TELEVISION: Q and A with Josh Bernstein of Discovery’s Into The Unknown.

Josh Bernstein

Last week I had a chance to participate in a Q and A with Josh Bernstein, the star of the Discovery Channel’s new adventure show Into The Unknown.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the call, but our friends over at Media Boulevard and Deadbolt.com did the interview. Here’s the full transcript.

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Josh There’s a pretty large group of people at both Darlow Smithson Productions and at Discovery Channel that contribute ideas. I think we went through about 130,140 different show or episode ideas before we narrowed it down to these eight. And the criteria for selection are pretty specific. There needs to be a central mystery or some question that I can explore for the duration of the hour. There needs to be some sort of compelling and hopefully attractive question. Then the locations must be beautiful because we’re shooting in high definition. There has to be an adventurous component that allows me to be hands on.

I’m an executive producer, so I’m involved in all aspects. I came to Discovery to create a series. It’s not like anything that has been given to me saying, “Here, be the pretty face.” It’s far more involved in each episode. Obviously, when it comes time for the research and the preproduction, I’m in the field filming while they’re working on the next few shows. So once the show is green lit by the network, then I’m given the notice saying the next episode, let’s say, three months from now, four months from now is going to be on elephants in East Africa and I’m given the research materials and then I have some time to get up-to-speed.

So how much filming, or how much time actually goes into the filming for what becomes an hour of TV?

It’s usually two and half weeks, sometimes three weeks between flights from, let’s say, not that they all start out of the U.S., but from New York to location, then on location. And then I usually do two shows back to back, sometimes I did three. So you figure two, three weeks and then another two, three weeks and then back for a few days and then off again. It goes like that for the course of eight months. I started December 1st and I just finished a few weeks ago.

I was just curious, what did you find out about gladiators that really surprised you?

I didn’t know there were female gladiators, although I don’t know if that made it into the show tonight. I didn’t realize that they were mostly vegetarian, which is surprising. That’s one of the data points that we got out of the strong team analysis that we looked at, their bones. I didn’t realize that even though they were lowest of the low in terms of the status and hierarchy in ancient Rome, they also could be simultaneously glorified as celebrities. It’s an interesting paradox. Obviously Hollywood has to focus on the stories to create a blockbuster, but there’s a lot more to the reality of day to day life of gladiators that I found fascinating. Plus the role that Christianity played in the decline of the gladiatorial games, I wasn’t aware of the religious connection.

Now you also mentioned that the locations need to be beautiful because of HD. Was that always possible? You’re in the desert and stuff sometimes, so it doesn’t really look that nice.

Really? Oh no, I like deserts. I think the cameraman, the DP’s job is to make the show visually exciting. That’s what I meant more than we don’t only shoot in beautiful locations, but we want the cinematography to be compelling and to support the sense of bigness that we hope this series represents. So even if we’re in a dark cave in Egypt exploring Akhenaten or the 18th Dynasty, we want it to be shot in a way that makes you want to say, “This is incredible and I’m even more grateful that it’s in high definition.”

I was also wondering, did you overlap, did you revisit places that you’ve already been to for Digging for the Truth?

Absolutely, yes. It’s hard not to, so yes, I did a show in Peru where I’ve been to Peru several times. But I was exploring a region and a culture that I had not explored previously, the Chachapoya, the Cloud Warriors episode. Egypt, of course, I’ve done, what, seven, eight shows in Egypt for Digging, and worked with Dr. Zahi Hawass many times. I even explored the 18th Dynasty. I looked at Nefertiti; I looked at King Tut, but I never really focused on Akhenaten. So if there’s any overlap that’s direct in the sense that I’ve already done this, we just shoot it down and I don’t do that episode. We just move on to the next idea. It’s important that I feel like I can engage intellectually and honestly with whatever material I’m exploring.

So, Josh, can you talk about—I know you’ve seen a lot of really neat things, really fascinating things with this. What’s been your best experience between this show, or the last show, whichever had the best experience in it for you?

It’s hard to define best experience because there’ve been so many. Unless you have a specific best in mind, I think that every show offers something that I take away and then hopefully the viewers will connect with, whether it’s Noah’s Flood, I got to scuba dive the site called Atlit-Yam off the coast of Israel. It’s the oldest Neolithic and best preserved Neolithic site in the region, oldest man-made well in the world. You wouldn’t know it. You can take a boat ride over it and not know it. It’s 25-30 feet below you at the ocean floor. That’s a moment for me, being able to go with the leading archaeologists in the region and to explore and look for human remains that have not surfaced in 8,000 years.

