Sci Fi has been spreading its creative wings with the number of reality competition shows they have been premiering as of late. Last night, "CHA$E" premiered on the network and tonight "Estate of Panic" makes its debut. Actor Steve Valentine and Executive Producer Richard Hall talked with Jim Halterman about the fearful elements of this frightful game series.
In "Estate of Panic," seven contestants are put through three nerve-wracking challenges such as a room where the walls cave in or a basement that floods with water along with bugs, snakes and creepy insects also being present. The goal for each of the contestants is to come out of each challenge with the most money (which is hidden throughout each room) and be the last person standing. That person faces the final challenge in the Vault Room where hundreds of compartments hold more money, devices to escape captivity and the usual snakes and bugs. Creepy, yes. Lucrative, yes.
Valentine is an actor best known for his work on "Crossing Jordan" and series such as "Boston Legal" and "Chuck" but in this series he plays a different kind of character. "This part... or this guy that owns the mansion and is teasing people with the cash and kind of saying You want the money, let's see how far you're willing to go." Valentine further explained, "It's not one of those kind of cheesy game show host parts. It is a character. It's another side of my personality... I've been acting ever since I was a kid and every role you play is some element of your own personality that's expanded upon or enlarged. And this was no different."
As far as the contestants on "Estate of Panic," Hall said "the people were cast here in Los Angeles through a casting agency that specializes in reality programs. We were looking for diversity. We wanted people of different age ranges, physical appearance, personality types, backgrounds." While some competition shows as "Survivor" and "Fear Factor" seek out a crop of physically fit, attractive contestants to fill their shows, "Estate of Panic" intentionally veered away from that type. "The show that we set up doesn't necessarily go to the strongest or the swiftest. It's a mind game. And I think that proves itself out during the course of the series." There was one personality trait that they did look for in potential contestants. "We have a lot of very reactive people, very willing to share their inner monologues with the world at any time. And, of course, on a show like this that was extremely entertaining."
Shooting the series in Argentina also had its plusses and minuses for the cast and crew. Valentine admitted, "My least favorite part was the travel because that was about 15 or 16 hours." Hall added, "for editorial reasons, I think it added to some of the mystique of the experience for the contestants. Here they are having to fly halfway around the world. It's a little bit more romantic than going up to Valencia."
A character in itself on the series is the Estate where the challenges happen both inside and outside the house. Hall pointed out that the "Estate of Panic" is not a set but "it's actually a historical estate belonging to a family down there [in Argentina]. And they were good humored and generous with what we were doing there." However, some of the challenges could easily destroy the estate so there was a back-up plan for shooting. "We shot as much as possible on the grounds of the estate," Hall said. "There were times when we have to move into a studio to replicate the estate." Valentine chimed in that "the scope of the challenges is so ambitious and huge that there were times when we couldn't really destroy that person's house."
Surprisingly, according to Valentine, the contestants weren't completely motivated by the chance of walking away with a large cash fortune. "This was an experience for the contestants. It was a chance for them to go through stuff they probably will never go through again in the rest of their lives... it's more than just money because it's this chance to prove yourself." Valentine also said this straight from the mouths of the contestants. "I would talk to the contestants sometimes off camera and we would talk about the game show and we could talk about the competitions and everything. And for them, the main reason most of them said they were doing it was for the challenge."
There was another motivating factor to being a part of the game that Valentine suggested. The show "was about challenging and facing your fears. And it was quite admirable... there was one girl who was terrified of tight spaces and ended up going into these crawl spaces underneath the house... she was like I'm here, I'm going to do this." Valentine also said there is one particular fear that he can relate to very well. "One of the scariest moments was whenever [the contestants] walked into a new room. They did not know what to expect. And the fear of the unknown is, I think, one of the biggest fears. It's one of the biggest. I'm a control freak so I like to be in control of everything in my life."
In talking about conquering fears, Valentine revealed that he was able to get beyond one of the fears he's had his entire life and it has legs. "I actually was able to face a fear while I was there holding a bunch of tarantulas. That was a biggie for me... and the worst thing is when they lift them off your arm because they grip, so it feels like they're biting you for a second because they grip onto your arm... but if the contestants are dealing with them... I'm going to give it a go, yes."
In terms of the bugs and animals that are plentiful in "Estate of Panic," how are they actually brought into the home? "We have a wrangler company that works in particular with all the odd mammal, insects and reptile requests that we would need," Hall said. "We certainly relied on them quite a bit and had some fun making sure we didn't lose any and tried to keep track of them all and return them." The wrangling company not only furnished the animals and bugs but also was able to make sure that there was never anything truly dangerous in the game. "The wrangler companies themselves always have to demonstrate for us that any creature that they're bringing in is harmless or it looks scary but is actually harmless. In some cases, even though something might be able to bite, there's nothing in the bite.
"Estate of Panic" is a test for any viewer wanting to conquer his or her own fears. The first of six episodes airs tonight on Sci Fi at 10:00/9:00c right after the ever-popular "Ghost Hunters."