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Alumnus Strikes Gold with Reality TV

Emerson Alum and Gold Rush Director Jeremy Weiss (MFA ’12) and Location Series Producer Carter Smith. Courtesy photo

Jeremy Weiss headed west toward Los Angeles after completing his MFA in Media Arts at Emerson in 2012, focused on pursuing a traditional directing career in scripted TV programming.

Seven years later, he’s achieved his first “director” credits, but it isn’t with a scripted program. It’s reality TV, a switch he hadn’t anticipated or planned for. But it’s one he readily embraced, and he’s learned a lot in the process, he said.

Weiss is now a director for Gold Rush, the hit reality show that recently completed its ninth season on the Discovery Channel. The series follows the gold mining activities of family-run mining companies in the Yukon region of Canada. And for several months a year, Weiss is there filming the unexpected moments in the gold mining enterprise and helping shape hundreds of hours of film into story-driven episodes.

When Weiss first arrived in LA, he found a survival job at Macy’s selling men’s suits. After about a year, he landed his first position in the entertainment industry, working as a second AC (assistant camera) for a production company that made multiple feature films each year.

Weiss aspired to be a camera operator at that time – a significant step-up from second AC.

“But the camera operators we had on these movies weren’t going anywhere,” he said. With a promotion seemingly out of the question, “I knew I had to make a change.”

The opportunity to join Gold Rush came in 2016, when Weiss reached out to Carter Smith, a producer on the show. Both Weiss and Smith were undergraduates at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina.

In addition to that contact, Weiss had another thing going for him. Raw TV, the show’s London-based production company, had plans on reshooting the title sequence that season. “Their camera of choice was the Red Epic and I had about 14 feature films of experience with it as an AC,” he said.

Weiss came on board as an associate producer – a catch-all title that covered a lot of different positions on the show. Mostly he worked as the director of photography’s AC. But he was still intent on becoming a camera operator.

“Although I never expected to be involved with reality programming, I was willing to adapt and grow and learn a great deal of new tricks. And it was a steady gig that allowed me to do what I wanted to do – and that was to be involved in TV…”

Soon enough, Weiss did land a position as a camera operator. “And that’s when I set my sights on yet another goal. I wanted to be a director on the show…”

According to Weiss, the way a reality show crafts scenes and stories isn’t like scripted TV, but some of the same principles are still involved. “You have to get your coverage, your master shots… And you have to get all of these other little pieces without a script supervisor telling you what the editor is going to need. You are your own script supervisor in that respect.”

Weiss said he can ask his talent to repeat a line or two, but for the most part, he’s there to record what happens when it happens.

As a camera operator, “you have to be able to frame up [a shot] quickly. In a moment’s notice, that shot is over and is probably gone for good… If a machine blows up because it’s overused… that’s not going to happen again.” Not only do you have to have to work fast, he added, but the shot has to be artistic and interesting.

And that’s not all…

“As a director, you have to remember the story you’re trying to tell and get your talent, who is very focused in the crisis at hand, to explain in layman terms what’s happening for the audience to understand.”

Since Gold Rush is produced by an English production company, all of its directors are from the United Kingdom.

“And I am the first American in the last four seasons to be trusted by them with the role of director. And that opportunity didn’t come easy. Gold Rush is the number one cable show on Friday nights. It’s very popular… And needless to say, they were not going let someone do this job that they didn’t think could do it.”

In 2017, he started writing to the head of the editing unit, asking for advice on how he might move up to director. According to Weiss, the editor responded with some lengthy emails about the process. Weiss also wrote executives at Raw TV at the start of seasons seven and eight on why they should give him the opportunity to do this.

Weiss’ opportunity came in season eight. “They needed coverage for three days in the director’s position with one of the directors on a leave of absence. I wasn’t credited [as a director] but it was a test run for them to see what I could do.

“The feedback I received was from an editor who used my footage in one of his episodes. And basically, what he told me was that I had given him an incomplete story and that they struggled to create a full segment out of what I shot. This wasn’t because anything was shot poorly. It was because the narrative that I had constructed for the scene’s big breakdown was not complete.”

He explained that a reality show like Gold Rush – and almost every other reality show – needs a story with a beginning, middle and end. “I had given them a beginning and middle, but no real ending.”

Coming up with an ending doesn’t necessarily involve creating or scripting an ending. But it does, he said, involve being on hand when the miners plan on how to respond to an emergency – a machine breakdown, for example, or an employee dispute.

And it involves making sure there’s plenty of coverage for any possible planned resolution. And in this respect, Weiss said he came up short. But he took the editor’s criticism to heart. “The next time I covered and was thrown into the director’s seat – these lessons had been learned.”

Apparently, he learned them well, because shortly after Weiss returned to Gold Rush as a director in August 2018, he started hearing whispers… “And almost immediately after I started, producers were coming up to me to tell me how much the editors back in London were loving the rushes I was sending them.”

He received his first credit as a director on Season Nine/Episode 14, and he was credited as a director from episodes 14 through 22. The series wrapped up its ninth season on March 15.

“The fact that they trusted me with their talent and their crew…  yeah, it was a moment of pride… I was able to stick with something and accomplish what I set out to do.”

Weiss now lives in West Los Angeles with his wife Laura, a biochemical engineering scientist. He looks forward to rejoining Gold Rush for Season 10.

But in the meantime, he’s joined the International Cinematographers Guild as a camera operator.

“That was a big thrill. It means more job opportunities and more work around the Los Angeles area… I continue to network and take meetings, hoping to land other positions like camera operator and director of photography.” Even one day of work, he said, can lead to a season’s worth of work.

Weiss is also writing a half-hour comedy and other scripts, and he’s eager for the opportunity to pitch them. And he’s prepping to direct a film short involving another script he wrote. He still aspires to be a director of scripted TV programming.

“Absolutely, 100 percent,” he said. “But I’ve also got this interest in reality that I’m not going to abandon.

“The industry is a crazy place,” he said. “And it’s important that you don’t close the door to an opportunity. You never know where it might lead.”

This story was submitted to Emerson Today by Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor James Macak. Are you a student, faculty member, or staff member who wants to share something with the Emerson community? Send your news stories, short stories, poems, videos, or anything else to today@emerson.eduor

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