Monday, October 18, 2010

An Interview with Scare Tactics Creator Scott Hallock

Tracy Morgan on Scare Tactics. Photo by Christos Kalohoridis/Syfy.

Everyone knows Tracy Morgan stars in 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey on Thursday nights. But not as many people are aware of Tracy's other TV gig on Monday nights on Syfy. The comedic actor hosts a hidden camera show called Scare Tactics, where all the pranks have some kind of supernatural theme.

Friends and family help the Scare Tactics team set up the victims in elaborate movie-style hoaxes, with very convincing, top-notch visual effects and make-up. The marks are set up in outrageous situations from encounters with alien abductions to confrontations with zombies to brushes with mad scientists. In last week's Season 4 premiere episode, Tracy’s 30 Rock co-star, Judah Friedlander, made a special guest appearance involving a stand-in and an enraged co-star.

We spoke with the series creator and executive producer, Scott Hallock, on a recent conference call about working with Tracy, the best victim reactions, and going too far.

Watch Scare Tactics every Monday night on Syfy at 9:00 PM PST/ 8:00 PM Central.

Read our interview after the jump.
Q: How do you think the show is different with Tracy Morgan at the helm as opposed to old hosts, Shannen Doherty and Stephen Baldwin?

SCOTT: The show has always been a comedy show to us. And so we think Tracy just reinforces that because for people watching the show it’s not scary at all. It’s a comedy show. Because you’re in on the joke. And so it is scary for one person who doesn’t know what’s going on. But we really feel like having Tracy at the helm of this really helps set it apart as a comedy show. And he really brings a lot to it in that sense. I think there’s a lot of entertainment value with the host wraps, with Tracy saying it’s Tracy being Tracy and saying those crazy Tracy things. But he’s just so great to work with and such a comedy pro that that’s what really drew us to bringing Tracy onboard—to reinforce the fact that, "Hey, Scare Tactics is a comedy show. We're having fun here."

Q: What’s been your favorite episode so far?

SCOTT: Gee, in Season 2 it was probably the episode that had the Rat Monster bit in it. In Season 3 it was probably the Satan’s Baby bit. And coming up in Season 4 there’s a favorite bit in every show.

Certainly in the first episode that just aired on Monday the party bit that we actually pre-taped Tracy Morgan and he was a part of it. That bit turned out great. And then the bit that ended that show where the kid went to investigate animal eviscerations at a farm and was confronted by aliens at the end. Here was this six foot five athletic looking dude and he screamed like crazy.

And even at the end of it he said, "I have never screamed like that in my life before." So that was amazing. And then next week, next Monday we have Judah Friedlander on the show. And the bit that he did just turned out great. So I know it’s not the definition of the word but I have a lot of favorites.

Q: What was it like working with Judah?

SCOTT: Judah was great. Such a nice, cool, down to earth guy, just really up for anything. And he was really involved in helping us write the bit. He wrote the bit basically that he was in. He just did a great job and was really down to earth, really cool to work with and very funny, so funny in this bit. So I really think people are going to enjoy seeing him on next week’s show.

Q: How did you score John Doerr and is he going to be on a regular basis?

SCOTT: We love John Doerr and yes, he is going to be on, on a regular basis. Several people on our crew had worked with John before and apparently John was a fan of the show. And so we approached him about doing some bits. And luckily he was amenable. And he is on next week’s show and the week after that. And he brings something different and hilarious to every role he played.

Sometimes he’s playing kind of a straightforward scientist. Other times—a lot of times—he got to play a really creepy guy. If you saw this week’s episode, he was the bad guy. He brought a poisoned cake to the party. And I love the way he read that line, “The cake is poisoned idiots.” I win. You lose. I love the way he said that.

And then coming up on the 18th he’s in a bit where he’s brandishing a cleaver and, the woman says to him, “Oh my God, you have a knife.” And he yells back at her, “It’s a cleaver,” and it’s just very, it’s a funny moment in a very tense situation. And so John will be back on a semi regular basis throughout the fourth season.

