We need a new word for Jury Duty. Not quite a mockumentary, because there’s a real person in it, and far too scripted for a reality show; it’s a sit-com with hidden cameras and one guy who has no idea what’s going on.
Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky of The Office, and produced by half of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat team, Jury Duty came out of nowhere last month to become one of the buzziest shows of the year – as much the story of real hero Ronald Gladden as it is about the completely fake trial that unfolded around him while he led a “jury” of actors in a mock trial that he thought was real. Except, of course, it didn’t come out of nowhere at all, and the real magic of the show is in how the crew actually pulled it all off without the main star even noticing.
Executive producers David Bernad (also of The White Lotus), Nicholas Hatton and Todd Schulman (both of Borat) sat down to tell us how they staged the trial of the century.
Did you expect the show to be as big a talking point as it is at the moment?
David Bernad: “We knew it was ambitious, and we knew it was original, but I don’t think we could ever have dreamed the amazing response we’ve gotten.”
How challenging was it to make a hidden camera show on this scale?
Nicholas Hatton: “We truly managed every single moment of Ronald’s life for three and a half weeks, 24 hours a day. Every single thing – from the courthouse to where he was sleeping at night – had been thought through in advance, and every possibility had been considered. So it was a very, very big undertaking.”
Watching the edited version you forget that this was running 24 hours a day. Did you have hours where nothing funny or unusual happened?
Hatton: “Yeah, we had an idea of what we wanted to achieve on a day-to-day basis. We had the outlines of storylines that were all hopefully building to this 12 Angry Men moment, but that did mean filming for about eight hours in court every single day.
“We had to create a very believable and often quite boring reality for Ronald. If he only experienced what you see in the episodes we never would have gotten him to believe that any of this was actually real. The trick to it is bluffing him into a sense of boredom, and then hitting him with these insane bits to try to satisfy the storylines. What you see is the tip of the iceberg, essentially.”
Ronald could easily have opened the wrong door on set… did you have a backup plan if something went wrong?
Bernad: “I wasn’t physically there on set – I was in Italy doing The White Lotus, but I was watching it all unfold on an iPad. I had about 10 people from The White Lotus watching the final reveal in realtime on my phone, while we were all at dinner. I was so nervous because there really was no backup plan.”
Todd Schulman: “You’re hitting on the essential disadvantage, which is you’ve got to sustain this for 17 days, but the flip side to that is that we could focus all our energy on one person. We essentially only had to get it right for Ronald. I’m not trying to lessen what the show managed to achieve, but that part of it does even the playing field a bit.”
Hatton: “I completely disagree with Todd, it was terrifying the entire time!”
Let’s talk about Ronald. How lucky did you get finding him?
Shulman: “We always viewed this character as kind of a hero. So we wanted someone who was immensely likeable. But Ronald just completely exceeded all of our expectations.”
Bernad: “We sold the show in February of 2020, and then we really developed it as COVID became a thing. So I think the spirit of it was always to kind of make something that felt joyful and optimistic and funny. We were purposely never mean-spirited. Ron was never the brunt of any jokes. But you can still never anticipate someone being that genuinely a good person. Ronald was just… wonderful.”
And he kept on just making the right decisions too…
Hatton: “It was even beyond that, because he kept hitting every single beat of the story we had mapped out. The Bug’s Life thing is the best possible example. We didn’t set that up. Truly, when he was in the hotel, he asked for a copy of A Bug’s Life very specifically because he met the character of Todd (David Brown) and he wanted to show him the movie. He wanted to tell him that he had a place in the world, and that what he was doing was meaningful – to tell him he had a beautiful heart. That was entirely Ronald, and that’s just magic.”
Schulman: “When you talk about luck, it’s finding a guy who has the deep pop culture knowledge to know the plot of A Bug’s Life but not recognise any of our actors from other shows! That’s a real sweet spot right there!”
Todd was the most dangerous element in the show I guess – because he is just so weird. Did you have to pull that back at all?
Hatton: “You really had to take it almost hour by hour on a day-to-day basis. The first time we brought up the chair pants, or ‘chants’, Ronald was like, ‘This feels like a reality show’. And this was day three, I think. We had a whole storyline with the chants, and they were going to have a whole life of their own for at least a full episode, but after that reaction we quickly pivoted and turned it all down a bit.”
And then there’s James Marsden. Was it always part of the plan to have a more famous actor playing a version of themselves?
Bernad: “Yeah, that was an idea from Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. James is someone that I’ve worked with on three other occasions, so I called him and he jumped on it right away. I think he’d been looking for something that had a little bit more improv in it, and he was just incredibly committed.”
Hatton: “It’s such a genius idea for the celeb element as well, because when you’re dealing with a real person you have to create a journey on guardrails. If you have a choice of left or right in front of you, and a famous person is saying, ‘I think right feels pretty good’, more often than not the real person will go right. So that was another important way of very subtly keeping Ron on track.”
You mentioned that you never wanted Ronald to be the butt of the joke, but were you worried how he might take it when the big reveal happened?
Hatton: “For sure. Humans are really complex. You think you can really have someone pegged, and then something else happens. It sounds creepy, but I’d been watching Ron almost 24 hours a day for three and a half weeks. The reality was, in that moment, when you’re telling him that everything that he’s seen is essentially not real, you truly can’t know how he’s gonna react.
“That moment was palpable. When you see the actors in the jury box, you can see in their faces, there were already some tears beginning to well up because they were nervous as heck too. It was kind of a terrifying moment. But, again, Ronald gave us exactly the ending we hoped for.”
What’s Ronald’s life been like since the show aired? Have you spoken to him?
Bernad: “I talked to him yesterday and I saw him last week in New York. When we cast Ronald he had just been laid off in real life. And he was searching for meaning a little bit. And what’s really amazing is that the show has given him that path, in a way. I think he’s feeling he’s found some purpose. He’s speaking now about using his platform for good and finding a way to amplify that message of being a good person. I think he’s forged genuine friendships with most of the cast too.”
Hatton: “I’ve seen him doing commercials with Ryan Reynolds now and it just blows my mind. I also felt a little bit protective and jealous. He’s our Ron! He’s truly been rewarded for being a nice dude, and that’s a lovely thing.”
Could you ever do this again? Maybe with a different scenario?
Bernad: “It’s possible. We’re still figuring that out. If we did, this idea of a hero’s journey is so important. That idea of bringing a kindness and sweetness to the genre and never trying to do anything mean-spirited.”
Schulman: “Yeah, in so many ways this was lightning in a bottle. It was hard work by a lot of people and a really talented cast, but we also got really lucky with Ronald. We love this genre, if we want to call it that. And so sure, we’ve thought about doing it again, but we haven’t really gotten too far down the road on what that could or would look like.”
Hatton: “Ronald is obviously the star of the show. He’s more of a hero than we could ever possibly imagined. We’ve been talking about him for half an hour now. But I’ll also say that I think there are other great people out there. Other heroes. We just need to find them…”
‘Jury Duty’ is streaming now on Amazon Freevee