All hands on deck: Behind the scenes of a Survivor marooning
They say it takes a village, but with approximately 275 international crew members and 370 local Fijian workers laboring off-camera to make sure every single detail is in place for both the contestants and the viewers, the Survivor production team is more like a well-oiled machine. What actually goes on in those precious morning hours before a season begins? What happens off-screen before the cameras all turn on? How much work exactly goes into putting together just a few minutes of television?
We went to Fiji with an all-access pass for the best reality show on the planet to get the full-scoop on what goes down on a marooning morning before contestants are thrown on (and eventually off) a big boat. What follows is just a taste of the events of May 30, 2018 — day 1 of Survivor: Edge of Extinction — before cameras started rolling. It includes last minute changes, trouble on the high seas, a ride in Probst’s golf cart, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
2:45 a.m. — Ponderosa 1 (Bekana Island)
Rise and shine! The 14 new contestants set to compete on season 38 of Survivor have been sitting in the island paradise of Fiji for three days now. But it’s really been torture. Because not only have they not been able to talk to anyone outside of a few conversations with producers, medical, and press, but the cast has had no idea when their adventure would actually begin. But as the players are roused from their tents at this ungodly hour by contestant handlers, they know: Today is the day.
The morning will be filled with checks from the wardrobe department to make sure everything everyone wears has already been pre-approved (ever notice how tribe members often wear the same color scheme? Not an accident), and the security department to make sure, as one producer puts it, that they “don’t have phones in their pockets or matches — anything that’s not approved to take with them.” (Richard Hatch famously smuggled matches onto All-Stars in a vial up his bum.) There is also one other meeting that needs to take place before they are cleared for play.
Survivor contestant pre-game sleeping quarters
3:00 a.m. – Base Camp: Catering (Mana Island)
Survivor used to film in a different location every single season with a multi-month break in between, but in 2009, as a way to curb expenses, the show started shooting two seasons back to back in the same place, starting with Samoa for seasons 19 & 20. After then heading to Nicaragua, then back to Samoa, then to Caramoan in the Philippines, and then to Cagayan in the Philippines, and then back to Nicaragua, and then to Cambodia, production settled down in Fiji for season 33 and has not left since. Jeff Probst has publicly stated that he hopes they never leave.
For four months every year (March 1 to July 7 in 2018), production takes over the Mana Island Resort in the Mamanuca Islands as their base camp. And it is in the dining hall at 3 a.m. that the poor souls on the early shift shuffle in for a quick continental breakfast before heading off to work. Among those souls is prop master Lucas Faganely. Like so many on the crew, Faganely has worked on the show for a long time while working himself up the ladder. He started back in season 21 (Survivor: Nicaragua) as a Dream Teamer testing out challenges.
The prop master grabs a quick bite, mapping out his morning, which includes heading off to his shop to begin loading up trucks full of supplies, then transferring everything to a boat at the production marina which will then be driven out to the marooning boat, where it will all be unloaded again. But for now, just let the dude eat his breakfast.
3:30 a.m. — Ponderosa 1
The doctor will see you now. Dr. Joe Rowles has been the medical director on Survivor since season 31. Having achieved a moderate amount of fame himself by crushing contestants’ dreams on national television through on-camera medical evacuations, Dr. Joe has an easier task this morning. After consuming a copious amount of coffee, he begins seeing the contestants one by one for their final medical check-up.
The contestants each go through comprehensive medical exams before they leave the United States, and then sit down with Dr. Joe when they first arrive in Fiji to go through their medical history, as well any medications they are taking or allergies they may have. This last-minute check is “just in case there’s anything that’s bothered them in the last couple of days at Ponderosa,” explains Dr. Joe “And because often the open has a challenge, and so I need to make sure they’re fit, they’re healthy, they’re ready to go for that.”
And this season, everyone looks good to go. “We have in the past had someone who had some bug bites that started to look a bit infected, and it’s the chance to say, ‘Is this okay?’ or, ‘I’m a bit worried about this,’” explains Dr. Joe. “Often, it’s just a case of something I can make a note of, and next time I see them I can follow that up and ask, ‘How are things? Is it improving?’ or whatever.” But no such issues this season.
Interestingly, this is not when the final weigh-in occurs. That has already taken place a few days prior during their big medical consultation, although one female contestant jokes with Dr. Joe that she wishes it was taking place now due to all the weight she put on since arriving in Fiji. Without anything else to do, and knowing that food is about to become scare, “they really, really, eat for the last few days,” says Dr. Joe. “So they probably put on a couple of extra pounds.”
The contestants’ last meal before the game begins
3:45 a.m. – Base Camp: Riley Munday’s room
The first thing Riley Munday does in the morning is turn on her radios. As coordinating field producer, Munday — who started on the show way back in season 7 (Survivor: Pearl Islands) as an 18-year-old Dream Teamer — is the nerve center of the show, coordinating between multiple departments to make sure everything is on track. And there is a lot to keep track of. Soon, the radio is not enough. “I was continually texting between security, wardrobe, our Ponderosa handlers, and then also Hennie from the marine department, because I wanted to make sure everything was fine with the boat, that it was in position and ready,” says Munday later.
At 4:00 a.m., Munday increases her text chains to include the art department, field crew, and audio, “who are preparing to leave for the boat because we need them to load everything underneath before we even start [filming] portraits because they can’t do any of their work while we’re obviously shooting portraits if we’re using same location for portraits and open.”
“Her story’s amazing,” says host Jeff Probst of Munday. “Started as a Dream Teamer. Now she runs the show. She has so much stuff going on and she runs this army as though it was just a backyard picnic with some friends.” But imagine a picnic of 645 people spread out over multiple islands. It’s a lot of folks to manage. Summing up her pre-sunrise morning, Riley sighs: “I’m just continually on the loop, texting them.”
