One of my favorite shows of the last decade, The Quest, is back. Eight new episodes premiered on Disney+ last week. It is both familiar and new, with a fictional world in which real people interact.
Like the ABC version, the new season is produced by an A-list roster of Oscar- and Emmy-winning producers:
- Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri, and Mark Dziak of New Media Collective (Amazing Race)
- Michael Williams, Rob Eric, and David Collins of Scout Productions (Queer Eye, Legendary)
- Jane Fleming and Mark Ordesky of Court Five (Lord of the Rings)
Back in 2014, I interviewed four of those producers for a behind-the-scenes story about the ABC version.
Late last week, I talked with Jane Fleming and Mark Ordesky about the new season. I was particularly interested in talking to them in part because of how this season exponentially increased its fantasy storytelling.
Disney+’s The Quest opens like a film, and has production design, acting, and writing that is considerably elevated from the first season—which was quite impressive itself.
Meanwhile, The Quest also dropped many of reality TV elements: there are no confessionals and no eliminations. In my review, which was based on the first few episodes, I expressed disappointment that the contestants and the reality components were more muted.
It turns out that was by design—and changes as the season goes on, which made me even more excited to watch the rest. All of their answers gave me an even greater appreciation for the work that went into this season, and into its journey to television.
How did The Quest move to Disney+?
Executives from Scout Productions, which produces Queer Eye and Legendary, were meeting with Disney+ unscripted executive Dan Silver (who’s since left for Netflix) when Lord of the Rings came up. That led to a conversation about the ABC version of The Quest.
Silver hadn’t seen it, but “watched it with his kids, and they watched the entire season over a weekend,” Fleming said. “He called and said, ‘If we did it with with kids, how would you approach it?'”
Fleming said that Disney+ “talked us through things that they really liked from the first season and things that they’d really like to avoid,” she added, and The Quest’s producing team then came up with a pitch for this new, rebooted season.
Is this season 2 or something new?
Although ABC aired The Quest in 2014, and the Disney+ version shares a universe of Everrealm, it’s not technically being considered a follow-up. (If you haven’t seen it, season one is available, though not on Disney+.)
Ordesky told me Disney+ executives “don’t see it as a season two,” while Fleming said they’re thinking of it as “a reboot, a whole new form of storytelling using The Quest [season one] as a jumping off point.”
It’s “a brand new thing: not reality, not scripted,” she added. “Immersive adventure is really how we describe it—an immersive adventure for regular people to steep themselves in, in the stories that they love. It is taking the germ of what the first one was, and really blowing it up.”
The difference, she said, is that “the one on ABC was a reality show with a scripted overlay,” for the 2022 version, “we really challenged ourselves to blow up any traditional reality tropes.”
Why are there no eliminations?
Removing reality TV tropes explains the lack of confessional interviews, and also the most reality TV thing of all: end-of-episode eliminations, like ABC’s The Quest had.
“When dealing with teenagers in this current world that we all live, we really didn’t feel like it was in the spirit of adventure that we needed to do that,” Fleming said. “We did—and continue to have—some ideas up our sleeve that would have been amazing. The timetable just didn’t allow them. We really, really, really hope that if we get a third season—our second season [on Disney+]—because we are very excited to try.”
Ordesky described those ideas as “consequences and stakes within a very reality context.”
There is still a competition, with contestants winning challenges and receiving talismans. But the cast was more interested in working together.
“What was also really amazing and hilariously contrary to us, you know, us old cynic producers, is that the contestants wanted to work together,” Fleming said. “They were the better versions of us, always. Their hearts were in the right place. They they just really believed that the power of many was more than the power of one. It was kind of funny when you’re watching a bunch of old reality producers [wondering] Why? They’re so nice!“
As one example, Ordesky said the opening challenge “was meant to be an individual challenge,” but most of the contestants ended up working together.
How was the story arc created?
Is The Quest on Disney Plus real? Is it scripted? The answer is that it’s both!
The Quest has a detailed story, opening in the middle of a battle that ends with the villain killing a king—the brother of King Silas, who’s featured in the series.
“We had some amazing storytelling partners in a young pair named Eric Newman and Candace Lee, and we brought in a director named Harold Cronk to do a lot of the scripted directing, and we were very pleased with the result,” Fleming said.
The real-life contestants interact within that world.
“The contestants start as outsiders in this land,” she said. “You have a lot of scripted telling you what world they dropped into, and then what you start seeing is this intersection point where they start taking the lead in the world. We wanted to see whether or not we could actually do real-time adventure with real people and have the audiences believe it.”
In the back half of the season, Fleming said, there’s “this amazing transition, where the integration becomes complete, and [the contestants] are literally writing the story with us.”
She said that “part of the reason it’s being dropped all at once is so that people can take it in as a whole.”
Could The Quest ever use Disney IP?
The Quest, both the Disney+ version and the ABC version, are completely original stories, introducing their own characters and mythologies.
I asked if, especially now that The Quest is on Disney+, if that might mean crossover with other properties.
“I would love it,” Fleming said. She pointed out that, in the current season, “There are a lot of [Disney property] easter eggs in The Quest. Some of them ended up sort of sadly getting cut, but they were very open with their IP. We would love that—as fans and as producers. So it remains to be seen.”
How did COVID affect The Quest’s schedule?
When I asked Court Five’s Jane Fleming and Mark Ordesky if the production had more time with this season, because of the pandemic or otherwise, they laughed.
That’s because after Disney+ announced the new season in January 2020, a lot of things changed—and changed a lot.
The production was scheduled to film in July 2020, in Austria, at the same place that was used in the ABC version: Kreuzenstein Castle. Casting for the scripted roles was underway in the UK.
