Who is The Mole? With those words, Anderson Cooper—clad in a leather jacket and standing in a white void, increasingly urgent music playing in the background—opened ABC’s first reality competition, and ignited a fervent passion for The Mole that continues to this day.
As Netflix revives the series, and its format and key concepts are repeatedly and shamelessly borrowed by cooking shows, game shows, and survival competitions, I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to look back at the seasons that started it all, and how those came to be.
While The Mole has been fondly remembered by many of us, its shorter life meant that it’s sometimes forgotten in the history of the genre—despite the the copycats and even attention from Netflix, which streamed four of the five ABC seasons over the past year.
Unlike The Amazing Race, which was an original idea and is still being produced, The Mole was an existing Belgian series, so its format and even challenges were imported by American producers, who’ve since scattered inside and outside of Hollywood.
This comprehensive oral history covers the original civilian seasons, seasons one and two, including the now-classic Anderson’s Fun House, and also touches on the celebrity editions and 2008 revival.
I began this project in early 2019, when I interviewed The Mole showrunner—now Shark Tank showrunner and former Road Rules showrunner—Clay Newbill. I talked to him again, along with executive producer Scott Stone, in addition to interviewing executive producer David Stanley, ABC executive John Saade, and several others over the past nine months. I’ve also included a 2014 interview I did with host Anderson Cooper.
I’m so very grateful to everyone who talked with me for sharing their insight and time. (Interviews have been condensed and edited to clean up human speech, but never in a way that changes content. I selected the order of quotations in this story, and while they are grouped thematically, none should be read as direct responses to other people. Any typos are my own.)
I regret not being able to use everything that they said, though I’ll publish some outtakes in my newsletter, so sign up if you’d like even more Mole!
When season one completed production in late November 2000, a report said that “The 10 players and 176-member crew traveled to 2 continents, 4 countries, 34 cities, stayed in 65 different hotels, spanning over 15,000 miles and used 16 modes of transportation, including planes, helicopters, buses, vans, boats, motorcycles and horses.”
As with so many first-season reality TV shows, it was not an easy journey, but it ended up producing one of reality television’s best shows.
An oral history of ABC’s The Mole
Part One: Bringing the Mole to America
- The idea: ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’
- Casting: ‘a lot of really smart people’
- Host Anderson Cooper: ‘he looked like a secret agent’
Part Two: Self-Sabotage in Europe
- Planning and testing: ‘pass the stick’
- The Mole begins: ‘you’re racing’
- The first week: ‘the crew mutinied’
- The quiz and executions: ‘the real game’
- Game play: ‘everyone is fucking up the challenges’
- Locations: ‘Anderson’s fun house’
Part Three: Clues to The Mole’s Success
- Keeping the mole secret: ‘quadruple-guessing’
- Editing: ‘really complicated’
- The hidden clues: ‘scared shitless’
- The music: ‘an epic feel’
- Reception and ratings: ‘people were confused’
- Seasons 2, 5, and Celebrity Mole: ‘a certain charm’
Bringing The Mole to America
The idea: ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’
Scott Stone, executive producer: “It was actually 1998 or ’99 when I first heard about it.”
David Stanley, executive producer: “My best recollection is that it came to us through Mark Itkin at the William Morris Agency.”
Scott Stone: “Mark Itkin is the godfather of reality TV.”
Clay Newbill, showrunner: “[Itkin] is the one who put Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray together. He was their agent, and that led to Bunim/Murray and The Real World. He really has had such a great impact.”
Scott Stone: “He sent me two tapes. One was The Mole and the other one was a show called Popstars.”
David Stanley: “We watched the Belgian version. We were so intrigued and excited, and we never so much as questioned whether we could pull it off, or how, or anything other than: Where are we going to find a home for this in the U.S.?”
Scott Stone: “I loved [The Mole] because it was so dark and conceptual and different.”
David Stanley: “Scott Stone and I together made about 2,000 episodes of television. At some point, the making of the show honestly becomes the easier part. Because you have relationships with a whole bunch of really, really talented, smart people that you can pull together into a team to do amazing things. The hard part of the job is getting other people to give you the money to pay for it.”
John Saade, ABC executive: “Even before there was a reality division [at ABC, programming executive Andrea Wong] became aware of Survivor based on the Swedish version of the show, even before it was pitched here, and pretty aggressively pursued Survivor. To her credit, I think she saw the potential of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s how we were all looking at reality in that very early stage.”
Scott Stone: “NBC passed on it; Fox was not in that business at the time—it was pre-American Idol. CBS really had strong interest in it but they said we’re not going to do it because we already bought Survivor and already bought Amazing Race, which hadn’t premiered yet. And they weren’t quite sure if they could handle another one.
[ABC’s] Andrea Wong really liked it and so did John Saade. And they said, Let’s see how Survivor does. Survivor came on the air, and was a huge hit.”
John Saade: “There was enough overlap with Survivor that I think it made it really attractive to us. It took people and put them in the middle of a competition, but instead of a strict survival competition, it was survival of wits.”
Scott Stone: “[Andrea Wong] called me back like the day after Survivor [premiered]. She said, Do you still have that show? And I said yeah, we do. She said, Okay, we want it. We want it now. We want to go do it immediately.”
John Saade: “We really responded to the fact that it was a was an ABC version of Survivor-style show.”
Scott Stone: “[Andrea] introduced me to two people who changed my life: Clay Newbill and Anderson Cooper.”
Clay Newbill: “I had done Making the Band, which was an ABC/MTV co-production and worked with Andrea Wong and John Saade.
I could tell right away [Scott] loved this idea. To be honest, I thought I was being non-committal. I leave the meeting, and I had been maybe in my car for about two minutes, and my phone rings: We’re going to do this together.“
Even though two seasons had been produced in Belgium, turning that show into an American show was quite challenging.
John Saade: “The cleanliness of the Survivor format is fantastic. The Mole format is not nearly as clean.”
Clay Newbill: “Scott sent me the episodes, and I sat down I watched them. And just like every other person who falls in love with The Mole, I just got sucked into it. Each game was better than the last one. It was just so, so smart. I was just really brilliant.”
Scott Stone: “The Mole is the simplest idea on the surface, and the most complicated idea to actually produce. And the rules of how you produce things in Belgium are clearly not the same as how you do them here.”
John Saade: “It was definitely a format, but it was a very loose format.”
David Stanley: “We were really looking forward to working with the original group that created the show. They refer to themselves as The Beatles. It was four people, and they had all worked together to put this thing together. Part of our deal was they were going to consult with us in the development of new shows with new games and new challenges”
Scott Stone: “They put us on the phone with the guys in Belgium who had created the show.”
David Stanley: “We asked for whatever written materials—bibles and things like that—and at the time, I don’t think anything existed. The first mole, if I recall correctly, was a cousin of one of the people that created the show.”
John Saade: “On the one hand, we had a format, but we had a bunch of challenges that wouldn’t necessarily pass muster.”
Susan Futterman, ABC standards and practices: “It was very hard for me to understand completely the format because of the foreign language, as opposed to Millionaire, where I could see it being played on in English. So that was a little hard.”
David Stanley: “The standards for reality shows in other territories turned out to be not as restrictive, and not as subject to rights issues and broadcast standards issues as these competition reality shows were here in the United States.”
John Saade: “We used to joke about the fact that ‘Hold the Stick’ could be a competition for them, whereas we had a very intense standards group. We still had broadcast standards, and we had a lot of rules around how actual competition rules were written, so we had to plan a lot of stuff way in advance.”
Clay Newbill: “They don’t have the [same] fairness concerns—making sure that it’s fair for everybody that American producers have to abide by.”
Scott Stone: “We had to not only figure out how to produce the show, but had to do it with the ABC broadcast standards people right there with us saying when you can and can’t do.”
David Stanley: “We had Susan Futterman from ABC, who was sort of notorious for being a bit of a stickler, so everything was under a magnifying glass that felt like we were coming in just on the heels of the Twenty-One scandal.”
Susan Futterman: “I would say there’s no question that we ran a different kind of department, a much more thorough department. [Al Schneider] set up ABC broadcast standards, and had a very deep sense of the obligation to the viewer that permeated our department, that I don’t think happened at other networks in the same way.”
John Saade: “It was a tough one for broadcast standards: We had had this person who was essentially with the producers who could control, to a certain extent, how much the prize was.”
