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Gold Rush Film Crew — Q&A

posted: 04/11/12
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GOLD RUSH Film Crew -- Q & A
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Members of the film crew that produces Gold Rush: Alaskashare their stories and reflections about what it's like living and working with a group of rookie gold miners deep in the Alaskan wilderness.

Film Crew Members:

- SAM BROWN: Associate Producer

- SIMON EVERSON: Supervising Producer on location, episodes 7-10

- SAM MAYNARD: Series Producer

- JAMIE BERRY: Supervising Producer on Location, episodes 1 to 4

- MATT TESTA: Supervising Producer on Location, episodes 4- 7

1. How does working on Gold Rush compare with other productions you've been involved with?

SAM BROWN: The Gold Rush shoot was without doubt the most intense experience of my career and definitely the steepest learning curve. It never stopped, or even slowed down, for the whole four months I was out there. It wasn't unusual to work seven days a week and I slept with my boots on more times than I care to remember. But our production team was the best bunch of people I have ever worked with and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

SIMON EVERSON: Before Gold Rush, I was working on another Discovery series Frontline Battle Machines which I filmed in the Afghan battle zone. Although I could walk around freely in Alaska without the fear of booby traps and bombs exploding under my feet - or being shot at - the threat of a bear confrontation never went away. Wherever you go you carry bear pepper spray and an air horn so you're always prepared for the unexpected. Filming any documentary is always exciting, but being in awesome Alaska with the Hoffman crew was an amazing experience that felt like a privilege most of the time in spite of the rain, snow, and freezing weather. Whether you're in front of the camera or behind it, every person feels great as a member of the same team.

SAM MAYNARD: I specialize in working on long term projects in remote locations and this one has been as intense as any production I've ever run. Short planning time; the unpredictability of gold mining; the fact that we are making an observational documentary and not a reality show which we can produce; the bears, the guns and the gold, it's a rock 'n' roll mix. And the commute from London is a little tiring.

JAMIE BERRY: To be filming a slice of American history was like nothing else I'd experienced before. These were men who were suffering at the hands of the economic downturn and you really got the sense that it was a tale of "what's happening now." To capture the sense of the American dream being reborn was one of the major challenges of the series.

WATCH VIDEO: The Miners' Desperate Plan

In logistical terms, it was literally a juggernaut. Keeping track of four cars and four trucks on the way out of Oregon was a military operation. Coordinating four camera crews and a helicopter from a moving car is not easy either. The 2000-mile road trip, through some of the most stunning landscape in the world, involved us constantly 'leapfrogging' the convoy and setting up cameras to get drive by shots.

MATT TESTA: Every TV show is its own time capsule, reflecting something about the moment in which it was made, but I think we were all motivated as producers by just how relevant the Gold Rush story is right now. Here you've got these six guys who are struggling in the recession - they could be your neighbors - and they respond by risking it all with this amazing adventure. It's a very American story that is both timely and timeless. The notion of searching for a better life on the frontier is a theme that runs throughout a lot of our history. It's a cherished ideal that people can really connect with these days.

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2. Give us some examples of the major production challenges (supplies, power, communications, wildlife, etc.)

SAM BROWN: Safety was probably the biggest production challenge we faced on location. Filming on an active mining site in the middle of nowhere presents a lot of hazards, not to mention the grizzly bears that call the place home. But we had a great bunch of local security guards who kept us safe and we all learned very quickly to watch each other's backs. I think it's a real achievement that we managed to last the whole shoot without even one injury.

SIMON EVERSON: The biggest challenge! Sheer hard work! As Supervising Producer overseeing three documentary camera teams - 12 hour shifts on location and then a drive back to base to collate the days shooting and plan and prepare for the next day. Collapsing into bed only to be up at dawn for a conference call with managers in London and the lower 48, all before setting off to location to do it all again. This was the schedule for at least six days a week, sometimes seven and felt like eight! That makes it tough to keep energy levels up and maintain high morale especially when things go wrong and nothing runs like clockwork.

JAMIE BERRY: Bears were always a concern for both the miners and the crew. When they started appearing in camp in broad daylight we knew we were dealing with hungry, fearless creatures. We were all equipped with a can of pepper spray and a fog-horn (they don't like loud noises) to ward off the beasts but our greatest asset was our team of safety officers. They had guns just in case a bear attacked one of us and were on constant watch when we were out filming. We could not have made the film without them.

