'Stranded' with Josh Gates: The 'Destination' adventurer sets sights on scares with new show

Gates, Courtesy Syfy

After five years of chasing ghosts and monsters across the planet, while frequently encountering dangerous transportation and questionable food, Josh Gates is now working on his scariest assignment yet -- and he prefers it that way.

The lead investigator of Syfy's globetrotting, monster-hunting series Destination Truth, which premiered in 2007, Gates has become something of a staple for the network. Beyond acting as host (and eventually co-executive producer) on the show, his face has also been out there as Syfy's de facto emcee. But now he has stepped entirely behind the camera as executive producer and showrunner for Stranded, a new paranormal reality-TV Syfy series debuting Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. that will introduce some scare tactics to the well-tread investigative genre.

Produced by Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Stranded) and Ping Pong Productions (Destination Truth, Finding Bigfoot and a handful of other paranormal shows), Stranded attempts to merge the standard ghosthunting show with familiar ghost movie tropes to create a new formula: the horror docu-drama.

Each week a new group of three -- roomies, newlyweds, skeptics, believers which Paranormal Pop Culture posted a casting call for -- is placed in a different, supposedly haunted location for five days straight without even a production crew in tow. For instance,  the premiere takes place on Star Island, a 50,000 square-foot hotel on an island 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire, and supposedly home to an evil spirit Native Americans feared. When the team arrives, they they find a brief history of the building and a handful of paranormal investigation gadgets waiting for them, and they're tasked with spending their waking hours exploring the mysteries of the building.

But the emphasis of Stranded is not on capturing evidence inasmuch as simply living in a haunted house alongside whatever potential activity might be taking place there.

The dock leading up to the Star Island hotel,
Courtesy Syfy
And based on the first two of six episodes, the result is an intriguing, sometimes startling, psychological drama. Instead of the ghost "expert" series where stoicism is prized, Stranded focuses on the experience of these average Joes and Janes. As such, when things go bump in the night, and the investigators can't run away, it can create a deep, emotional response.

The show is also an interesting evolution for Gates. Going from having a camera strapped to his back and front as he traversed the world, he now finds himself largely in a production office, putting together an entertainment product. While the challenges of producing a show is perhaps less sexy than, say, hunting for yeti, it's no less a massive, and scary, project. But in a recent phone interview, Gates spoke at length about his excitement around Stranded, and about evoking authentic, visceral reactions from the participants -- and hopefully from the viewing audience.

(after the jump...)

What was the process of transitioning from host to showrunner?

I’ve been an executive producer on Destination Truth for a few years now, and really that show is made with such a small crew that, over time, I ended up showrunning the series as well as hosting it. In some ways, it was a little easier to only do one of those two things. Certainly I’ve had a real hard-knocks education over the last few years in running a paranormal series so this was a neat way to kind of take that into a new avenue and use it toward a new project.

Except with Destination Truth, you end up working with people who have had a lot of experience in production. What are the unique challenges of working with people completely fresh to the idea of making TV?

That was a really unique challenge for this show. The thing about Stranded that’s so unique is that we are not only doing an unscripted format with people who are not used to being on television, we’re also asking them to essentially be responsible for filming the show. So you’re putting an enormous amount of authority and responsibility in the hands of folks who have never done this before. In the months before we made the show, that was a real concern we all had.

I’m really thrilled with the results of it. We tried to design systems that were easy to use, used surveillance cameras in the properties they didn’t have to interact with … Before they went inside we gave them a brief education on how best to do this.
Courtesy Syfy

Did you provide them with benchmarks to accomplish so, by day three, the participants weren’t sleeping all day and weren't boring on camera?

That was another concern. If you put three people in a purportedly haunted location, and you ask them to live there for a week, as you said, will they just sit on the couch and stare at the wall? Will they quit and walk out? That was another big concern.

These places are really scary, so would we have a group that would simply say on night one, "No thanks, I’m out of here"? We certainly did provide benchmarks in terms of letting them know their job was to live in this place and make it their own, and also to investigate it and take that responsibility seriously. We chose our groups carefully; we wanted people -- whether they were really believers or skeptics or somewhere in the middle – were invested in the idea of trying to figure out whether or not these places had paranormal activity. We tried to find people engaged, excited and motivated – not people who would give up or be too afraid to continue…

In all six episodes, we have people who filmed very compelling stories, were really scared and continued to carry on and investigate.

