'Survivor Edge of Extinction': Jeff Probst Breaks Down That Brutal Final Moment

The executive producer and host tells The Hollywood Reporter about what's ahead for the new crop of 'Survivor' castaways: "It won't be easy."
CBS Entertainment
Jeff Probst

[This story contains spoilers for the season premiere of CBS' Survivor: Edge of Extinction.]

In space, no one can hear you scream. In her current tropical whereabouts, the same is true for Reem, the first person eliminated from Survivor: Edge of Extinction — in a manner of speaking, at least. 

The closing moments of the 38th Survivor premiere centered on Virginia's very own Reem Daly, voted out in a tense Tribal Council after a series of personality clashes. Like hundreds of other players in Survivor history, Reem walked away from executive producer and host Jeff Probst down the long and lonely path of elimination. Unlike those players, at the end of the path, Reem came face to face with an unprecedented choice: Leave the game forever, or continue onward for an enigmatic second chance.

As one would expect, Reem chose to embrace the new opportunity, only to arrive by boat at Extinction Island, the desolate wasteland where she and other eliminated players will come to call home. Days before she became the island's first official inhabitant, I tested out the twist during an overnight stay, weathering bleak and confusing conditions for your Hollywood Reporter reading pleasure. Here's what I can tell you about what Reem is up against, based on my experience.

As illustrated in the final moments of the season premiere, Extinction Island offers very little in the way of shelter, sustenance, or instruction. It's a barren strip of beach with hardly any tree cover, the wind roaring off of the ocean at all sides. The ribcage of an old ship juts out of the sand, serving as a garden of bones before the meager shelter. The shelter's roof: a worn-out sail. Its bed: broken planks of wood, so jagged that it can barely fit one person, let alone any other number of castaways who will join Reem in the days and weeks ahead.

In order to escape Extinction Island, Reem faces two choices. The first option: Win her way back into the main competition through some form of challenge, the details of which are currently being held under strictest lock and key for both the players and viewers alike. The second option: Head toward the most prominent point of the island's beach, raise the white flag on an old ship mast and await a boat to leave the game behind for good. Reem will have plenty of time to contemplate the decision to flee while gazing up at the stars, leaning back against the ship wheel buried deep in the sand before the flag mast; it's easily the most (and maybe only) comfortable seat on site, Extinction Island's very own lawn chair. 

If Reem decides to stay? Not only will she have to mentally contend with whoever comes next, and not only will she have to best them at some future point in order to return to the game, she will also have to fight tooth and nail just to stay alive. Fire, for instance, won't be easy, with very little in the way of supplies and a whole lot more in the way of wind power. Food may be even harder; there are rations hidden on the island (glimpsed briefly in the premiere, but only visible if you know where to look), but the way in which they're procured will make the standard Survivor diet look like a daily merge feast. 

Why is this happening? It's one of the many questions undoubtedly on Reem's mind as she surveys Extinction Island for the first time. It's probably a question on the Survivor viewer's mind, too. Why is the CBS reality franchise, now embarking on its 38th season and closing in on its 20th year around the sun, breaking from the tried-and-true formula of the permanent vote? It's not the first time Survivor has added a losers bracket of sorts (season seven featured the controversial Outcast twist, while seasons 22, 23 and 27 centered on the equally divisive Redemption Island tournaments), but it's the first time in more than 10 seasons — and it's easily the most physically and mentally challenging version of the twist yet.

For the answer to those questions and more, THR spoke with Probst about how Extinction works, the inspiration behind the twist, his thoughts on Reem's chances as the island's first inhabitant, expectations for its future guests and much more. 

The following interview stems from two conversations with Probst on location in Fiji. The first portion was conducted on the first day of filming, a few hours after the marooning.

Talk me through your vision for the season. Where was Edge of Extinction born?

As we continue to evolve the show, it's really important to us that we continue to see how far we can take this experiment. We've done a lot in the last few years [in terms of pushing] gameplay and advantages and twists, and really wanting players to come in and play strategically. Lately, for me, it's also been occurring to me that we should try to get a little deeper psychologically, a little deeper spiritually. Let's see how far people wanna go. Is there a possibility of the spiritual death and rebirth that you seek in life where you realize something deeper about yourself? 

