We drifted into Syfy's Destination Truth through the “ghost door,” as it were, last fall. Seeing host Josh Gates do a few appealing guest spots on Ghost Hunters — which not coincidentally leads into Destination Truth on Wednesday nights — and some intriguing promos, led to an interest in the show, which more than lived up to expectations.
DT, now in the second-half of season three, is an intellectually fascinating, wildly enjoyable combination of travelogue and serious paranormal/crypto-zoological investigation. The show has excellent production and entertainment values, a capable and engaging team, cool gadgets, and the gloss of solid scientific method about it, as befitting Gates' academic background in archaeology at Tufts University.
The stalwart Gates, 32, is a tremendous host and adventure-team leader, very quick and clever, self-effacing but confident, and enviably competent at a number of outdoor skills including diving, climbing, trekking, and photography.
We have recently seen Massachusetts-native Gates and his road warriors explore and investigate the Great Wall of China, Masada in Israel, and leprechaun-central in rural Ireland, among other exotic locales including, um, New Jersey (with GH's Kris Williams guesting).
This week's show involves a haunted mining town in Chile, and a creature called the "taniwha" in New Zealand.
I talked recently with Josh Gates by phone before he lit out to shoot the forthcoming season four's adventures.
Eric Olsen – Your locations are an amazing tour of the world! How do you get into these unprecedented hot spots? How did you get into, for example, Bhutan for the Himalayas/yeti episode? How did you get into Chernobyl? What is your secret for getting into places no one else can go?
Josh Gates – Part of the answer isn’t that exciting: it’s just asking. One of the things we have going for the show is that we are a very small crew. The show is not made by a cast of hundreds, and that’s part of the charm of the show — we hope — that you really feel like you’re along for the ride on a real, organic, roughshod adventure.
Bhutan is a great example of that: it’s a very closed off country in the Himalayas and they really limit the number of tourists they let in per year. Filming there is a little bit tricky and I don’t think it would have been either logistically or economically viable if we’d been an enormous production.
Sometimes we surprise ourselves. I’m not sure any of us thought we could pull off an overnight stay in King Tut’s tomb! That the government of Egypt would allow us to go down there alone, but sometimes you just have to ask.
These places aren’t necessarily off-limits. We actually pitched Chernobyl internally as a joke, but then we said, “Wait a minute, can we do that? Is it possible? Is it safe? Would we be allowed?”
Is this the same crew for the second half of season three?
By and large it is. There are always a couple of flip-flops on the crew. We get asked about that a lot, but it’s really just a function of the downtime between the seasons. In the reality TV industry people are always taking different jobs – our camera operators have worked on everything from Top Chef to Amazing Race.
We brought back Erin Ryder, who was on the show as on-camera field producer in season two. She wasn’t with us in the fall but she is back for these shows. She’ll be a new but familiar face. Jael DePardo is mostly not back for season 3.5: she had another opportunity, which she took. [Jael was recently announced as a team member on Syfy's new reality series Paranormal Investigators, which will premiere in July]. It was great to be able to bring Ryder — as she prefers to be called — back in her place, as fans know her and she has a great relationship with viewers.
We loved your relationship with Jael – there seemed to be a lot of chemistry there.
We spent a lot of season 3.0 in South America and it was great to have someone on the team who could translate [Spanish] and play an integrative role rather than having to rely on an external translator. There was a multiculturalism to Jael that was really wonderful for the show.
But Ryder is great and brings a kind of sassy element that is a whole other great energy [Indeed she does!].
'Cause you gotta have… SASSY.
Yes, you do.
Where did you get all of these skills? Team leader, diver, pilot, climber, photographer, and on and on.
I think I’m mostly a good editor if I’m making you believe those things! But seriously, apart from the team leader stuff and I appreciate the compliment, while I do love the outdoors, love to trek, I’m not especially adroit at climbing or some of those other things. Diving IS something I’ve done my whole life because my father is a deep sea diver, so water has been a big part of my life since I was a kid.
But a lot of the show is “just do it.” I’ve learned how to ride horses just by doing the show. Sometimes when it goes really wrong, we try to feature it – like riding camels in Egypt!
And sometimes you just get the hang of it right out of the gate. We’ve been really lucky that way, to just roll our sleeves up and try these things we haven’t done before. I guess it gets back to “you never know until you ask.” You also never know until you try, and we are always game to try these kind of adrenaline adventure activities if we can make them part of our adventure.
There seems to be often a quite high element of danger to the show. We were literally on the edge of our seats worrying about you when you were deep in a Bermuda Blue Hole, alone, and without communication. We were sweating that one out even though we knew you must have survived: “Hey, this is a repeat, he must be alive!”
That is a big part of the show, and it’s a tricky part of the show because we have to thread the needle between having an adventure that’s organic and doing something that’s reckless. There are a number of instances this season where things get a bit hairy – certainly the nighttime Blue Hole dives from the Caribbean – that’s some of the scariest stuff I’ve ever done: to be that deep in a pitch black environment, alone, and then to lose communication, was tough.
We had some problems with an airplane in Romania in season 3.0 as well, with parts peeling off the plane. But that’s all part of adventure – you take the good with the unexpected. Plenty coming up too!
It would appear you survived.
Maybe – I could be a recording.
Do you put a lot of time and effort into ensuring safety even though risk is inevitable in adventure?
