NBC’s new reality series The Island airs on Monday nights at 10pm ET/PT and follows 14 regular guys left alone on an island without supplies. They have to do everything for themselves including shoot the series, with host Bear Grylls off the island reporting on what’s going on but not helping out. There isn’t any big payoff at the end and no one will be declared the winner. With The Island it’s all about adapting to the environment, learning survival skills, and bonding with complete strangers in order to survive.
In addition to hosting the show, Grylls also executive produces the series along with Holly Wofford, Eden Gaha, Michael Brooks, and Delbert Shoopman. And in support of the series’ first season, Grylls and Wofford took part in a conference call to talk about how the men were chosen, what viewers can expect, and why this series can actually be called a “reality series” without having to fudge on the definition of what’s real.
Bear Grylls and Holly Wofford The Island Interview:
What’s the best advice you would give someone who’s taking on this challenge?
Bear Grylls: “Well, we kind of intentionally wanted to pick everyday people, a real cross-section of society for this experiment. This wasn’t us sending out to do a reality show with reality type people. We really wanted to do a study of what’s happened to modern day man. We’ve still got that edge. So, bear in mind we had really regular people. We gave them the bare minimum amount of training, literally about a day and a half, two days and then they’re on to it. And probably the most important advice I gave to them was at the end of their training which was really about the psychology of it. I said, ‘Listen, this will be a brutal, brutal, experience you’re about to go through. You’re going somewhere where there’s a bare minimum of everything. You’re going to be dehydrated, you’re going to be starving’ – some of these guys didn’t eat for days and days and days and days and days on end – ‘That’s sleeping rough on the floor. You got snakes, you got sandflies, and it’s going to be a really brutal time. But just remember the pain won’t last forever and this is your chance to distinguish yourself and show the world what you’re made of and that you can put up with this and you’re made of sterner stuff and you don’t crumble when the pressure goes on.’
I think what I’ve noticed is that so many people can talk a good story and one thing I said to them I said, ‘The words don’t matter. This is about your actions; your actions are what define you. Look after each other and be kind and be resourceful and be determined, and be that quiet, humble team player who just kind of works harder than anyone else. Those are the things that really are going to matter during this experience for you.’
I said, ‘You’ll remember these words at difficult times and they’re true.’ And what was interesting is as I’m watching this whole experience, this whole month unfold and as Holly and me and the team sat and watched footage coming in every day, you realize some of the guys who talked of great stories just couldn’t necessarily follow through with that. And other people who started off really nervous and unsure about their place not only in the world but also on this island started to grow. I think this is why it’s such a compelling show is that this is as raw and as real and as visceral and as moving as you can get because it’s just straight, these guys going through an incredible experience and trying to kind of look after each other and hang on in there themselves. So I’m really proud of how they did.”
What was the luxury that was hardest for them to give up?
Bear Grylls: “Well, everyone obviously has different stuff but it’s amazing what hunger does to people. I think if you’ve never been without food for 12 days straight, it’s hard to kind of describe what it does to you. But, again, you see this very powerfully close-up with these people is this obsession comes with eating. It’s almost like they don’t mind what the taste is, what it is, they just want that feeling of something in their belly. A lot of the concentration camp survivors in the last World War talked about this is they’d often just eat mud and grit and gravel because it was wanting that feeling of just something in the belly.
These guys really go through it and I said to them you’ve got to embrace failure because you’re going to fail and fail, and fail at fishing, at catching crocs, at doing all of this stuff until eventually you get it. I won’t say whether they did get it but it was a really moving kind of journey as these guys had to figure out how to be resourceful and use what is there in clever and genius ways to try and satisfy this hunger. But it was a very powerful thing, you know, that need for food between the men.”
Some “reality shows” aren’t really reality but it seems like The Island is actually trying to keep it real. Can you talk about keeping it real for the audience?
Bear Grylls: “Well, you’re right and I know there is a need for that and it was a big step for NBC to say, ‘Hold on, you’re going to do a show where there are no camera crews and you’re just putting everyday people with some GoPros and some cameras and trusting them to film stuff, and we’re putting however much money on the line to make this happen. We won’t get the footage.’ But they kind of understood and they said, ‘Well, this is what we should be doing. We should be doing cutting edge stuff that takes it forward and really does a show that is 100% as it is.’ And they really backed us and encouraged us to do it.
But you’re right, people find it hard [to believe]. They almost go, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I get it but where does the catering come from?’ Or, ‘Yes, yes I get it but how do you resupply the crews?’ And it’s like, ‘No, no, it is literally what it is.’ It’s 14 men left on an island with nothing with zero contact with the outside world for that month and it’s almost sort of hard to understand in its simplicity. But it really was that and sometimes that’s why the stories are so powerful because it is so straight-up and people sort of almost forget about this is a TV thing and it becomes so sort of raw for these men, just the process of trying to survive that, they sort of forget about the cameras. I think that’s what you lose in these reality shows: it’s all about the cameras. Whereas for these guys it is all about staying alive and the fact that there are no rules for these people. You know, are you going to go on your own or are you going to work together as a team? What happens if you hate each other? Are you going to sleep there? Are you going to fish there? Are you going to do this? There are no rules. You’ve got to kind of figure it out as you go. I think Americans are not used to this thing of no prizes, no eliminations, you know?
