Imagine you are one of ten people that gather together after a global catastrophe and the only goal any of you have is to survive at all costs. That's the basic premise behind Discovery Channel's new reality series "The Colony," which makes it debut tonight. The series focuses on ten people of varying skills who find shelter in an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles and spend the next eight weeks figuring out how to find food and water as well as fight off marauders who want their supplies. Creator Thom Beers talked to Jim Halterman about this unique series where the only prize at the end of the series is dignity.
Jim Halterman: You've created such reality series as "Deadliest Catch" and "Ice Road Truckers." How did "The Colony" come about?
Thom Beers: I've been wanting to do this for years. To me, it's the next generation of reality-built television. You know, watching shows like "Survivor" and some of these other shows like "Big Brother" what I loved about them was the mental challenges but at the same time it also never felt real. I spent years working at Turner Broadcasting and traveling around the world and I was Cousteau's executive producer for six years and I've been at National Geographic and the weirdest stuff happens. I remember one time in Ethiopia. I was walking up to this little village on the Tekez� river and this guy stopped us and said "Do you have medicine?" I said, "Yes, we do. Some penicillin. We have to film this ceremony and when we come back we'll get you the medicine." We came back two hours later and the guy was dead! And those moments were like "Wait a minute! This shit is real!" To me, that always struck home for me and what I do, with "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men" and "Black Gold" and all my reality shows, these are real people in real environments doing high risk jobs for high rewards. What more high reward can you have in the world than being able to survive in an end-of-the-world scenario?
JH: And you made the decision not to have a cash prize or eliminations in "The Colony," right?
TB: I didn't want that. This is what we do and I've always felt that this resonates. What I find is that competition in the real world isn't really that interesting. Look, with "Deadliest Catch" we basically give you catch numbers at the end but it's not like these guys are up against each other. What I find and I think this resonates with the Discovery audience is that it's not man against man it's man against nature. It's people working together to solve a common problem and it's cooperation and intelligence and that's what really resonates with the Discovery audience. So that is what this is. No need to compete. Let's put them all in this world that's basically looking to take them out. I mean, it's a disgusting, dirty world and it's a real world. That isn't a set piece. That's a factory that we weren't aware of and we were in downtown LA and there it was, go live in it. The competition and elimination? Forget about it. That's somebody else's world, not mine.
JH: In picking the survivors for the show, how much of their personality came into play versus their skills?
TB: It's funny. Both. In essence, you're living with each other. It's not 'Let's wrap. It's 6 o'clock and everyone goes back to their hotel and in the morning come back for makeup and we'll make their feet look dirty.' These people lived in that disgusting place so basically their personalities all came out. It's funny because someone like Mike comes off in the first episode as a whiner and kind of a bitch but as the show goes on and you realize � and this is what you realize � that everybody has their own peccadilloes and strangeness and if you don't work with each other collectively you're all going to basically fail. You had to accept each one of their strangeness and peculiarities and learn to live with them.
JH: As the show went on, were you surprised at the reactions you got out of people?
TB: Oh, yeah! Wow. We really wanted these people to be on that edge. We kept these guys awake for 30 straight hours before we walked them into that colony. We consulted with a lot of psychologists and we did a lot of reading and research on all these experiments that have been done in the past to make it feel as real as possible to our individuals, the colonists. In every show it's set up so that you know what you're looking for. You know you need shelter, then water, then food, you're going to need power. We knew all the steps of a disaster and of what people would be searching for so each of them were our big arcing things but how they got there we didn't know. We left a lot of research material lying around and these guys were all, obviously�first of all, we cast really bright people. We cast this incredible net across the country in search of computer engineers and rocket scientists and then contractors, doctors, trauma nurses and every one of them had something interesting in their background that we knew they'd bring forward. You see in the first episode when Joey comes forward and said 'I'll admit, I went to prison." Someone in prison would be really useful in this kind of situation.
JH: When the marauders show up and start threatening the survivors, the voiceover says that they are instructed not to hurt the survivors but Mike has a very violent reaction to potential intruders.
TB: The survivors didn't know that. They didn't know that these people were not going to hurt them. In the first couple of episodes, it really ground them down because some of them were just terrified. It was interesting because they thought 'I signed onto this to do the experiment and to create electricity but I didn't sign on getting hurt or injured.' But we couldn't let them know that they weren't going to be hurt or injured. But towards the end, they realized that their resources were more important to these marauders than their physical. They just wanted to take their food and water and anything they made because that's what would happen in the real world.
JH: Was there ever a time during filming that the producers had to intervene?
TB: I'll be honest, we actually did once because it go so intense and there's a moment in one of the shows where literally some outsiders came in and it got real physical and a producer jumped in and we pulled him out very quickly and said 'Let this play out' but other than that you just had to let it run. We set the experiment up and the video village. There were 20 monitors out there weighing out every single step. It got really intense but, I have to admit, it's kind of like what we do. You have to take it to that edge.
JH: How did you actually simulate what would really happen in a global disaster?
TB: If you look at Katrina, for example, or the San Francisco earthquake or the Northridge quakes, they're pretty standard and you sit down with these disaster guides and they know there are steps just like the psychology of it that there's acceptance and anger and all these�there are a number of steps so we basically went through each and every one of them and we knew that during the eight weeks of production they'd go through all these arcs. I have to be honest, we threw everything you can possibly think of at them. Everything that would challenge not only their mind set but their morality. As the series goes on, people knock on that door looking for sanctuary and sooner or later they realize we can't take any more people in, we only have enough food for ourselves and they have to make real choices. But when we finished this experiment - and this is the most amazing thing I've ever seen - after eight weeks of just in major weight loss and no comforts whatsoever in this place, if you asked the 10 of them � we went out two nights after the show - and they said "I'd go back tomorrow.' There was a dignity. There was something about the simplicity of life and every one of them loved that. They all went 'I've never been so single minded in my life." There was no dealing with anything, will bills, my life, my job. All it was was basic survival and they loved it.
JH: With all the shows you've done, have you thought about writing your memoirs?
TB: In about three years I'm going to sit down. I've been on a hell of a run with all these shows and long before. After awhile, you kind of understand human nature. You understand all this stuff and you just trust that something is going to happen. Every show has been a surprise to me. Usually it was somebody did something so unusual that kind of manned up. The weakest or meekest of the people just became a warrior and you say "Oh my God! That's awesome!"
JH: Has there been anything you haven't been able to tackle that you'd like to do down the line?
TB: "The Colony" is something that has been near and dear to my heart for many years and it's not a cheap show. I really give Discovery a lot of credit for coming in on this experiment with me and trusting that we can do it. The one thing I know from this show is that I purposely designed it so every new season could be a different disaster. Something could be nuclear, bio, hurricane, tornado or could be a massive earthquake. There are a number of scenarios that we could get much more specific to. Getting to the actual core of reality and authenticity that's what I'm doing and I'm going to keep on going in that direction as much as possible. Look at "Deadliest Catch." We're in season six and more people are watching than ever before. It's good story telling.
"The Colony" launches tonight at 10:00/9:00c on the Discovery Channel.