David Stanley: “The issue of having somebody working for us and against the rest of the people—because it really only impacted how much prize money was going to be available—never really became an issue.”
John Saade: “We didn’t want it to be much less than like $250,000, but we didn’t want it to be much more than a million—something like that.”
Susan Futterman: “The mole is in the nature of that setup. On The Amazing Race, they set up the tasks, but they can’t in any way interfere and they must be fair. That’s why there’s an arbitrator—or in the first season, three of us—who made final decisions, not the producers.”
Scott Stone: “The fact that they work without standards and practices is a completely different ballgame. So there’s all kinds of things [the Belgian show] can do that [we] can’t do, and there were no rules written down.”
Susan Futterman: “In a strict game show, there’s a division between the producing part of the show, and the game part of the show—that is the writing of questions, the vetting of questions, the creation of the stacks of questions, the shuffling of the stacks of questions—all of the things that are done in order that the producers, as in the $64,000 Question, can’t have a liking or disliking for a particular contestant and control the outcome of the game. In a more reality-based show, the producers do have more involvement in all the actions of the show, but they can’t in any way affect the performance of the actual contestants.”
Craig Borders, director: “[The Mole] didn’t feel as exploitative of people’s real lives, deep personal issues coming out, exposing them for the public to see. It was more controlled and fun. It was a collaborative show; everyone had to work together to build the pot.”
Casting: ‘a lot of really smart people’
Casting for The Mole occurred in the summer and fall of 2000, when broadcast reality television was still in its infancy. But at ABC, even standards and practices was involved in the casting process.
Clay Newbill: “We had a casting supervisor, and we went through the traditional routes. We actually ended up with a really good cast that first season.”
Susan Futterman: “Before contestants are chosen, we go through with programming and the producers the results of our tests: the psych, the physical, the background, and so on.”
Scott Stone: “You weren’t asking them to do anything gross, so we got a lot of really smart people to apply.”
Susan Futterman: “There are background checks, and are levels of background checks. So, on a Bachelor we’ll do a deeper level. You have to decide if you’ll live with someone who had a felony or a misdemeanor. You have psych tests, and decide what kind of psych test you need for this kind of stress.”
Susan Futterman: “You need to figure out your medical tests: how fit they need to be, obviously somewhat fit but not like The Amazing Race, which was really fit. If it’s not likely that anyone’s going to sleep together, do you really need STDs? You probably don’t. But you probably do on Bachelor—and we got a lot. So you have to create your profile of all your procedures imagining what the game is, and putting those in place.”
John Saade: “We put together the best possible cast we could.”
Clay Newbill: “We’ve always had a really great cast.”
Scott Stone: “My favorite one was Al from season two. His whole [audition] tape was him running around outside in front of his house, holding a pair of scissors, yelling, I’m running with scissors. That’s how dangerous I am!“
Clay Newbill: “There was like a foot of snow on the ground, and he was in his underwear.”
Producers found a cast for season one, but weren’t sure about casting about eventual winner Steven Cowles, a 30-year-old undercover police office.
Clay Newbill: “I remember when we cast him, we’re like, How can you do this show? Are you going to be endangering yourself now that people see you on the national television? He’s like, No, no, don’t worry about it. You won’t read they won’t recognize me.“
Scott Stone: “I’ll just grow my hair out.“
Clay Newbill: “Jim was a helicopter pilot and attorney as well. He’s just a really smart guy.”
Scott Stone: “An openly gay helicopter pilot attorney—unusual in 2000.”
Clay Newbill: “Kathryn [Price] had written a a mystery novel, and she was an attorney—she now writes scripted television here in Los Angeles and is very successful.”
Scott Stone: “[Retired detective Charlie McGowan], a crazy racist police officer.”
Producers cast the 10 players, and then chose their mole from within that group.
David Stanley: “You wanted to know who was willing to do it, and not everybody was, but most of them—in all seasons—were really intrigued, and really wanted the challenge, and they wanted to stick around for the whole show. That was the other big bonus of being the mole.”
David Stanley: “The mole had a fixed amount of money that they would get paid.”
John Saade: “Kathryn and [season two mole] Bill [McDaniel] were both paid a little bit more. We’d pay a stipend to the cast because we were taking them out of their lives.”
Clay Newbill: “We went through our finals casting, we had all the people that we were considering for the finals come out. Back then, you would schedule an entire day with the the network executives. They would come, and we’d do interviews with people. And usually the executives were in another room watching on video.”
Clay Newbill: “We called it the ‘Mole Factor.’ A Mole Factor of 10 was the highest. We literally would break people down and say, like, What do you think other people—players in the game—are gonna think? What do you think their mole factor would be? And somebody had to have at least a seven to get in there.”
David Stanley: “You can give them guidance, and you can give them direction, but at some point they’re making decisions in the field trying to make sure nobody knows they are the mole. That’s where the selection of the mole became so significant. It wasn’t just someone that we picked because they would be charismatic. It was somebody we trusted.”
John Saade: “I didn’t want to know who the Mole was. Because I was going to be in the field, it was better for me to be able to play and not be weirdly influenced by being paranoid about who the mole was. Frankly, it made it it made it easier for me, but it made it a lot more fun.”
Clay Newbill: “After all the interviews were done, we put up everybody’s picture on a board and had the discussions about Mole Factor and who we thought would be a good fit. We all finally signed off [on the full cast]. It was quite late—it was probably about nine o’clock at night or something; we’d been at this probably over 12 hours.
All of our contestants weren’t allowed to see each other. So they were all isolated in their their own room. They were sent back to their room after the interviews were over and told, knock yourselves out, watch as many movies as you want, get room service when you want it. But please just stay in your room.
We thought the best way to let people know that they’ve been selected was to go up and knock on their doors.
[Jim, Kathryn, and Steven] were the three that were highest on our list. The just ended up being the final three. They all had that high Mole Factor. And they all played the game very, very well.
Scott and I, we were debating back and forth. We narrowed it down to Jim or Kathryn. And we were literally walking through the halls, knocking on doors of the other contestants. We’d whisper, discussing the pros and cons, and literally just decided there: Kathryn opens the door and it’s like, Let’s do it. You’re the one.”
Host Anderson Cooper: ‘He looked like a secret agent’
Anderson Cooper only hosted two seasons of The Mole. But he was an unlikely choice to host a network reality TV competition.
Clay Newbill: “We were doing run-throughs for potential hosts, and we probably saw, like, 15, 20 people that day. They’d come in, we’d talk with them a little bit, they’d give us a read, we’d chat, and they’d leave and the next one would come in. We’d seen a bunch of them and no one really seemed to be right, because they were TV hosts.”
John Saade: “[ABC executive] Stu Bloomberg at the time had suggested Anderson Cooper, who at that point was doing the ABC overnight news.”
Clay Newbill: “[ABC’s] Andrea [Wong] was a huge fan of his and said, Take a hard look at him. He’s somebody that I think could be a good fit.”
Scott Stone: “Anderson was one of a handful of people who auditioned for host, but it was Andrea’s idea, and I hated it. I thought he was terrible in the audition—not a great audition. But he really, really, really wanted to do the show, and she really, really, really wanted him to do it.”
Clay Newbill: “All the others looked like TV hosts—that’s not a bad thing, but they just looked like regular television hosts. Anderson walked in and he looked like James Bond, right? He had that premature gray hair, the steely blue eyes and chiseled jaw. He looked like a secret agent.”
Scott Stone: “And then he giggled.”
David Stanley: “If I’m not mistaken, we did sort of an on-tape audition out in front of a Hollywood Canteen on Seward [Street] behind the lot. And he was terrific.”
Clay Newbill: “I remember Scott and I talking about him afterwards. All right, but probably not right for us.”
Scott Stone: “He wasn’t a trained host. Nobody knew who he was.”
John Saade: “He was a guy who, for Channel One, was self-shooting stuff in war zones, with literally victim gore on his sneakers.”
Anderson Cooper, host: “It was really in the early days of reality TV, and at the time, I was really interested in seeing how reality TV is produced and how it’s edited.”
John Saade: “He was a great combination of having pretty serious news gravitas, so he could be serious and present information when he needed to. But he’s actually very warm and personable, and has a sly sense of humor.”
David Stanley: “He was finding his way a little bit at the beginning, because he had not done a gig quite like this, but he was just so naturally engaging and likable, and had that sort of wink to the camera. He was charming and all the things you want someone to be in that role who’s a little bit of a tease.”
