A season featuring all returning winners will also feature all returning challenges. Survivor: Winners at War (which premieres Feb. 12 on CBS) will look very familiar to fans of the show. Not just because it will be the eighth straight season filmed in Fiji. And not just because all the players have competed — and won — on the show before. But all the reward and immunity challenges taking place will also be blasts from the past. However, there will be a bit of mix and match at play as well.
We spoke to challenge producers John Kirhoffer (who has been there since the very beginning) and Chris “Milhouse” Marchand out in Fiji on day two of filming to get the scoop on the season 40 challenges, and if we’ll ever see another nighttime competition.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to imagine you guys are pulling out some classic Survivor challenges for season 40.
JOHN KIRHOFFER: It’s all classics. We’ve switched up, as we sometimes do. A different classic front end with a different classic back end. So we might have a front end of a challenge from Heroes v Healers v Hustlers with a puzzle from Kaoh Rong, which is something we actually have. So that type of stuff. But it’s classics that you’ve seen.
How much do you guys try to incorporate challenges from seasons that players on season 40 have done before?
CHRISTOPHER MARCHAND: Every challenge that we have — not every challenge, but all but two challenges — have been done by at least one player. However, unlike Second Chance, where the story played heavily in the beginning of Jeff’s game explanation, it won’t play as much. It will be more like Game Changers, when it was only if some sort of big story happened. So if there was some sort of big story that happened, then we’ll hit on it. But we’re prepared to tell Jeff the entire history of these players in the challenges.
So do you guys make an effort too, where if someone that particularly flubbed and lost a challenge for their team in a season or dominated a challenge in record time — will you make an extra emphasis to get that on the season, or not really?
KIRHOFFER: No, not really. We want to go with just the best challenges. Because a lot of these, if we put in something in episode 5 because Rob did it, and Rob’s gone in episode 2, it’s not going to be a story anyway. One thing that did happen, without giving you any specifics, is we were looking at our final episode, where we always have three immunity challenges in the final episode, and we realized that one of our winners had competed in two of them and won both of them. And we thought, “Okay, you know what? We’ve got to get rid of one.” In case that person made it to the end, we don’t want to seem like, “Oh, they wanted so and so to win.”
So we don’t want to stack the deck in anyone’s favor. And I remember the first time we started doing these returnees, Mark Burnett was like, “Oh, we can’t have any challenges that they’ve already competed in because then they have an advantage.” But because you did a slide puzzle four years ago on an island, it doesn’t mean that you’ve mastered that particular puzzle. Somebody new who’s good at puzzles will come in and just smash you.
So I don’t think people will have a big advantage doing these challenges just because they’ve done it once before. If anything, in the tribe challenge section, they might have some better insight for their tribe. “Hey, make sure we dig instead of lift.” Or that kind of thing.
You guys always want to go big. You always want your challenges to look beautiful and to look epic. Is there something for 40 though, like, “Hey, this is a cool challenge. but it’s a little too quiet. This is 40, we’ve got to go bigger”?
KIRHOFFER: Yeah, there’s a challenge in the final episode that already was big, and then we added to it and made it a little bigger.
What about a challenge at night? You guys have done it a few times. Obviously, there are ones that have extended into night, like “Baba Booey” in Palau, which I know is a problem in terms of logistics. And you did one at Tribal Council in Amazon. What about doing more challenges at night?
KIRHOFFER: In Second Chance we did that.
KIRHOFFER: And it looks great. Yeah, I love that. I just watched that not too long ago. And there was a station where Stephen Fischbach and Abi-Maria got through it at the same time and she reads the question and Stephen goes, “Yeah, it’s that one. It’s B.” And she goes to B, she grabs the thing, runs out. And he goes, “That’s D.” And he grabs it and sent her off. I love that.
Another thing that we don’t have at this particular location is, there are a lot of fields. If you’ve watched the last four years or so, it’s a lot of fields. We don’t have long winding trails that go up into the jungle. We just don’t have it here. We’d love to do things with long winding fields. So there’s a limitation that to do a proper Folklore at night to do that challenge at night, you would need.
The other thing about doing challenges at night, especially this season 40 there’s so much going on in season 40 with Edge of Extinction. That’s an extra couple of challenges, plus all the things that they do out on Edge of Extinction. There just isn’t time, you know? What it takes on the crew to work all day — ’cause you still have to do everything during the day and then set up at night and then to have enough turnover into the next day. So that happens quite a bit too. If we are properly inspired, we would make one work, but just to do it for the sake of doing at night…
MARCHAND: Technically since season 35 we’ve done one challenge a season at night, every season. It’s fire making at the final four.
KIRHOFFER: Well, there you go.
And I remember on Ghost Island when Chris Noble went there. And it was just naturally lit by all the fire.
MARCHAND: Yeah, Chris Noble at the merge.
KIRHOFFER: You might see that again. I loved it. Because we love the look of a night challenge. Do you remember in Season 15, China? In season 14, Fiji, we shot flaming balls at targets, and it was kind of dopey. But we had those metal balls that you fill up with a wicking and kerosene. And so we had those and it was like, “Let’s do something at night.” So we did giant chopsticks picking up these flaming, I don’t know, flaming sushis? I’m not sure what it was. But we did it at the steps of Tribal Council at night because we wanted to see something at night.
Night challenge: Write it down on your ideas board and make it happen. Anything else you want to say about season 40?
KIRHOFFER: I would just say, on a personal note for 40, being a fan of this show, I’ve worked on a lot of shows I didn’t watch. I love this show, and yesterday when those 20 people stood out there on that beach, I was like a little kid. I was like at the Hall of Fame game, you know? And all these amazing players.
MARCHAND: Did you cry?
KIRHOFFER: I waited until I got home. But of course I cried. I’m a man. I can cry.
I remember being out there for the first marooning challenge on Heroes vs. Villains where you had an epic physical challenge right off the bat. You guys basically do the same thing here, only in the water this time. For season 40, was there this thought of, “We’ve got to start big with a big epic physical challenge, but not something where people are going to get super hurt like they did in that Heroes vs. Villains one.”
KIRHOFFER: That’s why we didn’t do a battle dig. That’s why we don’t do any of those kinds of challenges on land. In the water, it’s so much more forgiving.
So tell me about how you guys felt about putting that together and how it turned out.
KIRHOFFER: Exactly what you said. You know, when Jeff came up with Winners at War, we wanted something warlike and we couldn’t think of anything more warlike than that challenge. And we also wanted to send a message, send a shot across their bow, if you will, that it’s serious and it’s happening and having it for immunity. We didn’t just like in season 10 [Pulau] pull out something where we just got rid of a couple of people — and that was very unsatisfying for a lot of folks, especially the people playing — but an immunity challenge moments after you step off the boat. And so that was a part of the impetus.
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