Quiet on Set Doc Directors on Dan Schneider, Drake Bell and More Episodes

Nothing in Investigation Discovery’s docuseries Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV is likely to hold viewer attention so lastingly as Drake Bell coming forward to recall being sexually assaulted during his time as a Nickelodeon child star.

Mary Robertson, who directed the ID four-parter with Emma Schwartz, recalled their set being all hush and stillness when Bell, for the first time, shared his story of abuse at the hands of a child predator. “Normally you hear people fidgeting. You couldn’t hear anyone fidget. We all sat, silent, rapt in reverence and listened,” Robertson said.

Bell, the star of Drake & Josh and The Amanda Show, names himself as the John Doe victim in Brian Peck’s sexual assault case in the third episode of Quiet on Set, which aired on Tuesday. The actor’s former dialogue coach was convicted of sexually assaulting a child actor in 2004. He pleaded no contest to charges of committing a lewd act against a child and was sentenced to 16 months in prison. Bell had not previously identified himself as the victim.

He opens up in Quiet on Set about the abuse beginning when he was 15. “It just got worse and worse and worse and worse. And I was just trapped. And I didn’t, I had no way out. The abuse was extensive and it got pretty brutal,” he shares in the doc, which focuses on toxic environment claims around popular TV shows created and run by prolific Nickelodeon producer Dan Schneider. (Schneider told THR in a statement on Monday, in part: “Everything that happened on the shows Dan ran was carefully scrutinized by dozens of involved adults, and approved by the network.”)

The #MeToo era sparked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal that broke in 2017 exposed a toxic culture of abuse that had long gone unchecked in Hollywood. But it’s taken Robertson and Schwartz blowing the dust off an open secret in the kids TV industry — allegations of abuse, sexism, racism and inappropriate behavior that long swirled around Schneider-led sets — to bring to light claims of inappropriate behavior involving underage stars and crew members on Nickelodeon kids series.

“One of the central questions we were looking at was this power dynamic, whether that’s a child being put in a work environment, whether that’s a parent trying to support their child, whether that’s the child relating to a showrunner who has the power to make or break their career, or their future as a star,” Robertson explains, calling the docuseries a cautionary tale for young people looking to get into the business.

“The kids who grew up loving these shows are now a new generation of parents in their own right. Our hope is that Quiet on Set sparks meaningful conversations amongst families and positions them to not only have a better understanding of grooming, but all the complicated issues tackled in this documentary,” Jason Sarlanis, president at Turner Networks, ID and HLN, linear and streaming, added in a statement.

The Quiet on Set co-directors spoke to The Hollywood Reporter before their docuseries premiered across two nights on March 17 and 18. Below, they speak about how they first came across this story via viral videos that swirled around Schneider’s shows and how they hope to continue their exploration: “We’d love to hear from more people who worked in this ecosystem and would like to share experiences.”


Go back to the origins of Quiet on the Set. How and why did you start investigating allegations of abuse, sexism, racism and inappropriate dynamics with underage stars and crew on Nickelodeon shows created by Dan Schneider?

MARY ROBERTSON Like many people, several years ago we noticed a proliferation of viral videos that were compilations of clips from scenes that were created on sets that Dan Schneider presided over. Many of these clips featured scenes that are arguably sexual and they were enacted by child actors. One example is a clip of Ariana Grande lying on a bed and pouring water on her chest and her face in a manner that’s evocative of pornography. There’s another in which she’s squeezing a potato. There’s another where Jamie Lynn Spears receives a squirt of a viscous liquid on her face in a manner that is arguably evocative of pornography.

Many folks online were commenting that they had grown up with these videos and watching these shows, and they wondered why they hadn’t noticed the arguably sexualized nature of this material at the time, and they wondered why others hadn’t perhaps noticed, or others had perhaps noticed and whether certain folks had tried to speak out or protest the creation of these videos. And they wondered, in short, how and why these videos were made, what were the conditions behind-the-scenes and the creation of such content. Emma and I think that’s a meaningful question and not a trivial or small question. It’s meaningful, because we’re invested in understanding the nature of the conditions of these workplaces for all involved, and it’s meaningful because what was created in these environments is content that was then consumed by hundreds of thousands, if not now millions of children and influenced their sense of normal.

