11:36 AM EST, January 25, 2013
The world of lumber-jacking joined the ranks of reality TV in 2008 with the History Channel series "Ax Men." The logging companies featured on the show (currently midway through its sixth season) tend to come from two regions: the Great Northwest and the Southern Bayou. On Sunday, that will change when a crew based in the Midwest joins the cast.
The introduction of Wisconsin Woodchuck on Sunday's 8 p.m. broadcast is confined to just one segment of the show, but in those few minutes it is clear that the crew will bring something different to the "Ax Men" formula. The crew's demeanor is far less theatrical than that of the other crews on the show; when two workers find themselves trapped 80 feet in the air, they wait patiently as the crane operator calmly takes out the owner's manual to figure out the problem.
Just as importantly, the work itself is distinct from that of a traditional logging business. Rather than harvesting wood from forests or swamps, Wisconsin Woodchuck is focused on a single project: dismantling an antique grain elevator in Superior, Wis., and then selling the reclaimed lumber to high-end builders and furniture designers who appreciate the unique character of the wood and support the concept of re-use — and are willing to pay twice the going rate for what comparable two-by-six boards would cost at Home Depot.
Built in 1887, the grain elevator holds 6 million board feet of antique old-growth wood. It was once (according to the company's website) the biggest grain storage facility in the world.
Wisconsin Woodchuck has been working on the project since 2005 under the watchful eye of former Tribune reporter and national editor Judy Peres and her partner David Hozza. The couple splits their time between the job site in Superior and an apartment in Evanston. Just under 20 percent of the building has been dismantled so far, and the marketing arm of the company — Old Globe Reclaimed Wood Company (oldglobewood.com) — is struggling.
Financially, the company is in dire straits. For Peres, their participation on the show is a Hail Mary. She's hoping the exposure on "Ax Men" will generate publicity and therefore more customers for their wood.
Though a longtime journalist (she was with the Tribune for 28 years), Peres admitted she was unaware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that often characterize reality TV, including the so-called Frankenbite, whereby producers edit together unrelated clips and sound bites to "improve" and heighten the drama, often changing the nature of what was actually said.
And then there is Mark Gustafson, who was featured on the first two seasons of "Ax Men" (along with his Oregon-based company). Last summer he told his local paper the Daily Astorian that "so much of it was pure fabrication through editing. Some of it was just outright false information because they thought it was cool to spin things a certain way. When we watched it, we were just kind of going, 'That didn't happen,' or 'That didn't happen that way.'"
Peres was frank and forthcoming about her company's prospects when we spoke earlier this week about her hopes for their upcoming story arc on "Ax Men" (which was filmed over four weeks in July).
I couldn't help wondering if she sees the writing on the wall. When she spoke about the company, it was in the past tense. "We did it because it was there and because we could — our kids were grown, we weren't paying college tuition anymore, we really weren't responsible for anyone but ourselves at that point. It was an adventure and it was romantic. Saving this wood was a really good idea, it needed to be done.
"It seemed like a really good idea," she said, "until you got up close to those buildings. And then you say, 'Oh my gosh, how do we do this?' It's like deconstructing the pyramids."
Q: How did "Ax Men" come into your life?
A: I got a call one day out of the blue from one of our customers called saying, "You're going to get a call from someone from the History Channel, they might be interested in doing something on the Globe elevator project." This was in May. And the next day I got a call from a producer in Hollywood who said she worked for this show called "Ax Men" and it was a pretty big deal, it had 3 million viewers, it was about the lumber and logging industry and they wanted to broaden their scope a little bit.
So they sent a cameraman-slash-producer, and he came out for 48 hours to shoot what they call a casting. They wanted to see who the characters were, what we looked like on camera. And they wanted to get a sense of what the site looked like. And while he was here on site, we had a mishap. We had two guys stuck in the crane basket 80 feet in the air.
Q: That moment is in Sunday's episode.
A: Really? That's interesting, because it wasn't shot by the main crew.
Q: In December, a cast member who was fired from A&E's "Storage Wars" filed a lawsuit saying the show was staged and fake. So I was wondering if that moment with the crane malfunctioning was real.
A: That actually happened. Nobody was orchestrating this.
Q: What was going through your mind as this was happening and there's a guy filming all of it? Were you worried about lawsuits or looking like knuckleheads? Or did you think, "Hey, drama! They'll love this"?
A: I think all of the above. We were thinking, "Well, this is going to give them something, isn't it?" At the same time, we didn't know how this was going to end. We're worried about the guys in the basket. It was a nailbiter.
Q: At any point when the film crew was there, did they ask you to create or manufacture situations--or shape what you were going to say to the camera?
A: No. The work was real. But there is a subtle pressure to play to the camera. (At one point, Peres said she saw her brother involved in an unexpectedly dangerous task) and I started screaming and tears were running down my face and I was like, "What the f--- are you doing?"...so I think that maybe having the camera close to me had something to do with me giving way to those emotions.