You need dynamic and some sort of human drama aside from the paranormal; when you were talking to people were you thinking, for example, "That’s the person so overtly and obnoxiously skeptical that it will be fun to see them get the crap scared out of them"?

To some extent. What we were really looking for was a range of viewpoints within each group that was complementary. Certainly we didn’t want to have skeptics so resolute and hardened in their views they weren’t going to be engaged by the process. We wanted people who were skeptics and didn’t believe in the stuff but were game to be proven wrong. We also wanted believers who weren’t just going to validate everything they saw; who had critical thinking and could challenge their beliefs…

In terms of the actual characters, throughout the six episodes, there’s a real broad range of people. We’ve got family members, boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, ex-couples. They are all very different. Episode to episode, they all feel very different, and that’s a cool part of the show. What this show is all about is having a group of people investigate the paranormal who are not “paranormal experts.”

You give them paranormal equipment but don’t emphasize the results or evidence. Is there a concern that regular paranormal viewers might take issue with that?

Look, there was a lot of discussion before we made the series about the paranormal investigation equipment. How much should there be? How much we expect them to know how to use it? How much should they be reviewing? I think, ultimately, what we decided is most of these locations that are purportedly haunted – and most people who claim to have paranormal encounters – don’t use any of that equipment. The eyewitnesses people talk to are people who live in these places, work in these places. They say, “this is what I saw, what I heard, what I felt.” This was an opportunity to have people live there, make themselves at home, and see if those same things happened to them … emphasizing the experience of living in the place.

Each week your audience engagement is based on the location and the people that are there…

Courtesy Paramount
You’re absolutely right. That was a concern from the network’s perspective for a time. What do we latch onto week-to-week? This is not something that arcs out over a period of time, these are not people we can create a relationship with week-to-week. But on the other hand, you’re getting these little one-hour versions of The Shining or Paranormal Activity. They’re really thrilling, exciting, stand-alone investigations. My hope is that people who are fans of the paranormal watch the show and go, “hey, that could be me, what would I do if I was in that person’s shoes?”

…And one thing we don’t see a lot of in paranormal programming is fear. We really don’t see a lot of people genuinely scared. There’s a lot of stoicism in professional paranormal investigating. These places are really scary; seeing how real people react to being in those places for long periods of time is really, viscerally interesting. You get a sense of how scared they become.

For you, there has to be a surreal and humorous experience for you to see other people with cameras strapped on getting freaked out…

Oh, for sure. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this. Each of the skeptics in these locations puts on a very brave face at the beginning and says, "this is nonsense, I don’t believe in ghosts." In many of the cases, these people were the ones who fell apart the most.

Watching that from the outside is, in a sick kind of way, enjoyable. It can also be frustrating. I don’t have the ability to direct them. There are times I watch the footage and go, "why didn’t you film that, why didn’t you do this for longer, why didn’t you talk about it more?" That’s one of the very cool things about the project: It is what it is. You’re really getting a real look at what happens. You can’t control it; sometimes that can be frustrating when you’re trying to produce it. But more often than not, I was amazed by the great things that did happen. There’s so many instances over the course of the six episodes I just was amazed at the stuff they were finding, at the fear – people crying, screaming, fighting. There’s a real palpable emotional thread that runs through it, which is more than I expected.

You want those moments as a producer, but was there a moment when you felt like the fear or the reaction went too far?

There were a couple instances where things got really heated. In the third episode, in an abandoned prison, two of the participants really get into it with each other. They really get into a bad fight and one of the things that was true in every location is that the experience of living in these places, every single day, ratcheted up the exhaustion, tension, frustration. In one episode we have a fight that really came at out of nowhere – between two people who were really close – and almost became physical. In an episode shot at a historic mansion in New York, one of our participants, a girl, really breaks down and is almost incapacitated by fear.

You see participants sleeping and eating, and having very pedestrian moments. It really grounds the show and highlights the Paranormal Activity element. Will we see these people disturbed during those times or woken up?