WATCH VIDEO: The First Bear Invasion

MATT TESTA: Where to start? Haines, Alaska is situated on the end of a peninsula that lies at the top of the world's longest fjord, so getting supplies and shot tapes in and out was no small matter. Unless you drive down from the Yukon, Haines is only accessible by ferry and small plane. The flights are very weather dependent, which can make travel, and the mail, pretty unreliable. TV productions run on very tight deadlines, but we had to get by without being able to call FedEx at the last minute and know that a shipment would arrive the next day. And since the production office is in London, there was a lot of lag time in sending gear or footage around the globe. When it came to moving people around, there were a lot of missed connections due to weather. That said, the pilots up there are the greatest!

Communications were rough at times. There is no cell phone service at the claim or at our cabin, so keeping track of the crew and staying in touch with the main office in London was a challenge. We had two satellite phones but they are not always reliable. Fortunately our tech wizard, Colin Bowes, was able to whip together some ingenious solutions. He installed satellite internet, powered by a generator, up at the mine, which enabled us to not only send emails from the wilderness but to make Skype calls from our smart phones. He also put in a very reliable VHF radio system so the production cabin could talk to the claim. In a terrific stroke of luck, Colin got the VHF system running the day before little Olivia Hoffman stopped breathing back at the mining camp. As a result, we got the emergency radio call at the production cabin and summoned the ambulance from town, a 45-minute drive from the claim. The paramedics were able to meet Todd and the miners midway between town and the claim, cutting their response time way down. It's nice to think that this made a difference in Olivia's recovery and may have even helped save her life!

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3. Tell us about your impressions of the Porcupine Creek setting and the Alaska Panhandle in general? Did the physical features match what you imagined before you arrived?

SAM BROWN: Southeast Alaska is difficult to describe if you haven't been there. It is definitely the most beautiful place I have ever worked. The first time I visited it was all under several feet of snow and there was a bald eagle in every tree. In the summer, it was a whole different world. There aren't many places where you can swim in the ocean, climb a snowy mountain, watch the Northern Lights and catch a king salmon, all in the same day. Another amazing fact is that there are so many mountains in this part of the world that they haven't gotten around to naming them all.

SIMON EVERSON: It was far more magnificent and beautiful than I could have imagined and the local people were great. Seeing a moonlit mountain range reflected in the still surface of velvety black ocean is quite a sight but it's like that everywhere. Flying over a snow capped mountain range on a helicopter filming shoot and sweeping down into Porcupine Creek only inches above the tips of golden yellow autumn trees. Seeing the incredible deep blue ice of glaciers that you know the frozen water is literally thousands of years old. Quite a change from the rainy streets of London. A completely different sense of time in Alaska.

SAM MAYNARD: One day in early May I was driving up the dirt track that travels along the Klehini River to Porcupine Creek. The sun was beginning to set behind the blue snow covered mountains and there was orange light bouncing off the river with a mother Grizzly and two cubs walking across the water. At this moment, I thought, 'this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen'. It was a great privilege.

JAMIE BERRY: Every time we turned the final corner into Porcupine Creek it felt like choral music should be playing. It was beautiful, especially to see the Chilkat Mountains towering over the woodlands of Porcupine Creek. Mosquito Lake must be in the top five most stunning places I've ever been. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the lake is home to Dolly Varden and Cutthroat Trout. I think I sat in a boat with a rod for about five hours in total. I never caught anything. I did eat the ones caught by the better fishermen in our group. Delicious!

MATT TESTA: I was continually struck by how intact the ecosystem is in Southeast Alaska and by how interconnected everything is there - the land, the people, the wildlife, the weather. It really gives you a glimpse into how things must have been in the lower 48 before most of the wilderness was removed. Alaska is thick with wild creatures. They don't just have bears in Southeast Alaska - they have LOTS of bears! You see scat, tracks and both black and grizzly bears on a pretty regular basis which is just plain awesome. The cabin we lived in on the Klehini River is in an area known as The Valley of the Eagles for its large bald eagle population. Eagles would often congregate outside my bedroom window in the morning and wake me up with their chattering! As alarm clocks go, it's hard to beat.