4:45 a.m.: Base Camp/Ponderosa 1
There’s been a delay. The new players were scheduled to be done with their medical, wardrobe, and security checks by 5 a.m., but Munday has just received word that her deadline is going to come and pass. She contacts Maui Postma and Melissa Goulet in the marine department (who have been up since 3 a.m.) to update them on the new timing, but remains relatively unconcerned. That’s because the assistant director has a trick up her sleeve. Like any savvy editor who gives a writer a fake deadline, knowing that writers often uses deadlines more as “guides” than “rules,” Munday has built in a cushion.
Her official schedule has the contestants leaving Ponderosa at 5 a.m., arriving by boat at their destination a bit after 6 a.m. to begin filming their “portraits” (which are the dramatic close-ups of the contestants on a boat on their way to the marooning you see in the first minute or so of the show) at 7am. But Munday has not only built into her schedule places to make-up time before filming, but she also didn’t even plan to start shooting until later anyway. “We actually had a little trick here,” confesses Munday later. “I told them 7, we rolled at 7:30. That’s when I figured we would be doing it anyway. I wasn’t concerned because I knew that they were a half an hour behind and I had that extra half an hour. After 15 years, I finally learned a lesson.”
Edge of Extinction contestants waiting for their security check
5:00 a.m. — Ponderosa 1
After seeing the 14 newbies and grabbing a bite to eat, Dr. Joe loads on a boat to go check up on the four returning players on the island of Vitu Levu. But it gets even more confusing than that. While the 14 new players are unaware of the four returning contestants, there is even a bit of mystery among the returnees. Instead of housing all four returning players (Joe Anglim, Aubry Bracco, Kelley Wentworth, David Wright) together, they have been split up — with Joe and Aubry staying together at one location while Kelley and David are at another, with each pair being unaware of the other.
This is a tactic that dates back to the first Survivor: All-Stars season, when each of the three tribes were housed in separate locations so the players would not know everyone they were competing against. But it means Dr. Joe has a few more destinations on his itinerary to get through the entire cast.
First, Dr. Joe arrives at Kelley and David’s pre-game headquarters at 5:15 a.m. and meets with both of the returnees. After clearing them both, he has a 10-minute drive over to Joe and Aubry’s secret location to give them the proverbial thumbs-up. And then he’s back on a boat — one of many more he will be on this morning.
5:05 a.m. – Monu Bay
The very first crew members arrive at Monu Bay to begin preparations on the giant sailboat where Jeff Probst will later welcome all 18 contestants (and millions of viewers) to Survivor: Edge of Extinction. At least that was the plan.
But three days ago, the boat they were going to use for the marooning unexpectedly blew an engine, causing the marine department to scramble and find a replacement. And the replacement they found may look familiar to eagle-eyed viewers. Based in the Fijian capital of Nadi, the Ra Marama was originally built back in the 1950s for the governor of Fiji. Converted to an open deck brigantine rig in the 1990s, it has a classic pirate ship look, which is exactly why producers used it for the opening of both Survivor: Game Changers and Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers.
While looking for a replacement boat, the marine department discovered that the Ra Marama happened to be close by. Knowing the boat had worked well in the past, production secured it for another encore appearance, and mere hours later the Ra Marama arrived and the art department began dressing it for its third act.
Among the early birds boarding Ra Marama this morning are field crew — who load coolers and snacks below deck for other crew members who will be working throughout the morning — and prop master Faganely and his team, who bring pineapples, bananas, peppers, and dried fish on board the vessel.
There are also crates. Lots of crates. Some with Survivor logos, some with drawings of dragon boats and Japanese characters (made by the Dream Teamers), many with “SEG Trade Co.” stamped on the side (SEG presumably standing for Survivor Entertainment Group, the joint company set up by CBS and Mark Burnett). And then there are less obvious nods, such as the mark “JGW 2388” on the side of one such crate — which just happen to be the initials of one of the sneakier members of the prop department.
All the crates and food must be put into position for maximum dramatic effect. Working in the dark presents another set of challenges, so the early crew use head lamps to help see what the hell they are doing and where the hell they are going. But there a was nice surprise waiting for Faganely when he arrived. “They have a crew lamp,” says Faganely. “That was really nice. That doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes we’re dressing for a morning set and there’s no light and we just have head lamps. Today, we were lucky.” Ah, but will the luck continue?
5:30 a.m. — Ponderosa 2 & 3 (Viti Levu Island)
Along with the Dr. Joe medical appointments, Aubry, Joe, Kelley, and David also have their wardrobe and security checks — with a wardrobe and security person at each location. At least that’s how it was supposed to run. But with one of the security team members unavailable, another delay pop ups as one security has to check all four people at both locations, causing a 25-minute holdup for the returnees. It’s just another reason why Munday builds in extra time on the schedule.
Contestant Gavin Whitson getting his security check
5:37 a.m. — Ponderosa 1
Thirty-seven minutes late, the 14 new contestants finally load unto one boat to take them to Ra Marama for their portraits. Scheduled to arrive for portraits at 6am, they instead will arrive a full hour later. However, thanks to Munday’s fake deadlines, filming will still push off at her intended time at 7:30. “I wasn’t too worried, and I knew that they were in close proximity,” says Munday, who also has the comfort of knowing that she can always make up time with the returning players. “With the returners, I feel like they know the deal and it would be a lot quicker to get them ready. “I also knew if we started an hour late with them, it would still be enough time to shoot just four people portraits traveling.”
5:40 a.m. — Base Camp: Catering
With the newbies finally en route, Munday and her radio head over to the base camp catering hall, and not just for food and coffee. “Catering is a good spot to find people and make sure you have eyes on people,” says Munday. “At 6:00, I have my first crews heading out to shoot those portraits. I have seven producers and two crews and I don’t want the boat captain calling me at 6:15 saying, ‘I don’t have one person!’ So catering is a good spot to find everyone and make sure they’re getting out of there and ready for their 6:00 departure. I was in catering for that.” And the coffee.
