‘Amazing Race’ Brain Trust Reveals Some Tricks to the Trade

Bertram van Munster Amazing Race Producer
Daniel Hennessy for Variety

Partners at work and in life, Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri take us behind the scenes of “The Amazing Race.”

VARIETY: What initially sparked your inspiration for The Amazing Race?

ELISE DOGANIERI: Bertram was in television and I worked in advertising, and Bert had just come back from Mipcom, and was discouraged that there was nothing good in the market, and I said, “Why can’t you guys in television ever come up with a great idea?” And he said, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you come up with something?” The first thing that popped into my head was a trip I had taken with my college roommate, backpacking through Europe. We had little money, we didn’t speak the languages and we were scraping by, but we were having so much fun staying in hostels and diving into the culture and meeting locals. So I said to Bert, “Why don’t we do a show where people who know each other travel around the world in some sort of competition, and the first team to get back to America wins a huge cash prize? And if they have to do challenges in unfamiliar settings, it will surely test any relationship and create a lot of drama.” Bert pitched the idea to (CBS topper) Leslie (Moonves), who pretty much bought it on the spot.

BERTRAM: Les was pushing the limits, because 13 years ago there really was no reality television. CBS really jump-started big-time storytelling, on a big scale in the reality genre.

VARIETY: How did you choose the countries to originally set the show in?

ELISE: When Bertrum sold the show, I asked if I should quit my job, and he said, “This is television. This could be a special, and that’ll be it.” So we decided to put the most amazing route together for the first episode, in case we didn’t get to do another one. Bert sold the show in June and by August we were on our way to India, to see the Taj Mahal.

BERTRAM: We went to India, Japan, China — all these exotic places. When we started Episode One in New York, people tore open the envelope and it said, “Find your way to Rio de Janeiro.” The idea was to have an initial shock.

VARIETY: There’s an almost Pavlovian excitement to the sound of that envelope tearing open.

ELISE: SKRIIICCKK!…You start drooling. What’s inside?! That’s the ‘Rip-and-Read.’

VARIETY: How did you decide to perforate the envelopes?

ELISE: At first we sealed them with glue strips and had all these different variations until finally we had one that could withstand the travel and being banged around in boxes, or if it rains, or if it’s on a boat.

BERTRAM: Once we were filming in Lake Geneva at five o’clock in the morning and the clue box is standing on a pier by the big fountain, and all of the sudden, some guy coming back from a party who’s clearly had a little bit too much to drink, walks up to the clue box and throws the whole thing in Lake Geneva, with all the clues in it. We had to dive in after it and pick up all the clues.

ELISE: So now we put a garbage bag over the clue box until we get the text that says the teams are five minutes away, then we rip the garbage bag off and disappear, so at least we know it’s hidden and protected until somebody comes.

VARIETY: How do you come up with the ideas for the different challenges?

BERTRAM: We have different producers assigned to certain countries, who come with me and as I travel around the world to do research. I was just in Azerbaijani in Baku, and I saw something on the side of the road, that we’re integrating into the show.

ELISE: Those are the most interesting times, when you find something that isn’t in a guide book or on the Internet and you’re driving along and you say “What’s that?” and you’re told, “That’s something people have been doing here for centuries,” but it’s not something a tourist would ever want to know about. But if we make people do what the locals do, things get interesting because no one’s ever seen or experienced it.

VARIETY: Break down a specific challenge, to illustrate how it gets developed. For example, in Season 21, teams had to perform a choreographed synchronized swimming routine with Russia’s gold medal-winning Olympic team in Moscow, until the coach gave her approval, before they could proceed.

BERTRAM: I’ll tell you how the idea was born. When I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old, they opened up a municipal swimming pool next to us, in Holland. And my school was invited to swim patterns. And I’ll never forget, it was six o’clock in the morning and the water was bitter cold, but you had to go in. And I was just a skinny little kid, diving in the water, and we had to swim this pattern — make a little star, swim away, come back together, this kind is stuff. And that’s where the idea came from. So when people say, “We can’t do this challenge,” Well, yes you can, because I learned as a little kid. Of course, when we ask the cast, “Can you swim?” They all say, “Yeah, we can swim!” “Can you drive a stick shift?” “Yeah, we can all drive a stick shift!” But when push comes to shove, they don’t know how. We had a team in Norway that drove 300 kilometers in first gear.

VARIETY: Is it a logistical difficulty securing vehicles?