Being on safari in East Africa, exploring the issues behind elephant attacks and why these elephants, which are normally gentle creatures, are now enraged and killing humans. I think safaris are always incredible. I’ve been fortunate enough to have gone on a few in the past, but to do it with cameras and to try and talk to elephant experts with an issue that’s very real, also that was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

On any of the shows have you ever really found yourself just totally surprised at how they turned out? Or does it pretty much end up the way you, I guess, anticipate it will?

Well, there’s flexibility in the storyline, so that there isn’t, like you must say this and I must do that. We have to keep it honest and real and allow the flexibility of the interviews to take us where they go. When I was doing the show, the last show that we finished wrapping a few weeks ago, “Life on Mars,” we were at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories while the Phoenix Mars Lander was sending data streams back to all the scientists and engineers and technicians. We didn’t have any idea, when they were just discovering the ice that was sublimating and what does that mean if there’s that much water on Mars, could there be life? Those interviews, there was no way to anticipate what was going to be said. It was just like if this, then that, and if this, then that. The show could go basically anywhere, especially when it came to exploring for extremophiles and new life forms. That was the cutting edge opportunity, so we like to keep things open. Certainly if things don’t go one way, but they go another, then in the edit we make it the best story possible.

There are eight episodes, is that right, for the first season?

Yes.

And then, so is there a second season planned or are you going to go back to filming right away here or do you know?

I need a break. I’m going to take a break. I’m doing press right now and with the premier episode tonight, obviously the Olympics are on, so we want to wait a little while for viewers to return from August vacations and come back to TV. But I think over the next few weeks we’ll evaluate how the series is doing and then the network and I will sit down and figure out, do we want to go with a second season? I think we’re all hopeful, but we have to be cautious.

With the Noah’s Ark one or actually any of the religious stuff that you do, is there ever a worry about ticking certain people off?

Yes, of course. There has to be because there are people who are going to be offended that you’re evaluating the word of God and questioning it in any sort of way. But I faced that before when I did King David or King Solomon or any of the biblical stories that I explored on Digging. I’m respectful of that. I understand it. I think I’m very clear both at the front and in any conversations that I have with people that when it comes to biblical studies, it’s fairly binary. Either you think it’s all God’s word and shouldn’t be questioned at all, or there’s interpretation there. I’m in the latter camp. I think that exploring the Bible, it’s a fascinating story, some of it grounded in history, been proven by archaeology and some it perhaps still to be proven.

When it comes to Noah and the flood, that’s the second oldest story. The only thing older is basically Adam and Eve and then Cain and Abel. So to get anything that’s that ancient to prove that in the landscape is an uphill challenge. That’s a battle. But I was up for it. I think it’s still—it is unusual and a bit curious that so many cultures, Judeo-Christian and others in the Mediterranean have this same story. Why is that the case? If everyone says that someone was shot on the corner and then got hit by a car, if everyone says that then you think maybe it really happened. Same thing, but this is so many thousands of years ago, maybe there’s some truth to it and it’s worthy of my exploration.

Actually you mentioned you went to Israel for that story. Did you also go to, where’s that place, Mount Ararat?

Mount Ararat in Turkey, I did. I’ve been to Turkey and to Armenia exploring—we decided to fall on the Armenian side, so we’re certainly within view of Ararat and we shot up there. But we went to a church that believes they actually have a piece of the Ark. That’s where the show begins and from there to the Holy Land.

And we know about the—there’s the gladiator one, the Noah’s Ark one, and there’s only eight. Can you let us know what the other six are?

Sure and if I forget or if you want more detail, I’m sure Discovery has this in their press kit and someone can send it to you in detail. I don’t know the raw order, but Gladiators, Noah’s Flood, there’s one called Cloud Warriors on the Chachapoya culture in northern Peru, pre-Inca culture. I went and explored their mysterious disappearance. Timbuktu, I went into Mali, the fabled “City of Gold” to find out if it truly was as rich as legend would tell us. Akhenaten, the … heresy, the pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who overturned all of the pantheon of Egypt to create monotheism. There’s another episode, Elephants, I think I mentioned before, elephants attacking in Kenya for no reason that people understand; Papa New Guinea, the dying wish of the chief of the Inca people in the Chachapoya village said no one has been mummified in 50 years. It’s a sacred tradition for us. I was the last person to do it to my father. I’m about to die. I want to teach my sons how we used to mummify. And so we came in with our cameras to document that. Then the last episode I mentioned briefly was Life on Earth, could it have come from Mars?

That sounds pretty cool.