How did you go from curiosity to contacting the child actors, now adults, who appear in your docuseries?

ROBERTSON So we partnered with Kate Taylor at Business Insider and began outreach to individuals who had worked on these sets. And we soon came to understand that we might be at a moment in which a door was opening into a dark room and light was finally entering.

Drake Bell

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

EMMA SCHWARTZ There becomes in certain stories a moment and a kind of tipping point where you might have heard whispers, but people weren’t necessarily in a place that they’re ready to speak — whether it’s because enough time has elapsed, children have become adults or the culture itself is more open to receiving these ideas. So we put together an outrageously long spreadsheet with hundreds of names, calling everyone from IMDb, the crew, the cast, people in industry and just talking to as many people as we could.

What was the initial feedback?

SCHWARTZ We were quickly hearing back from people who were very grateful that we were digging in, and felt like there was a lot to unearth. And as we talked to people, we realized there were people who were really finally ready to share their stories, to share the darkness they had walked through, in the hope that by shining a light on what they had experienced, others might not have to walk down such a troubled path.

The child actors, now grown, who you approached and agreed to be interviewed for Quiet on Set, were they eager to tell their stories? Were they scared to speak up?

ROBERTSON There’s certainly been a lot of people we reached out to who are still scared to come forward, knowing what they’ve gone through. The entertainment industry is an industry that you know, very heavily relies on gig work. People don’t necessarily have secure jobs. They’re constantly using their networks to maintain their job and that makes it very hard to feel like you can speak out, even if you’re a member of a union and you have certain levels of rights that you might not have in other industries. The nature of that work makes it harder to feel like you have that agency. And one of the central sort of questions that we were looking at was this power dynamic, whether that’s a child being put in a work environment, whether that’s a parent trying to support their child, whether that’s the child relating to a showrunner who has the power to make or break their career, or their future as a star. And so we’re very grateful for the folks who were willing to step up and share their stories. It’s incredibly brave. And it’s not easy. As you can see on Quiet on Set, we have well over a dozen, almost two dozen people who are sharing their story.

You spoke earlier about the online clips and comments around Nickelodeon shows that sparked your initial investigation. TV and ID, your broadcaster, have a higher standard for evidence that gets to air, if only for legal reasons. How did you navigate that world?

ROBERTSON Yes, when it comes to Dan Schneider, it is true that there are a lot of conspiracy theories that abound and continue to abound. So it was very important to us we do the work to separate fact from fiction. So the material that we’ve included in the film, the revelatory first person accounts that have never before been seen or heard, the ones that are in the film, they have been verified as accurate information that we stand behind.

Back in the early 2000s when Dan Schneider rose to fame as a series creator, Nickelodeon ruled the kids TV roost. Today, kids TV proliferates on streaming platforms and elsewhere. Was making Quiet on Set easier because Nickelodeon isn’t what it once was?

SCHWARTZ The nature of children’s TV has really changed over the past decades. As you smartly point out, Nickelodeon was once the king in children’s television. And we talked about in the doc, how in the 2000s, Disney Channel really started competing much more directly with Nickelodeon, putting a lot of pressure on them to generate more and more hits. And certainly in the world of streaming and online, there’s a whole new universe of children’s television that is out there and there’s a lot more choices and a lot more competition.

Kate Taylor

Investigation Discovery

You devote almost an entire episode to Drake Bell sharing his story of abuse at the hands of Brian Peck, his former dialogue coach, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a Nickelodeon child actor in 2004. For the first time, Bell says he was that minor at the center of that court case and conviction. Tell us about landing Bell as the biggest, but possibly the most reluctant voice, in your doc.

ROBERTSON The day we filmed, the first day that we rolled on an interview with Drake, the set was completely quiet. Normally you hear people fidgeting. You couldn’t hear anyone fidget. We all sat, silent, rapt in reverence and listened.

And what preceded that day?

SCHWARTZ As we dug into this story, there were a lot of layers to it, understanding how it was behind the scenes for the crews, how women were treated and how videos were created. And in the course of that we came to understand, in a very short period of 2003, two men who were working on Dan’s set, and in particular on the All That set, had been arrested on charges of child sex abuse, and later were convicted related to children they had met at Nickelodeon.