“We had a mythology. We had a storyline,” and also had a short-list of contestants, Fleming said.
Of course, we all know what happened in March 2020.
“We unwound that, and kind of just sat on our hands for a little bit,” she said. “Then Disney called in August and said, We want it this year. But we need to do it in the United States. We went from having time to no time. … Our writers wrote a script every five days.”
Call-backs for the contestants were done in September 2020, and production was scheduled for December at a winery with a medieval castle that producers visited and decided would work as a location.
Then, in late September and early October, a fire tore through wine country, destroying one of the buildings on the property of Castello di Amorosa, and leaving the area around it scorched.
The producers visited the castle again, and decided to incorporate the fire into the storyline. “We wrote it into the storyline that Tavora had already attacked,” Fleming said. “Once we were done with scripts, the reality team started taking over and trying to figure out what kind of challenges they were going to fill in.”
The fires delayed production until January—which is when COVID cases were spiking in the United States, so filming was pushed back to late February.
During this time, the producing teams split the workload like they did in the ABC season.
“We know each other really well now, so there was a lot of trust on all sides,” Fleming said. She and Ordesky “focused on story, scripted casting” and character and season arc, while “Elise and Bert and their team focused on challenges, and Scout [Productions] focused on the costumes and the sets and the look, which is kind of what we did last time.”
How was Disney+’s The Quest filmed?
Ultimately, The Quest’s eight episodes were filmed in four weeks and a few days, which Fleming said “from the scripted side, is kind of a Herculean thing.”
The opening battle, for example, was filmed in just one day, Ordesky told me—something that’d take at least two or three days on a film, if not a week.
The production had “barely one day to put that entire [battle], and that means all elements: Tavora, all the horses, the soldiers, the close ups, the wides, the visual effects elements, the practical effects elements: that was one day of shooting. That was just madness,” he said.
One way they accomplished all of this: “We did everything simultaneously,” Fleming said. “We basically had two crews going at all times. … needless to say, our crew was amazing.” Oredsky simultaneously said “incredible.”
“We can’t say enough about hair, makeup, production design, stunts, visual effects—everybody really bought into the vision,” Fleming told me.
That crew includes costume designer Johnny Wujek, who’s been Katy Perry’s stylist and “had done Legendary with the Scout [Productions] team—the first season and the second season—and he brought a team that are all from New York and do Broadway,” she said. “So they’re used to the mayhem of live performance. It was just incredible, the handcrafted nature of every single thing they did, but also their ability to just move fast.
What was the actors’ experience like?
Before the teenage Paladins arrived, the actors who’d be interacting with them came to the location.
“We brought the actors there a solid 10 days before we started shooting, and they did nonstop rehearsals,” Fleming said. “We brought in an acting coach, Chris Osbourn, who worked with them to constantly get them in character, to play with improv.”
During that time, she said, “We had fake kids poking them with questions. These are all relatively new-on-the-scene actors, and we threw them right into the cauldron, and they did such great job. We had a stunt stunt group team that trained them all in swordplay and horse play and the actors just brought it entirely. They were working constantly and they just did a great job.”
Ordesky told me that, to fully immerse the contestants, production is handled differently when they’re around.
“When the Paladins are present, it was live,” he said. “There’s none of the nomenclature of production in a scripted realm—second takes, oh let’s get an angle, oh can you do that line again, all that stuff. In those early episodes, you’ve got the contestants who are very much taking in their environment, because they have literally been dropped in.”
How did filming with minors affect production?
While the Paladins—the contestants—aren’t little kids, they’re all ages 13 to 16, so still minors. That meant their parents or guardians had to be on set with them at all times.
“The rule on any show with kids is that the parents need to be within visual contact,” Ordesky told me. Visual contact “can also mean [watching on] monitors.”
That was perfect for The Quest, where producers watch on monitors that are hidden from the contestants. It’s “out of sight, out of mind as it relates to the experience of the contestants. So we’re already set up to do that,” Ordesky said.
In addition, “there’s a limitation on how many hours minors who are under 18 can work,” Ordesky said, so “everything got structured around that kind of rhythm.” For example, a night challenge would mean not working during the day, and when the kids were done for the day, the team could film scripted scenes.
There’s an on-set teacher, and I was curious if that person was in costume and character, too. Alas, no. Likewise, the contestants couldn’t stay on location, which means they were in hotels.
While the castle in Austria was big enough for the cast to stay in actual rooms, that was not the case with the winery location in northern California. “There were bedrooms in that castle in Austria, like legit bedrooms,” and while living there was “part of the [original] plan, but unfortunately you couldn’t have had anyone live in the castle in Calistoga just was not logistically possible,” Ordesky added.
Fleming explained that “we created things where: You’re in Everrealm, you’re not in Everrealm,” adding “I don’t want to break the spell!” When the Paladins returned to the location, Fleming said there was a room where “they just hang out; they’d be in Everrealm for a while, so that they could relax into it.”
Do the contestants get more focus?
While the contestants are being immersed in the world in the early episodes, they are not passive observers.
“I don’t want to spoil anything,” Fleming told me, “but as you get down the road, there are a lot of twists and turns to the castle intrigue, and the contestants have a lot of points of view on it. They really grow into owning this world. They start taking on, in a very large way, our characters—and God bless our actors, because they threw some stuff at the actors.”
She said the Paladins “had a lot of theories about what was going on and they were incredibly observant. You have the challenge of it, but then you also had the castle intrigue and them playing sleuths.”
Fleming described that as “stunning and fun,” and said “they were often ahead of us. We couldn’t believe it.”
Thursday 19th of May 2022
This sounds like so much fun! I need to find the time to watch it.