Fantasy Meets Reality TV in ABC’s ‘The Quest’

If you’ve helped make “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the indie film landscape just isn’t big enough, where do you go? For producer Mark Ordesky, the answer is reality TV.

Ordesky is among a handful of creatives responsible for the “The Quest,” which premieres Thursday, July 31, on ABC, and marries a mostly scripted environment with real people dropped into a fantasy world — Everealm, replete with actors who play villagers, villains and ogres — as they vie to be the “one true hero” who defeats the great evil.

The show, billed as “immersive reality,” is the brainchild of an exec producer combo of feature film pros and reality hitmakers. Ordesky had worked with his Court Five partner Jane Fleming at New Line; Rob Eric and Michael Williams (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) and Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri (“The Amazing Race”) cut their teeth on reality stalwarts.

The setting is a real castle on 70 acres of forested land in Vienna, where the contestants, called paladins, reside. “Michael Williams scanned thousands of castles all around the world to find (it),” Ordesky says.

“There was never a moment when the paladins were out of that world,” adds Eric. And while the paladins went to bed in the castle each night, they “always thought the actors would be there as well,” he says. But the thesps got to go home to the modern world. Even the producers dressed in fantasy garb whenever they visited the set, and they never let the contestants know who they were.

“We wanted to create a world that was completely real,” says Eric.

“The producers were very good making sure we didn’t have any contact with people in production so that we could interact only with the actors and each other,” contestant Jim Curry explains. “They did a fantastic job of hiding the cameramen. I was impressed how they could keep the cameras concealed.”

While Fleming notes such dedication to realism could mean a significant pricetag, she points to other savings. “This is not a budget show, but it’s not as expensive as one might expect,” she explains. “Scripted characters essentially take the place of the host,” she adds. Actors were locals or plucked from nearby countries. And the creators worked with its production partners to come up with a workable plan to present to ABC.

“With our partners — Spectral Motion for the prosthetic creatures, NuFormer for 3D projection and Encore for post-production visual fx — we were able to create a plan just to get the network to say yes,” notes Ordesky. “We had to make a really undeniable case, acknowledging that it would need to be done for a price, but it would be done really well.”

For their part, the contestants dove into the fantasy world with gusto. “The actors were so in the moment and so spontaneous, you couldn’t help but feel you were part of it,” says Jasmine Kyle, another of the 12 paladins. “It was kind of scary just how into that world you could become.”

“We never knew what to expect,” says Curry. “ We didn’t know if the next person coming around the corner would be a friend or an enemy.”

Another element unlike other reality-competition shows, there’s no cash prize.

“We talked about having at length about having a prize,” Fleming says. “It just felt wrong, like, ‘Oh, you’re the One True Hero and here’s a new car.’ ”

“And the network was completely with us,” adds Ordesky. “They said, ‘No. It’s off brand.’ ”

The interplay between characters defines each week’s challenge, and competitors themselves decide who’ll be banished at the end of each episode.

“This voting component is great because it actually goes to people weighing the values of what make a hero,” says Ordesky. “It’s a very thoughtful, fun process.”

The actors work from the framework of a script developed with Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale of Haxan Films, filmmakers who have worked on independent films with Ordesky and Fleming, including the thriller “Lovely Molly” and the upcoming Bigfoot project “Exists.” The storyline weaves through 10 episodes and the actors help to drive the story forward while interacting with the contestants, giving them plenty of opportunity for improv. Fleming notes that the actors were each given extensive backstory for their characters to help them with the improv aspect.

Since Fleming and Ordesky are primarily known for their filmmaking backgrounds, they approached the filming of “The Quest” a little differently than a traditional reality show. “We shot it like an independent feature,” Fleming says. Episodes, indeed, have a very film-like feel.

When they took the idea to Eric and Williams five years ago, the quartet created a trailer that would convey the look and feel of what they were going for. “It was sort of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Stardust,’” said Eric. “That’s the world we wanted to play in.”

Essentially, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is where “The Quest” began, when Ordesky and Fleming were at New Line in 1999 watching tapes of the actors training to fight for “The Fellowship of the Ring” and, well, they were jealous. “Why do the actors get to have all the fun,” recalls Fleming. “I want to go to sword camp.”

They finally got their chance when pre-production began for “The Quest.”

“One of the most fun things was that we actually got to be the testers of the challenges. So we got to compete against each other and with each other,” says Fleming.

“I made sure not to go head-to-head against Jane, because I’ve known her more than 20 years and I knew that would be a recipe for loss on my part,” jokes Ordesky.

But creating their immersive fantasy world for the paladins was their main focus. “We wanted to push the envelope of reality television and our partners did as well,” explains Ordesky. “There’s that wonderful sense of discovery when people are trying something different.”

For all the immersive reality though, Curry noted one major drawback to castle living. “One of the things we missed most was indoor plumbing.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Viacom Channels Grab 'Seinfeld' Cable Rerun

    Viacom Channels Grab 'Seinfeld' Cable Rerun Rights

    Viacom has sealed a deal with Sony Pictures Television for the cable rights to “Seinfeld” starting in October 2021. The deal comes on the heels of a blockbuster new deal between Sony and Netflix for the streaming rights to the beloved NBC sitcom that also begins in 2021. “Seinfeld” reruns have been a staple of [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Elite Season 2

    San Sebastian: Spain’s SVOD Players Debate Competition, Brand, Talent

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Executives from HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Movistar+ and “Elite” co-creator Darío Madrona took to the stage to field questions on the Global Impact of Spanish Series. Here, briefly, are five takeaways: 1.Spain First “La Casa de Papel” was watched by 34,355,956 Netflix accounts over its first seven days,  after a July 19 [...]

  • Samsung Makes Bid to Keep Viewers

    Samsung Makes Bid to Keep Viewers From Skipping Fox Ad Breaks

    Fox is hoping to knit together the seconds-long divide between a TV program and the commercials that support it. During ad breaks for a few football broadcasts, tomorrow’s run of the Emmys and Wednesday’s season premiere of “The Masked Singer,” the network will kick off ad sessions with special show promos that display artistic renderings [...]

  • Patria

    HBO Europe Unveils ‘Patria’ Footage to Captive San Sebastian Audience

    SAN SEBASTIAN — Amid large expectation, HBO Europe has revealed first footage giving a first sense of tone and pace of its Spanish original series “Patria.” A packed-to-overflowing press conference on Saturday morning at the San Sebastian Festival can be read as one sign of the potential popularity of the eight-part series. The panel sneak-peek [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • Peter Weber and Mike Johnson

    'The Bachelor's' Mike Johnson on Diversity and New Leading Man Peter Weber

    ABC named its newest star of “The Bachelor” this week, officially making Peter Weber the leading man for Season 24 of the long-running dating show. Social media backlash ensued following the announcement due to ABC’s selection lacking diversity, yet again. Since the dating franchise began in 2002, there has been only one “Bachelorette” of color [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content