“How do you mount this production—of such great quality—and keep it going for 38 seasons?” That’s the question film producer Todd Garner asked Jeff Probst about Survivor at the beginning of an interview on Garner’s podcast, The Producer’s Guide.
It’s a wide-ranging, 70-minute long interview, and though it starts at the very beginning of Probst’s career, it covers a lot of behind-the-scenes detail about how Survivor is produced, such as:
- The show’s new use of drones and previous conflict with CBS over the use of GoPro cameras.
- The number of meals served by catering each season, and the amount of money the show gets back from Fiji.
- The origin of “the tribe has spoken.” The show needed a catchphrase because of the popularity of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and though Probst had a “giant white board in the jungle, with probably 50 lines,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t come up with anything.” Probst gives credit to Burnett, who said offhandedly, “Jeff, I don’t know what to say, the tribe has spoken, that’s just how it goes.”
- Probst telling Burnett during his initial interview, “I’m a student of the human condition, I’m a writer, I’ve been in therapy, I get your show.”
- Burnett telling Probst in Samoa, “it’s your show.”
The interview goes into the producing weeds, which is something I appreciated reading as a long-time Survivor fan—especially because Jeff Probst is now responsible for all of Survivor.
As Mark Burnett told EW earlier this year, “It’s not me running Survivor. Yeah, I started it, but Jeff runs it, Jeff manages it, Jeff’s the face of it, Jeff’s the creative vision of it, and Jeff’s kept a brilliant team around him also.”
What is Probst’s creative vision? What does he and his team prioritize? And how is that team structured?
There are answer to those questions—and many more—in this episode of The Producer’s Guide podcast. I’ve highlighted key parts below, but there’s more in the episode.
How the show’s production staff is structured
Jeff Probst describes the show’s crew as “a giant creative collective team who all know our parts,” and that includes “an international crew of 350” with “100-some locals” spread across 20 departments.
Probst gave some specifics about how the production team is structured at various points during the discussion:
- Jeff Probst is showrunner and executive producer
- Executive producer Matt Van Wagenen is “basically my partner,” Probst said. “We are the tightest bond in terms of creative”
- There are four supervising producers: “They’re responsible for every fourth episodes”
- Director Dave Dryden is “responsible for shooting our challenges, shooting tribal, making sure we’re getting coverage,” Probst said, describing Dryden as “conducting an orchestra” via headsets and radios: “hand-helds go in, hand-helds out, jibs swing big, cable cam, let’s go, let’s go, drones…”
- Producing/editing teams—”preditors,” the people working in post-production who “could produce their own shows. We’re fortunate they stay with us to help us make ours,” Probst said.
- “We have producers who are in charge of our challenges” and “producers who direct tribal”
- There’s also a “reality guy” who is “in charge of all the teams on Reality.” (“Reality” is the term Survivor uses for footage at the beaches)
Why the show is staying in Fiji
One major reason: Fiji provides a “massive rebate: 45 percent,” Probst said, so almost half of the show’s costs are covered by Fiji. (For details on that, including what Fiji requires of a production, see Film Fiji’s web site.)
“We’re making a show, they want to promote Fiji, so it’s a quid pro quo. It’s taken that part of the show out of our hands and let us focus on creative,” Probst said.
“That part” refers to the logistical challenges of moving the show around the world, which it used to do twice a year: “it just takes the stress of having to break down, put stuff in containers, ship it across the ocean, pull it out of the containers, set it up again, make new deals with island owners which is not easy to do,” he said.
Replacing local culture with themes
During their discussion of Fiji, host Todd Garner tells Probst, “now you’re doing stories rather than locations” and he adds, “which I think people love.” (Uh, well, not me.)
Probst responded, “I never thought of that, but you’re right. It’s forced us. We don’t have that crutch any more to show a local tradition.”
Fairness, integrity, and planning the season in advance
Probst says that each season of Survivor “is laid out. We know which advantages we’re going to use, we know what episode they’re going in, regardless of who’s in the game, regardless of which tribe is going to get a chance to find it.”
But he said “where you do have leeway—and you have to be prepared—” involves challenges, especially ones on the water which may have to be scrapped because of weather. “Our guys have to have a backup,” he said, so “we’ve switched challenges.”
Keeping the game fair is not a requirement from the network or the law, but “an integrity thing. You could cheat if you could get away with it,” Probst said.
