The Totem Pole‘s third season will premiere on YouTube on July 7. Find out what creator Wesley Bryant had to say about the show’s journey so far.
Following in the footsteps of long-running successes such as Survivor and Big Brother, a new reality TV series debuted in early 2019. The show is titled The Totem Pole and was created by former Sequester participant Wesley Bryant. At this point, he was a student at Harding University, located in Arkansas.
The Totem Pole is a social popularity game – after winning challenges, contestants can rank their competition, usually based on alliances or perceived threats to victory. The person at the bottom is eliminated, with a another elimination usually coming from a collective vote.
Wesley Bryant sat down with Conor O’Brien from Courageous Nerd to talk about the show’s journey so far, little known production secrets and what to expect from the upcoming Season 3, due to premiere on July 7.
You’re the creator and executive producer of The Totem Pole on YouTube. I was wondering about the process of first conceptualising the format?
Wesley Bryant (WB): Right. I was actually in college, it was January of 2018. I was watching Big Brother, I believe it was Celebrity Big Brother at the time, I’m not exactly sure. One of the HouseGuests said, “I feel like I’m at the bottom of the Totem Pole.” It was this reoccurring theme I kept hearing on Survivor and Big Brother, this social hierarchy of how some people have more power than others. They feel like the next one to go home, they’re on the chopping block.
I just immediately had a light bulb go off. I had a notebook and a pen, sat down and just designed the game in about 45 minutes. We played at my University over and over again. Hundreds of people had played, every single week. There’d be waiting lists to play the game. I mean, it worked at the beginning but over time because we played so much, we’d make tweaks and developed it more. By the time it was ready for the show, we had a more polished game.
Even in the seasons, from Season 1, to Season 2, to Season 3, the game has still developed and polished more every season.
You’ve appeared as a contestant on Sequester. How much did that experience and other external sources inspire The Totem Pole?
WB: My experience on Sequester was really… as a Big Brother super fan, to be introduced into that world, to interact with people from Big Brother was definitely something 11-year-old Wesley never expected to happen. To see Sequester actually make it into a show, showed me that it’s definitely possible. Growing up, I had shows on YouTube. I don’t really want to give the usernames of my old YouTube channel, people end up finding it.
I used to make my original Sims shows, I used to make reality shows in my backyard. I’ve been doing this since I was like, 11, 12, 13 years old. I even made with my grandpa, a Big Brother nomination wheel. In the old days, they would spin the wheel and pull the keys out. I had the keys, I had the veto necklace.
So I’ve been doing this for such a long time and being on Sequester was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m grateful and thankful for that experience.
From the second season of The Totem Pole, you also became the onscreen host. How was the adjustment after being behind the camera for all of Season 1? How soon after Season 1 was the decision made to transition you over?
WB: Good question, that’s not something people ask me, ever. So that’s a good question. Filming Season 1, the players onscreen and people producing the show, we were all students at the same University. I wanted a more directorial role, make sure I was getting the shots I needed. I wanted to make sure that the game was running smoothly. So I didn’t feel like I could direct and host at the same time. So I got someone [Sean Lewis] to host the show, he did a great job. Moving onto Season 2, I decided for explanations, for editing purposes… if I ever have to a voiceover in editing. If I ever know that I need to explain when something happens in the game, the host might need to clarify for the viewers so it’s an easier experience to understand. In Season 1, I would have to cut, jump in and say it. If I was the host, I could just spout it all off and say exactly what I needed to say.
The transition happened, I guess in planning for Season 2. I felt comfortable with the production team, I knew that we could work well together. I knew that because I’d been doing it for years at this point, hosted hundreds of games, I could say the rules in my sleep. So I just felt like I could have a smooth experience hosting and directing at the same time. And every time it gets better, Season 3 is even better.
On that kind of note, how different was your relationship to the contestants in Season 1 compared to 2 and 3? Were you any more or less impartial, with the different roles?
WB: Good question. In Season 1 and 2, they were all students from my University so I knew them or knew of them or someone had put their name in my ear that they would be a good person to talk to. For example, in Season 1, I was friends with everyone. They were all not necessarily friends with each other, some of them had never even really met before. Season 2, the same case but I had actually never met several of them.
