Murder House Flip. To hear the name of Quibi’s best-titled show is to fall into a trance from which there is no awakening. It is to contemplate the boundaries of existence, to say nothing of the possibilities of short-form video content. It is a title that is self-explanatory and yet gives rise to a million questions, so perfect a reduction of the impulses behind several subgenres of reality TV that it sounds like a parody, one all the more beautiful because it happens to be true. Murder House Flip. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.
In the following interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Slate talked to Murder House Flip showrunner Star Price, a veteran of shows like The Amazing Race and Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, about the delicate balance of mixing home improvement and true crime, whether this is the best or the worst time to launch a new streaming service, and just what is a Quibi, anyway?
Sam Adams: Let me start by asking you first, who came up with the title for Murder House Flip and how big a drink did they pour themselves when that happened?
Star Price: Josh Berman, one of our executive producers—who worked on CSI, Bones, a lot of other shows—came up with the idea with Sony Television. I was brought in because I’ve done a lot of documentary, serious documentary, including true crime, and I’ve done reality, including home makeover shows. Because this is kind of the merging of the two, that’s how it all came together.
What did you like about the idea?
Well, in my business, how many times do you get a chance to do something that’s never been done before?
Quibi episodes are designed to be watched both horizontally and vertically. The app lets you switch back and forth just by rotating your phone. Was it hard to shoot for that environment?
You’re thinking of that the whole time. You also have to try to design moments that will pop in horizontal and also unique moments that will pop in vertical, because you want people to be able to be able to enjoy it either way, exclusively. Even though we were making these short-form Quibis, we were actually making what felt like longer pieces because we were shooting for both versions.
So, if you’re interviewing a couple next to each other on the couch, which happens a lot in home-improvement shows, you have to sit them father apart so each can have their own vertical shot.
Exactly. You have to frame in a very specific way, because you don’t want to shoot things twice, especially when you’re doing a documentary or reality-based show. You live and die by the actual moments that are happening in front of your camera. You have to frame it in a way that you know if something great happens, you’ve got it covered both for the horizontal version and the vertical version. We had three cameras working on every scene simultaneously, some framed for horizontal, some framed for vertical, some both. It was a real dance.
Quibi was designed and pitched to its audience as something to fill the spaces in the day: You’ve got a few minutes waiting for your subway or in line at the store, watch a Quibi. But it’s launching in a world where daily commutes have ceased to exist for many people, and if you’re waiting in line, you need your full attention to make sure no one’s standing too close. How do you feel about launching a new service in the middle of a pandemic?
Well, certainly nobody wanted to be going through what we’re all going through now. I would say that I think that the Quibi platform complements a lot of other streaming services. I’ve got three teenagers at home, and they don’t want to be around Mom and Dad much. They’re off in different corners of the house on their phones all day. They’re doing social media all day. That’s how they’re connecting with their friends. They’re not sitting in front of a 50-inch television to binge-watch a one-hour drama. I do think that there’s a lot of opportunity now for people in such a disjointed time, where every day is so unpredictable and confusing and unsettling, to clear your head for six to 10 minutes at a time in a different part of the house.
The flip side is that while some of us may have more unstructured time, it’s become extremely difficult to concentrate on anything.
I was just saying that to a friend of mine yesterday. It’s so true. I was going to finally binge-watch The Wire. I got about three episodes in, and I just couldn’t do it. It was a great show—I just didn’t have the focus. Who knows. It’s an interesting time and anything’s possible. I do think we have some compelling programming, and maybe that will help people pass the day.
The couple you start Murder House Flip with are an interesting case, in that not only are they not unnerved to live in a house once owned by a notorious serial killer, they’re kind of into it. They’ve practically got memorabilia up on the walls. It doesn’t freak them out at all.
Which is what made them so strangely compelling and interesting. They’re just wonderful people too. I would say that even though they bought the house out of a morbid curiosity, as the years have gone by, they are exhausted by the tension and by the negative energy that that yard [where the killer’s victims were buried] has for them. They never did anything to that yard. It looked exactly like it did when the murders happened. They have grandkids, and they’re retired, and they want to have the grandkids over to play.
In our other episodes, you’ve got the other extreme. We have a couple or a family in Canoga Park [in Los Angeles] that has truly been deeply emotionally affected by the fact that they’d been living in this house for 15 years and this young woman is sleeping in the same bedroom where a young girl was murdered. At the end, when we revealed the changes that we did, they burst into tears. It was incredibly emotional. I think one of the strengths of the show is that we can cover something like the [Dorothea] Puente story, which has some fun elements to it, as dark as it is, because of Tom and Barbara. But we also have episodes coming that are incredibly emotional and quite a journey for the people involved.
Every episode is very positive. Every story is very positive. We were very respectful of the tragedy that occurred. We don’t make light of it, ever. Our focus was on helping these people who are in these homes. An interesting thing is that they all would say just on their own that it didn’t feel like their house, that the tragedy owned the house. The focus of the whole show was to give them their home back.
There’s a couple in the trailer who are like, “Buying a murder house was the only way we could live near the water.”
That was an interesting one. They were a couple that went in with their eyes open. They knew what had happened in this house, but they’re a young couple, just got married, want to start a family, and here’s this house that’s an incredible deal, close to the beach. They thought, “Well, this isn’t going to bother us.” Then sure enough they move in, pour their life savings into it, and they’re freaking out.
Do you have a favorite couple? How many couples are we dealing with in the first season?
We did four houses. Each house has the three-Quibi format that you saw with the first one. They’re all so different. I think the young couple that you saw in Oceanside[,California,] where they bought a house and the man dismembered his wife in the bathtub was probably the most—we all felt something in that house. Even when we scouted it. It was just a strange feeling, maybe in our imaginations, but that’s one that we all really worked hard on, and they were a great couple. We wanted to help them and give them something to start their family with. That was very rewarding, that one.
The title Murder House Flip definitely gets people’s attention, even if it’s not in a good way. Stephen Colbert spent a segment making fun of it in January, and the Verge singled it out as one of Quibi’s “most ludicrous shows,” based solely on the premise. Is that a case where all press is good press?
It’s the craziest title ever. When I first heard it, I said, “I want to be a part of this, because that’s never been done before.” I also thought, “Why didn’t I think of this?”
Correction, April 7, 2020: A headline on this post originally misstated that Star Price was also the creator of the show.