You started to hear whispers of who these victims are. And we came to understand that the victim in Brian Peck’s case was in fact Drake Bell. But anyone who has been a victim of any form of abuse, but especially child sex abuse, you never know where they are in their trauma, whether they are in a place that they want to speak, and whether even just sort of reaching out could be triggering for them. We thought a lot about how to do that. And the short answer is, I wrote a letter, a careful letter that eventually began a back-and-forth conversation. And over time, we built enough trust that he was ready to sit down. That didn’t happen immediately and I think he (Bell) was at a point in his own life where he was really trying to grapple with the trauma that he had been through, trauma from two decades before he had not fully processed and is trying to heal from. And in sharing that story, that is part of his process and part of his healing.

When you’d finished the interview with Drake, did you feel a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, that he felt good about sharing his story on camera?

ROBERTSON You know, it’s been up and down, and I think the short answer is, I don’t think he went home and said, “I’m certain this was the best decision I’ve ever made.” There are days that he was nervous about how we would handle his story, how it would be perceived.

You did a private screening with Drake?

ROBERTSON We did screen {the episode} with him and after he watched it, he said it felt like it did reflect his story. That was important for us to hear. And since this has been announced and started to come out, he said to me he feels like a weight has been lifted. He’s been holding this secret and it’s been eating him up. And hopefully in sharing it he can both help people understand and prevent that from happening to anyone else and help himself move forward.

In Quiet on the Set, you address criminal cases, like the one with Drake Bell, as well as the systemic workplace harassment of child actors and kids TV crews that weren’t recognized until the #MeToo era forced an industry reckoning. How did you balance allegations of criminal sexual assault of child actors with allegations of a toxic workplace run by a powerful kids TV producer seemingly insulated from accountability, until the #MeToo era signaled he wasn’t?

ROBERTSON We started this inquiry with curiosity around Dan Schneider, as this was the focal point of the curiosity online. He was so influential over so much content, and over so many years. So we were paying a great deal of attention to understanding what really transpired on Dan’s watch. And we’ve presented the most complete, complex, thorough, detailed, nuanced information that we had, at the time — I say had, because I certainly hope that we’re able to continue this reporting. And we heard accounts from individuals who believed they as child actors were placed in an incredibly uncomfortable situations.

In the first episode, you hear about the series On Air Dares. You hear Bryan Hearne describe that, when he was a child, he was asked to cover his body in peanut butter and have the peanut butter licked off of him by dogs. And he felt uncomfortable in that moment. He didn’t feel as though he necessarily had the ability to safely respond. And I say safely respond not because he believed he was a physical danger, but because he wanted to maintain positive standing in the workplace. He didn’t want those in power to think poorly of him. To hear from the accounts of the women writers who were asked to share a salary, and then one of them was asked to perform being sodomized in front of a room of writers. These are accounts that we have verified that we have included in our film.

Christy Stratton

Investigation Discovery

SCHWARTZ But this distinction between things that are criminal and other things are not criminal, so why do they matter? I think it’s important to recognize that they do matter, that part of the process of understanding how culture is viewed is also understanding how norms are put together. And sometimes that can feel squishy because you’re not necessarily saying, “oh, they broke the law.” But things can still be harmful, even if they’re not against the law. And I think that’s a lot of what you see with the content and experiences that people had on set, where the power dynamics were such that people were hurt or felt hurt, even if there wasn’t a law that was broken. And we’ve spoken with participants in the film who told us they believe that what was problematic about these environments that Dan presided over was that they created a culture, or he (Schneider) created a culture in which it felt appropriate to sexualize children.

The #MeToo era has shown men who abused people at the apex of their power in Hollywood often didn’t do so on their own. They had enablers. Did Dan Schneider have enablers?

SCHWARTZ Look, you can even look to Dan’s statement that he gave to us, that there were a lot of other adults in the room. There were a lot of other people who approved all the shows that happened. We know that he was a big moneymaker for the network. And it was at a time increasingly where the network was facing a lot of competition. And if you go back even to The Amanda Show, the first show he’s listed as a creator, one of the stories that really sticks with me is how this character Penelope Taynt came into being. According to the two female writers, [Schneider] decides he wants to call this character by a dirty word. He says that’s a secret, that’s a joke we will keep here in the writers room. And when he’s questioned by standards, he denies that there’s any anything dirty, anything vulgar about the word. And as Christie (Stratton) says in the film, to her that is really power. And that is the kind of power that he wielded beyond a children’s show where he, according to the writers, was effectively trying to insert sexualized and dirty jokes on a children’s show involving child actors.

