When the low-lying valleys of Dominica would fill with surging rivers caused by yearly rainfall averages of 5,000 mm, the indigenous Kalinago – who settled the Caribbean island in 1200 AD – would scale towering cliff faces blanketed by an interweaving layer of vines to safety.
It’s historical background such as this that has been wrapped into the heated challenges and natural-world obstacles of Discovery Channel’s forthcoming competition survival series American Tarzan (pictured) from New York-based production house Sharp Entertainment.
“We read books about the island of Dominica and the native peoples of the Caribbean for those inspirations,” Sharp Entertainment CEO and founder Matt Sharp told realscreen. “That goes back to the idea of tapping into the primal nature of this television show and what indigenous people had to endure – they weren’t just there to survive.
“When you think of Tarzan, you think of someone who’s not just surviving on the land and waiting for rescue, it’s someone who’s actually thriving in the wild.”
Seven competitors will first kayak through open waters to reach Dominica, where, over their weeks-long journey, they will then experience similar conditions faced by the island’s earliest inhabitants.
Once making landfall, the participants will be tasked with navigating their way across the island’s myriad natural obstacles through dense jungles, raging rivers and coastlines, mountainous terrain and canyons, all while foraging for food and constructing shelter in order to sustain themselves in their quest to be crowned the first ‘American Tarzan.’
What sets the adventure series apart from others like it in the survival genre is twofold, says Joseph Boyle, senior director of production and development for Discovery Channel. First was the need to discover and cast regular athletes with “really specific superhuman skills” – climbing 60 feet in 14 seconds, for example – and place them against an environmental challenge.
Second was the unspoiled location.
“We eventually landed after a lot of research on the island of Dominica because it’s a really untouched island and it offered an amazing array of naturally occurring obstacles that we could take advantage of in a compact place,” Boyle explained.
To ensure the welfare of all contestants, safety teams were deployed to Dominica months ahead of the production’s scheduled start to scout for obstacles that were not only formidable, but also secure. Once cameras began rolling, two to three crew members and a “robust” safety team trailed each contestant to safeguard against calamitous injury.
“We always had robust safety plans to make sure that challengers could not ultimately hurt themselves, but every one of the challengers has to overcome every single thing under their own power using their own ingenuity,” says Boyle.
Filming in the lush and active jungle terrain during Dominica’s rainy season didn’t come without casualty, however. Torrential downpours on the second day of taping would inundate crews with cameras failing “left and right,” causing logistical migraines and on-site troubleshooting.
“Telling the story with cameras going down was a huge challenge, but you can’t tell [contestants] to stop going,” said Kyle Wheeler, executive producer for Discovery Channel. “We ended up shooting a lot of stuff on GoPros that day. Just figuring out the island and how to best produce in that situation was really challenging.”
Similarly, finding the right producers and camera operators who could handle the strenuous outdoor experience and keep up with these super athletes as they blazed through uncharted terrain proved to be a tall order, according to Boyle.
“It’s a real challenge to find the people that can do it and a real testament to the amazing crew that was on location every day capturing this show because it’s not an easy thing at all,” he stated. “The crew is dealing with everything from getting very cold to getting very wet, rolling ankles and all of the same challenges the competitors go through.”
Discovery will air American Tarzan beginning July 6. Sharp Entertainment’s Matt Sharp and Dan Adler serve as executive producers, alongside Discovery Channel’s Joseph Boyle and Kyle Wheeler.
- American Tarzan premieres Wednesday (July 6) at 10 p.m. EST/PST on Discovery Channel.
- Check out an exclusive clip below: