Making an Emmy-worthy Show

By Jen Naylor Gesick

Q&A with Michael Matsumoto

Pictured: Photo by Grace-Marie Brunken

As you venture west of Waco on Highway 6, the city views turn to lake and treetops, and then a few miles off of a farm road, you come upon the community of Crawford.

The best burgers in town are found at a corner store, according to Michael Matsumoto, executive producer for High Noon Entertainment, the production company for HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.” And he should know. The Los Angeles native and his wife, Jessie, have made Crawford their home for the last few years. And as the show has grown, so has their family of four children under the age of 4 — the youngest a set of twins.

Their home, a “Fixer Upper” project itself, was featured in the season four finale episode titled “Colossal Crawford Renovation.” As you head into the Matsumotos’ neighborhood, you start to see signs of rural living. You pass a feed store, chickens mull about and peck the ground in the yards of older homes, a neighborhood church sits on the corner. The Matsumotos’ house is gorgeous and bright with a big porch and touches of Joanna Gaines’ signature style.

We were greeted by a sweet, elderly Chihuahua while some friendly dogs in the backyard hailed our arrival. Walking up the steps, I said to our photographer, “Joanna totally did this house for them.”

Turns out, I was correct.

It’s funny because I watch the show regularly but somehow had missed the fact that last season’s finale was Matsumoto’s house — until I was inside. Then I remembered the episode clear as day. We were there to talk to Matsumoto about the day in July when his crew and the cast of “Fixer Upper” found out they were nominated for their first-ever Emmy Award. We also had the chance to chat about life, his career working on shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” and why they love this little town in Texas.

When we sat down to talk with them, the Matsumotos had just booked their plane tickets to attend the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on September 9, which will air Saturday, September 16 at 7 p.m. on FXX.

“Fixer Upper” is nominated for Outstanding Structured Reality Program and is up against “Shark Tank,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Lip Sync Battle,” and “Who Do You Think You Are?”

WACOAN: Tell me a little bit about what you do, what your job is.

Michael: So I’m the executive producer of ‘Fixer Upper.’ I’m what they call the showrunner. Basically I make sure this thing keeps moving along.

I work for High Noon, and they are the company that produces the show. They actually edit everything up in Denver, which is where their offices are. We handle all the shooting and the creative stuff from that side. We essentially build the show from the ground up.

WACOAN: So you did ‘Survivor’ before this, and then you got this job?

Michael: [To Jessie] Before this, was it ‘The Voice?’

Jessie: No, it was ‘Flipping Vegas.’

Michael: So I did another house-flipping show for A&E called ‘Flipping Vegas.’ That’s no longer around.

Jessie: And then in between seasons for that you did ‘The Voice.’

Michael: ‘The Voice.’ And ‘Survivor.’ ‘Big Brother.’

WACOAN: So how did all that prepare you for working on ‘Fixer Upper’?

Michael: It’s so funny because ‘Survivor’ was the job that I had right out of school, and I loved it. I mean I filled up two and a half passports just traveling all over the place. You know, you spend, I think, two months on location roughly in remote places.

This is the longest show I’ve ever been on, and it has basically become a year-round job. So this is the longest location we’ve ever been at.

WACOAN: What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for an Emmy? Were you waiting to see if you were nominated? Did you see it coming?

Michael: No, I mean, I’m an Academy member and have been for years, and obviously as a member and someone from Los Angeles that watches the Emmys and the Academy Awards every year, I think as they’re announcing you always look just by chance to see if it happened.

So I didn’t think we’d be nominated, and all of a sudden I hear, ‘Check your phone.’ And my jaw hit the ground. We were in the middle of filming. We waited until we finished shooting our scene. This is in a house out in Moody, and the whole crew, everyone was ecstatic. It’s nice to have that nod towards all your hard work.

WACOAN: Did you guys celebrate a lot after that?

Michael: Yeah, we did. It was a little bit unreal. It’s not surprising, but it is surprising at the same time.

You’d never think a home renovation show would get nominated for an Emmy, but here we are. And I think that goes to the quality of the character of Chip and Joanna Gaines, for the most part.

