'Survivor': How 'David vs. Goliath' Came Roaring to Life

Executive producer Matt Van Wagenen reveals behind-the-scenes secrets from filming season 37.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: David vs. Goliath'

[This story contains spoilers through the latest episode of CBS' Survivor: David vs. Goliath, "So Smart They're Dumb."]

Thirty-seven seasons and nearly two decades since its inception, Survivor has produced its single best season ever. At least, that's the hyperbolic posturing from one or two prognosticators in the Survivor community. Utterly unrealistic hype surrounding robot scientist Christian Hubicki and friends aside, there's little doubt that Survivor: David vs. Goliath is the CBS reality franchise's most electrifying incarnation in recent history, and when the dust settles, it's likely to land high on many fans' lists of the all-time great seasons.

But where does David vs. Goliath land for the people tasked with bringing it to life? Faced with that question a few weeks ago, executive producer and host Jeff Probst admitted to being taken aback by the hyperbolic praise surrounding the season: "On one hand, it's extremely flattering and will make our entire creative team feel 'seen.' On the other hand, it's incredibly daunting to know that just around the corner is a new season with new players and a new theme. It's one of the most exciting and simultaneously gray hair-inducing parts of producing Survivor: 'What are you going to do next time?'"

Next time is a future problem. Presently, it's all about the current crop of castaways still vying for the million-dollar title: the David tribe's Christian, Nick Wilson and Davie Rickenbacker, and the Goliath gang of Alison Raybould, Angelina Keeley, Kara Kay and Mike White. When it comes to the final seven's journey toward day 39, executive producer Matt Van Wagenen is as riveted as anyone else in the audience.

Van Wagenen, who started as a field producer in 2006 during the show's first Fiji-set season and has since graduated to an executive producer role overseeing each season's narrative flow, joins The Hollywood Reporter this week to take on many of the major questions surrounding David vs. Goliath, including the big one: "Best season ever?"

As a viewer, David vs. Goliath has been the roller coaster Christian Hubicki promised at the season's first Tribal Council, week in and week out. What was this season like to live through from the perspective of production, with your feet on the beach?

Yeah, Christian pretty much nailed it. Every night on location, I have a meeting with the producers who work on the beach to get an idea of how the story is playing out. Sometimes they came back from a 90-minute brutal boat ride but were still stoked, laughing, excited to share what crazy things were going on in the game. And the game play was just all over the place. Tribals were back and forth. We never saw any one group take the reins. "Jacketgate," the Christian versus Alec showdown, the idol nullifier play — watching it in person is as amazing as you think it is. I always say, as producers, that we are the first fans watching the show play out. So we enjoyed it as much then as the audience is now.

All of which anticipates my next question: when you're on location, can you sense when a season is clicking, or does that not happen until you're back in Los Angeles, reviewing all the material and starting the process of turning the adventure into episodic television?

You definitely get a sense of how well a season is playing out on location. Clearly with this fantastic cast and fluid game play, we knew we had a very good season on our hands. But I don't think we knew just how good it was until we had cut about two or three episodes in post. The editors see all of the footage fresh, and there was a big buzz in their hallway. On location, nobody sees everything. You just can't. But as the episodes started coming together in a complete package, there was something magical about the challenges, Tribal Councils, interviews, strategies — the season fired on all cylinders.

The season began with some of the worst weather you have ever dealt with, leading to Pat's evacuation in the season premiere. As a production, were your hearts in your throats through the first few weeks of the show — and how did you choke them back down?

Honestly, we weren't nervous. We are blessed to have an amazingly strong and accomplished crew that can deal with just about anything Mother Nature throws at us. That allows us to concentrate on the game and how to tell the story of this adventure. Yes, we'd prefer some smoother sailing out of the gate for the players to get their feet under them. But in a way, I think that initial blast of weather really gave the cast a sense that the experience was real and that they were going to have to fight for everything. I think it made them all stronger players.

All season long, we have seen Survivor swing big with huge creative choices in the way the narrative has unfurled. Was there a new mandate as far as how to approach the storytelling?

Yes, one hundred percent. Jeff challenged all of us to try and figure out how to tell some of these stories differently. Some of our editors have been here since day one, and most for over a decade, so they were excited for a challenge. That's why you saw Dan find his idol in flashback [in the season premiere]. The Christian breadth-first idol search was a perfect collaboration between a producer's great idea and an editor's execution, Joe Lia and Fred Hawthorne respectively.

How about the fullness of the cast? There's a sense of knowing each and every one of these people in an incredibly deep way. Is there a conscious effort behind that feeling, is it simply a matter of strong casting, or somewhere in between?

