I’ve always thought reality shows were smut, pure and simple. In my personal life, I steered clear of them in favor of nature documentaries and other educational programming. It was my love for these documentaries that lead me to a career as a cameraman. I wanted to be the person bringing extraordinary footage of wildlife to TV screens around the world. I imagined amazing adventures in the jungle, exploring uncharted lands, discovering new creatures, and, of course, making piles of cash. The truth wasn’t quite as glamorous as I’d hoped and finding work was difficult. Most production companies hired the same crews. They had no reason to take risks on newbies like me. When I realized I wasn’t going to get my big break, I got desperate.
Reality TV desperate.
I’d been out of work for several months, when I received a call about a survivalist competition show. The producer explained that one of their cameramen bailed on them and that the job was mine if I wanted it. Like I said, I was pretty desperate.
Without even thinking, I made the biggest mistake of my life by accepting the offer. Morals be damned, the pay was amazing, and it sounded a lot more engaging than my previous job, which had me sitting motionless in a hut for a week on the off chance a certain bird would show up so I could film its mating ritual. It never came.
A few days after the unexpected call, I was flown to New Zealand to meet the production crew. They seemed fairly nice, though producer was a little bit … eccentric, to put it mildly. I’d met a few of his kind in the business, so I didn’t let it bother me too much.
At our first team meeting, he explained his vision for the show, and had us sign a large pile of confidentiality agreements. He was pretty adamant about avoiding leaks, and instantly fired anyone who refused to sign. The show was to feature 15 Americans in loincloths, abandoned on an island for 3 months without weapons, tools, or food. They were going to have to get creative and use their skills to survive. Every week, they’d compete individually for valuable resources, such as clean drinking water and scraps of food. No one would be voted out: the only way to leave the competition was by quitting or by successfully surviving all 3 months in the wilderness.
About a week before filming began, we were taken to an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. The crescent-shaped island was a tropical paradise full of palm trees and sandy beaches on one side, and rocky cliffs on the outer edge. For safety purposes, cast and crew were encouraged to remain on the sandy side. We set up base camp a few miles away from the contestant’s beach, so we’d be close enough in case of an emergency, but far enough so as to avoid disrupting them. The producer and director wanted the show to be as authentic as possible, limiting interactions with the cast to occasional medical examinations.
The contestants’ camp was dubbed “Camp A”, while our base camp was dubbed “Camp B”.
For the better part of a day, I helped set up monitoring cameras in the palm trees around Camp A with a fellow cameraman, Patrick. He and I hit it off instantly. He’d followed the same career path as I had, but he’d switched over to low-class entertainment years ago to make ends meet. He gave me good pointers on how to film our contestants without engaging them or making our presence known to the audience watching the show at home. We had to be the equivalent of the Queen’s Guard: silent watchers, unfazed by the constant action, drama, and rampant nudity happening under our noses. Though Patrick’s words were meant to encourage me, I couldn’t help but worry about the situation I’d gotten myself into. Would my reputation suffer from being associated with this project? At the end of the day, I needed the money: even if it meant becoming part of the same lowbrow productions that I had snubbed in the past.
It was almost dark by the time Patrick and I returned to Camp B. In our absence, the crew had turned the vacant clearing into a modest oasis with supply stations, tents, a communal dining area, and a single lavish RV for the producer that was filled with TVs streaming feeds from the contestants’ beach. I knocked on the RV’s door to let the producer know Patrick and I were done.
“Sir, the cameras are set up. Mind if I check the feeds?”
He opened the door just a crack, eyes narrowing. With a huff, he shooed me with his hand and closed the door in my face.
“It’s fine. Go away!” he shouted through the thin walls.
Like I said earlier, he was a little eccentric. He never even showed his face that week. While the crew worked day and night to get everything ready in time, he hid in the RV, presumably watching our progress on the live feeds.
The big day finally came, and the contestants were flown in on helicopters. I confess, I was jealous. The crew had been taken to the island on a supply ship scheduled to come back every couple of weeks. The journey hadn’t been pleasant. We’d been dropped off and left with a single speed boat to film by sea.
The whole crew was on the beach to capture every moment of the contestants’ arrival. Some started foraging for food, others started building a shelter, a couple worked on making fire, and a few went straight to the beach to relax. I followed them tirelessly, sweat pouring down the sides of my face and seeping into my shirt. Sure, the weather was a pleasant 25˚C (77˚F), but if you think I had it easy, consider how well you’d fare if you had to drag 20 pounds worth of equipment in 88% humidity. Needless to say, I’m not entirely sure who was most exhausted by the end of the day: the contestants, or me.
On day 2, the contestants started feeling early symptoms of dehydration. Their priorities shifted from shelter and food, to fire and water. I followed a group as they left camp in search of a water source, carrying coconut husks to use as receptacles. They eventually found the only source of fresh water on the island: a small lake about a mile and a half north from camp. By the time they made it back home, the mood had shifted drastically.
An unspoken tension stagnated in the air. Five contestants were slacking off in the shelter while the others desperately rubbed wood against wood to get a fire going. The workers shot daggers at the unproductive gang, but nothing was getting them off their hinds. Just by looking at them, I could tell they hadn’t worked an honest day in their lives. If they thought they could lounge around all day without contributing, they were going to run into some serious problems with the others on the island. In the end, none of the contestants were able to start a fire and, consequently, they were unable to boil water. They were really started to get on-edge now.
By day 3, small fights broke out. People were thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. Without fire, the castaways couldn’t boil water, cook, or keep bugs away, resulting in uncomfortable and sleepless nights. Their bodies were shutting down from dehydration and hunger. They knew the risks of drinking untreated water, but they were desperate. I witnessed them lapping frantically at the bacteria-ridden water supply as though their lives depended on it. They paid dearly for the reckless decision. It wasn’t long before they were doubled-over, hurling what little hydration was left in their bodies. Still, they kept drinking in the hopes that at least some of the liquid would find a permanent home in their bodies.
Day 4 was no better. Hunger and thirst had weakened the castaways to the point of near-immobility. They were as slow as sloths. I felt exhausted just looking at them. How was this supposed to make entertaining TV?
Fortunately, one of the more resilient contestants – a tall and buff farmer from Kansas – managed to break open a coconut. He kindly shared its nutrient-rich milk with a chosen few who had helped around camp, leaving the entitled slackers to their misery. Of course, those left behind broke down into screams and sobs. They tried to steal the coconut, but they were too weak to land more than a few pointless swipes. My heart ached for all the contestants, and I felt like giving them a few water bottlers from my personal supply. I would have done so, if not for the fact that I knew the producer was monitoring the feeds closely. I just couldn’t afford to take the risk, not if it meant getting fired.
After the coconut incident, five of the contestants quit the competition. The look of hopelessness in their eyes was unlike anything I had seen before. I knew the competition was supposed to be both emotionally and physically demanding, but these people had barely begun their adventure, and they already looked like they’d given up the ghost. I gave them water and granola bars as I drove them to Camp B to talk with the producer. The bitter man exited his trailer for the first time in two weeks so he could yell profanities at them for their lack of willpower.
“Well, you can’t stay here,” he finished coldly.
Compassion wasn’t his strong suit.
The five contestants had to stay on the island for the duration of the competition, as stated in their contracts. Fortunately, the producer had anticipated a few people would quit, and had apparently set up a third camp, Camp C, in the forest to keep quitters from interfering with the film crew. I was surprised when he offered to personally drive them there. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as big a jerk bad as I thought he was.