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‘I will live with that noise forever’: Inside ‘The Challenge’s’ scariest stunts

Competitors hang from a platform suspended over water labeled with the words "THE CHALLENGE"
Competitors on Season 37 of MTV’s “The Challenge” had better be OK with heights — and water.
(Archi Vienot/MTV)

The “daily challenges” on MTV’s “The Challenge” are the bedrock of the show, and in 36 seasons and counting have run from the supine to the ridiculous. They’ve involved teams melting blocks of ice by rubbing players’ bodies back and forth across them or wiping honey off teammates’ scantily clad (and often impressively sculpted) forms. But they’ve also increasingly involved setups bordering on the cinematic, becoming more challenging as competitors’ athleticism has spiked.

Australian Guy Norris, the feature film stunt coordinator whose credits include “Mad Max: Fury Road,” has been working on “The Challenge’s” set pieces for about 15 years — back when the goal was “what normal people could just go out and do.” Things have changed.

Players have run along narrow beams suspended high above water, performed difficult tasks underwater and tried to throw each other off the top of a moving truck (with giant nets attached). In one competition, challengers hung outside the window of a car while a stunt driver burned rubber, but only on two wheels: The car was being driven with only one side’s wheels on the ground.

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“We are basically bringing all the elements of a $200 million- or $300 million-film, the same rigging crew, the same equipment,” says Norris.

“The plane gag that we did in Namibia — we had a full-sized plane suspended by two cranes,” he explains, referring to a challenge in which players solved a puzzle while on a plane being rolled to simulate airborne distress, then leapt out and plunged into water.

“There were some ‘Mad Max'-based ones with the two tankers with people transferring along; we did that in the exact location we did ‘Fury Road.’ We go to the highest buildings they have, like in Panama.”

Emer Harkin, one of the series’ showrunners, recalls that nighttime Panamanian rooftop: “It was like a hundred-story skyscraper; they were descending these long ropes. They had to step off the edge of the building and transfer from rope to rope. If you didn’t make the transfer, you could hear the rope; they were plunging, like, 60 stories. I will live with that noise forever.”

Competitor Josh Martinez (and teammate) atop a car on MTV's "The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies."
Competitor Josh Martinez (and teammate) are in a for a roof ride in one of the increasingly cinematic stunts on MTV’s “The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies.”
(Archi Vienot/MTV)

Norris says the series is “constantly adjusting the complexity” of the challenges to meet the competitors’ evolving skill set. That also means challenges with mental components, such as puzzles, so the likes of Faysal “Fessy” Shafaat (a former Division I football player) and Jennifer West (a fitness expert) don’t dominate.

Returning year after year to the series, which premiered in 1998, longtime competitors have helped make ‘The Challenge’ the ‘Boyhood’ of reality TV.

“When [host] TJ [Lavin] and I talk about the ultimate Challenger, we’ll say we want someone to win who has excelled in every single facet of this game: socially; overcoming their fears; physical prowess; endurance; and eating,” Harkin said.” “The mental element of our game is the most critical to us. But not everybody can nail that.”

It’s not just the Challengers on whom the show’s physical requirements take a toll.

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Harkin says, “We just finished in Iceland; at the end of ‘Double Agents,’ they were in the eye of a hurricane, a real hurricane. TJ was delivering lines like the windswept weatherman, unable to stand up straight: ‘I’m TJ Lavin!’”

A group of reality show contestants look up at two competition platforms suspended over water.
Contestants on “The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies” contemplate a suspended platform on which they’ll be competing.
(Archi Vienot/MTV)

They had to change “major beats of the final” because of the danger, she says: “We couldn’t put them on the water the way we wanted to. They were meant to ascend to the top of a mountain; they only went halfway and we had to move the set down because we had 100 people on the side of the mountain; they were scaling cliffs.”

Norris says, “There was a really cool one, leaping off a waterfall literally in the middle of the jungle in Panama, and we had to basically hand-carry all the equipment in a couple of miles through the jungle and build an entire scaffold rig. We had a local [guide] to help us bring everything in. So that’s satisfying — you’re on a beautiful location that is absolutely remote, looks fantastic and you’ve got the competitors leaping off into space over this beautiful jungle environment. That’s a nice memory.”


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