By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Asked if they watch The Hills, Souferian, Shaffer and McKay suddenly get very occupied with their drinks.
"I haven't watched it much this year," McKay says sheepishly.
"I don't get a lot of time. I'm working," says Souferian.
"I travel a lot," says Shaffer.
Though, she sometimes watches episodes on DVD on the plane. The Hills is apparently the show that everyone has seen but no one admits to watching.
"What Sex and the City did for New York, The Hills did for L.A.," Shaffer says. "I wonder if there's a Hills tour. Like if you go to New York, you can go see where Carrie lived. I wonder if there's one for The Hills?"
"There's gotta be," says McKay. "If there isn't, I'll partner with you on it."
"Done," jokes Shaffer. "I'll get the buses."
"I'll drive," says McKay.
The exposure they've gotten from The Hills has been invaluable. "It's hard for entrepreneurs from out of town to establish a foothold in nightlife industry," Souferian says, straightening his pinstripe blazer. "It's a different animal here."
"When we first came to L.A., it was hard to get into places. You can't just show up with cameras and surprise the owners of the restaurant," says series creator DiVello in his office at MTV's West Coast base of operations, in Santa Monica.
To this day he remembers Geisha House, the first place they filmed. Conrad, Montag and the two boys they were dating were having dinner there. "The owner stood right next to us the whole time, and they were antsy as hell for us to get out of there. They didn't really get it," DiVello recalls. Most reality shows shoot with buzzy, in-your-face handhelds, but The Hills shot with cameras on sticks; they could be tucked discreetly away. Unless you recognized the stars, you wouldn't know who they were shooting.
"Once the show started airing and people saw that we were making the places look beautiful, a lot more doors opened to us," he says.
Good thing, because The Hills is location-heavy. Every argument, every romantic moment, every tearful reconciliation required a different setting. They shot in places that had never let cameras in before, much less reality-TV cameras — fancy boutiques; crowded nightclubs; brand-new, impossible-to-get-into restaurants. They shot four days a week, at nine or 10 different places.
A location — Conrad's Hillside Villas apartment — even led to the casting of one of the show's main characters. "We looked at a lot of places. We wanted a swimming pool with a lot of younger kids that lived there. It was perfect, because that's where I found Audrina," DiVello says.
He was there checking on the paint color one afternoon. On his way out he spotted a sexy brunette lounging by the pool. It was Audrina Patridge, a 20-year-old film-studio receptionist. DiVello brought her onboard for Season 1. "She befriended Heidi and just rolled right into becoming friends with Lauren."
When Conrad moved to Los Angeles from Orange County, the sun-drenched palette of her first reality show, Laguna Beach, gave way to cooler blues of the big city. "We wanted to make it seem a little more daunting, a little more ominous. But at the same time, cut against them laying out in the sun," DiVello says. "You have these kids with these very relatable lives and problems — dating, work — but it's all done in this idyllic, beautiful setting."
The approach fell right in line with the schizophrenic nature of the city, where ugly and beautiful, heaven and hell are next-door neighbors. Even toxic smog is gorgeous on The Hills. It makes the late-afternoon sky blaze in shades of orange, pink and purple.
If the days were delicious, the nights were even more so. "I like to say that we gave people an all-access VIP pass to L.A. nightlife," DiVello says. "Viewers at home felt like they were getting dressed with these kids, going out with them. You had that feeling that you were in the car with them driving to the club with the excitement. Girls love to see what the kids are wearing. Boys like to see who else is in the club, what do girls in L.A. look like when they're out clubbing."
There are still locations that DiVello wants to get that he just can't get, and it kills him. Simple things, like where the girls go shopping. Talking about that thwarted desire, DiVello sounds almost like a documentary filmmaker. "As odd as it sounds, it's really hard to shoot at, like, Barneys on Wilshire, or Neiman Marcus," he says. "Those big department stores are incredible architecturally, and would look great on camera. But it's hard to get permission. Because they're big corporations, there's a lot more red tape."
What about shooting it guerrilla style?
"Oh, God, no. Everything has to be signed off on. All the people in the background sign releases."
As it is, reality must wait. When Justin Brescia and Patridge broke up, they had to delay their sadness for several days while the producers struggled to get permission to shoot on the pier. "We scouted and spent some time working on getting that location and it played beautifully," DiVello remembers.