Type keyword(s) to search


How Could Anyone Control a Show Like Jury Duty?

Director Jake Szymanski on making Amazon Freevee’s real-life version of The Truman Show.
  • Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in Jury Duty (Photo: Amazon Freevee)
    Ronald Gladden and James Marsden in Jury Duty (Photo: Amazon Freevee)

    Yes, Jake Szymanski has directed episodes of Saturday Night Live, and yes, he has an improv background. But even those experiences didn’t fully prepare him to direct Jury Duty. Nothing could.

    Amazon Freevee’s comedy, which follows a regular guy who doesn’t realize he’s part of a fake jury trial, might have its roots in hoax shows like Candid Camera and Punk’d, but its scope is even more audacious. For three weeks of filming, Ronald Gladden, the juror who was hoaxed, was fully immersed in the show. He was sequestered with fake jurors, and he even surrendered his phone so that he couldn’t contact the outside world. That meant the creative team had to build a full-time fictional environment. Szymanski wasn’t just directing a few scenes. He was directing Ronald’s entire life.

    The resulting series is hilarious and sometimes even touching. It’s also a remarkable feat of logistics. As chaos ensues in the courtroom or on a jury trip to Margaritaville, viewers may wonder how anyone could pull off such an elaborate ruse. Talking to Primetimer, Szymanski says that even he’s amazed they did it. Below, he recalls the most surprising, challenging, and revelatory moments of directing a real version of The Truman Show.

    Let’s talk about keeping Ronald in the dark: What are the biggest challenges of directing a show whose star doesn’t know what’s happening?

    ​​Almost every aspect of it was a challenge, to tell you the truth. As we plotted out how to do this, we kept saying to ourselves, “You know, this has really never been done before.” And at first, it was a fun little thing to say to each other. But the more we got into the details… like, this really hasn't been done like this before. Some of the biggest things, just on a technical level, were camera placement, microphone placement, communication with actors. Ronald believes he signed up for a documentary about the jury process, so we have some scenes where it's obvious that the documentary crew is there filming him. But we have other scenes where there are no obvious cameras around. We have hidden cameras in places. We have microphones hidden on people who aren’t supposed to have microphones on. Just planning that out — where you need the cameras based on your best guesses of where people will be — was a constant challenge. Because on a basic level, you can plan a scene out, but you can’t write it. Because you never know exactly what Ronald is going to do.

    And it’s one thing to do that in the courthouse, which is your main location. But in Episode 4, the jurors all go to dinner at Margaritaville. How did you navigate filming something in a public space?

    The documentary crew was with them throughout that day, but then they left at the beginning of the Margaritaville visit. They said, “You guys go eat. We're gonna go eat too.” So we had to build, like, Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville-themed camera blinds. There were bamboo structures with mirrors in them. We were hiding cameras in scuba tank lighting fixtures, all the classic Margaritaville stuff. And then we also had to amplify the lighting in Margaritaville, at the table where everyone was sitting. We had to create a lot of beach-y lighting elements to give them extra light, so that we could see them on our zoom lenses shooting through fake mirrors.

    But you couldn’t make the lighting too intense, or Ronald might get suspicious.

    That’s right. Our production design team was really incredible about hiding what needed to be hidden. And then Margaritaville was actually one of our most Truman Show-esque scenes, because everyone in Margaritaville that night was an extra.

    Wait… really? Even the people eating on the other side of the restaurant?

    They had to be. And you know, after we revealed to Ronald that he’d been on a show, and we said, “Everyone you’ve interacted with in the last three weeks has been an actor,” it took him a long time to process that. I remember hours later, like eight hours later, he just goes, “Wait, wait. So Margaritaville. What about those people who bumped me on the shoulder and said two words to me?” And they were actors. That was his full-on, Michael Douglas in The Game moment. It takes a while to wrap your head around that.

    How do you approach directing all these scenes, where you can’t possibly do a retake without blowing your cover?

