Jeff Probst - Finder's Fee & Survivor
Jeff Probst is best know as the host of the popular reality TV show Survivor, but what most people don't know is that he is an award winning film writer and director. His first feature Finder's Fee, now on DVD, was a grand slam on the festival circuit, and won more festival awards than most tribes win immunity challenges. We had an opportunity to talk to Jeff Probst as he was packing his bags to head off to shoot the next season of Survivor (an All-Star edition). Probst was extremely friendly, energetic and loved talking about his film and film making.
DVD Talk is based in Portland, Oregon, so many people here remember you from your days in Seattle.
Yeah, in fact I was just doing radio this morning in Portland and we ended up talking about how I used to come up there all the time and work for these guys 'Creative Media' out in Tigard.
So set the setting - how did everything start with Finder's Fee?
I've been writing for a long time and when I lived in Seattle, I actually made a small movie with some friends, just to kind of try it. And then I moved to New York and I was working at FX but my real passion was this writer's unit that I had every Sunday. And there were some great writers. It was probably the happiest time from a writer I've ever been, because I had a group of eight writers, every Sunday we met, we all turned in pages, we all worked on each other's stuff and I just was really learning a lot. I wrote the script Finder's Fee as the last thing I wrote for this unit, and the idea was I was going to make it in my apartment in New York for sixty grand that I had saved up, and I ended up moving to LA for a job, and I ran into... it's a cliche experience of my next door neighbor being this slightly overweight teamster truck driver, sweetest guy in the world. He comes over and he says, "I'm a truck driver, but you know I'm a writer as well." I said ... I'm probably telling you way too much of a story, aren't I?
No, no, this is cool.
Most people who call themselves writers don't have anything. So I suggested we trade scripts. Sure enough he brings over a couple of scripts and I give him Finder's Fee. A couple of hours later he says, "I'm also going to be a producer. Do you mind if I shop this with Stephen Baldwin who I'm working with?" and I said "Yes!" A couple weeks later I have a message on my machine from Stephen Baldwin [in his best Baldwin voice... which is actually pretty good]: "Hey Jeff, this is Stephen Baldwin, I've read your... Well I haven't actually read your script but I hear it's very good..." Thus begins this odyssey with Stephen. I used that interest, I mean I sat at my home and I typed letters to Lions Gate, to Miramax, to all these companies saying "Hey, I've got a project", I didn't know how things worked... "Stephen Baldwin is attached" and people were like "whatever". I finally figured out how to use his name to get me in other doors and one thing lead to another which lead to another. I ended up with the woman who produced it, Katie, and that's when it really became a movie.
Katie just kind of took over. She's the woman who said, "Who do you see in this role of Avery?" and I said, "You mean anybody? Well the prototype would be James Earl Jones" so she goes "OK let me get it to his agent". I was sitting there going "Wait a second, you can't send it to James Earl Jones!" At that point I did realize how much a scam Hollywood is, and how much of a put-on it is. That we're all just trying to get work, we just want to keep working, but you read People and you read Us and you think "Oh my God it's Hollywood" and it's something that it's not. So she sent it, and seriously Geoff, I don't know three or four or five weeks later I'm on the phone with James Earl Jones, and he just starts in like we've known each other [in a solid James Earl Jones Voice]: "I have to tell you this is one of the best scripts I've read in years." I'll never forget him saying that; he said, "I want to do this, you had a problem in the third act but you fixed it marvelously. And I love the fact that Avery now is playing two sides. Motherfucker, that's good." And right then I'm thinking "All right, this is a put-on, this is bullshit - James Earl Jones doesn't say 'Motherfucker', that I'm sure of" and for the next three or four minutes on the phone I'm listening for another giveaway that this is one of my friends, whose ass I'm going to hammer for teasing me like this, and then I realize, it's him! It just never changed with him. I've tried to find a different way to say the same thing because it sounds kind of corny, but he just gave certainly me personally a gift, you know he knows who he is, he knows he's James Earl Jones. We had no money. Literally, we paid him a few hundred dollars a week, nothing. He did this movie. I was untested. We didn't even tell him I had hosted this show Survivor which would soon be hitting the air. Actually I hadn't left to even shoot it yet. But Katie kept saying, "Whatever you do, it's bad enough you're a first time writer/director, please don't also tell him you're also a TV host, that'll be the nail in the coffin." Ironically now, the only reason we're getting any press on the movie is as a result of Survivor, really.
So that's really how it started going, and it kind of went that way up and through Lions Gate being at the very first screening, and this guy Jason just believing in the movie, he said, "You guys have got a good movie and we should release it on DVD." We wanted a theatrical and so we held out and Lions Gate sort of educated us over the course of a year about how as appealing that was to an ego, why business wise it was not a good move in this movie climate. So I've learned a ton, I have learned so much and I'm ready now to do another one. I haven't been ready, I've tried and tried but I haven't been in to it. We screened the movie at our premiere a couple of nights ago and I got home and man, my brain just started firing. It was weird. It was like I put Finder's Fee to bed.
