Season 40 of Survivor will finally unfurl when the Winners at War edition premieres Feb. 12 on CBS. And while 40 is a massive number of installments for a reality television series, one can’t help but look ahead and wonder if the franchise could make it to the even more absurd number of 50. And when I asked executive producer Matt Van Wagenen out on location on day 1 of filming for Winners at War whether he thought the show could make it to the magic number, he did not hesitate in the affirmative.
Van Wagenen and I sat down in his office in Fiji for a wide-ranging chat about the future of the franchise as well as all things season 40.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So here we are, all-winners edition. I feel like I’ve been pushing for this forever, but every time I brought it up to Jeff, he had reservations about doing it. So tell me about getting over those reservations, or what it was that finally let you guys say, “All right, let’s put this into motion now.”
MATT VAN WAGENEN: Well, I think a lot of it was CBS, actually. CBS brought it up first and they were super stoked on the idea and we started talking about, but we just kept looking at the list and thinking: There’s no way Rob is going to say yes, and that probably means we’re probably not going to get Amber. Sandra is not going to say yes. We’re probably not going to get enough people saying yes where it would make it worthwhile. There are people who have played the game and have won and they’re like, “That’s it, I’m out. I don’t want to.” Like Cochran, for instance. He’s not on this season, but he’s someone who we would’ve wanted.
A lot of people are like, “Once I’ve won, what do I have to prove at this point? I want to leave on a high note.” So whenever we talked to anybody, they were not that excited about playing again. I don’t think it was ever brought to them in the idea of — nobody knew specifically that we were going to be doing an all-winners season — but they knew that season 40 was going to be something special. And I think people just started assuming that it would be something like this. Without us telling them, I think they started putting it together and we were surprised by how many people said yes. That was overwhelming and exciting. And that’s really what sold it, at least for me and Jeff.
Who are you most excited about that you guys got back?
Oh, that’s tough. God, there are so many. Parvati playing — that to me was a huge win. I didn’t think she would ever play again. She’s got a young kid at home, she’s come out here as part of the press before. So we just thought, she hung it up. And she’s been one of my favorite players since I was out on the beach with her on season 16. She’s just fantastic. She’s a huge threat. I know how good she is. I’m really curious how she’s doing out on the beach right now. And for me, once we got her, I was like, “Okay, I’m feeling good about this group.” She was probably the one I was most excited to see to say yes.
If Ethan can win this game, is there a better story than that?
No. He’s someone who I watched when he played in season 3, I would watch when he briefly played in All-Stars. And he’s super likable. What I’ve been impressed with him talking to him before we started the game is the way he talks. He’s not talking like a season 3 guy. Sometimes when we bring someone in from one of the old seasons, they’re like, “You know what? I still want to play that old school game.” And that’s just not what he was about. I mean, talking to him, we would cast him if he had never played before. He had the intensity and the creativity of a new school player. And so I’m not only excited to see him play because I think he has a fantastic story, I’m excited to see him play because I think he has a lot of ability and I think he’s got a lot of drive and I think he has the mindset of someone who could do well if he’s in the right situation.
Who’s the best winner ever? And what I mean by that is who gave the best single season winning performance ever? I’ll tell you mine after you tell me yours.
I can tell you I’m looking at Kim, I’m looking at Parvati. The hard part is, you’d say, well, Sandra.Sshe has the two seasons that she won but you’re saying from just one season.
I’m not talking about the totality of their Survivor experience. I’m just saying who played the best single season.
Are you saying, like, dominance?
Those are all factors you can consider. So, for instance, for me, Boston Rob was dominant. But I subtract points for his fourth time going against all newbies. But that’s just me. That’s the way I do it.
I think you’re probably gonna say who I actually think it is. I think Kim is definitely in the conversation. Kim, was her competition as tough as some of the other seasons? Probably not. If I’m just being totally honest.
Agreed. Parvati went against great competition…
In season 16. But Sandra season 20, how do you not?
You’re saying Sandra.
I’m going to say Sandra, season 20. How does it get more impressive than that? I mean, just look at it this way: We have, what, four winners from just the villains tribe alone, right? Four winners from that season. And she was able to make her way through that tribe. If you include that whole season, I think we’ve got six winners, ‘cause you also have Tom and JT.
There were eventually four winners from the Villains tribe, and Sandra was able to come out of that tribe. She not only beat Parvati, she beat Russell. Talk to me about another final three that was tougher. I mean, usually in the final three there’s someone who’s considered a quote-unquote goat. She took down Parvati. She took down Russell and she won. I mean, I don’t know how you argue with that one. Okay. Let’s go ahead and argue it! Whose is it?
I think it’s a good pick. I did pick Kim. And you’re right. The one reason you wouldn’t pick Kim was the level of the competition. But first time out, dominant all the way through, and I think she’s just so well-rounded.