I'll never forget being on top of one of the summits not far from Porcupine Creek and getting a real bird's eye view of where we were. It was a rare day off and a few of us hiked up a stunning trail to the top of a mountain called Peak 3920 (named very pragmatically after its elevation). It was a clear day and we had these amazing 360-degree views down the Lynn Canal towards Juneau to the south, up to the Yukon to the north, with rivers, fjords, glaciers and innumerable mountain peaks in all directions. I just remember thinking 'this is the most beautiful place I have ever been.' I was stunned by the enormity of the landscape. I lived for a few years in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the Teton Range. That is a big, wild place and famously scenic. But it seemed that Southeast Alaska was made up of hundreds of Teton Ranges. You just can't get over the scale of the wilderness there.

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4. How did you find this group of guys in the first place?

SAM BROWN: We were researching survival stories for another documentary and posted our topic on an online message board. Todd Hoffman responded to the post and said he was starting a gold mine in Alaska. We called him and the rest is history.

SAM MAYNARD: They found us. We were posting on boards looking for a completely different story when Todd Hoffman got in touch and told us he was going gold mining with his dad Jack and a group of unemployed men. It was such a great story that we jumped on a plane almost immediately and filmed them as they set up and went to inspect the claim in Alaska. Todd selected all his crew - we had no part in it.

5. How did you approach the production with this group of guys?

SAM BROWN: It was simple. We were a documentary film crew observing a group of men trying to run a gold mine in the middle of nowhere. We followed what happened and tried not to get in the way.

SAM MAYNARD: We followed what they did and there was a clear line between filming and mining. They mined, we filmed.

JAMIE BERRY: We had to work very closely with them. We were constantly consulting with one another so that we could plan ahead and best cover what would be happening, such as the road trip up to Alaska.

6. What caused the most misery or difficulty on location?

SAM BROWN: For the production crew the mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies and countless other biting insects probably caused the most misery. I had a rough few weeks in July where my bites had bites. I started wearing so much DEET that every time I touched something plastic it would melt. But the cameramen had it worst - they'd have to hold a steady shot while dozens of mosquitoes landed on every inch of exposed flesh.

SIMON EVERSON: Bad weather, ice, snow, continuous rain, and having to stick it all out to get the series made. The rain got into the cameras and fogged up the lenses, it was difficult to get them dried out and keep filming. When the first snow came it destroyed our operation centre on the claim.

SAM MAYNARD: The insects were a real problem towards late summer. The mosquitoes and No-see-ums were intense; a real force of nature to be reckoned with.

JAMIE BERRY: Breakages and mosquitoes on steroids. Fixing stuff in Alaska is a pain. It's a 60 mile round trip from the claim to Haines and even then you can get there and not find what you need. The miners found this particularly annoying as it would cost them valuable time and money. Quite often parts would have to be shipped from Seattle which would take five days - a major set back if you're trying to get a gold mine started.

Setting off from the production base in the morning meant walking through a mist of mosquito repellent - just to get out the door. Some mosquitoes were so big that you could hear the thwack as you swatted them. Being a cameraman meant that the left hand side of your face, the one that wasn't up against the camera, provided a flesh-banquet for mosquitoes.

Probably the biggest issue for the crew was the soggy sandwiches! We had to take delivery of 20 or so sandwiches at the end of each day. Stick those in the fridge overnight, and then whack them in a cooler box to be taken up to the claim. By lunchtime you've got some wet bread and lanky lettuce wrapped in shrink-wrap...nice!

MATT TESTA: Equipment breakdowns were a huge challenge for the miners and for us. Machines like the shaker and trommel and excavators are exerting tremendous force when they run and breakage is just inevitable. The miners were amazingly skilled at fixing and running things, especially James Harness, who is a genius. But invariably there was always some part, or bolt or type of metal that was needed to complete a fix and get things running. And in Alaska you can't just run down to Home Depot and pick it up. This forced the miners to be amazingly resourceful with their fixes, but there were also many days spent waiting for the right tool or part to come in on the ferry or be driven down from the Yukon. It really tries your patience.