Q: It feels like so many things can go wrong—like the fight or flight reactions—can you guys predict how the mark will react?

SCOTT: They do. Things do go wrong and that’s the beauty I guess of this show is that you have to be on your toes because you don’t know how the mark is going to react or how the victim is going to react. So you have to be prepared for anything. One thing we have on our show is we have someone waiting outside of wherever it is we are, with a camera. We call it the Runner Cam because sometimes people get so overwhelmed they run out the door even when we’re screaming at them, “You’re on a show. You’re on a show. It’s a TV show. We have to have someone outside with a camera just in case they get outside our building because then when they see the camera they do realize they’re on a show. And the person is going you’re on TV. You’re on Scare Tactics.

You can’t predict how people are going to react. We’ve had people go running out of the building after they’ve just received kind of a creepy phone call and then they go running out. And nothing terribly exciting has happened yet. And then we’ve had people come face to face with a monster at the crescendo of the bit and we go, “Are you scared?” And they go, “No. I’m just kind of confused.” Like what? So you never know how people are going to react.

In the bit last week, the alien bit, we had this kid who had a great reaction— just a huge reaction, just screamed when the aliens came out but we shoot with multiple victims over the night because you never know what you’re going to get. The kid we shot before him had actually grown up on a farm and so when he walked in the barn and he saw the dead pigs lying there he realized those are not pigs who were just killed. Those came from a butcher. He just recognized that and it took him out of the bit. And when the aliens came out he was kind of like, "Oh, that’s nice." He didn’t buy it at all. And it was because he had this experience growing up on a farm.

So we shoot with multiple people a night to hedge our bets a little bit and try to get some success and make sure we have the right person out there. We definitely aim to put the right person out there. We put people out there who we think will react to this kind of thing but sometimes it doesn’t always go as planned.

Q: So have you ever had people whose first reaction was to fight their way out of a situation?

SCOTT: To fight? Well, one of the aliens, in the bit last week, one of the aliens got too close to our victim and got punched in the side of the head. But… then he backed off. He wasn’t supposed to get that close to the mark anyway. So our actor made a bit of a mistake there. But it was funny because as soon as we revealed him and said, “You’re on a TV show,” he went over to the alien and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” And gave him a big hug. And it was like, "No, you reacted properly. If an alien is coming at you, you should punch him. That is correct."

But no, we take safety very seriously. And we try not to put people in a place where they’re going to fight their way out. And if it looks like it’s going that way we’ll reveal to them right away and say, "No, no, no, you’re on a TV show" and diffuse the situation.

But we definitely had a lot of flight. The fourth season more than ever we needed our Runner Cam because we had a lot of people saying, “I’m out of here,” and going running out. And we have not ever had that as much as we did this season and I don’t know what it was.

Q: Have there been many instances of heroism that really impressed you?

SCOTT: Absolutely. That’s the thing. It’s the whole fight or flight response. And some people decide to be the hero rather than scream.

We have it in a bit coming up, in a couple of bits coming up, where when the victim finds himself in a dangerous situation and a crazy person is confronting them they’re like get the hell away from me. If you come near me I will beat you down. You know? And then it’s an interesting reaction and it’s a different reaction than just standing there and screaming… We had a girl who unbeknownst to her, her friend was setting her up and this psycho wheels her friend in Hannibal Lecter style on this… dolly. And she sees her friend tied up and the girl’s like, "Let us go, let us go" and he says, “I need a head in a jar.” And she says, “Well then take mine.” Don’t take my friend’s. You know, and it’s like what? Did you just volunteer to give your head to this psycho? This girl, steps up and says, “Take me not my friend.”

I don’t think she felt that after she found out her friend was setting her up. But no, they had a really good laugh and she had a great reaction when she realized it was all a joke. And her friend was right there in the room to smile and say this is all fake and it was a great reaction. That’s a very common reaction on Scare Tactics. I hate you. Big hug.

