Interview: Co-creator Elise Doganieri discusses The State of 'The Amazing Race'
Emmy winner talks Non-Elimination Legs, Double U-Turns, Vietnam and much more
Back in June, I trekked down to Palos Verdes, wherever that is, to take part in a junket for the new "Amazing Race" season, conducted just days before the teams headed off on their race around the world.
I'm still trying to figure out what to do with my conversations with the different teams -- at the very least, I have lots of dramatic irony-laden quotes to toss back at the teams when they're eliminated -- but I also got to chat with both executive producer Elise Doganieri and host Phil Keoghan.
Both interviews were fun for me because I had a long time with both "Amazing Race" veterans and if you're a reader of my regular weekly recaps, you'll note that I was able to ask about an awful lot of the issues that are weekly bees in my bonnet through any given season.
This interview with Doganieri, for example, includes discussion about the planning of Non-Elimination Legs, the rise in alliance-building in recent seasons, the controversy over the show's trip to Vietnam last year and, my personal favorite bugaboo: The structure of Double U-Turns.
Doganieri also teases some of this season's locations and talks about the potential for another All-Stars season in the future.
Click through for the full conversation...
HitFix: When you're starting to cast up a season, do the agendas or needs change in any particular year?
Elise Doganieri: The agendas don't really change in any particular year unless we are doing, you know, like All-Stars, which we did a few times. Then we start looking back at what we've done before. We always cast for Type A personalities, super-competitive people. It's always nice if they have a sense of humor, because you have to have a sense of humor to be on the road for so long. And it's also for people who have interesting personalities with each other. It can't just be, "We're best friends and we have a good time." People who tend to have relationships that are so perfect and easy-going aren't the best TV sometimes. We have to see, underlying, that there's a little drama there, a little spark. We always look for that -- Just really interesting character that we know will have good relationship moments on the road.
HitFix: What would you say is the best way to get noticed? To get that spark noticed?
Elise Doganieri: You know what? Some people just naturally have it. It's like the charisma that a movie star has sometimes. When you meet them, you can see it. They just kinda shine a little bit brighter than everybody else and we like to think that we're able to find all those types of people. People who speak really well... It is a reality show and there's no script involved, so they might be super-intelligent people, but if no words come out of their mouth, then we don't have a TV show. People who love to talk are perfect for this show. Everybody that's a future contestant on the show, we always ask, "Do you think you can win this?" And the ones that are always on the show are the ones that always say, "Yes, I think I can win this." Or not even, "I think I can win this." "There's no competition," usually they say, "I can win this."
HitFix: So far, I've asked seven teams about phobias and thus far, all seven have said, "No phobias." How much do you want or need something like that that you can, hypothetically of course, exploit?
Elise Doganieri: Yeah, I don't believe them. I don't believe that contestants don't have phobias. I think they don't want other people to know they have a phobia. We don't even ask them that question anymore. "Are you afraid of heights?" "Are you afraid of spiders?" Most people are afraid to just fly sometimes. Elevators. Claustrophobia. People have all these hidden agendas and phobias that most people don't even like to talk about, so we usually find those out when they're in that situation and many times we put them in extreme situations, so it's far worse. I don't know anybody who isn't afraid of a snake. You may not be afraid of a spider, but when you're in a certain country and they're the size of your hand, you might feel a little differently about that. So I know all these teams want to come across super-strong and most of them are, but everybody's got something that irks them a little bit.
HitFix: And the one phobia that a couple teams mentioned is snakes. ["Isn't that funny?" she asks.] So if you have any open challenges for this season, I recommend, "snakepit."
Elise Doganieri: it's too late to change the creative now. It's already locked in. But we'll see. There might just be a snake that comes up just from the location they're in. You never know.
HitFix: How *totally* locked is the creative in any given season?
Elise Doganieri: 100 percent. In every season, before we leave, the creative is 100 percent locked. It's actually locked a few weeks in advance before we leave, because we have to make sure of two things that are really important: This is a reality competition show for a million dollars, so if there was anything that would change on the road just because we felt like changing it, we wouldn't make it to another season, so many people would come after us. The only way anything ever gets changed is by a force of nature. That means that if we're in a location and all of a sudden there's a monsoon... I mean, it doesn't even exist anymore. We have people that are advanced, already on the road. There are people already out on the road before we even started that are in their countries, so we're checking weather reports every day. Many times if there's a location that we lose because of weather, there is backup plan. We have a lot of Plan B's in place that we know like, "OK. If that river's gonna flood, there's another river over here that we know we can use." So the creative pretty much stays on path, but it's really a weather issue or, worst case scenario, a fight gets cancelled and the whole team can't get in and the contestants are trapped somewhere... But this show has to run on-schedule on a daily basis and we know every day where we're gonna be and what challenges are going to occur.
HitFix: And that includes the To Be Continued Legs and the Non-Elimination Legs?
Elise Doganieri: The Virtual Pit Stops... Everything is planned out. All the Non-Elimination Legs are planned out. All the Fast-Forwards. Everything is planned out and locked before we leave. All the clues have been written right now. All the host scripts have been written. CBS and the legal team have signed on everything at this point.
