Exec producer Lisa Hennessy on reviving “Eco-Challenge” for Amazon Prime

Last fall, an unfamiliar sight befell the volcanic island of Vanua Levu, Fiji, as more than 330 adventure-seeking endurance racers descended upon the tiny South Pacific nation to compete in ...
August 13, 2020

Last fall, an unfamiliar sight befell the volcanic island of Vanua Levu, Fiji, as more than 330 adventure-seeking endurance racers descended upon the tiny South Pacific nation to compete in one of the world’s toughest expedition races.

Back after a 17-year hiatus and now hosted by survivalist and TV presenter Bear Grylls, World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji will see 66 teams from 30 countries compete in a non-stop race – 24 hours a day for 11 days – across hundreds of miles of grueling backcountry terrain through mountain ranges, jungles and oceans.

Forty-one camera crews captured the action across the 417-mile (672 km) Fijian course, which was mapped by race course design experts Scott Flavelle and Kevin Hodder who return to the series after working on previous Eco-Challenge outings.

Each competitive team will be comprised of four athletes who must hike, mountain bike, paddleboard, white water raft, rock climb, swim, and sail through some of the most challenging terrain Fiji has to offer. The teams will also be aided by an assistant crew member tasked with helping their team from basecamp.

ecch_s1_unit_gillies_014225r_proxy_mdEverything is done the hard way. Navigation? Better have a trustworthy map and compass at your disposal. Run into a situation that deters or delays your expedition? It’s up to the team members to use their expedition problem-solving skills in order to cross the finish line.

To add an extra degree of difficulty, should any teammate quit or become unable to finish the race, the entire team is disqualified.

“It’s really crazy what they do; they don’t sleep,” says executive producer Lisa Hennessy to Realscreen, noting that sleep deprivation is a very real thing. “They’re [hiking] just in the morning and it’s 20 kilometres and then they’re doing a crazy kayaking section and paddleboarding and all that without sleep. It’s mind blowing to me what these people do, especially people that are 68 years old. It’s extraordinary what the human spirit can do when tested.”

Eco-Challenge was first created by Mark Burnett, now chairman of MGM Worldwide Television, in 1992 after being inspired by New Zealand’s Southern Traverse and the Raid Gauloises adventure race in Costa Rica. The first 11-day race, however, wouldn’t commence until April 1995 when competitors descended upon the rugged terrain of Southeastern Utah. Races were held each subsequent year in new exotic locales, including Australia, Morocco, Patagonia, Borneo, Canada and New Zealand, with the last televised competition taking place in 2002 in Fiji during Eco-Challenge‘s seventh season.

Produced by MGM Television for Amazon Prime Video, World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji is executive produced by Burnett, Hennessy, Barry Poznick and Eric Van Wagenen. Grylls and Delbert Shoopman are also exec producers for Bear Grylls Ventures.

The 10-episode reboot of the precursor to Survivor launches on Friday (Aug. 14) across Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries and territories.

Realscreen spoke to Hennessy ahead of Amazon’s premiere to learn more about what it takes to pull off an expedition series of this scale.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Eco-Challenge  has been off the air for nearly 20 years, so can you tell me about the decision behind bringing the series back today?

After 17 years it seems like the right timing to bring something of this scale back to life. I think people are looking for authentic experiences in a big competition, and that’s what Eco Challenge is. The Eco Challenge is a race first.

We started having conversations with Amazon, and obviously Bear Grylls, and Amazon was the perfect partner to bring this back because they have such a global audience. Eco Challenge is really like the Olympics of adventure racing because we have teams from 30 different countries. It’s this global, international event celebrating all these teams from around the world.

What’s new with this iteration? Has anything been revamped? Are there any new tasks or challenges?

The biggest thing that we have changed from 17 years ago is the addition of Bear Grylls. We now have an incredible host that really helps drive the story of these athletes.

