Producer of smash-hit series Floor Is Lava and expert in all things unscripted TV, Irad Eyal joined us for a chat on a recent episode of On Production.
And you better believe we took notes.
In this post, we’ll break down some of Irad’s production wisdom, drawing key lessons from his career and highlighting insights about the future of unscripted programming.
Irad Eyal is a prolific producer of unscripted television. His most recent hit, Floor Is Lava, became the most watched show on Netflix upon its debut and remained in the top 10 for more than three weeks.
While the competition series is a nice new notch in his belt, it’s certainly not the first. Irad Eyal has been exploring the limits of unscripted TV for over 20 years.
Irad dipped his toes into production at the Oxygen Network during the dot-com boom of the late '90s. There, he went from producing web content for Xena: Warrior Princess to pitching his very first television program, a segment of the anthology series X-Chromosome that he describes as “a puppet show about women’s prison.”
From that wildly unique start, Irad Eyal has built a standout career in unscripted programming. Through his production company Haymaker West (formerly Haymaker Content), Irad has been moving behind the scenes on a wide range of shows. His credits include Floor Is Lava, Secrets & Wives, The Big Fib, and Southern Charm, among many others.
Recently, Irad was kind enough to sit down with Wrapbook co-founder, Cameron Woodward, and chat about what it takes to produce unscripted television. Below, we’ll highlight four key lessons from Irad Eyal’s decades of experience.
Irad Eyal emphasizes the importance of producers developing their own ideas. Original, well-developed concepts are key to standing apart from the crowd and carving out a career in unscripted content.
We can look to Irad’s own path for the perfect illustration.
While working at the Oxygen Network, Irad got his start by generating an original premise. Coupled with perfect timing and an opportunity-rich environment, he turned an idea for a puppet show about a women’s prison into the start of a promising career.
Thanks to the strength of his own tastes, Irad Eyal was able to establish himself as a producer early on.
The trend continued when Irad set out on his own to form an independent production company. By leveraging a slate of their own unscripted shows already in-development, Irad and his producing partner drew a solid business timeline from the very beginning.
Their original ideas ensured that the company had the firm financial foundation necessary to achieve initial success.
Even today, Irad Eyal’s career continues to demonstrate the value of original concept development. After years of producing docuseries, it was Irad’s commitment to fresh ideas that enabled him to expand into new unscripted formats.
With Floor Is Lava, Irad broke into the world of format-driven content by producing the most successful competition show in recent memory.
Beyond the ideas themselves, however, Irad’s experience implies a second critical lesson.
At the beginning of his career, Irad was “boldly, confidently, naively” pitching his own ideas. While it may have been naïve, the act of pitching turned out to be crucial. Today, Irad is quick to point out the importance of finding people who like and believe in your ideas.
This is particularly true when an unscripted producer is just starting. If a young producer wants to get something made, external connections and support are necessary to generate production opportunities.
However, ongoing development and pitching continues to be important even after a producer is established.
Ideally, producers want to be pitching new material while they’re in production on another show. This is good business sense, but Irad says there’s an emotional factor, too.
“You always have to have the next project going. And part of that is… you want to have that next project available. And I think it also just helps from a psycho-emotional perspective. You fall in love with these projects, and you have to fall in love with it or you can’t sell it, you can’t sort of commit to it and produce it. And then, you know, they live or die based on things that are totally out of your control. If you have that next project that you’re already excited about, I’ve found, for me, that just gives you something to keep fighting for when inevitably a show doesn’t work out for whatever reason.”
The unknown is an occupational hazard for producers of unscripted television. However, as we’ll see in the next section, it can also offer some serious perks.
For Irad Eyal, the “joy and struggle” of unscripted TV is its open unpredictability. It thrives on the wild drama of “real” life but rejects the control we associate with traditional production. Anything can happen on unscripted television, and the producer has to make it work.
Of course, unscripted producers do try to plan, but not to the degree that most people tend to believe. The organic storylines of unscripted television are what make it special, and producers must protect that quality. As Irad points out:
“It doesn’t really work when it’s fake.”
But if you can’t control the content, how do producers craft consistently entertaining shows? While there’s no formula for success, Irad offers a few expert tips.
The better you understand what makes your show tick, the easier it will be to enhance its most attractive qualities. To that end, Irad says that unscripted content generally breaks down into two categories: character-driven shows and format-driven shows.
