Staying Alive: The Interview
In early September, shortly before departing London to begin filming the new season of his hit Discovery Channel series Man Vs. Wild, Bear Grylls granted Outside an exclusive e-mail interview. It was the first time he'd communicated directly with the press since allegations surfaced in July that he'd slept in hotels during the filming of s
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OUTSIDE: Where exactly are you right now?
GRYLLS: I’m on our houseboat on the River Thames in London. It is an old Dutch barge that my wife, Shara, and me bought together when we got married after I left the Special Forces. It’s quite ancient and is full of character, despite leaking in several places, but we love it. It’s home. I’m also trying to pack, (with much help from my two young boys!) before I leave for Panama, Patagonia and then Siberia, for the next Season of Man Vs. Wild. I’m going to be away from my family now for almost six weeks, which I find the hardest part of my work.
How does the filming of Man Vs. Wild compare with some of your most challenging adventures, like climbing Everest or crossing the North Atlantic in an inflatable boat? Is it more or less difficult in terms of physical or emotional stress?
When you’re battling any of nature’s wild forces, it demands that you give a lot of yourself to survive. But the difference between making a TV show and a major expedition is quite stark. For starters, at 29,000ft on Everest, in -30oF, the rule book goes out of the window. It is just dangerous. I witnessed four climbers not return from the mountain when I was there, and that shakes your confidence a lot. Likewise in a small open boat in the North Atlantic during a gale force storm, with icebergs all around you, there are no health & safety regulations! These are humbling and intimidating places to be, and at times survival comes down to pure luck. The level of stress in such situations becomes quite high, with every cell in your body focused and concentrating on not making any potentially fatal mistakes.
In Man Vs. Wild I am rarely under that level of stress, although at times it is definitely quite full-on. For example, on the last shoot in the Sahara Desert, the daily temperature was around 150°F. After three days, we had to evacuate two of the crew with heatstroke, one of who was the local Arab guide.
But to me, Man Vs. Wild is a programme that takes my experience of extreme environments and has me show what I have learnt from them. I am there to show what I do to survive.
What do you to recover from filming an episode of Man Vs. Wild or run of episodes? Do you go on any special diet to put on weight? Sleep 12 hours a night? Drink lots and lots of beer?
We always try and have a bit of an evening at the end of each programme. Everyone will have been working long hours, in tough conditions, and we’re always pretty exhausted. When I finally fly home, my family ask how it was, I answer either cold or hot, tell my two boys a goodnight story about any crocodile or snake encounter, and that’s about it. Then we are back into normal family life for a precious few days or so, before preparation starts for the next programme.
I have to train almost every day back home, and I either do running, circuit training or yoga, which I do to protect my back after I broke it in three places during a freefall accident in Africa when I was younger.
Ultimately, when you film an episode of Man Vs. Wild, which of the following is more important: to teach viewers serious survivor skills or to make entertaining television?
It is about trying to strike a balance whilst doing both. That is often the hardest part to get right. The production team creates a show that’s both compelling to watch, and because of that, people learn by default. There is always masses of information that I try and pack in to each show, and I always attempt to do new things that people have never seen, or even considered before, in a survival situation.
But one of my goals for season 2 is to make it clearer that this is not a programme about “textbook” survival. It’s more like extreme survival, showing what can be done in desperate situations if you have been trained. I always work within my own capabilities, but these capabilities might be different from other people’s. I don’t want people to copy what I do, but to watch, hopefully enjoy, and in so doing learn something that might one day save their life. This is the aim of survival: to stay alive, and that means operating within your own, personal skill level.
When people talk about Man Vs. Wild, the first thing they mention are the gross things you eateggs right from a nest, raw fish, water from elephant dung, etc. Is this really the hardest part of the making of show for you?
It’s definitely the most unpleasant bit! But the crew always seem to enjoy watching me squirm. I judge whether it was good or not by how much the cameraman is retching when we finish! But scavenging food is all part of survival: leaving your prejudices at home and doing whatever it takes to give you energy. Energy in the wild equals movement, and movement is vital in self-rescue. In the early days, Shara wouldn’t be that keen on kissing me after each show. Now I don’t tell her, and just grab her instead!
But the hardest part of the show for me is being away from my family for so long. The survival stuff I know and am trained for. But it is when you are tired and cold that other emotions often run over. I always keep a laminated picture of them in the sole of my shoe. It’s my emotional survival pack. What matters in survival is finding that something inside that can keep you going when the chips are really down.
Does it bother you that people focus so much on the gross food? Do you ever worry that this somewhat sensational aspect of the show is taking overthat Man Vs. Wild is becoming Man Vs. Gag Reflex?