6:00 a.m. – Base Camp: Dave Dryden’s room
All roads ultimately lead to David Dryden. As Survivor’s director since season 7 (Pearl Islands), Dryden — with ample assistance from Munday — is the person who pulls it all together. Dryden’s voice is the last one Jeff Probst’s will hear before filming, once everything is locked and loaded and ready to go. It’s a huge day for Dryden. Not only is it marooning day, it’s also his son Levi’s 5th birthday. But with his wife and birthday boy still asleep, Dryden has one thing on the mind: weather. Production keeps a close eye on all weather patterns and anything that could cause a possible problem, but the director has his own method.
“We have predictions and models of what’s gonna happen,” says Dryden. “Those guys are up in the morning checking them and calling it, but, for me, the proof is in the pudding. I gotta frickin’ walk outside and go ‘Alright, I can see rain is coming here, this could be a problem. We’re gonna have more shadows than we thought,’ or ‘It’s gonna be clear on this side. The wind is whipping.’ It could all die down by then, but it tells me: What are some of the issues that I’m gonna have to deal with out there? And the more advanced knowledge the better.”
So Dryden immediately goes outside to see what Mother Nature has in store for him on day 1 of season 38. “It was windy, but it wasn’t raining, so that was good,” he notes. “But I also knew the wind was gonna create some issues since we’re on the water.”
The problem is not just the boat the contestants will be on, but everything else surrounding that boat, including the 34 other boats that will be used for today’s marooning. “The weather affects everything,” says Dryden. “Because we’re on a large boat, we’re mooring it, we’ve got follow boats, we’ve got a drone planned, there’s a jib on a barge. These things are all gonna get affected by weather. Because of the strong winds, we had to start rethinking certain things like how’s that gonna affect the boats that I picked for camera platforms, how we position stuff, how much play is there, how that’s gonna affect the divers in the water, where are we gonna have to have our safety boat? It’s kind of a domino effect.”
Riley Munday and David Dryden pull everything together behind the scenes
6:10 a.m. — Base Camp: Riley Munday’s office
Having already worked out of her room and at catering, Munday finally makes her way into her actual office. “Even if it’s early in the morning, I feel better being here,” says Munday. “I’ve got my two radios, I’ve got the computer. I’ve got everything I need laid out in front of me.” Munday continues moving through her list of the next boat departures while updating the segment producers and crews that have already left via radio as to the status of the contestants arriving for their portraits. “I’m just updating them on the progress by calling Maui on the marine channel who was contacting the boat captains and giving us ETAs of the contestants to each boat for the portraits.”
Like Dryden, Munday is also tracking the weather, but that’s been a bit challenging due to the fact that the closest radar is not operating at the moment. However, Munday has a back-up plan similar to Dryden’s. “Maui and Hennie in marine, they’re men of the sea. I generally just give them a call and say, ‘Hey, what I’m seeing here, does that kind of go with what your feeling is?’ They’re pretty good with that.”
Even with the winds, there’s far less concern shooting this marooning on May 30 — which is in Fiji’s dry season — as opposed to the weather nightmares in season 37, which resulted in two cyclones and a boat accident that knocked contestant Pat Cusack out of the game on day 3. “There isn’t anything coming in that we have to worry about,” says Munday. “There are not going to be any cyclones or anything heading our way. We would have known about it beforehand.”
6:25 a.m. – Jeff Probst’s house (Mana Island)
Jeff Probst is up early, and his mind is already racing. The host of America’s longest running reality show has been running through his opening speech to the contestants for weeks as all the elements for this season came together, and now, just a few hours away, he finds himself running through it again to make sure he hits all the important beats. (With no cue cards or teleprompter to act as a safety net, it is all on the host to make sure he transmits all the information to contestants — and viewers — in a clear, concise manner.)
Some people organize their thoughts onto a whiteboard. Others enter it onto a computer. And others write it all out longhand. Probst does all three. Through this repetition, Probst has seared the themes and thoughts he wants to impart at the opening into his brain, so by this morning, it’s just a matter of honing his presentation. Over coffee and eggs, he visualizes the scene that will take place later this morning and “all the little things that are going to happen and the stuff that I want to say to them. And the reactions that I’m hoping we’ll get.”
The host runs through the points he has to hit upon, including “Welcoming them and then sobering them up with a reminder that somebody’s about to be voted out. And then setup the four returning players. And then bust through the four returning players résumé. And then tease them with something that they don’t know what’s coming, which is Extinction Island. So that’s how I look at it from a story point of view. It’s just big beats. But really, that part of my job is the easiest. Hosting a marooning is easy. I already know what we want them to do.”
7:00 a.m. – Monu Bay
With the contestants finally arriving at Monu Bay, it’s time to get everyone ready to shoot the portraits. After some radio scanning issues causing Munday to switch everyone over to another channel, the assistant director calls her drone operators to make sure they are ready to roll. “There’s a special boat that we use that they can launch the drone from,” explains Munday. Half an hour later, the drone is airborne, and filming of the new contestants begins at 7:30. Even better, the drone shots take only 25 minutes instead of the scheduled 30, giving Riley five extra minutes to play with.
While the drone shot is finishing up, Munday contacts helicopter pilot Ken Gray and Cineflex camera operator Mark Hryma, to time them out so they can get their aerial shots as well. Sooooo many cool aerial shots on this show.
7:30 a.m. – Base Camp: Challenge office
The Survivor challenge office at base camp is the coolest place on earth. Seriously. Filled with classic rock posters, dart boards, Fiji Gold beer, and miniature versions of actual Survivor puzzles, it is where challenge producer John Kirhoffer and his team of Chris “Milhouse” Marchand and Anthony “AB” Britten plan all those incredible tests of strength, strategy, smarts, and skill that you see on the show.
