A can of beer to shitting in someone’s fresh water: that’s the incredible arc of Stranded with a Million Dollars so far, from creation to last week’s shocking strategy.
The MTV competition concludes tonight, having been born of a conversation on a backpacking trip about the value of an extra beer, and gave way to a fascinating game that turned hideously ugly at times, from deprivation to bullying to literal defection.
I interviewed the show’s creator, Tollbooth TV’s Kevin Lee, to answer all of the burning questions about the series, and we talked about how the show was produced technically, and the producers’ ethical dilemmas.
Lee—who previously served as showrunner on reality series such as The Simple Life and Richard Brandon’s The Rebel Billionaire, and most recently, Bravo’s Apres Ski—was candid about everything from how alone the contestants actually were to how the game played out versus what he expected.
Where the idea for the show came from
“I was camping with my brothers and we were a few days into backpacking,” Kevin Lee told me, “and we carried some beers with us. Every ounce matters when you’re backpacking,” so they had a limited supply.
After drinking the beer they carried, he thought, “What I wouldn’t pay for an extra beer. It just got us thinking that the value of things is relative to the situation you’re in, and the value of money and how it changes as you’re put under pressure.”
That led to the central conceit of Stranded with a Million Dollars, a survival competition that gave its contestants no supplies but also gave them the ability to spend their money on items—items that could increase their chances of surviving for 40 days, or just make them temporarily comfortable.
What networks rejected the show
All the broadcast networks, actually.
“We saw it as a broadcast network show, so we pitched it to all the broadcast networks,” Lee told me. “They got it, they thought it was interesting, but none of them wanted to buy it.”
His agent said “MTV’s looking for some big new out of the box ideas,” and Lee’s first reaction was disbelief: “I said, ‘You’re crazy. This could never be an MTV show.'”
But MTV’s reality TV executive, Lauren Dolgen, who left MTV last summer, bought the show and put it into development. The process, as is the case with many unscripted shows these days, “took a little while, and I’m proud that it lived through three different MTV presidents and three different MTV regimes,” Lee said.
How the game’s format relied on the cast’s creativity
When MTV promoted the show at the beginning of the season, the press kits focused on the exorbitant prices that the cast would be charged for everyday items. It turns out that’s what producers thought would drive the show: the group buys. They did not expect the game that played out.
“We didn’t expect it to get that serious, so we were surprised. I always thought they would argue over what to buy and they would use the mechanism of buying or not buying as a way of pushing each other out,” Lee said. “I didn’t realize their behavior would go so far.”
But they did know that they were encouraging the cast to encourage each other to leave.
“From the very beginning, we made a decision not to have an elimination ceremony or a vote-off or any mechanism for cast members to get rid of other cast members,” Lee said.
“There’s a strong incentive to get people off the island because obviously, you get more money if there’s less people there at the end. We were aware that we were creating this mismatch in the format. It’s really incentivized to get rid of people; there’s no official way to get rid of people. We realized there’s a big space in between there, and that space would be filled by that cast’s creativity, and we really think that’s what’s driven the second half of the season,” he added.
“This wasn’t a show where the format or the rules dictated how they could win, or how they could push people off the island to get more money, so the cast had to become creative themselves,” he said. “And some of that creativity is a little dark, as you’ve seen. It became a true social experiment. A lot of shows call themselves social experiment, and this one had the balls to step back and let it happen, and that’s a nerve-wracking process as a producer.”
How alone were the cast of MTV’s Stranded?
Mostly alone, but not entirely.
“We tried to back off on filming it so the cast would feel more alone, and I think that played a part in their Lord of the Flies behavior, too, because there wasn’t as many adults standing around watching them,” Kevin Lee told me.
Ultimately, Lee said that there was “80 percent less contact with crew members” than on most reality series. Leaving the cast completely alone “was our goal but it’s kind of impossible.”
A camera operator was visible at least once on the show, and that’s because there were, on rare occasions, camera operators who’d got close to the action.
The robotic cameras “do the bulk of the work,” Lee said, and the drones add additional coverage, but the show was also filmed by camera operators using long-lens cameras that were far away from the cast.
“Occasionally,” however, those camera operators would take a camera off a tripod and switch to a “shoulder camera just to get certain shots that were un-gettable” by all the other cameras, Lee said.
A cast that produced themselves
There was one other type of camera: the ones operated by the cast members during their confessional interviews. But there weren’t producers taking them aside to interview them constantly, or a host to ask questions.
That meant that cast members had to do “all the things that a segment producer or field producer” would do on a typical show, Kevin Lee told me. “We trained them to be their own producers.”
That included their interviews or video diaries. While producers listened and watched everything in real time from a control room away from the camp, they did not have access to the video feed from the contestants’ cameras. They could, however, listen via the cast members’ mics.
Lee said that producers “kept track” of everything the cast said, and “at the end, whatever they had missed, then a story producer would go out remind them … traipse through the jungle” and give the cast member additional questions or topics to discuss.
The cast also had to learn how produce themselves for the group moments—there wasn’t, of course, an on-camera host to gather them around.
Lee told me that “on the first day,” after the first table announcement, “we stopped filming for a minute and explained how to produce themselves, “such as gathering together and talking about their options, but after that the cast was on their own.
Half a million dollars for medical support
Of course, on all reality competitions, while contestants may be suffering, they have access to assistance and medical treatment.
