“I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you.”
“You know what you did.”
“Truth and time tells all.”
These three quotes are as memorable today as they were when Lauren Conrad and Justin Bobby Brescia first uttered them on The Hills during the course of the show’s six-season run on MTV between 2006 and 2010. If you take them out of the contexts in which they were once said and instead apply them to The Hills as a whole, you somehow fall into an existential quandary that will plague the supposed “reality” show from now until it’s officially erased from our cultural consciousness: Was it real or fake?
The series premiered 10 years ago, yet we can’t seem to forget it — or forgive its confusing nature. We’re still not sure if it was scripted. Since the show went off the air, various cast members have come forward to make different claims as to just how specifically producers manipulated them during filming to craft various story lines. These narrative arcs captured not just viewers’ attention (at the height of its run, the series was the most-watched show in its time slot among its target demographic), but also landed Lauren Conrad, Kristin Cavallari, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag — better known as Speidi — and other Hills cast members on the covers of tabloids.
Basically, you know what you did, producers. You got us talking back then, and we’re still talking now. Although when we caught up with Adam DiVello, who created and served as executive producer on The Hills, and executive producer Sean Travis, both seemed surprised by the sheer amount of nostalgia that continues to exist for the show.
“It’s nice to hear that people still care about it after all these years, [and] that someone is doing a story about the 10th anniversary of the first episode airing. It seems like such an odd milestone,” DiVello said when we started our conversation. “I am surprised at the amount of nostalgia for the show… Once MTV kept re-running it, I had a feeling it was lasting,” Travis remarked. However, as it turns out, The Hills are alive with the sound of musings, since numerous stories celebrating the series’ 10th anniversary have emerged since R29 spoke with the show’s producers. The nostalgia for this show is real. The producers refer to all of the cast members by their first names — and you’ll know exactly who they’re talking about — which is just one sign of how familiar they remain, even 10 years later.
In the interest of truth and time indeed telling all, let the following interviews —which have been condensed from separate conversations with the minds behind The Hills — finally offer some definitive answers about how producers carefully sculpted the show into a finely tuned simulacra of the various cast members’ real lives during that time period. As the opening credits claim, “The rest is still unwritten.” So while there may not have been actual scripts, the show was carefully edited and manipulated into dramatic narratives that kept us tuning in week after week.
Oh, and one fun fact before we begin: Natasha Bedingfeld’s “Unwritten” wasn’t supposed to serve as the show’s opening theme. “We had originally chosen a different song,” DiVello said. “In the pilot, we had the Kelly Clarkson song where she’s going through a million doors. [Ed. note: “Breakaway.”] But we couldn’t get it cleared, so we were scrambling around looking for a replacement. I’m not quite sure who brought ‘Unwritten’ to my attention…but as soon as we heard it, we knew it was perfect for The Hills. Natasha actually became a good friend and a friend of the show, and she came back and did a slowed-down a cappella version for the finale, which was so nice.”
Back to the addictive drama that unfolded in the glittering lights and darkened nightclubs (Les Deux! Area!) of Hollywood on The Hills. Here’s how it was done.
Yes, The Hills and its predecessor, Laguna Beach, seem scripted. That’s actually intentional.
Tony DiSanto, executive producer and President of Programming at MTV (2009-2010): “Part of the initial creative challenge of Laguna Beach was, could we tell a reality story without using the techniques of documentary, and particularly confessional interviews? Brian Graden at MTV, our boss at the time, specifically challenged us by saying, ‘Real World owns that space with the confessional. Can you guys come up with a show where you can tell the narrative without doing that?’ There was a lot of pressure to fall back on interviews to tie everything together, because up until the last month before Laguna Beach was going to launch, the first episode was not making a lot of sense.
"We came up with the idea that Lauren should be the main character and entry point at the last minute. That’s when we went back and shot the whole first scene of Lauren walking on the beach, and we had that voice-over over it where she said, ‘This was the best year of my life, the last year in high school,’ or whatever. That was inspired by the film Summer of ’42, believe it or not. It was initially going to be a straight ensemble, not Lauren’s point of view, but doing that gave the whole show a focus, and made it clearer and easier for us to not have confessionals or interviews. It all started with Laguna, and we carried it over to The Hills.”
Adam DiVello, series creator and executive producer: “At the time, the only thing [on TV like it] was The Real World, and they talk to camera. There was no Real Housewives or any shows like that, so it was like, ‘Let’s take those out and make it feel like it’s a scripted series, but having the kids create the dialogue, and we’ll edit it together to make it make sense.’ It was very difficult in the beginning… We focus-grouped it, and people were really confused. People were fighting in the focus groups like, ‘This is a scripted show,’ and the other ones like, ‘No, it’s not; it’s reality.’ I asked a woman in the focus group if that was a good thing or a bad thing that they were fighting about it so passionately, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I think you have a hit on your hands.’”
Sean Travis, executive producer: “I think it’s still the only real docu-soap/docu-series that was done without any into-camera interviews. It’s not easy to do, because an interview is a great tool if you want to tell a story quickly and efficiently and to play the highlights of a scene. Without those interviews, you need all of the conversation. It’s a shooting-and-editing puzzle to get it to work.”
DiVello: “I always said that if we wrote the show, we would have had much bigger story lines than what we were dealing with. I think we would have had gigantic, soap-opera-type story lines. We were kind of shackled to the reality of what these people’s situations were… We tried very hard not to step in, but we’ve been very open about the fact that we’ve reshot scenes that we missed. [If] stuff happens off camera, or stuff happens on the weekends, or when we weren’t shooting, we would go back and get it on camera. So, if Audrina heard that Justin Bobby was off doing something that she ain’t happy with, we’d have her sit down and tell Lauren about it, just so that we have it on camera. But it really happened. It wasn’t like we wrote it, you know?”
Part of the mastery of The Hills — something that was even mocked by James Franco and Mila Kunis in a Funny or Die sketch — was that the producers managed to get so much out of people who sometimes said so little. Were they actually going out to meals and simply staring at one another? Did they have telekinetic powers? How did the producers craft these long stares into meaningful, impactful drama that sustained the show’s forward momentum? The trick was in how the show was filmed and edited.
Travis: “The show was shot with cameras on long lenses, meaning the cameras are far away, which does two things. One, it makes it really steady, and you can hold a shot close up on someone’s face, and really notice the smaller expressions. Two, if the cameras are far away, then the cast feels that they have some privacy, and they can pretty much forget about the camera because it’s all the way across the restaurant. It’s not very intrusive, so you can see those details, and then we craft those scenes very carefully in edit. You can really rewrite a scene or bring out if there’s, like, a spark between two characters when we shoot an hour-long dinner with them, and we want to condense it to a 45-second or two-minute scene. We very carefully craft it to see the spark of attraction. Looking at looks — blinks and stuff — and then add music to make it work. That’s something we definitely crafted. That was the part where each episode we would finish editing, and we thought, 'Oh, we made a little movie there.' Sometimes we didn’t have the dialogue; we didn’t have them saying what the story is, and [the challenge became] how are we going to show it? Use a lyric or a piece of music.”
DiSanto: “Because the show didn’t have confessionals, we started to come up with techniques to take dialogue from other scenes and put them with over-the-shoulder shots and other things like that to help link stuff. A lot of holding on Lauren’s face for reactions, because she is so expressive with how she reacted to things and how she responded to things. We started realizing that holding [the camera] on her and certain music cues could help enhance moments and stuff like that… Adam would pitch out to us what kind of stories he thought would be cool based on what he would hear [the cast members] are planning or doing. We really didn’t know [exactly what would happen] until you saw the footage, so then a lot of things also got constructed in the edit room, because you realize there would be a lot more going on than we thought, and a lot of it was subtext. People would not say what they’re really thinking; it felt like it was sort of innuendo.’”
The producers knew what the show would look like and how the story lines would be crafted together. They then needed their dramatis personae to populate the episodes with dialogue and plot. Heidi Montag, Lauren Conrad’s best friend at the time, had already appeared in several episodes of Laguna Beach. Producers found Whitney Port during a casting call for Condé Nast interns, and she became Lauren’s workplace confidant. Audrina was a model and actress (a "mactress," DiVello calls her) who lived in Lauren and Heidi’s apartment complex. The producers met her when they were scouting the location for shooting.
