Survivor producers revisit classic challenges of yesteryear
Last year while on location for Survivor: Edge of Extinction, EW asked challenge producer John Kirhoffer about some classic Survivor challenges we had not seen in a few years and whether those contests could possibly ever find their way back on to the show. The chat went so well that while out in Fiji for filming of season 40 of Survivor a few weeks back, we made our way to the challenge office once again to speak with Kirhoffer and fellow producer Christopher “Milhouse” Marchand about some other competitions of yesteryear and the likelihood of seeing them again.
Read on as Kirhoffer and Marchand discuss a fearsome foursome of classic challenges, filming season 40, and take odds on hitting the next big Survivor milestone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We did something really fun last year where I asked you about some favorite challenges of the past that we hadn’t seen in a little while. I have a few others I want to ask you about this year. First one: Rock Bottom. This is where players dive off a platform and they have to retrieve rocks and shells off the ocean floor. It was first done in Marquesas. It was last done in All-Stars. That’s season 8. You just finished airing season 38. You know I love shots underwater of people diving down, so this is a Dalton Ross favorite. What can you tell me about Rock Bottom?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: I love Rock Bottom. And you know that Rock Bottom is from the KISS song, “Rock Bottom.” We also haven’t done Hot Pursuit in a while, which is where they run around [in a circle chasing each other].
We talked about that one last year.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: We don’t have an area in Fiji where we have that good, deep, clear water with a nice clear bottom that works its way to shore. With our beaches, because of the reef system we have here, you get out and you get into only, like, six feet of water, it’s not as exciting. It gets all stirred up, you know? So we don’t have the bottom. But that’s one of our favorites.
One of my other favorites based on Rock Bottom was Float Your Boat, where we have a boat filled with rocks and they go down and they pull all the rocks out, it floats to the top, they get in, they paddle back. But again, you need the right environment for it with the right depth. We just don’t have it here in Fiji.
All right. Let’s go to a different one. This is one on land. Crate Idea.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: Ahh, Crate Idea.
First done in Tocantins, had a great one in Heroes vs. Villains with James yelling at everyone, and I believe we last saw it in Caramoan. This is where you collect and roll these massive boxes and then you stack them to form a puzzle staircase. Why not bring that one back?
CHRIS MARCHAND: Myles Nye created it.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: Myles has been a consultant on the show forever. I love it because it’s so basic and we can make big blocks. I’m not sure why we haven’t done it in a while. It’s a solid game.
CHRIS MARCHAND: We did a variation, a more basic version of it, in season 27 with Tyson. They were collecting smaller crates to walk up to pull a lever to release and Tyson’s arm was in a sling. He’s like, “Let me go up the crates. It’ll rub it in to them.” I think we’ll see it again. It’s definitely not dead. That challenge is a classic. It just took a little bit of a break.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: And you know what we like to do: We like to come up with something new and neat, and then do it over and over and over again until people are sick of it and then we have to move on. But then we come back to it.
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Okay, next one: Get a Grip. This is a classic Survivor challenge, debuted in Vanuatu. And I don’t think we’ve seen it since Game Changers. It’s where you wrap your body around a long pole and hold on for as long as you can. This is where I’m always writing in my recaps about footholds and how it’s not fair because people with big feet can’t put their feet in there. But at the same time, it’s a classic challenge. When are we going to see Get a Grip again?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: You will see Get a Grip in the next couple of seasons. It is absolutely coming back. It is a classic. And again, like Crate Idea, like Water Slaughter, some of the most simple concepts that require the least building, it’s not a big, elaborate obstacle course, but it’s just the inherent having to dig deep element of it. And that was inspired when we were in Vanuatu and watching people climb coconut trees and this one guy was just wrapped up on it, reaching up working and I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s something there.”
But to your point on the feet, one of the things that we grapple with all the time is trying to figure out proportions. When do you use proportions? When don’t you? Because if you’re Scot Pollard and you’re seven feet tall or you’re Denise and you’re five foot nothing, if it’s a basketball challenge or it’s a having to reach something high challenge, the basketball player’s got the advantage. If it’s crawling under something, the small person has the advantage. So, like in life … I’m 6’3″ so when I fly economy class, which is most of the time, it’s not so comfortable. But my friend who’s 5’7″ can sit right there no problem. The other thing is, remember, you’ve been stranded on an island and now wild beasts have come after you and you had to scurry up a palm tree. Now, hold on. Because if you fall, you’re going to die. Oh, I’m sorry your feet are too big. Whaaaaaaa…
Let’s get to one of my favorite Survivor challenges ever: Spit it Out. You guys did it in Nicaragua and then you did it again the following season, Redemption Island. This is where one person is on a big windmill being spun and then as they get to the bottom their head goes into the water, they collect water in their mouth, and then when they get spun to the top, they spit it out into a tube. Super disgusting. I loved every second of it. Why haven’t we seen Spit it Out again?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: Probably the closest I’ve had to an anxiety attack on set ever. We did it back-to-back seasons and I was having a heart attack both times.
CHRIS MARCHAND: It’s super dangerous. It’s really dangerous.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: It is. I think when it was done, it was done the first time and then we did the second time because well, it was already built, you know?
Yeah, it was in the same location.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: Same location. And it was very exciting. It was super exciting. That was a Dan Munday idea, I believe. But it was just so sketchy putting people in that position of being upside down.
So that one’s not coming back?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: I wouldn’t say never.
Milhouse is shaking his head no.
CHRIS MARCHAND: I don’t think you’ll see it again, but I’ve been proven wrong before.
You all are now filming season 40. We can’t talk about what’s happening in season 40, but we can obviously talk about the fact that that’s a big season for you all. Anniversary season. 20 years. Kirhoffer, you’ve been here for every day of those 20 years. What’s the vibe like on location here for season 40? Is it just business as usual, or does everyone here have a little extra pep in their step knowing this is clearly going to be something special?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: I believe everybody’s got a little extra pep in their step, and there was a lot of pride yesterday on day 1 of filming. It’s another milestone. I remember season 20 thinking, “Wow, okay. We’ve got a few more now and then we’ll go.” It’s a milestone. Especially coming off Edge of Extinction, where the ratings were still viable in television. So I think the vibe around camp with everybody was pretty high. There was a lot of hugs in the morning, a lot of high fives. So yeah, it’s a lot of pride because it’s a family. It was like a big family celebration.
Is this show going to make it to season 50?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: I think we’ll make it to 50.
CHRIS MARCHAND: Yeah, I think we’ll make it to 50. We’re baseball. People love baseball. The same fans that love baseball aren’t the same fans that love Survivor, but they watch it the same. They watch it like it’s a sporting event.
For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.