I never thought that people over here would focus so much on it. Yes it can be gross but it’s just food (of sorts!). I have learnt though that people focus on different things in different countries. In the UK they focus on my climbs and in the Far East people are fascinated by the animal encounters. The ‘Man Vs. Gag‘ is maybe more of an American thing, but heh!
Give us a brief run-through of how an episode of Man Vs. Wild comes together, from the original idea to researching survival skills to filing and editing.
I tend to get a few days prep when I arrive in country, to go through all the safety procedures and emergency plans with local rangers and experts. The crew will have pre-scouted a lot of the routes and locations to make sure that we’re getting as much information as possible across to the audience. The research for each area is done beforehand by me and the production team, and a local expert will brief me thoroughly on any local survival techniques, dangerous animals and useful plants at that time of year. I feel a bit like a cook who can bake almost all the most common cakes, but when in the high northern hemisphere needs a quick refresher on how to do a baked Alaska meringue!
Have you ever absolutely refused to do what producers asked? Said, “I won’t go there!” or “I won’t eat that!” or “I won’t do that!”?
Not really. I get to make all my own decisions on what I do or don’t do. If anything, it is mainly the other way round, with the production team saying I can’t do something due to heath and safety regulations. But I have become good at persuasion! In Iceland I did a river crossing in 50mph winds in sub zero temperatures, with the white water being whipped into a frenzy, and the safety expert said it was too dangerous to attempt with the currents and wind, as we were struggling to stand up along the volcanic banks. But ultimately it turned out fine. I enjoy those moments, and rise to those sort of challenges. It is the waiting for the crew to set up and check safety that I find boring. I am very impatient!
People are constantly comparing Man Vs. Wild with Survivorman. But since your shows are on the same network, do you see Les Stroud as a competitor or colleague?
I have watched one of his shows, and they are great. Our shows, though, are essentially very different. He is alone and therefore his big struggle is the camera kit, and moving that around. I have a crew, and I suppose that allows me to push it a bit and do a little more action. Both shows serve a purpose but maybe cater to a different audience. There are so few of us doing this sort of thing on TV that it’s important to be friends, not rivals. I admire him, for sure.
On your blog (beargrylls.blogspot.com), you wrote on August 3 that the recent accusations about you staying in motels and staging parts of the show “don’t always tell the full story.” Does that mean some of the accusations are false or misleading? Can you respond to these accusations and give us the full story?
It made a good headline: “Bear stays in a motel when filming”, but the truth is a bit less exciting. I spend a lot of nights under the stars, and for the times when I am not filming the live stuff out in the wild, or I’m about to illustrate something really physically exhausting, I stay with the crew in a base-camp lodge. As to the question “are things ever staged?”, the answer is on occasions, yes. We have to condense so much action into a few days, and that involves good prior planning. But the production team have since edited the previous shows to make this clearer.
We are also making the shows for season 2 two hours long, instead of one, allowing us to go into more detail, and to see more of the role and challenges faced by the crew. I think people will enjoy that, especially since we’ll now be working in some of the most extreme environments in the world, including the Sahara and Siberia.
If you were a fan of your show and heard all the accusations that came out this summer, how do you think you’d react?
I’d want to find out more about what happens behind the scenes, and the production guys are reacting to this. They are re-editing all the past shows and re-launching them with added footage to make everything clear.
If you could go back in time and redo anything about the making of Man Vs. Wild, what would you change?
I’d want to make the shows more transparent in terms of how they are made, and also go into more detail. But the shows are reflecting that now, in how they are editing the past ones and making season 2. It will be the kind of show that I always hoped we could make: more crew-inclusive, more detailed, and full of action in spectacular wildernesses.
In numerous Web postings, your fans have been passionately defending you, saying they love you and your show no matter what. What is it about Man Vs. Wild that inspires such intense loyalty? And do you feel you might owe these devoted fans an apology for not being completely clear about the making of show?
It’s been very humbling, and if I’m honest, I was unprepared for any of this recognition. I have always just gone out there and given my all, done my best and tried to push the boundaries of survival to a new level. I have not been afraid to fail, and have always just kept trying. I think people have reacted to that. But the fame thing I find all a bit embarrassing. The truth is that I am neither a superhero or a real baddie. I am just me, doing what I was trained for and what I love to do.
The support and encouragement has kept me going through so many difficult moments. I remember one father from Michigan writing to me saying: “When it has been raining for 24 hours, you are cold, frightened and surrounded by nasty creatures, just remember the effect you are having on so many people, encouraging them to love the great outdoors”. That sort of thing helped a lot, and ultimately I have learnt that this show is not about me, it is about what it brings out in other people, such as a desire to climb, explore or just get outside.
Finally, how have you been coping emotionally with the accusations surrounding the making of Man Vs. Wild?
It’s been hard. I’m not that bullet-proof underneath it all! But I just want to say thanks for so much support and encouragement. I will keep giving Man Vs. Wild my absolute everything.