You went from an environment where you were an untested unknown writer/director to "Jeff Probst - King of Survivor". Do you think it's going to be harder now to get people to think of you as a writer/director or is Finder's Fee your film calling card?
In anything you do, your work speaks for itself. Finder's Fee is a good movie; actors see Finder's Fee and they are not scared off. It shows a competent team of people who know how to put a movie together, and we're going to make a better movie. But if anything, what Survivor has done for me is help me see the truth of how this industry works, and that the most important ingredient you can have beyond hype, which everybody wants but ultimately is empty, is confidence. When you walk into a room, you know how to pitch, you know how to sell it and you can convince that other person that they are in good hands and that they can trust you, that's the quality and everything else is secondary. It really doesn't matter your idea. Nobody knows what a good idea is. Every network in town passed on Survivor several times, and then one guy said, "There's something here." Is he a genius and the other people idiots? I don't know. Something connected, for me, man, it's confidence. If you are a woman living in LA and don't have 34C boobs and you think your boobs aren't big enough, bullshit - you can be flat as a board and walk with the attitude "I will rock your world honey with this body", and you're as sexy as they come. That's what getting this experience of red carpets and interviews and people telling you this and that - it's confidence, it's me convincing you I can do it and that comes from me knowing I can.
Now people have the opportunity to listen to the DVD commentary and hear what you've gone through, and what it takes to get a movie like this on to the screen and probably more importantly nowadays onto DVD.
It does. You know I've been doing radio this morning and all these people are like "So now this is a straight to DVD". You kind of cringe, you want to say, ugh, that's got a very 1987 feel to it, ok I get it, you try and sell it with a little more prestige but it's still new, this notion of movies going to DVD that aren't bad Segal movies. Even the commentary, halfway through the commentary a guy from Lions Gate comes in and says, "How do you think it's going?" and I say, "Well, why?", and he goes, "Well, it's very, you know - a lot of patting each other on the back, a lot of nice people stories... you know, if you want to get some dirt, go ahead." Like an idiot, you'd think I'd learned something, we turn the microphones back on, I start throwing the only dirt I could find, I start talking about how I didn't get along with Erik Palladino, and I didn't. We had a rough time working together. But, it wasn't really that important to me, really to out on the DVD, I was more interested in other stuff, so halfway through, I say, "You know what, here's what just happened, the guy just walked in and told us to do some dirt and now we are, and now I'm embarrassed and we keep going." That's what I wanted to be on the commentary, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The fact that I just got played by a young kid who really doesn't have any idea of what a commentary should be, because it's our commentary and yet I let him influence me because you're still trying to figure out how to please people and satisfy people. You know what, Geoff, it's so nice to talk about the movie for a second and not Survivor, and make just one comment about Finder's Fee. It's nice.
Of course I've got tons of questions about Survivor and I know a lot of our readers are quite interested in it, but I'm just as interested about the road you've taken from your writers group in New York to making a movie and now trying to be a film maker and TV show host. When you're off on the island are you able write, are you able to watch other DVDs, do you have a life there as a creative person?
Yes and no. It's an environment where you are on call 24/7 because I am a producer on the show, and there is a nucleus of us that are making the creative decisions but we're there for two months and we have a lot of down time. So you can definitely write out there. I did several rewrites of Finder's Fee when I was out on location, and edited, I edited the movie in a sense, I did all sorts of things while I was on location. It is a good environment creatively, especially because you have no distractions, you only have the show to focus on and so when things are settled, or maybe there's a day where I'm not going to have anything to do - we're not going to have a challenge, there's not Tribal Council, all the creative's done, we're not talking about anything new - I've got the full day. And I'm in a room with no interruptions and you can do whatever you want - read or write. So I'm writing a book on Survivor that CBS just gave me the rights to, so I'm going to be writing that out there, but I'm also hoping that when I get tired of that, each day that I'll start segueing into a new script and we'll be having this conversation two years from now about a new movie.
Do you think you'll go the independent route again, or do you think Finder's Fee and your notoriety with Survivor will push you to a different route?
I would like to do it small... well, no, not small. The next movie I make has got to get out and it's got to make money. That's the business part of it, but what I'd really like is to do it with a company like Lions Gate or somebody where you can still have some input. That's why Survivor is so fun - I have a voice. If I was just a host and Mark told me what I had to say, I would have quit by now. It's too hard being away, it's hard on relationships, it's hard on everything. I'm an active voice in telling a story on Survivor so it's fulfilling, and that's what I would want again. That's what has been great about this process, we got final cut on this movie. Our financier didn't make any changes, Lions Gate liked the movie as it was. We pretty much got to tell our story, like it or not, that's how we wanted it to come out. I'd love to do it again. Hell, are you kidding' if I wrote a script and you know' MGM came and said' "Listen, we make it", of course, you want to play with anyone who wants to play with you.
