Mike Sears Interview
Filmmaker Mike Sears survives Borneo in RailRiders: Behind the Scenes at Survivor

It was the genetically altered offspring of "Gilligan's Island" and "Lord of The Flies," but only if you were actually stranded on a desert island this past summer would you have been spared the media hoopla of "Survivor." CBS's show milked human conflict for sky-high prime-time ratings as 16 telegenic contestants vied for one million dollars that would go to the last survivor on this remote Borneo island. Viewers at home watched the motley group of castaways bicker and backstab, build flimsy huts, sunbathe, talk into imaginary cell-phone coconuts, eat larvae beetles and roasted rat, and hatch Machiavellian plots all in the name of self-interest and naked greed.

While "Survivor" seemed like an overnight success, its development required a year of planning, location scouting, assembling a film crew who also had to live on the uninhabited island, and selecting the cast. Independent television and film producer and director, Mike Sears, was a key principal during "Survivor's" creative development, functioning as director through pre-production. (The director during filming and post-production was Scott Mesick.)

An experienced Emmy-winning and documentary-style filmmaker who is known for capturing adrenaline-surging footage in extreme sporting events such as the Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises adventure races, Sears left the "Survivor" island of Pulau Tiga just before actual filming began. In "Survivor" lingo, Sears voted himself off the island after experiencing a clashing of artistic egos with another co-producer. "I think it wa a case of too many chefs, and I had other options from my production company," says the tall, pony-tailed filmmaker from his Santa Monica-based company which is currently involved in a spate of projects with TBS. During his weeks in Borneo, Sears lived and worked in his RailRiders. Here's our interview with the filmmaker.

Q: You were part of the original "Survivor" crew?

Mike Sears: I was originally hired as the director, so I did the original test cut. I was on the project for about a year. I left the project before principal photography started.

Q: When you say you were working on it for a year, what did you do?

MS: I hired most of the crew, the cameramen, all the editors, the writer/producers. I picked the island with {executive producer} Mark Burnett. I chose where on the island we'd film, whether the crew would stay on the same island or another island, and was part of the budgeting.

Q: Did you have any problems with the snakes and the rats on the island?

MS: There were no problems during scouting because we did a lot of the scouting during the day and discovered when they were filming that all the snakes and rats came out at night!Yeah, they're all nocturnal and we did most of our scouting, because you can't see anything to scout, during the day.

Q: How big of an island is it?

MS: About five miles long and about a mile-and-a-half wide, and it's fifteen miles off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.

Q: Is it uninhabited?

MS: There are some park rangers who live there. They have some cabins there. It's a national park.

Q: Did you have the expectation that the show would be a runaway monster hit?

MS: Obviously not, since I left.

Q: You got voted off the island. Sort of like life imitates art!

MS: I get the award of being the smartest crew member, though, because I was the first one to leave. It was a brutal shoot. I knew it would be successful, but I had no idea that it would be as successful as it was. All kidding aside, I'm duly impressed with how successful a show it is.

Q: Many television critics have been impressed by the show's production values -- it was seamlessly edited and told a great story.

MS: I take a lot of pride in that since that's the result from the people who I hired, although the director that came in after me -- a guy named Scott Mesick -- deserves the credit.

Q: Who designed all the props and the tribal council set with all those tiki torches?

MS: I've done a lot of film shows and I also knew the tribal council needed to work like a set. It was sort of a hybrid between an adventure documentary and a television show, so we had to bring in guys that I knew who also had done sitcoms and more traditional shows because every three days we were making a one-hour show. The art director Wendel Johnson, who has worked on "Frazier" and "Wings" and "Stark Raving Mad" and tons of other shows, was hired to design the island council. Then another person, Kelly Van Patter, was the art director. Kelly actually went to the island -- building a set in concept in L.A. and putting it together on the island -- are two entirely different things. So what Kelly had to do was take that concept and make it fit in the jungle on the island and adapt it.

