We Go to Some Places Where I Know No American Show Has Ever Been Shot” – RealityNewsOnline’s Exclusive Interview with The Amazing Race’s Co-Creator, Director, and Executive Producer, Bertram van Munster
by Teeuwynn Woodruff -- 02/16/2009
The Amazing Race 14 premiered Sunday! In anticipation, RealityNewsOnline’s Teeuwynn Woodruff sat down with co-creator, producer, and director Bertram van Munster to talk about the multiple-Emmy winning reality series and why it is so successful. What does he have to say about this season, last season, and plans for future seasons? Read on to find out everything!
RealityNewsOnline: Hello, Bertram, and thank you for talking to RealityNewsOnline today!
Bertram van Munster: Thank you!
RNO: Do you have anything you can share with us about the upcoming race?
van Munster: Yes. But first I would like to talk about the last race, if that’s okay?
van Munster: It leads into the next one. What I’m doing now, I’m going to more and more original places. The casting – for some mysterious reason – is getting better every time. Maybe we’re actually getting good at this, little by little!
Like in the last race, for instance, we went to places like Cambodia, and to Kazakhstan. Cambodia is a place that, if you had gone there ten years ago to Angkor Wat, they would shoot you and arrest you. Now, we can shoot an entire television show there.
The fact that we can get more exotic and phenomenal places in this crazy world is just really fantastic! And Kazakhstan, of course, we were shooting there and got a lot of cooperation from the government. Of course, they were slightly scared that we would do another Borat. That’s the only thing everyone was worried about! “Are you going to do the Borat?” Borat wasn’t even shot in Kazakhstan. It was shot in Romania. But they were all afraid we were going to do a Borat on them.
We weren’t doing a Borat. But we were still running around [with people] dressed up like a cow. It’s a little odd, but really fun.
What I’m doing now, in the new race coming up… I’ve got to tell you, we have beaten ourselves with getting a cast that is really, really good – which is instrumental to the success of the show. And then I laid out a race that is going through a lot of original territory – where people constantly say, “Nobody speaks English! I can’t take it anymore!” And that is exactly why we go there. “Remember? This is why we take you around the world.”
They get so frustrated because nobody speaks English. I find that kind of odd. Of course nobody speaks English. But they’re almost insulted that nobody speaks English. “How can you take me to a country where nobody speaks English?”
RNO: I think a lot of Americans are used to feeling that everybody will speak their language. It’s a big difference when they are exposed to different cultures like they are on the race.
van Munster: And [expect them] to kowtow and say, “Yes, we speak fluent English. Where do you want to go, sir?” That’s not the case at all. You see a lot of generosity on the part of people they run into. You see also a lot of stubbornness. You see some very exotic locales.
We go to some places where I know no American show has ever been shot. Ever. Of that I can assure you. So, it’s going to be really, really unique. And, in terms of weather, we go from extremely hot to extremely cold to extremely hot – rain and misery and what have you. Every piece of weather you can imagine, we have in the show. And that, included with the language barriers, and food, and pressure… I can assure you that this thing is off the scale!
RNO: The new locations and cast are ways you keep the show fresh. Is there anything else you do to keep the show interesting and evolving?
van Munster: The challenges. You know, the challenges in the show this time around are really original, and cultural in nature. [Some of them] are just a huge pain in the ass to do as challenges.
RNO: It must be an incredible logistical challenge to put the race itself together. Do you have to have backup challenges ready?
van Munster: In the past I have had moments… We were once shooting in Central America and there was this huge storm coming in, and I had to change one show completely. We couldn’t stay there. I have back-up challenges, and I even have back-up countries we can go to in case something really gets off track.
When I lay out a race, I run the whole thing myself. Twice. I start up by doing exactly what the teams are supposed to do. I get on this plane, I see what all the connections are, and I make all these connections for myself. So I know it works. Then I hand it over to my logistical team – but I know it already works before I hand it over to them.
RNO: Are there any countries you would love to race in, but haven’t had a chance to do so?
van Munster: No. I mean, what’s on the menu this time around is very original. I have to tell you, the logistical side of things is actually the most logical. Planes fly the way they fly. They have calculated these flight patterns long before we invented The Amazing Race. So, there is a logic to it.
You can look at it two ways. You can look at it like this is an un-overcomeable pile of information you don’t understand. Or you can look at it through the logic of how airlines fly their planes and how they make their money. That’s how I look at it. If you look at it from that perspective, there’s a great deal of logic to it.
Now, of course, not everybody has the time and energy to look at that kind of logic – particularly the contestants, because they are always in a hurry, you know, trying to cut each other off.
RNO: They’re in a race.
van Munster: They’re more in panic mode all the time. You have to just step back and look at the logic of the whole thing and then you’ll say, “Oh! That’s what’s going on.” Nobody takes the time to do it.
