'Survivor' Hits 500: Exec Producer Shares "Mind-Blowing" Memories From Fiji and Beyond

Matt Van Wagenen charts his journey from series fan to crewmember and weighs in on witnessing some of the CBS reality competition's most iconic moments from the past decade.
Robert Voets/CBS
'Survivor: Game Changers' cast

Before Survivor, there was Wild Things — and no, not the Neve Campbell movie, although technically, that came first, too. 

Matt Van Wagenen was a young producer working on a short-lived 1998 wildlife series of the same name from Amazing Race producer Bertram van Munster when he first heard about a developing CBS reality series in which 16 American men and women would ritualistically vote each other off of an island every three days, all in the name of a $1 million dollar prize.

"I remember not even understanding the concept," Van Wagenen tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There was nothing like it. But there were rumors of cameramen from our show who were outdoorsy types going to work on that show, and it did sound interesting. I wondered how they were going to pull it off."

Van Wagenen and the rest of America found out the answer in short order, as millions of viewers tuned in for the first season of Survivor, which premiered on May 31, 2000. He was hooked, just like everybody else, from the opening moments of the marooning, all the way through Richard Hatch's victory in the first season finale. ("I actually missed it live; I was working on a crappy show and we were shooting in Minneapolis on the night of the finale," he remembers. "I had to avoid the newspaper until I got home and watched it on VHS.") The very next season, the celebrated Australian Outback installment featuring Colby Donaldson and Tina Wesson, pushed Van Wagenen's burgeoning fandom to an entirely different level.

"I made a mixtape for my girlfriend, and I would put clips from movies that I love between some of the tracks," he says. "We were so excited the night Jerri Manthey got voted out that I put a track of Jeff Probst snuffing Jerri's torch on the mixtape. That's how big of a Survivor nerd I was."

It wasn't long before Van Wagenen attempted to take his Survivor fandom to yet another new level by applying for a job on the show. He wasn't optimistic about his chances: "I didn't think I would ever get a job; back then, it was a juggernaut." After multiple interviews with the series, Van Wagenen was finally offered a position during the 13th season, Cook Islands — an offer he was forced to turn down due to other commitments.

"It was the worst thing," he says. "This dream job was presented before me, but I didn't want to burn any bridges."

It was a true Survivor nightmare, to borrow a phrase from Jefra Bland. But it was a short-lived one, too. One season later, Van Wagenen was once again offered a job with Survivor, and this time, he was free to accept. Enter: Fiji, a worthy training ground for Van Wagenen's first season as a Survivor producer, conducting interviews with castaways, taking responsibility for specific episodes and otherwise living out his Survivor dreamz.

"We were in a sugarcane field living in tents," he remembers. "You couldn't even jump in an ocean. But I was so excited. I kept shouting: 'Look at this! We're in a tent! There's the tiniest refrigerator ever! The show is happening right outside! We're sharing a bathroom!' It felt like Survivor. It was just the greatest thing ever. It was mind-blowing."

Of course, Survivor: Fiji and "greatest thing ever" aren't two phrases often heard alongside each other, though Van Wagenen is quick to defend the honor and the Gervase of his very first season: "People shit on Fiji, and maybe part of it is because I have nostalgia for it, but I actually think there are a lot of memorable characters and moments. I get if you don't love the Haves/Have-Nots twist [in which one tribe lived in luxury while the other lived in squalor], but at the end of the day, it comes down to the cast. I loved watching the Four Horsemen. The editing on that Tribal Council was fantastic." 

In any event, he views the next season as an even more profound experience, having not only lived through production on Fiji, but also postproduction. Van Wagenen says he entered Survivor: China "charged up out of my mind," ready to apply the lessons he learned from his first season.

"In my mind, what a season. That Fei Long tribe, I would struggle to find another tribe of new players that's as good," he says. "Can you imagine sitting there with a little earpiece, and there's guys with boom microphones, and you're watching a conversation between James, Jean-Robert and Denise the lunch lady?"

The very next season, Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs Favorites, gave Van Wagenen a front-row seat to another unforgettable scene: Veritable prince Jason Siska unknowingly provided a fake immunity idol to endangered Eliza Orlins — an iconic moment in an already iconic season.