    The trickiest part was the early days. We’re trying to adjust our cameras, and I’m talking to the actors who have earpieces, telling them to play things out on the fly. Because we're obviously learning. We have our best laid plans, and then a real person comes in. We have to adjust on the go. We would find ways to pull out our actors. They’d go to the bathroom, or the documentary crew would say they had to do an interview with them and chat with them in the middle of the day. And sometimes when I got to speak to an actor I would say, “I'm going to be zoomed in on you. Give me more reactions. I know you already played the scene. But say something else. Go have a conversation with Ronald about whatever topic. I won't use what you're saying, but I need your reactions.”

    So you got extra takes from your actors by having them react in specific ways to something unrelated that Ronald said. And then you edited those reactions into earlier conversations. Like a stealth retake.

    Yes. But that wasn’t the majority of cases. Mostly, we just tried to be really prepared. We did a lot of rehearsals before Ronald got there. We were thinking about what happens in all these scenarios. “If he goes here, then we do this. What happens if he goes there?” We tried to prepare, but certainly there was some stuff that we had to really think on our feet for.

    How did you find the balance of putting Ronald into funny situations, but not making them so outlandish he got suspicious?

    That was one of our biggest struggles, all the way back to the writing process. If you think about a show that's “hidden camera,” or “a prank show,” a lot of times it's about how far you can push it before the person blows or says, “I'm out of here.” We couldn't let that happen. We had to be really careful, because we had to keep Ronald there for three weeks. So we were very concerned about not getting too crazy too quick. Yet we still had to edit it into something that's entertaining.

    Were there any moments when you thought you were about to lose Ronald for good?

    All the time. Our first big one was just James Marsden [who plays a heightened version of himself in the show] walking into the room. We’re wondering, “Is he going to look around and go, ‘This is a TV show!’ as soon as James Marsden sits down next to him in the jury duty room?” Another huge one was taking away his cell phone. We did not think someone today would be so cool about giving up their cell phone. And in fact, Ronald's girlfriend apparently helped us out with that. Because the night before, he had been talking to his girlfriend at home, and he said, “You know, it's getting really serious. They're talking about sequestering us.” And she told him, “Oh, that means they'll take away your cell phone, if they're sequestering you.” So when we said, “Alright, guys, everyone turn in your cell phones,” all the actors were prepped to make a big stink and really fight it. Ronald just immediately said, “Okay.” Like he was expecting us to take away his phone.

    But you also had the other version prepared, in case you needed the cast to join a cell phone protest.

    It was almost like directing via flowcharts. We had our scripts, and we knew what we wanted. But for every plot point, we would plan out two or three paths that we thought were likely. We rehearsed for about two weeks, and a lot of rehearsing was that. We were going through,”Here's what we expect to happen. Now, if he doesn’t do it, or if he needs extra help, then do this.”

    Speaking of Ronald’s behavior: I was really moved by how nice he was — just ethical on a bone-deep level. Were you expecting that?

    Well, certainly, we were hoping to do our updated, comedy version of 12 Angry Men, where by the end of this, we have a good person who's going to stand up for what's right. That was the initial idea that made this worth doing. And Ronald just surpassed all of our expectations. How he cared about people and how he reacted to people: He was better than we ever could have hoped.

    It’s striking that you prioritized the “good person doing good” aspect of the show. A lot of hoax shows are designed to expose people’s darkest secrets, or they’re designed to make us make fun of people.

    When I was first approached with the idea for this project, I said, “Hey, I don't want to do anything that's mean, or torturing someone, or making fun of someone, or just punching down the whole time.” You can't do that for three weeks, even if you thought you picked someone who deserved it. And I was assured that everyone was on the same page. No one wanted to do that. And it's true. Our showrunner, our producers, our writers: Everyone was on the same page. We wanted to surround a good person with crazy people making crazy choices. If they’re pranks, they're called “help me pranks.” It's not about us doing something to you. It's about showing you something that’s happening around you, and how will you help or not? How will you engage or not engage? And that's what Ronald does. He shows us the best version of ourselves. He shows us, “Oh, it's possible not to just get caught up in every bad idea.” It is possible to hold your ground and be a good person.

    This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

    Jury Duty streams on Amazon Freevee. New episodes premiere Fridays through April 21. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Jury Duty, Amazon Freevee, Jake Szymanski, James Marsden, Ronald Gladden