Quiet on the Set

Mary Roberts, co-director of Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV , knew the docuseries was tapping into something important as she recorded All That cast member Bryan Hearne telling a story about peanut butter and dogs.

The crew fell silent as he recounted taking part in Nickelodeon’s early 2000s, Fear Factor-like reality show On-Air Dares. In the series, which aired during Nick’s Saturday Night SNICK block, child actors were challenged to perform uncomfortable and often disgusting tasks, like sitting in a bathtub full of worms. But Hearne found his experience especially upsetting.

“I remember a day on set when we listened to Bryan Hearne’s interview, and he told us about the On Air Dares. He described how, as a kid, he was asked to cover his body in peanut butter, and then dogs would lick this peanut butter off his body, and how uncomfortable it made him at the time — but he didn’t feel as though he had agency or opportunity to challenge that directive,” Robertson, who directed Quiet on the Set with Emma Schwartz, told MovieMaker.

“Watching his body language, watching his facial expressions, hearing the emotion in his voice as he talked about it, was, I think, affecting to a lot of us who are listening,” she added. “What Bryan was talking about wasn’t a felony, but it deeply affected him.

“I thought in that moment, if this story alone is affecting as many people in this room to this extent, then all of these stories put together stands the potential to shift standards and perceptions.”

The docuseries details accusations from former Nickelodeon child stars against Dan Schneider, creator several popular children’s series from the 1990s and early 2000s like The Amanda Show, iCarly, and Drake & Josh. It has drawn a powerful reaction from fans who grew up with Nickelodeon, and inspired hard questions about the vulnerabilities of child actors.

Quiet on Set also notably provides a platform to Drake & Josh star Drake Bell, who came forward with allegations that he was sexually abused by Nickelodeon acting coach Brian Peck during the making of The Amanda Show. Peck was arrested in 2003 at the age of 43 for lewd acts with a child. Bell testified at Peck’s trial, but has only just recently publicly identified himself as the minor whose family accused Peck of molesting him over a six-month period in the early 2000s.

Regarding the accusations against Schneider, two former The Amanda Show writers, Christy Stratton and Jenny Kilgen, accused him of making them split one salary while male writers were paid individually — something Schneider said was “common practice” in a video talk with iCarly actor BooG!e responding to Quiet on Set.

Kilgen, Stratton, and other women who worked on Schneider’s sets in the 1990s and early 2000s also say that Schneider often asked female employees to give him shoulder massages. Schneider apologized for the massages in the talk with BooG!e.

The writers, along with other former Nickelodeon child actors including Giovanni Samuels, Leon Frierson and Shane Lyons, also accuse Schneider of creating a culture of fear on set that made them feel that they could not refuse requests even if they were uncomfortable. They — and a chorus of internet critics — also question whether some of the jokes made at the expense of teenage girls on Schneider’s shows were sexual in nature.

Case in point: a viral video compilation of a young Ariana Grande on Victorious, in which she squeezes a potato and pours water on her chest. It was one of several viral videos that sparked Robertson and Schwartz to begin their investigation.

Schneider has denied that his jokes were sexually charged and argued that anything that aired on Nickelodeon went through “many layers of scrutiny” from higher executives. After hearing that child actors were uncomfortable with some of their scenes in various shows, however, he said he regrets that they were put in those situations.

“Facing my past behaviors, some of which are embarrassing and that I regret,” he told BooG!e. “I definitely owe some people a pretty strong apology.”

Since Quiet on Set aired, multiple other child actors and Nickelodeon alums have come forward with their stories and reactions, including Drake and Josh co-star Josh Peck and Ned’s Declassified School Survivor’s Guide stars Devon Werkheiser, Lindsey Shaw and Daniel Curtis Lee.

Directors Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz on Making Quiet on Set

Schwartz said she realized how impactful Quiet on Set could be during a Nightline segment that aired before it was released.

“I think the first moment, at least for me, that I got an inkling that this could be something more than just — you know, something bigger — was after some of the initial, first press was coming out about the project just a few days before premiere,” she says.

