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A perfect match
"The Bachelor's" script chief, a Buffalo native, finds his niche on reality TV

If Buffalo native Bennett Graebner's life had gone according to his script, he would have followed in the footsteps of film director Cameron Crowe of "Jerry Maguire" fame.

But the reality is the screenwriter and University of Southern California film school graduate is the supervising script producer for the popular ABC reality series "The Bachelor."

"I must admit when 'The Bachelor' came along I was a little reluctant," said Graebner in a telephone interview. "It had never been my dream to work in reality TV. I dreamed of being the next Cameron Crowe, not someone responsible for a reality TV show about falling in love. I took the job and never looked back. I love it."

He was named for both his parents. He is the son of prominent local attorney Dianne Bennett and former Fredonia State College history professor and author William Graebner.

"I think I'm kind of the black sheep of the family," cracked Graebner, who has a younger brother at Georgetown University's Law School. "Everyone seems more intellectual and more political. Here I am working in reality TV in Los Angeles. Thankfully, they put up with me."

A graduate of City Honors (1989), Graebner earned a degree in English literature at Vassar College before getting a master's degree in filmmaking at USC in 1998. He credits an English teacher he had at City Honors, Joe Shanahan, with inspiring him to become a storyteller.

"He told me once that I write like Thomas Wolfe, which I thought was a great compliment," said Graebner. "That inspired me to continue my love of stories."

He said he had "modest success" as a screenwriter for about 10 years after USC but sought a more stable job because he had a wife, two kids and a mortgage.

A Buffalo Sabres fan, Graebner considers himself the Mike Grier of "The Bachelor," a hard-working role player.

As supervising story producer, he oversees a team of story producers who are responsible for tracking the story lines of the character arcs of the entire season. His team assists the editors when the episodes are put together. "My job is in looking at the material that comes in and deciding what's important, what's not important... What is going to happen in Episode 7 and how can we set that up in Episode 3."

He's worked on four "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" programs in the two years since executive producer Martin Hilton persuaded him to join the program. Hilton read one of Graebner's screenplays and decided his skills fit reality TV needs.
"It really is about storytelling," explained the 38-year-old Graebner. "It really has a lot of the same kind of storytelling principles, like planning a payoff, character and story structure -- just from a slightly different perspective."

But Graebner bristles at any suggestion that "The Bachelor" is scripted, noting you can't make up some of the big twists and turns. "The truth is I can't script [past Bachelor] Jason deciding that he wants to marry Melissa and then six weeks later deciding Melissa is not the one for him and it is really Molly," said Graebner. "And having him breaking up with Melissa and getting back with Molly. These are real people. Sometimes I find it a little frustrating that we're accused of scripting the best material. But I'm also flattered by that."

Graebner, who worked on the TV wedding of Jason and Molly that aired recently, believes "what makes our show great is these people make the kind of decisions that people make in everyday life ... That's just people behaving like regular people, and it made for great television."

The just-concluded eight-episode installment of "The Bachelor" had its share of wild moments from characters who Graebner said believe they could fall in love.

"If we don't have those people on the show, our show doesn't work," he said.

During the season, one woman, Ali (who is the next Bachelorette), was in love with Bachelor Jake Pavelka but chose her career and left the show to return to her job. "That was difficult for her. In the next season, she gets a chance to put her personal life first," said Graebner.

Another woman (Roslyn) denied she had a romance with a producer on the show even though other contestants claimed they witnessed it.

"It definitely helped the show," said Graebner. "It was real, and I think people responded to that. To those who worked on the show, it was traumatic. It was a [former] staffer we all knew very well. He was a big part of the show, and to see this happen was sad."

The season ended a week ago with Jake making a surprise choice of Vienna over the favorite Tenley, who was heartbroken when he told her that she was perfect but something was missing.

"What was great about this season was that Jake was struggling with his decision up to the last moment," said Graebner. "To be honest, I was surprised that Jake ultimately chose Vienna. I thought she was probably too young for Jake."

But he said he hasn't correctly predicted anyone chosen in the four installments he's worked on. "If I've learned anything it is that you can't predict the trajectory of Cupid's arrow," said Graebner. "To me, what makes the show great is people make the kind of decisions people make in real life."

He said the show puts "The Bachelor" characters in interesting and compelling situations to have time and fun together that can lead to drama and romance. Graebner thought a key moment occurred when Jake and Vienna bonded bungee jumping, which didn't make Jake jump for joy since the pilot is afraid of heights.

"We didn't really anticipate that [they would bond], but we put them in a situation that we thought would evoke some emotion between the two of them, and it did," he said.

Of course, the program can make one wonder how much the rules of romance and jealousy have changed. In the "Tell-All" episode after Vienna was chosen, Tenley said she wouldn't be too comfortable if she were Vienna and knew that Jake had strong feelings for both of them before he made his choice. That story line resonated with Graebner.

"That does happen," said Graebner. "If I remember correctly -- and it's been a long time since I heard this story -- my father was seeing two women 40 years ago and my mother said, 'You need to choose between the two of us,' and he did. Now the rest is history."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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