I'd be remiss if we didn't talk a little about Survivor. I know our readers will definitely want to hear about both Finder's Fee and Survivor. So... What has been the best moment for you across all the seasons of Survivor?
The first thing that comes to mind is going to the Samburu tribe in Africa, going and seeing this family with these kids that are just like kids you see around here, little kids, living in an open air hut made out of elephant dung and these big long thorny things which keep out the lions, and they had this one tennis ball, totally weathered, had no turf left on it, and we rolled that ball back and forth for thirty minutes. I have this picture of it on my refrigerator that is just the best memory. That's when it first started hitting me about "I'm not the center of the universe" and that while I'm back in Los Angeles, driving my car, listening to my radio, spouting about all this crap, somewhere else in the world there's a kid having his own life and playing with a tennis ball and wondering how hot it's going to be. And you know what, I can't share that with anybody, I was there with some crew guys but I wasn't there with anybody important in my life, so it's one of those moments where it's just yours.
As a viewer I got a sense that there was something special that happened in Africa, that the experience did have a profound impact on some of the participants.
I'm glad you feel that way, a lot of people didn't like that season because it was so stifling, and yet if there's anywhere that I'd go back to, if there's anywhere that I'd tell someone who is really a traveler to go, I'd say if you're really a traveler and not a poser, then you should go to Africa, because your never going to see anywhere like it, you'll never forget it.
Over the seasons I've noticed a change in you as a host. The first few seasons you were much more external to the game, like a coach, but more and more it seems that you're closer to the game, not afraid to call bullshit, bullshit or confront a tribe member on something you noticed in Tribal Council. Has your tolerance for some of the whining and games that people do changed?
I don't think it's a question of tolerance as much as evolution. The first season I was not confident, I didn't know what I was doing. Greg Buis or Richard Hatch, those guys could knock me on my socks, because we were making up the game and they were way more in control of it than I was, or way ahead of me. In Australia, I stared kind of figuring it out. By Season Three in Africa I was feeling comfortable, I was liking my role. People had stopped saying they should vote me off, and I felt like I was going to be here for a while. CBS didn't want to air anything that was me editorializing until Thailand where there was a big fight between some of the survivors. It was ugly, they were choking each other. It became for that afternoon - "Fuck you..." , "Yeah, fuck you. I don't care if you don't talk to me or not, I'm still getting paid bitch" and it was real. Rob and Ken (the cop) couldn't give a shit about it, I didn't care what happened to them, and that's when it really changed for me and that the far right, I don't ever want to be back there again. That was me getting caught up in their game, and I after that I think I found a balance. I'm comfortable being an adversary, I kinda like it. I like arguing and pushing buttons, and I don't mind you pushing mine, I respect that sort of back and forth and that's where it's at. Like John on this season - he's not one of my favorite guys, but it's not personal when I'm hammering him, it's an opportunity. Do something like come to Tribal Council drunk as often as possible, because I love that, gives me something to talk about. The reaction when they aired the Thailand episode about the fighting was really positive, people wrote in saying "It's about time Probst got some balls." CBS said, "OK, we will start airing the parts of Tribal Council that are more editorial". And now that's what they look for, now there saying, "Why didn't they hammer him harder?"
What does the future hold for Survivor?
We're doing Survivor All-Star next season. I'm leaving tonight, packing as we talk. So we are doing an all-star that I think is going to be really kick ass. There was a little roller coaster to it. Early on when we said we're doing it, five or six survivors started popping off about "Well I'll need this, and I'll need that." I was at a charity event and People magazine asked me what I thought about it and I said, "Well they can stay the fuck home." That message got out to them really clearly and CBS wanted that out there that "we don't need you, and let's not forget who's driving this ship, it's us." There was a battle, that no one will ever admit to, a battle of ego between the people who thought they were the superstars and the network saying, "You've got be kidding me, you've got to me kidding me making demands." And then it all passed, everybody took a deep breath and said, "Come on, we're doing this show with or without you - you want to be a part of it or not?" Now, I just think it's going to be a blast, it's some really favorite people that are coming back to play, and I've been talking to them on the phone and there are some people who are coming to PLAY THIS GAME and it should be fun. As far as DVD, I don't know if there's a second life for Survivor, an afterlife, I don't know.
I know you can't say exactly who will be on the All Star season, but Rupert is definitely one of my favorite players from Survivor. Do you ever think we'll see him again?
Rupert would be great to have on a show like the All-Stars, because he's a home run, and you don't always know that in casting. We knew we liked Rupert because he's boisterous and loud but we truthfully didn't think he'd last that long because he wasn't in that good of shape. He had a lot of surprises for us. I don't think we've had a survivor as well liked as him since Colby in Australia who was universally liked and people just thought, "Oh, I hope this guy wins."
I think Rupert is my favorite reality person of all time.
Wow! I have heard that a few times, Geoff.
Well I know you're pretty crunched for time, so I'll let you get back to packing, good luck on the next season and have a good trip to... um.... wherever you're going.
- Geoffrey Kleinman
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