Kirhoffer has achieved exalted status in Survivor circles not just for having the coolest job and the coolest office, but he has been here doing it since day 1 of season 1. In fact, he is one of four people that have been here since the very beginning, along with Probst, co-executive producer Jesse Jensen (who also upped his cool factor by appearing as Jedi Master Saesee Tiin in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith in his spare time), and Scott Duncan (yes, Tim’s older brother, and yes, that Tim Duncan) who films all those super cool slow-motion shots of the contestants you see in the opening credits.
To mark the occasion, Kirhoffer cranks out a quick email congratulating the rest of this exclusive fraternity. Subject line: “For the 38th time, happy day one.”
Jeff Probst gets a download from challenge producers Chris “Milhouse” Marchand and John Kirhoffer
7:50 a.m. – Catering
With so much attention focused on the marooning, executive producer Matt Van Wagenen (who started back in season 14 as a producer and is effectively now the day-to-day number two on the show after Probst) has another concern: What happens after. So over some makeshift Indian breakfast burritos, Van Wagenen meets with the four producers who will be stationed on the two tribe beaches to go over what they hope to capture as the contestants start to settle in. “We’re going over some of the stories that we’re trying to hit on, because each season we make little tweaks,” says the EP. “For instance, this season we’re really getting into the question of why someone’s here and telling more internal stories, and so we were going over that. The producers had a chance to interview the cast yesterday and so we’re kind of comparing stories to what we thought going in, and to what their interview revealed.”
8:00 p.m. – Riley Munday’s office
A text comes in from director Dave Dryden nervously checking to see how late things are running. “We’re actually looking really good,” responds Munday. “There’s no need to delay anything this morning.” Munday laughs. “He’s not used to that. He seemed kind of shocked.”
8:15 a.m. – Jeff Probst’s house
Something is wrong. Not with the protein shake Jeff Probst just slammed down. That was positively delicious. (No wonder Probst looks so jacked.) But something is not right about Kelley Wentworth — specifically, some statistics that the team had researched. As Probst looks through his notes in terms of the accomplishments of the returning players that he would be reciting to the newbies, he notices they only had Kelley down as having won a single individual immunity contest. “I think she won two immunity challenges, says Probst. “How could we not know this?”
The host texts challenge producer Marchand, who is already out on the boat working on a buoy prop. “Kelley Wentworth. One or two immunity challenges? And how did we not know this? 😀.”
Milhouse texts back: “One.” Probst is still dubious and goes online to try to verify it but “you can’t trust online,” so Probst calls challenge producer AB. “No, it’s two,” comes the reply, along with another realization: “Oh my gosh. It’s the second one on the day Joe collapsed [in Survivor: Cambodia],” says Probst. “She won. It was a male and a female winner. That’s what we forgot. She won the first part of it.” At this point, all Probst can do is laugh. “We create these challenges. We keep our own records. And even this morning, I found myself going, ‘Pretty sure it’s two.’ And then verified that it was two and thought: Okay, glad I caught that a few hours before going live!”
8:30 a.m. – Catering
Having wrapped his producers meeting, Van Wagenen has an important call to make to an important man, and that man’s name is Jimmy Quigley. As a supervising producer, Quigley does a lot on the show as one of Van Wagenen and Probst’s trusted lieutenants, but there is one particular aspect of his job that every Survivor fan would kill for. “He’s the one who actually plants the idols!” says Van Wagenen. Yes, among Quigley’s responsibilities are the hiding of any and all immunity idols and advantages at the tribe camps. Whenever you see a player reach into a stump, or under a shelter, or up in a tree, or down in in the sand and pull out a package, it was put there by Jimmy Quigley.
“We don’t plant them until day of,” says Van Wagenen. That means Quigley has work to do, and beyond just hiding the idols. “There’s something else that someone from one of the tribes is going to get at the marooning,” reveals Van Wagenen. That something is a clue to an advantage hidden back at the beach. The only question that remains for Quigley is: Which beach? Since the clue could be found by someone from either tribe, Quigley can’t plant it until he knows who from what tribe scored it. “He’s keenly aware that we’re gonna have to plant this thing,” says Van Wagenen.
“We talked in the past few days about where it was gonna be hidden. A lot of times, if there’s a clue to something, and we know that it’s gonna go to a specific beach, we can be really choosy about where the idol goes on that beach. But in this situation, where we don’t know if it’s going to end up at the Manu camp or Kama camp, the clue has to make sense at either beach. While we have a clue that works for both camps, we won’t know which island to put it on until it is found.” Van Wagenen tells Quigley that he’ll contact him with the precious intel as soon as the clue is discovered so Quigley can head to that tribe’s beach and hide it before the contestants arrive. A race against time!
Dr. Joe Rowles takes care of both contestants and crew in his role as
Survivor medical director
9:00 a.m. – Rivendell
After two more boats to get back to base camp, a much-needed shower, and then yet another boat ride to yet another boat, Dr. Joe arrives at the final marooning destination (code named Rivendell by production) off the coast of Tavua Island, along with assistant camera operators carrying tons of gear including GoPros, underwater GoPros, and a runner to put up the mast of the main ship.
Something viewers may not realize is that the Survivor medical team is not just there for the contestants, but for the crew as well. (And, as I can attest thanks to multiple trips to the Survivor medical area, easily injured visitors to the set such as the press.) With this particular open happening out on the water, the biggest thing Rowles and his medical team have to worry about in the hours leading up the start is… sea sickness. “Often it’s treating nausea and stuff,” says Dr. Joe. “Because we are on these boating platforms for hours in the swell, and often people often start to feel unwell. It is quite common. And when the weather’s bad we do get people suffering with the sea sickness, where there’s people sitting on boats in a gentle swell for hours, and that can seem to bring it on a bit more.”
And sometimes the swells are not so gentle. The most infamous case of this was back in season 13 for the opening for Survivor: Cook Islands (a.k.a. the Vomitorium) where massive swells caused contestants, crew, and yes, the press, to hurl repeatedly in, on, and over the sides of various boats. With so many crew members on so many boats and platforms surrounding the marooning — not to mention the main boat itself — the medical teams keep anti-sickness tablets in their pockets at all times.