Craig Borders: “He can remember a full sheet of copy, after reading it like once or twice, and then get it verbatim. I was so impressed.”
John Saade: “Having Anderson get to spend time with the contestants—because he knew nothing about who the Mole was—was a fairly safe sort of thing. It helped his relationship with the contestants quite a bit. He was able to develop like a genuine relationship with a lot of them that I think comes across on screen. Probst is more authoritarian and a little bit more removed.”
Mark Lambrecht, season five winner: “Anderson was the opposite. It was almost like he was the anti-host. He was just very cool and very calm. And I thought he really lent that air of suspense, mystery, and sabotage, but then at times he would get cheeky.”
John Saade: “To his credit, [Anderson] didn’t try to become a producer on the show the way a lot of hosts did. He let the producers do their jobs, and he’d sit there, and he’d deliver his lines, and he would do what he was supposed to do. But he was never directing people around; I’ve certainly been on sets where that happens, where the talent starts telling people what to do.”
Anderson Cooper: “To be involved in all aspects of the production, I found it really eye opening. It was really interesting.”
John Saade: “Anderson always had a call time that just seemed unnecessarily optimistically early. Like, he was supposed to meet the van at the hotel at 9 a.m., and everyone knew he wasn’t going to do anything until like two or three in the afternoon. But Anderson would, at nine exactly, be sitting there in the lobby by himself—even transportation wasn’t prepared to come and pick him up. I think other hosts might have gotten a little indignant at a certain point. He never did, and he was never a prima donna.”
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Self-sabotage in Europe
Planning and testing: ‘pass the stick’
David Stanley: “Putting these things together as a solid hour—that had something going on, had the right teases and the right feel, and had a combination of physical challenges and mental challenges and intrigue and the guessing game of who the Mole was—in pre-production, and then going out and making it happen, was a big challenge.”
John Saade: “What honestly made the show so much fun is that none of us, I think, totally understood it like it is now. It’s a weirdly flawed format that sort of works. You know what I mean?”
David Stanley: “When we started looking at a lot of the games, they didn’t quite work when we tried them out. We were very big on prototyping games. I give Scott credit: he got used to doing this for game shows, and we did it religiously on Shop ’til You Drop. We had to prove to ourselves the games work and made sense in their roughest form. Once you’ve got cameras rolling, if the game fails, it’s kind of a disaster.”
Scott Stone: “We took a few [tests] from each of their two seasons and put them together and said okay, this is the creative. It’s one of the reasons why it has this European feel to it.”
John Saade: “You have an advance team that would come through and try to do these challenges, but just trying to figure out how to design a challenge that had sabotage points, but subtle sabotage points—that was tough. I give them a lot of credit.”
Clay Newbill: “We were on a very fast track by the network; they wanted us to get on the air by certain time. So we didn’t have a lot of time to develop our own games that first season. And they had some fantastic games.”
David Stanley: “We turned to the Belgian Beatles to get some input, and they were very excited that they had a game for us. And we said, Great! So what’s the game? And they said: You put everybody in a line and you give the first person in line a stick. You take the stick and you pass the stick to the next person … and they have to get it all the way through the line to the last person. We said: I don’t understand: What’s the game? They said: The one who drops the stick is the mole. That was the moment, if you’re asking, when we thought we may not have a show here.”
Clay Newbill: “We would have the core of the idea, and then we would be continuing to fine-tune those games, even when we were in the field. There would usually be an advance team in the next city that was doing run-throughs of the games. The more opportunities that we had to actually do the game increased our knowledge of the game and what the outcome might be, and it allowed us to see potential problems. Obviously, you want the game to go perfectly, very smoothly and not have any glitches or mistakes. At the time you’re shooting everything, you’ve invested way too much in it.”
Susan Futterman: “There are overall rules, and there are rules for each individual contest. You have to keep telling the producers: you’re going to have to live by what you write.”
David Stanley: “The games themselves were twofold of a challenge. It had to be a game that worked as a game—meaning there was real competition, you were invested in the players, there was some sort of scoring system, there was going to be a winner and a loser. But it also had to be a game that there was some aspect that would allow them to sabotage. So it’s a very complex development process, much more so than a regular game show.”
Development continued in Europe, where a small team scouted locations and the route the production would take.
Craig Borders: “I was at the airport at Tom Bradley International Airport, getting a contract delivered curbside that I had never even looked at and signing it—with the approval of my lawyer, of course—and then getting on a plane and watching the Belgian version of it on the flight to Europe to do the scout.”
Scott Stone: “We didn’t have the luxury of using a lot of the original locations that they had used on their seasons.”
Craig Borders: “We basically went the whole route and hit the major cities. I think it was about 10 days, two weeks.”
Clay Newbill: “We were in Avignon, France, [scouting,] and we had found this great location where we’re going to play one of the games. We get a call: You guys got to get back as soon as possible. We’re going to be shooting in four weeks. I was like, What?”
The Mole begins: ‘You’re racing’
Scott Stone: “Clay brought so much great stuff to the table, because we hadn’t done this kind of show before. We went out in this Road Rules style, which was known in its day for being two months of nonstop work, without a day off, and you just figure it out.”
Clay Newbill: “The first season of Road Rules was 13 people, right? It’s very small, can move quickly. This was a bigger machine that was moving.”
Craig Borders: “When I interviewed with Clay, he said he didn’t want it to be another death march. We had done Road Rules, which was 10,000 miles in 10 weeks around the country.”
Scott Stone: “Here’s the stupidity of the first season: We started to do it more like Amazing Race, because we started shooting the first season here out near Lancaster, with the airplane jump, and then immediately drove to the airport, got on a plane flew to France and started shooting with the cast that night and the next morning without any sense of what might happen with jet lag. We had cast members and crew members who were just basically asleep for two days, just trying to catch up.”
John Saade: “That’s how naive we were. There’s a full stunt with a jump, getting in these vans, driving through one of the the rare rainstorms that we had in Los Angeles which made traffic horrible, getting to LAX, getting on a flight to Paris, sleeping overnight on a plane, landing in Paris, having a dinner in Paris, doing a walk around ad-lib challenge in Paris, getting on the high speed train the next morning, going down to Laurel in wine country, and then finishing the episode there. It was an insane amount of travel.”
Susan Futterman: “The first day was a nightmare.”
David Stanley: “We’re gonna let them jump out of the airplane, and then we’re gonna stick them in vans, drive to the airport, we’re flying them to Europe, all in one day.”
Susan Futterman: “I had to learn everything that I could [about skydiving]. I went out, saw the site, and I met with the safety people.”
David Stanley: “We tried to get C-130s, one of these planes of where the bottom drops out, because it’s really cool to shove people out of it. So we got one, and in of all fucking places they put us, we were in Lancaster. Well, anyone who knows anything knows it’s always windy in Lancaster. So we’re staying in some little motel, and sure enough, the dust-up is happening, and it’s really awful and it’s cold and it’s miserable. We go to sleep, we get up at the crack of dawn, we go to wherever the location is, and we’re out in the middle of nowhere. Scott had this vision of doing the opening of the show like North by Northwest.”
The season begins with players arriving in the middle of the desert on different vehicles: a bus, a motorcycle, a car. That’s when the problems really began.
David Stanley: “We have two helicopters that are going to fly in and Anderson’s gonna come out of the helicopter—a big moment. And somebody says, Nobody mic’d the contestants. So we bring everybody back, and then we mic them all, and then we send them all back again.”
Craig Borders: “Anderson gets out, walks over, and he’s got the flight jacket on and looks the part, but I noticed his lips are quivering—just straight nerves, and it happens to even the most seasoned professional. I had to cut. You don’t like to cut in reality shows, because you don’t want to have to redo anything, but I just had to acknowledge that he needed a restart, and it’s fine to do it. Once we did, he got over that first initial adrenaline rush, and then just crushed it from there on out.”
Susan Futterman: “We have the top executives that have been limo-ed out there, and us who got up and drove out. The contestants had been all trained and briefed, and everything was set, but we had to wait, wait, wait.”
David Stanley: “Somebody says the wind is coming up so much that if we don’t get them up in the plane the next 15 minutes, we won’t be able to dump them out of the plane.”
Susan Futterman: “Weather conditions are really, really important, because if there’s too much wind, you shouldn’t go out of that plane.”
