The COVID-19 pandemic shut down a lot of TV production last spring, but many shows have figured out ways to safely go back into production. For shows that film outside of the U.S., however, that was a trickier business due to travel restrictions — Survivor still hasn’t filmed a season. But the hardworking production team from The Challenge managed to get a whole season shot this summer and fall, which debuts Wednesday, December 9.
Here’s what you need to know about the filming location and the safety protocols the show put in place.
Season 36 Was Shot in Iceland
According to the MTV press release, the “Double Agents” season was “filmed entirely in Iceland,” with the “frigid Arctic Island [setting] the scene for this espionage thriller featuring 30 of the strongest reality titans from around the globe, who are forced to outsmart each other in a game of secrets, spies and lies for their share of one million dollars.”
In a recent interview on the podcast “Reality Life with Kate Casey,” executive producer Julie Pizzi, who is also the president of entertainment and development at Bunim/Murray Productions (BMP), Iceland is such a unique, beautiful location that the show has an otherworldly quality to it this year.
“The show looks otherworldly now … it feels like another planet, it’s gorgeous,” said Pizzi, adding, “I love the look of this season. I love the soundtrack of this season.”
Pizzi also revealed that filming in Iceland was “a very difficult decision” because “it’s radically expensive.” For instance, there aren’t just construction cranes they can use for challenges just sitting around everywhere but shipping one to Iceland is a huge expense. But MTV actually came to The Challenge production team and suggested Iceland because of its low rate of COVID cases, so Pizzi credits the network for being “very supportive in making that happen.”
The COVID-19 Testing Was Extensive
However, because the country had so few cases, the team had to be extremely careful. In an interview with Variety, showrunner Emer Harkin revealed that the whole team had to get their heads wrapped around an entirely new way of filming the show.
“For everybody [in the cast], it was about getting [their] head wrapped around [the new] steps that would get us to the show, and then once they were in the house they could proceed as normal,” said Harkin. “By ensuring they were all in quarantine and all had negative [COVID test] results, it meant we could afford ourselves that position. There was really no way we could execute our show otherwise.”
When everyone on the 300+ team arrived in Iceland, they had to quarantine, and then after they were cleared, the production took over an entire hotel for the crew, who would travel back and forth to locations in a bubble. The local crew members were kept completely separate from the cast because they returned home at night.
Everyone took a COVID test every three days, meaning they went through 3000 COVID tests over the 11 weeks they were there. But Harkin was proud to say they never once had a positive test.
Another kind of fun change is that production built a nightclub for the players because the team knows it’s important for them to get to cut loose, but right now, they can’t just take them into a city and turn them loose at a bar.
In the podcast interview, Pizzi said that was part of the fun of this season because the cast members were coming off of being very isolated at home.
“You have to remember that people are coming out of being isolated already. They literally went from being isolated for a good five months and then they’re shipped off to Iceland and then they’re in this bubble. Some of the people hadn’t seen anyone for months,” said Pizzi. “So it does have an intensity out of the gate. Two things — it has a real intense underbase, but it also has a very party vibe because it feels like they had a chance to get out and take the mask off and be alive again, so it’s sort of a combination of that.”
The show also made smaller changes, like cast members putting on their own microphones to minimize contact with the crew. And the crew often filmed the challenges in full PPE gear.
“The way they used the camera, the way they used the audio gear, the way they interacted with the cast — everything changed,” said Harkin.
The Challenge: Double Agents airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MTV.