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Even Outlast’s Executive Producer Didn’t See That Big Betrayal Coming

Grant Kahler talks safety precautions, player strategies, and survival challenges on the set of Netflix’s reality competition series.
  • Team Alpha's Amber Asay, Jill Ashock, and Justin Court on Outlast. (Photo: Netflix)
    Team Alpha's Amber Asay, Jill Ashock, and Justin Court on Outlast. (Photo: Netflix)

    The appeal of Outlast, which premiered March 10 on Netflix, is its unpredictability. When a group of aspiring survivalists are left in the wilderness with no rules in place, it’s fair to assume that anything can and will happen. But that didn’t stop viewers from being shocked when one of the teams’ villainous strategies turned the competition into a real-life Hunger Games. Team Alpha — Jill Ashock, Justin Court, and Amber Asay — changed the game halfway through when they decided to sabotage other teams by stealing their gear.

    It even shocked the show’s executive producer, Grant Kahler. As one of the people behind History Channel’s Alone, he’s seen a lot of people in their lowest moments of survival doing whatever it takes to go after the prize. But in Alone, people become trapped in situations of their own making — Outlast was the first time he witnessed how differently things can play out when a social aspect is added to the experiment. We talked with Kahler about the differences between solo and group survival, the safety precautions in place in the wilderness, and his thoughts on Team Alpha’s gameplay.

    How do you feel about the response to the show so far?

    There’s obviously a ton of negativity toward some of the contestants, which comes with it, I guess. But some of it is unfair I think. Everyone went out there with their own strategy and there’s a heck of a lot of backlash toward some people’s strategies.

    With a lot of reality shows, you can see the producer intervention to create drama. Here, it really is that the contestants are left to their own devices. How did you go about producing so that you could intervene if you needed to but still let it play out naturally?

    It was a question we had to deal with while in the field. Just because people were behaving a certain way, we didn’t want to change the show, as long as people stayed safe. Whether it was fair or not, that’s up for debate. But we wanted to put people in this situation because we were testing a question, and there’s a fair amount of money at stake. We wanted to see how people go through it.

    As far as producing it goes, we were very hands off. When a lot of the stuff went down, that was in the middle of the season, a lot of us weren’t even out there. It was literally captured and we didn’t really know what was going on — it caught us by complete surprise. I think you’re right, some producers do try to add drama to their shows, and in this case it was the opposite. We were literally flies on the wall for this one.

    What safety precautions were in place for moments like when Team Delta was left without sleeping bags in freezing temperatures?

    We had medics on full-time to check in on our contestants. If there was ever a real medical emergency, we were always on top of it. There were also bear guards out there — they were a safety team, so that our contestants were monitored 24/7, and they were armed in case there was an animal attack or anything like that. You prepare for that. If someone was in real danger, we were there to make sure nothing truly happened.

    What was the biggest difference you noticed in the contestants’ approach to Outlast compared to Alone?

    It’s interesting because they’re obviously similar in the goal, but the approach is completely opposite. With Alone, we talked so much when we were developing that show about how isolation was going to hurt people, and how hard that was going to be for people. That social isolation is really what takes people out more than hunger or being cold or anything else on Alone.

    We knew that the social dynamic [on Outlast] was going to be front and center, and how did people handle that? That’s why I really did think it was important to have so few rules because we wanted to see how people interacted with each other. That’s the way we went into it, talking about the role that other people have in your own success or survival and obviously it ended up playing a huge role, even bigger than we imagined.

    What new survival techniques did you see on display in Outlast?

    The main thing that this show had that I had never seen on location was, it was just so wet, all the time. It’s so difficult certainly to be comfortable, but even to survive in a place that’s 35 degrees and raining all the time. Typically on a challenge like this, it’s not the biggest deal to make a fire, but out here they really had to figure out, how do you make a fire when everything is water logged? Being uncomfortable like that for that long and then not being able to get warm, it really tested people beyond anything I’ve ever seen. It was even hard on our crew.

    The structure of this show must have been difficult for the crew because there was no definite ending. Was there a date you all had in mind that seemed like the limit to how long people would last?

    No, not really, we kept it pretty open, and that was by design, too. I think that’s partly why Justin, Jill, and Amber went after the gameplay like they did, because they probably thought to themselves, “Well we can either sit around and eat mussels and wait until everyone else quits or we can take this into our own hands and try and clear out this game board.” And they obviously certainly did.

    We didn’t have a day when we knew we wanted to be done because we wanted to stay true to the rules that the only real way out was to quit, as hard as it might have been at times.

    A lot of the hate that Team Alpha is getting is focused on their greed, but a lot of it was probably also motivated by just wanting to go home.

    Exactly. And that sounds like oversimplifying, but it’s true. When you’re that cold and that malnourished for that long, at some point you do just want to get home, whatever it takes. People are away from their families. It really was a very real social experiment in that way.

    Outlast Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Outlast, Netflix, Alone, Grant Kahler