Currently in the midst of season six on ABC, Ty Pennington and his design crew on the popular "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" have been focusing on 'heroes' that do so much for other people yet need some home-help of their own. While the show may be mocked at times for the water works it creates with the good deeds on display week in and out, "EMHE" truly creates a bright spot on humanity at a time in our country when we all can use a little extra help and inspiration. Designer Rib Hillis talked to our Jim Halterman about the appeal of the show with audiences and how the tragic stories of the families never fail to surprise him.
Jim Halterman: I must admit that this past week's episode featuring the Ruiz family had me reaching for the tissue more than once.
Rib Hillis: If you want to get your cry on, watch "Extreme Makeover." If you don't want to cry, don't watch it because it gets you.
JH: It sure does. Backing up a little bit, how did you get involved with construction and design?
RH: I started when I was a little kid. My Dad was a handyman, the kind of guy that would re-roof his house instead of pay someone to do it. I remember as a kid having a tiny little hammer that I would walk around with and help him build stuff so I always built things. Then in college during the summers I did some framing and construction. When I came to Los Angeles, between acting and modeling gigs, I pounded nails and cut boards to pay my mortgage and that ended up being job experience in terms of what I do now on "Extreme."
JH: How did you become a part of "Extreme?"
RH: I did one show called "Model Citizen," which was on the PAX network a few years ago. The producers of that show really liked what I did and my name got out there through them. As an actor, I didn't want to do reality TV. I hate reality TV. It takes away work for actors. As an actor I was reluctant but as a father of twins I thought, 'I'll do what I gotta do.' "Extreme Makeover" had heard of me and I went on an audition, made it through the casting process and I was offered a job. I thought if I'm going to do any realty show, I'm going to do this one. I'm not eating cow brains or trying to break up anyone's marriage. I get to be myself and help out really deserving people so I'm really glad I chose to be a part of this show.
JH: Design shows are everywhere on television it seems. What is the appeal of "EMHE" that sets it apart from the others in the pack?
RH: I think for "Extreme," one of the things on our show, and I think it's very unique, is that it's so story-based. It's not a how-to show. If you want to learn how to re-roof your house or how to design a room, it's not one of those shows. It's really a story about a family that's experiences tremendous hardship, very emotional; it's a show about unity and people coming together. I can see why our show is very popular because it's a really emotional journey but a lot of the other home improvement shows tend to be design-based and not so much about a story. They're not very emotional.
JH: I was looking at the online application to be one of the family's on the show and it is really extensive. How do the producers actually pick the families that appear on the show?
RH: We have an amazing casting department that goes through, I heard, a thousand applicants a day. They go through and read the stories and then they follow up with them and it gets more in-depth. There's a very extensive process. There are background checks since we need to know that these people are representing themselves truthfully and we're not going to get caught with some sort of a story point that we're not aware of. A lot of people come to me and say they want to be one of those families and I say "You do not want to have Ty Pennington show up in front of your house because that means you have suffered and lost more than you would ever, ever think you could suffer and lose." The families that are on our show have extreme hardships and they're extremely generous. The Ruiz family, for example, their lives stopped twelve years ago when they decided that they were going to change the priorities of their life [and help feed other deserving families through donations] and their home was literally unfinished. The little boy who I did a room for didn't have a sink in his bathroom. That is not something people realize. They think it's all Flash! Bang! They get this great home! But it's so much more. I would say to most of the people out there that you're better off being a fan of the show and watching it than being one of the people who has gotten a house because you'd have to go through too much to get one.
JH: How are the decisions made as to the actual design of the new house?
RH: Again, there's a very extensive casting process and a bio and there are likes and dislikes asked like brick or aluminum siding. Then you also have to factor in the community. Down in El Paso, it was a very Spanish style home, which works into the theme of the community there and then you take into account the builder. The builder is a really integral part of our show. It is the builder who is really the keystone in terms of how you can go about building a home for a family because there are many, many deserving families out there. It's a very difficult, challenging thing to find builders because these men and women we've had on the show take on a tremendous task and burden and do it on such short notice. The builders are the ones that also have a say in how the house will be built. If they are used to building a certain style, they'd be hard pressed to take on a home style that they'd never built before. There are a lot of factors that come into play and we try as best we can to take everything into account and, of course, the family being the main thing we have to take into account. So far, I've never met a family that wasn't absolutely thrilled and blown away to receive the home that they got. It seems to be right on the mark when you see them go into the house. It's a rewarding feeling.
JH: After a few years on the show, have you stopped being surprised by the hard-luck stories that are out there?
RH: I am floored and blown away literally every time. I'm like "Are you kidding me? This isn't made up?" On top of that, what we get to experience is really unique. We get to meet these family members and talk to them and then, of course, the audience meets them through the edited versions. But we'll talk to them and get to meet them and I'm always blown away at how some of these family members who have gone through so much and yet�in this show coming up with Lizzie Bell, this little girl who needs a blood transfusion every three weeks. Her whole life, every three weeks. Talking to her, though, she doesn't say "Oh, poor me" or "My veins hurt." She talks about the other kids in the hospital that don't have blood that need it or that don't have a toy. So unbelievably selfless. It's one thing to hear this story about this young girl but then to meet her and then to realize that she is really that good, that generous, that selfless of a person. I always walk away from the show being completely humbled and challenged to be a better person because of these families and how giving they are.
JH: With the economy being in it's current state, has it effected your show in terms of the donations you get or the corporate help you get?
RH: Yeah, three years ago it was a lot easier to find builders willing to go and take on a project of this type. I'm really impressed with the builders that we have today, and all the builders that we've ever had, but at the moment, the builders have to think "How is the builders market right now? Is this going to benefit my family?" These men and women who own these companies and are builders have families. We don't want to put in motion a process that is going to lead anybody to be worse off than when they started. Everyone is tightening up their purse strings but it's amazing that there's still that generosity out there and that people want to be a part of "Extreme." I think it's because we've remained true to the main story point of the show, which is helping out an incredibly deserving family that also go back and give to the community.
"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" airs every Sunday night at 8:00/7:00c on ABC.