Holly Wofford: “Yes, and further to that, the one thing that I would add to that is the fact that I like to say that this is the most real survival show in the history of televisions. These men didn’t even know where they were going until we handed them their tickets. They had no idea. They had the full run of the island. There was no other person, no production person, no nothing, no medical on the island. It was 14 men on an island surviving for a month, go.”
What was the decision to make it all men and not have some women?
Bear Grylls: “Well it started off because we wanted… I get so many people always saying to me, ‘What’s happened to modern man nowadays?’ They’re so emasculated and their greatest survival ability is now Google and their smartphone. What makes a man nowadays? It’s confusing. And so when we originally did this, that’s what we tried to set out to answer. We said, ‘Well, let’s take a totally cross-section of society and see if they do still have that when you strip them of all of the conveniences of modern living.’
We’ve done a version of this in the U.K. and lots of people said after the success of that first season, we would love to see what would happen with women as well. It was really exciting to be able to do a second season and then do a women’s one as well. That was incredibly moving actually, very different, very surprising, not what I expected to happen on that island with the women but very inspiring. And the goal is if this one goes well and people really kind of get into it in a way we’ve seen it build in all the other countries we’ve aired around the world, it would be great to do a women’s version as well for sure.”
What type of safety nets did you have in place just in case, because it is so real?
Holly Wofford: “[We] looked at the dangers. The dangers are out there. They absolutely are and we had to be smart about how we protected the men. But I say ‘protected the men’ and I mean that from a distance. As I mentioned there were no other people on the island. The men had the run of the island. However, the safety net was that as you saw in the first episode the men did have a walkie-talkie that they could reach us at in the event of an extreme emergency and then we had a safety crew and a medical crew, they were a couple of miles away but they could reach the island within a matter of minutes.”
What makes a normal man into a great survivor?
Bear Grylls: […] “The qualities that really mattered on the island might not be qualities that you initially think would really be important. You wouldn’t necessarily say things like humility or kindness, you know? But when you’re that beaten up and you’re that starving and you’re that thirsty and you haven’t slept for however long and it’s pissing the rain day after day, the person who can work harder than the person that’s going to carry all that firewood and just quietly sort of help people and be a good guy really matters. It’s the same in life, you know?
I think nobody’s interested in the bravado from the person next door. You want a person who’s going to really care for you and be a good guy to be with in the battles of life. It’s why such a path will link between every day life and the island. It’s just the island strips it very bare and blows all the fluff of life away so people can come and see it as it is. But I think it’s why it resonates with people because you relate to it even though you might not necessarily have ever gone through that sort of experience yourself.”
There weren’t any camera crews on location with the participants so from a production angle, what has been the most difficult aspect of working on the series?
Holly Wofford: “Well, the 14 men shot the series themselves. Everything was shot by the 14 men and I think frankly maintaining the cameras, lugging the cameras around and thinking about shooting what they’re doing under the circumstances when they’re starving and when they’re absolutely thirsty, dying of thirst, I think those are the biggest challenges on the surface as far as a production is concerned. You know, it’s a network television show. We had expectations for these men. Each man did receive a small amount of camera training so they weren’t sent out there blindly. But yes, I think getting their bearings, being able to shoot when feeling so exhausted and being able to deliver a network-quality product was quite challenging for them.
I think, frankly, their biggest challenges were survival though, outside of production. It’s mentally how do you keep yourself in the game when you are absolutely miserable and you know it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. I think it’s the mental struggle and the mental transformations and the mental successes that they came back with that I’m most proud of. I have to say though what they gave to us, what they delivered to us as far as media and what they shot is just so impressive. These guys, they took it seriously. They put their heart and soul into turning this into a successful series. Of course when they went out there they weren’t thinking, ‘I hope this is a successful series.’ They went out with a goal of being able to stick it out, being able to be successful at the survival game while they’re out there and documenting that along the way. They did that so exceptionally well and I’m so, so proud of them for what they’ve brought back.”
What was your favorite moment from this season?
Holly Wofford: “I have to say if you stick around and watch the series, you will see that every man that makes it to the end is a changed man. It is absolutely remarkable. It’s inspiring and for me this was a personal championship. I mean, it was an amazing experience to see these guys that we cast, these regular men, these non-survivalists who had very little to no skills in the wild, some had never even been camping, and they come out the other end not just being able to survive on an island but changed from their outward appearance but inside, their hearts, their minds, they will never be the same again and it’s absolutely remarkable.”
Bear Grylls: “Yes, I’d really echo that. It’s interesting because Shara, my wife, she’s so used to lots of our shows coming out that she sometimes watches them. But when it comes to The Island, it’s the first TV show I’ve ever done where she goes… I was away when she’s watching Episode 3-4-5 of the U.S. version, she’s going, ‘I haven’t cried for a long time in front of a TV set.’