DiVello: “I went to MTV and told them I wanted to follow Lauren to Los Angeles, because she was going to fashion school [there]. To me, that’s a very aspirational dream, to want to be a fashion designer. I always loved Lauren, and I always connected with her not as the underdog, but someone who really wears her heart on her sleeve. You can really see what she’s feeling through every expression on her face. I thought it would be so much fun to see her move to a big city and kind of take that all in for the first time, and make friends or enemies, or whatever the case may be. We wanted to be there and film it. I went and actually asked her parents first, just out of respect. They were only 18 at the time; they were really young. So I asked her mom and dad before I asked her. Then, I flew to New York and asked MTV, and they said, ‘Yeah, go make it.’”
Travis: “The story was already set. That pilot was that Lauren was very interested in fashion, so she wanted to move to Los Angeles with her best friend Heidi. She was going to go work at Teen Vogue, and then go to fashion school. That was real… The early seasons were when we were asking who was going to be the villains or heroes. What we learned early on was if we just pay attention and really listen to what’s happening in people’s lives, if you have an okay cast, you’ll never run out of story. The girls are in their early 20s; they’re going to have things happen to them. Sure enough, they did. Jason Wahler started to become a real problem for Lauren, and she was torn up about it. He was this great, charming, attractive guy who was treating her terribly and disappearing at night. Heidi ran into some trouble with [her boyfriend at the time] Jordan eventually — he cheated on her or something happened — but we got like a whole episode out of a day and a half of shooting a big breakup between Heidi and Jordan. It was a really genuine thing for Heidi.”
The Most Dramatic Hills Moments — & What Happened Behind The Scenes
Sure enough, Jason does become a problem for Lauren. She has trouble cutting ties with him, though. In the final episode of season 1, she has to choose between going to Paris as part of her Teen Vogue internship and spending the summer at a beach house with Jason. She chooses Jason, and her boss, Lisa Love, doesn’t let her live it down. The producers also used the decision to create as much tension as possible: Will Lauren choose love over her career? They were able to make it seem like this choice will affect the course of her entire life.
Travis: "We as producers thought, ‘How great is this? Lauren is having all of this trouble with Jason. She’s broken up with him, and there’s an opportunity in Paris to go work there in the summer. This is totally like The Devil Wears Prada; it’s great.’ We’ll go to Paris; we’ll shoot an episode or something…and Lauren just didn’t want to do it. We thought, ‘What? That’s ridiculous. You’re just gonna pass that up and stay with Jason over the summer?!’ We just couldn’t believe it; we were like, ‘You’re going to ruin the show.’ But we had to make the story work, and the way we finally thought it through was that people do make mistakes in life. Women do choose the wrong guy; guys choose the wrong girl. We make these decisions for all the wrong reasons, and so we just thought of a very cinematic way to tell the story.”
DiVello: “I was heartbroken when she didn’t choose to go to Paris because I wanted her to go so badly. Obviously for story it was much better that she stayed and went to find Jason at the beach house… When she did decide to stay, we sat down with my team and we were just like, ‘What’s the best way to tell the viewer the story, and how can we tell it in a really compelling way?’ I came up with the sequence of doing the bait and switch so that the viewer didn’t know if Lauren was going to the beach house or going to the airport, and then when we revealed that it was Whitney at the airport with Lisa Love, and Lauren walked into the beach house. I just loved the reveal. It was one of my favorite things from the show.”
Travis: “Those are the things we were most proud of. ‘Okay, we’re going to take this weakness, what we see as a storytelling problem, and we’re going to turn it into a great piece of storytelling. We have Lisa Love starting the next season saying, ‘You’ll always be the girl who didn’t go to Paris.’”
In season 2, Heidi Montag starts dating Spencer Pratt. He becomes one of the greatest reality TV villains of all time, due to the way he antagonizes our hero Lauren Conrad. He drives a huge wedge between Lauren and Heidi, ultimately leading to the complete breakup of their friendship. Pratt readily admits to the fact that he and Montag were “fame whores” during The Hills, saying that he would call the paparazzi to alert them to Lauren’s whereabouts. Producers say that when it came to Spencer Pratt, he was more than capable of crafting his own character and drama. Spencer has even accused Hills producer Sara Mast of telling him to punch his sister, Stephanie, a claim Travis refutes.
Travis: “I can tell you for sure that Sara Mast did not ask anybody to punch anybody. There’s too much liability there. It would never happen. Heidi and Spencer are dramatic; that’s what’s great about them. They say inflammatory things. They get depressed. They always say something that can be written about.”
