When Dutch producer John de Mol has an idea for a reality show, American network executives tend to pay attention. The exec producer of Talpa Media Group created “Big Brother,” “Fear Factor,” “Deal or No Deal” and “The Voice,” first in Holland before importing them here. Now with “The Voice” singing a happy tune in 55 countries all over the globe, he’s poised to bring the latest Dutch sensation to America: “Utopia,” which is scheduled for a Sept. 2 premiere on Fox. Fifteen strangers will live together in an undisclosed location for a year, tasked with creating a new civilization. It’ll air twice a week, but viewers can follow online 24/7. “It’s the most ambitious reality show I’ve ever done,” says de Mol.
Variety: How did you come up with the idea?
de Mol: I felt that it was about time for a really big reality show again. I thought people would be interested to follow a reality show on a regular basis. The next question was then, what are we going to do? In Holland, every Monday evening my creative team meets to discuss fresh new ideas. We try to look at what’s happening in the world. Are there trends? Are there new developments we should be aware of? And regularly we heard that people are uncertain about the future. People are sick and tired of the rules and regulations. So we said, why don’t we give a number of people a chance to create a new world, to start over again.
Variety: How does it play out? Do people get voted out?
de Mol: It’s not a competition. We cast 15 people in the beginning. They have no influence in who the other 14 people are. Still, we thought we should give the group the opportunity to get rid of the rotten apples, if any, and replace them with fresh blood. I’m not going to reveal yet what the structure is going to be because it’s quite exciting and new.
Variety: How did you cast it?
de Mol: Of course you have character casting, archetypes. But in “Utopia,” you’re also looking at skills. Because if you put 15 people together on a deserted piece of land, with no electricity, no water, no toilets, nothing, just a little bit of money and an old phone, you need skills to give them a fair chance to create an infrastructure to get electricity, to get water, to create bathrooms. So you need a plumber. You need a carpenter. You need someone who is a doctor or a medic. So that is an extra layer in casting that you don’t have with other reality shows.
Variety: And people were willing to do this?
de Mol: People are dying to do this. Because they feel this is a huge social experiment. Also it’s part of an ideological point of view … a great challenge to a lot of people. That’s why we have a lot of highly educated people who want to give up a year of their life. What surprised me so much is that I’ve seen surgeons, a professor, an architect, really high-skilled people, which you don’t see too much in other reality shows.
Variety: Why do you think audiences in Holland responded so much to the show?
de Mol: It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s real. It’s fascinating to follow this process. What I think is the most important and challenging and important part of the utopia is the beginning. Because they have to make hundreds of decisions in a couple of days. What do we do first? What do we eat tonight? Where do we sleep? And I’m so curious to find out how they are going to make those decisions. Because there is no structure. There are no laws. There are no regulations. There is nothing. Who is taking the lead? Who is saying, OK guys, shut up, let’s do it this way — and who is saying no, let’s being democratic, we have to vote for everything.
Variety: There won’t be any intervention.
de Mol: No. This is the purest reality show I’ve ever made. Because there is no intervention. (They have to) try to make the best of it.
Variety: Did the Dutch version play out the way you expected?
de Mol: Even better. Even though I have 15 years of experience in making reality, I have been surprised I don’t know how many times because there were things happening inside that if you put the 100 best writers in this country together, they couldn’t come up with the ideas that happened. For real.
Variety: Did they create a “Utopia” in Holland?
de Mol: They were sitting together one evening and someone raised that question: We’re in here for 100 days. Where are we? Are we happy with what we’ve achieved so far? And it was a very heavy discussion. Because a few people were satisfied. But 10 out of the 15 were not satisfied. Because the interesting part is you have an idea about your utopia. But so do I. And my utopia is probably not the same as the utopia you want. And that’s what makes it so challenging.
Variety: Where is the American version being filmed?
de Mol: We’re still in negotiations with a few authorities so we won’t reveal it yet. … (I will say) it’s very difficult. In Holland, we started Jan. 1 in the middle of winter. And we had a very mild winter so it was not even that bad. Here, they have the opposite problem — heat. It’s going to be very warm.