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7. What were some funny moments or events? The scariest?

SAM BROWN: Initially the crew was a bit anxious about the grizzly bears, which were everywhere. But after a while you realized that unless you are really unlucky the bears will mind their own business if you mind yours. Also, with rivers full of salmon and bushes full of blueberries, they have much better stuff to snack on than TV producers. The locals all found it hilarious that we still wore our bear spray everywhere.

SIMON EVERSON: While shooting another Discovery Channel series in the Afghanistan war, I was filming in a medical emergency evacuation Chinook helicopter that flew into a gun battle to rescue wounded American soldiers. On the way home, our helicopter was shot up and the British pilot shot in the head. He still flew us home. When miner Chris Doumitt saw the film he gave me the nick-name 'Bull's Eye'. The name stuck and I wore a miner's helmet with a target on it for the rest of the shoot.

SAM MAYNARD: The funniest probably involved a rare day off for the crew at the Haines Beer festival. To spare blushes, I won't go into the participants' details but they know who they are. The scariest by far was when Todd Hoffman's daughter nearly died from a seizure.

JAMIE BERRY: We had what might be our very own Austin Powers moment. We were on the final push up to the claim with the all of the miners, crew and tons of heavy machinery in a convoy up the Alaskan panhandle. This was meant to be the climax of our 2000-mile odyssey to the claim. The assistant producer who was leading us needed to turn around and get out of the way so he wouldn't be in the shot. I put it down to the steering wheel being on the other side of the car than he's used to but he managed to somehow wedge the Chevy Suburban firmly between 2 walls of snow that bordered the road. He reversed, then went forward, reversed, then went forward, reversed, then went forward and after about 3 minutes of repeating this in full view of the miners and crew the radio crackled into life with the words: 'I think I'm stuck!'

MATT TESTA: There was a hilarious moment with Todd and Thurber's son, Nate, involving one of the water pumps. Todd was upset one morning to find that his nephew, Sterling, and Nate, had not started the water pumps to empty out the Glory Hole after they had already been asked to take care of it. So Todd came down from the wash plant and tried to coach Nate on starting the pump. But Nate had forgotten to prime the pump before running it, which caused it to explode and blast water all over the both of them. The whole thing had this Abbot and Costello quality to it that was priceless.

Watching Harness collapse when he lost control of his legs was truly frightening. It reminded everyone that the stakes in finding gold and paying for Harness' back operation could not have been higher. Also, Harness was an irreplaceable member of the mining team. Seeing him in so much pain was humbling for everybody.

WATCH VIDEO: Harness Goes Down

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8. What was your relationship like with the miners?

SAM BROWN: We were living in close proximity with these guys for a six month shoot. Its impossible not to form relationships in that kind of environment. I'd consider all the miners to be my friends, but at the same time, you obviously have to keep a bit of distance. You are there on a job, so you have to be able to detach yourself and be professional when the cameras roll.

SAM MAYNARD: We interacted but filmed observationally.

JAMIE BERRY: We constantly had interaction with the miners. When we were on the claim we would spend the day up there but we never inserted ourselves in the mining process. Come lunchtime we would all sit together and talk. It's only natural that you get close to people with whom you're sharing such an intense experience.

9. What events (with the miners or film crew) are the most memorable for you? What was your proudest moment during the filming of Gold Rush?

SAM BROWN: I will never forget the day that Todd's little daughter Olivia suffered a seizure at the claim. Everyone put mining and the TV show to one side because of what was at stake. By an amazing stroke of luck, we had installed a satellite link from the claim to our production office the day before it happened. If it hadn't been for that, we would never have been able to get an ambulance out there anywhere near as fast as we did. I hate to think what could have happened otherwise. Happily it all ended well and Olivia made a full recovery. I think that this experience more than any brought the miners and the production crew much closer together.

WATCH VIDEO: Saving a Young Life

SIMON EVERSON: Running the wash plant into the night and lighting it all up to give us fantastic dramatic material for the series finale. Filming Jack Hoffman digging in the bottom of the Glory Hole surrounded by ice and snow and seeing the ground collapsing around him as the temperature dropped.