David Stanley: “We’re busy getting the opening shot, and they said yeah, we blew the window, and now we have to get them to [LAX]. And I said, Wait. I have a house in Santa Barbara. It’s never windy there. It’s beautiful. There’s got to be a field there somewhere and that we can push these people out and let them parachute down to the ground. And guess what? We have an airplane! Fly them somewhere where you can push them out of the plane.”
Susan Futterman: “For every challenge, you need to have a safety supervisor, or stunt supervisor—whomever is in charge—who will call the stunt. It will not be a producer, it will not be me, it will be someone knows how to do that. And the person who was in charge kept saying there’s too much wind. The programming people … they’re dying. They need to get these contestants on a plane to Paris. And it’s not a chartered plane. They are dying.”
David Stanley: “Instead of having them jump out there in Lancaster, we flew them up to Santa Barbara.”
Susan Futterman: “John Saade and myself and the producers, we were put in a helicopter to go to that location. The ground camera crew took off to that location, and then as soon as we got to that location—we were going against the clock—the plane went up and came over near our location. Then they started filming them coming down. I, of course, kept looking at feet and knees ankles, worried that someone was going to break an ankle or twist an ankle or something.”
David Stanley: “We circled around because we had the same problem there. The landing area was smaller there and there was no time to make a second pass because they had a plane to catch, so the last couple of people, they pushed out in a slightly different location. [Other players] thought that was sabotage. They thought [those players who landed in a different location] were the mole. Yay, we have a show!”
Craig Borders: “[Standards and Practices were] very hands on—and for good measure. I’m a huge advocate for safety. One thing I think the reality genre failed at, at least in the early days, is safety standards. So it was it was refreshing to have them there, but it was interesting, too.”
Susan Futterman: “It was decided: We’re not going to film [those other players], let them jump, we’ll bring them in, we’ll get to the airport. You’re racing from the very beginning.”
The first week: ‘the crew mutinied’
The production made it to Paris, and then went on to Monte Carlo, Monaco, for a test that involved kidnapping one of the players, and tasking the other players to find him. But despite that epic challenge, the grueling schedule started to get to the crew.
Craig Borders: “[In the Cartier watch challenge, Anderson] had fun with that moment. He ran with it. Then he started to just kind of play with them a little bit, and became more of himself and more playful, and showed more of his his personality.”
John Saade: “The Man in the Iron Mask is where I really started to feel the charm of the show, and I don’t know that I felt it before that point. It was able to draw on the location, play with some history. It was a little bit creepy, it was a little bit weird, but it was a challenge that we hadn’t seen before. It definitely wasn’t carrying logs through a swamp.”
Scott Stone: “We would shoot for 12 hours, and then drive four hours to the next location, because we had to shoot the next morning.”
Craig Borders: “I think we had like a crew of 100 people: six trucks, a generator, props, grip, electric camera, crew vehicles—a ton of people and an international crew all traveling over through the countryside.”
John Saade: “It was a big crew: At least two shifts of most of the keys—camera and audio and things like that—the tech people, a big art department that had to travel with the show.”
Craig Borders: “I wanted to do a show that we could do longer takes—not that MTV-style quick cuts, but really play out something that had more of a cinematic feel. But once we hit the ground running and we were working 23-hour days, 24-hour days for some of us. Some of those stylistic choices still had to go out the window. I think we kept the character of the show and the general vision.”
Clay Newbill: “We were getting great stuff, we just weren’t going to be able to make it.”
Craig Borders: “It was grueling. The first nine or 10 days, I think I slept a handful of hours—literally would sleep like one hour a night just to take a nap to be prepared to do the next day. It just started backing up and bottlenecking, [even with having] other directors to tag out.”
John Saade: “The cast interviews ended up taking up pretty much an entire day. Like any show, you have to go through it beat by beat to tell the story. Here it became even more complicated, because you had to really get into who they were suspecting on a person-by-person basis.”
Susan Futterman: “You just are worried always that something could go wrong.”
Scott Stone: “It was the eighth or ninth day. All but one person on the crew mutinied: They literally said We’ve booked flights home. This is not going we’re not doing this. I’ve never had this happen before my entire life.”
Clay Newbill: “Our schedule was way too ambitious at the beginning, and we realized that about four days into the schedule. We’ve just got to give everybody a day off and let people get some sleep, and then while they’re doing that, we’re going to regroup and rework our schedule.”
Scott Stone: “First of all, here’s a bunch of money. Everybody take yourselves out for a really nice dinner, and buy some great food and wine in Avignon, France. Number two, we are now going to redo the schedule and add a day off every week.”
Scott Stone: “We were able to save the crew. If we hadn’t, we would be in deep, deep trouble. But every single hotel [reservation made for the rest of the shoot] was gone.”
Clay Newbill: “Instead of having 20 rooms, you’ve got three at this hotel, which created a big issue for us. Instead of everybody being consolidated in one hotel, we would end up spread out all over.”
Clay Newbill: “One of those nights, we were in five different hotels, probably at 30 miles away from each other—something crazy like that.”
Scott Stone: “We’re in Seville, Spain. And we’re doing this challenge [at the University of Seville]. One player had to retrace their path, and go stop the other contestants who are busy solving a bunch of brain teasers.”
Scott Stone: “We have a problem: The janitor has locked all the doors for the path that they’re supposed to take. We’re supposed to finish there around 11 o’clock at night, but it’s now two o’clock in the morning.”
Clay Newbill: “Before the janitor with the keys problem, which delayed us about a half an hour, 45 minutes, we had this really difficult maze [set up]. Our contact at the university says one of the department heads doesn’t want us on his part of the [campus].”
Scott Stone: “So all the plans that you had got thrown out the window.”
Clay Newbill: “We went down to about a quarter of the [space] to work with. But we figured that all out.”
Scott Stone: “Then we have to drive an hour and a half to get to the hotel because there was nothing available in Seville. We get in the car. Anderson’s in the back, Clay was sitting in front with me. This truck comes out of a driveway, clearly drunk, and comes right towards us on our side of the road. I go off the road into this ditch on the embankment going sideways enough for the truck to pass.”
The host, showrunner, and executive producer being run off the road in the middle of the night was perhaps the most dangerous moment during the first season, but small issues cropped up, as they do on any production.
John Saade: “Because of the way the show worked, [the players] were stuck in isolation for really, really long periods. It’s such a bummer for them. They literally had nothing; there was no internet. I used to joke they had nothing to do all day but brush their teeth and masturbate.”
Mark Lambrecht: “When we weren’t filming, we weren’t even allowed to talk. It was called being ‘on ice.’ Anything that was said and discussed, it might be something really good, but because it’s a reality show for money, they couldn’t say to us, Hey, did you have that conversation again? They are desperately trying to preserve the true reality of the game.”
David Stanley: “The trickiest part in my view about The Mole was that not all the challenges were either as exciting or compelling as we would like them to be, and some were harder to play along with.”
Susan Futterman: “[Rules] are all written down—not before you start, necessarily. Some of them happen right once they get to a location, and they run it with crew and all the safety has has been overseen and so on, and then they write a rule.”
David Stanley: “We were treated entirely as [a game show] to the extent, with the exception of our host, we were not allowed to tell anyone what they were supposed to say or do. Even if we had a technical malfunction, we were not allowed to recreate anything.”
Susan Futterman: “Anderson will say the rules to the contestants, and then you stop down—and this is true for any show—and then whoever’s there overseeing it, whether it be a lawyer or broadcast standards person, then goes over the rules and make sure every one understands. Obviously, in The Mole, you aren’t telling them the twists and turns.”
Craig Borders: “That was the only time I’ve ever had standards and practices from a network actually on the road traveling and observing.”
Susan Futterman: “After you finish doing it you have both the rules you started with, and then the person overseeing it must write what actually happened so you have a record of it.”
Craig Borders: “This is a good example of how days just go crazy wrong. So we get a cornfield maze, and we literally have all the specs from the Belgian show. We’ve got the crane up there with the camera, and it wasn’t wide enough to show the whole cornfield. While we were resolving that one issue, the winds started howling.”
Susan Futterman: “There was a problem in the cornfield [maze] with the head gear being loose on of the female contestants. They had to be very alert to stopping down for that, stopping the clock for that, adjusting it, getting the contestant in position, starting the clock again. All that would be written down as played. It’s kept by broadcast standards, or it’s kept by legal department.”
