be digitized for a whole series.’ But with as many as three cameras rolling for the entire time subjects are driving, it’s understandable. ‘The amount of footage, in volume terms, appears to be enormous,’ admits Mosam. ‘If you added up our shooting ratio, it would be something that sounds embarrassing on paper. But, we had miles and miles of tape of people in cars doing nothing other than picking their noses.’ Mosam calls the runners and tape loggers the heroes of the series. Each tape was screened by loggers, who flagged usable sequences.

Interestingly, the early recce character test shots provide some of the best clips. Shearman recalls great footage of the Yorkshireman who clacked his teeth when he got stressed – something he describes as straight out of Wallace and Gromit. Beyond humor, unique dramatic elements are also captured. In one instance, the 13-year-old son of a raging probation officer breaks down, describing all the times he feels his father could have killed people. ‘Even though we had just filmed it on a DV camera,’ says Shearman, ‘we decided to include it because it’s a really good moment.’

August through September 7, 2005: The pilot delivers to the BBC in August. The rest of the episodes will deliver over the eight weeks the series airs. The final shooting day takes place at the Cranfield ‘Road Rage School’ on the weekend of September 3/4, only three days before air.

The series premieres on BBC1 to an audience of about four million. But, while Watson says the Beeb wants edge for pre-watershed, Road Rage may be too angry for early evening. ‘It’s quite a harsh, tough subject for that time,’ she notes. ‘People are looking for something gentler… It’s a tough ask. If you stick with it, it has a lot of redemptive qualities, because what you’re there to do is help people become better drivers and become less angry, and [Dr. Dorn] succeeds in doing that.’

Watson believes more time in the process may have been beneficial. ‘It [should have] sat for a while,’ she says. ‘And perhaps it should have had a pilot before we set out on doing the whole series. Then we would have had an opportunity to test what works and what doesn’t, and what bits are perhaps close to the edge and how you can pull all that back. We didn’t have that luxury.’

With more producers turning to factual entertainment, Watson generally recommends patience when it comes to finding experts. ‘What we’re getting now is a rash of so-called experts,’ she says, ‘who may be experts in their field but who don’t come across when you put them in front of a camera. Not everyone can cut it. We have to be careful about that when we get proposals with experts attached… Is this person believable? Can I relate to what they’re saying? Do they take me somewhere? Can they deliver the tips or the pieces of information? Those are the things you look for.’

October 2005: Road Rage School premieres at MIPCOM.

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