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How ABC’s New Survival Series ‘Castaways’ Harkens Back to the Early Days of Reality TV

Documentary-style series is a ”very raw and real social experiment,“ producer Grant Kahler tells TheWrap

ABC’s new survival series “Castaways” takes all of the tropes that have come to define modern reality television and throws them out the window. There are no challenges, no host, no manufactured drama. Just 12 normal people stranded on an island in Indonesia.

Early on in the first episode, the show is defined not as a competition, but as a “social experiment,” a radical attempt to document what happens after you put 12 strangers together on a deserted island with limited supplies, and even more limited survival experience.

“We went out there with kind of theory of what would happen,” showrunner Grant Kahler said in an interview with TheWrap. “That people would start to rely on each other and companionship as a real tool of survival, and that is what we found. The companionship became, in many cases, more important than food and water to a lot of these people.”

Aside from its refined aesthetic and slick production values, the show probably has more in common with the early, experimental days of the reality genre (think “The Real World”) than any other unscripted shows on broadcast television in 2018.

“Castaways” incorporates flashbacks to the participants’ lives in the real world — which, along with its home on ABC, has earned the show comparisons to the scripted drama “Lost” — and is deeply invested in their personal struggles, a departure from the typical reality TV “character.”

According to Kahler, the goal was to “slow it down to tell real stories.”

“We chose people who really had something to prove,” he said. “People who stayed on the island in order to prove it to themselves or someone in their life. It was really interesting to watch. They all had different motivations to keep them going to the next day.”

Read TheWrap’s full interview with Kahler below.

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TheWrap: The “social experiment” element of the show is almost reminiscent of the early days of reality television, like “The Real World” or that first season of “Survivor.” Was that intentional on your part?

Kahler: Honestly, it wasn’t when we set out, but once we got through [shooting] it, absolutely. We set out to do a very raw and real social experiment, no doubt. We knew there would be no challenges, no host, it would be very documentary-style. Then in post, we did start to recognize how similar it was to the very beginning of reality — like “Real World” — where you literally just put a bunch of people in a situation and see how it unfolds.

Were you surprised by the results, once you dropped these 12 people on an island in the middle of nowhere?

Yeah, definitely. We went out there with a kind of theory of what would happen. That people would start to rely on each other and companionship as a real tool of survival, and that is what we found. The companionship became, in many cases, more important than food and water to a lot of these people. Absolutely that was a theory when we started, but we didn’t know how many people would choose to hoard what they had or go at it alone. If they find things would they not share? If they needed things, would they beg? We knew a lot of different ways all 12 stories could unfold, but it was actually the way it unfolds throughout their entire time out there was pretty remarkable, actually.

Was there ever a concern that you would set all of this up, record all of their backstories, and then send them out just to have them all quit immediately?

Yeah, I’ve experienced that two or three times on a show like this. It’s absolutely possible that you drop them all off, and by day two everyone says, “You’re crazy, I’m not doing this” [Laughs]. You always figure you’re going to have a handful of people drop out early, because honestly something like this — or I did a survival show called “Alone” that was real, like this — when people get out there and they realize there really isn’t a host, and there really isn’t a doctor next to them at all times, it’s kind of a shock to their system, honestly.

On a show like “Alone,” the point is that they all theoretically have the skills to survive, but these are just everyday people. What were you looking for when you were casting the show?

It was such an interesting casting process because we really did not care whatsoever about survival skills. Basically, the whole theory behind it is that everyone has a story to tell, no matter who you are walking down the street. We were looking for people who were really willing to open up and share those stories. [We have] a 400-pound guy with obviously some eating issues, we have some people dealing with drug addictions, and we have people dealing with secret marriages and all of these different people going on in their life. We didn’t necessarily have trouble finding people who with a unique life, what we needed to find was people actually willing to open up about those stories. And so that’s really what we focused on.

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Did you give them any kind of training before you dropped them off? Did you have to prepare them so they wouldn’t go out there and die?

Not really [laughs]. There’s obviously a fine line on these shows between keeping it very real and authentic and keeping it safe. So we made them very aware of all the dangers. There are obviously a lot of dangerous animals and things like that, and we did give them pointers on what might be poisonous. But otherwise, we didn’t put them through any kind of boot camp on how to start a fire or how to gut a fish or anything like that. Part of what we wanted to do was have all these different people with all different skillsets, so that once they all got together, one person might know how to gut a fish and one person might have a lighter, for example.

How did you choose Indonesia as the location for the show?

Oh man. Because of how we wanted to shoot the show, it was so important that it be extremely remote. It takes away from the experience if there’s a resort a couple hundred yards away, it just does. Even the psychological comfort of knowing that it’s there, I think it changes the way people react to the environment. So I really wanted it to be remote so that it would be scary. So we looked at Southern Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of southeast Asia, South America.

Honestly, I grew up in Indonesia for four or five years, so that kind of won out in the end, just out of my own comfort with the country. [The island] was so remote, though, that we basically had to build our entire infrastructure and bring in our own doctors and crew. It took a lot of searching, that’s for sure. A lot of asking fishermen in eastern Indonesia, “Where are some beautiful islands?” That’s where it all started over two years ago, just asking the locals. It’s beautiful and incredibly harsh at the same time, so we just had to work it out.

How did the show end up at ABC? It’s not really like any of the other reality shows on broadcast right now.

I actually think your last point is exactly why it did, to be honest. Certainly, at a glance, you might think it might be on Discovery or History, but ABC was along with me the whole time and was very excited about doing something very, very different. I was almost surprised about how excited they were about the documentary style, about not having sit-down interviews, about kind of kicking all of the old reality tricks to the side and slowing it down to tell real stories. They were as excited as I was, so we just kind of went for it.

What was the incentive for the castaways to stay out there? Since there’s no prize money, did you get a sense as to why they were willing to suffer through this for so long?

There was actually money for those who got rescued. It’s not part of the show, but it’s also not something we hide whatsoever. So there was an incentive to finish. But at the end of the day, we chose people who really had something to prove. People who stayed on the island in order to prove it to themselves or someone in their life. It was really interesting to watch. They all had different motivations to keep them going to the next day. And to be honest with you, those of them who didn’t have a strong enough reason, they quit. That’s really how it ended up. And some of the people who quit were very, very physically capable.

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“Castaways” premieres Tuesday, August 7 at 10/9c on ABC.