Scott Stone: “In the laser tag game, we wanted to make sure somebody got either the exemption or the money. The snipers were shooting them with the laser guns were Spanish people we’d hired. We said okay, here’s the deal. Don’t shoot any of the women. Just shoot the guys because we don’t care. If the mole wants to shoot a bunch of people, that’s fine, or if other people want to shoot somebody looking like the mole, that’s fine. But in terms of our snipers, don’t shoot the women.”
Scott Stone: “You can’t stop because once you start, you start. Sure enough, in the first two minutes, down goes a woman. What the fuck?! Don’t shoot the women! Before we know it, all the women are dead.”
Clay Newbill: “[to the snipers] When we told you not to shoot the women? What are you doing? I had to shoot them. They were women.“
Scott Stone: “[Imitating sniper] She was just standing there. I can’t not shoot her.“
In season two, the producers began with a challenge that ended up dropping the players’ luggage into a bonfire. But first there was a test that almost didn’t come together.
David Stanley: “They’re going to string a rope across a raging river between two trees, and then we’re going to have each one of the people try to make it across the rope. Any time their heart rate goes over a certain level, they have to stop. And they only have a certain amount of time to get across the rope. We show up in Switzerland, and the location guys drive us to a park. They’ve got a rope strung between two trees about eight feet above the ground. And we went, What’s this? Well, we couldn’t—the river was not available.”
People are flipping out a little bit. Scott Stone looks at me and says, “I’m going to throw up.” So I kept saying, “it’s going to be fine.” He says: “No! I’m actually going to throw up!” I said, Okay, we’re gonna tell our camera guys to be to lie down on the ground basically and shoot up at these guys. You won’t be able to tell that it’s so close to the ground. We just won’t take a wide shot; it’ll be fine. And at this point, our network executive, John Saade is racing to his phone to call the network. We then start having people go across the rope.”
Al, the warehouse worker, takes like three more steps. His heart rate goes through the roof. And now people down below are going, Do you think he’s doing this on purpose? Maybe he’s the mole. And I looked at everyone and said, Okay, now we have a show.”
Clay Newbill: “[For Burn Bags,] we wanted to get them to feel the intensity of the game. It was a way for us to set up the next game: You guys don’t have your clothes, and I’ve got these clothes that I’ve set up for you, and they were wacky costumes. They had to make their way through this quaint little village to a train station, and ride on the train with regular people. When they got to their next location, this very nice hotel in Switzerland, there’s Anderson: Oh, I have your bags.
[Season two] started airing just after 9/11. Suddenly something like this was viewed completely differently by viewers. Hindsight is always 20/20. You would say: Well, let’s not do that, if you had known that the world was literally going to be a different place.”
The quiz and executions: ‘the real game’
Scott Stone: “The real game is the quiz. Right? That’s what determines who gets eliminated and who doesn’t. In the original Belgian season, you barely see the quiz. You don’t see the questions and the answers. There isn’t another American television show that functions that way that I know of, where a whole bunch of the game you don’t see.”
John Saade: “For the first two seasons, the actual questions they took in the quiz was a ton of stuff that wasn’t in the show. It was literally production stuff—like, Which van did the mole take to whatever location? We would never show which van they were in.”
Scott Stone: “I actually just found the actual floppy disk of the computer program from season two, all of the quizzes and the answers.”
David Stanley: “I think it’s really funny because I think season two starts off with [Anderson] saying something like, It’s a simple game. Like if you said it enough times, then it would make sense. The problem that we had was people hadn’t seen a lot of reality shows. So the one they kept coming back to was Survivor. So the question we got the most often was: How do they get voted off? Right. They don’t get voted off. There’s a quiz. Really? Yes. There’s a quiz.“
Scott Stone: “There’s a very complex system where when they take the quiz, we would have two people. One person was timing them, someone was looking over their shoulder with a typed copy of the quiz questions, watching the answer that they actually put in the computer and circling it to confirm that what they put in the computer is what we have. Then we make them sign that afterwards, so they can come back and say the computer didn’t get my answer right. We actually know that it’s all accurate.”
Susan Futterman: “I didn’t know who the mole was while it was filming because I had someone on set. And this person on set has to not only be there, but look at the questions before the final test and then look at the answers to make sure that that was answered correctly and we aren’t getting rid of the wrong person, or they didn’t frame the question clearly enough, for instance.”
Mark Lambrecht: “They’re watching you. You get one shot, and they tell you that you get one shot at your answers. When you’re done, you’re done. It’s very nerve-wracking.”
Scott Stone: “You can’t do all the quizzes at once because we didn’t have that many computers.”
John Saade: “What unfortunately [the questions] ended up doing is that it made them obsessive notetakers. They’d all sit down with their journals and just go crazy writing who was sitting where, and who was in what production vehicles, who had what at the buffet.”
David Stanley: “[In season two,] we went from 20 questions to 10 questions, so we kept trying to find ways to make it quote-unquote simpler, but I think right up to the very last day, people were still asking us how people got voted off. I would be surprised if anybody watching the show today on Netflix would raise that same question.”
Scott Stone: “Clay and I volunteered to talk to the guys at Eureka [Productions], who are doing the new [Netflix] version, and I don’t think they’d figured it out yet. They didn’t know what questions to ask, which tells me that they hadn’t really figured it out yet.”
Susan Futterman: “When someone was eliminated, even if it was on location, we send [the show’s psychologist, Dr. Catherine Selden] so that we’re always assessing the degree of trauma, or not trauma, or whatever.”
Game play: ‘everyone is fucking up the challenges’
John Saade: “Certain people did have it figured out kind of quickly. They would end up wavering a little bit, and the producers were smart enough to set up a challenge that sort of pointed to someone else.”
Clay Newbill: “You don’t want to do too much sabotage, because you don’t want to be too obvious. You have to just have an idea, as the mole, of who’s onto you, and being able to deflect on to other people.”
John Saade: “But then when enough people are playing that game, everyone is fucking up the challenges, all of the challenges are getting messed up in the clumsiest, stupidest ways possible, because everyone wants everyone else to think that they could potentially be the mole as a self preservation device.”
Clay Newbill: “People think you’re making a TV show, but it’s really hard. You may be staying in nice hotels and eating nice food. But you’re still 24/7—you’re even dreaming about this game. And it takes a toll on people, on everybody.”
John Saade: “You could feel a real warmth with these contestants, which I personally liked—this idea that this is a group of people on this adventure together. Unfortunately, one of them is going to betray them and they’ve got to figure out who that person is. But it’s also ends up being a betrayal of relationship on top of everything else. That’s what reality shows are at this point. It’s the tension between selfishness and sacrifice.”
Mark Lambrecht: “It is a very cerebral game, and there’s so much going on, and it’s hard. It was really hard. So many people go, Oh, did you have fun on The Mole? No, I didn’t! Oh my gosh. There were moments that were fun. But damn, that was an emotional stress.”
John Saade: “It was hard to really hide from the contestants who the actual mole, was just based on a stumble they made early on. Then when the contestants realized that by acting as the mole themselves, they’d be flushing other contestants out—which became a very popular strategy. You would intentionally throw a challenge, because if you got one or two other people to think you were the mole, that meant you weren’t eliminated.”
Locations: ‘Anderson’s Fun House’
Clay Newbill: “We wanted that to be one of the appeals of the show. It’s got a little bit of a Travel Channel, or travelogue, or Lifestyles of Rich and Famous, and going to these exotic locales, and staying in really nice hotels, as opposed to Survivor, which is the exact opposite: your contestants are dropped on a deserted island, given some rice and beans. Ours, they were having these amazing meals with wine, and living a life of luxury. When you think of a spy film or movie, the Bond franchise, it has all these incredible locales. Sometimes we were out in the middle of nowhere, but generally we wanted to stay near cities and places where you could put them in a good hotel, and they can at least get a nice meal.”
Scott Stone: “The whole idea that they were eating meals together was antithetical to any American TV. You didn’t see people sitting around a fancy dinner table, drinking wine, eating food, and enjoying themselves. That became a touchstone on the show, which I kind of love.”
John Saade: “Part of the charm of the show is that you actually got to settle into some of those places. You got to enjoy the small villages and the fish out of water in our cast members. You ended up taking over some of those places just sort of organically. They’d obviously have whatever permits they needed, and where the challenges were set up, were in pretty controlled spaces.”