Character-driven shows are the bread and butter of typical “reality TV” docuseries. Big personalities and the conflict they generate propel these unscripted programs. Producers have little direct control over the plot of character-driven shows, but they can try to focus content through interviews and editorial decisions.
By contrast, format-driven shows are propelled primarily by the structure of the show itself. The drama of Floor Is Lava, for example, derives from the game at the show’s core.
In a format-driven show, producers control the plot to influence the characters. They change the structure of the show to make sure that the characters take the most interesting path possible.
For season 2 of Floor Is Lava, the production added a final challenge in which the top two teams race up a giant volcano. With this simple modification to Floor Is Lava’s structure; Irad Eyal and his collaborators maximized each episode’s dramatic potential.
Once you understand how your show works, it’s time to make sure it has all the right ingredients it needs to work properly.
Whether it’s scripted or unscripted, casting is critical for any television show. A series’ characters give its audience a way into the story and keep them engaged over time.
According to Irad Eyal, you don’t want to cast someone in an unscripted show simply because you like talking to them in real life. Their in-person presence may not translate to the screen.
“What you realize over the years is that if someone is entertaining or good enough for a conversation, that’s not good enough for TV. They have to really pop… What you realize is that the characters who are really great, they’re good in every situation. They’re funny. They’ve got the one-liners. They’ll say something outrageous and surprising.”
Larger-than-life personalities will make sure that your show is as gripping as possible. They’ll give you more material of a higher quality, which is exactly what you’ll need during post-production.
This is even true for format-driven shows like Floor Is Lava. Even though the characters are less important than the game itself, they still serve as a focal point for the audience. Floor Is Lava needs contestants who can make an impression as quickly as possible. It relies on characters who “pop” with only a few moments on screen.
One of the biggest challenges that a producer of unscripted TV faces is to simply follow a story as it unfolds. The ability to identify and pursue storylines is a key characteristic of a strong unscripted producer.
The challenge is worth its rewards. According to Irad, the right story can be a goldmine for an unscripted series.
“The other great thing about docuseries is, if you can get that one big event, that one big fight or revelation… That one story can carry you for an entire season or maybe even more.”
But how do you follow an unscripted story effectively? For Irad, it boils down to one simple rule.
The production of unscripted television is open-ended by nature. Following a real-life story as it unfolds in real-time means that you can’t rely on rigid pre-production tools like storyboards or 3D pre-viz. Unscripted producers have to be flexible and dogged. Irad puts it succinctly:
“Ultimately, the job of a producer is ‘get it done’.”
In his early days in the industry, Irad had to learn how to do everything himself, from planning shoots to finishing videos in Final Cut. While he doesn’t recommend a do-it-all-yourself approach, the experience did teach him how to do whatever needed to be done. It’s this quality that eventually allowed him to rise through the ranks and chart his own path.
Today, Irad doesn’t usually handle cameras or splice footage, but he still has to chase projects to the finish line. On every shoot, he has to think (and work) outside the box to pursue the best stories he can find. Irad’s “get it done” attitude continues to be his greatest asset as a producer.
Because unscripted television is rooted in reality, it will always be responsive to the times in which it is produced. A willingness to meet and engage with the future can, therefore, be a source of strength and innovation for unscripted TV producers.
Irad, for example, is excited about the potential of disruptive filmmaking technology.
“What we’ve been playing with a lot recently is bringing even more of the visual effects technology into reality TV.”
From deepfakes to virtual production, Irad is pushing the technical boundaries of unscripted television with a variety of projects. However, Irad reminds us that technology is just a means to an end.
Ultimately, the mission is to create new experiences for audiences by challenging the limits of what unscripted television can be. Irad’s latest success demonstrates how that philosophy impacts his work.
“One of the inspirations for [Floor Is Lava] was, ‘Can we let players and contestants live in an Indiana Jones-style world?’ And I think it worked. And I think it clicks with kids. So that’s the goal for the future; can we bring this sort of genre programming to reality TV.”
By embracing change, Irad is expanding the same passion for new ideas that jumpstarted his early career. For producers just entering the field, his experience illustrates an important lesson about the immense power of combining curiosity with dedication.
Working on your unscripted project? Check out our list of unscripted markets you might not have heard about or our guide to making a docuseries out of a documentary.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
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