Because it’s Lockup’s Throwback Weekend we thought it would be fun for the show’s executive producer, Elise Warner, to talk with the original EP, Scott Hooker, who launched the program in 2000 and oversaw the first dozen or so episodes. Hooker currently serves as the senior executive producer for all of the MSNBC longform shows. That sorta makes him Elise’s boss. Here’s how their email chat went:
Back then, the person who was brought in to expand long-form programming at MSNBC had previous experience working with the production company, 44 Blue. He knew they did high-quality work and that they had a knack for gaining real access into the prison system. I moved from the live news group to the new documentary unit and began overseeing the “one-off” specials, which is how Lockup began—with its initial hour focusing on Rikers Island jail in New York City. It was a big success. When we started on a second hour, examining Pelican Bay State Prison in California, I figured the series might grow to as many as six or eight hours in total. I could not imagine it would one day reach 200 hours and growing!
Fourteen years into this series we have a pretty amazing crew assembled. They know how to safely work in a difficult environment and we are totally confident in their ability to find great stories. But it must have been nerve-wracking at first, no?
Our production partners have always been security conscious and careful in the field. They have learned lessons over the years and probably gotten even smarter about how to stay safe, but every corrections facility is different and the dangers of working in those environments are always present. Lockup remains a very difficult show to produce.
There is a certain charm to the early years of a show. It can be exciting to launch a program not knowing if it will work, and then being thrilled when it does. What do you miss about those shows and working on them?
Start-ups are always fun—with a lot of work and plenty of trial and error aimed at getting it right. I just looked over my notes from back at the time when the first couple of Lockups were in production. I had forgotten that those initial “rough cuts” were put together in a very different style. They were largely vérité with almost no narration, a loose structure and kind of a music video quality. The notes were about the need to add more information and more reporting and to give the stories more structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Only after that would they be ready to be aired on MSNBC. The show quickly started to find its voice and its own brand of storytelling, which has continued to evolve over the years.
How do you think producing Lockup has changed the way you do your job?
I think those early lessons of shaping Lockup into a show with its priority on story substance over style has stayed with me as we have developed other series and one-off special documentaries. People tuning in want, more than anything, to hear a good story. If that story contains compelling characters and high stakes, then you’ve got something. If you can add interesting visuals and production techniques on top, great. But always remember— story first!
I hear the show’s current executive producer is pretty spectacular. But we both know it takes a lot of hard work by a dedicated TEAM of people to make a successful series. Aside from having a great crew, why do you think this program has resonated so well with the audience?
Well I’d have to agree…she’s not only spectacular, she’s incredibly modest, too. But seriously, the whole team is exceptional and a great group of people to work with. I think their hard work and skills create a very watchable series that probably resonates because it takes viewers deep inside a scary world they are curious about, but would not want to explore on their own. The producers present that world as it is, without an agenda, and without sugar-coating. I think viewers know when stories are real. Lockup’s documentary approach gives viewers stories that feel authentic because they are just that—not some entertainment show’s stretched or manipulated version of “reality.”