Pawel Jarecki, Tim ‘Gonzo’ Ryan, Nick Maher
Since being picked up for broadcast on Netflix, the Australian-made documentary travel show Unplanned America has been catching quite a bit of attention. The show is a raw mix of reality TV, travel documentary, and general road trip shenanigans. (Let’s just say that some friendly hazing among mates isn’t out of the question with these three.) But underneath the spectacle that makes the show so entertaining is a real interest in human psychology and outsider communities that at times borders on the philosophical. After wrapping up my reviews of the first season, I sat down with Pawel “Parv” Jarecki, one of the show’s three creators (unfortunately Gonzo and Nick weren’t able to join us), to talk about where they’ve been and where they’re going.
First of all, how did the show come into being? What made you all decide to do a road trip documentary in the US?
I was freelancing and doing some agency work, and I wasn’t feeling any kind of real connection to anything I was doing. Gonzo came over one night and was like, “Hey, I’m totally sick of working for other people. Do you want to buy a camera and go to America and just try and make something?” And I was like, yeah, sure, why not? That’s sort of how it came about. We didn’t really know what we were doing in the beginning; we just kind of hit the road after that, and Nick joined us. We had our own money, and we bought this shitty car. And at first it was almost like a road trip kind of vibe but then we were sort of finding ourselves drawn to these strange places. We’d always have really interesting experiences or we’d go with certain preconceptions and it’d wind up being really different, and it started to be something that we were more drawn to, the idea of “let’s try and get into some interesting places”. It sort of evolved, I guess, but I like where it went.
So you guys didn’t come here with the intention of making a show about American sub-cultures? That sort of happened after the fact?
Yeah, it sort of evolved as we were on the road. We weren’t actually sure what the show was when we started. We were just going to try and do something. We realized that maybe we can actually get access to places, and we’d definitely talk the talk a little bit. We’d sort of bullshit and make out like we were better than we were. “Yeah we’re this Australian crew, we’re shooting a documentary,” not like, “Yeah, we’re three shitheads who have no idea what we’re doing.” We were self-funded, driving a $700 car. We put a nicer sheen on it and people fell for it. That’s what we became interested in; we found ourselves in some really awesome situations and really enjoyed it.
Why did you choose America as opposed to anywhere else?
Gonzo had a certain love for America. I’d never really been there, but then when I was sort of cruising around I got into it as well. I always sort of avoided it for some reason. So it was really Gonzo’s fascination with America, but once we started doing the subculture thing we couldn’t have been in a more perfect place because you guys really have the most amazing groups of people all around the place. Australia is not like that, you know. To find those kinds of subcultures there is a lot trickier. In America, they’re everywhere.
Did you have any preconceived ideas about what you were going to find when you got here? I imagine there were conversations that happened between the three of you when the cameras weren’t rolling. Was that something you all discussed?
Well, with some of the stuff, it was so alien to us that we had no idea what to expect. I mean, you work up preconceptions anyway. For example, the Gathering of the Juggalos. We heard about it. I remember looking at some stuff on the internet to see what was going on, and it’s so full on, the image that’s presented across the internet and the media that it’s hard not to form a preconception. Everyone looks really dangerous and trashy, and it just all seemed really unpleasant. We were actually quite scared going into that scene, and we were hoping that being Australian would be some kind of shield. So we definitely had those preconceptions even though they wound up being proven totally wrong. Going onto a porn set as well, you think it’s going to be all seedy and weird, that people are going to be doing drugs in the corner. Then you get there and it’s nothing like that. It was like an office and everything was really ordered—but people were having sex. So yeah, we had preconceptions. I think it just happens, you know.
What I like so much about your show is that it’s honest about what you guys are expecting going in, and it’s also honest about what you walk away knowing about these communities. One of the things that really comes across when you watch episode after episode is how much people in this country seem to really desire a place where they can just be themselves.
Yeah, it’s basically like we were just hanging out with a bunch of interest groups. A lot of them just felt like places where people went to feel accepted, where they could be themselves and that was okay. I’d also like to see what the lives of a lot of these people are like outside of that, to kind of get the context of why it’s so important for them to feel that, you know? I was almost jealous of a lot of the groups that they had found such big communities where they felt like they had a place. Personally, there have been a lot of times in my life when I’ve felt very out of place. I was an immigrant to Australia, and I started at a school where I was the different kid and felt alienated. I could really relate to that feeling of how nice it is to find someplace to be you. Like the Gathering of the Juggalos—it’s labeled a gang in the media and so on, but it was one of the nicest-feeling places I’ve ever been in my life. I never thought I would say that. It was such a great vibe and everyone was so happy and relieved to be there. I can imagine how a lot of those guys and girls would feel in their communities, how mainstream society would look at them and treat them. That feeling of relief of being in that place is so overwhelming. It was really touching. It was also the best music festival I’ve ever been to.
