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.”