In general, maroonings at sea tend to be less dangerous than big opening land challenges. The most concerned Dr. Joe ever got at a marooning was one year prior when Michael Yerger dropped to the ground after running the opening challenge in Survivor: Ghost Island. “He went from zero to 100 miles an hour, and really put everything into it,” says the doc. “And, it was one of those challenges that didn’t look that much, but I know, because I’d seen people practice it, it was brutal. I thought I was going to have to go and look after him, but he battled through it, and he did okay.”
But when the contestants are merely grabbing supplies and diving in, like today, “it’s fairly low key,” says Dr. Joe. “We do worry about people swimming, but they’re all tested to make sure they can swim. We have safety divers. The main concern I have is someone jumping in, and then someone bigger jumping in and landing on top of them. But, fingers crossed, we’ve never had that happen, and I feel we won’t.”
9:10 a.m. – Riley Munday’s office
Segment producer Talia Sawyer hits Munday on the radio with some good news. They’re done with all the newbie portraits — and 50 minutes early according to Munday’s admittedly padded schedule. Now they just need to finish the portraits of the returning players and get back to position for the main marooning — which is not always as simple as it seems. A few seasons back, producers went north to get their pre-marooning portraits and, as Munday explains, “Then the wind turned and they couldn’t get back. It took them an hour to get back and then moored into position so we started an hour late.” Whoops!
At this point, Munday is almost all the way through an entire pot of coffee, with a side order of chai. Can you blame her? After all, coordinating all the travel logistics alone is borderline insane, with 34 different boats carrying 714 bodies over a total of 1,500 miles. But Munday also feeds off of the energy of day 1 filming, even if it can be mentally taxing. “Yeah, it can be quite stressful, especially when it’s getting close to the departures of producers and the last-minute people that are coming out to the open. I find it extremely stressful when you have to start pushing people’s departure times, because it doesn’t just affect that person. It affects marine, it affects the rest of the day if we have other things scheduled.” But today, so far, so good.
Riley Munday started on
Survivor as an 18-year-old Dream Teamer and is now the behind-the-scenes nerve center of the show
9:20am – Jeff Probst’s house
Jeff Probst just cracked the code. Even with all his preparation, there was one part of Probst’s introductory speech that he just couldn’t make work. The host wanted to tease the Edge of Extinction twist without completely giving it away, and also needed a bridge to connect two different — yet related — themes. “I couldn’t figure out how to connect that it’s so hard to win and you never know what you’ll be called on to do,” says the host.
But then it hit him. “I need to say it’s hard to win Survivor because Survivor‘s unpredictable. And that led me to the last part, which was, ‘Because Survivor‘s unpredictable, you never know what you’ll be called on to do. And when you’re pushed further than you ever imagined, that is your opportunity to stand up, adapt, and conquer.’”
For Probst, that crystalized both the theme of the season and the returning foursome. “It’s connecting the dots of Survivor being very hard, as evidenced by these four players. And it’s hard because it’s unpredictable. Now we’re starting to foreshadow Extinction Island. And the reason you have to be prepared for anything is because you never know what it’s going to take to win this game.”
9:30 a.m. – Base Camp Marina: Whiteboard meeting
Have you ever watched one of those football movies where the team all gathers around as the coach diagrams plays on a chalkboard while pointing out everyone’s given assignment? Or have you ever sat through one of those war movies where the troops gather around a giant map, monitor, or futuristic virtual touch screen as a general-type lays out the attack plan and tells everyone exactly when and where they need to be at a specific time? That’s basically a Survivor whiteboard meeting. Only instead of a locker room or a bunker, this one takes place on a dock looking out on the Fijian ocean. So, slightly more picturesque.
The whiteboard meeting is had before every marooning or challenge so key crew members know how the event is going to unfold and their responsibilities during it. Who’s there? Around 25 people with a variety of responsibilities. “We have basically all departments there,” says Dryden, who will be running the show. “We’ve got anybody who’s gonna participate. We’ve got audio, camera, people that aren’t already bumping gear out to the boat, the divers, everyone. And basically I go through what’s gonna happen.”
And there has been one big change for today they need to go over. At a run-through the previous day, big swells kept causing the boat of four returnees to keep bashing against the main marooning boat when they practiced transferring what would be Aubry, David, Joe, and Kelley. The solution? “We actually reoriented the ship,” explains Munday. “We re-clocked it about 90 degrees.” But that meant all the backgrounds would change as well.
Not only that, but the tribes might end up on the wrong beach! That’s because now the contestants would be paddling out closer to land. “One of the things that I was super nervous about is instead of them paddling into the open ocean, they would be paddling towards shore,” says Munday. “Just because of the swell at the moment, I was really worried with the dropping tide that they’d get caught on the reef range of motion that the swell would take them in.”
After assuring Munday that a plan is in place to keep the contestants from drifting off, and giving everyone a basic rundown of what’s to come, Dryden lets the camera team know which players they are assigned to film: “You’re gonna be on the blue team, you’re getting close ups, you’re getting twos and threes, you’re getting panning shots, you’re gonna have the wide group shot. Let’s make sure that we get clean tribe shots that aren’t overlapping.”
And that’s just for the opening set-up. After Probst gives his introduction to the players, the entire camera team will have to reposition into a new area with new responsibilities, so Dryden needs to make sure everyone knows what to do for that as well: “For the repo, you’re gonna be exclusively on people jumping overboard, you’re going to the yellow boat, you’re gonna be shooting people jumping overboard going to the blue boat. You’re gonna be responsible for getting whoever grabs the secret advantage. I need a wide here, I need a tight there.”
And then there are the cameras underwater as well. “Divers are gonna go down at this point,” says Dryden “and what I’m looking for is a wide shot from underneath, getting people hitting the water. You’re gonna be by the team advantage, so just once you’re down, stand by, don’t get distracted. Someone’s gonna come to you and untie that thing and that’s your shot. Once they have that, follow to the boat, get them loading it, and then you can start freelancing on your water, getting people climbing in or whatever else happens.”
