As a producer, Craig Piligian is just as interested in tatted up dudes who build custom motorcycles as he is in the life and times of Lindsay Lohan. “I’m a little ADD,” he says. “I like to walk in the door every day and always be doing something different.”
The website for Piligian’s company Pilgrim Studios unabashedly states that they are “Production Company of the Year” and “the most diverse production company on the planet.” Those are bold claims, but when you consider that they’ve created shows like American Chopper, The Ultimate Fighter, Dirty Jobs, and My Fair Wedding, maybe it’s not the craziest claim someone in the entertainment industry has ever made. James Cameron did declare himself “king of the world” during the Titanic era.
Piligian’s new show, Orange County Choppers, premieres on CMT this weekend. American Chopper ran on Discovery for ten years, and it followed Paul Teutul Sr. and his sons Paul Jr. and Mikey as they built custom bikes and engaged in some pretty dramatic infighting. Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. had a very public falling out, and now the focus is on Paul Sr. and his team. Even without the father-son feuds, Pilgrim promises “state-of-the-art drama.”
Piligian stirred up some drama of his own this summer when his specialMegalodon: The Monster Shark Lives premiered as part of Discovery’s Shark Week in August. Some viewers weren’t happy about the fact that they were duped into believing in Megalodon – a prehistoric shark that may or may not have existed. Those viewers evidently hadn’t figured out that not everything on Discovery is an absolute truth. Discovery’s Animal Planet aired Mermaids: The New Evidence, after all. Megalodon went on to become Shark Week’s biggest episode, pulling in 4.8 million viewers.
I talked to Piligian about Orange County Choppers, the state of Paul Jr. and Paul Sr.’s relationship, what he thinks of the Megalodon hoopla, the status of the Lindsay Lohan docuseries he’s producing for OWN, and how I Love Lucyinspired American Chopper.
Forbes: When you first set out to make American Chopper, how did you know Paul Sr. had what it takes to be a reality star?
Piligian: That’s a very good question – I didn’t. They were not my very first choice. I switched the motorcycle shop the night before shooting. It was a Tuesday night and in my last conversation with the shop that I was going to do in New Hampshire I didn’t feel that they had the right mindset. The next morning I woke up early and I called Paul Sr. and said, “Do you want to do this pilot for Discovery?” I changed all the tickets, changed the crew, and on Thursday we were shooting the pilot for American Chopper. We didn’t initially tell Discovery about the switch. It was just a gut feeling.
Forbes: Did the pilot surprise you at all, once you actually saw the footage?
Piligian: We shot the pilot and started cutting the rough cut, and Discovery was looking for a motorcycle build show to compete with Monster Garage. This was an East Coast version of that. What we started to see was that it was a relationship show more than it was a build show. The bike was a by-product of the relationship with the father and the son. It just came out of nowhere and was hugely successful. It was the first family docu-soap.
Forbes: You didn’t set out to make that type of show, so what did you learn from those early days?
Piligian: We know a lot more now than we did then. Look at Duck Dynasty, or our show Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s on OWN. In the beginning when we were figuring out American Chopper, I went back to I Love Lucy. Every Lucyepisode was: Lucy gets a job. Lucy spends too much money. Ricky needs whatever. I decided we should make the loglines real simple: Junior goes missing. Mikey doesn’t show up. That’s what we built the show around. Simple loglines. It was the inspiration for the whole show. I wanted the audience to engage; I wanted to make it personal. Every person can relate to the family dynamic.
Forbes: Guys like Paul Sr. haven’t necessarily been toiling for years trying to become famous stars, and yet they’re suddenly thrust into this surreal world of celebrity. How do you handle that transition with them?
Piligian: There’s the big question. It’s difficult. You take an actor who has worked for 10 years at the Actors Studio, who has gotten 300 rejections every year for 10 years and all the sudden they get a movie that does well and he becomes an overnight success. Well, he knows he’s not an overnight success. The actor gets it. There’s an appreciation of it and all that comes with that. When we do this, the people never had the 10 years prior. You’ve got to be a life coach and a money manager. You have to say, “This is a long game so don’t lose it in the short game. We want to be here for 10 seasons, not two.” There are all these talks that happen. Sometimes they become resentful, sometimes they don’t. It has happened in every one of my shows. Once we get to the fifth and sixth season it all starts evening out and it all starts to become big picture. By the fourth season everything works. That’s the season you want to get to – the fourth and fifth season. After season two it’s difficult, and season three is the worst.
Forbes: That’s the exact opposite of scripted shows, which will get axed quickly if they don’t find an audience.
Piligian: That’s why I like cable, that’s why I like reality shows, and that’s why I like building a business in those particular models. If you look at Ghost Hunters, we’re on our tenth season. American Chopper was on Discovery but we’ve reinvented it. Now it’s only with Paul Sr., and it is a completely different show, and it’s on CMT.
Forbes: You also work in scripted television so is one more challenging to you than the other?
Piligian: Both of them have different challenges obviously, but if you’re going to stay in this business you have to do a wide range of reality shows and not just remain in one genre. In the scripted world we’ve branched out. We have a Benghazi project that’s a four-part miniseries for Spike. I get bored. I’m a little ADD. I like to walk in the door every day and always be doing something different.
Forbes: What has been the most difficult show to produce?
Piligian: They’re all tough because they all have their own challenges, but no show has been any more difficult than any other show. At the end of the day it’s all work to keep the money in.
Forbes: Are Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. talking now? Do you know what’s going on with them?
Piligian: I don’t know the relationship between Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. We finished American Chopper and it had a great run. I can’t comment on their relationship since post. Before that I know it wasn’t very good. Now I have no idea. Hopefully they’ve repaired a lot of their issues and they’re a family.
Forbes: What can people expect from the CMT show?
Piligian: Paul Sr. left to his own devices is insane. It’s creative, the bikes are great, but he runs a crazy shop. What I love about him is that he’s just raw. He doesn’t care what he says. What he thinks in his head is logical and reasonable to him. That’s what makes it special, and funny. He actually says when everybody is thinking and doesn’t want to say.
Forbes: I want to talk about the Discovery/Megalodon controversy. Now that you have some perspective, what’s your take on what went on?
Piligian: I’ll give it to you in a nutshell. I’ll give it to you very clear. They said they wanted to do a documentary on Megalodon and we started talking about it in March for an August launch. I said, “You can’t make a documentary about Megalodon in that time frame; let’s do War of the Worlds.” That’s what we based it on. I said, “Let’s make this whole thing real – or fake real, whatever. Let’s just take the piss out of it and make it War of the Worlds.” That’s exactly what we did. That’s the premise we used. We put up a three second disclaimer and for two hours we had everybody. It was a fun project. As producers we had to think, “How do we do it this way with a quick turnaround and make a lot of noise?” Regardless of what people say and think, we made a lot of noise. It created buzz. It made CNN, Jon Stewart, and every late-night talk show. It did its job. It was the highest rated Shark Weekshow in the 26-year history of the show. Sometimes we hit it out of the park, and that one we just guessed.
Forbes: What’s happening with the Lindsay Lohan show on OWN?
Piligian: We’re shooting it now. You’ll notice it has kept a very low profile. It’s going to be a fantastic documentary and we’re really excited about it. I’m not at liberty to say the ins and outs of it yet but let’s see how it progresses. We’ve been shooting for quite some time in New York and we’re excited about what we have.
Forbes: What do you think about the Amazons and Netflixes of the world? Are you branching into that type of content creation or do you think of it as a threat?
Piligian: I think it’s really positive. We’re in discussions with a major digital platform and we’re exploring business with them.
Orange County Choppers premieres on CMT November 16.
Find Dina Gachman on Twitter @TheElf26.