In 2001, Bertram van Munster stood at a crossroads. His syndicated nature show “Wild Things” had come to an end, and the Dutch-born filmmaker and television producer was on the lookout for a new project to sink his teeth into. His partner Elise Doganieri — then an advertising executive with Ogilvy & Mather — proposed an idea for an unscripted show.
“You get eliminated if you come in last — not because someone does something against you,” explains van Munster, a concept that bucked the trend of hit shows like “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” in which plotting to eliminate fellow contestants was the point. Van Munster and Doganieri joined forces with film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose first venture into TV was CBS hit “CSI,” and “CSI” producer Jonathan Littman. Together, the foursome hammered out the finer points of the “The Amazing Race,” which van Munster successfully pitched to CBS president Leslie Moonves soon after.
CBS last month kicked off the show’s 25th season with a sneak peek of the cast. “Race” boasts an average 10 million viewers.
“We hoped ‘The Amazing Race’ would be something exciting and stimulating to make, but we were really going off into the unknown,” says show host Phil Keoghan.
B.J. Averell, who won Season 9 with teammate Tyler MacNiven, explains: “You’re part of this grand production, kind of like ‘The Truman Show,’ that you don’t know the extent of … and Bertram van Munster is like the Christof (the Ed Harris character), pulling the strings of each day.”
Littman is a firm believer of dispensing information on a need-to-know basis only.
“It is a very slippery slope, once you start telling teams what to do,” he says. “We tell them the rules and ways to conduct themselves to get around the world, so they don’t end up in jail, and we have to remind them: ‘You’re bound by the laws of the countries you’re in, and you are not immune just because you’re on a TV show.’ But outside of that, we try not to interfere, because that’s when you get the best material. They’re wild cards.”
And if this means racers sustain vehicle breakdowns, navigationally challenged cab drivers and canceled flights, such real-life pitfalls are just part of the game — something Season 21 racers Mark “Abba” Abbattista and James LoMenzo know all too well.
The entertainment lawyer/heavy-metal rocker duo were enjoying first place standing when things suddenly went awry for them in Moscow.
After taking a taxi cab to a challenge on the Luzhkov Bridge, the cab driver ignored instructions to wait by the banks of the Moscow River, and drove off with their backpacks — passports and all, ultimately costing them the race.
“We hadn’t paid him yet, and I guess he made a decision that whatever was in those backpacks was more valuable than the money we owed,” Abbattista says. “In reality, he didn’t get anything except laundry.”
“This is where the real world will come and bite you in the ass,” Keoghan says. “Your passport shouldn’t be in a bag. It’s the one thing you need to strap to your body, under your clothes, and it should never leave your side, no matter what. It’s your ticket around the world and it’s your ticket to a million dollars, and it’s essential to finishing ‘The Amazing Race.’”
The producers are constantly implementing changes to keep the production fresh.
For one thing, teams are now kept apart during the mandatory 12-hour rest periods between legs. Not only does this keep players in the dark as to the finishing order of the other teams in the previous leg, but it prevents them from bonding, thereby ensuring they remain cutthroat and competitive.
In a similar vein, sound and cameramen are all routinely rotated to different teams in order to eliminate the appearance of collusion.
“We’re always asking what we could do to shake things up, because our contestants watch the show, and we’ve been on for a very long time,” Littman says. “A lot of them come on thinking they know how it’s going to play, and whenever you throw a wrench into that, it completely throws them off.”
But not all modifications pan out. Season 8, “The Amazing Race: Family Edition,” with 10 families of four competing, fell flat as critics felt that the challenges seemed watered down, and that setting the majority of legs within the continental United States robbed the show of its exotic intrigue.
“We were not greatly enthused about ‘Family Edition,’ ” concedes van Munster, who explains that the larger number of racers competing made it difficult to properly tell each of their stories. “It didn’t quite feel right,” he adds.
The “Family Edition” was widely embraced overseas, he adds. “People outside of America responded to it, because America is a beautiful country. But we won’t do it again.”
So how long can the “Race” go on? According to Chris Castallo, executive VP of alternative programming at CBS Entertainment: indefinitely. “It’s hard to imagine a world without ‘The Amazing Race,’ ” says Castallo. “We have parents who grew up on the show now watching with their kids.”
As the casting director of “The Amazing Race” since its inception, Lynne Spillman has a unique perspective on what it takes to make a great contestant.
There is no formula for casting, she says, “just the best teams and diverse relationships. Meaning, not all married couples or brothers, etc. We try to find something for everyone (in the audience).”
Spillman says they also look for great talkers as well as people who will make great racers, and rise to the challenges. She notes that Season 24’s winners Dave and Connor O’Leary, a father-son team that came back for the all-star edition, exceeded her expectations. “After the way they went out the first time, I didn’t think they would last very long. To go on to win was unbelievable.”
She’s come across partners who met in line at an open casting call and others who came with folks who were married but not to each other.
And unlike other reality shows, looks aren’t a part of the process. “Humor and knowledge of the show, in other words, being a fan, outweigh beauty by far,” she says.