Q: Even the little tribal council wooden bridge that they walk over?

MS: Yep. All that stuff was Kelly and her crew she put together over there. She was the co-art director on that show.

Q: Interesting, when they're told to leave the island, they walk across that bridge. Where do they go once they cross that bridge? Into the jungle?

MS: They end up where the crew and everybody stays and get on a boat and go back to Kota Kinabalu.

Q: Where did the crew stay during at night?

MS: We actually had some huts and little cabins built near the ranger station, which is now a tourist destination. You can actually go and stay on that island.

Q: What about the accommodations?

MS: I think probably three people were the only ones who had hot water and air conditioning. For everybody else, it was cabins with a fan and lukewarm water, but it's very temperate. And again, I want to be clear, I was there for a few weeks total prior to production. The crews had to be there for three months when they actually did the shoot.

Q: What about the next "Survivor" show in Australia? Are you involved?

MS: There's a talented guy, Tom Shelley, who directed "the reality," or human intercactions, on the island after I left; now he's the director of the show on this Australia shoot. This time he's sort of stepping into the big chair and should have a great time.

Q: You prefer high production standards and values.

MS: We tend to work with really high-caliber people. Mark Burnett and I see eye-to-eye in that if you look at most reality shows, such as "The Real World" or even "Big Brother," it's just a different look than the look of "Survivor" or the look of the Eco-Challenge. CBS should have staged "Big Brother" in a treehouse!

MS: At a certain point you need visual respite for the audience. You've got to look at something else. It's too mundane to be in the same.

Q: Critics say that "Big Brother" is like watching paint dry.

MS: Yeah. I know the people who do "Big Brother." They're really talented filmmakers who do a lot of good projects, but I think it's an inherent problem with the concept. It sort of locks into one location and the truth is, where Burnett is more interested in adventure and the effect that adventure has on people's personalities and sort of interpersonal relationships.

Q: Who did all the casting?

MS: Well, I actually went through the initial 6,000 tapes.

Q: You did all 6,000?

MS: No. I should qualify that. We had a woman named Lynn Spillman, who is a casting director. What Lynn did is she's got a staff of about eight. They went through 6000 tapes. The way the process works is they put gold stars on the ones they like, silver stars on the ones that were okay, and then bronze stars and then the rest they didn't choose to show me, so I probably went through 1,000 tapes. My goal was to narrow it down to, I believe the first round we tried to narrow it down to 600 to 800, and then we sent the writer/producers, Tom Shelley and these other directors I spoke of, out to the different markets to meet individually with 50 to 100 people each and then they came back and told us that these are the best of that bunch, and then we took the best 50 and brought them to L.A. and put them through psychological profiles and background checks and really took a look at them. The final casting, I wasn't part of it. That was Scott Mesick, Mark Burnett and, I imagine, Les Moonves, the head of CBS really did the final casting. That's another thing that makes "Survivor" work. Honestly, I just think the cast is awesome. To give credit where it's due, of those people, there's probably only three or four that I remember specifically looking at and remembering were great. The rest of them were people they found in that final search.

Q: Which three or four?

MS: I'm trying to remember. I know Ramona was one from the very beginning. Rudy came in; there's a couple of different doctors we had. I can't remember if Sean was one of them. Basically, the approach you take for those kind of shows is in the first pass, obviously you want conflict, but you want people with really strong personalities. We wanted people that would find the adventure worthwhile, but you also want people that the audience can root for. You don't want everybody to be so cantankerous or so irritating that they don't want to watch then on TV.

Q: Originally I thought that they'd all be hard-core survivor types.

MS: The first ads that CBS ran for contestants were: Can you survive? Will you survive? Will you do all this stuff? And they didn't get anybody. Everybody who was applying were super-survivalist types, you know, military guys. Then, Beth Holmes, the line producer, and I wrote a promo with copy that said, "Outwit, outplay, outlast".

