When Captain Phil Harris, who was part owner and captain of the crab vessel Cornelia Marie - as well as a fixture on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" - passed away from a stroke in February, the news made headlines that proved not only that the crab fishing community had lost one of its best but also that Captain Phil was someone that people had gotten close to via reality television. How is the show going to include Captain Phil's death in the new season that premieres tonight? Our Jim Halterman rang up Executive Producer Jeff Conroy who talked at length about the unexpected events that audiences will see as the sixth season kicks off.
Jim Halterman: Obviously, the big news in the new season is the passing of Captain Phil earlier this year. Can you talk about that and how it is incorporated into the show this season?
Jeff Conroy: What happened is basically they were filming in Saint Paul Island (Alaska) and Phil hadn't come out of his State room so it was like 'Where's Phil?' and they went in and found him on the floor and that's when they realized it was an emergency and they got him to a hospital in Anchorage. As for the show, we were full-on filming when everything was happening and our cameraman, Todd Stanley, who was very close with Phil, has spent years sitting right next to Phil on an ocean bound road trip talking about everything that comes up about their lives and your family; they were very close. We were really embedded. Personally, I was really sad to see him go. He was a good friend.
JH: As competitive as this world is, it really seems from the perspective of the viewer that the guys also have each other's backs. True?
JC: Oh yeah. That's very, very true and I think you'll see more of that this season than ever. You'll see the competitiveness and the rivalry and you'll see the compassion. Everyone feels the sting of Phil's passing but Jonathan Hillstrand had finished his tour and left the fishing to Andy [Hillstrand, his brother] and he went to Anchorage and was there with Phil's boys, Josh and Jack. You rarely see that camaraderie and it really is a brotherhood.
JH: It also shows that the appeal of the show is not just the adventure but in the guys themselves, right?
JC: It's fascinating. After season one, it was the last year of the derby style fishing. That's very complicated the way it was done but to simplify it, derby fishing is basically first come, first serve. Whoever caught the most crab made the most money. If you had engine problems or you didn't find a crab then you didn't make money that year. Now they fish differently and they essentially go out and there's a certain amount they have to catch but it's not winner take all like it was in the past. After we did that in season one and the derby was over, we thought 'where's the show go now?' I said, 'Well, it still is really dangerous out there and we can show how these same crazy characters go out and do it.' The game changed but the players remained the same. It has been interesting over the years to see the appeal from catching crab to just this personal stories and family stories and friend stories. I think we're able to do with our characters what you just can't do with any other show.
JH: One of the press releases for the new season of the show says 'The most violent storms come from within.' Can you explain that?
JC: In this series in general we've addressed drug addiction, deaths in the family, family dynamics. There are so many things in this show that I think are universally appealing or universally appealing or relatable. Anyone in a family business can relate to this show. Anyone with a brother. There are so many things that travel across way beyond trying to catch some crab.
JH: Have you and Thom Beers (creator of 'Deadliest Catch') approach new projects differently now that you know the importance of character in these shows?
JC: Absolutely. 'Deadliest Catch' was really first big show in these blue-collar, dangerous job worlds. As it is with a lot of these worlds, the beginning is often just access. In the beginning with 'Catch,' it was who is going to let us film? Who is going to let us have cameras on their boats? Now that we've been in this business for a while, it's character and casting that is the number one priority. You really have to have people with real stakes who are willing to reveal their lives to you and are interesting to watch. The job itself is not the story. It's really the characters that are essential.
JH: Besides the impact of Captain Phil's passing, what else are we going to see this season on the show?
JC: Certainly the Captain Phil thing is this thing that is on our minds but you'll see some of the usual dynamics in the fishing. We also have a new character, this guy who goes by Wild Bill and he's Captain of the Zodiac. He's an interesting guy because he retired five years ago and he's a good example of how a downturn can put you back to work. We also see some real conflict between some of the captains. I think they've just got to the point where everything is on the table now and people don't play nice anymore just because they're being filmed. There's no shortage of danger, too.
JH: Are we seeing more of 'After The Catch,' too?
JC: Yeah, we're going to see five episodes of 'After The Catch.' We're going to shoot down in New Orleans and hopefully give Phil a proper send-off. 'After The Catch' is really nice to have that opportunity to show people in a way you can't in the series. The personalities, the relationships... it's all great. Overall, it just continues to compel. It's an amazing world for a producer and it's so satisfying. You go out there, work your ass off and you come back with true stories and that's so hard to do in TV where you've got pressures to make your show but with this show you get that authentic thing. I don't know how else to describe it other than to say it's giving a character and giving them a real moment and capturing it over and over again. This show delivers the greatest high you can imagine.
"Deadliest Catch" premieres its sixth season tonight at 9:00/8:00c on Discovery.