“There had been, I think, something on GMA, and Nightline had done an interview with a couple of the participants, and there was an additional section that they had done with just kind of talking heads. And they started talking about, ‘Well, is this like a #MeToo movement for a child stardom and children’s entertainment?’ And it was just sort of striking to me, because it hadn’t even reached wide audiences at that point.”

She added: “But already, people who had watched it, who were not part of our project, who were not part of the team, were speaking about things much bigger than just the stories themselves. Which I think ultimately, that’s what you hope. You tell a specific story often because it has bigger resonance. And I think that was a moment where I realized, okay, people are are seeing the bigger picture here. And it sort of snowballed from there.”

Quiet on Set Amanda Bynes
Quiet on Set Key Art, ID

The Ariana Grande viral video compliation and others that began circulating about five years ago first gave Schwartz and Roberston the idea of making a documentary. Schneider-created children’s shows like Victorious and Zoey 101 have also been accused by online critics of sexualizing female stars including Jamie Lynn Spears when they were minors.

“We had noticed some videos online that perhaps you’ve seen yourself — compilations of clips that were filmed on sets that Dan Schneider presided over. And these clips featured teenagers, young teenagers, and they were arguably sexual in nature. One example is Ariana Grande, leaning off the side of the bed pouring water on her chest and her neck, and another one in which Ariana Grande squeezes a potato and another in which Jamie Lynn Spears receives this squirt of a viscous liquid on her face,” Robertson said.

Also Read: Quiet on Set Filmmakers Tell Us Whether They’ll Interview Amanda Bynes

“Of course, Jamie Lynn Spears and Ariana Grande are now adult women. But at the time, they were young teenagers,” she said.

Robertson realized that droves of people who grew up watching Nickelodeon in the 2000s (including this reporter) had began to ask themselves: “Was I watching a lot of sexually charged material when I was a kid, and I didn’t realize it at the time?” she said. “If this type of content was making its way out into the world, what else might be happening behind the scenes that now feels inappropriate — or worse?”

Schwartz and Robertson believed that these were incredibly meaningful questions worth looking into. They partnered with senior Business Insider correspondent Kate Taylor, who is featured throughout the series, and then brought the project to the Investigation Discovery network. From there, they started making phone calls.

“We kind of did what one might expect, which is put together a very large spreadsheet of hundreds of names of people who’ve worked on Dan’s shows across the decades and began reaching out. And pretty quickly, we began to hear back from people,” Schwartz says.

Former Amanda Show writers like Stratton and Kilgen were among the first people they spoke to — although it was a slow and careful process of convincing people to get on camera.

“There’s talking to people and then there’s actually having them sit down for the interview. Because even when people say that they’re interested, I never believe it will happen until the interview is over, because it’s hard and because even if people want to, sometimes they get scared, all the way up until the moment. Some of the writers are some of the earliest people that we connected with, but slowly began to talk to other child actors and their parents as well,” Schwartz says.

Robertson said one of her most vivid memories is a conversation with All That child actor Leon Frierson that took place early on, before they even started on-camera interview.

“I do remember vividly an early lunch with Leon, and Leon, of course, is featured in the first episode and tells the story of, as a kid, being asked to perform as Nose Boy and wearing this suit at the time that was affixed with these appendages. He was just told that they were noses, but as an adult, he’s come to think that they look like penises,” Robertson says.

“He brought these photographs to the lunch. We’d seen these clips online of Ariana Grande squeezing the potato, but I had never seen Leon’s still photograph of himself in this suit, and these appendages that arguably look like penises, and you can see his face and that photo and he it, I would say that he looks a bit stricken and vulnerable, because he’s a kid. And we now know that he was in a situation that made him feel really uncomfortable.”

All five episodes of Quiet on Set are now streaming on Max.

Main image: iCarly‘s Jennette McCurdy, Dan Schneider, Jerry Trainor, Miranda Cosgrove, and Nathan Kress pictured in a photo shown in Quiet on Set.