Q: That was a great tag line.

MS: We put that into the promo to try to convince people, "Look, it's a game." Nobody's nobody's going to die out there. We needed people to know, "Hey, this is a game show. You're going to go on a contest. You try to win, it's not like who can live without getting killed by monitor lizards." We actually joke about that all the time.

Q: Since you left the island before the actual shooting began, did you watch the episodes?

MS: I was a huge fan. I watched every episode.

Q: Who did you pick in the very beginning to win?

MS: I was at a disadvantage since I and most of the crew weren't legally allowed to talk about it.

Q: How did you guys keep it a secret for so long?

MS: On pain of death, everybody signed a non-disclosure agreement, except me because I left before those were necessary.

Q: They kept a better secret than the CIA. There weren't any leaks from the production, crew?

MS: Because the crew worked so hard to make that happen, it knew that that was part of the fun. I was on that island, so I know the conditions under which they worked and it is unbelievable what they pulled off. When they do something like that, the last thing they want to do, even if they had a miserable time, they don't want to come back and blow it. They take pride in it. These are professionals.

Q: What was the interaction between the crew and the cast during the actual filming? I mean, obviously it was edited, but did they have much interaction or were they only to be seen, but not talked to?

MS: There was interaction.

Filming "action" on the Borneo Island.

Q: Would they go to the camera crew and say, "You know this guy is really driving me nuts, you know, the big, fat guy."

MS: That's the stuff they try to get on camera. It's tricky because it's also a game show, so somebody had to really explain how the rules worked.

Q: Were contestants ever in danger of dying?

MS: Anytime you film in these kinds of environments, and I've worked with the French adventure guys, to the degree that you can be protected, we put that out. I mean, safety is my primary concern for my crew and for the contestants, although in something like this, they fall more into production. In the Eco-Challenge, they fall more into the race management rules. But anytime you're in this kind of a situation, there is always that risk. I mean, there were sea snakes that were absolutely fatal. Or the coral snakes that were on the island.You've got people out where it's raining and the jungle's not friendly. It's definitely a jungle, it's real. We had doctors and nurses on the island. Kota Kenobali is a functioning city -- it's seventeen miles away, and there were always helicopters standing by, but you're out in nature.

Q: In the beginning episodes, you'd see these rats darting about. Then after awhile, you didn't see those rats anymore. What happened?

MS: That's just visual.

Q: Did they round up these rats to film them?

MS: No, they were there. It's just filmmaking. You've seen the rats, the audience knows the rats are there. You can only get so much mileage out of this information.

Q: Was the film crew shocked that Richard Hatch won?

MS: Yeah, I think everybody was shocked that Richard won.

Q: Because he was annoying?

MS: I think it's twofold. Partly because it's always shocking to see somebody that has a plan and has the plan actually work. I think you always have to take a step back and go, "Holy shit, that actually worked!"

Q: I read somewhere that he was the straw that stirred the show.

MS: If you took Richard out, there'd be somebody else who would do it. Because without Richard, there would be a vacuum and somebody else would step into that.

Q: So it wasn't contingent on one person then?

MS: Never. It's just human nature. Whoever is the strongest personality tends to emerge over time and if you take that strong personality out, that would have allowed for somebody else to step into that void. That's the beauty of these kind of shows.

Q: Last question on this subject. If you stranded on a desert island with any of those sixteen contestants, which one would you prefer to be with?

MS: I have to get out of that question!

Q: You're married?

MS: I'm not married, but I'm happily dating the girl who was the line producer on that show.

Q: Anyway, you started out as a filmmaker covering adventure racing?

MS: Primarily, extreme sports and then that lead to adventure races with the Raid Gauloises, two Eco-Challenges and the Beast of the East.

Q: Have you ever done any of these adventure races?

MS: Oh, God no, are you kidding? No way!

Q: What sports do you do?

MS: I play ice hockey and I ski.