I think it's somewhere in between, but leaning toward strong casting. We do start every season with the intention of telling the complete story of every castaway. I've heard people talking about "winner's edits," but in recent seasons, we've actually tried to give "winner's edits" to as many players as possible. But this cast was particularly fantastic. They're not only wonderful storytellers, but true fans and aggressive game players with interesting backstories. In other seasons it may have been devastating to lose someone as big as Natalie or John, but with this group there was always someone else to carry the entertaining load.

From a game play perspective, David vs. Goliath has lived up to the billing, with both sides getting in their fair share of licks. How much do you think the theme of the season influenced the way these people are playing?

When we do a casting twist, I always enjoy watching the players embrace their "roles." The first time I saw it firsthand was during Heroes vs. Villains. It was amazing to see those players embrace their labels with flair. Just as much as Tyson, Parvati and even Coach relished the "villain" moniker, Tom, Rupert and Stephanie wore "hero" with pride. This season, I think some of the Goliaths started off bristling at the title — Alison on the barge, for instance — but by the time we were an episode in, they were all in as well. However, I do think it had some influence in game play. Once the Goliaths were in control [at the start of the merge], I think part of the reason they were reluctant to turn the game on its head was fear of taking on a David at the final Tribal Council. Mike had second thoughts on the "Strike Force," probably just out of fear of a better underdog story. Of course, they weren't prepared for the oncoming slings and stones …

This week, thanks to last week, tribal lines were blurred. Davids turned on Davids, with Gabby leading the charge to get Christian out of the game. It would have worked, too, if not for the idol in his shoe …

"Live" Tribals are always thrilling for us on the producing side, and really for the entire crew. No joke, assistant directors, audio techs, pyro and camera operators all get invested. And that particular Tribal, as well as many others this season, was electrifying. It was fun to watch Christian feeling out the group. The shot of Christian smiling at Gabby during the votes is one of my favorite shots of the season. She tries to play it off, his wheels are turning … It's just magic.

Do you think Gabby made the right move, even if it backfired?

It was 100 percent the right move. Gabby could not have won the game with Christian by her side. Her instinct was correct. Some people have criticized her timing, but it's very easy to forget that the players don't know everything the audience knows. Christian is a challenge threat as well as a massive threat to win the game. She saw a shot and took it. Personally, I'd rather go out like Gabby than make it to the end and get no votes.

This week brought us the family visit. Any fun memories of the Survivors' loved ones from behind-the-scenes?

Not necessarily a moment, but I do enjoy and tear up at the loved ones every season. It is moving and emotional. It also gives us a deeper look at the players left in the game. But subtly, it lights a fire under the players. It's a bit of a jolt to remind them who they're playing for. And more often than not, we see more aggressive game play heading into the finale. Gabby is living proof. This season, I loved Davie's mom, Hazel. Is that weird to say? I just love her affection for Davie, and it's clear where he gets his enthusiasm. Just for the record — and you better leave this in — I love my mom very much.

I want to bounce around to some specific moments from the season. There's so much that there's no way to get to it all. First and foremost, the epic saga of Christian filibustering his way through an immunity victory against Alec. What was that like to witness in person? How hard was it to string together for a 42-minute episode of television? Any gems from the cutting room floor you can share?

To be completely honest, we had no idea that the challenge was going to last that long. Our dream team [the young men and women who test out challenges in the days leading up to the actual competition] went about an hour. Five hours in, and we were tired just watching. But again, this fantastic cast kept us entertained. And yes, it was a challenge itself cutting it all down. Between all the cameras, there was over 100 hours of footage. We had loggers and transcribers go through every second, and we slated an extra week of time to cut it. Dave Armstrong was tasked with editing this behemoth down to 11 minutes. Fortunately, he has a background in comedy (he produces a very funny online animation series) and music (he was the drummer for Size 14 and they were very popular in the Philippines). But to answer your question, yes, there's a ton on the edit bay floor. Christian rambled on about exoskeleton research, sex robots, the psychological concept of a second wind, his favorite seasons, how Jeff was hired by Mark Burnett, and there was a moment where he impersonated a stripper and yelled, "These hips don't lie!" Seriously.

The double-header featured one of my favorite instances of Survivor storytelling in years: Carl's voice in confessional, dubbed over a solemn and unspeaking image of the man in clear agony. Is there a story behind how that came together?

