How the Cinematic Grammar of ‘Vanderpump Rules’ Evolved to Create Its Most Powerful Season Finale Yet

Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules” has long been one of unscripted television’s most formally adventurous series, with a cinematic grammar that constantly evolves to express the feelings and ideas at each season’s center. Last season, for example, editor Jesse Friedman explored the “Scandoval” situation in which longtime cast member Tom Sandoval cheated on his girlfriend Ariana Madix by telling the story in reverse — a technique that had more in common with the work of Christopher Nolan and Harold Pinter than with other shows in the world of reality TV, and one that provided the perfect visual corollary for Ariana and her friends’ piecing together of the narrative. For the Season 11 finale, Friedman once again took some audacious stylistic risks that paid off not only emotionally, but indicated how the show as a whole might be coming to the end of an era.

The final moments of the season finale take place at an event in San Francisco, where Madix storms off and prompts a tirade from cast member Lala Kent accusing Madix of failing to live an authentic life on camera. Kent breaks the fourth wall in a way that is rare for the series but unavoidable given the increased scrutiny in the wake of “Scandoval”; this whole season featured tension between the drama on the series and the offscreen developments chronicled on social media that are often responding to things that haven’t happened yet on the show — often without proper context. It’s a pivotal moment, and one that the filmmakers of “Vanderpump” knew would wrap up the season. “That part of the party was the very last footage we filmed,” executive producer Natalie Neurauter told IndieWire. “There was nothing beyond that, nothing of everyone going back to the hotel. The last lines you hear are the very last pieces of audio that exist for the season.”

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While most episodes of “Vanderpump Rules” typically winnow down dozens of hours of footage to get to 42 minutes, the most dramatic material in the season finale all took place in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes. As soon as Friedman saw it, he knew the discrepancy between Madix’s approach to living a life on camera and Kent’s would be the crux of the climax. “It was a matter of two people that had very different points of view that were equally true,” Friedman told IndieWire. “In that moment, I think that we felt like we had no option but to break the fourth wall. And then it was a matter of, how are we going to do that?” Neurauter noted that in general the fourth wall has become a more complicated issue as the cast’s status as television stars has started to create problems, as when Scheana Shay had to respond to online rumors about a photo taken by a fan. “That’s a very real part of their lives,” Neurauter said, “and I think Lala in particular struggled with how to articulate what she was feeling about her castmates without acknowledging those outside pressures.”

Kent’s speech gave Friedman an idea for what he wanted the imagery to say in the episode’s final moments, though he initially wasn’t sure how he would say it. “I wanted to express time, and I wanted to explore what it means to be a reality star, what it means to live your life on television,” he said. Friedman felt that the best way to get across the feeling of time passing was to use old footage that would instantly illustrate how much the characters had changed. “One of the things that’s fortunate with this show is that it’s been on for so long — we’ve seen everyone grow up in front of our eyes.” In the climactic montage, Friedman used footage from the cast’s very first on-camera interviews, a device that’s instantly moving to anyone who’s been a regular viewer of the show — there’s an undeniable innocence to the cast members in these old snapshots, and a sense of how they’ve grown and what they’ve lost in the intervening years, as well as a clear look at how much more comfortable they’ve grown with being on camera.

Friedman didn’t merely juxtapose old footage with new, however; there’s also a very effective use of split screens to reveal some of the series’ key dramatic moments as they were shot, from the different perspectives of multiple cameras. “Just as Lala broke the fourth wall, I wanted to break the fourth wall and let the audience see what I see as an editor,” Friedman said. The split screens have the benefit not only of giving the viewer a peek behind the curtain, but of serving as a metaphor for the dual perspective driving the season’s last scene. “At the very end, we’re left with two very different points of view about what it means to be real on reality TV,” Neurauter said. “I think that Lala’s point needed our illustration because we have been allowed to break the fourth wall so infrequently over the years that when she starts talking about her feelings, you need a lot of context and clarification to understand what is upsetting her. Whereas for Ariana, her point of view is very clear. She is acting exactly as she would if there were no cameras around, and that to her is what it means to be real. So we really wanted to leave people with those two points of view and kind of let them decide how they felt for themselves.”

The cumulative effect of Friedman’s montage is so powerful that he was able to get away with things that would, as he put it, ordinarily “get kicked back by QC [Quality Control],” like putting in several seconds of black to let the emotional weight of the sequence sink in. He also made adjustments in the earlier acts of the episode to allow the final scene to breathe and play out for the length of the song (“Like a Balloon” by Malory) that he knew would give the climax maximum impact. The finale is so strong that some fans have wondered whether or not it indicates the series is coming to an end. Neurauter doesn’t go that far, but she does think the finale represents the end of a certain version of the show. “It’s the end of the version where we’re not breaking the fourth wall,” she said. “That is no longer the show because it’s not an option anymore. And we wanted to convey that with the ending.”

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