Dispatchers: Joe and Harry Gantz

Photo: HBO

Since 1995, brothers Joe and Harry Gantz have produced eleven installments of their ongoing HBO documentary series, Taxicab Confessions. The show is exactly what it sounds like: backseat confessions, captured by hidden cameras. The series originated in New York and returns here this year, after six episodes filmed in Las Vegas, for a tenth-anniversary episode that airs this Saturday.

Nothing against Vegas, but New York seems like the ideal city for this show.
There’s no other place where you have such a culture of cabs, where everybody takes a cab.
Harry: Or drives a cab.

So why did the show leave New York?
It has to do with Giuliani. He appointed a taxi commissioner, and that commissioner vetoed us.
Harry: Though it worked out well in Vegas. It’s also a cab town. But it offers more limited stories, because it’s a place that people go to do things they wouldn’t do at home.

How do you collect the stories you need?
We go out from sundown to sunup, six nights a week for six weeks, to make one show. The cab leads, and Harry or myself is in a “follow vehicle.” We can see and hear everything, so we talk in the cabdriver’s ear and steer the questions. But the cabdrivers are real drivers. We interview about 150 of them, to find the ones who are really good at making people relax and feel comfortable.

Unlike most reality shows, in this show, people don’t know they’re on camera until the end of the ride. Is there a particular place in New York that’s good for picking people up?
We go everywhere. If another cab passes up a passenger because they feel that person looks intimidating, we rush to pick that person up.

Do most people agree to sign the release?
About two-thirds sign.
Harry: To produce one show, we probably see about 600 rides. And there’s about 25 that are good. And of those, we end up using eight or nine.

And how do people react when they see it on TV?
We keep in contact with everybody. We call them to say, “What did you think about it? What’s the response been?” People who tell really heartfelt stories get a lot of response on the street. People call them up, offer them jobs. That’s quite a satisfying thing if you’ve lived your life in obscurity.
Joe: On the other hand, there was the guy who talked about secretly videotaping himself having sex with his girlfriend and showing it to his friend. Those guys got so much negative feedback.
Harry: The irony was they were telling this story about secretly videotaping someone, and they were on a hidden-camera show.

Were there any great stories that got away?
There’s a lot that get away. They bother you terribly for a week or two. There was a ride that was just amazing, with a guy who talked about his wife suffering from severe depression. But the guy felt his wife would be horrified if it was told. Truth is, when you tell someone that they’re on, they know right away if they want to be a part of it or they don’t.

Now that the show’s been on for ten years, do passengers ever clue in during the ride?
We do lose a certain percentage. People think, Wait, I’m in a cab, there’s an English-speaking cabdriver, and we’re speaking very personally. This must be Taxicab Confessions.
Harry: In the old days, people weren’t so worried that their grandmother in the Midwest might see this. On the other side, we get people who sign because they know the show, and they know we’re not going to manipulate their story.
Joe: I can’t tell you how many times, at the end of the ride, they say, “Yeah, one day I want to write a book.” But most people aren’t able to craft a book. If someone writes a story that’s very personal, people say, “Wow, that’s a great work of art.” But if they reveal it in the back of a cab, people say, “Wow, why did they sign that release?”

Taxicab Confessions.
February 5, 10:15 P.M.

Dispatchers: Joe and Harry Gantz