Rachel [McCurry], I don’t believe I had ever met, I had to sit down and talk with her, I believe. Jase [Thornton], I had never really met or talked to, I had to interview him. Athena [Wagner], there was a lot of people that I wasn’t friends with. Of course, we are now. In both times, I’m never really rooting for someone necessarily but as a producer, you have to be completely fair for everyone. You can’t give anyone any extra relations. I tried to stay impartial for the best game experience.
There may be times where it’s like “Oh, if Nick [Lee] stays in the game longer than Kadia [Grant] might start another fight with him so that would be great for the show.” At times, I’m like ‘that would be awesome’ but I would never influence the game in any way, shape or form.
In the 2 released Seasons so far, there’s been many memorable presences. Does anyone stand out in your mind when you think back on Season 1 and 2?
WB: Yes! Absolutely, honestly a lot of them stand out in my mind. Some people stand out even when I cast them expecting they would be more of an introverted character. Or thinking that they wouldn’t cause as many waves. Then they get in there and put on a whole different show. I mean, it makes for a great experience.
I think there’s a lot of All-Stars. Particularly two that I think make for a great show. I brought them back for Season 3 but I can’t drop any names.
Although there were 6 episodes in Season 1 and 11 in Season 2, I’ve gathered that the filming process was a lot shorter than that might make you believe. How long does it normally take to shoot on-location?
WB: Right, so this is really interesting and not a lot of people know about this. So the University that we went to has a lot of rules, it’s not a typical University. There’s a lot of conversations to be had there so I want to be careful with how I present this. There’s a lot to unpack there, a lot of rules in the University. I no longer go there, most of the people in the show don’t go there anymore.
One of the rules is that you’re not allowed to spend a night overnight without the Dean’s approval, if you’re off campus. So I actually reached out to the top Dean and had lunch with him, which was kind of insane. I told him; this is the show we want to make, this is the premise of the show, it’s fun, we’ve been playing it on campus forever. He was super excited about it but he’s like ‘navigating these rules are going to be complicated, I can’t really make any exceptions. But I understand what you’re doing here, so we can work something out.’
I originally wanted to film over three days; a Friday, Saturday and Sunday for both seasons. But because of those rules, we had to film Season 1 in one day and we had to film Season 2 in one day. I didn’t want them to go home, I didn’t want them to have their phones, to communicate outside of the game and come back to play again. In Season 1, it was an hour and a half drive for everyone. They had to be there at 7AM and be ready, cameras rolling at 8AM. It was, like, immediate. You can tell in some of the episodes in Season 1, the strategy portion seems to be really short. That’s because they didn’t have much time. We had a really tight schedule.
Then, we throw for example in Season 2, a storm that knocked out the power or a camera going out, or a drone breaking in the trees. Those sort of things really make it complicated but we have to stay on top of the ball to make sure the Season finishes. In Season 2, we started rolling the cameras at 8AM and we wrapped filming at about 11:30PM. The production team really did not get a break. The cast obviously were getting breaks when they’re voting or having to talk to producers.
They have breaks, they don’t have their phones or anything, just sitting in the living room together with a producer watching them. For Season 3, it was a totally different story. I’m no longer a student there [Harding University], the show’s expanding, it’s growing. So we opened casting to everyone. And we were on location for five days, I believe. It was a lot different, it went a lot more smoothly because we had more time on our hands. The production team was very on top of things, we knew what we were doing.
We did have an issue with a drone. Bless his heart, one of the producers brought his drone and he was filming the outdoor shots that you’ll see in the trailers and in the premiere. His drone hit a tree and flew into the lake behind the house. This producer took off running as fast as he possibly could, dove into the lake and swam down as his drone is sinking to get his drone. We ended up fixing it, getting it back and its working but it was the first hour of filming and this drone was in the lake. There’s always some kind of hiccup.
Anyways, we had a lot more time for Season 3, it went really smoothly. It allowed for more development in the players and their games. There’s so much crying in Season 3, there’s drama. It’s an explosive season, it’s so good. I think having the extra time for things to continue to develop, new plot lines, it made everything insane. Almost every episode is close to an hour long. It’s jam-packed, you’re gonna be glued to your screen the entire time.
The Totem Pole recently became a simulator game on Brantsteele, alongside the likes of Survivor and Big Brother. What does this development mean to you, personally?
WB: Honestly, it gave me chills from head to toe. I was on the verge of tears. It was a surreal moment to have that conversation with Brantsteele. We stay in communication, we still talk all the time. Before Season 1 was even filmed, I sent them an email and said ‘This is the game, this is the format, we’re making a show. Would you be interested in doing a simulator?’
