I stood on a bridge, swatting mosquitos so frequently my hands were just a blur, and shook American Grit executive producer Jon Kroll’s hand. “Let’s try right here until we start getting devoured,” he said.
We were above a lake, water that was now swarming with bugs, bugs indifferent to insect repellant, natural or chemical, and was quite the contrast from the cold, snowy, Pacific Northwest location where season one of the Fox reality competition was filmed.
Three and a half weeks earlier, there’d been nothing here except a house that would soon be occupied by the show’s host, John Cena. Now there were five brand-new cabins and a floating dock.
“Look at this—it’s phenomenal,” Kroll told me, thrilled about the show’s new home, a private, 5,000-acre space of marshes and dry land that once was going to be used for suburban development. It was not far from civilization and resources—busy interstate 95 is so close that, driving down it on my way home, I could see the giant crane that would soon be used to dunk contestants into the water during a challenge—but also felt isolated and largely pristine.
Here, the contestants will face challenges that will “test them not only physically, but mentally, ethically, psychologically, and morally,” Kroll told me later, as we discussed the major changes to season two. (A last-minute addition to those challenges are the swarms of bugs, a side effect of Hurricane Matthew, which left standing water for insects to lay eggs in.)
But before we got into that, Kroll did what he often does in interviews with me—gives credit, by name, to members of his team, the people responsible for so much of what we see on our screens. The second thing Kroll said was: “You should definitely shout out the production designer, Stuart Frossell,” because it was he who was responsible for creating this world.
How five cabins appeared on the shore of a lake
American Grit season two (Fox, Sundays at 9) has an entirely new cadre of ex-military men and women to guide the now-grit-less contestants, but the fact that they’re new (“because we’re trying to change the DNA of the show, it would have been difficult to do that with the exact same cadre,” Kroll said) may not be the most significant part.
“The biggest change in terms of the cadre and Cena is they’re living next door,” Kroll told me. “They will be visiting frequently, and there will be surprise inspections, and there will be surprise exercises. While there’s hijinks going on, John Cena’s going to just walk in on them at the most inopportune time, and we’re going to see how they react to that.”
Cena really is living close by. In this aerial view, you can se the five cabins on the lake American Grit built. The house where John Cena lived is down to the right, in the middle of trees at the southeast corner of the lake.
Base camp was not far away at all: a collection of vehicles and trailers near several barns. (At the top left of the map, you can see the preexisting structures and the scarred field where all of those production vehicles and trailers were.)
There are four cabins plus a central living space, which has a kitchen, a living room, a back porch overlooking the water, and a floating dock with a fire pit.
The contestants will be divided evenly among those cabins, which means four teams of four—though that won’t happen until the end of the first episode. The 17 contestants (when we were on location, before production began, there were 18) will first have to divide themselves among the cabins for their first night.
Then the cadre will choose teams, and while everyone’s away for the selection process, crew members will repaint the four cabins to match the four teams’ colors. The construction and art crew is mostly local, though about half of the show’s production assistants came from Los Angeles, Kroll told me.
Along the short walk between the cabins and Cena’s lake house was a trailer with toilets, provided by a company aptly named Nature’s Calling. Printed out signs taped to the doors said “CAST ONLY.” While there was a brand-new outdoor shower facility and sinks constructed adjacent to the central cabin, there are no toilets nor plumbing, hence the fancy toilet trailer.
Kroll was eager for me to see the spaces that would soon be occupied with contestants and camera operators, so we walked down the bridge toward the cabin. That took several minutes, as people approached him with questions and requests. We eventually ran into Stuart Frossell himself.
“Stuart is the guy who designed Camp Grit, and he’s a fucking genius,” Kroll said. “He’s the best in the business and we’re just thrilled that we have him, and his set, which you will see in a minute, is spectacular.”
Stuart Frossell started his reality TV career in the art department of Survivor Marquesas, constructing things like props and challenges. He’s gone on to be the production designer for shows such as The Quest (oh, how I miss you!), Expedition Impossible, Hellevator, and Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge.
As we walked into the central cabin, the largest of the five, Frossell told me that he wanted “to embrace the fact that we’re here in Georgia. We were inspired by plantation architecture,” though he also mentioned that it has a beach house aesthetic, with pops of bright colors, such as pillows on the deck.
“The notes from the network,” Frossell said, “were [that] this season they wanted it to look a little bit softer, a little bit more feminine—wanted to make it a little bit more luxurious, but they still wanted the contestants to be able to cook and feed themselves.”
They’ll do that on a two burners and an old-fashioned wood-burning stove that had a basket of chopped logs sitting next to it. In the kitchen, crew members were placing food and staples into generic containers.
