Pilgrim Studios produces a ton of programming for a bunch of networks like Discovery, HISTORY, Syfy, Lifetime, OWN, Animal Planet, WE TV and National Geographic Channel. From concept development to network delivery, they do it all. Dina Gahchman, contributor at Forbes, interviewed Pilgrim Studios’ owner Piligian about reality shows and the new Orange County Choppers series on CMT starting tonight November 16 at 9/8c. I publish below highlights of this interview.
“The website for Piligian’s company Pilgrim Studios unabashedly states that they are “Production Company of the Year” and “the most diverse production company on the planet.” Those are bold claims, but when you consider that they’ve created shows like American Chopper, The Ultimate Fighter, Dirty Jobs, and My Fair Wedding, maybe it’s not the craziest claim someone in the entertainment industry has ever made. James Cameron did declare himself “king of the world” during the Titanic era.
Piligian’s new show, Orange County Choppers, premieres on CMT this weekend. American Chopper ran on Discovery for ten years, and it followed Paul Teutul Sr. and his sons Paul Jr. and Mikey as they built custom bikes and engaged in some pretty dramatic infighting. Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. had a very public falling out, and now the focus is on Paul Sr. and his team. Even without the father-son feuds, Pilgrim promises “state-of-the-art drama.”
I talked to Piligian about Orange County Choppers, the state of Paul Jr. and Paul Sr.’s relationship and how I Love Lucy inspired American Chopper”
Forbes: When you first set out to make American Chopper, how did you know Paul Sr. had what it takes to be a reality star?
Piligian: That’s a very good question – I didn’t. They were not my very first choice. I switched the motorcycle shop the night before shooting. It was a Tuesday night and in my last conversation with the shop that I was going to do in New Hampshire I didn’t feel that they had the right mindset. The next morning I woke up early and I called Paul Sr. and said, “Do you want to do this pilot for Discovery?” I changed all the tickets, changed the crew, and on Thursday we were shooting the pilot for American Chopper. We didn’t initially tell Discovery about the switch. It was just a gut feeling.
Forbes: Did the pilot surprise you at all, once you actually saw the footage?
Piligian: We shot the pilot and started cutting the rough cut, and Discovery was looking for a motorcycle build show to compete with Monster Garage. This was an East Coast version of that. What we started to see was that it was a relationship show more than it was a build show. The bike was a by-product of the relationship with the father and the son. It just came out of nowhere and was hugely successful. It was the first family docu-soap.
Forbes: You didn’t set out to make that type of show, so what did you learn from those early days?
Piligian: We know a lot more now than we did then. Look at Duck Dynasty, or our show Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN. In the beginning when we were figuring out American Chopper, I went back to I Love Lucy. Every Lucy episode was: Lucy gets a job. Lucy spends too much money. Ricky needs whatever. I decided we should make the loglines real simple: Junior goes missing. Mikey doesn’t show up. That’s what we built the show around. Simple loglines. It was the inspiration for the whole show. I wanted the audience to engage; I wanted to make it personal. Every person can relate to the family dynamic.
Forbes: Guys like Paul Sr. haven’t necessarily been toiling for years trying to become famous stars, and yet they’re suddenly thrust into this surreal world of celebrity. How do you handle that transition with them?
Piligian: There’s the big question. It’s difficult. You take an actor who has worked for 10 years at the Actors Studio, who has gotten 300 rejections every year for 10 years and all the sudden they get a movie that does well and he becomes an overnight success. Well, he knows he’s not an overnight success. The actor gets it. There’s an appreciation of it and all that comes with that. When we do this, the people never had the 10 years prior. You’ve got to be a life coach and a money manager. You have to say, “This is a long game so don’t lose it in the short game. We want to be here for 10 seasons, not two.” There are all these talks that happen. Sometimes they become resentful, sometimes they don’t. It has happened in every one of my shows. Once we get to the fifth and sixth season it all starts evening out and it all starts to become big picture. By the fourth season everything works. That’s the season you want to get to – the fourth and fifth season. After season two it’s difficult, and season three is the worst.
Forbes: Are Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. talking now? Do you know what’s going on with them?
Piligian: I don’t know the relationship between Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. We finished American Chopper and it had a great run. I can’t comment on their relationship since post. Before that I know it wasn’t very good. Now I have no idea. Hopefully they’ve repaired a lot of their issues and they’re a family.
Forbes: What can people expect from the CMT show?
Piligian: Paul Sr. left to his own devices is insane. It’s creative, the bikes are great, but he runs a crazy shop. What I love about him is that he’s just raw. He doesn’t care what he says. What he thinks in his head is logical and reasonable to him. That’s what makes it special, and funny. He actually says when everybody is thinking and doesn’t want to say.