Yes, it’s good. It’s a diverse series. We’ve got certainly some history, archaeology stories to reestablish my walking through that landscape. But then we expand it and I think we’ll continue to in the seasons to come.

In the beginning you mentioned that you and the production staff, it takes a lot to figure out which ones you’re going to do on the series. Is there any that you didn’t get to do in Digging for the Truth that you brought over?

No, well, I hope I get to Ankara a lot. That was on my list. Timbuktu, I was happy to go to. I know that Digging did that in season four and so that was, yes, I’d love to go. I was jealous when they called me from Mali and said, “Guess where we are?” I think it’s a little different series in that we don’t want to replicate Digging. We want to bring a fresh face to it; the same face, but a fresh feel.

Josh, I wanted to ask you about the Boulder Survival School. I know you’re still the CEO and president of that. Do you do any of the training still, or get back to Boulder ever for that? There’s kind of a local connection, our main office is in Boulder, Colorado.

Oh, nice. Yes, Boulder, Colorado is fantastic. I lived there for nine years and certainly I’m still involved with BOSS, although it has to be mostly virtual. I was there last week checking in on things and working with my staff. I was there earlier in the season for the preseason staff training, just to remind everyone and make sure we start off on the right foot. But most of my conversations are via e-mail or teleconferencing because I’m typically overseas more often than not. But I have a great staff and all my senior instructors and field directors are more than competent. If anything, they appreciated that I’ve given them the freedom to run the school and lead trips without my being there.

As you were growing up, when you were growing up in New York did you ever expect that you’d be doing something like this? It seems like you can’t get much different than a city—

Yes, a city. No, not really. I don’t think anybody anticipated this. I think we’re all still, everybody in my family is looking at the media storm that this series is generating and are sort of a bit befuddled at how someone who, I’m a fairly private person and yet there’s a public persona that is accessible and being marketed. My family is, we all come from a long line of educated readers, we like to learn, we like to talk about concepts and ideas, and being able to do that on TV is satisfying.

But as a kid, I wanted to be a wilderness guide. I thought I would be a wilderness instructor. I never even thought I would own the school. I just wanted to be a guide. Then in my 20s, I became more of an entrepreneur and established a career in the outdoor industry and that took an unusual path towards television, and here I am now. But I’m not as interested in the publicity side. Like being on camera is not the end all, be all of how I define myself or value myself. I like to learn and I like to teach and Discovery Channel is a great place for me to do that.

So did you get a lot of grief or teasing from your friends about the “Sexiest Man Alive” stuff?

Endlessly! My God, yes! My fraternity brothers from college are always more than happy to chime in whenever there’s anything that’s worthy of it, but that’s good. It keeps me real.

I know a lot of people probably reading this, they’ve seen the Digging series you did. How is this different from that? Is this just more glitzy or bigger or how would you describe the differences between your two series?

I don’t think it’s more glitzy. It’s not something that I ever felt that I wanted or needed in a series. I’m not a big fan of glitz. I think that certainly there is a bigger budget and a more ambitious goal. Digging for the Truth had limitations in that it was limited to archaeology and within the confines of History Channel, which would always look back for stories. Discovery Channel is a much broader concept and a much bigger network, so my ability to encapsulate or represent what the values of Discovery are allows me to go places that Digging couldn’t. I would have never done a story on elephant attacks in east Africa for Digging for the Truth, the same with Life on Mars and Life on Earth and any connection between the two.

I think Discovery Channel last year had such tremendous success with the Planet Earth series that they were looking for, this is when my series was being born and conceived and developed, so let’s make this show represent the core values of the network. Let’s make it ambitious and bold and exploratory and international. Let’s go places where others can’t go and bring home stories that are truly fantastic. That was never the goal with Digging for the Truth. Digging for the Truth just sort of happened. It was a success just by accident. This one we focused on making it the biggest, best series that it could be.

I only have one more quick thing and then I’ll let you go. You like to search for the truth and I was just wondering what are your thoughts on that recent Big Foot story coming out of Georgia?

You know if the timing was right, maybe I could explore that a bit further. I do think it’s fascinating that Big Foot, Sasquatch, Yeti, the different terminology that exists in other parts of the world, there does seem to be some pervasive story of larger than life, even the Abominable Snowman, there seems to be something out there that people look to. I have not done any more research than just reading about it on the Internet. I don’t know what’s in the freezer. I don’t know what the story is about these guys who have claimed to have shot it and seen others. I do think it’s certainly water cooler conversation worthy. I don’t know if it could hold up to a full hour of credible analysis. But if the story is still kicking around when I get back in the game for season two, maybe I’ll go down there and take a look.