He adds that trying to fix or fake the show would require everyone to be in on it: “it’s like the conspiracy theory. You would have to have everybody on your crew, every editor.”
“There are times you would like to put another idol in the game because you wish this person you think would be a great representative would find it and use it,” Probst said. “But the truth is, you can’t. I can tell you: It doesn’t even enter our mind, we just don’t thing that way any more.”
Probst says that there was anxiety early on: “I’m sure in seasons one, two, and three, there had to be times when Mark [Burnett] thought, Man, I’m building a new show, it’d be really great… And if you look at the first season, nobody wanted Richard Hatch to win. That was a disaster. We thought it was the end of the show: the big naked evil villain wins. We had no idea it would be the greatest thing to happen. We wanted this 45-year-old Navy SEAL vet to win, Rudy.”
Survivor’s cameras, including drones and cable cams
“On any given challenge, we might have 15 to 25 cameras. Some of those are POV GoPros that are hidden somewhere,” Probst said.
Those cameras now include GoPros, drones, and a new cable cam. “We started using cable cams this year for that big football type of shot down a long challenge. It’s inspiring to everybody because we’re basically saying to ourselves, Let’s not stick with the status quo,” Probst said.
But shifting away from the status quo hasn’t always been easy. Here’s Probst:
“I’ve learned a couple of lessons—some I wouldn’t even say here for fear of giving them away to CBS. But in a nutshell, you have to learn how to work any system. We had a big issue with CBS for years with using GoPros. They said, Well, it’s just not high enough quality. And I’d say, But it’s one shot of a hand reaching in. And to your point, that’s the shot that’s going to tell the story […]
At a certain point they said, Okay, if that’s the only way you can get the shot. And those words changed everything: if it’s the only way you can get the shot. So I got all of our creative guys together and I said, Here’s the deal, it’s the only way we can get the shot.“
Probst praised the way the reality crews can now film seamlessly without interrupting what’s happening.
He used a hypothetical of a male contestant deciding to go fishing: A camera operator—the “reality shooter,” who is also male in this example— “he shoots him until he stands up.” Then there’s a “drone waiting for him to walk past,” and an underwater camera operator ready to capture footage of the contestant catching a fish.
“We have the entire sequence, but it’s unscripted,” Probst said. “That’s the stuff when I look at our raw footage, I think, Man, these teams are so good because they’re already anticipating. … That was amazing; that was unscripted.”
As to audio, Probst points out that contestants only wear mics on challenges, but those mics can now be used underwater: “our audio guy Ryan England has created this whole new underwater system,” he said.
Catering, craft service, boats, and wood
A few behind-the-scenes tidbits:
- “We have 40 boats,” Probst said, including some Survivor’s crew created. The “marine team designed their own boats and built them,” and he says “we could make [those] for $75 grand because our guys know what they’re doing.”
- “We import every bit of timber, all of our food from either New Zealand or Australia or whatever it is.”
- “Our head chef, Mary Anne Houston, has been there forever; she makes about 100,000 meals a season,” Probst said.
Those 100,000 meals are served at a schedule Probst described as “Army-esque,” with these timeslots:
- breakfast from 6 to 9 a.m.
- lunch from 12 to 2 p.m.
- dinner from 6 to 9 p.m.
He said while there are snacks like granola, craft service is “not like a movie” and “you’re not going to be finding Red Vines and gum.”
Food is kept away from contestants: “We’re very strict and enforce it: there’s never a water bottle, if somebody did smoke, they couldn’t smoke on set. When contestants come on, we don’t talk. It’s their world; we’re just eavesdropping,” Probst said.
The show’s production schedule
Probst is now running the process, though neither that nor Lynne’s exit are mentioned in the podcast. (He does mention Lynne when discussing how Millennials vs. Gen X came together, saying she “kept bringing in these great but younger people.”)
He does talk about the schedule, however, starting with casting now. “The scariest and most invigorating part of casting is you’re having people come in for months and you don’t know what you’re going to do. And the calendar is clicking day after day after day. And CBS is saying, What’s the theme?, and you’re saying, I don’t know yet. I don’t know because nothing’s really presented. It’s so much easier to say, Let’s just to do blank and we’ll be done.”
Planning the season’s “creative actively starts around December, January, February,” he said, and then there’s a “39 day shoot, about 18 days in between, I come home and do a live show for the season that’s airing.”