It’s so great to hear. And you’re right, Holly, that beach at the end when they all came back. I mean, these guys had a light in their eyes that money can’t buy. It really is this hard-earned glint in their eye that they won through heart, sweat, endeavor, brotherhood, and they’ve earned it the hard way. It was very, very moving and inspiring and that’s why we’re so proud of this.”
Were there contestants who emerged as leaders that you did not anticipate were going to be the leaders of the group?
Holly Wofford: “Yes, absolutely there were. We cast a group of 14 regular guys and you never know who’s going to end up standing out as a leader, who’s going to step forward, what approach are they going to take to leadership? Is it a loud boisterous one or is it a quiet approach? And I have to say that the men that I would have guessed would have emerged as the leaders and carried the show in that way absolutely did not, and the men that were more quiet and perhaps more observant in the beginning truly emerged as leaders.
That said, this experience for the men it was a group effort. It took every man to get every other man to the end. As Bear said – sorry to quote you, Bear – and I don’t want to misstate you but he’s like no man is an island and that’s true. It takes a team. It really took this team and it took a lot of positive attitudes and kindness to get through this experience. Yes, there were moments that were heated. A group of strangers, they aren’t always going to get along but they certainly did find a way to succeed as a team and as a group as a whole.
Bear, I thought you said something really interesting to the men at the end about everyday heroes. Do you remember what you said to them? You said that, you can never predict who the hero’s going to be. Again, I’m just sort of restating what you said generally but you can never predict who the hero’s going to be and you’re absolutely right.”
Bear Grylls: “Well, you can in the movies because they all look square-jawed and big muscles and all of that, but this really was the ultimate sort of quest to find those heroes. What I’ve learned in many things from expeditions in the military and the island shows that heroes come in many forms and they’re often well-disguised. But when you really put the squeeze on like the island does where it’s the ultimate pressure cooker, you begin to see what people are made of and those heroes do definitely emerge. But, first of all there was a lot of pain and I think that’s why it’s such compelling TV because the pain is very full-on for these guys.
I often talk about the phases of forming a team which is the forming, the storming, and then the performing. You know, first of all you form them, then it’s a storming where it’s crazy where you’ve got all these people in different backgrounds, different jobs, different attitudes and prejudices and opinions and because there’s no rule of law on the island, some people might not want a leader so there’s all a storming phase. And then eventually out of desperation you figure it out and finally you get to, hopefully you get to a phase where it works. But, yes, as you said it’s an inspiring process you see come to life.”
The Island has been described by some as a combination of Naked and Afraid with Survivor. What do you think it is about the show that differentiates it from those two? What can viewers expect?
Holly Wofford: “The thing about The Island is this is the most real survivor survival television show in the history of TV. It truly is. As I said earlier, these men didn’t even know where they were going until we handed them their tickets. They were literally dropped on an island, expected to film themselves and were given no resources beyond three machetes, three knives, and enough water for one day. The only other supplies they had were camera equipment, obviously, and a medical pack. They had no knowledge of the island when they arrived and were expected to find a way to survive amongst themselves, and it was no easy task that’s for sure.
The other thing is there’s no grand prize here. There are no challenges. There are no rewards. They didn’t get food along the way provided by production. There isn’t the game element in The Island. There are no voting out eliminations and the fact that they aren’t playing for any sort of prize – the only prize truthfully is pride. They’re not playing for a monetary prize so it’s hard core. There are no format elements in this series.
If you look at Naked and Afraid, you know they’re going to be dropped off and they move from one location to the next and then they have to get to their pick-up location. Survivor has the games and the elimination at the end. The Island is truly a docuseries of 14 men documenting their experience surviving on an island and it’s real, it’s raw, and it’s extraordinary.”
Bear Grylls: “What’s cool is that it didn’t need a prize. It didn’t need money or anything to motivate these guys. These guys worked beyond the normal and the reason they did it is that they wanted to discover something about themselves. They wanted to show to their loved ones whether it was their mom, their dad, their spouse, their kids, they wanted to prove their mettle and they hadn’t necessarily had a chance in life to prove that mettle. It’s incredibly inspiring seeing how motivating it is for people. You don’t need prizes or games for people to go to hell and back.
And, if you think of those other shows you talked about, these guys are experts on nature play […]and they’ve got camera crews supporting them. And the same with Survivor, there’s camera crews everywhere. What is so original is doing this in a way where you’ve got zero contact. Most people say, ‘Oh there’s no contact, but I bet there is. I mean, it’s literally zero contact and I think that’s what’s so original here and it’s what results in some pretty shocking moments, to be honest. I mean, there were definitely times Holly and me were seeing stuff coming back and going, ‘Wow!’ You know, you just have to come and sit down and take a moment. But it was always going to be like that. You’ve put them on an island with no rules, you’ve got to expect a bit of that.”
-By Rebecca Murray
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