Clay Newbill: “You’ve got these great villages in Europe that we went to, and we often would shoot in. [People would ask,] How much money did you spend on set decoration and production design? We just went to these locations; we didn’t really spend anything.”
Scott Stone: “In Spain, where we shot the laser tag game, or the fort with the knock-the-glass-bowl-over: Those are existing locations that just required some lighting.”
John Saade: “We were big curiosities in a lot of these little villages we went to.”
Clay Newbill: “A fixer put us in touch with the people to find the right locations, and our producers did a great job of going out and meeting people with a translator. Would you mind if we come into your house? We’re going to be here for probably like three hours.”
Scott Stone: “I can’t imagine doing that here. Maybe in a small town.”
Craig Borders: “People were kind of intrigued by the cameras and crew, and but nobody really cared.”
Clay Newbill: “People just stayed in their houses. For the three questions [test], we would go up and knock on doors. These were real people, and we’d have you know a person in there from our staff.”
John Saade: “We stayed at a city called L’Aquila for like three or four days, and that city was really devastated by an earthquake.
The most surreal episode we ever did, Anderson’s Fun House, was also right there. That was the weirdest house—just a weird house on the side of a hill with bizarre artifacts.”
Clay Newbill: “We booked this place because it was the only place we could get. I get there walk in and the place just looks horrific. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Scott Stone: “It was supposed to be a nice mansion. But it turned out to be just a horror house.”
Clay Newbill: “This just looks like like it’s this this is disgustingly gross from an aesthetic perspective. What can we do with this? David and Scott show up. They’re like, Whoa. What are you going to do, Clay? Basically, you fucked up.“
Scott Stone: “We did what we always do: We went to a restaurant and figured it out. Or maybe David and I went to a restaurant and you figured it out!”
Clay Newbill: “We just embraced it. We had to. There’s no way to polish it. And I came up with: Let’s make it it Anderson’s Fun House. Anderson was up for it. He ran with it.”
Scott Stone: “Anderson always wanted to do more. He was always game for anything. We were afraid to do that in season one, because I grew up in a world where you coddled [talent] a little bit, and you don’t push them to do stuff that’s awkward. Anderson’s like, Put me in, let me go do something crazy!“
Scott Stone: “We’d write all this copy for him, and suddenly he’d start giggling. He and Clay developed a really good bond between the two of them. Anderson’s Fun House is sort of the culmination of that—[or] when he got drunk and he was pouring wine for everybody. If we’d gone to a third season, we would have even gotten further.”
John Saade: “Partially because of Anderson, partially because of the way Scott and Clay produced it, and partially because was The Mole and not Survivor, I think for the most part, the contestants had an okay experience.”
David Stanley: “Never mind the fancy hotels and and the terrific meals, the one thing we always tried to do in all our shows was really make it a fun experience for everybody: the cast, the crew, the staff, everybody. That was at least for me, a big, important element.”
Scott Stone: “There wasn’t a moment on the set that I didn’t go, Fuck, that’s awesome. I wasn’t expecting that to happen. We thought there was a show there. Whether or not anybody would watch it was a different thing—and whether or not it was right for ABC is a whole other thing, and whether or not we would get an audience that would understand the complexity of it.”
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Clues to the Mole’s success
Keeping the mole secret: ‘quadruple-guessing’
Clay Newbill: “It didn’t complicate production. Scott and I were the only two who knew who the mole was who were out in the field—other than the mole themselves.”
Craig Borders: “No one needed to know other than the person that hired the mole. One person could have known who the mole was, which would even be better, because it’s less chance of it leaking.”
David Michael Frank, composer: “They were very protective about the episodes, and they hardly wanted to tell me anything. Not that I cared who got eliminated and who was the mole, because I really didn’t care, but they didn’t want to tell me where they were going, where the cast was traveling.”
Susan Futterman: “This is a real issue of need to know—not want to know, because we’re all curious! I want to know, but yeah, you don’t need to know.”
Anderson Cooper: “When you’re with people that are playing a game for 30 days, after a while, you want to have one meal when they’re not scheming against each other and trying to figure out if I know who The Mole is. And no matter how many times I said, I don’t know who the mole is, so it doesn’t matter who I’m looking at more, you can’t read anything into it. Because I didn’t know who the mole was.”
David Michael Frank: “I was able to find out some things about the types of games they were going to play or contests and the different sections and eventually found out a few of the places that they went to. But first they made me sign a nondisclosure agreement, where I agreed that if I gave away any information and spoilers, I would own ABC $11 million.”
Scott Stone: “I don’t feel comfortable revealing to you how we do all the mole behind-the-scenes stuff—some day, we will, on my death bed. Or you can read Bill’s book, because he actually revealed some things in there that he shouldn’t have.”
Clay Newbill: “We had a meeting with Kathryn before the game started, and we talked with her about what she could expect at that point, and what we would expect, and the fact that we really won’t be communicating much with each other. Much like is the case with a real mole, you’re kind of on your own out there. You’re a bit of an island. But just stay the course, no matter what happens, don’t ever second-guess yourself. The irony is that that’s what all the other players end up doing.”
John Saade: “There was a chance for what they called a check-in: They would clear the [interview] room, so just be the producers and the contestant. It was set up as a chance to check on your well-being and have a conversation—but it was also a chance for the producers to talk to the mole without anyone being aware. Cameras and tech would be disconnected.”
Clay Newbill: “If there was a moment where she was alone, because at times we would split people up, we could talk were there. I think we slipped notes a couple times, maybe. But it was very, very short communication, if at all. … The idea of [Kathryn’s] hotel room being close to the stairs—that’s ridiculous. We never considered that when we would put people into hotel rooms.”
Scott Stone: “You can say all you want you knew Bill was the mole, but during The Mole, you could have gotten to the very last episode—as somebody we know did—and change your mind. Because we would never tell you that you’re right, and human nature is to second-guess everything.”
Clay Newbill: “The players are quadruple-guessing themselves.”
Scott Stone: “I think every season we had somebody who got to the last episode, or the second-to-the- last episode, and switched and lost. They knew at the beginning and they fucked up. That is a lesson learned that I didn’t realize until after we’d done the first season: how powerful it is not to tell someone whether they’re right or wrong.”
Editing: ‘really complicated’
John Saade: “All credit to like Clay Newbill and the team that was working with him, because it’s really hard to keep a secret going for an entire season, showing enough as you’re shooting and editing each challenge to at least lay a little bit of the groundwork for the various clues, but not give too much away. It’s really, really complicated.”
Scott Stone: “There are two categories of people who find out who the mole is first: sound people and editors.”
Craig Borders: “The first episode was edited by Sean Travis, who ended up directing the second season and the celebrity seasons. He was a director on The Real World: Miami when I was a camera operator. He taught me a lot about directing before I ended up directing this show, so we worked really well together in the edit.”
John Saade: “When you’re doing a show like Bachelorette, a lot of times the bachelorette has settled down on who her choice is pretty much immediately. And then you had to pretend like there was suspense to finally get to the inevitable 13 episodes later.”
Craig Borders: “Clay was there [in editing], as the executive producer. The owners [Scott Stone and David Stanley]. There were plenty of hands on. At that point, it was about putting it together in the most efficient way to deliver and get it to air.”
David Stanley: “We were sort of wandering into each other’s editing bays to keep up on what was going on, and being problem-solvers.”
John Saade: “The cameras were able to see things that the contestants in the field couldn’t, and vice versa; occasionally the contestants saw stuff in a field that we didn’t have clean footage on. How do you keep that all in balance?”
David Stanley: “There were two scenes we were very concerned about. One involve the game of blackjack, and one involved a surprise for the players that we blew in the field. There’s a scene in a hotel lobby—remember when we burned everybody’s stuff? There’s a reveal at some point where Anderson’s talking to them, and he has what he’s going to say, and then they were going to bring in all of their stuff, and get that great moment of the reveal, which is kind of the way it plays in in the show. That was me in the editing bay, because while Anderson was talking they rolled all their luggage across the room behind him, and everyone saw them, and went Oh my god, it’s our stuff! So I had to figure out how to re-order that in such a way that it didn’t look stupid.”
Clay Newbill: “That final episode, where it all is laid out, here’s what happened, and let’s start at the beginning and this person was on to the mole, but then got distracted—that to me is is the thing that’s incredible. You don’t see it until that last episode, and even then we don’t have time to go into all the details. But every season that we ever did was really incredible.”