Q: What’s the weirdest or most funny reaction for you guys to a prank over the four seasons of the show? Like is there one that really stands out?

SCOTT: The weirdest reaction? I’m trying to think. We certainly get a weird reaction. We’ve had really good success using little people on our show as actors and certainly with Rat Monster and Satan’s Baby. We used the same actor for both of those and got amazing reactions.

In Satan’s Baby the girl actually pointed at our actor and said, after he looked at her and said, “Praise me.” And she looked at him and said, “No, I will not praise you. You are the devil and I love God.” And it was such a bizarre reaction that she was interacting with this little thing that supposedly was just born and yet he’s wearing a Speedo, he’s running around the hospital room and it doesn’t dawn on her for a second that this could be fake. She really thinks she’s talking to Satan’s baby.

So we got a bit like that coming up in a couple of weeks where a kid thinks he’s on a prank show and then he realizes he’s walked into a trap. The guy running the prank show is a psycho who uses this prank show to trap his victims.

And then we have a little person dressed like if you remember the bring out the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction. We have a little person dressed all in leather and then the victim is told to dance if he wants to live. And then there’s a disco ball that comes on and a light and the kid starts dancing even though there’s no music. That was a pretty weird reaction.

Q: How do you know you’ve gone too far? Is there a point where you think that you can go too far in a scare?

SCOTT: Well the goal is for everyone to have a good time. We compare our show to a roller coaster. We want it to be a thrill for people, but when they get off the ride at the end we want them to go, "Wow, that was fun. Let’s do it again." So you definitely can go too far and we’re cognizant of that.

And I don’t think we have ever. Because people bounce back at the end and they do say to us, “Oh my God, that was fun. Let’s do it again.” And the way they do it again is they give us the names of a bunch of their friends that they want to scare. And so we’re very careful about monitoring the situation. The friend or family member who has set the person up is watching the bit as it goes along. And if they ever feel like it is going too far they can tell us and we’ll stop immediately.

So we do take that very seriously and we want people to have a good time. So, if someone’s deathly afraid of spiders we won’t put them in a room full of spiders. We don’t want them to face their real fears. We want to confront them with something that’s hopefully ridiculous and have them believe in it and then at the end of it go, "Oh my God, I can’t believe I bought that."

Because that’s another big reaction we got this season is people after it was over going, "Oh my God, I watch that show all the time and I look at those people and I say how can they believe that? And now I’m one of those people. I can’t believe it. I thought these shows were fake and now I know they’re real."

Q: Do you customize your situation for your victims?

SCOTT: Yeah. We try to. It’s kind of what I was just saying earlier. We definitely customize them in the fact that we won’t confront anyone with their real fears. If someone’s afraid of knives or wolves or something like that we won’t put them in a bit that has knives or wolves in it. But on the other hand, if someone believes in vampires or believes in Bigfoot or believes in aliens, that they could exist then we might put them in a vampire or an alien or a Bigfoot bit. It’s not necessarily that they have an irrational fear of these things they’re just predisposed to believing in their existence. And so in that sense we feel like those people are custom made for that bit. But we definitely prescreen all our victims and make sure that they are appropriate for the bit that we’re going to do with them. And we discuss the bit with the person who’s setting them up and we say, "How do you think your friend would react to this?" And they say, "Oh, this is perfect for them." So we definitely try to customize the bit to the person.

Q: How did you come up with this as a series?

SCOTT: It’s something that my partner Kevin Healey and I were doing, Spy TV for NBC at the time and Syfy approached us and said, "Hey, could you do kind of a scary, creepy, sci-fi based hidden camera show for us?" We’ve done 80 episodes and four bits an episode, that’s 320 different concepts. Even back in the beginning we kind of realized that the world was very rich because you’ve got not only the sci-fi genre but you’ve got the horror genre, you’ve got monsters, you’ve got aliens, you’ve got freak shows, you’ve got zombies.

