Lights, camera and kind actions

In 'Random,' two Maryland filmmakers take reality TV to a new level as they document their own good deeds

October 25, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Two men driving around the country in a beat-up pickup truck, doing nice things for needy strangers.

Sounds a little ... unusual. Or so made-for-TV.

It may be a little of both.

For almost a decade, Baltimore filmmaker John Chester and former WBAL-TV fitness guru Andre Miller have had an unusual hobby -- or passion, perhaps. They've been driving around the Baltimore area doing good deeds. Now they'll be the stars of a new reality TV show, Random 1, that could be seen by millions.

Named after the admonition to "commit random acts of kindness," the 10-part series, which debuts Nov. 1 on A&E, features the tightly wrapped Chester and the philosophical Miller cruising around in a rusty 1987 pickup. As they drive, they look for people who are down on their luck -- or worse -- and try to help them. Produced in an industrial park in Northwest Baltimore, the first two episodes were shot locally, but over time, the two men will take their peculiar quest throughout the country.

"It's exciting -- and scary -- getting this chance to go out on the road across America with what we've been doing and then put it on TV," Chester said. "You can get comfortable doing the same thing in the same area for years. But we're not comfortable anymore, I can tell you that. We feel like each state is going to be a new chapter in this book we're writing."

Chester is 34 years old and focused on making it as a filmmaker; he grew up in Ocean City and picked up his first camera at age 6. Miller is a 39-year-old former Long Island resident and all-American wrestler at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1992 from the University of Maryland School of Law, but instead became a personal fitness instructor. (He was an on-air fitness trainer for WBAL-TV starting in 1995.)

Their unusual partnership got its start in 1996 in Roland Park, where neither lived. Chester came upon Miller -- whose truck was parked in the middle of Roland Avenue blocking traffic -- talking to a group of pedestrians who seemed to hang on his words.

"The truck in the street got my attention, but it was the speaker that I wanted to meet," Chester said. "He seemed to have such poise and power over his audience, so I moved closer to hear what he had to say."

Neither can remember the substance of Miller's words, but they talked long after the others left. They formed a friendship based upon a mutual desire to make the world better. "Whatever that might mean," Miller said.

"Our efforts at doing good mostly started as listening to strangers' stories, and urging the person to go for `it' -- whatever `it' may be," Chester said.

Chester, who was trying to find his voice as a documentary filmmaker, was fascinated by the strangers' stories, while Miller found it rewarding when his motivational messages took hold.

Their first act of kindness involved "helping a man get his broken-down electric wheelchair home," Chester said. After seeing the chair sitting abandoned on a corner, they decided to load it into the truck and find the owner. A policeman, who arrived on the scene thinking they were stealing the chair, wound up helping them put it in Miller's truck.

Neither can remember when they started filming the interactions, but Chester thinks it was three or four years ago. "The filming began out of frustration that in all the ideas I tried to come up with for documentaries, this one seemed to be the most compelling. And it was how, as an out-of-work filmmaker, I was killing time."

Independent filmmakers are always in and out of work; it's the nature of the profession. But Chester has had his moments as a filmmaker, including co-direction of local artist Lee Boot's widely praised documentary, Euphoria, a film about the pursuit of happiness.

"[Chester] is an insightful, inventive, courageous and highly skilled filmmaker. He excels at all parts of the process, from the idea to the great shot," Boot said. "His understanding of how to build a great team is amazing, in my view. But the most important thing to know about John as a filmmaker is his commitment to do something worthwhile. ... I just know Random 1 is going to be a huge hit."

The timing may be right. After years of reality shows featuring participants being forced to eat maggots or undergo extreme physical tests, a smattering of shows in which people behave well has speckled the airwaves. Dubbed "reality nice," the trend includes such shows as ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which the homes of ordinary Americans are transformed from drab to dream. Last month, Extreme Makeover won an Emmy as Outstanding Reality Series.

NBC this fall introduced Three Wishes with Amy Grant traveling to small towns as a televised Good Samaritan. The series has been a disappointment, drawing about 6 million viewers a week.

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