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Charisse Simonian: Extreme Media Makeover

Keeping it Real

Things that seem obvious weren't always that way. Take the popular television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." It seems obvious that the focus of the home renovations (or entirely new constructions) that the show highlights would be the need of the families receiving them. Not so says Charisse Simonian (EHS'93), the Emmy Award-winning casting director for the show's first three seasons.

Charisse Simonian

"In the beginning, the story of the people wasn't paramount," she says. "At that time, they had these seven designers with different personalities and the focus was, 'will they be able to quit fighting long enough to get this house done.' I came in and said, 'Gee, if we're going to be doing makeovers for these people, they better deserve it because otherwise viewers are going to be a little bitter.' They had deserving people getting makeovers the first three shows, but the focus wasn't necessarily on them. It took on a life of its own after that."

Simonian graduated from Ferris when the Television and Digital Media Production program was simply Television Production. Despite extraordinary changes in modes of production, perhaps the greatest change television has seen has been the shift away from scripted shows to "reality" shows. Although storytelling is essential to each kind of program, the skills needed to tell those stories are markedly different.

"When I started 'Extreme Makeover' they had gone through two casting directors already because nobody really knew how to cast reality at that point," Simonian says. "I got the opportunity because I had produced documentaries and worked on a talk show where you're booking real people. When reality hit, they needed a documentary-type producer because a regular casting person is used to getting actors but not finding real people."

Prior to her work on "Extreme Makeover," Simonian was story editor for VH-1's "Bands Reunited," a show that was compelling for viewers even if they weren't fans of the various 70's and 80's bands the show endeavored to reunite and have perform for a new generation. The power of the show was its ability to draw in viewers to the interpersonal dynamics of the bands.

"They had shot the reunions already, and I took the footage, scripted it and sat in the editing bay to see it through post [production]. I edited Berlin, Dramarama, Kajaagoogoo, Klymaxx and Squeeze. You can either script out how you want a show to go down before you shoot it or take hours of footage and sift through it for the best bits. It's like a jigsaw puzzle; you put it together and try to figure out how it's going to flow and make sense."

Last fall Simonian wrapped on episodes of a new show for TLC tentatively entitled, "Extreme Kids Parties." Before that she did host-casting for a FOX hidden-camera show and also worked on a new show for the Oprah Winfrey Network called, "Enough Already with Peter Walsh!".

"I was finding families who were borderline hoarders -- people who, if you didn't nip it in the bud, were going to have trouble. Again the challenge was finding good stories -- why were people holding on to these things? We explored their relationships with their families, their kids who were fed up with mom because they couldn't have their friends over after school. It's always something different," says Simonian.

When she jumped into her car and headed for Los Angeles just after Christmas 1994, Simonian didn't have a job lined up or any LA contacts. Her family was dubious about her choice of degree and career.

"Then, I started working a lot, and they began seeing my name in the credits of things I was working on. After I won an Emmy for "Extreme Makeover," I was like, 'Hey, how about that television degree now?'" she says.

The only thing better than the steady stream of projects she has? Another Emmy to bookend her first one. That's a reality she'd love to script.