DiSanto: “I feel bad that [Spencer is still so vilified]. We’ve had disagreements, but ultimately we’ve stayed in touch and we’re totally cool. I feel like he knew the character the show was portraying, and he played into it, and it helped him and the show out. Now I feel bad if any of that is ruining anything he wants to do moving forward. Again, The Hills was just one aspect of who all of these kids were. It wasn’t their whole selves.”
Travis: “I think it’s tragic, because I really like Spencer. He created The Princes of Malibu. He’s such a sharp kid. He just…he made mistakes. I think that Lauren has been really hurt by him, so there’s no forgiving that. He was hurt by the whole process, too. Being famous and hated is a very hard thing to put up with, or to work with psychologically. It was really hard on him.”
There was one instance, however, when a situation with Spencer escalated to physical violence. He punched Cameron Huston, who threatened to sue MTV. DiVello refused to comment on the matter, but Travis spoke about it.
Travis: “Spencer punched this guy Cameron, which was kind of terrifying. We didn’t see that coming… I think Spencer was hearing stuff from Cameron about Heidi flirting with somebody or something like that. Heidi and Spencer were talking on the phone, and I was with one of the producers, and there was some tension. The cameras are in the bar shooting, and the producers are sitting outside watching on the little monitors, and [producer] Bill Langworthy was like, ‘I think he’s gonna hit him, Sean, I think he’s gonna hit him.’ It didn’t look like anything would happen, and then all of a sudden it happened. That was like, ‘Oh my god; that’s terrible…that’s amazing.’ Sort of as a producer and a person, you’re like, ‘That’s horrible that that just happened.’ It’s just a TV show. People shouldn’t be getting hurt. I wouldn’t say that’s too good to be true, but it’s an unexpected dramatic moment. If it was a scripted show or a movie, that would be a great piece of drama. In a reality show, it’s epically interesting.”
The seeds of the whole fallout between Lauren and Heidi had been carefully sown by producers over the course of many episodes and seasons. The dissolution of their relationship was treated like a story arc on any series — either scripted or unscripted — with each act of betrayal hopefully laying the groundwork for an epic future blowout.
Travis: “I would say that the entire story line of Heidi becoming involved with Spencer, and Lauren feeling really betrayed by Heidi, that was what created the monster success of the show. That’s just a classic story. We were thinking of this as stages that Lauren was going through — your best friend, the big dream, and then betrayal, and ultimately, attempted reconciliation. We dealt with these themes intentionally over multiple episodes, and then eventually acceptance, and then attempting at forgiveness but never quite getting there.”
Heidi and Lauren’s attempted reconciliation is one of the most unforgettable Hills moments: a confrontation at Les Deux during Frankie Delgado’s birthday party in the first episode of season 3. Heidi writes Lauren a letter in an attempt to mend their relationship, which crumbled as a result of tabloid reports about a sex tape Lauren allegedly made with now ex-boyfriend Jason Wahler. In the letter, Heidi denies any involvement in the rumors circulating in the press. Spencer encourages her to confront Lauren at Les Deux.
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Travis: “There are things the cast does not want to talk about, like Lauren and the sex tape. As producers, for us the challenge is getting access to what we know is the real story. Lauren would forever say, ‘I’m not mentioning Heidi’s name,’ or, ‘I’m not doing the show if she’s on the show.’ We were so sympathetic to that, but at the same time, you had Heidi wanting to make up with Lauren, still wanting to be a part of the show. And [you had] the sex tape rumors that Lauren didn’t want to talk about, yet that was a betrayal that was so important and such a big elephant in the room that we just had to work with Lauren and say, ‘Alright, so what are we going to do? We are going to have to access this somehow.’ It’s always a discussion… Lauren didn’t want to confront Heidi. That was a catch-the-drama moment. As reality TV producers, we are hoping these two [will] meet up, you know? We were lucky enough to be there at the nightclub where we thought Heidi and Spencer might show up. We knew Lauren was there, and I think we knew they might show up.”