In the same way that I think having a camera on them made some of the guys act out a little more. I think they played to the camera a little bit. For one thing, there are female members of the camera crew, so there are young women on the site, which doesn't happen very often. You know how building construction workers will play to the young chick who's walking by on the street? I think our guys did that a little bit.
Q: Why did you decide to do the show?
A: Well, our company is in trouble. We don't know how much longer we can hang on because we're out of money and our mortgage lender is getting very impatient. When they said, "Do you want to be on 'Ax Men?'" we spent a few minutes thinking about it, but not many.
We were a little afraid. One concern was OSHA — what if something happens on film that isn't supposed to happen? We're liable. We had friends who said, "Are you crazy? This is your reputation. Do you really want to be on a reality TV show?" And we thought about it for a few minutes and finally said, we have nothing to lose here. If there's a possibility that this show could increase our visibility to the point where we could boost sales, it could be the difference between our success and our failure. And failure is a very real option right now. We're looking it in the teeth.
Q: In addition to the publicity, I'm sure you were paid to be on the show. Do you mind saying how much that was?
A: I don't think we're allowed to talk about this, but the fact is, we didn't get paid. We were not paid. I hope that's not a trade secret.
Q: Wow, I'm surprised!
A: We wondered if we were being guppies here. Later we kind of asked delicately if there would be any sort of fee and they said "no." You can see how naive we've been all the way along. I mean, I don't have to say that, I'm sure you're thinking that yourself.
Q: There's a whole genre of shows that focus on these testosterone-and-cigarette professions (pawn shops, catfish wrestlers, ice road truckers). You are one of the rare female faces to be on a show like this. I mean, it's called "Ax Men."
A: That's exactly true, and that's part of my concern. I'm wondering if we're going to make it on this show because we're so different from the other crews. I think it's possible that the audience of "Ax Men" is gonna say, "What the hell is that broad doing there?" and turn off.
I watch the show and I love Shelby (Shelby "Swamp Man" Stanga, who dredges logs in Louisiana). I think he's a great character. But how many people like Shelby partly because of the relationship he has with the women in his life?
We've got it backwards — we've got one tough broad running the show and a lot of guys doing the work. My fear is that may not be appealing to the audience. I don't know the audience of "Ax Men," but based on what they've had for the last five seasons, what we're serving them is a little different.
Q: One of the female cast members on "Storage Wars" apparently had plastic surgery — paid for by the show— to amp up her sex appeal. I gather you won't be going down that path.
A: No, I see myself becoming the Betty White of the Northland.
Q: What goes through you mind when you hear Mark Gustafson's quote about the show being "pure fabrication through editing"?
A: (Long sigh) I know that things can take on a different color through editing. I mean, I've seen editors at newspapers change the tenor or direction of a story, but it didn't happen very often — and I always thought of it as bad editing.
This is TV and they have to make a story otherwise people won't be interested. But I don't think that they need to go too far afield to make our story more dramatic.
Q: And you're willing to swallow however you're portrayed?
A: Yes. But also, and maybe this is naive, but I trust that what we're gonna see on TV is what happened. I mean, ask me again in six months, but, I was there. I was there when they shot that stuff and we had a relationship of trust with the crew. We're in their hands.
Q: Am I making you nervous?
A: A little! Some of your questions make me feel very naive. But there's nothing we can do about it. This has been out of our hands since we agreed to go on the show. I think it's gonna be like so much of the last five years (running the timber company). I don't know how (our story) ends, but it's been a good ride — we've had a lot of fun doing something we hadn't done before. I can't imagine watching the show and thinking, "Oh geez, I'm so sorry we did that because they made us look like morons."
In our minds, the whole thing was fortuitous. It was something that came out of the blue and was not something we could have ever planned or tried to make happen on our own.
The Wisconsin Woodchuck arc begins this week on the History Channel's "Ax Men," 8 p.m. Sunday.
The Northbrook Public Library wraps up its Humphrey Bogart series Wednesday with a screening of 1953 heist picture "Beat the Devil," directed by John Huston, with a script he collaborated on with Truman Capote. Film scholar Reid Schultz will discuss Bogart's career afterward. Go to northbrook.info.
More classic cinema
Admission is only $1 for the Classic Movie Mondays series at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Each week has a different theme: horror (first Monday of the month), comedy (second), romance (third) and action/adventure (fourth). This week is the 1986 coming-of-ager "Stand By Me," based on the Stephen King novella "The Body." Coming up Feb. 4 is "The Wiz." Go to ParamountAurora.com and click on "tickets."
Sundance in Chicago
The Music Box teams up with the Sundance Film Festival for a Thursday screening of "Touchy Feely," which debuted at the festival last week and stars Rosemarie DeWitt ("United States of Tara") as a massage therapist who suddenly finds she can no longer stand touching people. With special guest appearance by director Lynn Shelton. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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