Contestants saw medics twice a week, unless they had a more immediate need or if producers noticed “some sort of worrying symptom,” as Lee told me. During those regular check-ins, they’d get weighed and have their blood pressure taken, and sometimes might get blood drawn to be tested.
But that was only a small part of the support available to the cast.
“We had a big behind-the-scenes medical apparatus that people never see,” Lee said, which “was important [because] there wasn’t a modern hospital very close by.”
MTV paid $500,000 “just on medical safety stuff,” including $400,000— “the biggest expense,” he said—on a “medevac helicopter that was parked near where we were filming for the entire 40 days.”
The rules of the game and producers ‘moral dilemma’
“It was hard for us to predict what sort of behavior” would occur, Lee said. “There’s only a couple of real rules. One of them is they can’t divide up the money,” and “obviously no fighting, no physically laying hands on each other.”
“But then there was a lot of unforeseen behavior that was not spelled out in the rules. So we kind of just had to think through how to handle it. Whenever a situation like that would come up, we would be sitting in a control room, about 500 yards away in the jungle, and being like, Holy shit, what are we going to do—I never thought of this, and everyone’s arguing in the control room. That happened a lot actually, and it was kind of stressful.”
I asked if the producers ever intervened, and Lee started with one example: “The tent stealing—the rules were very unclear on that. … You can’t physically—it’s very clearly in the documents they signed against the rules to physically attack someone.”
When Makani stole the tent, Lee said, they had to say, “No, Alonzo, that would be considered assault—if she’s sitting in and you grab her by the arms or grab her by the hair and pull her out, you’re fighting her, and that would be against the rules. So that was one where we had to go in and interpret the rules for them. They could steal but they couldn’t physically mug to steal.”
Taking the pot away—the one used to boil drinking water—from Alex and Gina wasn’t a life or death situation, Lee told me. “We felt that worst case scenario Alex and Gina could drink coconuts if they were really in a bind. Nobody wants to do that because it’s a lot of work, and you could potentially even get sick from the coconuts if you have too many,” he said.
However, Cody’s pooping strategy did require some intervention.
“When Cody shit in the water, it created a big moral dilemma for us. We didn’t want to interfere in the game, but on the other hand, it was important to us that people remain safe,” Lee said. “So we did did everything on our end that we could to make sure that they were safe without interfering in the game. That was a difficult day or two or there, and a lot of ethical debates going on.”
I asked him to elaborate on how they intervened, and Lee said, “I don’t want to go into any details, but we made sure to have everything in place that they could become safe if there was any problems. That’s as far as I want to go.”
Did producers intervene to keep players in the game?
“We did not, in any way,” Stranded with a Million Dollars executive producer and creator Kevin Lee said. “The only rule we have if someone is in immediate danger, like a flash flood or something like that, or Eilish with her medical problem, then we take them out of immediate danger.”
Fans online, alway good at creating conspiracy theories, have suggested, at varying points in the game, that producers were secretly helping the people who were suffering the most, including Alex and Gina, perhaps by giving them food.
So were any contestants helped to keep them in the game longer?
“Hell no. We were eager to see them struggling. Giving them food would kill the show, even more than other survival shows,” Lee said.
While the temptations certainly played to a cast member’s current desires, the producers rotated through the cast members to keep it fair. Lee said that if you were to write it down, and “put them all up on the board,” it’s clear that “everybody gets a turn,” and then everyone gets another turn, and so on.
Why the production had prop cash
As we learned when Alex burned cash, that was not real U.S. currency, though it represents their prize money so burning it did decrease the possible prize.
“We didn’t want to have prop money,” Lee told me. “MTV forced us. We wanted to bring the real money. They felt it was a risk”—specifically that “it would create some crime risk.”
As to Alex burning the cash, that occurred at a camp “that was really pretty isolated, so we had to take boats to it,” and it happened when Lee wasn’t present. When he heard what Alex was doing, he thought, “holy shit.”
How much the show’s creator thought would be left at the end
I asked Kevin Lee if he and the other crew members predicted what the final pot would be.
“Everyone had predictions, and everyone bet,” he said. His guess: $700,000. “I thought they would be more frugal.”
That said, he told me that “our biggest fear as producers was they wouldn’t buy anything”—that the contestants would just live off the land and survive, and thus there would be a boring show. “We were worried about that.”
Will there be a season two of Stranded?
The signs are good.
Lee told me that “MTV has funded casting for season two, and scouting for season two.”
In addition, he said that “our ratings are good”—better than last Real World, or recent episodes of Wild N Out, Ridiculousness, and Are You the One: Second Chances.
“Each of the last couple weeks has been a new season high,” he said, and the show has viewers that total “more than half of The Challenge now. We air so late, at 10 p.m., so there’s a huge drop off.”
Changing the game for season two
After my interview with Kevin Lee, game designer Jane McGonigal wrote this wonderful analysis of the show’s game structure, and proposed a modification for season two.
I asked Lee, via e-mail, what he thought of it, and he told me, “I think Jane’s proposed format change is interesting. In fact, during pre-production we strongly considered charging them [$100,000] per heli rescue (which would accomplish the same effect that Jane proposes, but in a way that is more organic to the conceit of the series).”
“But ultimately,” he added, “we decided it would be more entertaining to watch them compete for the prize as opposed to cooperate for the prize.”