David Stanley: “In season two, we had a fire in post-production.”
John Saade: “They were editing it Hollywood Center Studios, and the building that they were in caught fire one night, and actually a bunch of tapes disappeared.”
David Stanley: “Despite all the good intentions and efforts of the people who supply the ovens that we put the hard drives in to try to dry them out, they fried the first ones because they didn’t know how to use the ovens. So we had to put a disclaimer in the show explaining that we had recreated the reveal in the very last act of the show—and that was a huge fight. They didn’t want us to do it.”
The hidden clues: ‘scared shitless’
The clues revealed in The Mole season 1’s finale were, well, kind of ridiculous. And there’s a good reason for that.
Clay Newbill: “We had this big plan about shooting these clues, and we just didn’t have the time to do it. So it was something that we did in post afterwards.”
Scott Stone: “We were scared shitless that we were going to give it away.”
Clay Newbill: “I think it’s fair to say that probably Scott and I may mock the clues ourselves sometimes.”
Craig Borders: “I feel like they pulled a muscle reaching for some of the connections that they were making.”
Clay Newbill: “Season two we were able to work them in more.”
Scott Stone: “There was one [clue] in the European version that I really love, where the mole came down to the execution in slippers every show, because they knew they weren’t going anywhere.”
Clay Newbill: “We don’t want to give it away. We don’t want to be too clear. Some of them are arbitrary. But any mystery you pick up, any novel or mystery you watch, there are some arbitrary clues in there.”
Despite that, viewers obsessed over what they were watching, and in the early days of Internet fandom, went online to talk about what they’d seen. And those viewers included future players.
Clay Newbill: “We would check online what people were saying. Scott and I’d be like, Hey, did you check the website out? They saw the clue and they’re absolutely right. We’re like, Oh my god, the cat’s out of the bag. It’s over. We’ve gone too far. Then the next week, something else comes up, and basically people are second-guessing.”
Mark Lambrecht: “They didn’t plant any clues for us [in season five]. We were all looking and waiting because of seasons one and two. In fact, I lost my mind one day. We were driving from a mission back to the hotel, and it seemed to me like the van driver was acting like they were lost. We went by a sewage drain where somebody had spray painted some initials. I convinced myself that it was a clue. At the end of the season, we were so ticked off because we spent so much time looking for these clues that ended up being non-existent.”
The music: ‘an epic feel’
The Mole’s thrilling tests and dramatic locations were heightened by its dramatic score, which really elevated the entire series.
David Stanley: “One of the things that we felt made that show so engaging and compelling was the music. We were surprised to learn that the music in the Belgian show was, uh, borrowed from a number of major motion pictures. In order to keep that production value at such a high level, hired a friend of mine in the neighborhood where I lived named David Michael Frank, who composed an original score.”
Clay Newbill: “David Michael Frank did incredible music, and it gave it really separated The Mole from all the other reality shows.”
John Saade: “The music gave it an epic feel.”
David Michael Frank: “The Dutch Mole had used a bunch of John Williams stuff—they use Raiders [of the Lost Ark], and just took the music from Bond movies.”
Scott Stone: “That’s true of all shows in Europe. You can just score it with whatever you want, and nobody cares.”
David Michael Frank: “It would be cost prohibitive to do here. They’d have to pay a fortune for it … they’d have to pay all the musicians that played on all the different sessions, and it would be really, really expensive.
I suggested that I record it [in Prague with an orchestra], and then sweeten it with musicians here to make it more contemporary. The basic classical orchestra, with the strings and woodwinds and brass and piano—even classical percussion, like timpani, and things like that—were done in Prague.”
Clay Newbill: “I looked at the budget and I’m like, How much is that going to—wait a minute, we’re going to spend that much money on the music? It was a really ballsy idea, and one that I think was brilliant.”
David Michael Frank: “The largest orchestra ever put together for a television show. I was lucky, because reality shows didn’t do that, and haven’t done that, but because of how much ABC and Stone/Stanley loved the Dutch show with all this great music, I was able to get a decent budget to do this.”
While Frank was able to hire an orchestra in Prague and musicians in L.A. to complete the soundtrack, he was not scoring individual episode, as might be done for a feature film or drama.
David Michael Frank: “Because of the time schedule, and the budget, and how protective they were about keeping things secret, they didn’t want to do it that way. They wanted me to write basically a library of cues. And if they needed things specific that I hadn’t written, then I’d go in and do that stuff.
I found out they went to France, they went to Paris, so I was able to do some French music, and and they went to a bullfight, they were in Spain, so I did some Spanish-flavored stuff. And then they also told me about some of the contests or whatever, and so I knew to do quasi-military things, action stuff, comedy things. They had one game involving rounding up sheep. I basically did a theme and variations on Mary Had a Little Lamb. And in fact, I think that’s my favorite piece of music I wrote for the whole series.
I had to be at the mercy and hope that their film editor could cut music. I knew that someone was going to get eliminated every week, and so I wrote a pretty cue—something touching for that, so you cared about the person, to make a tender. There were comedy bits, so I had lighter cues. I knew there was like passage of time cues, or searching for clues, where it was more mysterious. I also knew there was something in a cornfield maze where it was horror-type music, Exorcist-type. It was pretty eclectic, but yeah, the basic overall tone was definitely espionage thriller.”
The music that underscored the executions was among the most dramatic: a ticking beat that changed only at the moment when the eliminated contestant was revealed.
David Michael Frank: “I wrote it, and the ending, at a continuous time pulse. They’d start at the beginning, cutting somewhere in the middle, and back it in so everyone would seem like it was written exactly to the picture. They were so protective about not wanting to give away the ending they would have the dubbing session, or the mix session, where they combine the dialogue, music and sound effects, and they would do everything up until then—and all the producers or editors and sound people would see that. But the last part, where the person was executed, they would they would cut it down and there’d be only like one person and one editor who knew that stuff.”
Scott Stone: “I still love [the soundtrack] to this day. It’s on Spotify, and I’ll just throw it on the car and listen to it.”
David Michael Frank: “My only regret is that it wasn’t done early enough, and didn’t have the budget to be able to score every single thing exactly to the picture, and the fact that it was a library. I gave them as much music as I could write, and afford and as many hours as I can afford in my budget, and still have some money left over for myself.”
Reception and ratings: ‘people were confused’
Clay Newbill: “Survivor was the initial big broadcast network show that hit. And Survivor’s a brilliant show, and part of its brilliance is its simplicity. It’s a very strategic game, but it’s very easy to understand, play along, and follow.”
Mark Lambrecht: “When I watched The Mole originally, I thought it was beyond me: these people are so smart and so clever and so good at the kind of pretending. This game is so hard. I thought it was harder than Survivor.”
Anderson Cooper: “I think people were confused by it. It was a relatively complex idea.”
David Stanley: “There was this roadblock for us—that has since evaporated—that that kept us from getting cooperation from the scripted world and the news world for this kind of programming. We couldn’t so much as get Anderson booked on a talk show.”
Clay Newbill: “I think maybe it was a little ahead of its time. A reporter said it was the smartest reality show on television, which we were proud of, but that could be a double-edged sword. Maybe it makes it too smart, and it doesn’t appeal to a broader audience.”
John Saade: “People still thought the mole maybe got the money that they were able to sabotage; they never totally understood that. The fact that the mole is working for the producers, what exactly does that mean? What is the mole’s incentive? It’s hard to say that the whole incentive is basically just to play a game and stay undetected.”
Mark Lambrecht: “Even having played the game, and it’s almost 14 years later, I don’t really know what [season five mole Craig’s] motivation was.”
Clay Newbill: “There were a lot more elements to the game itself, and not as easy for a viewer to digest as some of those other early shows that became big hits.”
Anderson Cooper: “I was confused at times by it.”
John Saade: “There was a positivity to the show: smart mattered, observations mattered, relationships mattered.”
David Stanley: “No one was quite sure what to do with these things. So programming them became difficult. What are we going to put it on after?”
John Saade: “The ratings were just okay. They definitely weren’t Survivor ratings. But they were at the time like Amazing Race ratings—good enough that we comfortably went into a second season.”
David Stanley: “Our schedule on the show was death. Every time we started up again, there was another problem, and then ABC preempted us for a while, and it didn’t matter how well we did, they always wanted to attribute it to our lead in or our lack of competition. There was a time when The Mole was the highest-rated show on the ABC schedule—not the highest rated reality show, the highest rated show on their schedule. And we were still the stepchild.”
