House Hunters International: How We Got On

(Blogger‘s Note: For four days during late March and early April, Dana and I filmed with House Hunters International, for an episode that’s coming up on HGTV in a few weeks. Until then, I’m writing an occasional blog post about the experience. This is the first in the series.)

***

It was December 21 last year. After building a house in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador for nine months (with 100% of the communications via internet) Dana and I got on a plane, beside ourselves with excitement to fly way South, and spend just more than three months in our new far-away, get-away. Truth is, we really didn’t even know if we’d come back.

In my 47 years it’s among the most exciting adventures I’ve taken.

Three days after our Memphis departure, we arrived, just as the workers were putting the finishing touches on our Casa Azul. That’s actually what everyone calls our house, and it’s even our “official” address, as much as addresses exist in Puerto Cayo.

After nine long months, it seemed, in the blink of an eye, we were home owners in Latin America. Crazy stuff for a couple of country kids from Arkansas.

Dana, during a filming break at the Agua Blanca mud bath. This is a scene you'll see on House Hunters.

Dana, during a filming break at the Agua Blanca mud bath. This is a scene you’ll see on House Hunters.

During the next few weeks, we learned about things like cisterns, suicide showers, scorpions, freshly caught langostinos , driving where driving rules don’t exist, and we “unlearned” everything we thought we ever knew, embracing life in a new culture. I hate the cliche’, but it’s true. Our lives have never been, and will never again, be the same.

Puerto Cayo (key port), is a small and beautiful, but remote village on Ecuador’s central Pacific coast. The town has about 4,000 people with maybe 100 “foreign” expats.

Its remote proximity and small size add to the irony that two couples who ultimately became our friends, had previously done their own shows with House Hunters International. When the filming company that produces the show contacted them about anyone else they knew who might be interested, they recommended us, and the lines of communication quickly opened.

A few days later, we found ourselves Skyping several times zones away with a casting director in London, where it really all begins.

The phone call was surreal. There had been days when things (about life in general) weren’t so hopeful. Just a few years earlier we’d invested all we had in our own business – dynamic publishing company – that was born just about the time the economy crashed. I closed its doors in less than a year, and spent a long time wondering what was next. It was during this uncertain time that we became HHI fans and spent many nights dreaming the craziest of dreams despite the circumstances.  It was crazy, irrational and unrealistic that we would dream such dreams. But I’m oh, so glad we did. I’m glad we never gave up on dreaming.

House Hunters International is one of those shows that appeals to both men

Me, getting a much needed and first haircut in Latin America. My barber, Antonio, shows the approval of his handiwork.

Me, getting a much needed and first haircut in Latin America. My barber, Antonio, shows the approval of his handiwork.

and women – especially couples who love adventure and don’t mind stepping out of their comfort zones. And there are many things about buying a house in a far-away country that will NOT feel comfortable.

For 45 minutes on the Skype call we shared our story about all the things that had drawn us to Ecuador … childhood dreams, a crazy sense of shared adventure, and a touch of rebellion, all carefully mixed together with a pinch of mid-life crisis … and I knew the conversation was going well. At the call’s conclusion, casting director Michelle James said she’d like to move the process to the next step, and asked us to produce our own three-minute casting video about us and our lives in Puerto Cayo.

I told her it would be ready in seven days.

I couldn’t believe we were really, seriously talking to the people who could actually make it happen, and that they wanted to continue a conversation with us.

Fortunately, Dana had enough foresight early on to bring a tripod on our trip. Over the next three to four days we filmed in our house, on the beach, shopping in town and any number of places that would help convey life in Puerto Cayo. I was the creative director and logistics guy. Dana was executive producer. Three minutes quickly became seven, and we let the length stand, uploaded it to Vimeo and waited. We thought it would be three to four weeks before we heard a peep from them, if we heard back at all.

Four days later, Michelle responded, said the producers loved it, and invited us to work with them.  I’ll never forget telling Dana we were going to be on the show.

In life’s grand scheme it’s pretty insignificant, but it felt wonderfully redemptive.

And filming the show was … so … much … fun.

(Future stories in the series: A feature story on our director, Linda Benya, who talks about why she loves HHI; another profile on our videographer, Doron Schlair, who’s filmed just about every star you can imagine; a behind-the-scenes look at some things that happened during our filming that you’ll likely never see on TV; HHI: is it real or is it fake, you tell me; and what it’s really like to live in Ecuador.)

-30-

House Hunters International: Our “Tryout” Story

In one form or another, I’ve worked in mass communications my entire life – and 99 percent of that as a print journalist.

Never, I repeat, never, did I have the ambition to work for a single, solitary moment in broadcast journalism, especially television.

At best, I’ve always had a face much better suited to radio.

So there’s a quirky irony that for the next three days Dana and I will work withhouse hunters international a film crew from New York to produce an  upcoming 30-minute episode of House Hunters International set to air on HGTV this fall.

Here’s the short story of how it happened.

On December 21, 2012, we left Jonesboro, AR bound for Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, in search of an adventure we’d remember a lifetime. We were looking to put down some roots here on a part-time basis that would allow us to pursue a different kind of lifestyle several months out of the year. One where, above all things, we could immerse ourselves in a different culture, broaden our horizons a bit, and live out a life on mission in a place where circumstances don’t exactly hand you a dozen roses each and every day.

We’ve been here almost 100 days now.

Steve and Dana WatkinsBut a month or so into our stay, I received an email from a friend whose family was featured on House Hunters International about six months ago. HGTV was looking for new families interested in filming, and was soliciting the help of their alumni.

So she forwarded the information to me, including a casting contact based London and said we should drop her a line if we were interested.

For years, Dana and I had spent time watching the show, living vicariously through the featured couples who pursued crazy dreams in far away places. We didn’t even think twice about giving it a go.

So early that evening I fired off an email to an HHI casting director, told her our situation, background and a few other details, pretty sure I’d never hear another word. Early the next morning my inbox contained a reply that said, “Let’s talk.”

Honestly, that was pretty exciting.

A few days later, we orchestrated a Skype session from our home base in Puerto Cayo to Michelle James in London. We discussed our goals, our interests, our cultural philosophies, etc. Mostly, I’m pretty sure she just wanted to get a good look at us. By the end of the conversation, Michelle said she’d like to move forward with our story, but we’d need to produce our own four-minute “casting video” to give the producers better insight into our personalities.

We told her we’d have it ready in a week.

Did I mention I am a print journalist?

The next day, Dana and I sat down and drafted a rough film script outlining where we’d film ourselves and doing what exactly…

We filmed ourselves from the top of Puerto Cayo’s overlook, where we’d first seen this picturesque fishing village and its beautiful coast. Took shots on the beach riding our moto-scooter. Shopping and relaxing in Puerto Lopez, and several other special locations. Going into the self-made casting video, the producers told us they really wanted us to express our personalities and give them a glimpse of what we are really like.

We’re not shy. So we let it all hang out and went for broke.

Dana downloaded it all to Vimeo and the producers said we’d hear back in a few weeks. I put it all out of mind, and life went on.

Just a few days later I had an inbox email from London.

I’m quite sure they say this to everyone they bring on, but nevertheless, Michelle said the producers loved our story, and they invited us to come on the show.

Dana was cooking breakfast when I looked up from my computer to tell her.

“House Hunters wants us on the show,” I said.

“What?!” … was her reply … and I think the eggs and toast burned at this point.

Dozens of Skype sessions and a plethora of emails later, we have our casting call today and filming begins at sun up tomorrow. Ten to 12 hours a day for the next three days, and a full day of filming back home in Arkansas on April 4.

The show should air in late July or early August.

Fun times.

-30-