A First-Hand Account of What It Takes to Be a Reality TV Producer on Deck of ‘Deadliest Catch’
There are two things that instantly come to mind when I’m catching Deadliest Catch – 1) How do the cameramen (women) hold up; and 2) Why isn’t Dramamine a sponsor? While I have firsthand knowledge of the rigors and demands of being a reality tv producer in the sometimes “stormy seas” of reality television – having covered everything from producing man-on-the street and car competitions to filming patients in the operating room and those revealing their darkest fears and frailties – no genre of reality television is more unpredictable (and edge-of-your-seat exciting) than the blue-collar brawl fest and million dollar behemoth boatload of Deadliest Catch.
The Discovery Channel ratings juggernaut just docked; completing its 12th season, with a new spin-off series called, Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove set to air Tuesday, September 13th. Ahead of the spin-off’s debut, I had the chance to catch up with four-time Emmy® winning TV Producer & Shooter for the original series and the latest spin-off, Matt Fahey. Matt has accomplished probably one of the greatest feats known to mankind (or at least in being a reality tv producer) in that he’s spent six seasons, and plenty of sleepless nights, riding out some of the series (as the name implies) “deadliest” scenes and equally tense cast clashes (with the latter spawning its own devoted page, simply titled Best Fights.) Matt said, “Literally, the floor is going back and forth every five seconds, twenty feet…rocking side to side…they pitch over to one side like you wouldn’t believe.” I’m not sure if Matt just described a ride at Universal or one of his better days at sea. Either way, reality television pioneer Original Productions has masterfully carved out its Deadliest series (and a slew of others) for viewers and fans that are happy to tag along each week for a heart-pounding, fear-inducing adventure of a lifetime. With that in mind, Matt makes it quite clear that being this type of reality tv producer is not for the faint of heart.
It’s one thing to make a living as an Alaskan fisherman, but quite another to have the guts and sheer story-telling capabilities to authentically capture your subject when the floor could literally give way from underneath you at any given moment. That’s Matt’s job and sometimes he’s up for that challenge four months at a time. Deadliest Catch in its entirety, is so much more than just a long-running series of counting crabs, pitching boats, and flaring egos. The Discovery favorite shows us what happens when thrill-seekers on both sides of the camera push the boundaries of production in order to document worlds that haven’t been chartered. Original Productions continues to utilize this winning formula and Matt has undoubtedly contributed to its success by being a tv producer with an ear for great story. “I’m always just like, I know there’s something going on. If somebody’s whispering something, it’s probably going to make good TV.”
Whether you’re seeking your next job in reality television or looking to channel your inner-adrenaline junkie, Matt gives us a crash-course in docu-reality at sea, in which he talks about producing ‘real people’, tracking story, the best gear to get the job done, and how to hold up in extremes for the sake of a decent paycheck and a few Emmys.
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NR: Are you a thriller-seeker?
MF: Yes, absolutely. I say it all the time. That’s who I’ve always kinda been, that guy who loves the extreme. I started out as a river guide and the guy who ended up getting me my job on Catch was the river guide as well. We were friends. We used to work in South America, we worked in Grand Canyon, and we used to white-water kayak.
NR: How long have you worked on Deadliest Catch?
MF: I’ve worked on the show for six years.
NR: Deadliest Catch is considered “blue-collar”, man versus nature reality television. What should any Reality TV Producer or shooter prepare for when tackling this genre?
MF: It’s definitely one of those shows where I have to be stronger mentally and physically more than the average bear. Being a deck shooter…when the conditions are bad, it’s bad because it’s Opilio [crab] season; it’s super icy-cold; and everybody wears gloves, but you can’t really wear gloves because you can’t do camera work with gloves on, unless you get the right gloves. I used to do it and used these small gloves that weren’t very warm but they were tight, so I could focus and zoom. Then, I’d have to go in and take a blow dryer to my hands after about 10 or 15 minutes because they were so cold that I couldn’t use them. It’s not like that all the time, but there are definitely some days where it is.
NR: What are the different types of shooters and field teams involved for the show?
MF: We do it in two-man teams and sometimes with one. You try and do both jobs, and I’ve done it where I tell some great stories at sea all by myself, but there are usually two producers. We’re all producers and a deck shooter, and we have surveillance earpieces, so we can talk to each other back-and-forth. Then you’re just checking in with them all the time. “What’s going on? How’s the fishing?” “It’s bad? Did you get them to tell you that?” “No.” “Okay, well go get them to tell you that.” As far as shooters on the show, we have some land crabbers that come when we get to town. We go to the hotel and Skype our girlfriends and relax, so they’ll have one or two people that cover the offload. Then they always have somewhere there for when the boat ties up.
