Lights, Camera, Wrangell
Wrangell boat yard to be featured on national television
Brian O'Connor/ Wrangell Sentinel
Cameraman Ben Shearin and show runner Tamara Marie Watson consult with Harbor Department staff while filming for a follow-documentary program at the Marine Services Center Friday. Wrangell, along with three other shipbuilding and harbor facilities, has been selected as the subject of a spinoff of the popular "Deadliest Catch" television program.
Some burly men were duct taping a video camera to the side of a plasma cutter in a shipping container at the Marine Services Center Friday afternoon.
The camera was a GoPro. The plasma cutter belonged to Superior Marine Services, and the shipping container was transformed momentarily into a set for a television show.
"This is gonna be (expletive) awesome!" one man said.
A moment later, the plasma cutter started roaring. It cut an elaborate metal "S" out of a piece of plate metal. The cameras - including the GoPro, which whizzed merrily along on the side of the cutting arm - recorded every spark.
Outside, the show's director piloted a remote-controlled camera drone in whirring arcs above the boat lift, and other cameramen scurried around and over equipment, filming as a large fishing vessel rolled across the boatyard and receded slowly into the water.
Reality television has come to Wrangell.
The cameramen and their producer were in town to film segments for a show envisioned as a spin-off of the popular follow-documentary series "Deadliest Catch," which tracks Alaskan crab fishermen on the Bering Sea over the course of the fishing season and airs on the Discovery Channel.
Wrangell, along with shipards in Bayou La Batre, Alabama and Anacortes, Washington, will form the core of the series about the shipbuilding industry in America.
This is not "Real Housewives of Wrangell, Alaska," said showrunner Tamara Marie Watson who supervises day-to-day operation of the show for production company Original Productions. Watson asked the Sentinel not to identify a possible broadcast outlet as a condition of the interview, citing confidentiality agreements.
"The draw for me, the story of Wrangell for me, is that this little island has a lot of heart," she said. "It's a true American story because they were obliterated by the downturn of the logging industry and were suffering from 84 percent unemployment, and instead of giving up, like I've heard a lot of towns have done in the past and just become ghost towns, they fought back."
"They've resurrected their town," she added.
Producers for the show chose Wrangell after searching the web, Watson said.
"I had a computer and I started googling and I started calling around," she said. "I called one of the tourism places down here, Alaska Waters, and I told Jim Leslie, I said I was looking for a shipyard, and I thought Wrangell looked like a really pretty place, and he told me that I had to talk to Don Sorric who is the center of shipbuilding in Wrangell and a fabulously colorful character."
Sorric – whose Superior Marine Services operation accounts for slightly more than half of all operations in the Marine Service Center, as well as more than a million dollars in revenue each year – said he was initially reluctant to appear on the show when approached in recent weeks.
"They came and visited, and then we talked," he said. "I said no, they said no. I said maybe, they said maybe."
In addition to stage fright, his reluctance stemmed from concerns that a television crew could interfere with operations amid preparations for the oncoming salmon season when his and every other business in the yard are working frantically. Eventually, after a lot of discussion, he agreed.
"I have a business to run," he said. "I was afraid of it interfering with my business. It was the height of the busy part. In the end, when they all finally decided to do it, I was hoping for the best. I thought I would try it once and see. I have no great aspirations of being a movie star, obviously."
Nor is Sorric the lone Wrangellite to be featured prominently in the show. Superior Marine Office Manager Beth Comstock will also be on-camera.
"You know, I never set out in life to be a TV star," she said. "It was never a goal of mine. There was a lot of long, hard thoughts put into this before I signed the contract."
Love finally motivated her to appear on the show, Comstock said.
"What it finally came down to is, I've got a grandchild in California who I don't get to see, and if he can turn on the TV and go 'That's my grandma,' that's why I did it," she said.
Work on the show hasn't been easy, Comstock said.
"There's points of frustration," she said. "It's hard to always check everything you want to say because 'this is going on TV.' I'm really self-checking before I open my mouth and I'm trying hard not to put my foot in my mouth."
That question of perception surfaced again and again. Good conflict makes for great television, but not necessarily good publicity, said harbormaster Greg Meissner.
"We've got years of hard work and investment in that boatyard, and I've seen some of the History Channel shows," he said. "Some of this reality TV crap makes people look like real morons."
The aim should be to avoid manufacturing drama, Meissner said.
"We're intending to make things as real as possible," he remembered telling representatives from the production company. "I don't want any fake fights. If you want to see what this world is about, great. If that's the case, people want to see how a boatyard works. To have one more show with fake fights and ridiculous-looking stuff, I don't want that to come out of here."
Meissner grew up in a logging town, and for him, shows like "Swamp Loggers," which he claims is a poor representation of the logging industry, cut deep.
Striking a balance between authenticity and favorable portrayals is ultimately about the relationship between the television crew and the town, Watson said. Producers would work hard to ensure the subjects – and the town – don't feel short-changed, she added.
"I think there are definitely a lot of shows out there that fake the funk, as we sort of like to say," she said. "One thing that we take a lot of pride in – and its why we have such a good relationship with the crab-fishing industry – is that we want to document it as close to how it happened as possible. We will crunch the timeframe, because we have only 42 minutes to tell a story, but we always try to keep the facts. It's very important to us to keep the facts true."
Cameramen Ben Shearin (left) and Ben Staley film the Superior Marine Services plasma cutter Friday at the Marine Services Center. Superior Marine owner Don Sorric and assistant Beth Comstock will appear as subjects in the follow-documentary style television program.
"These are real people with real lives and real reputations that extend beyond a television show, and we would never want to do anything to hurt that or else we wouldn't be invited back," she added.
Maintaining that relationship benefits not only Wrangell but also the television crew, Watson said. To that end, the production company intends to provide Sorric and Comstock with previews of the footage and to hold a screening and possible question-and-answer with the public in September.
"In order for anyone whose on television to make money or anyone who's producing television to make money, we're talking about season 4," she said. "You've got to get to Season 4 for it to really start being lucrative as a business. So we're in for a franchise."
"We're hoping that we'll be in Wrangell for a long time," she added.
The proof may be in the final product. For now, officials hope the show will manage the delicate line between portraying Wrangell accurately and portraying Wrangell favorably.
"Good publicity doesn't hinder you," Meissner said. "Bad publicity doesn't do you any good."