DiVello: “I don’t want to get into the specifics of [the sex tape rumors] just because that’s their story, but from what we got on tape, it all just kind of came to a head at that nightclub. We were at Les Deux, [and] Heidi ended up showing up with Spencer, and [Lauren and Heidi] got into it outside. We weren’t even aware that they were [fighting]. I mean, you can see at the beginning of that scene that we’re scrambling to get our cameras there. There’s even a shot of cameras, which we go to great lengths to avoid, but because it was happening in real time and it really went down, it erupted and happened so quickly that we just hustled to get it.”
Justin Bobby Brescia is the anti Spencer Pratt on The Hills. He’s still a shitty reality TV boyfriend (please refer to the times Audrina caught him making out with other women while she was at the same club), but he has this seductive power that makes it easy to see why Audrina returns to him time after time. Justin Bobby speaks in ridiculous platitudes, like “Truth and time tells all,” which now sound like everything spewed on The Bachelor, but back then were unique in their somehow grounded inanity. It’s hard to believe that he isn’t putting on an act for cameras or behaving a certain way due to producer intervention. Both DiVello and Travis insist that it didn’t take any special editing to depict Justin Bobby’s essence to audiences, nor did much of his footage wind up on the cutting room floor.
Travis: “We knew Audrina was dating Justin Bobby. All of season 2, we were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, Audrina has no story. All she does is go on dates with these guys, these funny characters.’ But then we knew she had this boyfriend, and we weren’t getting access to this story line. [We said to her], ‘We know this is happening. We know you’re dating this guy.’ It took a lot of work, and I think it was [producer] Sara Mast, who came on in season 3; she was able to get Justin to trust us.”
DiVello: “Justin’s such a genuinely nice person off camera to our crew and to all of us. He never gave us a problem. He was always very polite and thankful… I think Justin was a surprise each week, because he was like, ‘I’m starting to look like such an ass on the show. Can you not make me look so bad?’ We weren’t doing any of it. We kept explaining to him, ‘You’re doing this all to yourself. You’re just seeing this on camera, but this is how you are.’ I think he was such a great character, and he was such a natural on camera.”
Travis: “In Audrina and Justin’s case, that was the relationship [in which] he was the bad [guy] who was really charming. She was always trying to break up with him or get away from him and his seductive power. Every time she would want to do it, if she broke up with him off camera, we would want her to at least have a conversation with him on camera so we could see that process, and inevitably they would get back together. So that turned out to be a long, drawn-out story line. What’s interesting, too, [is that] you do a lot of shooting with cast members, and then some of the best stuff makes the cut, but with Justin, he was so unwilling to shoot. It was very hard. He would give us so little of his time, and I think that there aren’t any shoots we did with Justin Bobby that didn’t make it to air. I think every single scene we shot with him is on television.”
Lauren Conrad’s mascara tears during her fight with Audrina in season 4 have become the GIF that keeps on GIF-fing from The Hills. In 2013, Conrad told Cosmopolitan that producers had slowed down her single tear to make it even more dramatic, and that, “Whoops,” she wasn’t wearing waterproof mascara. The producers actually received letters asking why she didn’t think to apply makeup that would withstand her tears.
DiVello: “The mascara thing just happened, and it became a thing. Most of the time when we were shooting, we would be sitting on their balcony, like six or seven of us crammed on this tiny little balcony. You’re watching little monitors, and when you get that like black eyeliner roll, you’re just like, ‘Damn, this is so great,’ because again, we don’t have those [to-camera] confessionals — those OTF’s we call them in the business — so we have no other device to tell stories other than something like a black mascara line running down her face. You clearly notice she’s upset, and that’s so far and few between. Other than the help of music, that’s really all we have, so those were extremely helpful to us and they kind of became Lauren’s hallmark… We got so many letters that were like, ‘Why didn’t she wear waterproof mascara?,’ and I never could answer that. I didn’t know.”
Travis: “I think it might have been slowed down in the trailer, but not in the show. It would be a little strange in the episode when we’re supposed to be in a kind of real-time scene for [the tear] to slow down. We would joke that we’d have these scenes where Lauren is finally going to talk to Audrina, and we would swear that Lauren would wear the runny mascara where because of that, she would literally ‘win’ the scene. They’re both crying, and Audrina’s mascara wouldn’t run, and Lauren’s would. Therefore, our hearts would go out to Lauren. We thought, ‘Does she do it on purpose? Does she wear the runny mascara because she wants to [win]?’ I mean, I don’t think so. She tries so hard not to cry. She used to say, ‘Guys, I'm so tired of crying on the show.’”
When Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt finally tied the knot in season 5, producers decided to use it as a climactic moment in Hills history. There’s a question as to whether or not Lauren Conrad will show up to see the nuptials of her former best friend and avowed nemesis. The episode also serves as her official send-off, as she had by that point told producers that she was tired of having her life filmed for television and wanted off the show. It serves as the official passing of the baton from Conrad’s time as protagonist to Kristin Cavallari’s. Of course, none of this could have happened without a boatload of tension and drama. First and foremost, though, was the question of whether or not Lauren would actually attend Heidi and Spencer’s wedding.
Travis: “We encouraged her to [go]. Heidi really wanted her to do it. Heidi had to go into Lauren’s job to hand-deliver an invitation. If something like that happens on camera, it’s even more difficult for Lauren not to go. Like, ‘Oh, [Heidi is] giving me an invitation, the cameras were here to see it. She got that on film. She was very kind and invited me. She’s sorry.’… Then, we got a nice, sweet moment: Heidi and Lauren meeting [at the wedding], and Lauren genuinely wishing her the best.”
DiVello: “I know Heidi really did want Lauren there, and it was nice that she did end up going. It’s one of those situations like Paris where we didn’t know whether Lauren was going to go or not, so it really was in her hands whether she was going to go, and it was nice that she did. I think it was Lauren’s last scene, and at the end of the day it kind of ended their story. Lauren forgave her in a scene, and she was just there for Heidi in Heidi’s decision to marry Spencer. We decided to use it as a platform to say goodbye to Lauren. We did the pull-away shot with the car and went through Lauren’s memories of being on the show, and it was a nice farewell send-off… We introduced Kristin in [the wedding episode], which was great. It made sense that Kristin came along, because season 1 of Laguna was more about Lauren, and season 2 was more about Kristin. It was nice that we got to have Kristin on The Hills for the last two seasons.”
Travis: “I think we had fun with Kristin being at the wedding. We knew as producers that when Lauren sees her, that’s going to be a great moment. We better have a camera on her close-up. Then, because of that, we try to say, ‘Okay, let’s not broadcast the fact that Kristin’s going to be there because that’s going to be a great moment on camera.’”
Many viewers wondered if Heidi and Spencer’s relationship and marriage was faked for the show, but producers insist that wasn’t the case.
DiSanto: “It was clear that off camera, too, they had a real bond there and true love. It seems that any marriage that lasts more than a couple of years in the entertainment industry seems like a surprise, but I never thought it was just for cameras.”
Once Lauren left the show and Kristin took over, The Hills took on a very different tone and course. Suddenly, the story lines seemed heightened and more dramatic, and there were a lot more characters involved. Since The Hills went off the air in 2010, Cavallari has spoken openly about how producers manipulated the show, and how much of what was happening on TV differed from what was really going on in her personal life at the time.
DiVello: “They were very different personalities. I think Lauren is probably more reserved, and you see more of her expressions on her face. Kristin kind of just says what she’s feeling.”
Travis: “You’ll see in later seasons, the cast was so big, there would be eight or nine people. I really thought the longevity of the series was the story in the Hollywood Hills, and characters we could relate to should never end, really. Lauren carried the show in so many ways. I was trying really hard to allow it to be continued without her. I think Kristin coming in was a big help. Kristin is just willing to make a TV show. Although she was never handed a script, she just has a sensibility about, ‘Hey, let’s go out and put on a good show.’ So she’ll date people; she’ll throw down the drama. Those are all real things for her, but she’s like, ‘Sure, game on.’ That’s how she was on Laguna Beach… When Kristin came on the show, we had to do a new opening, and I was in a helicopter filming her. She was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway getting this great helicopter shot swooping off the ocean. I did one version of it and wanted her to do it again. She turned around, drove back on the PCH…and I just did it five, six, maybe seven times. She was just like, ‘Want to do it again? Sure.’ The difference between those two, if that had been Lauren, she may have said, ‘I’m not doing it again. It’s a reality show; you’ve got one take.”
