Back to Alaska
Author's Commentary
Part 1 of 6

ALL-STAR ALASKA: Behind the Scenes
by Mario Lanza

Okay, the project is over and Alaska is now in the can. Quite frankly, I'm happy it is done, because these stories really burn you out after a while. They are a lot of work. But it turned out okay in the end, which is all that counts. The most important thing, of course, is that the audience likes it, and that appears to be the case. And now that it's complete, I'm ecstatic it turned out the way it did. The story as a whole ended up being almost exactly as I pictured it in my head, which doesn't always happen.

This special series is a look behind the scenes at the Alaska story. I promised people I would do one of these eventually, since we always get so much fan mail over the All-Star stories. People are always curious as to how they come about, either because they just like reading them, or they want to write one themselves. So here it is, as I promised. I actually wrote this up over at ez board over the past few weeks, so if it looks familiar, that is why. I am just reposting it here. These notes will be posted in installments, every few days. This also serves the purpose of leading up to the next story, All-Star Survivor: Greece, coming in May.

But for now, let's go "Back to Alaska!"


Pre-show (November 2002):

Obviously the first thing we needed was a team of writers. You can't do much without them, and I wasn't about to write this thing all by myself. With the Hawaii story, I had a hand-picked team of five writers, myself and four of my favorites. We did a good job, but we did have some problems meshing, stylewise. I learned really quick that it is hard to combine five voices into one coherent story.

And to be quite honest, I thought we had too many people in Hawaii. Five writers was too much, and I wanted to get down to 2 or 3 in Alaska. So I asked around, seeing if people were were interested, and of course everyone was. This surprised me a bit, since I'm kind of a dick to work with (more on that later, it's a recurring theme.) But not only did people want to come back, I had a list of seven or eight NEW people who wanted to be on the team. Ack!

Well, the first thing that happened was that I talked with Murtz (our webmaster) and he suggested I only use Survivor-Central staff writers. I agreed with that, I did feel it was a bit unfair to writers on our site who wanted to be involved but couldn't be, and quite frankly it made my choices easier, so I was cool with it. I actually had something to tell all the guys who wanted on. Sorry, can't allow S-C writers on, it's out of my hands.

The first two I asked back were Ryan Crist and Kixxy, who were invaluable last time around. They both did a great job. I also asked CJ Blake, who writes "The Tiki Weekly" and was one of the biggest fans of Hawaii, and she wanted to do it too. That made four. I kind of asked some other people, in offhand fashion, but no one was really screaming for the chance so I just let it drop.

One famous person I DID ask was Teresa Cooper. One of our favorites here at s-c, I have talked with her before and we were pretty good friends. Despite the fact that we kicked her off first in Hawaii (sorry!), she was nice enough to introduce Murtz and me to a bunch of Survivors at the Thailand finale. She couldn't have been nicer, despite the OTHER fact that she read some of the Hawaii episodes and was possibly the only Survivor to do so. Again, oops! Anyway, I asked Teresa if she wanted to help us with some strategic decisions and help be a technical advisor. She said sure, so she was an unofficial member at the start. Everything was looking good. Now we just needed a cast list.

In my mind, the cast list comes before everything. We didn't have a setting yet, or a plot, or rules, or twists, or anything. We simply needed a cast list first, and could go from there. Most people would set a location first, but that was actually one of the last things to come about with Alaska. We needed a cast list first. And I wanted to change the way we did it from Hawaii.

Our Hawaii cast list should have been much better. It sucked, I admit it. And the problem is that we all had too much freedom to pick who we wanted to use. We all had freebie picks, and could pick someone to use even if no one else wanted to use them. And this is exactly what happened. In the single worst decision of either All-Star story, we got stuck using Frank Garrison when we didn't want to.

