Exclusive Interview: HOMELAND SECURITY's EP Arnold Shapiro

hsuI had the great opportunity to chat with Arnold Shapiro, the executive producer of ABC’s intriguing reality series HOMELAND SECURITY USA.  Mr. Shapiro is an Oscar and Emmy Award winning producer who has overseen 29 series, five TV movies, and more than 90 documentaries and reality shows.  He had so much great stuff to say, I wanted to share the interview with you!

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the show, but as soon as I tuned in, it grabbed me, and I’m hooked.
Thank you for saying that.  I’ve heard that from a lot of people.  Everybody thought it was going to be political in one way or the other and that’s not what it is.  I think everybody was pleasantly surprised.

That’s exactly the reaction I’ve heard, talking to people over the weekend.  They just smiled, and said “Oh I watched that”, having enjoyed it.
It’s quite a challenging series to do because, in other so called reality shows, there are always tent-pole events that you have.  When I did BIG BROTHER for 7 seasons, we always knew with every show, there was either a food competition or an elimination.  But in this, we show up at a location and the slate is clean.  If absolutely nothing happens that day, we walk away with nothing.  It’s like mining for gold.  You know, a lot of ore, and every so often, a gold nugget.  And of course, the gold nuggets are what you see in the episodes.

How long has a show like this been in the works, how did this come to fruition?
It came to be, because Australia has been doing a show called BORDER SECURITY for 5 seasons.  ABC saw how successful and popular it was, and secured the American rights.  Then they thought about who they wanted to develop the American version which also included getting the full cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Which generally is no particular friend of Hollywood [laughs].

So, I’ve done a lot of documentaries that relate to law enforcement and helping kids, and even the military, so they called me in.  Over the course of many months, I secured the cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as developed the Australian format into an American format. For instance, theirs is a half hour, ours is an hour.  Australia, all they’re protecting is their airport and their waterways, the ocean with their navy.  People doing illegal fishing and all that.  We have land borders as well, so it’s a much more extensive diversified show here than it is there.  Almost all of their stories take place at Sydney Airport.  And yeah, that’s interesting, but ours take place, as you saw, from the first episode on land, air, and sea [laughs].  All over the place!  Over the course of this first season, we were in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and many, many different airports and border crossings.  I mean we did as much on the Canadian border as we did on the Southern border, the Mexican border.  Personally, as informed a person as I think I am, I learned a great deal from doing this series because, first of all, I didn’t realize the amount of illegal drugs and other contraband that is stopped or confiscated at the borders.  I just never thought of that.

Yeah, it is definitely something you don’t think about – you take for granted that it gets taken care of.
Yeah you hear about undocumented workers and illegal immigrants and all of that, but you don’t hear very much about the drugs and counterfeit money.  I didn’t even know that we had international mail centers where all packages coming to the United States are screened; there are five of those centers.  I didn’t even know they existed, I just never thought about it.  I got to see all that.  I also learned that the people who are on the front lines of Homeland Security – we didn’t deal with the higher ups – the people on the front lines who you see in the episodes, they really are proud that they’re doing what they’re doing.  They feel they’re protecting America as much as the Marines and the Army and the Navy, as much as the military.  They’re very proud of what they do.  This was a group of agencies that were brought together under the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.  Most of them existed way before that.  The Coast Guard goes back to the founding of our country.  It used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  Border Patrol’s been around since the 1920s.  They were all brought together under this one umbrella.  So we have a really diversified series.  Some people like to compare to COPS.

Someone just said that to me as I was walking out to do the call!  It’s like COPS with Homeland Security.
Except, COPS has been on for 20 years.  You’ve got to grant them that they’re doing something right.  I think that we have a much more diversified format than COPS.  Basically, they’re on land, only.  You see what you see, you know what COPS is.  We’re all over the place.  If you watch a few episodes, you’ll see stories on the water, you’ll see stories at airports and border crossings.  I also didn’t anticipate that we’d have as much humor as we have.  No officer wants to be the one who accidentally lets a terrorist into the country, or a gang member, or a drug dealer.  Nobody wants that on their conscience, like no air traffic controller wants to be the one who causes a crash, so they’re very vigilant in what they do.  Especially since 9/11.  I didn’t realize how much humor was going to come out of this series. 

Every episode has at least one story.  The episode you saw had two.  The Swiss belly dancer and the young man who came across the border with his marijuana pipe.  The things he was saying, like “will you pay for it?”

You can’t script that!
Years ago, Art Linklater said “People are funny” and it’s true.  This show has no shortage of characters.  On [tonight’s] episode, it has a man from Tennessee, a very colorful character who comes across the border from Canada and they stop his car for a routine check and they find a human skull, which he’s had for ten years and he carries around with him, and two hand guns.  Most people know that you don’t bring weapons across an international border.  It actually turned out to be a humorous sequence because of this guy.  I remember one of the officers saying “I don’t know about you, if I found a human skull in the dumpster, I’d call the police,” but this guy never did. He just decided to carry it around and show it to his friends. 

“Hey look what what I found!”
Yeah, they confiscated it!

Why should people tune in to tonight’s episode?
Because people who tune in will be entertained, they will be informed at the same time, and they will see activities and situations that they don’t see anywhere else, even in fiction.  The fact that this is 100% real.  In some ways, I don’t like the label reality show for this particular project because I don’t know about you, but the word reality show these days implies something that’s been manipulated, that isn’t totally truthful, that’s manipulated in editing or in telling people what to say or do.  This series is 100% factual and accurate.  Especially working with the Department of Homeland Security, even if we were so inclined to do that, we couldn’t.  But we wouldn’t. 

I mean, I come out of a documentary background and this is pure documentary, but obviously, you can’t label the show that, because then people think it’s some esoteric, educational show, but the fact is that it’s entertaining, it’s enjoyable to watch, but you learn alot, and I think at the end, you feel pretty good.

I realize that every department and every agency of the government, whether it’s the city government, county government, or national government has problems and needs improvement.  That’s just the way everything works, we all do.  There’s nothing wrong with showing how something works effectively.  I think, most of the time, these people do a terrific job, and are unrewarded for it.  They never get praised.  I don’t know many people that come across the border who thank an officer or an agent for doing the job that they’re doing, they’re just annoyed!  These people are protecting us.  Imagine if they weren’t there.  Anybody and anything can come across.

It’s a dangerous job too!  One of the officers we interviewed, it’s not in the show, 6 months earlier, he had been stabbed in the chest.  By someone he was interviewing, who just pulled out a knife and stabbed him.  It missed his heart by about a quarter of an inch, and he was there to tell the tale. 

Thanks so much for spending time with me today – I hope the show continues for a long while!
There are no shortage of colorful characters at every airport, at every border crossing, on every boat!

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