And a million people ask me — they’re exactly like what you see.

I think working on a show like that — I guess I’m really happy it’s nominated for an Emmy because I think it’s rewarding something that’s authentic, that is about good people as opposed to some other shows that, you know, thrive on drama or backstabbing or whatever. And I’ve worked on my fair share of those shows.

WACOAN: In addition to Chip and Joanna, what else makes ‘Fixer Upper’ exceptional that it would get nominated?

Michael: I think High Noon has done a really good job of putting this show together. I think it can be challenging at times — we shoot so much content — just to put the best stuff in every episode.

It definitely takes an army to make a show possible, and it’s truthfully one of the few shows I’ve ever worked on where everyone was actually really passionate. Everyone cares about it. Everyone wants this to be as good as it can be. And I think it’s because we’re a small crew. ‘Survivor’ has a crew of 400. You’re really just a mold kind of pushing a show to the end goal. Here, we are all affecting the show creatively.

WACOAN: How has it changed since you started, since the show has gotten more fans and the store opened?

Michael: Well I think that’s one of my favorite parts about Chip and Jo too over the course of these five seasons is that it’s really — a lot of the show is kind of like following a couple’s pursuit of the American dream.

Here they are. They started with almost nothing and, if you read the book, bankruptcy and trying to make ends meet. And just to watch them grow over time. That kind of growth can change people, but it hasn’t changed them. They’re still the same people that they were when they had the tiny store on Bosque [Boulevard].

WACOAN: How has it changed for you since it’s become so popular?

Michael: We have a lot more set visitors! [Laughs.]

You know, it hasn’t — I mean going back to what I was just saying is that even though Chip and Jo have grown and their business has grown and they’ve got the silos now, it hasn’t really affected the core of what the show is about. Popularity and fame and all that stuff hasn’t really affected the show.

It affects the pressure in making the show and making sure it’s great. But that’s pretty easy to do. You point the camera at Chip and Jo, and they tend to just turn it on.

WACOAN: What do you think your chances are for the Emmy?

Michael: I feel like ‘Shark Tank’ is our biggest competitor. They’re the ones that always win it somehow. But truthfully, just to be nominated is pretty special.

WACOAN: So what do you get to do for the awards?

Michael: We booked our airfare yesterday actually. It’s a quick weekend.

WACOAN: When is it?

Michael: So it’s the Creative Arts Emmys — they’re the week before the regular Emmys — which is September 9.

WACOAN: Oh, that’s soon!

Michael: So voting is just about to open at the Television Academy, and the next month will determine whether we get an Emmy or not.

WACOAN: What is your daily life like when the show is shooting?

Michael: The challenging part of doing this is that we have more than one project going on at a time. So it can be a matter of being at the right location at the right time. What’s going on in all these houses? What’s the most interesting story to tell? That can be the most challenging, keeping track of all the construction.

WACOAN: How many projects are normally going on?

Michael: It all depends on what point in the season we’re on. Obviously, Chip and Jo are [renovating] The Elite [Café]. That’ll be an episode. But that is going to take the better part of a year to do.

WACOAN: And you said now it’s basically a year-round job. When it started, was it more condensed?

Michael: We get like a month or two off every year, and that’s it.

WACOAN: What part does your job play in making the show? When we see the final show, what are your touches?

Michael: So obviously Chip and Jo are running the construction with their company, Magnolia Homes, and we kind of work directly with them to figure out how these houses are getting built. What are the design choices that are being made? And we make sure we point the cameras at the right thing at the right time to tell the story of these houses.

Obviously, construction on a house can take two to six months, and we want to make sure that we see the best of it. You can only imagine how much hits the cutting room floor, but it’s my job to make sure that we’re delivering the best content that we can.

WACOAN: Does your family live here now, full-time?

Michael: Full-time. We moved here in February of 2015, and I don’t know if you remember that time [to Jessie]. I do, vividly. It was snowing and icy for like a month.

WACOAN: In Waco?

