Solitary tells us that there are gigantic regions of possibility for reality television that have yet to be tapped. One of the people beginning to tap those regions is Lincoln Hiatt.
Lincoln is co-creator and executive producer of this psychotronic, human experiment. Before producing reality television for Fox he created stunning video displays for such high profile films as Independence Day and Godzilla, notably the opening credit sequence for the latter film.
You can check out part 1 of our exclusive interview here. Here's the second part.
MANIA: So where did you come up with the idea for Solitary?
LH: The original idea was that I wanted to go to the salt flats and dig ten underground chambers. An underground chamber consisted of a cot, a toilet a meal slot and a ladder to go to the surface where there was this seal, almost like a submarine hatch. And then one wall was going to be all glass with an operator behind it that you couldn’t see, in a separate chamber. Everything was going to be heat and cool controlled through a ventilation system that rose above ground but the only thing you saw above ground was something that looked like a giant tombstone. And I wanted even to just put the contestants first names on it. There’s an old legend that if there’s a tombstone with just a first name on it you’re supposed to walk around it and repeat the persons name over and over and they’ll appear. So the initial idea was you bury all these people and you take a year to shoot it and there was no gaming except on some sort of off kilter schedule you allow them to climb the shaft to the top and to walk around in a little pen in front of their grave marker. And over this half mile row they could see all the other grave markers and most of the time they wouldn’t see anyone else there but sometimes in the distance they could see another contestant walking around their grave marker. The game was that anyone could quit at anytime and the last one left was the winner. So that was the initial concept and then it was “well, how do we turn this into a reality?” So, ok, we can’t afford 365 days of shooting, constraints of production and concepts, they all kind of push and pull. And we came up with a scheme of rather than wait people out, we had to drive people out.
MANIA: I think it’s ingenious how you use I’m going to guess is a relatively small budget to serve the higher purpose of the show. It all works wonderfully together.
LH: It all ends up working. We’re very proud of it. Andrew Golder is a very good producer and a great partner on it; we’ve been working together for around 15 years. Fox Reality came to us and said “give us a show that know one else will produce. We want a show that no one else will make.” Great! We’ve got just the thing!
MANIA: What was the perception of the show before you actually made it?
LH: Before we made it, it was scary as hell but the basic security measure is…solitary confinement can be really damaging but it’s basically a garbage in/garbage out scenario. If you’re broken going into it you’re not going to come out of it any better and if you’re well you’re not really going to come out of it any worse. We screen people rigorously. We do our best to find people who are really well integrated; the more integrated they are, the less likely they are to dis-integrate.
MANIA: Do you often find yourself thinking a possible contestant would be great but there’s just a couple of things that seem off; so you decide against using them?
LH: We have a ranking system and there are a handful of experts in the business that we use. The psych analyses and the test that we do is as rigorous as we can make it but it’s not foolproof. The person you think might be a risk is not a risk and the person that you think is completely stable might be the one you really have to watch.
MANIA: As a psych major I just think that’s so fascinating. It must be really exciting at the beginning of a season to hit the “start” button and just see what happens.
LH: We’re talking about season four now and God-willing, we’ll do it. The ratings are great now, it’s the best thing Fox Reality has on the air, it’s what makes people come back to that channel
MANIA: I personally hate reality shows. I think they’re incredibly mean spirited. They pit people against each other in an almost animalistic way and really bring out the worst in human nature but when I came across Solitary, I found it to be really different in that respect. It’s not about lying, cheating and stealing your way to victory which is really what’s been going on with the country as a whole.
LH: I don’t begrudge any of those shows their success. If it’s getting an audience it’s satisfying a need but there have been about 30 years of Regan era thinking in this country but now there’s a shift, a change of epoch. This Obama election; grass-roots, yes we can, we don’t like the status quo. That status quo being the utter and desperate collapse of the financial system and the housing market and Gordon Gekko as a character saying “Greed Is Good”, well Gordon was wrong! And Allan Greenspan as a real life “kneel down at their feet” guru/expert on how to run financial markets and how a de-regulated financial market, which is basically governed and organized by the Gordon Gekko-like creed and now with all this mess he comes out and he says “oops! I guess I was wrong”. It was this funny, faint, horribly disturbing mia culpa. Essentially “I was wrong about human nature and its effect on the financial markets. He thought that greet would self-regulate. He sold the Kool-Aid! If you can distance yourself from the crises it’s fascinating and funny as hell. But I agree with you, I think it’s time for a shift away from the bloody mind mess of the other shows. It can continue, I don’t care, make another eight seasons of Survivor or Big Brother. If you’ve got an audience then great but there’s room now for something that’s a complete turn-around from that. Now my biggest challenge is getting people to get that. Every buyer, they hear me but they’ve been conditioned to think that a reality show is one particular thing.