SAM MAYNARD: With the miners it was seeing this random band of brothers finally pulling together to get their hand-built wash plant up and running in the wilderness and seeing gold for the first time. With the crew, there wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't proud of them.

JAMIE BERRY: Far too many moments to get them all in, but filming bears and bald eagles was a spectacular first for me. Seeing the miners fight their way across the Klehini River in the 400 excavator was a battle between man, machine and nature. And then there is making life-long friends, fishing, swimming in glacial lakes and being in the land of the midnight sun.

MATT TESTA: One thing I learned about gold mining is that the process is rife with extreme highs and desperate lows. But every time it seemed that hope was lost at the mine, someone would step up and rally the troops. After the shaker had been broken for a few days, people were getting extremely frustrated. Harness fixed it, which was a huge achievement, but then the generator blew. By the time that was fixed, it was night, so everyone assumed it was the end to another disappointing day. But to everybody's surprise, Todd climbed up into the excavator and started yelling orders: 'Start the shaker!' 'Start the trommel!' He began feeding dirt into the plant in the dark, which is like doing it with a blindfold on. Todd was on fire. The crew members were exhausted but they rallied behind him anyway. The plant ran into the night. Todd had inspired everyone and it was great to witness and to film.

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10. What about this series do you think is appealing to the American public?

SAM BROWN: What these guys are trying to do is inspirational. They're striking out for a new frontier and trying to live the American dream. Alaska plays a big part in it too — it's a magical place and people can't get enough of it.

SAM MAYNARD: I think people are fascinated by gold for a start which makes the whole process of finding it a natural adventure with a potential 'get rich' payoff. Also, the fact that all the guys were unemployed struck a chord with lots of people who find themselves in similar straits.

JAMIE BERRY: The families in Gold Rush are suffering the same things that are bringing down other Americans across the country like unemployment and disillusion with the country's economy. These folk speak to the core of what America stands for: freedom and the ability to seek out a fortune in the land of opportunity.

WATCH VIDEO: Firing Up The Miners

11. What's one (or more) fact about the miners and their world that you'd want everyone to know?

SAM BROWN: The miners have the best facial hair of any group of men I have ever met. Someone out there should start marketing the "Gold Rush: Alaska Beard & Moustache Disguise Kit" for Halloween. I'd buy it. I tried to grow my own beard while I was out there, but it didn't work out. My mum still makes fun of me for it. Maybe next year...

SIMON EVERSON: The miners formed a brotherhood, living together over a period of 6 months; they did everything together, and found gold in each others hearts, as well as in the ground. I felt privileged to work with them. Chris Doumitt was an inspiration to me - his 'can do' attitude and dedicated work ethic taught me a lot, as well as his perpetual good humor and faithfulness. Also Fred Hurt - a gentleman adventurer, tolerant, hospitable, and respectful. All great people I shall never forget.

SAM MAYNARD: Everyone says, why don't they find gold quicker? Well it wasn't a TV construct, it's real. As our bunch of rookie miners struggled and bumbled there way towards striking pay dirt, I came to realize that if finding gold was easy, it wouldn't be so valuable.

JAMIE BERRY: They think English people talk funny.

12. Would you recommend gold mining in Alaska to your friends? Why or why not?

SAM BROWN: A lot of people have asked me if I would consider giving up TV producing to go gold mining and the short answer is no. No way. Mining is a lot of hard work and you need a lot of know-how, perseverance and luck to stand a chance. It's a huge risk for a tiny chance of reward. Plus it requires a huge investment to start a mining operation and keep it running. There's a joke in this part of Alaska: How do you make a small fortune from gold mining? Answer: Start with a big fortune. Filming other people mining is as close as I'm likely to get.

SIMON EVERSON: If Fred and these guys are still going in 10 years I will ask them to take my son gold mining for a season, by then he'll be 18 years old. I think an experience like that would be a character building experience that could be useful for a lifetime.

But in general I'd say no don't try it; it's not for most people.

SAM MAYNARD: I'd definitely recommend they go to Alaska to experience the beauty and the people, but the mining bit, no. I think my circle of friends would rather spend the money with jewelers.

JAMIE BERRY: If you want adventure with real jeopardy then go for it. If you don't like hard work, stress, the threat of bankruptcy and bears then don't go!

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