Michael: Yeah, I have videos from when we first got here. We were renting a house in Robinson, and the kids were in the backyard catching snowflakes.

WACOAN: That happens like once every two decades!

Michael: That’s what I’ve been told. It was like 26 degrees for weeks on end, and it was freezing. We shot two reveals during that freak storm, and it was like we could see the people breathing in the house.

WACOAN: When did you start with ‘Fixer Upper?’

Michael: How old was Rowen when we moved? Two and a half, right?

Jessie: No, he wasn’t even 2 yet.

Michael: This is the longest at one place that my children have ever been. Even over in Los Angeles, which is where we’re from.

WACOAN: Did you come on right after the pilot?

Michael: Actually there were different producers that started off with the pilot. I came on at the very end of season two. I’ve been here since then.

Jessie: Ro was almost 2. We moved here in February.

Michael: This is by all means home now. We have school and friends, and I don’t know that we’ll ever leave now.

WACOAN: Why did you choose Crawford?

Michael: I mean, truthfully, coming from Los Angeles, I wanted some place that wasn’t in the city, and Crawford had a cute little downtown that I had been through a couple times.

It’s not much there. It did have a coffee shop though, which is pretty exciting. But it’s a cute little town that provides us just enough land. It’s close enough to the city but not in the city.

WACOAN: What’s something about the town that maybe people wouldn’t know?

Michael: You know, it’s so funny because, and I’m sure you saw driving in, there’s a lot of abandoned houses around and stuff, but we’ve really seen stuff starting to turn around here.

There’s a person building a house across the street here now. They just moved another house down there. I heard there’s a developer that wants to knock down a couple other houses and build some houses, and I feel like a lot of that was in part because we decided to take a chance and build in this neighborhood.

The neighbors have all been really great. They’re really friendly. In Los Angeles, you don’t go next door and say, ‘Hey, can I borrow some sugar?’ This is one of those neighborhoods that is like that. I assume most of the South is probably like that, but it doesn’t exist where we’re from. This has been a really hospitable, nice town.

WACOAN: I know former President George W. Bush has his ranch out here. Do you ever run into him?

Michael: So there is the story of a century in this, actually. So, the Bushes reached out to us. They’re fans of the show and wanted to see our house. We set up a date, and they were coming on a Saturday.

My wife was pregnant with the twins, so Friday — the day before — I had to fly to Denver literally for a couple of hours, just for the day. Of course, the second I landed in Denver, I get a call from my wife, ‘I’m going to the doctor, just FYI. I’m feeling something. Something’s going on.’ But it was still very early in the pregnancy.

Jessie: Thirty weeks.

Michael: Thirty weeks. So still a little early. I was like ‘Well, I’ll be home soon.’ I get a call, the next call: It’s emergency C-section time. I was like ‘OK.’ They shoved me to the airport and got me on the next plane home.

I missed the birth of my children, and we had to call Mrs. Bush and cancel.

WACOAN: That is a crazy day. Well, did they ever come? Did you ever get to reschedule with them?

Michael: No, we shot a scene with her a couple weeks ago. She said that she’s been meaning to reschedule, just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

But I do know from some of the workers, and even Jessie, the first week when we were moving in, we’ve seen the motorcade drive by just to take pictures.

WACOAN: So you made Crawford your home. You’ve lived here since 2015, you said?

Jessie: We’ve lived in this house since 2016.

Michael: This house is still pretty new for us. It feels like we’ve been here for years.

WACOAN: And where did you get the Crawford T-shirt?

Michael: The mayor gave me this. She came by one night and dropped them off for us. And that’s part of that small town. The mayor stops by, you know.

WACOAN: Did you have any ideas about Texas or biases before you moved here?

Michael: My mom is actually from Texas. There’s a lot of family in East Texas. So we used to spend a lot of summers out here. As a kid from Los Angeles, I always loved it because, you know, ‘Go pick out a gun and let’s go shoot some cans in the back.’ That was the best thing in the world. You were allowed to have a BB gun. I was like ‘This is amazing!’ You don’t get to have these things in Los Angeles.