There was an incredible level of detail, from Spanish moss placed strategically on roofs to a scarf hung around the neck of a deer head on the wall.
The design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, though. It’s functional and serves the needs of a TV production. Plants outside conceal cables and lights placed strategically around the structures to make them show up on camera at night, and the plantation-style blinds make it possible to “completely control the way light comes in here, which Tony, our director, is really happy about,” Frossell said.
All of this had to be put together quickly to fit within a tight production schedule—a schedule that was complicated by Hurricane Matthew.
That “meant that all of my crew and the contractor had to evacuate, and that put us behind,” Frossell told me. “And it wasn’t just that the fact that the property got hit, but also, a lot of the vendors we were using—to source all of the lumber and that sort of stuff—they were being pulled in for emergency services.”
But while everything was constructed in under a month, Frossell’s production design team was conscious about making it not seem brand-new.
“We did a lot of shopping at local flea markets and picked up old items, resurfaced old items. Everything needed to look like it hadn’t just been built,” he said. “We had a couple of days where we added a lot of greens around the outside to make it look more established, so this thing didn’t just drop out of the sky, so it looks like it’s been here for a while and they’re guests here.”
American Grit evolves as it loses the Evolutions
After Kroll gave a shout-out to Frossell, but before our tour of this new world that had been constructed, the first thing I said to him was: “Talk off me off the ledge as an American Grit season one fan—why this is not changing the heartwarming, amazing show into a typical contestants-who-don’t-belong-here-getting-tortured reality show.”
It was Nov. 3, 2016, a few months after Fox had torched the second season of Home Free, turning it from a feel-good cry-fest into a competitive mess, and I was terrified that was happening here, too, especially having met a few of the contestants, who seemed to be cast for their outrageousness, not their grit.
Host John Cena was also worried, at least at first, and explained why he ultimately realized season two would be better. Jon Kroll similarly reassured me.
“I understand your concern,” he said. “We found that obviously the characters that brought us a lot of conflict last year really challenged the cadre more than the other ones that did not. And we felt, in some ways, the cadre was underutilized last year. Whereas there were a few people—Goldie on one end of the spectrum, and Chris on the other, who needed TLC or a boot up the ass—there were a lot of people who just coasted along as part of their teams and didn’t really have an emotional journey.”
“What we really found was that last year was really an athletic competition. Whereas there was some drama that was brought by a few of the competitors, we really felt that we had lost”
During some downtime, I’d wandered with two other reporters over to a challenge field, and talked to a producer who was setting up a challenge. It was a series of stations at which one member of the team will have to agree to do the challenge before knowing what it involves. Options include stripping naked and having his or her head shaved.
This seemed like more evidence that American Grit was taking a hard turn toward cruelty—and again, I was comparing it to season one, where what was being tested was teamwork and strength, physical and emotional.
The Bachelorette’s showrunner joins American Grit
Kroll told me that American Grit “really is a transformational journey show now—that’s how we’re looking at it. … We actually think it’s going to take it in a direction of people who can really use the help of these heroic cadre even more.”
He said that during post-production on season one, “we determined that the cadre were really our stars—along with, of course, JC—but we really felt that they were underutilized in terms of their mentoring and helping people. So we came upon this idea of giving them people who needed a lot more help, figuring that we could see much more of a transformational journey for them.”
Also changing is the show’s structure. Instead of Evolutions (military-like, physically demanding team challenges) and The Circus (a massive obstacle course that concluded with an always-different endurance challenge), there will be team challenges and some kind of elimination challenge.
Cadre members will give their teams training exercises before competing in a team challenge, “so they can perhaps develop skills to succeed and perform better,” Kroll said.
All of these changes necessitated additional support.
“American Grit is a massive show and I had it all on my shoulders last year, and one thing I’m really excited about as we’ve expanded the scope of it to add a transformation journey to the competition that was already there last year, is that I have a partner on this,” Kroll told me. “It helps for us to divide and conquer, and I won’t have to be 100 places like I was last year.”
His partner: a second executive producer, Alycia Rossiter, who worked on The Bachelor for 11 years, including stints as showrunner of The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, and Bachelor in Paradise.
“We had never met but we’ve really hit it off. We’ve divided the labor as she’s covering the transformational journeys and I’m covering the competition part,” Kroll told me. “We both overlap and we get involved with every decision—because let’s face it, the transformations feed the competition, and the competition feeds the transformations.”
Those transformations were scheduled to start the next day, when the contestants would come to Camp Grit and see what had been built for them, and for us. American Grit’s transformation of a mosquito-infested lakeside was complete, but now the real journeys were about to begin.