All things paranormal are basically in our playground. And so it’s a very broad, rich world to us. And so we try to also shoot the show in a very cinematic way so that every bit looks like a little scene out of a horror movie or out of a sci-fi movie. And it also helps that we’re in HD for the first time this season. I think the show looks especially beautiful in HD and it was an amazing experience shooting it that way.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of the show—the creative process coming up with the new scenarios or the practical aspect of it formulating all of the logistics of getting everything set up?

SCOTT: The most difficult aspect of the show is dealing with real people and the fact that there are no retakes. No matter what happens in a bit you’ve got to go with it as if that was meant to happen. The other thing is in dealing with real people, we shoot with multiple people a night so that if anything happens, if for whatever reason the bit doesn’t work on the first person then we go to the second person. If it doesn’t work on the second person we go to the third person. And hopefully, at the end of the night we’ve shot something that works. But in dealing with real people they don’t realize they’re on their way to a TV show when they’re on their way out there.

So sometimes it’ll be 10:00 at night and they’ll turn to their friend who’s setting them up unbeknownst to them, and go, "You know what, I don’t want to go work in a creepy lab at 10:00. Let’s go do something else." Especially on Friday nights, it’s really tough because we shoot on the weekends too. So getting young people out to our creepy labs and abandoned warehouses sometimes is a little bit difficult on a Friday and Saturday night.

So we have an amazing, what we call our accomplice team and they are the ones responsible for not only finding our victims but then coordinating with their friends and family members to get them out to where we’re shooting. And that’s definitely the most difficult aspect. Because we can control everything else—the creative, where the cameras are, how it’s lit. But we can’t control how that person gets there, if they get there and once they’re there we can’t control how they react.

Q: What percent of victims figure out what’s going on before it’s over?

SCOTT: Not as many as you’d think. We have very few times that a bit is blown because the person figures it out. It’s funny though, during a bit people will often say something like, “Is this a hidden camera show?” Or something like that because it’s the only rational explanation for the craziness that’s going on around them. And of course our actors will say, “No. I’ve never seen anything like this either. This is weird.” So I’m trying to think of a specific example. Not a lot of people figure it out. The funny thing is everyone becomes a hidden camera expert after the reveal. After the reveal the people who say they knew it, the percentage jumps up exponentially.

As soon as you reveal you’re on a hidden camera show, "I knew it. That thing over there that looked weird. And that guy over there I knew he was an actor." And it’s like, "No, you didn’t know it until we said you’re on a TV show. Then all of a sudden you knew it." But no, for the most part we get through the bits with 90% of the people without them figuring it out.

Q: What kind of scare tactic would work best on you?

SCOTT: On me? Let’s see. Well if you really wanted to scare me it would probably be something with my kids. But we don’t do that kind of stuff on the show. So for the show—I grew up in the Northwest, I’m from Washington State. And so I had a healthy fear of Bigfoot when I was growing up. And so definitely if I was out in the woods and it was dark and I heard noises I could definitely convince myself that Bigfoot was just behind the next tree. And we’ve done that. We have done a couple of Bigfoot gags before and they were very, very effective.

Q: There have been so many prank shows throughout the history of television. What do you think it is about that genre that people just love so much?

SCOTT: For me it’s being in on the joke. I think what people like about prank shows is they’re watching someone who has no idea what’s going on but yet as a viewer you’re in on the joke. It’s about to happen and you can’t wait to see how this person reacts. It’s like being that person who’s hiding in the dark at a surprise party. You’re all excited because you know the lights are going to come on, you’re going to yell surprise and hopefully the person you’re surprising has a great reaction.

And so I think that’s part of it as a viewer, is you want to see that great reaction. You want to see how they react when they don’t know what’s going on and then you want to see how they react when they realize it’s all a joke. And we get some pretty big reactions on this show when we reveal and say you’re on Scare Tactics.

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