What happened with Frank is that one of our Hawaii writers picked him as their freebie pick, even though no one else wanted him. Hell, I didn't even CONSIDER him. But we begrudgingly chose Frank because those were the rules. If he was your freebie pick, he got on, no questions asked. It sucked because we had to cut Greg Buis, but those were the rules. But the Frank debacle didn't end there. Once we announced our cast list (to many groans) and started episode one, the writer who picked him had to leave the project! She had to quit. So we were stuck using Frank even though we didn't want him there. If you are wondering why he was in All-Star Hawaii, that's why. It wasn't our choice, but the cast had already been announced. The story had begun, and I vowed never to make this mistake again.

This time around, I decide to just make a cast list myself, and see what people said. I vowed to have more control over the Alaska story, and the cast list was the best place to start. So on November 19, I sent out a preliminary cast list to the other three Alaska writers. These were the sixteen I felt we should use:

Female: Kelly wiglesworth, Elisabeth Filarski, Jerri Manthey, Lindsey Richter, Gina Crews, Tammy Leitner, Neleh Dennis, Helen Glover
Male: Greg Buis, Jeff Varner, Rudy Boesch, Brian Heidik, Tom Buchanan, Silas Gaither, Paschal English, Gervase Peterson

You will note that this is almost the exact cast list we ended up using, so I think the system worked great. One notable later inclusion was Kelly Goldsmith. Ryan Crist lobbied hard for us to use her, and the more he talked, the more persuasive he became. I was really, really holding out for Lindsey (perfect character for a story, she is total drama!) but Kelly ended up taking her place. Now we had two Kellys.

Aside from Lindsey, however, none of the other female choices were really negotiable, in my mind. The readers lobbied for Shii Ann but I didnt see who we could cut to let her in. And as for the males, the only two that I thought might get cut were Paschal and Gervase. In our mind, we really weren't sure whether to use Rodger or Paschal as our token "old guy". At one point, both of them were in, but then we felt they were too similar, so Rodger ended up getting cut. And at this point, the eighth spot was Gervase, but very well could have been Sean Rector or Clay Jordan. We honestly didn't know which one to use. Keep in mind that this story was begun (Nov. 20) before Thailand ended, so we didn't know where Clay would finish. But as the days drew closer and closer, we just said, screw it, let's use Clay. It was obvious he could win Thailand, and we didn't want to leave him off. So he took the last spot.

The reason Sean Rector was not included was more tricky. I will be perfectly honest about this, and that is that I just wasn't ready to write for him yet. Sean is a very tricky and complex character, especially since he is a bit more, shall we say, concerned with race than most players. I didn't want to tackle that yet, since I know the pitfalls. If I screw his character up and end up making him too comical (or too angry), I will get a lot of nasty email. Since I'm generally the dialogue guy, this is normally my call. If I can't get a guy right, I have to leave him off. I have to make sure I can do it before we start. But Sean will end up in a story soon, I think I am almost ready to tackle him. But as for the rest of them, Tom was the only one I was really worried about, dialogue wise. The rest are all pretty easy.

Oh yeah, a lot of people asked why their favorite didn't make the list. And I just give my stock answer: "They were the last cut! Honest!" If anyone ever asks why so-and-so wasn't included, that's the answer I give. Of course, it is usually a lie, but people seem to buy it, and it saves me some explanation time.

So our cast was set, and now we needed a location. The initial location list was long at first (Florida Everglades, Death Valley, Antarctica, Canada, Greece, Louisiana Bayous, etc) but quickly came down to four choices: Alaska, New Zealand, Scotland and Norway. And for a long time, I thought it was going to be New Zealand. We had a New Zealand expert to help us out, but then he never got in touch with me. I have no idea what happened to him, but he just disappeared.

But then the more I thought about it, I realized New Zealand wouldn't work that well. There isn't a whole lot of wildlife to hunt, and I don't know the culture well enough without requiring some hardcore research. So since we were under a deadline to get this thing started, we dropped New Zealand. Maybe later, but not for All-Star #2. A second choice was Norway, which I loved, but in the end I persuaded everyone to use Alaska.