Q: If you match up adventure racers, who are genuine survivors, against the sixteen castaways, you have survivors on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but one group are households names, while the athletes are known by the extreme sports crowd and they're not household names.

MS: Because it's still a fringe sport; it hasn't crossed over as much of the mainstream, although Eco-Challenge may do it now because it's now on a network with a broader based appeal. It's moved to the USA Network.

Q: But I thought Discovery was pretty big.

MS: Discovery is very big, but it's not known for its sports coverage. It has a very specific market and a very specific style they want to pursue, where USA has a different -- they're more entertainment, they have a lot of other sports. They've had huge tennis matches and the U.S. Open and those kind of things, they pursue more sports.

Q: When you cover these events, such as these extreme sports events like the Rail Gauloises or the Eco-Challenge, are you piecing together a story before you actually go into the actual filming, or do you wait to see how the events unfold? The planning must seem astronomical.

MS: There's a number of different aspects to the planning. One is safety for my guys and crew and all that and that's just my film background and knowing what's necessary in those environments. Then there's sort of the storytelling aspect of how you're going to tell the story and who you're going to tell the story about. In the Raid in Ecuador, we had limited resources, so we focused mainly on the two teams we thought had a good chance of winning and it turned out that those two teams came in first and second. So we got very good coverage. That was somewhat lucky, but it was also somewhat based on our expertise in who would do well. It worked out. So, we know to follow the front teams, but then we also want the human interest stories which are teams we don't know if they'll do well or not, that are sort of neophytes. I also look for teams that are in between, are what I call the teams that the audience can identify with.. It's storytelling. It's a film background. It's knowing what makes a compelling story to the viewer. If you don't tell a compelling story, nobody's going to watch except the hard-core people that want to watch the sport. The people that are totally in that are going to watch the show no matter what's on. The audience that I'm after are people that don't know what it is, the people that might be interested, the people that might want to get into it. It's all the fence-sitting people that you want to go, "Hey, this is a sport that's cool and it's cool not just for the winners, it's cool to be part of it, it's cool to watch." It's the trick you've got to make all the time as a filmmaker.

Q: I'm now looking at your resume and it says that you worked on "America's Most Wanted."

MS: Yeah.

Q: How many episodes did you do there?

MS: I worked for them for three years, when I was in my first producing job.

Q: That must have been gratifying knowing that these scumbags got snagged.

MS: You know what? It was actually terrible because I went into filmmaking because it's entertainment. What happened on that show is that you end up interviewing people with real tragedy. Yes, there was a positive outcome a lot of times and they caught a lot of people, and certainly, John Walsh, the host, was involved in that show for the positive purposes, but the reality is there was a profit and for me it just got very hard to interview people who actually had children murdered or loved ones killed. It just got old on an emotional level. On a filmmaking level, it was great in that I was 24 years old, and they would send me scripts and say, "Fly to Alaska, here's the script, call us and tell us how much it costs," and then I'd hire everybody and bring them in. I never even met the people I worked for for the first three years. They were in Washington and I was on the road.

Q: You just decided that dealing with human tragedy was just too much?

MS: Yeah, I just decided it's not really what I wanted to be in show business for, since I wanted to tell more uplifting or fun stories.

Q: After "America's Most Wanted," where did you go?

MS: Then I started doing these adventure documentaries with ski companies and rock climbers.

Q: Did you feel like you were on the edge, filming these people, or were you're more like observing these people living on the edge while filming?

MS: I don't go anywhere near the edge. My expertise is knowing how to keep people safe. To film these things, what I know is the people and how to find the people that are expert climbing photographers.

Q: You see these photographs of these guys rapelling off cliffs with their cameras.

MS:.I hire those guys.

Q: With those huge tripods that.are bolted against the cliff when they're 20 feet out?

MS: Yeah, it's nuts. There are some very risky situations. Do you remember that guy who just died. He had long, black hair, and he could climb and did the fixed rope jumping?