We still have our house in LA, but I don’t know that we’d ever move back into it. The kids have an acre here to run around, which is not necessarily much by Texas standards, but it’s more than anyone could ever afford in Los Angeles. It’s just been great watching these kids go out and explore and put on their little Hunter Boots and check for eggs.

Our life here is great. We talk about it often. We love our life out here.

Jessie: You have more time at home on this show. It’s very family-friendly.

WACOAN: How long have you guys been married?

Jessie: It’ll be four years in November.

WACOAN: And you have four kids with one set of twins in there. How old are they?

Jessie: Ro is 4. Fin is 3. And the twins will be 5 months.

Michael: And if I closed my eyes now, I could probably sleep for the next year. [Laughs.]

WACOAN: Did Chip and Jo inspire you to have a big family?

Jessie: I think we always talked about having like four. But we thought we’d have them one at a time.

Michael: I signed up for three, and then three became four.

WACOAN: Going back to the show, what’s the coolest thing about working on ‘Fixer Upper’ and watching it grow and blossom and become what it is?

Michael: It’s funny because I feel like I consider myself a handy man. If something’s broken, I like to think I can go fix it. But having worked on a show like this now, I’ve spend so much time around tilers, around plumbers and the like, I’ve actually learned a lot just from being behind the scenes on this show. There’s been a lot of takeaway for me, which I love. It’s not just work. I learn.

I like to antique shop.

WACOAN: Oh, neat. Where are your favorite places around here?

Michael: We have two sheds that are literally full to the brim. If we ever shipped this stuff back to Los Angeles, we could sell it for 10 times the price.

WACOAN: Are there neat little shops you like to shop around in Crawford or in the area?

Michael: We live just down the street from Cedar Chest. We love to shoot there on ‘Fixer Upper.’ There’s a new little store downtown called Whistle Stop. It’s nice to see kind of some life coming back.

It’s funny because like we’ve got Whistle Stop now, which is like an antique store and they have their vendors and stuff that come, but then there’s a coffee shop that’s just getting ready to open. But even there’s a couple antique stores around Crawford that have been nice.

So there’s a little restaurant with like a very minimal menu, but there’s this hidden gem that’s this gas station over there, the Crawford Boot Mart or something. It’s got the best burgers around. So good.

Jessie: Why don’t you tell her why we actually moved here, why you took the job.

Michael: So I got a phone call from my agent, and he said ‘We’ve got a new show that needs a showrunner. It’s this show out in Waco, Texas.’ And I was like ‘Texas? OK. What is it?’ ‘Some show called “Fixer Upper.”’ Never heard it before, no offense.

I talked it over with my wife, like ‘You know this could be a long-term thing. It’s some show called “Fixer Upper.”’ And her jaw nearly hit the ground. ‘“Fixer Upper!” Oh, my God, that’s my favorite show. I watch it all the time.’

So Jessie was a big fan of the show, and it all kind of spiraled from there. Then come to find out, everyone in the world loves ‘Fixer Upper,’ and I was the only person who had never seen it. That’s the funny thing. You watch one episode, it’s hard not to fall in love.

WACOAN: What have been some of your favorite episodes or stories or people or houses? Do you have anything that sticks out?

Michael: So we have a little bit of a spoiler alert. When we shot the scene with Mrs. Bush, this stands out as my favorite Emmy moment ever. (Emmy being their daughter.)

Jo was asking Emmy who she thought she was gonna meet. [Joanna] said, ‘The Bushes.’ And [Emmy’s] like, ‘[Gasp.] like Bush’s Chicken?!’ She got so excited.

It was the wrong Bushes, but I think my favorite moments are in between the construction scenes that we shoot when we can all just kind of relax and have a joke.

And I don’t know if you know this, but Chip is kind of a funny guy. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes antics that happen, pranks that are played on people, and those times are always fun. That’s where the clip shows come from, but there’s so much more than everyone gets to see.

We really all have become like a family here. When one of us leaves to move on to another project, which has happened a few times, it’s — I won’t say devastating, but it’s like a kid moving off to college.