Everyone has a job and a specific responsibility. Seeing as how this is all happening alongside 18 contestants scrambling like chickens with their heads cut off (and often with actual chickens), it is the very definition of order in the middle of chaos.
The Survivor marine department had to track the comings and goings of 34 boats for the marooning
9:35 a.m. – Monu Bay
With some of the advance dressing and preparation complete, Ra Marama departs Monu Bay for its final marooning destination of Rivendell off the coast of Tavua. That is where the contestants will board and the latest Survivor adventure will officially begin.
9:45 a.m. – Jeff Probst’s golf cart
Jeff Probst’s house on Fiji is situated in between base camp and the Tribal Council set, so Probst, like many other senior producers, gets around on golf carts. But as the host travels from his abode to the dock to leave for the marooning, he has one very important video to record for someone back home who cannot be here on this special day.
“Yo, I am pulling up to the dock to go do the 38th marooning,” says Probst on the video. “Dude, 38! It’s a beautiful day. It’s been raining like crazy, but, man, the sun just parted this morning and it’s awesome out. And we’re gonna go do it. It’s another big, risky idea but hey, that’s what you told us to do — go big or GO THE F— HOME! Alright, later!”
The host then stops recording and hits send. And that’s how Survivor Svengali Mark Burnett received his personal video message from halfway around the world as the show that changed the face of television kicked off filming on its 38th season.
10:15 a.m. – Rivendell
Six-and-a-half hours after waking up, Munday arrives at the marooning boat… and can’t get on. Even worse, nobody can. The problem is that even though they talked about repositioning Ra Marama by 90 degrees after yesterday’s rehearsal, it’s not at the proper angle so it’s not currently safe to board. The fact that the wind and current are presently blowing in opposite directions is not helping matters either, so safety divers are forced to use four 300lb anchors to help secure the boat in place.
The delay means all those camera operators that were supposed to be setting up all that gear in preparation are instead, in the word of Munday, “floating out in the water waiting to go to the mothership.” Nine boats, four zodiacs, and two barges are already on the scene ready and waiting to transfer people, props, and gear.
For one of the few times all day, Munday is frustrated. “I had reiterated so many times that at 9:30 we need them to start mooring,” she sighs. “I was told that they’d be done by 10. I get here at 10:15 and it’s still not in position.” And, as Munday explains, the delay has caused a domino effect. “Art hasn’t been able to get aboard to set their last-minute items. Audio hasn’t been able to get aboard because audio have to sync cameras and audio first. Which means they need to do that before I can even send audio out to the contestant boats to get them mic’d and ready.” Now Munday is worried that she won’t have time to mic the contestants and have them ready for the open in time, but here’s the thing: It’s Riley’s job to worry. That’s why she’s so good at it.
10 minutes later, smaller boats are brought in to transfer crew and gear to the main boat, and the race is on.
The scramble to set up cameras, food, and clues begins!
The chaos is officially underway. 30 people are now on-board Ra Marama.
An art boat filled with additional fruit and fish arrives and is locked onto the “Hero” boat (production name for the marooning vessel). The crew immediately starts grabbing and placing these valuable supplies throughout the boat — valuable because these are the supplies that contestants will scramble to procure in the roughly two minutes Jeff Probst will give the players before forcing them to jump overboard. The more they can grab, the better fed they will be. In total, 20 produce crates and 15 baskets filled with perishables like fresh vegetables, lots of green leafy items, and seasonal fruit, as well as longer lasting items like taro, potato, sweet potato, and pumpkins are strewn about.
Meanwhile, cameras are placed everywhere. Fourteen cameras are being positioned, as well as another remote camera on the mast head, two on follow boats, two underwater, various GoPros, and the ever-present drone. And wherever there are cameras, there are microphones, including two that will be placed on Probst, 18 for the contestants, three boom mics, and seven mics planted throughout the boat for a total of 30. Normally the Survivor audio team has two hours to prep the ship with various microphones, but with rough ocean conditions delaying the arrival of the ship and their ability to board, that time has been cut to a mere 20 minutes.
Wanna know a secret? There often is a secret reward or advantage hidden on board at a marooning. Not this season, however. This season there are two secrets— a secret tribe reward and a secret individual advantage. The tribe reward message is hidden in the middle of the boat behind a bag of fruit. Whoever removes the fruit will find it… as long as they are actually looking. “Secret Tribe Reward!” reads the message. “Dive under buoy, find the handle and pull!”
The notice is sufficiently obscured, but challenge producer Marchand has a thought: What if the person who finds it wants to cover it back up so the other tribe does not see and race them to it? “Right now we’re looking at the communal advantage and we’re making sure there are enough items around it where if they want to re-hide it as quickly as possible, they can,” he explains. Since the notice is locked down on the ship and cannot be removed, Marchand calls over some more produce. “This way they can rebury it, because they can’t move the actual thing.”
Meanwhile, prop master Faganely hides the secret individual advantage at the forward of the boat, sticking it to a crate using some black tac (so it doesn’t blow away in the wind) and behind some fruit. While the fruit is technically hiding the advantage, it also serves the purpose of drawing players over to it. “There will be a bag of pineapples on top of it,” explains Faganely. “You can’t pass that up, so someone’s going to take it for sure and see the advantage.”
And viewers will see it as well, with the advantage crate placed strategically right by a GoPro camera to ensure it is all captured on film. How much time does Faganely spend figuring out the perfect place to stash an advantage? “Quite a bit,” he laughs. “You have to see where you can cover it with a camera and then we just try to make it work with random props. We’ll throw these boxes in so it’s at the right level, throw stuff around it, make sure everything is fine. You always want to make sure you have the perfect spot and perfect things around it that look good too.”
