On location with 'Survivor'
By Mark Schwed, Special to The Palm Beach Post
Saturday, January 31, 2004
The first thing I notice is the smell. It is rank. Chanel would call it Eau de Stinky. But it is exactly what you would expect to waft up from a group of sun-scorched castaways who hadn't taken a proper bath in weeks.
It is the spring of 2000, and I am on a tiny island in the South China Sea off the coast of Borneo, watching CBS about to make television history with a little show called Survivor.
Over there, sitting on a log, is ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch -- at 72, the oldest and perhaps most popular player the show has ever known -- slashing a bowie knife inches from his throat and glowering at executive producer Mark Burnett.
And omigod, there up in that palm tree is Richard Hatch totally naked -- a sight that haunts me to this day. What kind of TV show is this?
No one -- not CBS bigwigs, not my bosses at TV Guide, not even Mark Burnett -- had a clue that, within months, Survivor would become a national addiction, spawn an explosion of copycat shows and make millions for everyone involved.
The second I heard about Survivor, I begged my editor to let me cover it. Survivor was something new, and, after writing about television for 20 years, I was ready for something wildly different.
The idea was remarkably simple: Take 16 folks from all walks of 21st-century life, strand them on a faraway island, and make them fend for themselves without the basic necessities: hot water, food, soap. They'll have to work together to live, but work against each other to survive being voted off the island one by one. The last man or woman standing pockets $1 million. Fabulous. And the most refreshing alternative to mediocre sitcoms and dramas since the debut of pay cable.
That was nearly four years ago. Since then, Survivor has become a staple of CBS' schedule, the granddaddy of Reality TV. Just last summer, I traveled to another Survivor set, the one in Panama's Pearl Islands, where CBS shot the most recent show, as well as the All-Star version set to kick off Sunday in the most coveted time slot in all of television -- right after the Super Bowl.
During my two visits, I ate fish heads for breakfast, was eaten by mosquitoes for dinner, and inhaled the unique aromas of Survivor. Naturally, with such behind-the-scenes access, I've picked up a secret or two, and now that I've moved from Hollywood to sunny South Florida, I'm ready to dish.
What's the secret? Casting
Type A personalities
Many things have changed from the first Survivor to the last. But from the get-go, Burnett, the brains behind Survivor, knew he wanted conflict -- can you say catfights?! To guarantee drama, he cast only Type A personalities. Each contestant believed he or she was a natural born leader. Looks mattered little -- a first for television casting. Thus we got Rudy and Richard, and Sue Hawk, a tough Chicago truck driver with a big heart and a bigger bite.
For the first two weeks of his first Survivor production, Burnett didn't want any strangers around. His scraggly crew members -- many of whom had worked for him on Discovery Channel's Eco-Challenge, perhaps the most grueling adventure race in the world -- had signed confidentiality agreements, prohibiting them from discussing any aspect of the show. There were so few helping hands that Burnett and host Jeff Probst frequently found themselves offloading boats and hauling cameras, lights, booms and other equipment through sweltering jungles, over tide pools, and up and down muddy hills.
By the time I got there on the 15th day of shooting, the crew was a well-oiled machine. They were also terribly overworked, putting in 18-hour days in god-awful conditions, covered in mud, caked in salt. They lived in a compound 100 yards from the Tribal Council, crammed together in specially built wooden cabins with cold-water showers. Monkeys would sprint from the jungle, grab bags of potato chips from their hands, and scamper back into the rain forest. Even worse, at night, monkeys in the trees would fling nuts onto the tin roofs, making loud echoing bangs that drove sleepy crew members crazy.
Amenities were few. They had one satellite phone, one laptop for e-mails, one big-screen TV, a cash bar and a ping-pong table. Once every eight days or so, they'd take the hourlong boat ride to the mainland and freshen up at a five-star resort in Kota Kinabalu that served as production headquarters.
It is at the outdoor bar in this hotel that I meet them. They are a thirsty bunch. I meet Ninja, the kamikaze camera operator who washes down those disgusting grubs with shots of tequila. And the show's psychologist, who is supposed to ensure that no contestants have mental problems that will cause them to snap.
(There really is only one rule: Thou shall not kill, maim or physically harm your fellow tribe members, or endangered species. There is also a $5 million fine for cutting a deal with another player to share the winnings. Other than that, pretty much anything goes.)
The chief doctor warns me of dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, venomous yellow-banded kraits, malaria. But the more common maladies are dehydration, severe sunburn and something he refers to as "squirty bottom." It is the speech he gives to every person who sets foot on the island, contestants included.
I had booked my own flight, reserved my own hotel room and brought my own gear -- arriving two days before CBS' press handlers. Big mistake for CBS. By the time the network execs arrived, I was on a first-name basis with the crew, having taken 50 of them to dinner at a re-created head-hunter village. It was there that I met the first survivor who had already been kicked off the island. By the time I left, I knew the names of the first six losers.
Although I had signed an agreement stipulating that I wouldn't reveal their names, this would prove to be a nightmare for CBS. Viewers became so obsessed with the show that they pored over stories and photos, pinpointed when journalists had been there, figured out which survivors were not mentioned, and thus who had been ousted. This caused CBS to clamp down on the press and forced Burnett to redesign the game. Reporters would be allowed on the set only in the first two days -- before the first vote was taken -- under much tighter controls.
But the biggest change was that, instead of taping the final episode on location, the winner would now be unveiled during a live broadcast months after the contestants had finished the game. No one would know the victor, because the votes would be sealed. This actually served to heighten the excitement.
With the success of Survivor, the crew began grumbling about the oppressive conditions. And by the time I made my most recent visit, huge changes had occurred. The size of the crew tripled to more than 300. The food was upgraded and now included a breakfast station with pancakes and omelets; salad, fruit and dessert bars; and a selection of main courses that would rival the best buffet.
There were also hot dogs and hamburgers. Burnett housed his workers in a beachfront resort that featured hot showers, an Internet cafe and a full bar. Many times, after a long day of shooting, Burnett would show up at the bar and pick up the tab. In 20 years of writing about TV and 14 years living in Hollywood, I've never seen a producer do that.
But the biggest and most important changes were in the contestants themselves. In the first game, only Hatch seemed to realize that Survivor was serious business and that, to win the $1 million prize, you had to form alliances and lie to people's faces.
Cut to season seven. When I interviewed the 16 most recent contestants at the Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach the night before they were flown to Panama, most had watched every previous Survivor episode. Some had analyzed every vote in every game and knew the strengths and weaknesses of each player. Andrew Savage, a former lawyer for the Jerry Springer show, of all things, had been a finalist in two previous shows before he made the cut. These were no rookies.
But still they screw up. Big beefy Osten Taylor was nearly thrown off the show, because he got so tipsy raiding my mini-bar that he started talking to his fellow castmates -- a big no-no before the game officially begins. He wound up quitting halfway through the contest, a Survivor first. And not-so-jolly giant Rupert Boneham, a sweet guy whose explosive temper made him the Howard Dean of survivors, never figured out that, when there's $1 million at stake, people don't always tell the truth.
The most clueless of all was Lillian Morris, 51, the Loveland, Ohio, woman who wore the Girl Scouts uniform. She hadn't watched a single episode. After I gave her some tips, her eyes watered up and she hugged me. "Thank you so much," she said. She wound up finishing second and took home $100,000. (You're welcome, Lil.)
The All-Star contest could prove to be the most exciting yet. To choose the cast, Burnett sat down with a pen and yellow pad and simply wrote down the names of the most liked and hated players. Winning wasn't required. Thus we get obnoxious Richard, who won that very first $1 million, and straight-shooter Rudy, now 75, who did not. Add loudmouths like Jerri Manthey, routinely referred to as "the bitch," funny guy Rob Cesternino and cute ones like "America's sweetheart" Amber Brkich, and you have the potential for a ratings bonanza. CBS is betting on it. Thus the Super Bowl slot.
For this contest, Burnett jacked up the prize money. In 2000, the first person voted off received $2,500. In this game, it'll be $25,000. The top prize is still $1 million and bragging rights to being the best survivor ever.
One contestant already has an edge. Sue Hawk, the Chicago truck driver who delivered the famous "you're a snake/ you're a rat" speech in the first broadcast, visited the Pearl Islands as an on-air correspondent for the TV Guide Channel before she was selected as an All-Star. I remember her standing in front of one camp, saying, "Look at all these coconuts. Look at all this food they could be eating. These people are such idiots." Then again, that in-your-face frankness could be just what gets her voted off.
Although Survivor junkies think they know everything about the game, the truth is they don't understand the most obvious element: sheer boredom. For most of every day, the chores remain the same: stoke the fire, collect wood, fetch water, find food and, every three days, vote someone off. The rest of the time is spent lying around, doing absolutely nothing, except obsessing.
Yes, it's tough being hungry and missing your loved ones. But it is the boredom that really messes with their minds. And Survivor is, after all, a mind game.
Viewers love to see who can outwit, outplay and outlast. But I enjoy Survivor on a much deeper level -- as a fascinating study of how we humans behave when all our toys are taken away. In the end, it doesn't really matter who wins. Just like everything else in life, it's how you play the game.