‘Survivor’ Executive Producer Matt Van Wagenen – ‘For the ‘Survivor’ Geek, (Ghost Island) Is Going to Be a Playground’

“Survivor: Ghost Island” (CBS)

QUICK NOTE: The good folks at XFINITY sent me deep into the Fijian wilderness to bring you an exclusive look at “Survivor: Ghost Island.” While I was there I conducted interviews with “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and the entire cast. I also captured exclusive photos and other behind-the-scenes tidbits. So, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates.

Gordon Holmes: How does one become the Executive Producer on “Survivor”?
Matt Van Wagenen: Well…
Holmes: Because I’m hoping that’s my next career move.
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) We’ll see. It was a long process. I started off on season 14, I had been a huge fan from the beginning. And even in season 2 I made a mixtape for this girl.
Holmes: Mix tape? In 2001?
Van Wagenen: A mix CD at the time. I’d put little clips from movies and TV shows in between songs and I actually put Jerri Manthey getting voted out right before a song. I was an intense fan. We used to love watching the show together and I had always wanted to work on it. I had some connections to get into “Survivor,” but they never hired me. So, I kept trying and trying. I was really persistent. And finally there was an opening around season 14. It was the dream job for me. I didn’t want to leave. I loved it. There’s a rush working on “Survivor.” And being a producer on the beach is the best job because you’re watching “Survivor.”
Holmes: “Survivor” the live show.
Van Wagenen: It is! It’s “Survivor” the live show the entire time. You’re watching all of the mistakes as they happen. It’s like watching at home on your couch, except you’re allowed to pause the show and ask the players, “So, why did you do that?” You can actually ask those questions. I was a producer on the show up until season 26 and then I got promoted to Co-Executive Producer in season 27 and a couple of years ago got promoted to Executive Producer.

Holmes: How much of a say do you have in creative?
Van Wagenen: Quite a bit. It all starts with Jeff. Jeff is our driving force. People say he’s the face of “Survivor,” but he’s much more than that.
Holmes: The heart, the soul, the dimples…
Van Wagenen: You joke, but I’ve never met someone who’s so tenacious. He has such a love for this show. He really drives the ship. Jesse Jensen deals more with the logistics and I deal more with the creative. It is not uncommon for us to be talking about creative years in advance. Ghost Island is something we’ve had in the works forever. We’ll be doing a boat ride to a challenge, two years ago and we’ll be like, “OK, what can Ghost Island be?” And we’ll spit out ideas. We’ve been around for so long, that a Segment Producer can come up with an idea. Jeff can be the driving force, I have a say in it, but we’ll take a good idea from anyone.
Holmes: Jeff and I have already hashed out season 37. I’m sure he’ll be bringing it to your attention soon.
Van Wagenen: What is it?
Holmes:Survivor: Host Island.
Van Wagenen: (Laughs)
Holmes: It’s going to be huge.

Holmes: Alright, tell me about this Ghost Island I’ve been hearing so much about.
Van Wagenen: Ghost Island…we had the title first, then worked on the theme. “Survivor” is a game where literally a million decisions are made over the course of the game. Sometimes there are good ones and sometimes there are bad ones and sometimes there are disastrous ones. We thought it’d be fun to do a season with relics from bad decisions of the past. We didn’t just want to say, “Someone made this bad decision.” We had this idea where we want people to reverse the curse. For the “Survivor” geek, it’s going to be a playground.
Holmes: I said it’s like a love letter to hardcore “Survivor” fans.
Van Wagenen: I used that term just the other day. But, we also want to make sure new fans enjoy it as well. I’m a person who…sitting on my desk back at home I have objects and relics…
Holmes: Right, don’t you have Eliza’s stick and things like that?
Van Wagenen: Right. I have David’s fake hidden immunity idol in a jar.
Holmes: Do you have to fish them out of the fire after Jeff chucks them in there?
Van Wagenen: Oh…they’re in the fire. As soon as we wrap I get on the radio and say, “Can someone from art please grab that for me?” These objects, they symbolize a mistake. Some of these items will be making an appearance. It’ll be a question of if people can correct the mistakes that others have made. Going to Ghost Island myself, I was struck by how cool it looks. And you can draw power from it, or it can be a little haunting.

