Envelope Emmy Round Table: Reality hosts get real

Ever wonder what goes into putting a reality show together? We here at The Envelope certainly did. From scripting out the challenges to winging it on camera, from taking a personal interest in contestants to weeding out the pretenders, reality hosts Padma Lakshmi (“Top Chef”), Phil Keoghan (“The Amazing Race”), Adam Savage (Mythbusters”) and Heidi Klum (“Project Runway”) covered it all when we asked them to chat with Times staff writer Amy Kaufman about their worlds.

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Here are edited excerpts of that free-ranging conversation.

—Elena Howe

Amy Kaufman: You are all the faces of your shows, and I imagine that many people think that means your job starts when you walk out in front of the camera. But how much preparation goes into getting ready for your shows before each season starts?

Phil Keoghan: Well, once everything has been scouted, then I go through with the producers to find out exactly what’s happening. I sit down and write the scripts with another producer. And that’s a process of writing and rewriting because the challenges get changed. And then we present the scripts to the network. And then there’s further changes. And then we leave with a script that is somewhat close to being finished. And then while we’re out on the road, stuff has to get rewritten and so on. I guess it would start a few months before we leave. And then the shooting itself is around 21 days.

Kaufman: So you actually write the script in advance of the entire season?

Keoghan: Well, sometimes while we’re on the road. And we’ll be somewhere and the challenge will fall through, and so we have to redo it. The producers will quickly go out to scout something [new]. And then something has to be written. And so we have to do it on the fly when we’re out there.

Kaufman: What about for you, Padma, do you get involved in vetting the contestants?

Padma Lakshmi: I don’t. I mean, we have a great team that goes out and scouts. And we changed the show in the last season, just that we let you watch the last cut [of applicants]. And so we did have a hand in it this time. But it’s better, I think, not to, for us anyway, because I’m a host, but like Heidi, I’m also a judge. So it becomes difficult. Usually, when we start the season, we know loosely what the challenges are. We have field producers who map that out. Sometimes we do have to change them, because not everything that is a great challenge works on TV. And for us, I think this is different than “Runway,” you can see if a dress fits well. The audience can’t taste at home. So they’re really relying on us as judges to describe that experience, that sensorial experience. And so that becomes a challenge.

Heidi Klum: I think the whole year about different challenges. As one of the producers, we all think about what could be a cool new challenge. So it would be if I’m in the shower, I think about something. Literally, that’s how they happen to me. And then when we all meet, we brainstorm and basically kind of sell each other the ideas that then make it onto the show. We don’t really have scripts, so we just kind of do it off the cuff.

Kaufman: Adam, I know a lot of people wonder how you come up with all of the myth-busting ideas.

Adam Savage: Well, I think one of the reasons that we keep it fresh is that we’re never not shooting. There’s always a “Mythbusters” in production. We shoot 46 weeks a year. We usually start out a block with a planning week, where we’ll go over the four main stories we’ll shoot over the next eight weeks or 10 weeks. And we will rough out what we think is going to happen. And so, because our show is experimentally based, we often have no idea what the results of one of our experiments might be. So we’ll have an expectation of what the result will be, and we’ll book a location and a set of materials for the experiment. And then we’ll do the experiment, and something totally different will happen.

Kaufman: So you never do a test run?

Savage: We will do some tests off camera, but very rarely. Most of the time it’s all happening right there. And then, you know, we’re lucky that you have most of the climates you need in Northern California. We’ve got everything from snowy mountains to desert to ocean. So if we need to change locations, we have built 10 years of relationships with people so that we can call up a bomb range and say we need to come out there. We can call up our rental place and get some large industrial equipment.

Keoghan: I love that your hands are [dirty] — you told me over there that you were working on a project just this morning.

Savage: I was gluing up some acrylic boxes. There’s a myth that the shape of foxholes matters distinctly in how a bomb affects the people in the foxholes. And so we’re making scale foxholes out of acrylic boxes, and we’re going to put oil and water in them and see wave propagation in different shapes.

Kaufman: Reality TV has become so popular over the years that now everyone wants to be on a reality show. Do you feel like the potential contestants are savvier now and trying to wink at the camera in their interviews?