That has to be put into print somewhere. “Best American Music Festival: The Gathering of the Juggalos.”
I’ve never been in a situation in my life where I was almost in a fight and then a stranger—like some Zorro figure—defended me. It was touching. I started this thing being like yeah, let’s go on a road trip, but I’ve experienced so much stuff that has affected me as a person. And I never really expected that but that’s been a really nice journey as well, engaging with the deeper psychology of people. I didn’t know I was getting myself into that.
The show was billed as a “gonzo journalist” adventure. I was curious if that idea was influential in establishing the format of the show.
As far as the gonzo journalism thing—that was never a conscious decision. We’re also big fans of Louis Theroux. His show is a bit different from ours because it’s on BBC, and so it’s a bit nicer and has a nice English presenter. So we like him, and Hunter S. Thompson is awesome. Unconsciously, these things sort of came out without us actually having a conversation about it. Only afterwards we were like, “Oh, it’s weird that that happened.” Even if you’re not acknowledging it consciously for a while, it comes out. But we never actually had a conversation about it, like “let’s do a cross between this and this”. It really wasn’t planned! It truly was us completely just going on this journey.
How did being in the mix of what you guys were reporting change you and your relationships to one another?
I’ve thought a lot about everything that we’ve seen, and a lot of it had a very strong effect on me. Life feels a lot less black and white. We’ve basically been spending all this time in the grey area of life, you know? In a way it’s sort of turned my world upside down. Sometimes living in this nice safe little bubble, you think you’ve got life figured out, but then you spend time in these places that are so, so different. I feel completely different from when I started that trip, big time.
As far as our relationship, we’ve definitely bonded a lot over this. It’s been a few years since that first trip, and it’s been such a journey for us. That first trip was hard. Looking back on it, it’s got this beautiful nostalgic tinge, but it was a hard trip. We were sleeping on the side of the road in our car a lot of the time. Our car kept breaking down, and then we ran out of money, so we had to raise money on something like Kickstarter. My appendix actually burst on the trip in Portland. That was like the beginning of the hard bit, because then we had to edit it. We had no money. And then we tried to sell it and it took us a year to sell it. It was so disheartening. Nothing was happening. We had given up this life of safe incomes, and it felt like we’d thrown that away for nothing almost. And then it went to air, we got a distribution deal, it went to Netflix, and we did two more seasons.
So yeah, our bond as a crew just from being on this journey together is pretty intense. But still when you’re on the road for months there’s still times when you’re like, “I hate your face, and I hate your face.” That’s just standard human nature stuff. We still don’t have a very big budget, so we’re still staying in shitty hotels in the same rooms all the time, and road life can take a toll on you. We have our little arguments but we’ve been on an amazing journey together, and that’s something that builds up a pretty special bond. And we’ve seen some things together that you just don’t see with other people! The stuff we’ve seen and done together has been phenomenal.
Can you talk a little bit about the broader implications of the show? Because it’s a fun show to watch and I think there’s a tendency to trivialize pop entertainment, but I think there’s a lot of meat there too.
It’s something we thought a lot about. Once it went on Netflix in America and around the world, and we started getting a lot of feedback from people via Facebook and things like that. People were really being strongly affected by different episodes. What I like about what we do, when I think about it—and this is my own perspective, I can’t speak for the other guys—but I feel like a lot of documentaries and pop stuff, it gives people what they want. Often, it focuses on the shittier sides of human nature. There’s a lot of stuff in pop culture that doesn’t do much to promote people finding a bridge between each other, and it encourages a lot of judgement. When I get sucked into that I might get some short-term pleasure of being like, “Ha, look at him!” but I don’t feel good about that deep down. What I really like is to feel connected to people, and from observing all these subcultures in America, I feel like most people want that.