Variety: What have you learned from the Dutch version that’s impacted the American version?
de Mol: A few details. For example, the amount of money, we’ve given the Dutch people to start out with was €10,000 ($13,622). A little bit too much. So we will probably lower that amount.
Variety: What moments surprised you from the Dutch version?
de Mol: They found on the property an old, broken bathtub with two holes in it. And there was no shower, nothing. So three guys, they tried to put the old bathtub together. They found a few bricks on the property. Put the bathtub on the bricks. Put wood under it. Put water in the tub. Set fire to the wood. So they had a hot tub. How creative can you be? Unbelievable!
Variety: Do you plant things on the property? Did you put that tub there intentionally?
de Mol: Yes, of course! Everything you see is planted. We don’t leave anything to coincidence. There are still things on the property that they haven’t found yet. If you want to give people a chance to survive, you have to give them a fair chance. But they need their own creativity to make it happen.
Variety: Do you allow them to bring anything with them?
de Mol: Yes, a few things, but I can’t say too much about it. It’s a part of the opening show. They can do business with the people outside because they have to make money. If they don’t make money, they starve. They have to figure out what they can do to make money. Utopia is a place where you can do business with the outside world. They cannot leave Utopia. But the outside world can come in Utopia — suppliers, things have to be delivered. In the Dutch example, they started every four weeks a market, we have hundreds of visitors who come and buy stuff. We had pop concerts by very famous Dutch artists who came and did unplugged mini concerts for 300-400 people on the Utopia territory. One of the 15 people is a wrestling champion. So two weeks ago on a Sunday night we had a wrestling tournament with 800 visitors. So everything is possible.
Variety: How do they get what they need?
de Mol: If they earn money, they can buy a computer — after buying first the things they need more. Toilet. Water. Electricity. Baths. Because there’s nothing. So those are probably the needs they’re going to fulfill first. So if you have two or three people that think Internet is what you need more, you’re going to have a heavy discussion. What do we buy first? The shower or the computer? You tell me.
Variety: What do you think of the state of reality TV right now?
de Mol: When we started with “Big Brother” and created the reality genre, no one could ever foresee that there was so much space in the genre that it could deliver so many formats. There will be periods where there is not enough new stuff to keep the genre alive. But it will never die. Reality is here to stay. It is cheap. It is easy to produce. So it’s never going to disappear.
Variety: You’ve also reinvented the music competition show with “The Voice.”
de Mol: The moment we were in the studio in Holland the first day for the blind auditions, we knew it was bingo. We felt it. I was convinced it would work everywhere.
Variety: Was the chemistry between the judges instantaneous?
de Mol: Yes, but that’s luck. That’s something you need with shows like this. If coaches really understand the format right, the chemistry is almost always there because it’s also a competition between the coaches to find the best talent.
Variety: Were you concerned when you had to swap out coaches?
de Mol: There is no country in the world where we haven’t exchanged coaches. A new coach brings a new reality. Now with Pharrell, he’s one of the most successful artists in the world right now — but as a coach, he’s still a rookie. He’ll have to prove himself as a coach. But he’s one of the best songwriters in the world, one of the best producers in the world. If he’s not a good coach, who is?
Variety: Does it matter to you that the winners are not becoming recording stars?
de Mol: Yes and no. In Europe, the results are better. But in this country we do two series in one year. If you were the winner of the last “Voice,” normally producers and writers would be working with you to write and produce songs to launch an album. But by the time your album would be ready, the next series of “The Voice” is on air. That’s a little bit controversial.
Variety: So you’re not giving them a chance to breathe.
de Mol: It’s difficult. My theory is that in this country you have 1 million good voices, but you only have a dozen good songwriters. And that is the big problem. That’s why I’m so happy to have Pharrell as a coach because I hope that he finds a few talents on his team that he’s willing to share his talents with. Maybe Usher can write a few songs for Josh Kaufman. Please, Usher. Write something.