OK, this is kind of a deep dive. That actually stemmed from an idea during the editing of Ghost Island. While on location that year, Jeff was watching the Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine documentary The Defiant Ones. He suggested I watch it too, and pointed out a few of the interviews. We went to one of our editors, Bill Bowden, and asked him to try something like that, but in a Survivor fashion. If you recall the merge episode in Ghost Island, there's a sequence where Chris and Dom are talking trash about each other. We bounce back and forth and hear overlapping of their interviews. That was inspired by the documentary. Bill also cut that sequence with Carl, and it was a natural progression from the Ghost Island scene.

From a Tribal Council perspective, the David vs. Goliath theme was epitomized in the votes against John and Dan. What was it like on your side, living through those two back-to-back slingshot moments — one of which was a historic moment for Survivor, with the realization of the idol nullifier?

It was amazing. We knew the Davids had compiled quite an arsenal of advantages but it wasn't until they compared notes on the beach that the plan started to take form. There were so many different ways they could have played it and it was fun just to watch it come together. The idol nullifier was particularly satisfying. The concept had been bouncing around the office for a few seasons, and when we put it into the game, we knew the chances of the right person using it at the right time were slim. Luckily, everything fell into place. That on the heels of Davie's idol play gave us the feeling that we had something special.

In between those two Tribal Councils, the greatest Survivor reward — nay, the greatest reward in human history — the Bula Burger Bar. Give us the story.

I love rewards like this. The art department is so creative coming up with the Survivor food chains. I actually have the "Calavera Tacos" sign from a reward in Blood vs. Water 2 hanging in my office. This season, Jimmy Quigley, one of our producers, pitched a burger bar complete with a chef. For us, it was a no-brainer to use Stu Skversky as the guy flipping burgers — or, as he'll now always be known, "Mr. Bula." Stu works in the kitchen on location and is a huge Survivor fan. When he's not working in Fiji, he's in Thailand running a non-profit foundation that provides scholarships for poor and orphaned kids in Chiang Mai. Really, these are the types of people who work on our show. What the castaways also didn't realize is that Stu is a world-class chef that used to work for the likes of Wolfgang Puck. I've had one of those burgers and they compete with any gourmet burger you'd find in the States.

At the merge feast, the vote steal clue was staring all of the Survivors in the face. Nick and Davie found it a few days later, but fans online found it first. How much fun is it for you and the team on your side of the screen, when you watch the audience piece the clues together — sometimes successfully, and sometimes not?

These are the kind of moments we live for. We were following Twitter that night and saw that tweet. It was absolutely satisfying and felt even better knowing that the reveal would come one week later.

Few people could have expected how big a role something as simple as jackets could play this season, and yet, here we are: "Jacketgate," for one thing, which was paid off beautifully with Davie winning the Mayor of Slamtown's jacket, and subtly with Nick rocking Dan's jacket last week. What's the process behind latching onto a recurring motif like the jacket?

It actually started back when we were looking at wardrobe before the season began. Our head of wardrobe, Maria Sundeen, had an idea with the jackets … um, I'm kidding. Occasionally, there are happy accidents in the field, but we definitely play them up in post.

You're interactive with the Survivor fandom online. You read what we're writing about the show. You're aware of the "best season ever" hyperbole, the gushing headlines suggesting David vs. Goliath is peak Survivor. What's the balance between being incredibly flattered by these compliments, and being intimidated by them as you not only have another season already in the can, but at least two more in preproduction? And to put you on the spot … is this the best season ever?

Yeah, I definitely keep tabs on the fan reaction online. I love how invested our fans are. I mean, come on … you know better than anyone from your own podcast. People at home are actually writing their own song parodies about Natalie's jacket, the Brochachos and the fact that Mike and Nick sound like cats! That's a dedicated audience! And it is great to see how overwhelmingly positive the reaction has been this season. But no matter the reaction online, we always put pressure on ourselves to have a great scene, a great episode, a great season.

Best season ever? It's great that we're having that discussion, and my cop out is that I'll let the fans decide that one. But for me, this has been one of the hardest playing and most entertaining casts since I started on the show in season 14. I thought we'd never do better than Fans vs. Favorites, and then we shot Heroes vs. Villains. I loved the absolute craziness of Cagayan and have never felt so much passion as I did watching the players in Cambodia. For me, David vs. Goliath is definitely at that level. I don't feel like you can point out a slow spot in this season, and speaking for our entire crew, I can say that we have had an absolute blast putting these shows together.

Two episodes left. What are we in store for as we move into the endgame?

More great character moments, more betrayal, more twists and more fluid game play. Christian's prophecy continues. It's an absolute roller coaster.

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