Going back to Drake Bell, his interview fills virtually the entire third episode. The other child actors tell their stories on camera, but with shorter clips and less context.

ROBERTSON We would be happy to make four more hours on this subject. There’s definitely more to say. But listen, it was really important to us to offer those whose accounts, whose stories and experiences had previously been pushed into the shadows, the opportunity to bring their stories from the shadows and onto center stage and in the spotlight. It was important for us to do that. But at a scale, to represent to them, to each other and to our audience that ultimately, there wasn’t a singularity to their experiences. There was a shared experience there. And because that experience was shared by many, those who participated, and probably some of those who watch will feel as though it’s validating a certain credibility to those accounts. So unfortunately, we couldn’t give everyone 45 minutes, or we would have had a 12 hour series. I do think it would be wonderful for a continued exploration. We’d love to hear from more people who worked in this ecosystem and would like to share experiences.

What would a continued investigation of this Hollywood ecosystem look like in any future series?

ROBERTSON We’re both very curious about the letters of support that we cover in episode four, for these were letters that supported the convicted child sex abuser Brian Peck. And many of these letters were written by industry friends, some of whom still work and and there’s a lot that we don’t know about the conditions under which those letters were written. And we’re certainly interested in learning more.

SCHWARTZ I think it’s really sort of a question of who has stories they want to share and what they are. We’re open to whatever that might be.

Your series shows the Hollywood fame of child actors isn’t always what it looks like to adoring fans, and that fame can have a negative impact on lives when kids grow into adulthood. What’s the lesson of Hollywood fame from kids TV you want people to take away?

SCHWARTZ That’s certainly what you’ve heard from a number of child actors that participated in Quiet on Set. Certainly there are examples where someone was a child actor and come out and become very, very successful. But those are in many ways the exception, not the rule. When you grow up as a child actor, it’s a lot of work and a lot of times that can be a very difficult transition into adulthood. And just keep in mind, on a lot of these kids networks like Nickelodeon, the child actors were paid, but they were not paid residuals for any of the shows they worked on. And sometimes being in children’s television was almost seen as against you, that you couldn’t be an adult actor, because that was different. And so coupled that with all those sort of pressures that come from being in essentially an adult environment when you’re a child, that can definitely, and definitely did, for many of these people have a lasting impact.

Bryan Hearne

Investigation Discovery

ROBERTSON I think we’re in a moment as a culture, too, where we’re reflecting more often and perhaps understanding more deeply the downside to fame. For one point of reference, we talk differently about Princess Diana than we ever did. We think about the negative aspects of the scrutiny that she received. And certainly that has been the case with Britney Spears, and the way in which we understand how she was treated. In the case of Quiet on Set, we’re paying more attention to what it means for these child actors to experience incredibly high highs and incredibly low lows and they’re experiencing those as children. And we look at what it means for them to exist in an environment where they’re celebrated and where they get to have fun and sometimes sing and dance and tell funny jokes, but where boundaries are sometimes blurred, where it’s hard for them to have agency and to feel comfortable speaking out sometimes when they feel as though they’ve been asked to enact or participate in situations that they don’t want to participate in.

It may be too early, but has Investigation Discovery given the greenlight for more episodes of Quiet on the Set?

ROBERTSON We love our partners at Investigation Discovery and would love to continue this really happy collaboration.

Here is the full statement from a spokesperson for Schneider: “Everything that happened on the shows Dan ran was carefully scrutinized by dozens of involved adults, and approved by the network. Remember, all stories, dialogue, costumes, and makeup were fully approved by network executives on two coasts. A standards and practices group read and ultimately approved every script, and programming executives reviewed and approved all episodes. In addition, every day on every set, there were always parents and caregivers and their friends watching filming and rehearsals. Had there been any scenes or outfits that were inappropriate in any way, they would have been flagged and blocked by this multilayered scrutiny.”

Quiet on the Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV is now streaming on Max.

First appeared on www.hollywoodreporter.com

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