We have an understanding that if it gets TOO dangerous, it would be the last episode we make. We don’t want anyone to "check out" out there, so we certainly try to be safe when we can. A lot of the show is made in the developing world, places where “safety” is a sliding scale, but we do the best that we can. The unknown element tends to be the environment. It’s very hard to put a cocoon around yourself when you’re in jungles and countries where politically you don’t have a lot of control, and we’ve been very lucky.
Looking at the name of the show, what “truths” have you personally found thus far? What do you know or think you know now that you didn’t know before? Do any of these things exist?
I think we have established that a number of things DON'T exist. I walk away saying, “This is folklore, this is myth, this is misidentification” – the latter being a big one. People ARE seeing something but they are identifying it as something else.
In terms of things we have found – I am an open-minded skeptic. I never go in thinking these things are there, but neither do I discount them out of the gate. I think there’s a number of stories we’ve investigated where I’ve walked away and thought, “Maybe there’s something going on there.”
Season 2.5 we investigated a creature in Indonesia called the orang pendek, an unknown primate creature, and I found that really convincing. The people who are proponents of that story are credible, and once you realize how unexplored some of these rainforests are – we tend to think of the earth as having been explored and rainforests being encroached on everywhere, but there are whole tracts of wilderness where we don’t understand very well what’s in there.
From more recently on the show, I tend to find most of the lake creatures not overly compelling at the end of the day for reasons of the basic stuff: breeding, food, room to live as a population because that’s what you’re talking about: a population.
On the paranormal side, I’m an open minded guy and we’ve been to places where we’ve had experiences where I walk away and say, “I don’t know how to dismiss that; I don’t know how to walk away from that and say it’s nothing.”
The Yeti is another great story – there’s a lot of heat on that story in terms of credible people telling similar stories that date back for generations and maybe there is something going on there that we don’t totally understand.
In a more abstract sense, I’ve learned a lot of truths personally: I think I’ve learned how important the stories themselves are. A lot of people hear a tribal story about some creature in Africa and they think it’s about whether it’s “real” or not real. But the bigger question, really, has to do with the value of the story to the culture, and I think I’ve learned that these stories hold a lot of importance to the people who tell them and they inform you a lot about the culture.
That’s a great point and it reminds me of another thing we love about the show: you always make a point of interacting with the people you’re visiting, spending time with them. I think it really comes through that you do respect people and their cultures and traditions, and take them at face value and enjoy them.
Thanks, I appreciate that. We try to have a lot of fun with the people we meet and I think the show has a good sense of humor. Sometimes people think we’re messing around with these people because I have a very sarcastic personality on the show.
But the bottom line is that we have such a great relationship with the people we meet and the people we work with overseas, and we have met so many people who are interesting and fun and have a great sense of humor themselves. It’s the one area of the show I wish we could show more of. We’re always tight on time because we have to get to our investigation, but we could spend the whole show just talking to these people about their history and their culture.
We went to the Great Wall this season and I could do a six-hour special just one Chinese culture and history. There are so many great stories out there to tell – we try to squeeze in as much as we can and still make it a great ride for the viewer.
I think you do always give at least a sense of it; you show enough of it that you let the viewers know you are interacting with the people wherever you go, that you’re open to having a relationship with them, and that you’re not patronizing.
I’m very glad you feel that way – that’s exactly what we would like to portray.
I wanted to mention that of all the paranormal shows we watch – the Ghost Hunters trilogy of shows, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab – the one episode that literally haunts me is the segment from season 3.0 where you guys are in the haunted woods of Transylvania and your cameraman Evan is yanked backwards out of his chair by something unseen. That is the most bizarre and stunning thing I have ever seen on TV.
And we only showed a fraction of it because he was so rattled and shaken up by it that past a certain point it didn’t feel appropriate to show it. He really had this wild experience out there, and I wondered… He got himself really worked up before it happened, and I wondered if he got himself into such a frenzy that he had some kind of panic attack out there and made it happen. But when you watch the tape from different camera angles, he looks just pulled out of his seat, backwards.
And he really was so shaken up. Evan is our director of photography and he’s just terrific at his job – he’s a road warrior and not a guy who is easily drawn into most of this stuff. So when something like this happens to a guy like that, it’s freaky stuff! That was certainly one of those things I can’t easily explain away.
I have to say that scene might have changed my point of view on the paranormal in general. There’s a pattern to all the shows and you can get into that and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting and potentially revealing and all,” but not feel COMPELLED to think it means anything. But that scene viscerally hit us all and genuinely frightened us. I’ve had nightmares since then about being yanked backwards out of my chair, site unseen – very disconcerting!
It’s one of those moments when you say something is not right about this place.
Underlying the investigations and all the fun you clearly have on the show, I also get the sense you feel you are doing something important.
I am really passionate first and foremost about the travel. My father did a lot of work overseas in really interesting, exotic places when I was a kid, so from an early age I was exposed to the idea that there’s a big world out there.
Having been blessed to have seen at least some of the world, you realize that many people in America don’t travel. Travel is a luxury for a lot of people, and for others, they just don’t know that joy of travel and how amazing that experience can be.
I really think it’s important for people to fundamentally understand what’s out there, that the world is a lot bigger than “our” world. So for me, the show has been a way to bring people to places that they haven’t seen before.
Having a sense that the world is a much bigger place than just your own life is an important thing.
I’m thrilled to be able to take people to — in season 3.5 alone — glaciers in New Zealand, Masada in Israel, Easter Island, deserts in Chile, all sorts of interesting places that people haven’t been to or might not even know about. My overriding interest lies there, in exploration.