There are teams of four that are racing and one person is an assistant crew that’s waiting for them at basecamp, which we did have in the original version of Eco Challenge in Utah and British Columbia. We added that back in because we thought it was important to really tell the story of the relationship of the people that are helping these athletes out when they’re doing the toughest races they’ve ever done in their life.

But other than that, it’s really, truly an expedition with a stopwatch and we were true to the essence of what Eco Challenge is.

Can you tell me about the behind-the-scenes production team tasked with putting Eco Challenge together? How are you capturing all of those stories?

We had an embedded crew of 12, which were camera people that followed some of the teams. We had incredible area footage because of drone coverage. We had five helicopters that were both used for safety and moving crews around, and then a GFS (Government Flying Service) unit to cover it from an aerial perspective; three of which we had to ship from New Zealand because they didn’t have them on the islands of Fiji, so helicopters had to be shipped in.

We had over 500 radios that were used because obviously when you’re shooting in a remote area and you’re doing a remote race in the wilderness, you have to have radio communication because there’s not always cell coverage. We had tracking devices on all the athletes as well as our crew to make sure that, from a safety perspective, they were OK. We went through 120 different remote villages on the island of Vanua Levu and we had to get permission from all the chiefs in order to go through these villages.

We had 700 crew total, including 250 Fijians and 70 volunteers – our crew represents 30 different countries. It’s an army of people that come together as a community to cover and film and take care of these incredible athletes as they do the toughest thing they’ve ever done in their lives.

ecch_s1_unit_rich_012092r_proxy_mdCan you tell me about the importance of an evacuation procedure while on set in a remote location? Was there ever a need to act on that evac plan?<

We have a very extensive medical team headed up by Dr. Joe Rowles who works on Survivor. He’s got a team called World Extreme Medicine, they’re all trained in the wilderness and the outdoors.

Besides the medical team, I think there’s 20 medical personnel as a part of his team. Then we obviously have winch rescue, that’s when you have the helicopter and you have the long line rescue in order to evacuate people that are in the jungle.

We also have an incredible group of mountain safety guides who work on the rope sections and make sure that everyone is safe when climbing ropes. Then we obviously have safety personnel on the water sections because we cover a lot of ocean as well as white water rafting.

Safety is of utmost importance to us, it’s always been. If something goes wrong, they [the participants] have a tracking device and a radio. They radio into Race HQ and we dispatch our medical team if something is to happen.

You have to remember too that it’s a team of four out there and they’re also trained and have to know how to handle minor situations that come about. These are expedition athletes; they understand what it’s like to be on an expedition.

Why did you choose to return to Fiji for the revival season nearly two decades later?

We chose Fiji for the season one comeback with Amazon Prime because we wanted to start where we left off. We left off with Fiji in 2002 and we thought creatively it made sense to begin again where we ended.

We left Fiji 17 years ago with a really great reputation with the villagers and the private/public sector. You have to have the support of the country; it’s like the Olympics, they become the host country, you have to pick a host city – they welcomed us back with open arms.

We also shoot Survivor there. We had a lot of close relationships there through Survivor, and so it was the perfect country to go back to.

What are some of the difficulties and challenges in shooting in extremely remote locations?

Where to begin? One of the toughest things in the beginning is land use permission. That takes a tremendous amount of time and that starts a year in advance in terms of figuring out the design of the course and then figuring out the permission to traverse the land.

In Fiji, for example, we went through 120 different villages. We had a local team of people who went to each of the villages, meeting with the village chiefs, having a kava ceremony to make sure that they would welcome us to their land, their village. That takes time.

And then really with an army that big, you have to make sure you have clear lines of communication. It’s a massive logistical undertaking, so [it's about] making sure that the entire team is on the same page in terms of covering this and then handling it in a very safe manner.

The biggest wildcard for anything like this, which makes it so special, is Mother Nature. And the environment is one of the biggest characters in the series because we’re all tested with it, the athletes and the production itself are tested in it.

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