Absolutely. You’re going to see them in the middle of the night, showering, eating, investigating – but also try to make the best of their situation and goofing off or having fun. I think that is one of the things Jason has really brought to the show. Humanizing them is a big part of it, but another big part is allowing the property to become a character. That’s something that really makes those Paranormal Activity films work and is at the core of The Shining… we wanted to have the properties have a lot of screentime, so there are a lot of those long empty shots, getting the sense of the character they’re living in.

When you were gathering their groceries, did you include wine or beer? Socially lubricated people tend to be very fun when they investigate.

We felt the same way, but unfortunately it became a safety concern. We didn’t want them to be drowning their sorrows on day three and chugging a bottle of scotch, so they were booze free.

You can use me as a special episode of Stranded where I’ll sign the liability waivers and you line up the shots…

I like that!

That would be a good pay-per-view show: Drunken Stranded.

For sure! I agree with you; what we really wanted to do is make sure these people were real. We wanted them to be themselves and encouraged them to treat the place as though they were living there; move the furniture around, cook what you want. We tried as best we could to encourage them to be themselves. I’m surprised by how much of that came through. They really managed to let the experience of living there guide them and weren’t self-conscious about being on TV.

What familiarity or interest did Jason have in the paranormal when you were developing this?

He had a great interest in it and we had a great interest in what he had done. I think that’s what made it a nice marriage. He had a good sense visually of how to work with a property and showcase it as a character, let it breathe and speak for itself. We had a lot of experience with paranormal programming in the reality space.

When you do these types of shows right, it should be scary, and that relies on horror movies. So it makes sense to use a director in the reality world…

For sure, and a lot of those motifs that we think of in horror films would accidentally pop up from time-to-time in Stranded. I was amazed when I watched tapes of them in the house. You know the old saying, "you never put a loaded gun on stage [unless you plan on shooting it]"? It’s like they would have an ax for wood chopping or a kitchen knife would come into view -- these little signals that you, as a viewer, are so programmed to associate with impending doom would pop up just by accident. There’s a neat kind of marriage between horror films and seeing real people in a really scary place.

Although the scariest thing for me was how much footage you had to cut and put together. You’ve got three people carrying around cameras, how many stationary cams set up in … let’s say Star Island?

Oh there’s about 100 different angles there, and each of the participants has two cameras: one that shoots forward and one that shoots back … this show was a real bear when it came to dealing with the footage. We had thousands and thousands of hours of footage. This is really like a house show, like a paranormal Big Brother in a way where you have an enormous amount of footage coming into the system. A lot of it is of empty rooms. At any given time, they’re only in one room of the house. Weeding through all of that and finding the narrative in there was a huge challenge in post.

But you have a lot of cool visuals coming out of there. In the "Star Island" premiere, the gentleman ties the dolls from strings to the door handles was a creepy visuals.

That’s something that Sean, the male participant in that episode came up with. When I was seeing the tape, I’m literally high fiving people. It’s exactly what we hoped would happen, that these folks would bring their own creativity and ideas to these locations and set up investigations as they would do them.

With a network, when you pitch this, they’re going to think, "Oh great, Josh Gates is very much behind this, so we’ll have him do the intro, outro and voiceover." Was there pressure to make you involved on-camera?

There was no pressure; there was a lot of discussion about maybe me appearing at the top of the show, or Jason appearing at the top of the show. In the end, we really felt as though the more we put those produced elements in the show, the more it took away from the rawness of the experience … it got in the way of telling their story. It is not our story, it’s the story of the people who go and live in these places.

More 'Destination' for Gates? Courtesy Syfy
As it stands now, are we officially saying that Destination Truth is over, and we’re closing that chapter on the Josh Gates life?

No, I don’t think … I certainly hope we’re not closing that chapter in terms of me doing on-camera, travel television stuff. I’ve just had my head down through the end of last year. Even right now, I’m in our production office, just finishing up the last few episodes. I think we’re going to return to a discussion of what happens after this and whether that means more DT, more something else, or hopefully more Stranded as well, is something I hope will come into focus in the next few months.