The producer behind some of the toughest shows on TV has grown accustomed to taking production crews where no production crews have gone before.
He’s Thom Beers, the man whose company, Original Productions, has staked out some pretty far-flung territory for itself, including the cold ocean waters off Alaska (‘Deadliest Catch’), the Arctic Circle in northern Canada (‘Ice Road Truckers’) and the forests of the Pacific Northwest (‘Ax Men’). In truTV’s ‘Black Gold,’ which starts its third season Wednesday at 10/9c, the 54-year-old Beers plumbs the oil fields of West Texas for high drama.
The return of ‘Black Gold’ is particularly timely, since this year’s biggest news story – the British Petroleum oil platform explosion (in which 11 workers died) and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – provided a stark reminder of the dangers faced by oil-well workers. In an interview with Fancast, the prolific producer talked about the lessons of the BP tragedy, what’s in store for the new season of ‘Black Gold,’ and how he juggles so many shows in so many out-of-the-way places.
The dangers of oil drilling have certainly been detailed in the news this year. What can viewers learn about this occupation from watching ‘Black Gold’ this season?
We’re on the ground, in the dirt in Midland, Texas, not on a platform, so that’s a good thing for us. Obviously, it’s a much different form and style of drilling, but one thing [the BP disaster] did do was point out the fact of how incredibly dangerous that business is. From that side, it’s tragic. But it also reminds us why it tops the list of the top 10 [occupations] in OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] for deaths and dismemberments. I think also it brought home that, [despite employing some of] the smartest minds in the world, we really sometimes don’t know what in the hell we’re doing.
Did the filming of your show coincide with the BP explosion and its aftermath? Is it discussed or mentioned by the characters on your show at all?
No, not at all. Actually [shooting on ‘Black Gold’] was long done by then. I was actually shooting ‘The Colony’ in New Orleans for Discovery when that happened, and in my little compound where my people were, one morning we all woke up and oil had come right up the canal and killed everything in it. So I’ve seen the impact personally and firsthand in New Orleans.
What about in post-production? Were you able to find a way to make any kind of reference to the BP blowout?
The only thing that we do is spend a little bit more time on the blowout preventer, because all the wells have the same [device]. I mean, [BP’s] blowout preventer unfortunately was a mile under the ocean, but ours is right under the rigs, so we did spend some time kind of looking and reviewing [that] and letting people really understand, visually, what it does.
Does the new season of ‘Black Gold’ start up right where it left off last season?
What we do is we track the same rig – that’s Rig 28, “Big Dog” – and the guys on it. It’s a more linear approach than last year because there are three different crews on that rig – a day crew, a night crew and the split crew. Now what’s interesting and different this year is the fact that Autry Stephens, the man who owns Big Dog 28, is going wildcatting. I mean real wildcatting. Last year, they were working in known oil fields they had leases on and where they knew that they were going to strike oil. This year, they’re “wildcatting,” going to places where nobody’s found oil before. It’s a much bigger risk, but it’s a much bigger reward because … if you get a big strike, you could get as many as 400, 500, 1,000 barrels a day. They’re trying to strike it rich and go for the gold this time. If you miss, you’re out $10 million a well.
How do you juggle all these projects in so many out-of-the-way places? What is your story?
I’m very fortunate. For eight straight years when I worked at Turner Broadcasting [as an executive in charge of production], I juggled 200 television shows a year that I literally screened and worked on. Now I didn’t physically make those, but I was the executive who gave the notes on every one of those shows. So it was a skill that I learned. I can work on three or four shows simultaneously. That’s the way my mind works.
You’ve become a very prolific producer of these non-scripted shows – docudramas, you call them – at a time when that business is exploding on TV. Are you glad you’re in this particular business at this particular time?
I certainly am. I mean, timing is everything. Right now, I have 15 television series in production on seven networks, so I’m very fortunate to have gotten my foot in the door. Also, I’ve got to be honest: I learned my craft. I’ve been doing this for 24 years and before that I was a playwright and a director of stage [productions] and I produced a number of television commercials, so I’ve learned this craft over many, many years. So, because of my theatrical background as a playwright and also an actor, I think story is key and creating character arcs and story arcs as if you were doing a play and taking that into the reality world is something that not that many people have the skill set or talent to do. It’s something that I had and I think that really translated well. We know how to tell a story.
You’ve also been praised for the swashbuckling way your crews go about filming your shows and capturing the action in some pretty harsh environments.
Years ago, I was sitting on a shipwreck up in the Aleutian chain. It’s spring, but it’s still freezing cold and this icy cold rain is coming down and we’re living on the beach and we’re filming, trying to save this shipwreck. We’re filming them taking the shipwreck off the beach and cutting it up and it’s really gnarly work.W e’re living in these tents and all of a sudden, a storm comes in and bears started coming out of hibernation, and they’re coming down on the beach after our food. It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute.” We all had to get on the boat because of the bears, and the boat is getting battered by waves, getting knocked over on its side…. I’m freezing cold, water’s sloshing up…. I’m getting knocked all over the place. I thought, “What the [expletive] am I doing here?” And on the wall, somebody had written in chalk, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” That was just like, Bam! It hit me that that was the whole reason for all of this!