This particular advantage is actually a clue as to the whereabouts of said advantage back at the tribe beach, and somewhere, Jimmy Quigley is waiting for a call to tell him at which camp he should start burying.
Prop master Lucas Faganely shows off the Secret Advantage before hiding it on board
Remember that secret tribe reward sign telling someone to dive under buoy, find the handle and pull? It has been the cause of much recent consternation. The problem began when production had to change the marooning boat a few days prior. That meant the first full rehearsal the crew did was, as Dryden puts it, “null and void.” Therefore, the second final rehearsal the day before actual filming was really the first (and only) full walk-through with cameras that would correspond to what they actually shot at the marooning. And when they did it, something was off.
The plan was for a player to jump off the boat, swim over to a buoy, dive down, and pull a handle that would release the reward crate of canned food. But that’s not what happened. “It was too confusing for somebody who has not seen a diagram or seen footage or pictures of what they’re gonna do,” says the director of the rehearsal with Dream Teamers. “It basically was canned goods, but they were attached to a bunch of bamboo things to keep them floating. And the thing is under a buoy. So you have this object that they’re gonna win which they’ve never seen, and they don’t know what it is. And then below that is the mechanism they have to trigger in order to release it.”
During the rehearsal, the Dream Teamers never saw the trigger. “And so they got there,” says Dryden, “and they’re pulling on the cans and they’re trying to untie the knots that are holding it to the line that goes to the release mechanism. Then finally somebody else comes over and they still can’t figure it out.” The director can only laugh. “Then they just drug the whole thing over and lifted it into the boat before they even figured out ‘Oh, s—, there’s a handle there!’ And then they released it. We were all like, ‘Oh my God!’ It needed to be totally revamped and simplified.”
So with only about 14 hours until go-time, Dryden walked over to the challenge office (a.k.a. Best Place on Earth) and tasked Kirhoffer with making the contraption “idiot-proof.” Kirhoffer immediately gathered Faganely and marine dive team coordinator Douglas Ahnne in his challenge shop, and after fielding a concerned call from Probst (“How’s that looking? We gotta make sure that it’s bulletproof. It’s definitely gotta work. We can’t have them coming up saying, ‘I can’t figure it out.’”), the team laid out the underwater apparatus to figure out how to make the entire operation cleaner, more visible, and more user-friendly.
The problem — and corresponding solution — was all in the handle. Because they didn’t want the handle to fall to the ocean floor after being pulled, it had a rope attached to it, which was also attached to all the cans. But the ropes only added to the underwater confusion, so Kirhoffer’s solution started with a simple idea: “Let’s just not worry about losing the handle. Pull the handle, let it drop to the floor of the ocean. We have scuba divers — they can go down and find it later.”
The team got rid of one rope completely, changed the other one from a vanilla color to a clearer white one that was easier to see, and then adjusted the handle length and color (painting it bright orange) to make it more obvious what and where to pull. It all sounded good in theory, but how would it look once they got it in the water? With the new contraption finally in place, John Kirhoffer wants a pair of eyes on it to make sure it will pass muster, and in cases like this, the only eyes he trusts are his own. The challenge producer dives into the ocean to inspect it for himself.
Now you see it, now you don’t! This secret tribe reward before being hidden behind bushels of produce and potatoes
“Can you please put your hand up so I can see where your dinghy is?”
This is just one of the random, out-of-context quotes you hear on a boat now filled with people making last minute adjustments. Like, say, director Dave Dryden proclaiming “Let’s lose that. I don’t want a big nut in his face” while pointing to a dangling coconut that will be in frame next to Jeff Probst when he welcomes the contestants.
Dryden is getting his first look at the almost-finished product and making other adjustments when necessary. “The wind is strong so that just makes maneuvering boats and positioning tricky,” he notes. “We just need to fine tune a few key elements, and get a barge out of Jeff’s background now that we repositioned the boat, but we’re getting there. We’re right on schedule.” Then, amongst all the chaos, Dryden takes a moment to look around his outdoor office-at-sea. “Look at this day! C’mon! It’s been raining all week! I’m loving it.”
Meanwhile, Milhouse is still tweaking the hiding of the secret tribe reward clue. “Let’s move these potatoes up front,” he says seemingly to nobody in particular, and yet then, magically, potatoes appear. Milhouse thinks having potatoes as cover will keep this reward a bit harder to find because they are less attractive to contestants than the other foods, causing the challenge producer to snicker. “The funny thing is, the potatoes have so many nutrients that’s what they should take.” (Future contestants take note!)
With most of the food and props now placed, Faganely has one last important task: getting the tribe maps and buffs ready. Faganely takes all the blue buffs out of a bag, checks them, puts them back in the bag and then ties the map to the outside of the bag. He then does the same for the yellow buffs. The level of detail goes even further. After confirming that the Manu tribe will be receiving their buffs first, Faganely hangs that bag on the outside so that Probst can grab it easily, while the second Kama bag goes on the inside.
With so many moving parts and time becoming scarce, Munday needs to clear out some of the human clutter getting in the way. “We need all non-essential personal to move from the main area of the boat or else we’re not going to get this off in time,” she announces. Speaking of getting things off on time, where is Jeff Probst?
Lucas Fagenely takes the Manu tribe map and attaches it to the bag of buffs
The eagle has landed! Repeat: The eagle has landed! In actuality, it’s just Jeff Probst and exec producer Matt Van Wagenen, who step on board Ra Marama. After greeting various members of the crew, Probst makes a beeline for the starboard side of the boat, where John Kirhoffer has just emerged from the water with an eyewitness account of the new and improved handle in question.
Kirhoffer explains to the host how he dove down seven feet without a mask on “so I can see what they will see to make sure that it’s not confusing.” After feeling good about the rejiggered rig, he dove down again, this time with a mask so he could see everything clearly and make sure everything was exactly as it should be. “I wanted to make sure it’s dead perfect,” the challenge producer says to the host while dripping wet. “And it’s dead perfect.”