“Our crew is out there five and a half, six months,” Probst said. “I’m lucky that I can work from home on my white board and then go to the location late.”
When he’s on location, though, “There are no distractions. Zero. I am working Survivor all-day, every day,” which he calls “exhilarating and exhausting.”
“It’s the greatest gift ever, the greatest opportunity I could have ever hoped for, that I get to be inside that machine—part of it—every day,” Probst said.
Mark Burnett’s gift to Jeff Probst
Early in the series, Probst says that Burnett gave him “the greatest gift ever. … What he really did was, he said, I believe in you.”
Probst says “it allowed me to argue with Mark,” and “my argument was, But I’m the audience. You want me in this point of view. You be the maniacal crazy guy, I’ll be the guy that helps we’re doing things the audience can relate to. I don’t know if any of that was right, but in the moment I believed it.”
It’s interesting to contrast those season-one observations (“I’m the audience”) with Probst’s recent realization during David vs. Goliath production that he now makes the show for contestants, not viewers.
What Survivor’s story is now, and how the show is written
“We have this creative time that’s been together for a long time, so we all know each other really well, and what we all agree is, we don’t want to continue to tell the same story, which is I could win. Here’s how I’m going to win,” Probst said on the podcast.
Instead of focusing on how people will win, the team has a different focus:
“We’re interested in human nature, and human behavior. What happens when people are in crisis situations? Your truth comes out. How do you handle it? Do you step up and lead knowing it might get you executed? Do you hang behind hoping you don’t do anything wrong? Are you good socially? Are you a pain in the ass, and if you are, can you realize it and change? Those are the stories that interest us.”
At another point during the interview, Probst said, “Our central dramatic question is: Who is going home tonight? So that’s what we’re answering in every episode.”
Probst says Survivor’s team casts the show and provides a space and structure, but “that’s where our involvement stops. We have some twists planned for you that might throw you a curve ball, but you’re now going to decide what you do,” he said.
The show gets written, but only in post-production, after events have occurred.
“We accumulate all that information, and then when we’re done, we deliver it to the audience like a mystery, pulling out certain pieces of critical information, so you’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen, so you can play along,” he added. “So we do feel like we’re writing it, but in a sense, we’re writing it backwards with a script somebody else gives us.”
Survivor David vs. Goliath’s storyline, and Probst’s white boards
The production does “plot out” seasons in advance. “A lot of our format is worked out we know we have challenges, but any time we’re doing a unique season, we usually bring something unique to it. That’s the stuff we’re trying to plot out so when it comes time to execute it, we know exactly what to do,” Jeff Probst said.
Some of that happens in Jeff’s room on white boards: “I always have two big ones on location in my room.”
His use of them “started out with me seeing other people who had cork boards and pushpins” but finding that too “laborious for me … I like to write longhand, in my own handwriting—I don’t know why, I’m not saying it’s a good system, it’s just my system.”
Here’s how Probst says he uses his system:
- “There’s one board that’s just a shit-ton of ideas. It’s signage, left or right, stay in or go home, it’s what if we had mountains and they were gods and we did something based on Jungian…”
- “The other board would be episodic structure. Episode one of this season starts, beat, beat, beat, beat…”
As he writes on them, he’ll discover the season’s storyline. Here was his revelation for Survivor season 37:
“It’s the stories we tell ourselves dictate the future of our lives. That’s David vs. Goliath, that’s what we’re doing this next season—that’s how we’re going to tell their stories through their point of view of how they were raised. It might have taken me 25 pages to get to it, but all I care about is getting to it.”
The show also has a document he called “our Bible,” which starts coming together before the season is filmed. “Pre-production is starting to just understand the way we’re going to tell the story.”
That happens in “a 25-page David vs. Goliath document,” Probst said, and he elaborated:
“With David vs. Goliath, that document would be about: Here’s how Davids see the world. Here’s what our interview questions could be. Here’s where we should go with stories.
And for the Davids that make it deep, we should see this arc. Maybe a David actually becomes a Goliath at some point, and says, I’m shedding this skin. I no longer feel these are obstacles; I feel like I’m going to win forever.
Maybe there’s a Goliath that halfway through says, I think I’m a fraud, I’m really nervous, I don’t know. That’s what those documents are, so we can all say on day 17, Hey with so-and-so, are we getting the story? Are we really understanding the way his dad raised him?”
That’s probably just some of what we can expect from Survivor season 37, which premieres next week.