NR: What is the longest time you’ve spent at sea as a TV producer?
MF: The longest trip I’ve ever been on was probably about three weeks. Sometimes [after offloading], you’re back in a week or six days or sometimes even less, depending on how you do and what you’re fishing for. The average is two weeks, but that’s just one trip, but you might have million pounds to catch and the boat only holds 300,000, so you gotta go out four times to get it all. The longest I’ve been there on the show working: One time I flew out a few days after Christmas and I flew back April 5th. We have King Crab, which happens in October/November, and then Opilio, which happens in January, until you finish catching your crab.
NR: That must’ve been a rough stretch waiting for the story to unfold, and in some instances you don’t quite know what story may be.
MF: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. We get these story calls and ‘we gotta get this and we gotta get that’, you know. I’ll watch other shows, and I’ll be like that’s not real, or that’s a pick-up or that’s not what happened in the moment. I think there’s a certain authenticity to people when they’re angry or surprised or just dealing with all these emotions that we naturally get. The guy who was the Executive Producer for a long time, Jeff Conroy, he was a big fan of that. We would have our stories meetings before we would go to sea. He’d always say “keep it real” and it’s true. There are real stories happening all the time, and sometimes you have to sit around and wait for them to happen, but man, when they do, they’re the best stories ever.
NR: In allowing stories to naturally ‘play out’, you can’t necessarily say the production schedule may be ‘this many months in the field’ and we’re gonna capture everything we need. Do you often check in with the production office to keep the higher ups posted on story?
MF: We have a story call and usually, we have a story call everyday. We talk about what’s happening, who’s mad, and what the fishing is. Sometimes, they’ll say, “Get them to talk about this, or “that ties into that story that happened last year or five years ago.” Sometimes it helps to have another person that’s not there in the frying pan with you to wrap their head around the story. A lot of the guys that are my bosses, some of them have been to sea and some haven’t. But those who have been my story call bosses, my friends Johnny Beechler and Decker Watson, they actually started out on the boats as boat producers. For one, they really get what a miserable environment you’re in. You got so much going on, really hardly sleep, and are changing tapes every 4 1/2 hours.
NR: As a deck shooter, are you fastened in or use some type of harness?
MF: Where we shoot from in the wheelhouse, there’s a counter with computer screens, so you can put your body up against it and then lean and push with your feet, so you’re sort of locked in. Every once in a while, you take a pitch that throws you out and just like catch yourself and try not to drop your camera. You just walk back and lock yourself in and say, “Sorry about that…what were you saying?” Sometimes they even use that stuff.
We do some amazing things. They give us some pretty cool tools to do it. This year, we got this Gimball with a GoPro, and I did this thing where I suction cupped it into a window, so you’d see the boat tilting back and forth.
NR: How many cameras are rigged up to each boat?
MF: Generally, we have four to six cameras. There is one in the window looking out on the deck, and then there’s two looking out on deck and one on the captain. And sometimes, they’ll have two captains, so they’ll have two cameras on them. They [the cameras] are usually in housing except in the wheelhouse.
NR: Working in the industry, I’ve heard there is a boot camp or guide for the show before you even leave to field produce. Can you tell me about this?
MF: Yeah, they call it “Film School”… this boot camp and it’s a bible or 101. It’s more story-intensive. So they come in and they have a TV, and they go through the stories that got shot the year before. Or, if it’s opilio season, they’ll show some stories that were either from the year before or from King crab that aren’t completely fleshed out or done yet, but are pretty good stories. And it’s a good way if they’re like, “Well this happened on this boat… and those guys are still on the boat, so just keep in mind these guys have this history and see where it goes.”
They’re always trying to make better entertainment and there’s still a formula for making a better story. I remember one time I shot a story about some guy who was almost crushed by a pod, and my boss was like that’s not a story, that’s an event. And looking back, the story was about the struggling Greenhorn on the boat that he was sailing, and he wasn’t paying attention, and he almost got killed by a pod. Then he ended up getting canned because he was too dangerous to have on the boat. That’s a story. So when you go in and try and talk to the guy about how miserable he is, “Are you gonna make it?” It’s a better story when you get them talking about the challenges.