I like that what we do with our show is show how we are connecting with people and finding common human traits between them. There were some people I thought I would never connect with. Coming from Australia, which is quite left-wing, guns to me, are like: whoa! But we hung out with some militias in Season 3, some serious gun people. We were right in there with them, and we got along fine. We were sitting around eating pizza and drinking beers, you know, and having good chats. All those places, we didn’t put it on; we really connected with them. We haven’t met anyone yet that we haven’t been able to find a connection with. I feel like a lot of documentaries are like, “Oh god, the world is fucked, everything is fucked.” But we’re like, “Hey look, these people are nice, and maybe things aren’t as fucked as we think.” And that’s how it’s made me think and feel. I believe in people a bit more than I used to.
I think that comes through in the show. My favorite part of all the crazy shit that you guys get into is actually those times when you just sit down and have dinner with people.
There’s so much stuff that happened like that that wasn’t anything we could put in a TV show that would keep people entertained. But we hung out with so many people who just brought us into their homes. That dinner happened so many times for us all around America, and that was such an awesome part of the trip for me, experiencing other people and experiencing their generosity. Especially for me; I didn’t know America very well, and then I went there and all around the country people would just meet us and the minute they found out we didn’t have a place to sleep or that we were traveling on almost no money, they wouldn’t even have it. They were like, “Get in my house, you’re sleeping right there, you’re eating dinner with us.” Yeah, your country just totally put it on for me. It was amazing.
Do you think that was because you guys were so independent, that it was just you three striking out, rather than beholden to network or advertising interests?
P: Yeah, big time. And that’s why we wanted to self-fund it, which was a really tricky thing to do. But we truly just wanted to do it our way and make our show the way we wanted to. We had come from a TV background, where you go to some head producer who says: “No, I don’t think people will like that; ham up that character and people will like it more”. All that kind of shit is basically what we were rejecting by making the show. We’re lucky that it worked, but that’s also why it got rejected so many times that we were worried it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t following the usual formulas. But I’m really glad that we did it ourselves because now that it’s happening we don’t have to answer to anybody. If we did, it would have been totally different.
What was your personal favorite subculture from Season 1?
I’m definitely going to go with the Gathering of the Juggalos, because it was like a different dimension. We walked in and the first thing we see is this lady who walks up to us and gets her boobs out. And then her knife falls to the ground, and it was just culture shock right then, like what is happening? But we were just, “Sorry, you dropped your knife.” There were people walking around naked and doing drugs out in the open and walking around with weapons, faces painted all crazy. It was bizarre. What’s even more bizarre is that, as horrifying and scary as this place looked, everyone was so friendly! I have never been at a music fest where people were so nice to each other. That was mind-blowing.
So would you recommend that people go experience the Gathering of the Juggalos?
Uh, I don’t want to be sued for anything that happens to anyone (laughs). The thing is, I think people should experience it—but only if they’re going to go in there with an open mind. I feel like people who are used to be judged a lot can sense it. So if people were going to go to the Gathering of the Juggalos and stand around being like, “yuck,” I think it would actually be very dangerous for them to be there. So yeah. Go only if you have an open mind.
What can people expect in Season 2? What kind of trouble do ya’ll get into?
Viewers can expect to get taken front row into the bondage world. There were certain things we couldn’t put in the show because it started to bust a certain rating, and so viewers will get to see… enough. Things that will haunt my dreams, we saw that. You don’t need to. I think that’s going to be a wild ride for everyone.
We also explore a bit about marijuana. We went on a 420 tour in Denver, which is basically like a wine tour, but it also got quite serious. We go to the Heart Attack Grill in Vegas. They serve like 10,000 calorie burgers and people have died in the place eating the food. It’s kind of psychotic the way they’re embracing this debauchery. After that, we went to a homeless shelter, which was kind of on the other side of the spectrum. We went to a famous tattoo parlor in LA, but then we explore other sides of tattooing as well. We did an episode about strippers in Portland. The last episode we just went to New Orleans and explored the music stuff and the bounce scene. Bounce is awesome. It definitely parallels the vogue-ing scene in New York. We actually found out that you can throw a street parade in New Orleans, and it’s really cheap to do it. So we wound up throwing ourselves a little street parade.
It’s a cool season. It’s a bit different. The production quality has gone up, as we’ve learned a bit about making a series and we can afford slightly better equipment. But I’m interested to see what people think because with that sometimes you can lose that rawness, which is what I liked about season one. It did feel like a bunch of dudes almost with a handi-cam floating around America in their shitty car. That first series will always be such a special adventure. How often do you get to do something like that in your life? I always think like, if Gonzo had come over that night and been like, do you want to go to America and do something, what if I had been like, “Nah.” Oh man, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing right now. I’m so glad I said yes.