Q: Oh, he was of Hawaiian descent? What's his name? Dano.

MS: Dano. Yeah, Dan Osmond. Dan Osmond worked on the first Eco-Challenge and on the big rappel, which was a 400-foot free rappel, in the middle of the night, I sent my jib operator to set the jib up right on the edge of the cliff to the edge so we could get this great, dramatic shot. Well, the jib operator is not a climber, he's a studio jib operator, but he's a friend of mine, he's an excellent operator and he did the show. He went out in the middle of the night and met Dan, and Dan came and put a rock down on the ground and said, "Don't go past the rock." Well, it was pitch black. Joe went out there and set the jib up, and just didn't go past the rock. Like, okay, don't go past the rock. The jibs are heavy, they've got weights. Well, he goes out there in the morning and Dan had set the rock two inches from the edge of the cliff! This is a 400-foot straight, concave cliff. If you fall off, you're dead. He didn't say, "Don't go past the rock or you'll be dead," he just said, "Don't go past the rock." It's just a different mentality, those guys that climb.

Q: Do you have any favorite film directors?

MS: Oh, God, I've got tons of them. I like classic films. I like Ron Howard. I like Spielberg films. I like Terry Gilliam's films a lot. I like Kubrick a lot. I mean, I like American filmmaking, which is high-end, quality storytelling. It's sort of the pinnacle of the business and makes for great stuff, although I just saw a documentary the other day called "Beyond the Mat" on wrestling. I forget who the director is now, but I loved it. It's a great documentary. I don't know what you know about professional wrestling. It's one of those subjects that you go, "Ugh, wrestling, come on!"

Q: Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, wrote an essay in the 1960s talking about boxing as a fantastic existential spectacle.

MS: You've got to see this documentary. This is a guy who loved his subject and he makes you love the subject because he loves it. Whether you're into wrestling or not, to me it's just fun making. Here's a subject I normally would say I wouldn't care anything about, but in this documentary you go, this guy made me care about the subject and the people while I watched the film. It's great. That's doing it well.

Q: I now have to ask you the obligatory RailRiders question. How did the clothes hold up in Borneo?

MS: They're awesome! Anytime you work in those kind of environments, the jungle's harsh and there's tons of stickers and all this stuff, but it's really frigging hot and so you need something that's long-sleeved to keep the bugs off and to keep from getting stuck constantly, but at the same time you don't want to be frigging hot with cotton that soaks up tons of water and you can't shed. The other thing is, it will torrentially rain for ten minutes and then it will be sunny and hot so you want something that dries as well. You also don't want to be exposed to the sun the whole time. I wear the Eco-Mesh shirt everywhere I go around the world and I wear it almost every shoot that's outdoors. It's so functional and so comfortable, I'm ordering a bunch for my company because I always have people asking me what that shirt is and where I got it.

Sidebar: Survivor Aptitude Test: Take the SATs

In October, "Survivor II" traveled to the Australia Outback-described by producers as a "dry and open land criss-crossed with deep rock canyons, thundering waterfalls, enormous eucalyptus forests, kangaroos, emus, wild pigs and horses, and crocodiles." Another batch of 16 contestants--chosen from over 40,000 applications--endured temporary hardships and thorny egos to win a million bucks. The first step to the Outback for all Survivor hopefuls, however, was answering a short questionnaire which included the following questions. Hey, it's tougher than a college application!

Name three of your favorite hobbies.

Have you been treated for any serious physical or mental illness(es) within the last three years?

If you could hold any political office, what would it be and why?

What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?

Describe your perfect day.

Do you have any body art (piercing, tattoo, etc.)? If so, please describe.

Who is your hero and why?

List three (3) items you would take with you to Survivor II / Australia, if allowed and why?

What is your favorite topic of conversation at a dinner party? What topics are off limits?

What skills do you bring to Survivor II / Australia that would make you a useful member of the group?

Why do you believe that you could be the final Survivor?