NR: Especially in this type of reality TV, you never know what to expect…
MF: Last year, I shot this great moment. I was out on the back-deck with one of the captains and one of the deck hands comes up…Casey [McManus] then takes off and I’m like, “What is it dude?” He’s like, “Bumper [Del Mar] has a hernia.” I run and grab my camera and run down the stairs…
It’s in the nomination this year for Most Uncomfortable [Awkward] Moment…you hear me, and he’s telling me, “You can’t shoot it,” and I’m like, “let’s see it!” It’s like, “Oh my God! Hey guys, you gotta see this!”
NR: What are the tips and tricks in producing ‘real people’, especially when someone doesn’t feel like opening up but it’s still your job to get the story?
MF: I always try to be respectful to people. In fact, if I cook something in the kitchen, I clean up my mess, or sometimes I get in and offer to cook for people, because they usually do all the cooking. Sometimes, there will be a little a resentment, but if you get in there and you’re sharing a space with somebody, you’re their roommate. I try to be a good roommate. You also gotta stand up to these guys. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years. I said to one of the captains last year, “I wanna be your friend, but it’s TV first.” That’s my job. Like I said, I wanna be friends first and you absolutely can, but you trust me. There are little tricks. You’re always in contact with the wheelhouse producer, and you’re trying to figure out what story is what. People always want to look like a hero, but no one wants to look like a zero. It’s such a unique world. It makes for such a great platform to tell stories. When you get there, stories just happen all the time and as long as you’re rolling, and you got your six cameras rolling, you capture them.
NR: What are the living quarters for production?
MF: It varies on different boats and the best boat I’ve ever had for sleeping was the Time Bandit and the worst was a cross between the rest of them. The Wizard is super uncomfortable. They have this 1×12 stuffed next to the mattress to keep them from rolling out bed, and we pitched so hard, this 1×12 snapped in half in the middle of the night. And my deck shooter fucking fell from the bunk and landed on the floor. I’m like, “Fuck! Are you okay!” “No!” He ended up sleeping on the floor the rest of the trip at seas [laughs].
NR: How often do you sleep between the boat pitching and shooting 24/7?
MF: When you’re so tired, you fall asleep anyways. When I was on The Wizard two years ago, I was changing tapes every 4 hours, and I realized, “Wow, I could totally be a parent. I get no sleep, and I’m fully functioning and making money…” But that’s The Wizard. A lot of the other boats will shut down for a good night’s sleep sometimes, but some boats… those guys are a factory.
NR: What type of cameras do you use that hold up so they don’t get damaged?
MF: We put everything in these blue zip lock bags that are on the deck, and that’s how we waterproof. We use tape, silicon, cut holes and put the mic outside. It’s a long, complicated process. We shoot on [Canon] XF305, which is what we went to for deck this year. We have some SONY Z5s that we use on deck all the time. Our wheelhouse camera is a [Canon] C300. We also have these [SONY] A7Ss that have been awesome. They got a little audio packet and it’s great for shooting at night.
NR: Do you have any role in Post since you have a birds-eye-view in the Field?
MF: I’m on pretty good terms with all the people in Post and they’ll call me and text me, “Did you get this or do that…” or they’ll be trying find something, and I’ll help them figure it out. The people in Post, I really can’t stress how much work these put into making this show so badass. From top to bottom, that show is just staffed with some amazing fucking people.
NR: What are your personal contributions to the show, especially having been involved so many seasons?
MF: I think one of my actual strengths is that I’m really good working with people. When I see Deck Shooters – when I first showed up, I was so intimated and scared – I offer advice. A lot of times, I’m the wheelhouse guy and I got the new shooter, and I tell them all the things they need to know to do a good job and to be safe. Even when I’m not on a boat, I’ll offer advice to people on other boats.
NR: Do you have any advice to those seeking a job as this type of reality tv producer or as a tv producer, in general?
MF: The best thing that ever happened to me – producer wise – was to be a river guide for almost 20 years. Maybe it’s just age and wisdom really, but I feel like I picked up my ability to read people from taking care of clientele in the wilderness. When you only have yourself and your team to rely on. Also, have thick skin, be as positive as possible, but know when to be a dick cause you have to at some point in the job. Never stop being creative, and find people to collaborate with as much as possible even if it’s not for pay, cause networking not only cross trains you in many of life’s and entertainment’s needed skills, but having connections leads to opportunities: In life, it’s not always what you know, but who you know. Can’t stress that one enough.