By the time the show ended after six seasons, the cast members’ lives were regularly the subject of tabloid headlines. Part of what makes the series seem increasingly fake is the fact that The Hills never acknowledges cast's increasing fame or the constant paparazzi presence in their lives. Nevertheless, producers decided at the outset that the series would focus on their personal lives. They also chose to sidestep the fact that as reality shows progress, cast members often become more self-aware and self-censoring once they see how the public perceives them.
DiVello: “They all had their lives outside the fame still going on. So the stuff that we focused on — the relationships, the dating, and their friendships being tested — all of that stuff is still happening in [real] life. We decided very early on not to focus on their celebrity like the Kardashians do today, which obviously makes so much more sense for them because they kind of started out famous. That’s their business. [On The Hills], these kids really were going to school for fashion, and they really were trying to be designers, and look how successful they’ve become.”
DiSanto: “Everything that was happening was real, but it was really more about what we chose not to show. Like certain things might be out of order; certain things were happening that we didn’t show. If it was meant to be more like a true documentary about [Lauren’s] life as opposed to a hybrid that created its own world, we probably would’ve shown more aspects of the Hollywood part of her career growing, and the fashion side of her career… I think that with The Hills, people were watching it as a narrative and not necessarily as 100% this is a documentary about Lauren in L.A. It almost became less of a concern because we could edit around scenes that felt self-conscious or that they were self-aware… If you pan left, you probably would’ve seen people staring at her and paparazzi, but the show didn’t choose to do that, because it was meant to be like a bubble about the specific aspect of her life, telling the story with certain characters. I hate to say we are watching as a fiction, but it didn’t matter to viewers.”
The producers even decided to poke fun at the ongoing controversy about whether or not the show really qualified as “reality” television on the finale by filming two different endings. In one of them, Brody Jenner and Kristin Cavallari hug each other goodbye as the backdrop is pulled away to reveal that they’re on a soundstage — a very meta commentary on the whole debate surrounding The Hills’ veracity. In an alternate ending, Brody hugs Kristin goodbye as she gets in a limo to go to the airport. When he gets back to his apartment, there’s a surprise visitor waiting for him: Lauren Conrad. “It’s hard to say goodbye,” she tells Brody after he mentions he was saying bye to a friend. They share an almost devious smile, and the show pans away to one of its signature sweeping shots of the Hollywood sign.
DiVello: “I think the idea just came from, ‘How do we do this and just do something completely different? We joked about doing it, and pulling back the set and having a studio audience be there. I was sad to see it end, but I wanted to leave the viewer with something that they could talk about. I felt it was a very stylized show, so it was nice to have a stylistic ending like that where people were talking about it.”
DiSanto: “Adam DiVello came into my office and pitched out the idea of that ending, and I thought it was such a cool idea because we were dealing with so many people saying, ‘Is [the show] real? Is it not?’ Ultimately, for me it didn’t matter at that point because it was just like, people were into the stories and these kids and this world. I thought ending it in that way would be such a funny, cool way to wrap it up in a fun, meta kind of way… Honestly, I felt like the [alternate] ending [that didn’t air] was more fake. It was weird where he comes home and Lauren’s there; it’s almost like the husband being switched out on Bewitched.”
The Hills blurred the line between cast members’ televised and real personas. Since the show went off the air, they’ve gone on to become fashion designers, TV hosts, authors, celebrity personalities, and more. Are the producers surprised at how the cast managed to use their allegedly lucrative reality TV careers (producers wouldn’t comment on the cast's Hills salaries) as a springboard for future endeavors?
Travis: “I think it’s great — especially Lauren. I spoke to her recently, and she was saying she finally had young people recognize her who don’t know about The Hills. She said sometimes they don’t know her from the television show, so it’s great. She’s been able to have all these books and clothing lines.”
DiVello: “I'm so proud of all of them. Lauren, Whitney, Kristin, and Audrina…they’re all very successful in their own rights. I’m happy they’re all thriving. I’m sitting in my office with posters of them up all over the place. I have my Rolling Stone cover, which is my favorite poster.”
We hope these interviews provide some much-needed behind-the-scenes clarity on this, the 10th anniversary of one of the most pivotal pieces of pop culture from the aughts. Please go forth in your day and feel the rain on your skin. Remember: No one else can feel it for you. Only you can let it in, drench yourself in words unspoken. Live your life with arms wide open. Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten…much like the unforgettable soundbites on The Hills, according to producers.