Editing Trump: The Making of a Reality TV Star Who Would Be President

Donald Trump in his boardroom on The Apprentice. The show's editors say his image was manufactured in post. Courtesy NBC

by A.J. Catoline

Last week, the filmmaker Judd Apatow tweeted what all of America was thinking: “Can you imagine what the editors of The Apprentice are sitting on? It must be hundreds of hours of madness.”

After last Friday’s release of controversial outtake footage from a 2005 episode of the entertainment series Access Hollywood, intense media speculation is currently swirling about what additional revealing audio and video could exist — including raw footage from The Apprentice tapes. The show’s producer Bill Pruitt tweeted on Saturday: “As Producer on Season 1 & 2 of #theapprentice, I assure you: When it comes to the #trumptapes, there are far worse. #justthebeginning”

So CineMontage set out to speak to the picture editors who worked on the original seasons on the NBC show The Apprentice (2004-07). They shared their recollections that the image of its star, Donald Trump, was carefully crafted and manufactured in post-production to feature a persona of success, leadership and glamour, despite the raw footage of the reality star that was often “a disaster.”

There were many moments between shooting, when the cameras were rolling and the microphones were hot, when Trump may have made off-color remarks. Those moments hit the cutting room floor.

“We were told to not show anything that was considered too much of a ‘peek behind the curtain,’” remembered Jonathon Braun, ACE, who worked as the supervising editor on the first six seasons of the show, including one as a co-producer. “‘Make Trump look good, make him look wealthy, legitimate.’ That was our objective. But that’s what we do as editors anyway, right?”

CineMontage spoke with editors who worked on the show in its original run featuring Trump. Others declined to comment, and one editor spoke on condition of anonymity, presumably because they are still under the terms of a non-disclosure agreement, and fear any reprisal and reported intense pressure from the show’s production company, Mark Burnett Productions. The company has released a statement denying it has threatened anyone with litigation for revealing information about the show.

“We worked as a team of four editors per each episode, and each episode had a lead editor and a story producer,” recalled Jim Ruxin, ACE, who worked on the first four seasons. “There were two specialist editors who cut only the boardrooms. It’s a great example of a strong team of editors working together.”

In creating the show’s first few episodes in the first season, the editors had little idea they were working on what would become an iconic show, a hit that would help define a style for a generation of reality TV to come, and one that would create a persona for the show’s star — with his catch phrase “You’re fired!” — who would use the show’s success to launch a campaign for president of the United States.

A sign advertising Trump's television show The Apprentice hangs at Trump Towers in New York City in 2004. Courtesy NBC
A sign advertising Trump’s television show The Apprentice hangs at Trump Towers in New York City in 2004. Courtesy NBC

“When cuts of the first and second episodes of season one went to Trump, everyone at Burnett Productions was eager to see how the show would turn out,” said Ruxin.

“We asked our producer what Trump thought of our episode,” Ruxin continued. “And the only note that came back said he wanted a close-up shot of himself in the boardroom extended. It was nothing that 30 frames didn’t fix. But he caught it, it was an appropriate note to give. Trump basked in the glow of the invisible art of editing; we made him look great at all costs.”

A grand editorial struggle on the show was to make the star’s decisions about which contestant was fired each episode look legitimate. The editors reported that when the boardroom was shot, the producers would offer their observations about who did well in the challenges and deserved to stay, and who was not pulling his or her weight and deserved to go. But invariably, Trump would ignore factual information and instead go with his gut.

“Trump would often make arbitrary decisions which had nothing to do with people’s merit,” confirmed another Season One editor who requested anonymity. “He’d make decisions based on whom he liked or disliked personally, whether it be for looks or lifestyle, or he’d keep someone that ‘would make good TV’ [according to Trump].”

Setting up story beats to justify the contestant that Trump ultimately fired required editorial gymnastics, according to the show’s editors. Manipulating footage to invent a story point that did not exist organically is common in reality TV editing, although with The Apprentice, it proved a tremendous feat.

“We’d often be shocked at whomever Trump chose to fire,” Braun explained. “Our first priority on every episode like that was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality. Sometimes it would be very hard to do, because the person he chose did nothing. We had to figure out how to edit the show to make it work, to show the people he chose to fire as looking bad — even if they had done a great job.”

Also, Trump was never good with facts and numbers, the editors said, and they needed to fix his mistakes.

“He would say things like, ‘We had a million applicants and we chose this small group to be contestants on the show,’” Braun recalled. “And I would turn to my producer and say, ‘A million applicants? Really?’ And the producer would shake his head no. Trump would just take numbers and throw them around. I mean, from Season One to Season Two, he said his net worth tripled.  One day he said he had a billion dollars and then later it would become three billion; he just made stuff up.”

Trump the grand maestro: A promotional photo for The Celebrity Apprentice Courtesy NBC.
Trump the grand maestro: A promotional photo for The Celebrity Apprentice. Courtesy NBC

Music also played a critical role to boost the star’s persona of success. “We would always use some variation of a ridiculous Caesar fanfare cue when Trump walked into whatever setting it was, lifting him up as the ultimate arbitrator of whatever he wanted to do,” offered Stephen Frederick, who edited on the first three seasons.

“He presented himself as American royalty,” Braun suggested. “We used the shot of him coming down the escalator at Trump Tower many times, and we would always use the same music cue — it was like this funk, pimp-walk. The music would support the way he came off, like the head pimp in charge. If Trump came down hard on criticizing someone, we would ramp up the tension in the music. We tried to make the music legitimize his characteristics.”