I never expected them to even respond, to be honest. He was like ‘I love the format’. He really bought into the format, thought it was unique and interesting, really enjoyed it. I feel like I’ve got a good relationship with him. He’s very friendly, great to work with. I’m so glad I reached out via email with him. Because who would’ve thought? 11-year-old Wesley playing Big Brother and Survivor on Brantsteele that my own game would be side-by-side years later.
Season 1 contestants, Garcelle and Kadia, appeared in the finale of Season 2. Have you found ways for other former contestants to stay involved with The Totem Pole?
WB: Yeah, that’s a part of thing that I really love. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it brings people together. To go through it, honestly… it’s stressful, to be on the show. To be a player and to constantly try to make sure you’re surviving in the game, it’s stressful. You don’t have your phones, the only thing you can think about is each other and the game. When I say Totem Pole family, I really mean it. It really has a built, like a family, so they’re constantly like ‘How can I help? How can I help? I wanna be there, I wanna be there.’
So, of course, we had people from Season 1 and 2 on production for Season 3. It just continues to grow and everyone wants to be involved. Not to be too mushy, but I feel like it’s made a lot of people’s lives better. They’ve met lifelong best friends that they never would’ve met otherwise.
Season 3 is set to premiere on July 7. What can you tease about the new contestants? How are they different to the previous casts?
WB: Ooh, good one. Season 1, for perspective, these people had played Totem Pole before and they knew about it because of our University and playing the game on campus. So it was kinda like, ‘We’re gonna do what we usually do, just for way longer and with cameras.’ Season 2, they were more into it, you can tell their drive was a lot more. They wanted it.
Season 3 is like putting Season 2 on steroids. People are flying from Los Angeles. They’re flying from South Texas and Orlando, Florida. People are coming from everywhere, putting a lot of time, energy, and money into this. Really wanting to be there and wanting to win this game. It meant a lot to them, you can really tell in the way that they play the game. All of them have a drive, nobody’s going to give up. Everybody wants to be there so bad and if they think they might go home, they’re gonna do whatever it takes to stay. It makes for an amazing show.
I’m just thinking back on Season 2 with Jase and Val. That’s the most intense I ever saw it get. If you can top that, it’s gonna be crazy.
WB: [Laughs] Just wait!
The theme of Season 3 is ‘baggage’. Could you talk about how that may affect the gameplay throughout the season?
WB: It really flips the game on its head. The game starts with 10 people sitting in a living room. They have no idea that we have people outside waiting on them. We bring in 2 people to join them in the cast and saying they have baggage with each other. People were like ‘Oh my gosh, who’s gonna walk in? Is my ex walking in?’ Then, I was like, ‘We’re still a little light on the cast. We’re still missing some people. So let’s bring in some iconic players, why don’t we?’
They’re back, with their baggage and to see the reaction… you’ll see it in the premiere. When I say that and they’re all fans of the show, obviously. They had no idea we had people waiting outside for them. When they walk in and they literally scream. ‘Do I want to play with these people? Do I play against these people? Should I be in an alliance with them?’
Then, on top of all that baggage, there’s also a new twist with the Defender. I don’t want to say too much exactly, the Defender dynamics have changed a little bit. Players now will have to save at a cost. Or unleash baggage. So, we’ll still have Save and Power, things get a little bit more complicated with the baggage twist.
Like you said, a pair of former contestants are coming back. Do you have any last minute hints at all about who it could be, or do you want to stay completely mum on the subject?
WB: Hmm… let me think on this one. These are players who both wanted to win really badly but things fell apart a little bit too soon for them. A lot of people are going to be happy with who they see.
If could offer any piece of advice to your, as you say, Totem Pole family around the world during these unprecedented times, what would your sentiment be?
WB: To show love to each other, try to understand each other. Realise that… I myself have had a lot of… I live in America and things are crazy. People are angry in America, we’ve been angry for a long time. You know, people feel very passionate about the way they feel here. I don’t know if that’s because… Facebook and memes, we’re very polarised here. There’s been a lot of hurt, a lot of crying.
Stand up for what you believe in and love other people as much as you can. Try to understand other people. If you have a voice, a platform, use it to change the world because history will look back on us. There will be heroes and there will be villains. And I hope we all fall on the side of love and the side of the heroes of history.
Totem Pole Season 3 airs on YouTube from July 7