HitFix: OK, so convince me on why Non-Elimination Legs aren't the worst thing ever.
Elise Doganieri: [Chuckles.] You know what? They're not the worst things ever, because there have been times where someone has been saved by a Non-Elimination Leg and they've actually won the Race. So I think that's special. It was something that we always struggled with at the very beginning: How many teams can we really have racing around the world that the viewer can follow? What can we do within the parameters of the show? I don't know. I think it adds a special little twist. And every so many seasons we try to switch up what that penalty might be for coming in last. Right now we have the Speed-Bump that follows in the next show -- You know, "You were the last one in and you've gotta do something extra." Some people don't recover from that. Look, the teams look forward to something like that happening and there's always a dramatic moment where Phil is standing there and says, "So-and-So and So-and-Son, you're the last team to arrive... But!" So, it plays well on TV and I kinda like it.
HitFix: OK. And what is the strategy when you look at the course of the Race where you stick those Non-Elimination Legs?
Elise Doganieri: For Non-Eliminations? It's what we didn't do the season before. There is a little bit of a strategy. We definitely sit down and look at the layout. We have a room called the War Room in our office and every episode is laid out and it just has to fit organically, sometimes, where it works best for us, where it feels like it works within the show. So it's not a random pick, but we also try to make it so if we picked Episode 4, 6 and 7 in the previous season, we don't want to do that again. We want to throw people off-guard so they're not expecting it.
HitFix: Looking back on last season, were you surprised by how easy it was for Bates & Anthony to get other teams to not want to get rid of them? [She laughs.] That's the thing that surprised me all season. From the first episode, people were like, "OK, these two are the biggest target out there" and then they just helped them all the way along to the million.
Elise Doganieri: I find it really interesting, the psychology of people when they're in groups and how they work and the pack mentality sometimes. People feed off of what other people are thinking. Sometimes people don't want to rock the boat. Or Bates & Anthony seemed like two big guys that weren't such a threat. They just came off very likable and I think that was to their advantage. There's also a certain amount of charisma, which I talked about when we do the casting. They're both very charismatic guys that have great senses of humor, so they tended to put the contestants at ease all the time by their personalities, so it was a very smart, manipulative strategy that they used to get people to believe that maybe they really weren't a threat, when ultimately they were the biggest threat out there, because they won the show.
HitFix: So when people say, "Oh, they're two professional athletes, so of course they have an advantage when they're carrying barrels up steps and whatnot!" your response is, "Well, other teams should know that…"
Elise Doganieri: Other teams should know that and if there's a chance to ever knock them out, you've gotta get rid of those people right away. People forget that they're racing for a million dollars and they kind of fall in love with all the other teams because they're all in it together and it's like this big group mentality, but some of the smarter ones really pull away from that and say, "This is a competition. I'm not making friends with anybody." But a lot of people get caught up in it, because when you look at this tiny group of people traveling around the world for a month, there's a camaraderie that starts to happen and you can't help but start to like the other people, because you're playing the game together and you're experiencing something together. It's a unique situation, but don't ever be fool. But you know what? Don't also ever be fooled by the people who aren't super-athletic, because we've certainly had plenty of teams come in first that weren't super-athletic. And if you're smart, when you're doing your Detours, there's always one that's a little bit more mental and then a little physical, so take the one that suits you best and if it's gonna be the one where you're not lifting heavy barrels and you've gotta think a little more, go for that one. Go with what suits you.
HitFix: You talked about the teams sorta bonding as they go along. I've felt like the past couple seasons, alliances have come more to the forefront than they ever did in the first 20-ish seasons. Does it feel like that to you as well?
Elise Doganieri: I've noticed a little bit of a trend in that and what I see is happening is that when contestants get separated from the pack, they get really scared. They don't know if they're ahead or if they're behind. They can't see what the viewer's seeing. They can't see what production is seeing. So sometimes the teams, right now they're tending to want to stay in a pack, because they think that if they keep their enemies closer, then they know where everybody is and they just have to beat the people they're with. That seems to be a little bit of a trend right now. But you know what? With this group that we have this season, it's so unpredictable. I don't know which way they're going to go. We've got doctors, we've got guys who live off the grid, we've got professional athletes, we've got super down-and-dirty manipulative people that are ready to find a way to get ahead any way they can. It just depends on the group and how they start to act together. They're not allowed to talk to each other until we start the show, but they're all looking at each other in our pre-interview meetings, but they're not allowed to speak. They have no idea what they're up against, but don't judge a book by its cover. That's one thing I'll say to them: Never judge a book by its cover.
HitFix: Do you like the idea of alliance-building on this show, though? Or do you like that the absence of that sort of thing was part of what made "The Amazing Race" different?
Elise Doganieri: You know what? It doesn't bother me, but I think it's not something that's necessary. If you want to win this Race, you've gotta focus on your game. This is not a team sport. It's you and your partner and that's the only team, just the two of you getting ahead, moving forward and getting ahead. The ones that fall into the trap? I think it makes great television, because it's an interesting challenge, it's an interesting perspective for the viewer to see how people react to one another and the way that they fall into categories.
More on Page 2, including Double U-Turn rules, the Vietnam controversy and which countries are in store for this season...