Holmes: Probst and I were joking about the target that Stephen Fishbach hit that belonged to the other tribe being out there as a cursed item.
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) I love Stephen. You could also throw in his steal-a-vote advantage. He’s got a lot of cursed items. The ball that he dropped in the final challenge in Tocantins, I’d say that’s cursed.
Holmes: Is Stephen out there?
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) Wouldn’t that be great? He’s out there with his horrible intestinal distress. He has a few things out there.

Holmes: Jeff was telling me that you’re giving them less food as a way to make providers more valuable to the tribe. What’s the balance between, “This is your game, go play it,” and “Providers should get more of a shot”?
Van Wagenen: It’s also, we love to see people out there fishing. Anything you can do to encourage people to go out in the water is good. But, I think we always want to lean toward it being their game. The whole point of “Survivor” is for them to create their own society. But, I think we also want them to create their own game. People last season complained that there was too much whispering at Tribal. But, they did it. We didn’t want to bridle them with rules.

Holmes: The original concept was you’re marooned, every three days you get rid of somebody. And it can be for any reason; they’re annoying, they don’t help around camp, they’re a strategic threat. During “Game Changers”, Malcolm goes home after being voted out by another society, and Cirie goes home without receiving a single vote. How do you feel when moments like that go down?
Van Wagenen: I think the game is evolving. We’re never…well, I should never say never…but there are always going to be idols. Anything we can do to keep the players on their toes is good. Nobody wants a stale season. Malcolm was voted out and sometimes there are casualties. Good players go. In “Survivor: Second Chance” when Kimmi was voted out, everyone thinks it was awesome. If it’d been Jeremy, maybe people would have been more upset. I do wonder how much the victim matters in how people feel about it.
Holmes: Yeah, if anything happens to Malcolm I am (expletive deleted) furious.
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) Yeah, sorry about “Game Changers.”

Holmes: Here’s an actual compliment.
Van Wagenen: Finally!
Holmes: I love the new final Tribal format.
Van Wagenen: I’m surprised it took us this long to get there. It started with Jeff. He’s been there since day one and it became this thing. We look at a process that we’ve been doing for a long time and we question; why are we still doing this? And, I think looking at final Tribal, why are we doing this thing where someone can just be talked to. It’s not a speech, it’s a conversation. And a season where we celebrate “live Tribals,” if the final Tribal can be live, how much better is that? I think you actually see people being swayed more because of the new format.
Holmes: It’s interesting to see who advocates for who.
Van Wagenen: Yeah, you’ll see; this person plays like I played, so I want to champion their cause. I think there’s a little bit of the jury member wants to identify with the winner.

Holmes: If we were filming “Survivor: The Movie,” who would play you?
Van Wagenen: Jeff would play himself, right?
Holmes: He said Tom Cruise.
Van Wagenen: Wow, that’s good.
Holmes: I think (Challenge Producer) John Kirhoffer would be played by Robert Duvall from “Apocalypse Now.” For me…maybe John Cusack? I want to be the nice guy, a little bit. Or Corey Feldman from “Lost Boys.”

