Warning: This article contains spoilers about the season premiere of Survivor 43.
Survivor is back, and in a big way. Big in pretty much every respect. Not only was the Survivor 43 premiere a two-hour supersized episode, but it was filled with big personalities, big challenges, and some big production flourishes. We spoke to Jeff Probst to talk about the first installment of the season, and the host/executive producer took us behind the curtain to explain how he and his team approached the episode, including some clever tweaks to the format. He also revealed how one player outsmarted not only the other contestants, but producers as well. (Also make sure to check out our exit interview with Morriah Young as well as our Survivor 43 premiere recap, and watch an exclusive deleted scene above.)
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst on 'Survivor' 43
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Usually, a two-hour Survivor means two episodes put together, but you actually had two hours to play with on this premiere for just 3 days (and one Tribal Council) of action. How was your approach different knowing how much time you had to work with?
JEFF PROBST: That's a great observation. Episode 1 is always about introducing the players to the audience. Our casting is so good that we never feel we have enough time for all our amazing stories, even with two hours! So it becomes a question of the context in which you get to know the players. Sometimes we structure episode 1 so that we lose two players, sometimes we go with just one. It's always a balance between keeping the players off balance and the game design we have in mind for the season.
For this premiere, we decided to go with just one Tribal Council. So we added a lot of additional layers, including a marooning challenge, a Sweat vs Savvy dilemma and a journey where one player from each tribe had to leave camp and make a risk vs reward decision that would impact their game. Even though it may appear like we're approaching it all with an easy flowing, play it by ear attitude, it's always very specific and laid out in advance.
You all had some really fun production flourishes, like playing on screen with Sami's multiple professions, and giving Owen an old-school Survivor credits intro, and having fun with Cody's tattoo. What's the philosophy in terms of how far to go down that path?
It makes me so happy that you notice these little moments. I think it's pretty clear that we take a lot of pride in our dramatic storytelling, but in every episode there are so many fun opportunities to wink at the audience and we try to include them whenever possible. As for where the clever ideas come from… our approach in the editing bays is really simple: "If you think it sounds fun, try it!" Our editors have free reign to go wherever their dramatic instincts or sense of humor takes them.
I'd like to say it's one of our secret weapons, but there isn't anything secretive about it. The Survivor editing teams are regarded as the best in the unscripted world. And I don't in any way mean this as a slight to any other show. There are some insanely talented people making some wonderful shows! We're just very fortunate to have an extremely experienced and talented team of storytellers who have been together for a long, long time. So, we'd be foolish to not give them the autonomy to try whatever they want. In fact, most of the time their ideas make it into the show exactly as they presented it in the first cut of the episode.
CBS Sami Layadi on 'Survivor 43'
This experimental attitude extends to all areas of our creative process: challenges, advantages, twists, logos, torch design, snuffer, Tribal Council. Every single person who touches any part of the show is encouraged to share their ideas for how to make it better, more fun, or more dangerous! If I went through just one episode with you, I could mention dozens of names who contributed ideas that helped shape a single moment.
And that doesn't include the hundreds of non-creative support crew members who build our roads, make our food, do the laundry, drive our boats, negotiate our island contracts, deal with the Fijian government, or keep our internet going so we can facetime with our families. This team is nutzo good! And hey, we should be, we've been doing this a long, long, time.
You tweaked the Prisoner's Dilemmas from the past two seasons to now a secret-yet-simultaneous decision where everyone who risks it still has a chance to win an advantage. What was behind that change?
We really like the risk vs reward dilemma as a format element, because the loss of a vote can be so significant when you're on a small tribe. For Survivor 41 and 42 we were very consistent with how it worked because we wanted to lay a foundation for a new game so the players could get a foothold. For this season, we decided to open it up a bit more and play around with those expectations.
After Survivor 43 and Survivor 44 have finished, it will be almost impossible to predict what might happen on a journey. Will they have a decision to make, a game to play, or maybe nothing to do at all!? And then when they return to camp, do they tell their tribemates the truth and even if they do, will they be believed?
I've said this to you many times, but a big key to our game design is playing on assumptions. Is the game going left, right, up or down? The player will never know, which is why the great players stay alert and flexible. Then when a twist or unexpected event happens, they are ready to adapt and adjust accordingly.
Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor' 43
One of the things I love is the cat and mouse game between producers and contestants, especially when they sometimes figure out a way to do a challenge that you all hadn't anticipated. When Cody realized on the opening reward challenge that you could move the flint ring by putting the flint into the hole on the bamboo pole, was that a strategy that ever came up during rehearsals with the Dream Team?
Again, I love that you mention this moment because you are really hitting at the heart of what I just said earlier regarding staying alert and adjusting as you go. Cody was the only player who stepped out of the emotional chaos and studied the problem while it was still unfolding. How do we get that flint? We had tested that challenge many, many times with our Dream Team. Nobody ever thought of doing that, but Cody did.
It was not only a great moment for his tribe, but a great moment for the audience because that moment revealed character. It showed that Cody is both calm and wily. That combination allowed him the clarity to see an opportunity and the ability to find a solution. It's a seemingly tiny moment, but it's a great example of how you have to play this game. In the moment.
Robert Voets/CBS The Baka tribe on 'Survivor' 43
Also, I may be totally off on this, but it almost looked like you all extended the immunity challenge area to have an even longer challenge space than normal. Am I crazy or was it just such a big build that my eyes deceived me?
Okay class, as I hand back your graded assignments, you'll notice that one person received extra credit this week and that person is… Dalton Ross! Good job, Dalton! For fans who might not be quite as dialed in as you, I'll explain. That field is called Winston Field. We use it a lot. Often, we build a big tower at the end of the field, but this year we didn't. Instead, we had a larger part of our build in the middle of the challenge which did create a bit of an optical illusion that the end of the field had been extended.
Just to confirm, I checked with Mr. John Kirhoffer, who has overseen every single challenge of every single season of Survivor. Mr. Kirhoffer was very impressed with your awareness and has extended an offer to join the Survivor challenge team, if you are ready, willing and able to give up your fledgling career over at EW.
Finally, can you give us a tease for next week?
You'll begin to see key relationships start to form and another epic immunity challenge that reminds all the tribes who you keep is as important as who you vote out.
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