MANIA: Really?! It seems so obvious. What those shows like Survivor did was to say “here’s a new kind of show, a new format and then what Solitary does is to say “That’s only the tip of the iceberg, we haven’t even begun to fully tap what can be done here. That, to me, is why I got excited about Solitary.
LH: Generally speaking, people really do want to make something new and different. It’s just that they don’t want to put their jobs on the line for it, and I understand that.
MANIA: I agree. That’s really the thing with corporate entertainment thinking. A failure can cost you your job so you do what you think has the best chance of success which leads to just copying something that’s already been successful.
LH: We tend to repeat the actions that are rewarded and to not repeat the actions that are not rewarded but the trick is in discerning what the reward is. The incentive and the reward are not always obvious. I think you’re right about this being a fear based culture. A lot of people are motivated by, make their decisions based on fear and if you can elect not to do that. If you can separate yourself from your fear, we’re all afraid, everybody has that but if you can not make your decisions based on fear then you will find success.
MANIA: Doesn’t the fact that it’s the most successful show in Fox Reality’s history…doesn’t that encourage people? Make them think “hey, they’re doing something different and it’s working!”
LH: Yeah, People are willing to listen now. I can get an audience now; it’s just hard getting them to trust it will work (laughter). Speaking of trust, all the credit in the world to Fox Reality – David Lyle (runs Fox Reality), Bob Bowden and Noel Siegel who understand it and were willing to take
a chance with it and stay with it.
MANIA: I have to ask you about a particular treatment. The smelling treatment. That was amazing. I had to turn the sound down (Lincoln laughs heartily) because the sound of people gagging and heaving almost made me sick too!
LH: Then we did our work!
MANIA: How did you create those scents?
LH: That’s a secret I can’t betray but I will tell you they were horrible. The funny thing is, we’re trying to figure out what’s going to drive people to quit. We had one guy put on the face mask, smelling “liquid ass” who nearly threw up into the facemask and then I tried and thought “well, I guess I’ve changed too many diapers in the last couple of years! This isn’t nice but it’s what I breathe all day”. Everyone’s looking at me like I was sick in the head. I get liquid ass a couple of times a day! It’s called the baby’s sick or the babies’ needs their diapers changed!
MANIA: I’m also really interested in the idea of creating challenges to get people to quit; trying to force them out. It seems like a difficult line to walk between making someone sick to their stomach and cutting their fingers off. Because let’s say the challenge isn’t strong enough and people don’t quit and you’re in week one hundred and no one’s quitting!
LH: It’s risky. That is risky. In the first season we had a challenge that I loved and made a great act of TV but nobody quit. It was called Sonic Assault and we bombarded the contestants with these awful sounds; dentist drills, jack hammers, sirens but no one quit. But just around the time of that episode we had a contestant quit over absolutely nothing. We had a contestant named Cliff and because he quit because we didn’t give him his Chapstick. He melted down in Solitary. When we first put him in the cast we all thought he would win. He was young and fit and a really proud and aggressive male. He called himself a stuntman; he had been to stunt school; he lit himself on fire! And he quit because he didn’t like the way his new “mommy”, Val, was talking to him! She wouldn’t give him his Chapstick!
MANIA: That’s amazing.
LH: Our season one winner was English teach from Fairfax high. This slight guy; we didn’t pick to win.
MANIA: What do you want to do with season 4?
LH: I can’t really reveal it. I have a really interesting, head game, diabolical twisted minded thing for the contestants.
MANIA: Do you find yourself thinking “we’ve been doing this for three seasons, what else can we do?”
LH: The goal is to create something that is familiar. So the audience can relate to it. That often figures into it. Something that you either have experience with, that you know is annoying as hell or you can tell it’s annoying as hell. What we’re trying to get to, regardless of what the activity is, is the rawest, truest expression of self. What I wanna see isn’t the most amazing gag or stunt in the world. I want to see people truly reveal themselves. I want to see their highest highs, their lowest lows, their deepest confessions and their greatest epiphanies. And we get those things out of people in Solitary.
MANIA: I want to talk to you about the lack of sleep the contestants go through. That’s a really difficult thing to endure. No sleep.
LH: The contestants suffer in a way in Solitary. They suffer as long as they want to.
MANIA: Right. You’re not asking them to put their hands into a box of razor blades.
LH: In a way, you could! No one’s required to do it!
MANIA: That’s true but if you put a diamond at the bottom of a box of razor blades, in a way you’d be taking advantage of people’s…It’s unbelievable what some people will do for money.
LH: The other reality is that if you did do that some of your contestants would think it was a trick and that the razor blades won’t really cut. They put a certain amount of trust that you won’t really hurt them, which is true.
MANIA: Not that I would want to watch people put their hands into a box full of razor blades. (Laughter)