Probst and Kirhoffer have been doing this together for over 18 years now. They have a shorthand and level of trust that has been forged over an astounding 1,446 days of filming. If the king of challenges says it’s good to go, then the host believes him. But just because everything looks in place doesn’t mean Kirhoffer still isn’t at least a little nervous. “The thing I’m most concerned about with today is making sure that thing pops up,” he says when asked about what he’s going to be focused on once the contestants finally show up. “We have plenty of people concerned with everything else.”
Challenge producer John Kirhoffer, all dried off and redressed after diving down 7 feet to inspect the secret tribe reward
Matt Van Wagenen seems way too relaxed. “Usually I have these nervous butterflies at the marooning,” says Van Wagenen. “But there is a calmness about this season for some reason.” The beauty of unscripted television is that even with all the planning in the world — and the Survivor production team overplans for everything — you never know what is going to actually happen. “This is like Christmas morning,” explains the EP. “It’s shaking the presents and getting ready to see how this turns out.”
The calmness of this season may be somewhat due to familiarity. Out of 38 seasons, this will be the 9th time that the show has begun with some sort of variation of having payers starting their adventure by scrambling and then jumping off of a boat — and the fifth time in the past eight installments. Why? Because it just works. “We had an editor named Eric Gardner who worked on the show for years who said, ‘If it’s not better than throwing ‘em off a boat, then throw ‘em off a boat!’” laughs Van Wagenen.
As for what he is most excited to see at the open, it is not who discovers the group reward. Nor is it who finds the individual advantage. But there is actually a third secret item on board, and this one is a bit of a misdirect. “There’s a small little thing,” Van Wagenen explains, “and who knows if it will even make it on the show, but we have a small little fishing kit that’s floating around that actually looks like the Legacy Advantage. We’re going to keep an eye on that and see who grabs that thinking that they got something. It’s still great, but they’ll come back to camp pulling that out of their pants and realize they just got a bunch of hooks.”
The fact that Van Wagenen and his team have spent this much time and energy creating something may not even make it on TV is typical. In fact, many of the elements at play here — from the crates and props and underwater cameras to the very rewards and advantages themselves — may never actually be used or seen, yet every detail is painstakingly obsessed over. That’s the genius of Survivor, while the fact that producers planted a fake Legacy Advantage would qualify as the evil genius portion of the game.
EP Matt Van Wagenen (passing both a pensive Probst and the secret tribe reward clue) is like a kid on Christmas on marooning day
“If you are on the Ra Marama and don’t need to be here, you need to disembark now,” announces Munday to the crew. “Last call.” This means all non-essential personnel need to make their way off to the boat and onto either one of the two floating barges or dozen boats or Zodiacs off to the side. Speaking of barges, one of them at the top of the hour had drifted into a camera shot, forcing four safety divers into the water to secure four 100-pound anchors to help reposition it. At the same time, grips had to chop off a canopy support pole that was in a camera shot, while other security boats were also moved to ensure clean visuals.
The game of cat and mouse with the tides continues as the marine department delivers yet another anchor to help secure the barge. Even with all the preparation in the world, last minute tweaks and changes like this are the norm.
“Jeff is coming upstairs” a segment producer radios to Munday, and sure enough, Probst emerges from below deck, now dressed in his official opening attire: a black shirt and his trademark orange Survivor hat (#OrangeHatAlert). He works the boat a bit, asking one cameraman how many seasons he’s been on the show. “I started season 11,” comes the answer. “Dang!” sighs Probst, now talking more to himself. “Wow, we have a massive combined total of seasons with our crew. That’s really amazing. Season 11. Wow.”
From there the host starts running through what he will say to the contestants when they arrive. It’s a routine with which crew members are very familiar. Probst will close his eyes and enter almost a trance-like state, murmuring to himself what to say to make sure it sounds right to him and that he does not omit any key pieces of information. Right now, he’s working on how he wants to introduce Joe Anglim to the newcomers once the returnees make their way on to the boat.
“He has pushed his body so far that it literally gave out and he dropped. He lasted 32 days,” Probst whispers under his breath. He’s got it. He’s in the zone. The host is ready.
Director Dryden and his camera team, ready to go
All water bottles have been hidden (crew members are not allowed to eat or drink in front of the contestants) and phones turned off. Seven safety divers have been positioned in the water. Security has locked down the waterways to ensure clean visuals for filming. (After all, they don’t want to risk a stray tourist boat taking passengers to nearby Castaway Island — where Tom Hanks made best friends with a volleyball — all of a sudden coming into frame.) And then, Munday gives the order: “Let’s bring the contestant boats in.”
Slowly, two boats come into view. They get closer. Everyone on Ra Marama waits in silence. For three days, the 14 new contestants on these boats have been anxiously waiting for their adventure to begin — wondering if all that preparation and strategy will actually come to fruition. But now it is the crew — who have constructed, tweaked, and often reconstructed every tiny detail countless times — that must wait anxiously to see if all their preparation and strategy will pay off in terms of the marooning going off without a hitch.
It takes seven minutes for both boats to make their way to Ra Marama. (Meanwhile, a speed boat with the four returning players remains just out of view, ready and waiting for its dramatic entrance once cued by Munday.) “You’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Probst says to the newbies as they file in and take their seats near the aft of the vessel. “Alright, guys, take a spot,” he orders. “Everyone find a spot on the boat. Let’s get this thing going.”
The players spend a few minutes making sure they are all in proper position and can be clearly seen by cameras. Perched on a port beam railing right behind the row of cameras, Van Wagenen flashes a grin. He knows what’s coming next, and as someone who compared what’s about to happen to Christmas day, he also knows the biggest present of all is about to be opened.
“Alright,” announces Probst at exactly 11:50 a.m. “Welcome to the 38th season of Survivor. Give it up!”
The game is on.
For tons of other pre-game articles and more Survivor scoop all season long, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.