XFinityTV is blowing up their coverage of “Survivor: Philippines.” Starting next Tuesday, I’ll be squaring off against a “Survivor: One World” favorite in this season’s Power Rankings challenge. Every Wednesday briefly after the show we’ll have a full episode recap and every Thursday we’ll have an interview with the latest eliminated player. Also, starting October 1st, we’re bringing back the “Survivor” Question of the Week where Jeff Probst and I tackle a wide variety of “Survivor” topics. Follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for all the updates!
The three key components to success in “Survivor” are having a strong social game, a strong strategic game, and prowess in immunity challenges. We’ve already discussed how our eighteen (now seventeen) players are going to tackle the social and strategic aspects. But, now I thought it’d be fun to ask “Survivor” Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer what he has in store for our beloved castaways. Not only did John spill the beans on the rest of the season, but he also gave us a look at how “Survivor” challenges are created…
Gordon Holmes: “Survivor” fans are going to be downright giddy now that water-based challenges are finally back.
John Kirhoffer: We haven’t had open water that we can do challenges in. We’ve had beautiful islands, but the water wasn’t safe. There was waves and coral. Here in the Philippines we have good shallow water areas. We have a beautiful lagoon that’s about seventy feet. We’re not going to go all the way down.
Holmes: They might not come back up.
Kirhoffer: (Laughs) Right. But we’ll send them down a bit. One of the first things I did was watch every water season of “Survivor” and took notes. I came up with a list of about sixty challenges that I love. I tried to figure out what the mechanisms are that made them fun. It’s not exactly Chinese arithmetic. Go out, collect puzzle pieces, then solve them. But it’s how you get those pieces, the journey back and forth has to be fun and physical. And the puzzles have to be interesting. But being back in a water location has opened out mind again.
Holmes: Very excited for the water challenges. Now, you probably know which questions is coming next…
Kirhoffer: You miss people eating gross stuff.
Holmes: I love the gross stuff.
Kirhoffer: Agh…so does my aunt. No, we don’t have any plans to eat gross stuff, and I’ll tell you why; we’re not “Fear Factor”…
Holmes: Whoa whoa…”Fear Factor” is gross stuff for gross stuff’s sake. “Survivor” always pulled actual food from the location.
Kirhoffer: Exactly. I’m sure we could find something, but in the Philippines the thing that is the most exotic and different is balut (fertilized duck embryo) and we did that in China and Micronesia. China had a lot of food that was indigenous. Although, we did cross the line, because we had people eat the smoothies.
Holmes: I’m going to hold out hope that you’re in town and see something on the menu that inspires you.
Kirhoffer: (Laughs) Maybe next season. People are mixed about it. My aunt says, “John Boy, how come we haven’t seen gross food in a while?!”
Holmes: Speaking of China, you guys did a great job working Chinese culture and symbolism into the challenges. Are we going to see some of that this season?
Kirhoffer: Oh yes. One of the cornerstones of coming to a new place is highlighting the culture. The way they fish with the nets, you’re going to see that in a challenge. The rice patties, we’re going to do some challenges in the rice patties that are beautiful. We’ve drawn a lot, not just from the set architecture, but also in the things we incorporate into the challenges.
Holmes: Between immunity and reward challenges, you’re probably on the hook for 20 to 30 challenges a season.
Kirhoffer: It’s around 25.
Holmes: I’d assume you take challenge ideas from everywhere. Where’s the oddest place you’ve taken inspiration from?
Kirhoffer: The title of a challenge has to be either a pun or the name of a rock band or song. We’ve got lots of them. But in China we started coming up with a title then making a challenge to fit it.
Holmes: That sounds like the exact opposite of what you should do.
Kirhoffer: It would inspire you! We had one called “Peking Duck.” We tested it, it was like dodgeball. You come up from behind a crate, and then you have to duck. So you’re peeking and ducking. We did that thing in Tocantins where the ball goes rolling down the roller coaster. That was based on an art project that one of our guys did.
Holmes: Speaking of peeking, that rhyme was unintentional, peeking at other people’s puzzles and strategies has been happening a lot lately. Is that something you guys even care about? Seems like it’d cause ill will between the contestants which I know is encouraged.
Kirhoffer: In the early days we used to set up barriers. Now? If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. Are you smart enough to look at someone else’s strategy? When it gets down to individuals and you have stuff like mathematics, that kind of cheating can’t be tolerated. But you can only cheat so much with a puzzle.
Holmes: OK, let’s get into this sneak peek.
Kirhoffer: Let’s talk about episode two, a challenge called “Manila Folders.” The most important thing in a challenge is that you give it a cute name. And the cutest names, of course, are of rock-and-roll bands or rock-and-roll songs. Or, something that’s a pun on the area. Manila Folders. (Sarcastic Laugh) You see, Manila is a city…
Holmes: I see what you did there.
Kirhoffer: The way most challenges start is…back in September a handful of us came out here to scout the location and look for the areas and try to figure things out. Then we go back to Los Angeles. I get a few friends together and we sit together and say, “What’ve you got for puzzles? What kind of new challenge ideas?” In the brainstorming process there’ll be five of us in the room. More of a brain breeze than a storm. Our friend Miles came up with this Tetris-like puzzle. It was Miles Tiles! But we changed it to Manila Folders. And, what we came up with is, we were looking for areas, we found this beautiful field that we can do challenges in. Miles pitches this challenge, then we all sit around and massage it together. We talk about what it could be. They’d race off into the jungle, then they’d bring back these folding pieces. You lay them down, and they all fit together.
Holmes: And the sled?
Kirhoffer: We thought, we’d get one of these things that we’ve all seen out here. You’ve seen the big…buffalo, whatever they are, they pull these sleds that are for rice or grain or whatever. So we came up with our own sleds that our people would pull. We found the field, but we didn’t have a jungle. So instead of going out into a jungle we’re just going out into a field.
Kirhoffer: There are three tables with all the puzzle pieces.
Kirhoffer: With the puzzle there are three zones. The two pairs take turns completing a zone. The tribe to complete the puzzle first, wins.
From there, we watched the Dream Team (a group of young, fit production assistants whose job it is to run the challenges to make sure they’re interesting and relatively safe) put Manila Folders through its paces. Everything seemed to go as planned with the Kalabaw stand-ins taking the win.
Holmes: OK, what did we learn from the Dream Team’s test run?
Kirhoffer: We learned that having two pairs of people switching out and doing the puzzles was confusing. Jeff was up on the tower and saw it for the first time, he decided to have one pair do the puzzles. That way it’s easier for the people at home to understand and it puts more pressure on that pair.
Holmes: What about the tower? It seemed like they weren’t doing much coaching.
Kirhoffer: We learned a long time ago that having someone in a tower, that it’s good to have a bird’s-eye view on a puzzle like this. But sometimes that person just confuses the issue. Everyone feels the need to put in their two cents, when sometimes the smartest move is to have one voice do it.
Holmes: Alright, and that’s how a “Survivor” challenge goes from inspiration to immunity.
Kirhoffer: From inspiration to perspiration.
Holmes: Oh, that’s way better.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes