It almost goes without saying that for a show that has lasted 16 years on the air, Survivor has a passionate, loyal fanbase. That passion manifests itself in various ways. Whether it’s the hundreds of Survivor dedicated podcasts or fan-art or even that website that uploads food-smeared contestant photos and Survivor dinner recipes. Survivor fans have a love for the show that treads a thin line between creative and creepy.
One of the most creative outlets that’s been part of the Survivor fan community for some years now are “homemade” Survivor seasons. I’m not talking about Online Reality Games (commonly referred to as ORGs), which is a whole other category of Survivor fandom, but fully fledged seasons of Survivor, with real contestants, filmed and uploaded to YouTube. The seasons are usually comprised of high school or college students and shot in local woodland areas or parks. They come from across the United States, from Montana to Brooklyn to Tennessee, each with their own challenges and twists often inspired by the real Survivor.
As you would expect, homemade Survivor seasons vary in quality. Amateur camera work and production is to be expected but can result in a hard to follow narrative when footage and dialogue is missing or obscured. Casting can also be a problem when the majority of the contestants fit the same archetype – young, white, game-botty superfans. Also, most homemade seasons take place over a few days or less, which limits character progression and story-telling.
That isn’t meant to mock those seasons, as it’s obviously a labor of love, not a commercial endeavor. But what it does is make us pay more attention to the ones that go beyond mere novelty and mimicry. There is one homemade Survivor that is just as compelling and entertaining as the CBS show that inspires it. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Survivor: Maryland, the best Survivor you’ve never seen.
Unlike most homemade Survivor seasons, and Survivor itself, Maryland does not sequester its casts away from the outside world. Contestants are free to live their day-to-day college lives, eat and drink whatever and whenever they want and have access to modern technology. Opposing tribes can openly interact and influence each other should they choose. What this creates is a complex social game that uses Survivor as the basis of its format but becomes something much more than that. When alliances can form via text and strategy discussions can take place on Skype, it adds a whole new element to an already complex game.
To get more insight into Survivor: Maryland ahead of next week’s season finale, Inside Survivor talked to the show creator, Austin Trupp.
Hey Austin, thanks for joining us. First of all, tell us a little about yourself. What did you study at University?
I’m 23, went to the University of Maryland (Go Terps!), and I was a double major in Government & Politics and Business. I was a Resident Assistant and led the Student Judiciary, along with some other student leadership stuff, but the crown jewel of my college experience was definitely putting together Survivor. I love Survivor, puppies, and sports.
When did you first get into Survivor and what was the appeal?
I’m an avid sports fan and listened to Bill Simmons’ former podcast on ESPN. In one episode, he was talking about Heroes vs. Villains and how great it was. I had always been familiar with Survivor, but never watched it, so I decided to binge HvV. Definitely, a decision that permanently changed my life. I just loved the social politics, the strategy, and I thought the show was beautifully edited and brilliant at storytelling.
What makes Survivor: Maryland unique compared to other homemade versions?
With all due respect to other versions, one to six day seasons might give die-hard Survivor fans the chance to test themselves, but I think what my version excels at is allowing the social and strategic game to develop in ways that even the CBS version sometimes cannot – given the extended length of the game. Survivor: Maryland deals with people battling with real-life stresses, navigating previous and new relationships, struggling with time management; plus, extending the length of the game to ~80 days allows relationships to blossom fully, and also devastatingly crumble. I’ve seen both happen in my seasons.
I also think college is an incredible time for self-discovery, and watching people go through nearly an entire semester is amazing. You can truly see them learn about who they are and totally develop over time. It makes for a great story, and it makes for great gameplay too. People get stir-crazy and have plenty of time to think of all sorts of strategies.
How many people work on the production besides yourself?
For Seasons 1 and 2, it was essentially just me. After that, some former players offered to help out, mostly with filming. I carried a crew of about 3-5 for the latter seasons, with people rotating in and out depending on when they were available. There are some lonely times as a host, though, and I definitely had moments where I wished I had more cameras or crew.
Most filming takes place on or around campus, did you get the school’s permission to film anywhere or has it all been ad hoc?
I eventually got formal permission for some things, but most of what I have done is ad-hoc and in public spaces. Sometimes, I’ve found that bureaucracy can limit creativity and enjoyment. I will say that one time, I was setting up a challenge in a wooded area and got accosted by police officers who accused me of smoking weed; I pointed to the cones I had set up and just said, “Really?” Another time, I was filming a Rites of Passage, and we were lighting some stuff on fire, and four cop cars cruised up to me. But as soon as they said “Oh, it’s a film project? Totally fine!” It was OK. Thankfully I never wound up in jail!
How difficult is it to film when yourself and the contestants are also living day-to-day college life? Do you have a strict production schedule?
It’s remarkably challenging. I always kept a flexible scheduling policy for the players’ benefit. We had group chats of tribes, and would figure out what times worked best and operated challenge to challenge, tribal to tribal. That made things often frustrating, and people had to sacrifice plenty of studying/partying/relaxing time for this game, but it ultimately worked out. You want players to be at all the challenges if possible, so if you keep a rigid schedule, it gets icky with people having to miss things due to special commitments or emergencies.
Most of the players found that whether they liked it or not, Survivor was life-consuming. Even if the time commitment wasn’t that serious, meeting with people, building bonds, and thinking of strategies kept people up all night. Dealing with that along with school and student involvement really challenged the players and me. I’ve had a lot of players tell me that their time management skills improved exponentially after Survivor (but their grades definitely might have suffered at the time.)
Survivor: Maryland lasts around 80 days over an entire semester. How do you keep on top of all the footage?
I just bank everything on hard drives. It’s a process, but I made sure to schedule confessionals with people regularly to ensure we were up to date on what was happening. I also had contestants record their own strategy meetings with phones and webcams, and they would then upload those to Google Drive. That streamlined the process of transferring footage, and also meant I didn’t have to be present at literally every alliance meeting (for all of Season 2’s footage, I was actually present in the room). With that said, I have hundreds and hundreds of GB of video footage, so it’s certainly a huge endeavor to maintain all that, and I’ve unfortunately lost little pieces of footage at times.
Do you do all the editing yourself? How complicated is that process?
I’ve been doing all the editing myself, yes. It’s not complicated as much as just daunting. For Guts & Glory (the current season), I went through the entire season and trimmed the footage down to make my life easier later on. Then, each episode, I have to sort all the clips into their proper place in the episode. After that, I can finally start putting things together, and after that, I have to trim it down more to make it watchable. I’ve learned over the seasons that less is more. Content that I think is interesting often isn’t, and I have to be very minimalistic about what I include. You want to streamline the storytelling and deliver as much information in as few seconds as possible, and also definitely want to show more than tell.
How familiar are you with “Edgic”? Do you purposely put in foreshadowing moments that hint at the winner and future stories?
I know plenty about Edgic and follow it for the show. I don’t edit in any mathematical way like that, and I really liked the RHAP podcast about reality TV editing, as I found that my process was almost the same. It’s really about feel, and putting the story together. With that said, I don’t edit until I know all the outcomes, and there is a boatload of foreshadowing about the winner and future storylines. Terrapin Trials (Season 3), in particular, is absolutely riddled with irony and foreshadowing from Episode 1 on, if you pay attention. I tell the story as accurately as possible, but I am intentional about what I include and don’t include.
How do you cast people?
My casting process differed throughout the seasons. Early on, I was mostly hand-picking people because it wasn’t well-known. Later on, I put out public applications, but also encouraged specific people to apply, and solicited potential players from previous contestants. Once I had my complete pool, I conducted interviews with all of those people, because I think you have to meet someone in person to truly get a sense of what they’re like. I could usually tell in under 3 minutes about whether someone had potential or not, people usually just pop, or they don’t. I guess that’s why CBS does the 3-minute application videos! Only a few times have I been very surprised with how someone turned out as a character.
What factors do you look for in people you cast?
My top advice to anyone who asks about casting is to look for super, super competitive people. Competitive people are the lifeblood of any season. I think that’s something that has differentiated my show from some other fanmades—most of the players are just super competitive, and it shows in the gameplay. The prize for winning Survivor: Maryland is a meager $100, but that becomes totally irrelevant very quickly; people who are competitive will be incredibly determined to win the game, whether there’s a reward or not.
Along with that, I look for people who are passionate about wanting to be involved. Sometimes, that means they reached out to me over and over about playing and took initiative, but other times its recruits who just demonstrate a passion. I think there’s too much of a stigma against recruits in Survivor…some people are born to play the game or to be a big character; you just have to find those people and not mactors.
Do you look at the cast as a whole and fill in personality gaps while casting (e.g., this guy will be our hero, this guy will clash with him and be our villain)? Or do you take anyone who’s great?
I definitely have people pegged a certain way, and sometimes they peg themselves into those roles, but I don’t “type-cast” in that way. I’m just gonna take everyone who is great, and go from there. With that said, sometimes I can tell what is missing in a cast—for instance, before Guts & Glory, I had a cast but felt it was missing a goofier guy, and that’s when I went out and recruited Brian to play. That filled a need that I spotted, but only after I had basically picked the cast. He was a popular character and filled his intended role.
Do you always know who the boot is going to be going into tribal council?
I would say 90% of the time I know, just based off confessionals that I do with every player on the losing tribe beforehand. With that said, people have changed their minds last minute or have genuinely been unsure of what they’re doing, and things have flipped at tribal before. So I have absolutely been blindsided, and that’s often the most fun for me. That happened a lot in Maryland Outback (Season 2), where things legitimately changed moments before tribal as I was setting up and gave me a total #blindside (cue Debbie Wanner) on me, the host.
What twists/themes of Survivor: Maryland have you introduced that you think could work well on the real Survivor?
I never was big on being toooo twisty, as I really like the core of the game. I will say that I came up with the idols at a challenge before Survivor! (But mine aired after!) Also, my show has always had a bit of the One World twist, which I think the show should try again. I’ve had tribal votes impacted by the other tribe in really fun ways. I’d love to see CBS try that again.
I think the main gameplay twist I will have in All-Stars (yet to air Season 5) would be very, very interesting to see on the show. People on the opposite tribe randomly pick a secret partner, and the pair that lasts the longest receives two rounds of immunity after all the other pairs are split (up until the Final 7). I will explain this more before All-Stars, but it played out incredibly and mixed up strategy in a really fun way. It caused people to decide whether they’re going to throw away their whole strategy or not to play for the partner twist, and as a result, it made the game very unpredictable.
Which is your favorite season that you’ve filmed? And which would you recommend to a newcomer?
My players hound me about this all the time, so I’m going to give a diplomatic answer and say why you could make an argument about each of the seasons:
LaPlata: Where it all began, the Borneo of Survivor: Maryland. Had really exciting gameplay and a fun Secret Redemption Island twist (only until the merge!). Unfortunately, this season wasn’t made for filming, so I never put out the full season. Note to all: don’t watch this!!! (at least if you’re trying to get into the series).
Maryland Outback: Probably the craziest strategically/gameplay wise. One of the most unpredictable post-merges you could dream of. If I had the complete footage and had been better at editing, it would possibly be the best season.
Terrapin Trials: The best long-term story arcs of any of the seasons, and arguably the most intense/dramatic final three episodes of any season of Survivor ever. I really don’t think that’s hyperbole–just ask people who have watched that. It’s freaking dark.
Guts & Glory: If I had one season to show people, this would be it. It’s the most polished and well-rounded in terms of casting, editing, and gameplay. That stretch of Episode 5 to Episode 12 is an incredible one, and I think the finale is going to be great as well.
What is the craziest moment that you’ve witnessed in Survivor: Maryland?
I could write a novel about all the game/outside the game stories from the upcoming All-Stars. From the other seasons, I think some of the craziest stuff I’ve seen is from idols. They say the truth is stranger than fiction, and some of these things would be impossible to script. I’ve had a player find an idol clue simply by sneezing. I’ve had a player driving from 45 minutes away pull into campus right as another player found an idol by a back entrance of campus. And I’ve had Player A steal Player B’s roommate’s necklace thinking it was an idol; only Player B DID have an idol…some wild happenings.
Also, the Final 8 of Maryland Outback has some of the craziest stuff I’ve seen in any Survivor. I don’t want to spoil it, but it features a historic underdog speech, a big lie, and a bunch more insanity.
Has Survivor: Maryland inspired any other similar homemade college versions?
Youngstown State has started a version, though not for filming, and I believe Ohio State is currently planning to do a very similar endeavor. I just got contacted by someone at UNC-Wilmington, too. I would love to see other people try this at their school! It takes a ton of dedication and immense passion, but I think at large universities it could work well anywhere. I’m always willing to offer advice to people looking to try it and hope to see it expand.
The current season, Survivor: Maryland – Guts & Glory comes to an end soon. What can we expect in the finale and what is next?
It’s a really exciting finale with two epic challenges and some amazing Final Tribal Council questions, a real battle. But then, All-Stars!!! At the risk of overhyping seasons like Jeff Probst, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better season. It’s truly got everything. Possibly the most fun three months of my life: the cast is an amazing and dynamic group of people, the gameplay is unpredictable and wild, the real-life drama persists throughout the season, the twists play out unbelievably well, and I’m incredibly satisfied with how it all played out. There’s going to be lots of discussion on who is missing from the cast, who shouldn’t be there, etc., but I think once the season comes out, people will have zero regrets about what it turned out to be—I certainly don’t. And there will be lots of surprises along the way!
Any final words?
Last thing I’ll say: It’s going to be a long off-season while I edit 850 GB of video content. The biggest motivating factor for me is fan feedback. It’s immensely hard to break through to people and get them to watch, as they often don’t want to give anything besides TV versions a shot. If you have friends who watch Survivor, or if you post on Survivor websites, and forums, I’m gonna shamelessly ask you to please recommend it to those people/sites! I can post it all I want, but it gives it so much more legitimacy to have people spread it themselves, and it really means a lot to me to know that people actually care about watching it. The more word-of-mouth it gets, the more people will tune in. I have a great group of fans now, but I really would love to see more Survivor fans give it a shot, because who doesn’t love dissecting more Survivor?
I’m also going to try to put out more content this off-season, such as player interviews, previews, etc. Make sure to subscribe on YouTube or go like www.facebook.com/SurvivorMaryland and you won’t miss anything. Or just keep yelling at me on Twitter until I release All-Stars. That works too.
And Survivor: Maryland doesn’t end with All-Stars–a new host took over, filmed the 6th season, and is about to start filming the 7th season. So basically Survivor: Maryland’s here to stay, and we don’t rely on network renewal!
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview!
The season finale of Survivor: Maryland – Guts & Glory will be uploaded to YouTube 7:00 pm Eastern on Monday, Aug 29th.