ELISE: The whole show is a logistical operation. We have to move 70 people every two or three days to a different country or location, and that includes our art department, which travels with the giant mat that Phil stands on, with all the props, and all the clue boxes and the envelopes. Then we have our pit stop captains, who are there when the teams check in, who count up the money the teams have still on them, and check their timing so that their “in” times and “out” times are legitimate and correct and fair. I mean, there’s a million dollar prize at the end of this, so don’t think the contestants won’t wait for any little thing we’ve screwed up on.

VARIETY: Given that the uncertainty of the time it takes teams to complete challenges, how do you stay ahead of the contestants to make sure you’re at the right place at the right time?

ELISE: We create a document called a “Fast/Slow,” where we test everything beforehand, so we know the slowest time someone can do a route, and the fastest time. So from the moment teams land, we know the quickest time this route can be done is four hours, and the slowest is eight hours, so even with hiccups here and there for the contestants, we know what flight to take out that next morning. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the Fast/Slow is quite accurate.

VARIETY: Talk about how the non-elimination rounds. People often ask if they’re pre-set or not.

ELISE: They are pre-set. We pick them in the office ahead of time. We say, “Let’s have Non-Eliminations on Show 3, Show 7 and Show 9, and the next year we’ll switch it up to Shows 5, 6 and 8, to throw contestants off.

BERTRAM: People think that we do things last minute, and I want to make absolutely sure everybody understands this: we don’t make any changes last minute, ever.

ELISE: We can’t. The route is laid out in advance. We present it to the network and they approve it before we go on the road. Right now as we speak, clues are being written for something we’re going to be doing a month from now. (Host) Phil (Keoghan) is writing his scripts, Bert has already done his scouting, our cast is set, and the permits and budgets for all of the locations are being finalized.

BERTRAM: And when (host) Phil (Keogh) yells “Go,” it’s “Action” until three weeks later when we say “Cut.” During that time, we don’t interfere with anything. Contestants are completely on their own and racing. They have no idea where they’re going and we don’t give them lines to speak. That’s why casting is so important, because casting is your script.

ELISE: When we hear, “Oh, reality is scripted,” we cringe, because we like to think that our show is really pure.

VARIETY: Is there a tried and true team dynamic that always brings out a certain dramatic story arc, whether it’s divorced couples, father-son, mother-daughter, gay couples, newly dating, and so forth?

BERTRAM: No matter who you go out on the road with — it can be your best friend, your best mate, your biggest love, whatever — there comes a point where you want to go right and they want to go left. That’s just human nature — particularly when you are under stress, and we see this over and over again. The “Race” is exhausting, it’s tiring, it’s exciting and it can be a recipe for disaster. You will show your true emotions on a race around the world, there is no question about it.

VARIETY: What governance do you have over what contestants can and can’t bring in their backpacks?

BERTRAM: They can bring anything they want, except shirts with big logos on it. And for some reason, a lot of people think they’re going on vacation to some hot country, and only pack these little shorts and tank tops. When we end up in Siberia and it’s freezing cold, I say, “What are you guys thinking?”

VARIETY: Has there ever been something you’ve tried, that didn’t work out in terms of a challenge?

ELISE: Not that didn’t work out in a challenge, but there are certain things we did, like the “Intersection”, where you had to wait for another team to show up and then do something as a group of four. That’s something we probably won’t bring back.

VARIETY: And are you glad when someone melts down during a task? Like the mother-son team of Margie and Luke, in the drink-pouring challenge, when Luke angrily smashed the glasses to the floor?

ELISE: I had to walk away. He was so frustrated. He was really struggling. But we knew it was doable, and for anyone who has a challenge to overcome…you know…Luke can’t hear. We’ve had people with things that can hold them back, but we make the show as fair as possible for everybody. So we knew that was something that everybody could do. Sometimes frustration gets the best of us.

VARIETY: Finally, would you ever have cast couples hoping that they might clash? Say, a team of extreme religious fundamentalists and a gay couple?

BERTRAM: Here’s the thing: I’ve seen people from different walks of life really become close, close friends. It’s really fascinating to see how they come together and start to see each other’s values. The other thing I must say: “The Amazing Race” is really a business card for the rest of the world. As we go around the world as Americans, our behavior and our interactions with the local people is respectful and fun. Occasionally it’s not so respectful and then they look like fools in front of a global audience. This show is doing a lot to bring people together. That’s how I view it.