That was where this idea of Extinction was born. What if you play the game, and you get voted out, and you're out, but you have an option? It's not Redemption Island, it's not Exile Island, it's not the Outcast theme. [This season], you're going to go somewhere where tribe life as you knew it will seem wonderful because Extinction is literally just an island, where maybe it will just be you, maybe someone will join you, maybe they won't — you don't know — and you'll have to work for everything. You'll be doing it with no certainty that you can even get back in. It's really just up to you. How badly do you want this? How badly do you want to push yourself? How curious are you to see what you're capable of? Because there's no guarantee [of getting back into the main game]. There's a shot, but depending on how many people are with you and who they are, your percentage will go up or down. 

That was really the idea. It just kept growing and growing with this notion that you're always on the edge of extinction in this game. We said it at the marooning: "About 50 hours from now, somebody's going to be voted out, so there's nowhere to hide." As I always say, you might as well play to win — and if you're voted out and then you're told you have a shot to get back in, you should say yes! What else are you doing? But it's not going to be easy.

How does the twist work, mechanically?

When somebody gets voted out of the game this season, they have a choice. When they are voted out, they'll leave Tribal like always, and they'll walk down this dark path, and they'll keep walking, and they'll keep walking, and then they'll turn a corner, and they'll see a torch burning with a little sign post. It simply says: "You have a decision to make. If you want to keep playing, grab the torch and get in the boat. If you've had enough, follow the path and your adventure will end." And there will be confusion, especially for the first person. Depending on who it is and why they were voted out and what the first three days were like, they may say, "It's more than I bargained for. I'm out." If we cast the show well and we have people who really want an adventure, I anticipate the first person says, "Oh, hell yeah. I'm going." [Note: Two days after this initial interview with Probst, Reem was voted out first, and her exact unaired words upon reading the sign: "Hell yeah, I want to be in this game! Get out!"]

This person will get in a little boat in the pitch black, and be taken to an island where they will get out in the middle of the night with a torch and try to find their way through this dark beach, alone, with no help and with no instruction other than a sign that says: "Welcome to the Edge of Extinction." [It'll add] that this is going to be hard, and if at any time it's too much, just raise the flag on this mast, and a boat will come get you. You can opt out by raising the white flag, and we'll come get you. The flag will be sitting there, haunting you and taunting you, kind of of like Ghost Island: "If this is ever too much for you, all you have to do is give five pulls on this flag, and then it'll rise 12 feet, and we'll see you and come get you." Or, you can hang out, and see what might happen. 

Multiple people may wind up on the Edge of Extinction… if someone raises the flag, is it an individual choice?

Yes. We don't know what's going to happen [on the island] because we have never done this before, but it's quite possible that new alliances will form. They're forming a new society. Will it become more friendly and compassionate because [they] need each other [to survive], or will it become more Lord of the Flies where someone says, "I want do everything I can to convince you to go home. I want this to be miserable for you because you're one less competitor if I can get rid of you."

It's not going to be easy. You have to remember, on Survivor, they have some distractions. They run challenges, they get to win rewards, they get breaks from camp and can win food. All of those things, they really do matter. On Extinction? There's very little. They will have the occasional opportunity to help themselves [for when they have the chance to reenter the game], tiny little adventures where they may gain a little bit of something to help out — but few and far between. For the most part? Monotony. You're sitting on a beach, staring at that flag, debating, "Do I even have a chance to get back in? Look who I'm out here with." 

But that's where the deeper story begins. It would be awesome if somebody said, "Realistically, I'm the oldest person out here. I'm the least fit. I'm not a challenge winner. My social game is over. But I came out here to test myself. I'm not going to quit. I'm just going to keep going." The audience will love someone like that, even if they don't get back in the game. It's just a personal test. … What makes [Extinction Island] so interesting to me is that it's truly unpredictable. This whole idea could fall flat. We have no idea.

This is a swing. It is a really big swing for Survivor. You must know that.

It's a really big swing. (Laughs.) But a year ago, I was the most nervous I had ever been with Ghost Island. I didn't sleep. All day, all we did was talk through executing, executing, executing, and whether you liked it or didn't like it? That's your opinion, but I feel we executed it at a very high level and pulled off a giant idea. That's what we're [trying to do] here. If it falls flat on its face, then it shows us, "Okay, people don't want to go that far. We pushed too far." If nobody goes out to Extinction, and they all say, "Forget it, I'll take pizza at Ponderosa," then we just own it. We say, "That's fascinating! Nobody wants to go. Nobody's there." But sooner or later, someone's going to go. When you get to this point, if we don't use [the longevity of a show] as a gift to just try and take some big swings, then we don't deserve the show. I don't want to play safe every year and do Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty again. We may do that again if we find a great group of people, but this felt really right. 