I agree. I think she’s really well-rounded. I think she might even be my winner pick for this season. The only thing working against her is I don’t think that she can sneak through the way that she did. Sneak through is not the right term. People will see her coming and people know how well-rounded she is and know what a threat she is going into this season. I think that’s the biggest obstacle in her way. But she’s smart. She’s athletic, she’s charming. She’s got crazy drive. I mean she could do some damage.
If you were playing this game against these 20 winners, who would you be most worried about right now?
Who would I get rid of if I were on a tribe? I’d get rid of Rob. After shooting season 39, I see how his mind works and how smart he is. How cutthroat he is. If they’re smart, they get rid of Rob, not only because of all those things I said — and those are all compliments — but he comes in and he’s the only one who’s playing blood versus water. He’s got Amber on his side immediately. I don’t know how you don’t get rid of Rob first. I don’t think they’re going to, but I don’t know how you don’t.
How do you think Rob and Amber impact the season? Because as they became a couple, they had a huge impact the last time they played together.
And a story too. You know what’s interesting is people talk about a résumé at the end, but part of it is also, it’s not just a résumé, it’s about a story. Do you have a good story that you can tell at the end? And you know, Rob and Amber have the most amazing Survivor story ever. You look at some of the survivors … look, you’ve got 20 people with great Survivor stories, but Rob and Amber as a pair have a fantastic story. I don’t know how you don’t see that as a massive threat. But crazy things happen all the time. And these guys are winners for a reason. That’s the thing when you look at them, they all have something and there are no goats here.
Nowhere to hide. What about the early season winners? Ethan, Yul, Danni — are they going to be able to adjust to the pace of this game? Because it’s so fast. And I know they can watch it on TV, but until you get used to the rhythms of people shifting every vote and looking for idols and advantages — do you think there’s an adjustment period for them?
It’s interesting because those three people and Amber are the four people I didn’t know going into this season, just because I started in season 14. And we talked about it earlier — Ethan, I think, has the mindset of a new school player, and Yul does to. One of the things that was really interesting talking to Yul before the game started is he said his first season in Cook Islands, he felt like he was a representation of a community. And he was very careful about how he played and what he said. And he’s like, look, that’s out the door. I can play how I want to play this time. And even though he won that season, he’s feeling like, the handcuffs are off and he can kind of do whatever he wants. He’s got a crazy smart mind. So I’m actually really interested to see what he has to say. Danni, she has actually really impressed me.
I didn’t know her really at all and I was really impressed how driven she was, how smart she was, how charming she was. I think that she’s actually going to be one of those people who might actually be a little bit overlooked at the beginning but could go very, very far.
I haven’t done the math, but I feel like this could be your oldest cast ever, and that’s without having any 70-year-olds here.
I think the average age is like 37, 38.
It’s interesting because it’s a different game when you have an older, more mature, experienced cast right?
I know, and it’s funny, because recent seasons have tended to go a little bit younger. So I think this is an interesting experiment. The average age is over 35, and I don’t know how it’s going to affect things. More than just their age, I think where people are in life could affect things. I think the fact that so many of these people are parents. Tyson is a good example. When he last played, he wasn’t married yet, didn’t have any kids. Here he is, a father of two and a wife who also played. I think Tyson would like to win the money so that he can continue to be a stay at home dad. A lot of these players, they’re in a different place in their life.
Sophie, she’s only 29. That’s actually a great age to be playing this game. But more than anything, she’s getting married this summer. She’s a much different person than she was. I mean, she was a kid when she won. She beat Coach, one of my favorite players of all time. And she was a kid. She’s a mature woman now. She’s very different in a different place in her life. And, actually, I think she’s, in a way, more dangerous.
You guys are offering $2 million this time instead of $1 million. I’ll tell you something funny: When I was out doing press for All-Stars, season eight, they all thought they were going to get $2 million. In the pregame press, they’re like, “I think it’s going to be 2 million. They have to do 2 million, this is All-Stars.” And they didn’t get it. Now you all are doing 2 million. Tell me what you saw from the players reactions when you revealed that this morning at the marooning?
It was funny when they walked up, they were definitely in business mode. They were eyeing each other, it was the first time the men and women had seen each other. And so there was the general excitement of being around all these winners. It was the first time we’ve actually seen the group together, which was very thrilling. But when Jeff said $2 million, it was probably the biggest reaction I’ve ever seen since I’ve worked on the show. But I don’t blame them. I mean, $2 million is a lot of money. And if you weren’t taking this game seriously a few hours ago, after you found out that there’s 2 million on the line, I just don’t see anyone pulling any punches.
Let’s talk about the Edge of Extinction twist. You introduced it in season 38, it wasn’t in season 39. Now you bring it back for season 40. Why?
Mostly because we have one of the greatest casts ever assembled and if we were to lose one of these great people right off the top and never see them again, it would feel like a waste. I mean, truthfully, we just looked at this list and thought, you know, if lose someone on day three and we’ve worked so hard for this season, it’s going to feel like we’ve left something on the table. There’s a lot of people here who are fan favorites, and a lot of it is about seeing them continuing in the game and also seeing how they, a group of winners would operate on Edge of Extinction.