Clay Newbill: “I can’t help but look at that show and think that if ABC had stuck with it—and stuck with it with civilians, as opposed to celebrities—that it could still be one of the mainstays. It definitely had a strong following. In our first season, the finale ranked really high, and we got picked up. We finally finished a couple of weeks before, so my wife and I, we were on vacation, and I got a phone call. It was Scott saying congratulations, we got picked up, when can you be back, we’re gonna start right away?”
John Saade: “I really do believe that that show should have been like Amazing Race. The ratings were just good enough, and it was the kind of thing that just could have kept running and running and running, and it should still be on the air. in its original form.”
Clay Newbill: “Second season, we started airing right after 9/11. Nobody was watching that kind of television.”
John Saade: “Honestly, it wasn’t the right post-9/11 show. At that point, we had so many existential threats that you didn’t want to feel that there was an internal threat to our show.”
Clay Newbill: “We actually went to the network and said, Please pull us. We also did research and nobody knew we were on because people just weren’t focusing on that type of thing.”
John Saade: “With streaming you can interrupt things and wait months and years between cycles of shows, but back then you couldn’t really do that.”
Seasons 2, 5, and Celebrity Mole: ‘a certain charm’
John Saade: “I’m not sure any of us totally understood the show the first season. There was a lot that you learn as you go. What we learned is that the contestants were a lot more durable than we gave them credit for. They knew that they were in for a game, and you could push them a little bit harder.”
John Saade: “I think we were able to understand that there was a certain charm to the show, a melding of history and local culture and small town. We were able to leverage that a lot more. Anderson got more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t really totally a ringmaster. He was on the journey himself, too, without totally understanding what was going on.”
David Michael Frank: “The second season, I did not go back to Prague. I took all the cues and remixed them, and made them more contemporary. If a trumpet had a melody, I would take it out and give it to a guitar, or something like that, and add more synthesizers and more electronics, and then write specific music.”
Clay Newbill: “[The season two cast] all became friends, and they still, to this day, keep in touch with each other. There was no animosity at all between them afterwards.”
Clay Newbill: “I remember Andrea Wong calling and asking me if you could do a celebrity version. And I said, sure. I referred to it as Mole Light. The stakes aren’t there for them, right? Because they’re celebrities, winning up to a million dollars, even if I only get half of that—that’s a life changing amount of money for anybody that we cast. For a celebrity, it’s a nice year, but it’s not going to change their lives. They’re not going to take it as seriously, the stakes aren’t as great for them. Because of that, it should be more comedic. That’s what we geared toward: it’s more of a more fun, more comedic than the drama you got from real people.”
John Saade: “With the celebrity versions, we were trying to figure out, like, is there a way to incentivize the mole? Then you get into all kinds of problems. If you incentivize the mole, then the producers are telling you, the mole, it’s time to pull back a little bit because people have suspicions, that’s not fair to them all.”
Clay Newbill: “I prefer the civilian version. The stakes are higher; it’s much more relatable, and I think viewers become more invested. The celebrity version is more of a comedy. I wish we’d been given the opportunity to do a third season with civilians before we did the celebrity version, because I think it just needed a little bit more time.”
After two Celebrity seasons, The Mole was cancelled. But in 2008, it was resurrected by ABC, with its third host, John Kelly.
David Michael Frank: “There was a Writers Guild strike and so they needed programming and so they have reality TV. They brought the show back. I thought it could be a big hit like The Amazing Race, it just never did, unfortunately. When I did it when I got into fifth season, I got an Emmy nomination for that music, so that was nice.”
Clay Newbill: “It was great to get our team of people that produce the show back together. We had a great cast. Some things went well. That season, the contestants were much more savvy. Mark, the eventual winner, was really smart. He was a soccer coach, but he was really smart and very observant—not only observing other people, but also in how he emoted himself. He would do that with everybody, not just the other contestants, but also with the producers.”
John Saade: “It was a unique show that was made unique by the producers and Anderson. It never really quite worked without Anderson as a host, even in a celebrity versions. [Season five host] John Kelly was great, but he wasn’t quite Anderson.”
Mark Lambrecht: “John was such a such a nice guy—just a really nice, genuine guy. But Anderson to me, I loved him as a host. I thought he lent something to the game that I personally don’t want know anybody else could replicate. It probably hurt the show going forward [that Anderson left]. I think if he would have continued hosting, it may have done better.”
Anderson Cooper: “I enjoyed it; I’m glad I did it. It was not something I would do again.”
Craig Borders: “This is a show I love.”
Clay Newbill: “It’s still very near and dear to my heart. I really loved doing that show. It’s a show that, if I wasn’t producing, I’d watch.”
Scott Stone: “This show got five seasons with I believe four different network presidents, and every single one of them tried to kill the show, and we found a reason to bring it back. I still believe that if they had done either the celebrity version and kept it on at 10 o’clock, or did the civilian version at 8 o’clock, it still be on. But they kept putting the civilian version on at 10 after The Bachelor, which is not an audience for the show. It’s a shame, but I’m anxious to see what Netflix does with it. I hope they do it some justice.”
Friday 24th of February 2023
You’ve captured some fascinating and important TV history Andy… extremely insightful, thanks for sharing!
Saturday 25th of February 2023
Thanks, Phil! I really appreciate that. And thank you for being part of my story about The Amazing Race's first season, and ensuring it, too, is a comprehensive record of a pivotal part of reality TV history!
Monday 24th of October 2022
This is Al Spielman from Mole 2. I want to thank you for such a wonderfully insightful article. As a player, you really don't know how much goes on behind the scenes to make it the show happen. Lots of amazing planning by some excellent folks. I will say that David was right about the roadblock. After I was executed on the show, they had a day scheduled for me to do several interviews on various radio shows on ABC stations around the country. When I asked why we weren't going to be interviewed on GMA ( Survivor contestants were appearing on the CBS morning show after they were voted off) I was told that ABC had an entertainment division and news division and that they wouldn't cross promote like CBS did. (GMA was considered part of the news division at that time). I really believe some additional network exposure would have attracted a broader audience and boosted the ratings. This show should have had a longer and more consistent run than it did.
Nonetheless, thank you for your many years of unwavering support for The Mole!
Monday 24th of October 2022
Thanks so much for the kind words, Al! I appreciate it, and appreciate all of the entertainment from season two.
And wow, that's amazing—especially considering how much cross-promotion ABC "news" shows now do with ABC's reality TV shows. I guess The Mole really was ahead of its time in so many ways.
Saturday 8th of October 2022
I finally found the time to read this and it's an absolutely wonderful article! Thank you!
Saturday 8th of October 2022
You're welcome! It was so fun to report and learn all this great stuff.
Wednesday 5th of October 2022
A truly fascinating read on one of my all-time favorite shows. I agree that the timing of S2 was unfortunate. Had they been able to delay that, and then give S3 a go, I agree that The Mole could've become one of the reality mainstays.
There was also talk of what The Mole's incentive was, aside from just having fun and getting paid a stipend. I think it would've worked if The Mole got to keep every dollar they were directly responsible for sabotaging (on top of a guaranteed stipend). Give them some more stakes, and more of a payoff for viewers too at the end of the season.
Wednesday 5th of October 2022
Thanks, Patrick! The idea of giving the mole the money they blocked did come up in interviews, but didn't make it into the longer piece. I included these two quotes in the special newsletter that went out today (you can still sign up and I'll send it to you!) that might help explain their thinking:
Scott Stone: "The mole can sabotage everything. And then everyone's acting like the mole, right? So they're all sabotaging. If you don't hold people back, you'll never put any money in the pot. The real goal is to figure out when the mole should sabotage or when they shouldn't, because they can't they have to not sabotage a lot of times, otherwise, literally, the pot would be zero."
Scott Stone: "Why can't the mole keep the money that they take out of the pot? Let's incentivize them to do that. Well, then the mole could do that on every single challenge, and make millions of dollars, and never put anything in the pot."
Tuesday 4th of October 2022
Amazing work Andy! Loved this all, did you ever find out why they changed the music for season 5? Rights issues with Stone Stanley?
Tuesday 4th of October 2022
David Michael Frank did explain that! It'll be in my special newsletter tomorrow; I just cut it since it was getting into behind-the-scenes business weeds. Basically, it was an ownership issue, since Stone/Stanley was no longer a company for season five.