Survivor Castaway Jonathan Penner on what Survivor tells us about the World we live In

Dec 04 2012, 06:51 PM by Christine Montgomery

The approach to interviewing Jonathan Penner was a little different than the standard Survivor castoff interview. Being that Penner has a bonafide Survivor legacy, an Oscar nod for screenwriting, and quite simply a lot of interesting things to say, I took the opportunity to ask the greatest speech-man in Survivor history a few bigger picture questions about the game of Survivor. In our conversation, we cover what Survivor teaches us about the world, what story Survivor: Philippines is telling, and how after his third season Jonathan Penner's approaches playing the game. The interview is a long one, but if you're a Survivor fan, totally worth it.

Jonathan Penner on Survivor: Philippines 

What does the game of Survivor teach us about the world we live in? 

That's a great question. I think Survivor works on many, many, many levels, and that's why it's so successful. Of course it's a game, but a game that is both a metaphor for life and its own thing, and that's where the excitement of Survivor - and maybe any game - comes from.

(The question being) Are you playing it just as a game, or can you leave who you are 99.99% of the time (which is, how you are in life) aside? Of course you can't, and that's where a lot of the conflict and the fun of the social game of Survivor comes in. So what does it teach us? It teaches us that people are incredibly complex and unique, and everybody takes that challenge differently.

(For example,) You have somebody like Lisa Whelchel - who's a wonderful lady - where [the experience] was very, very painful for her. Or take someone like me, who's a very honest and straight-forward guy. I played an honest and straight forward game knowing I was going to have to cut somebody's throat. I was putting it off for as long as possible, and I actually put it off for too long. I try not to lie in real life, and I tried not to lie for as long as possible in the game.

Jonathan Penner on Survivor: Philippines 

Is it fair to say the game of Survivor forces people to become either heroes or villains, or are things more complicated than that? 

It's much more complicated. Heroes and villains work for stories, and usually pretty simple stories. If you're going to get any deeper than a kind of fairy tale level of storytelling, the this is a bad guy and this is a good guy, if you try and make these characters more well rounded human beings, then you have a flawed hero or even an anti-hero. Which is what everyone wants: fabulous, profound storytelling is when you really cut down to the bone. Then you have a humane villain and you understand, or you come to some understanding, about why that person acts the way they do.

(In that context) Survivor villains - even the most complex villains, and I think for some people I was a villain, certainly the first time I played - like Abi, who's considered a villain this season, are in real life much, much, much more complex people. Abi is not a bad person at all. For whatever reason, part of her came out that was very, very vulnerable and she dealt with that part of her in a... less than friendly way shall we say. And that's fair enough, that's her personality, and that's what makes the show great. Everybody is unique, and Survivor is this pressure cooker that they put us in, and your true personality kinda comes out.


How does Survivor: Philippines compare to seasons past? 

Well, I played a better game I think. I had a lot more fun, I didn't get hurt. I'm a little older and a little slower. What did you think?


Well, every season of Survivor seems to tell a story, and that story is always different because the people who are playing are different. Which makes me wonder, what is the story of Survivor: Philippines?  

I think the producers kinda take it as it comes. It's like a football game. You set the rules, and if you put two good teams out there, if you put good players out there, they're playing the same game but it becomes an exciting game. If you put to crappy teams out there, than it's a much less interesting game. Survivor is always about the casting, I think.

The producers are always doing things like "well we'll try exile island, or we'll try redemption island" to try different things to mix the game up, which is like adding a field goal or forward pass or something like that, making the game more and more and more complex. But the story of this season? I guess the story really has to be, well, Lisa Whelchel is sorta the last big character that's left out there.

Jonathan Penner on Survivor: Philippines 

We've definitely seen a lot of Lisa's spiritual journey season, and it's interesting you mention her because I think you acted as the narrator of her story in a lot of scenes we saw on television, like in the scene when you gave Lisa a speech about how she had to decide if she was going to end up a good guy or a bad guy. That leads into my next question, which is, what do you think your story was all about this season?  

That's a good question. I really did play a much better game this year. And I set out very consciously to play what I call a winner's game. I'm enough of a student of the game - I'm not a complete student, I'm not an A+ student but I'm enough of a student - to know that you can't win the game by getting to the end having pissed off everybody (unless you're sitting next to somebody who's even pissed them off more). I was playing a game so that if I got to the end, I would have the jury's votes.

The problem was I held on to that game one beat too long. I was presented with an option by Denise, I was presented with an option by Lisa, and because I didn't want to lie to any of them, because some of them would have ended up on the jury with me having lied to them, I put that decision off too long. That was my mistake. I think I had a pretty good story, and it's extra sad, or extra angering, because I really did play a good game and then I made a mistake. If I was playing a lousy and I got blown out it wouldn't have mattered, but I really seemed to have sort of squeaked out to the other side and found myself in a sort of strange place, and then stumbled at that point.

The hard thing for me was that I really wasn't on safe ground until the end. You know, the folks that are still there - and all the power to them, I think they're playing great games - they got to sit kinda pretty while I was getting chased around, or while they were chasing me around the island, for the most part. And now, they only have to make one or two moves and one of them is gonna win. I had to make 57 moves, and of course the chances of me making the wrong move are much, much higher. That's my rational if not my excuse.


Who's been your favourite Survivor castaway to watch throughout the seasons?  

Certainly this season that Penner guy was fanstastic. He was very entertaining, and played a hell of a good game.


As a member of the jury, what factors went into your decision while voting for a winner?  

If I said, I'd probably end up giving away who I voted for. The factors are who played ultimately the best game given what they were facing. Whether they voted me off or worked with me or against me, I tried not to put that into my factoring, although I probably couldn't help but be tainted by it a little bit. If somebody really chased me around with a knife, it was probably hard for me to vote for them, but I'd like to think I was objective and chose the person who objectively played the best game.


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