In Season One, the editors thought the show could be a comedy. “We approached the edit with humor; we tried to play Donald as over-the-top,” Braun recalled. “You would see the inside of his apartment at Trump Tower — it was so ostentatious, dripping in gold, the height of egotism. And he was so proud of it! We never took the guy too seriously. We thought the audience would find it funny and entertaining — and I think people did, but I think also people started to believe in the image they were seeing.”

Frederick agreed. “If we played Trump for a fool, which would have been extremely easy, the show would not have had the weight that it had, as a show about business, about contestants who wanted to get a job and succeed,” he added. “They thought of Donald as a successful person. The point of the show was to make him look legitimate and important.”

Braun agreed that Trump benefited from the power of editing. “It was all about his brand, whatever it took to build up his brand and make him look like a legitimate success,” the editor explained. “The lesson I take away from it is that you’ve got to be careful when you think you are being tongue-in-cheek or showing something as ridiculous, because people might take it seriously. Obviously, there is a huge group of Americans who think, ‘Look how successful Trump was on The Apprentice. They haven’t yet — and probably never will — realize this guy is a con man, and they are playing the mark.”’

As for media speculation about what potentially offensive sound or footage of Trump exists in outtakes or between scenes, the editors revealed that they witnessed such occurrences, whether or not these sound bites or clips had been preserved.

“Trump’s favorite word was ‘drill,’” recalled Braun. “He was always saying between takes, ‘I’d like to drill her,’ lewdly referring to female crew members working on set. He couldn’t help himself making comments about women and the way they looked. He also had comments about women he found less attractive. There was no question he took the men a lot more seriously than the women.”

Omarosa Manigault was a black female contestant who infamously made it to the final eight contestants in the first season of the show. Braun recalled one scene in which her teammates confronted her about lying, and the editors held on the shot for over a minute, which is uncommon in the fast pace of TV editing. “We held on her just lying right to camera, with her saying, ‘No, I never said this or that,’” he said. “It was astounding; you could see her just lying. And it was the best edit I saw in the show, because it was no edit.”

Braun had a theory on why Trump kept her around before firing her. “We had to cut out a scene where Omarosa got hit with some falling piece of plaster or material on one of Trump’s construction sites,” Braun revealed. “It was a little thing, but she made a big stink about it. And we had her talking about how she was going to sue Trump. But it sure seemed like she had made some deal with him behind the scenes, because all of a sudden, after this incident, Donald loved her. They became thick as thieves after that. And she’s working with him to this day as his campaign surrogate — and she still makes stuff up!”

Often, Trump would be needed to record a wild line of dialogue to be inserted into the cut to fix a story point. Braun remembered that the star would be coordinating the recording session via telephone with a woman producer hired by the show in New York.

Listening on the line to the recording session at Trump Tower, Braun recalls, “Donald was always telling this woman producer to ‘Go get me a Diet Coke.’ And she would reply, ‘But Donald, I need to be here to help record this dialogue.’ And Trump would reply, ‘No you don’t; go get me a Diet Coke.’ This isn’t that big of a deal, but it struck me as insensitive.”

Pamela Malouf, ACE, who was one of the editors on three seasons of The Apprentice, has a more balanced view of her experience on the show. “I edited the competing teams, which encompassed their trials and tribulations as they completed the task in an effort for their team to ‘win,’” she said. “Another editor would cut the scene where Trump gives the teams their assignments, another would cut the boardrooms, the rewards, etc.

“Anything I ‘heard’ about Trump was hearsay and although I did edit an occasional scene with Trump, nothing I saw was abnormal or offensive or even worthy of note,” she added. “I never saw Trump be anything other than a consummate professional in the material I worked on. I objectively edited him to look good as I could — as I would do with any other host or celebrity on a show I was editing.”

Trump campaigning for president, June 2016.
Trump campaigning for president, June 2016.

Braun also mentioned a scene of Trump in his limousine. “He was on the phone threatening somebody with a lawsuit, and getting really heated, saying he’s going to sue somebody, ‘run you into the ground…you can’t do this to Donald Trump,’ and he was going to ‘take his every last penny,’” the editor recalled. “Then he hung up the phone, turned directly to the camera and said, ‘Do you think he bought that?’ I thought it was a great moment; if you are a tough businessman you should be able to do things like that. But they told me not to use it.”

Ruxin recalled a revealing scene in Season Three, when Trump was going through problems building his Chicago Trump Tower. “There were problems with the caissons, the deep-seated footings for a tall tower that had to be drilled into the bedrock,” he said. “The sub-contractor hired to build them was working on a multi-million dollar contract, and there was a problem — they needed more money than initially thought; there was a budget overage.

“So there was a scene, a roundtable discussion with his top people, including the construction supervisor representing Trump properties. The caisson contractor is on the speakerphone in the center of the table,” Ruxin continued. “Trump is running the conversation and asks why they need more money? The contractor says there is money for the work in the overall budget. Trump is shocked that he knows this and asks, ‘Who told you about the budget?” The contractor says that Trump’s staff sent over a copy of the budget. And Trump looks around at his people and says, ‘You sent the budget to this guy?’”

Ruxin recalled that the scene revealed what Trump could pay, and that he wanted to pay less. “So Trump quickly backs out of the conversation,” he added. “We are still filming, with two cameras. It was decided in post that this made Trump look bad, and it was cut. If it didn’t make him look better, there was no place for it in the show.”

About A.J. Catoline 33 Articles
A.J. Catoline is a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and USC's Master of Professional Writing Program, and a Board Member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE, Chair of the MPEG Publications Committee. He is a picture editor working in Los Angeles, recently on "Ted Lasso" for Apple TV+. He can be reached at [email protected]