The Australian Outback, 2000. It was 11:15 a.m. and I was about to grab lunch when the call came on the walkie-talkie: ”Tribe Camp One, go for medical. One of the Survivors just fell in the fire.” That was 11 years ago, during the filming of our second season of Survivor, when Michael Skupin fell in the campfire and had to be evacuated, his skin peeling off his fingers. I still remember it well because it was when I truly began to understand just how ”real” our show was going to be.
Survivor is an adventure show that is filmed in rain forests, beaches, and jungles all over the world. There are no conveniences of any kind. Contestants are dropped in the middle of nowhere and forced to survive. It’s very real. It’s very hard. But the question I am most often asked is ”Yeah, but what’s it like for the crew?” Well, sometimes it’s nice, sometimes not so much. It all depends on the location. This season we are in Samoa shooting Survivor: South Pacific and I’ll admit, it’s not bad, although as I sit in my room writing this, I am swatting away flying termites. So there’s that.
In the past, we have shot in places like Nicaragua, where we had very decent hotels and restaurants, though I did get a really bad case of bedbugs from my bed. But we have also lived in very small tents and makeshift housing in the middle of empty fields, most recently in Gabon, Africa, and Tocantins, Brazil. Back in the early seasons (Borneo, Australia, Kenya), it was romantic to sleep in a tiny tent, debating whether you had to urinate bad enough to risk running into a wild animal en route to the portable toilets. Now I’m more likely to just ”hold it.”
On Survivor, there is no ”Action” or ”Cut.” There are no do-overs. There are no writers. The show is shot live, so what you see is what you get. If a flood washes away a tribe camp, so be it, and if that same flood washes out the road to get home, our crew has to figure out how to fix it. While other shows have the luxury to wait for perfect light, we shoot no matter what. In fact, if it’s raining I push us to start rolling as soon as possible because rain adds an element of authenticity that offsets any problems it may cause.
Our crew members are warriors. On the beaches, it would not be unusual to see a cameraman filming the Survivors while leeches are crawling over his body and sometimes inside his body. Use your imagination. Regardless, they don’t stop until they get the shot. Our unit department arrives months ahead of time to build the entire infrastructure that will support us. Quite often they start with nothing. They have to create roads, clear paths, set up the beaches, camera tents, catering, offices, and marine. It’s a massive undertaking.
As far as jobs, they don’t get much better than mine. My office is ”the world,” and my wardrobe consists of khaki shorts and safari shirts. I’ve walked on the edge of a live volcano, stood on the skid of a helicopter, hung out the back of planes, and skydived from 13,000 feet. I’ve had a contestant nearly die in front of me, and I’ve seen others transform as they overcame lifelong fears all in pursuit of a million-dollar prize.
As host and executive producer I get to wear a lot of hats, and I enjoy it tremendously because there is rarely a dull moment on location. It is not uncommon to have a challenge rehearsal interrupted to tend to an emergency evacuation of an injured Survivor, then return to base camp for a creative meeting for next season, then head off to a Tribal Council, all within a few hours. The show stops for nothing.
I’ve grown a lot over the years. Watching a group of strangers take part in this crazy ”social experiment” along with having so much free time at night to just sit and think really forces you to evaluate your own life. I’ve learned a few things: (1) It’s in our nature to trust. (2) It’s also in our nature to lie. (3) The liar typically wins the battle but rarely wins the war. (4) You are not the center of the universe. (5) A smile will get you a long way in life.