I picked Alaska because it was easy. We were under the gun to get this started, and I knew it required minimal research. I grew up in Seattle, and I know that Alaska is a lot like the Washington forests during the summer, so I could basically just write about what I knew. But the minimal research was the biggest factor. As always, the less work, the better. Plus I had a deep desire to help educate people that Alaska is NOT an ice and snow hellhole all year. In the summers it is quite nice. I wanted to dispel some of the myths, so Alaska it was. Alaska and Hawaii are nice bookends to the series, too, so that worked. So I wrote up a promo and we were ready to start.

At this point, we needed rules. You will notice that the promo doesn't have the teams split by gender, because we hadn't come to that decision yet. We still needed the rules. And luckily, we didn't have to debate the Alaska for very long. Everyone had some good ideas but I had the Red Rover idea in my head for some time, and suggested it. "How about this?" I wrote, "Guys vs girls, and the winners of reward challenge get to steal a player from the other team." Bam. Everyone loved it, particularly Ryan. And this was BEFORE Amazon, let me point out, we had no idea Amazon would use guys vs. girls. It was just a coincidence. And the twist wasn't called "Red Rover" yet, that was just something I called it out of necessity and it stuck. But the general idea behind it was that we wanted the teams to HATE each other. The more animosity and hatred, the better. I felt Red Rover was a good way to do this, since it mixes up alliances, screws long term plans, and puts people on teams they don't want to be on. So my goal for the story was pure, absolute animosity between the teams. Now, unfortunately, this hatred for the other team never really came about in Alaska, but it will in All-Star Greece. You're damn right it will. I love rivalry, and that is the only thing I feel we really failed in with Alaska. The teams didn't hate each other enough.

I told Teresa about Red Rover and she said "I love it!!!" so I knew we were good to go. If you get an endorsement from an actual Survivor, you take it as a good sign.

Once last thing I felt we needed was a Survivor: Alaska logo. We all tried to create one from scratch, simply because we had no other options. With Hawaii, we just swiped an existing logo from a page of Survivor logos. I have no idea who created that one, but it was great, so thanks! But the page I swiped it from does not exist anymore, so we all tried our best to make one for Alaska. CJ and I tried our best, but we are simply not artists. Our logos stunk. But luckily Ryan Crist came to the rescue. Ryan, it turns out, understands how shading and pixels work, and his logo turned out great. Ryan saved the day! You can see his finished logo at the top of the page.

Once the rules and cast and logo and twists were set (no twist other than Red Rover, and the teams would merge as late as possible. I wanted to milk the Red Rover as long as we could), we were ready to go. It was time to start writing. Now, in a perfect world, I want to do ALL the writing. I want to write every episode and do it all myself. This is because, obviously, I am a tyrant. I am a control freak and everything has to be just perfect in my mind or it will be redone. You will see this can lead to problems, especially among other writers. And it always does. But at the start, it was fine. We were all working together great and had plenty of time to get stuff done. I volunteered to do the writing for the first episode (normally, one person writes an episode, not a group). So we planned out some sketchy plot details and I sat down to write from scratch. I don't use outlines or rough drafts, I just like to write from scratch and see what comes out. I always like to write dangerously, without a safety net, because stress seems to work best for me. I'm weird like that, but I like spontaneity.

As for deadlines, we were going to post this story after S5 aired, so we had a month to get episodes done before we started posting. This was something new for us, as we never had that luxury with Hawaii. Every episode in Hawaii was written under the deadline, with no margin for error. We had six days maximum, to get an entire episode done, start to finish. It was painful, and a lot of pressure, and we wanted to avoid that this time. So with a 30-day headstart, we felt we would have MORE than enough time. Right?

No problem!

So now, I was all set for episode one. I wanted to write something that would blow Hawaii away. I knew people loved that story, but we could do much better. I knew we could. This time, we knew what we were doing. So with that in mind, the episodes began.

To be continued....

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