That's [part of] the reason why we brought back returning players is. As we were talking through the idea, it seemed to make sense to bring four great players who all are slightly different so you can relate to any different part of their game. None of them won, but all of them pushed themselves. You have four people who had obstacles they had to overcome, and they did. When you combine those two things, that this is a very hard game to play where you must push yourself further than you want to, and you still probably won't win… how far will you go?

The remainder of this interview was conducted on the Tribal Council set, mere minutes after Reem left for a new life on Extinction Island.

From the start, this season's first Tribal Council felt like an open-and-shut case, with Reem's fate all but sealed. What was your perspective?

I thought it was really interesting. It was very "old school" Survivor, in that it was really about, "You don't fit in." Unfortunately for Reem, she didn't do a good job of trying to remedy anything. It's so easy to say when you're sitting on the outside, "Just stay open! Hear the criticism!" It's very hard to be [on the receiving end]. She's vulnerable. Everybody's coming at her. From my vantage point, what I heard was, "You're a little overbearing, but if you just back off, it's fine!" To which she would say, "Hey, I am who I am." You hear that a lot on Survivor. We get locked into our story. We are who we are. Fortunately for Reem, she now has the opportunity to go to Extinction. She doesn't know what awaits her, but what awaits her is this: some time to reflect.

One hundred ten steps. That's the distance between getting your torch snuffed and reaching the end of the Tribal Council trail, where Reem faces the choice to go home or to continue on. What do you imagine was on her mind?

Well, she doesn't know that she has the shot to get back in, so she's not counting one hundred and ten steps to a decision; she's counting one hundred and ten steps of regret: "I'm the first out. I'm embarrassed. They said a lot of things that hurt my feelings on some level." And then she turns the corner and sees this burning torch, with a shot at a second life. We spent a lot of time designing that walk, and how long we wanted it to be, to let someone go through the cycles of emotion so that when they turn the corner, they're at a point where their frustrations and anger might be gone, and now they're at a point of contemplation: "Well, what do you know!" All the signpost says is, "If you want a chance, grab the torch and get in the boat." It doesn't say anything about what you're getting in the boat for. She doesn't know if it's going to be a new tribe camp, or anything. But I don't think people are going to anticipate how hard it's going to be. You know, having been out there, and you only tested a part of it…

And it was hard! It's cold beyond belief. There's no wind cover anywhere. You're right on the water if you're sleeping in that shelter…

And you didn't have rain.

It's going to be a tough night for Reem.

It is. (Pauses.) But that's the idea. It's the spiritual death and rebirth. If you asked me what kind of a person I would want to be our first person out there? I'd say somebody who has a story like Reem's, where there's a true possibility for her to take a step back and say, "I don't have to be someone who is overbearing on people. I can still be my essence and learn to back off a little." Maybe she comes back into the game and says, "Thank you, guys. I'm different." Maybe they give her another shot. You never know on Survivor. [In this situation], you're vulnerable, your defenses are down, and you have nothing else to lose. You've already been voted out. If we've done this right and put the right people on the show for this season, I think you'll see a lot of people saying, "I don't know if I can get back in the game. But I do know I'm not leaving. I'm staying. I'm going to see this through and see what I'm made of." 

Earlier, you mentioned having sleepless nights during Survivor: Ghost Island, as you wrestled with the concept. How many sleepless nights have you had surrounding this season's theme?

Tonight will be the first one. It's different. Ghost Island was a gigantic, corny idea. There were several elements involved: old relics, notes, we were thinking about flashbacks… we were spending a ton of time thinking about how to tell those stories. Edge of Extinction, in a weird way, is the opposite. There's nothing there. They won't even know about the few things that are out there; they'll have to go out and find it. We're really rolling the dice on this idea of watching them live out there. We don't know what the story is going to be. There is no definition. This is what they want it to be. For some person, it's going to be about getting back into the game. But for a couple of other people, it could very easily be, "I'm here for me. I'm here to find out who I am and why I'm here. This is hard, but I don't want to give up on myself." I probably won't feel fully comfortable until we get some intel and the [producers] on the beach at Extinction tell us it's working, that people out there are finding themselves, and that they are exploring and are open to the experience — or that they're contemplating quitting. We'll see. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Listen to the audio of Reem's preseason conversation with The Hollywood Reporter:

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