Lakshmi: For us, the people who wind up being attracted to the show, yes, they’re much more savvy. But not only has that been so because of “Top Chef,” it’s just because the advent of food television as a whole has been so great. The competition is so fierce now that we have James Beard nominees who are actually just contestants and Food and Wine best new chef and all that because of the exposure it gives you to restaurateurs and very established chefs who are in the position to give you a job [or] invest in your new restaurant and things like that. It’s no more just about being on TV.

Kaufman: You’ve got to get a few extreme personalities on the show, though, right?

Keoghan: I think one of the benefits of our show in terms of casting is that we’re not looking for people who are specifically good at one particular thing. They’re not great cooks, they’re not great designers, they’re not great singers or dancers. They are so-called ordinary people who we then thrust into an extraordinary situation. There are absolutely people that walk into the audition process that we see who, straight away, you can tell that they’re trying to come in with something that isn’t really there, because they know that we’re looking for good stories.

Kaufman: How can you tell?

Keoghan: Just the story is kind of forced. You can read it straightaway. And you know the audience is going to read that. It doesn’t mean that we always get it right. But we have an incredible casting group who, over the years, have really put forward some great teams. And this last season, with Bopper and Mark, after 20 seasons of the show, I got to tell you, next to the cowboys and the Globetrotters who we’ve had on, Bopper and Mark are fighting for their child who is sick. And they are so genuine and pure in their desire to come on this race to win the money. You see that. You see it because it’s on their faces. It’s in everything they say. And then they came out and they exceeded our expectations in terms of what they gave. And there isn’t a team that we’ve had on in the 20 seasons, I would say, that so captivated the audience.

Kaufman: You mentioned Bopper and Mark, and I saw you get seemingly emotionally involved in their story. Heidi, have you cried before on “Project Runway”?

Klum: I don’t really get teary-eyed.

Kaufman: But you fight for certain contestants.

Klum: I do fight for them, yeah. No, but talking about people just being on the show, because they are fun or whatever, I mean that for me comes with the territory. I think that most people who are in the fashion industry, if it’s hair, makeup, style, whatnot, I think they are all a little bit different and a little bit more out there and flamboyant and fun. And they really feel like they’re it, you know? So, in terms of finding someone that is fun, no. We always have to look for someone who’s talented, because [otherwise] they will be out immediately; they have to do a real serious outfit in a day.

Savage: This is something, actually, I love about both of your guys'—actually all three of your shows — is that they exemplify an attention to craft and real intelligence. We’ve been addicts of “Runway” for a long time in our house. It’s about watching people. It’s that process of watching people solve those problems. It’s really engaging.

Lakshmi: I do think that is why the shows do well, because it’s very compelling to see someone so passionate about what they do, whether they’re making a skirt or a soufflé.

Klum: Yeah, it’s not about living in a house and who can stay in there the longest and who has an affair with who. I mean, this is about people actually wanting to break into a certain industry. That’s how it is with us.

Savage: It’s not about breaking somebody’s spirit and watching them fall apart on television.

Klum: They actually have to make something out of nothing. And yeah, I get sad for them when I have to send them home. But I’m very black-and-white. I don’t get too involved in their personal life, back story either.

Keoghan: I get invested. I can’t help it. I see people take their first plane rides, go to a foreign country for the first time. And I get very, very invested. And I get really frustrated if I see somebody come on and not be giving it 100% in competing, because so many people want to be on the show. I want them to be there. I want them to be hungry. I want them to be competitive. And I think what we’re talking about here with our shows is it’s a fair competition. Our show is not about voting somebody off or you having the power over somebody else to affect the outcome of how they compete. They’re out there competing in a fair race. And it’s more than just the winning of the million dollars, Bopper and Mark didn’t win the million dollars. But I know for a fact that their lives have changed forever. And there’s something tremendously satisfying in knowing that you’re a part of a show that not only offers the reward of winning the money, but these people will never be the same again. And for the close to 300 people that have been on our show, I still am in contact with many of them.

Klum: It’s such an experience, I think, for them to be on, because they always say, “Oh, my God, it’s so different than when we watch it on TV.” They all say that. So, I think just the experience of going through something like that for so many weeks …

Keoghan: It’s life-changing.

VIDEO: Watch the discussion