You hate seeing these fantastic players go. You know, Tom Westman’s one of my favorite players of all time, and losing him in Heroes vs. Villains was such a drag. When you lose some great characters, some great people in early episodes, you just feel like they’ve got more story to tell. And so, it is a mixture of wanting to be able to see these people continue their story, but also to see how they would react to this twist.
Season 40 is obviously a huge season. I remember season 20 had all the huge stops pulled out for that one. It doesn’t get bigger than all-winners. So in terms of just other production elements, have you guys had this sense that you have to go big, maybe some bigger builds for challenges or whatever. Is there a different feeling for season 40 knowing that this is an anniversary season?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of it is just more in our daily approach. Everyone’s really excited about this. There’s a lot of pride in it. I think that yes, we want this to be a big splash. Without getting into details of what this opening episode is like, you can see, we’re pulling out a lot of stops. We’re getting a two-hour episode to begin season 40 just that puts a lot of pressure on us. Filling two hours is difficult. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of time to fill. And so we’ve really packed in a lot in these first three days to make sure that we’ve got a fantastic start to the season. So, it’s funny, the more I talk about it, then I guess the answer is yes. Our approach season to season is pretty relentless but we definitely are pushing it a little bit harder this season.
I was trying to guess what the title of this season would be, and my guess was Battle of the Champions, but you all went with Winners at War. Which totally makes sense because you all probably wanted the word “winners” to be right in the title, I’m guessing.
It’s funny, it we were to compile a list of the number of names that we had for this season, there were probably around 97 different names that we threw around. Some of them copyrighted by other organizations. You know how hard it is to get a title these days? Everything has a copyright next to it. But we wanted this, Winners at War. You look at the logo, and we’ve had a lot of different names and they’re trying to figure out what was just right. But we wanted it to have the idea of winners and we wanted to show that this was going to be a battle. And I think our whole theme aesthetically reflects that as well.
All right. Gut feeling right now. Matt, does this show make it to season 50?
Look at that. No hesitation.
Why no hesitation?
Because I have a two-and-a-half year old daughter. [Laughs] No, it’s funny, I remember talking about season 40 a few years ago and Jeff would be like, “Oh, don’t talk.” I don’t think he likes that. I love thinking that way. I’m the eternal optimist. I always like thinking that way. And he used to tell me and then I think it was last year, I mentioned season 50 to him for the first time. And he kind of gave me that look like, don’t even talk about that. But I do feel, like, season 50 — how do you not go for it? And the truth is, there are not a lot of shows like this on television. There’s just not.
And I feel like people continue to come back. We have great, great characters. I think our casting has gotten better. And what I’ve really enjoyed watching in the last few years, is how many younger viewers we have. And I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but I see my niece and nephew who watch it, and I see a lot of kids who like it. You’ve got someone like Adam Klein who watched the show as a kid and then ended up winning it. And there is that feeling among young kids of: Hey, I could do this. And we are growing an audience even though the numbers stay about the same…
Yeah, we are. We’re regenerating. That’s a good way of describing it. And so yeah, for me, season 50? Hell yes!
Survivor is family viewing. Which is funny because people thought when Survivor started that all this reality television would be the decline of Western civilization and so terrible. It’s family viewing now, and folks love to root and watch this show together. I hear that all the time from people, that they watch together with their family and kids.
I mean, if I’m going to be totally honest, sometimes when you get lumped into reality television, it puts you in a big category. And not all of it’s beautiful. And so I do take pride in our human stories. I really do. And I take pride in the fact that even though we throw games and twists and different things at them, they’re being themselves. We’re not telling them what to do. We’re not feeding them off camera. This is real. And it’s as real as it gets. And I think that you talk to these 20 people, they’ll tell you they got so much out of this, and not just the million dollars. Everyone who’s playing in this season has had a life changing experience thanks to the show. And I think we all take a lot of pride in that.
Last thing. Winner prediction for the all-winners season: Go.
We talked about this last night in our meeting with the producers. I picked Kim.
I just think that Kim is such a smart player. In her season, maybe the competition wasn’t as thick and heavy as other seasons, but just getting to watch her play in person, I was always impressed at how she thought about the game and how she was able to connect with so many people. She really does a good job of making people feel special, and that is a big, big quality in this game. I think she’s super competitive. She’s the daughter of a Texas football coach, so she’s got drive. She spits really well. I don’t know if you know this, but she can really hawk a loogie.
I haven’t seen that.
And I said it earlier, I think that the only obstacle she has is that people will see her coming. And if she can get past those first couple of votes, I think she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. There’s a cliché. I’ve been saying this for like three years now. I’ve been picking women every season since Sarah won and I’ve been wrong every single time. But I do feel like this is a season that a woman could come through.