Holmes: Alright, I’ve been playing this with your host and your cast. I’ll give you two “Survivor” situations. You let me know which one you prefer.
Van Wagenen: Oh man.
Holmes: I don’t know why people agree to be interviewed by me. Align with a Trump supporter or a Hillary supporter?
Van Wagenen: Hillary supporter…because my brother worked with Donald Trump on “The Apprentice.”
Holmes: Steal a vote or eliminate a juror?
Van Wagenen: Steal a vote because I feel like it has more power. At the end I want to feel like I don’t need to kick out a juror.
Holmes: Align with a racist or a sexist?
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) These are terrible questions!
Holmes: I’m not proud of them.
Van Wagenen: There’s literally no right answer! I think I’d say sexist. I’d rather align with them…because…ugh…this is terrible.
Holmes: I only asked this to literally every contestant.
Van Wagenen: What did they say?
Holmes: I think it’s mainly sexist.
Van Wagenen: Well, the violence associated with racism… So, there’s my answer, I’ll align with a sexist. Even though sexism is horrible.
Holmes: I was thinking of Rudy in season one who said negative things about homosexuals and then became best friends with Richard. Make this a positive.
Van Wagenen: Do we have to keep doing this?
Holmes: Yes. Voted out first or before the final Tribal?
Van Wagenen: Before final Tribal.
Holmes: Only person who ever said first was Tony Vlachos.
Van Wagenen: Really? I’d want the experience. I want to go on a reward, I want to push myself.
Holmes: Align with an adulterer or a tax cheat?
Van Wagenen: A tax cheat. An adulterer is willing to betray their spouse, so they’ll definitely betray me.
Holmes: Lose the family challenge or win and have to decide who to take?
Van Wagenen: Rather lose, no brainer.
Holmes: I got a lot of loses from this cast.
Van Wagenen: I think people go out there with that mentality, but when they’re out there and they’re starving, and they’re in a world where they don’t trust anyone? Something animal takes over and they feel the desire to win.
Holmes: Caught stealing food or idol hunting?
Van Wagenen: Idol hunting, everyone hunts for idols.
Holmes: Align with a super fan or someone who doesn’t watch the show?
Van Wagenen: Super fan. I would never align with someone who doesn’t watch the show. Luckily, we don’t really have those people in the cast. We’ve found that people who watch the show just play it better. But, my mentality is; I want someone who knows the game, so when I want to make a move, they’ll be willing to make the move. People who don’t watch the game kind of become strategy clogs. There’s no back-and-forth.
Holmes: All I can trust out here is for you to work in your best interest. And if you don’t know the show, it becomes harder for me to guess what you think is in your best interest.
Van Wagenen: Right. And it’s interesting, there has been this slow thing over seasons where you can almost sense when they realize there’s someone who doesn’t know the game very well. And those people go pretty early these days.
Holmes: Dance challenge or karaoke challenge?
Van Wagenen: Karaoke, 100%.
Holmes: What’s your go-to jam?
Van Wagenen: It’s a toss up…I’m really good at “Centerfold” from J. Geils Band and I also do a pretty good “Danger Zone” from Kenny Loggins.
Holmes: Those would not have been my first guesses.
Van Wagenen: There’s this part where I can do this little riff between the guitar solo. And I love “Top Gun.”

Holmes: “Millennials vs. Gen-X” was so different…
Van Wagenen: I loved it.
Holmes: I felt like you had this vibe where if you stab me in the back, I wouldn’t be like, “Screw you.” Instead it was like, “Great job!”
Van Wagenen: Wasn’t that the best?
Holmes: Everybody seems to get along. No real bad blood in the cast when it’s over. It seems like the stereotype around reality producers is you’d be like, “How can we make these people hate each other?”
Van Wagenen: (Laughs) No, not at all.
Holmes: Would that even work on another show? People go on “Survivor” and say, “This show changed my life. I’m going to go home and live in the now.” You don’t get that same vibe from “The Bachelor.”
Van Wagenen: I think that’s one of the things I love about it. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but when I was a producer on the beach and someone was having a down time, I’d say, “It’s OK. They want this story, and they want it to go up in the end.” “Survivor” is all about overcoming things. And watching transformative stories and making people better, those are my favorite stories. Cirie is one of my all-time favorite players. She didn’t have an episode arc, or a season arc, she had a series arc. You see where she started and where she ended? It’s beautiful. Cochran, Spencer…I (expletive deleted) love Spencer. For someone who when we met him in casting and he was like a calculating shark…he’s an amazing open and vulnerable person. I think any time you can celebrate a victory, it’s a good thing. That’s why “Millennials vs. Gen-X” was one of my favorite season. They just respected a good move. I’d love that every season.
Holmes: You’re making reality TV producers look bad.
Van Wagenen: I love that you’re putting it that way. Because I hadn’t really thought about it compared to other shows. There was some negativity in season 30 and we took that to heart. We want to concentrate on the positive. Because I think that’s what the fans want.

Don’t miss the season premiere of “Survivor: Ghost Island” – Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 8 pm ET.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes

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