Behind the scenes of Survivor’s Dragons video, and its link to Ben “Coach” Wade’s evolution

The Dragons music video is perhaps the best thing to come out of Survivor Heroes vs. Villains‘ pretty Ponderosa series, and while its technical look and feel was the work of web series producer Norwood Cheek, it actually has its roots in Brazil, during Ben “Coach” Wade’s experience during Survivor Tocantins‘ Ponderosa, and connects to his journey between seasons, as I learned when I talked to him earlier today. (CBS publicity does not, incredibly, control the entire world.)

During his 20 days at Ponderosa, the location where contestants go post-elimination (which was destroyed in the tsunami), Coach said he spent time playing video games, and encouraged JT and Courtney to join him and play Rock Band one day, and that led to Norwood prompting Coach to write a song. “So I wrote the lyrics in like 15 minutes,” Coach said, and “Norwood helped me with the background and the beats and we were just doing it to kill time.” In the song’s lyrics, he said, “I’m actually trying to process the game.”

Norwood, who has produced other music videos, “was really instrumental in getting everything together,” Coach said. “It started out as a lark, and then, let’s do some more, and let’s do a video. It was a great use of creative energy.” In fact, he said that, when Jeff Probst and John Kirhoffer, the show’s challenge producer, visited one day, there “was like this huge buzz all over the place.”

That energy was something he hoped to create at Ponderosa, Coach said. “I don’t want to sound totally fully of myself, delusional, but I think it’s interesting you bring up the jury,” Coach told me when I mentioned that the jury seemed less bitter than juries have in the past. “Humbly, I say that the jury was like that because it’s a great group of individuals. But also because, I really worked hard at trying to get that.”

He explained that Brazil’s Ponderosa “was such an unhealthy environment” where they were “throwing beer on me and telling me to drink, and all I wanted to do was get back into things.” So for the all-star season, he was set on becoming “the protector of Ponderosa” and decided, “I’m going to make this such a healthy environment it’s a safe and friendly place.” Coach said the show’s psychiatrist told him that Ponderosa ultimately was “one of the safest places they’ve ever seen,” and Coach called it a “positive environment. People weren’t just drinking at noon and getting silly by 5 in the afternoon,” but instead were doing something “productive,” which includes The Dragons video.

“The Dragons are really something that’s never been done before, and I put my stamp on that,” because “in life, I try to put my stamp on wherever I am. And I try to put my mark on wherever I am,” Coach said.

Anyone who’s watched any of his Survivor Tocantins episodes can attest to that, as the editors had a field day with him. When we first met in Brazil in the fall of 2008, Coach was an arrogant ass, and that was only part of what made it into the game, where he was something we hadn’t ever seen before, for better or for worse. That wasn’t the case this season. When I talked to him before season 20 began, he seemed like a different person altogether.

After being voted out this time, though, “I was raging pissed. I was on fire. I was really feeling resentment toward everybody left in the game: resentment that Colby wasn’t doing well at challenges, pissed off at Sandra because she was worthless, Courtney was worthless in challenges: I was very judgmental,” Coach said. “I felt that the game was taken away from me prematurely.”

While Coach calmed down at Ponderosa, he experienced more growth six months later when the show aired. In fact, the man who once wanted to change the game forever to be played how he thought it should be played now has a new appreciation for other people. “As I was watching the season, something inside of me changed. I thought, wow. I really have to respect these people because they are playing with the tools that they have, and it might be different from my philosophy in life. I’ve always been really black and white: This is how I am, this is how I coach, and if you don’t coach like this, you’re not as good as me. I thought I was going to blast everybody in my exit interviews.” Instead, he was rather positive.

Despite coming to that realization later, he said, Coach is still happy with his vote for Parvati because she was a competitor and a warrior (et cetera), but also because he learned as he was watching this season that Sandra responsible for getting him voted off (by deflecting Russell’s attention onto him). “I had voted for Sandra, it would have been egg on my face. That was kind of satisfying to know that I did not vote for her,” he said, though he added, “I did kind of think that she was going to win the million, just from everyone else”‘s comments.

I asked him how much jury members talk at Ponderosa about who they’re going to vote for and the game itself. Producers “definitely discourage it and if they hear you talking about then they’ll say, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ But of course we do,” Coach told me. But he also said there isn’t a lot of direct conversation. “It’s funny, you’re still kind of playing the game, so people don’t come out and say, I’m voting for Russell, I’m definitely voting for Sandra.” And he added that “nobody makes a firm commitment” and “the last Tribal does have a lot to do with everybody’s vote.” He did reveal that “everybody was pretty ticked off at Russell and the person Russell was out there,” but that Russell “would have gotten some votes” had he apologized.

In addition to learning to appreciate how others play–even Russell!–Coach said that he’s realized that “it’s very hard to play the game of Survivor with honor and integrity” because it’s not the nature of the game, and said that ultimately, “I’m really glad that I got voted out when I did … because I might have compromised my game play, because it was such a different atmosphere.”

As to his fellow jury member and potential love interest, Jerri Manthey, Coach said in exit interviews that he was waiting to see her at the finale, but told me today that “we actually saw each other a week before the finale, and I saw her at the finale, but it’s kinda of hard because she’s in L.A.” So now, “we’re obviously not in a relationship, but she sure is a cool girl. … I still respect her.”

Coach is preparing to shoot two films over the summer, including one in which he has the lead role, 180 (he took acting lessons after his first appearance on the show). He’s also “pastoring in a church up here in Susanville,” and has been hired as the men’s soccer coach at Lassen Community College, where he starts this fall and discussed in a separate interview. He’s also still conducting, and a documentary about his symphony, Small Town, Big Symphony, re-airs on the Documentary Channel Saturday night (preview it here).

Coach told me that being on Survivor a second time has “really kind of opened up my eyes: People are going to do things different than you, learn to appreciate the differences in everybody. Even if somebody doesn’t have the same philosophy as you, even if it’s a negative philosophy, where they do manipulate people, or they are mincing with their words, look at what they do right and value that person for being different than you, and don’t pigeonhole them into your own philosophy and core values.”

“I think it’s a continuing evolution of the impact that Survivor has had on my introspective self,” Coach said. “I’m set on who I am and I know who I am, and my core values haven’t changed, but it’s been a great experience to look at myself and say, don’t be too arrogant, don’t be too judgmental, and one thing that’s been happening even in the last six months.”

“That first time, in Tocantins, that was the coach: that was the guy who’s on the sidelines who’s never wrong, who’s never wavering, who’s very black and white. And there’s parts of that personality that still come out,” he said, especially on the soccer field, where he has to say, “listen, assholes, I’ve coached for 14 years … you’ve gotta talk like that or you’re not going to get any respect. That is a part of my personality. The thing that happened is that when I went out there [the first time], everybody was really encouraging that part of my personality, so I just went crazy.”

But for Survivor Heroes vs. Villains, Coach said, “I just wanted to let that guard down, because inside, I want to be liked, I want to be respected, I want to be appreciated. I am a sensitive flippin’ guy; as much as I try to hide it behind this bravado, I’m really sensitive, and I am really caring. What I did the second time was I learned from the first time: You can’t be that arrogant ass, you have to let your guard down and be a real, genuine person, and also be more humble, because I realized that Coach persona had gotten out of hand.”

All of the criticism of the Coach persona, from viewers and asshole critics and even his best friends and family members, who wanted to “crucify” him, and that “came to a head out there [in Samoa]: I’m out there trying to change myself, I’m trying to be a better person, and I’m still getting laughed at, I’m still being made fun of. It just hit me in the blink of an eye: You’re not going to change the perception of people, even though you’re playing this game totally different, even though you’ve totally changed. It really hurt me.”

That’s when Coach broke down while Tyson was talking to him. “It went from anger to saying, ‘You guys suck. All I’m trying to do is give my heart and soul to this game. You guys suck. Why are you making fun of me? Why doesn’t anybody like me?’ to just sobbing. And you didn’t even see the half of it: I really sobbed out there. But it was incredibly therapeutic, because it made me think and it made me realize that no matter how many people make fun of me, I still have to be true to myself and I still have to be sensitive and I still have to be different. God did make me different. I’m not going to coaching, I’m not going to stop putting feathers in my hair at Tribal, because that’s part of who I am. I won’t compromise for anybody. I have to stay true to my own course in life.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.