"I'm with one of the other producers and we're listening in on this conversation, and we're thinking, 'Is she going to open this up at Tribal, or is she going to open it earlier?'" he recalls. "And we hear her open up the bag, and it's like a radio play. All of the sudden it's like: 'What? What!?' And you see her marching down the beach, and we're running, trying to keep up with her. You know there's going to be gold there. In fact, when we had [composer] David Vanacore score that scene, we asked him for something that sounds like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when he finds the golden ticket. It was spectacular."

Siska's stick came and went, but Van Wagenen stuck around, just like the hundreds of other Survivor crewmembers who have been with the show for years and years. Many of them have been with the team since the very first season, including John Kirhoffer, the Dr. Frankenstein of the Survivor challenge department. Van Wagenen, often seen on location wearing a scarf in the sweltering heat, earned the role of co-executive producer during Season 27, the "favorites versus family members" experiment known as Blood vs Water. A few seasons later, Van Wagenen became a full-fledged executive producer during the recently concluded Millennials vs Gen X — a season that saw Survivor returning to Fiji exactly 10 years and 20 seasons after he started with the series in the very same country. Clearly, a lot of has changed since the Wild Things days. 

"I get to deal with the story," is the Penner-esque way Van Wagenen describes his current role on Survivor, which involves supervising field producers, editing teams and concentrating on the creative spine of the season. "You want to be able to watch an episode and know what's going on without watching anything else, but we really have been trying to show a series arc. That's something we've been working on over the last few seasons: to see people's ups and downs, to show Spencer talking about his girlfriend in episode two and paying it off later on. I think we've made a conscious effort to make everybody a richer and fuller character."

Van Wagenen even extends that idea to contestants who only last on the show for a handful of episodes. "If someone goes out in episode two, it's very hard to tell a full story for them, because we don't have time to do it," he explains. "But I love telling stories about people who are interesting and meet their demises in episode four or five." For instance, Jeff Varner, who dominated the narrative during his brief four-episode stint on Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.

"He's a perfect example," says Van Wagenen. "There were [fans] talking about him as the guy who was going to win the season. Varner's passion for the game was palpable, so how do we not tell that story? He was a force of nature, and his story and reverence for the game and this whole idea of how some people go through their midlife crisis and buy a fast car, but he goes on Survivor? That's beautiful. That speaks to me. I feel as though he set the tone for that season. Whether he'll admit it or not, I feel as though he did. He gave us great stuff and played the game hard. I want people who play the game hard and people who are themselves. If someone's going to do that, we're going to feature them."

Whether Van Wagenen's approach to Survivor storytelling translates to a better viewing experience for the audience at home is a subjective question, but the longtime Survivor fan turned executive producer has at least one longtime fan in his corner: Jeff Probst, executive producer, showrunner and host. 

"My first impression of Matt is the same impression I have today: an incredibly good storyteller, but an even better person," says Probst. "It is a joy to work beside him. ... What's great about working next to Matt is that he grew up on the beach. He's done the interviews. He's had to get himself out of jams, story-wise, where he knew he needed to get an interview, the sun is setting, everyone needs to get going to Tribal, and he has time for one question — and he knows what that one question should be. Now to have him running those teams and being in charge of all the producers on that beach is really comforting, because he knows what we need, and he makes sure that we get it." 

Probst continues: "Matt is so talented that he could leave Survivor today and pick any show that he wants to run, and the fact that he continues to stay with us really illustrates why our show is still so strong: Our key people don't leave. I think it's because we treat each other with a lot of respect and a lot of autonomy. I don't tell Matt how to do his job, and Matt doesn't tell his producers how to do theirs."

Van Wagenen echoes Probst's remarks on the fandom that courses through the veins of the men and women who create Survivor, which has been on the air for 500 episodes and counting as of the upcoming season, Survivor: Game Changers, which was also shot in — wait for it — Fiji.

"I've worked on some crappy shows in my career, where when you're done shooting at the end of the day, people don't want to talk about it," he says. "But people here? They love Survivor. I've never worked on a show where so many people are talking about it over dinner. I don't think we could give up months of our lives away from home if it were any other way. We're very lucky to have this."

Survivor: Game Changers premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Stay tuned to THR.com/Survivor all season long for recaps, interviews and more. Keep the conversation going with THR's Survivor guru Josh Wigler on Twitter @roundhoward.

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