RNO: I have noticed that, when the teams take the time to really read their clues tend to do a lot better.
van Munster: Absolutely. It makes all the difference in the world. We can tell them that 100 times, and they won’t listen anyway – which makes for exciting television. Sometimes they are very individualistic in their decision-making in this race, and sometimes there is a little herd mentality going on [where] they all make the same huge mistake.
RNO: Have you ever seen teams do something you had no idea a team would ever do – running off in an entirely different direction?
van Munster: I see them all the time doing things they shouldn’t be doing. It’s the craziest thing. Sometimes, in the middle of the race, they get so panicky. Sometimes you see just a total breakdown of their energy. They just make the weirdest decisions that have nothing to do with the instructions they have.
RNO: Then you just have to follow along and see what happens?
van Munster: Well, there’s always a camera team with them, so I don’t care if they try to go off to North Korea, as long as there’s a camera team with them.
RNO: How do you make the call between giving a team penalty time for doing something wrong in the race vs. making a team go back and do what they were supposed to do?
van Munster: Well, speeding is a very dangerous thing. Countries have different rules, different regulations, so we are very careful with speeding. The camera team [tells teams] if they think they are driving unsafely. They call us and say they are driving unsafely and we have them pull over on the spot. That’s just the way it is. They have to adhere to the speed limits.
Our biggest worry is that people are going to get hurt. So, we are very, very strict with it. They know that up front. That is not a last-minute decision.
If someone comes to the mat [Pit Stop] and doesn’t have a clue in their hand – if you just stumble upon it by accident… Sorry, pal. You have to go back and find your clue.
RNO: When you cast teams, do you generally have an idea about who’s going to do well on the race and who isn’t?
van Munster: You know, all of us together have never been able to pick a winner. We have never, ever been able to pick it – which is good. So, the audience sees what I see happen. When you put people under pressure and make them race for a million bucks, someone will make an irrational decision. We see them do it all the time, and they are really smart people. They’re exhausted and under pressure.
RNO: Are there any specific teams that have surprised you by how well or poorly they have done on the race?
van Munster: You know, I am always impressed with the older guys. It also confirms what I’ve said – this race can be run by anybody. You don’t necessarily have to have incredible athletic ability to win this thing.
If you step back, and as you say, read your clue and really calculate which way you want to go, you’re just as good as the guy who runs six miles ahead of you and makes a mistake somewhere.
RNO: When you’re casting teams, do you look for a balance between different types of teams –athletic, young, old, etc.?
van Munster: Yes. We look for folks in all ages in good physical and mental health. We look for pre-existing relationships. We want people who love each other, people who want to break up, people who are not sure of their relationship, brothers, sisters, gay, whatever.
[Running the race] people look at each other very differently… It is a life-changing experience, to the point that when they come back and sit in their living rooms they say, “What the hell just happened to me? Was I really doing this?” Seeing these people is almost like holding up a mirror for the audience.
RNO: Do you think you’ll ever do another All-Star race?
van Munster: I personally don’t like All-Star reality shows. There are so many great competitors, I don’t see the point. Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t make you a star, it just means you’ve done it before.
I think it’s more fun to see different people every time – really original, new people. To me, that’s more exciting. CBS’s opinion may differ from mine on that one. But, if it were only up to me, I would say no.
RNO: Are there any new game elements – like the Yield or Fast Forward – in this race?
van Munster: I like to keep that a surprise, but there are some new game elements that are really a lot of fun. It will be minor tweaks… but enough to throw the teams off.
RNO: How do you pick the greeters for a country?
van Munster: I just make it up. I see a guy walking down the street – I mean, last time, I had a guy who sells lottery tickets! I saw him in Brazil and thought he’d be a nice greeter. But now I’m making some changes, and you will see some very funny changes in the show that are going to be much more elaborate – who the greeters are and how they are going to get involved.
RNO: So, my colleagues wanted me to ask if you would ever accept a team made up of two reality TV writers?
van Munster: Absolutely! I don’t see any reason why not. Everybody’s welcome.
RNO: I’ll tell them that. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
van Munster: You know, to do a reality show like this one, you have to take a leap of faith. That’s why it’s still a reality show. A lot of reality shows are manipulated, they’re discussed – we don’t do any of that. That is where the leap of faith comes in.
RNO: I think that’s one of the things that keeps The Amazing Race interesting to watch. As are seeing how people behave in such an unusual situation.
van Munster: The great thing is, we turn them loose, then they have to get themselves somewhere and somewhere else, and do the challenges. We have control points at the challenges, but otherwise they are on their own. The reality is they are completely on their own for 50-60% of the race.
We’re the only show that goes around the world. We’ve made a lot of friends around the world. People get excited and generous, and they are nice and friendly. Just like we saw with the Russians last season with Toni & Dallas.
Oh, and common sense always wins. It applies to the racers and it applies to us.
RNO: Thank you so much for talking to us today.
van Munster: Thank you, and tell your colleagues to send a tape!
RNO: I will!http://www.realitynewsonline.com/cgi-bin/ae.pl?mode=4&article=article8657.art&page=1