Area native making big splash in reality TV

For the last few weeks, many in the area have tuned in to watch the new survival reality series “Castaways” on ABC. What most who are watching locally don’t know is that the program’s creator and showrunner, Grant Kahler, has ties to the region.

Though the work of his father had him constantly on the move as a child — across the US, Canada, China and Indonesia — Kahler is a native of Sullivan County. Despite being on the move a lot, his family would return home to Laporte every summer to regroup and regain a sense of normalcy.

Along with his parents — Dick and Sally Kahler — who still reside Sullivan County, he also has relatives living other places in the area, including Williamsport and Millville, who he still makes annual trips back to the state to reconnect with.

“My dad worked for the tractor company Caterpillar, and in the late 80s Caterpillar was moving a lot of manufacturing overseas — as many companies were doing at that time — and he followed work around the world, and we joined him for that,” said Kahler.

“I think what was so unique for me was that we were grounded in small-town Pennsylvania, but then we also lived in places like Jakarta and Hong Kong, so the contrast was so big,” he added. “I always appreciated living in Laporte because it kind of kept us grounded. It allowed us to keep a home while we were still out exploring the world.”

Though his family spent a lot of time in Indonesia, starting when he was around 12 years old, Kahler attended high school in the Chinese city of Hong Kong. After high school ended, he returned to the East Coast of the United States to seek out a college.

“My dad went to Penn State — as did pretty much everyone I know — so we looked around there and Bucknell,” Kahler said. “Then we went down the coast, and I ended up at Wake Forest in North Carolina.”

After graduating from Wake Forest University in 2001, Kahler has been involved with television and film ever since. Despite studying communications and advertising in school, his first job out of college was in scripted television on the set of the NBC show “Ed,” which ran for four seasons, from 2000-04. There Kahler worked as production coordinator for two years, primarily aiding with the logistical-end of managing the crew.

Once his run with “Ed” drew to a close, Kahler then worked as a crew member on HBO’s hit show “The Sopranos” for a few episodes and the Disney movie “National Treasure.”

“From there, I didn’t think I wanted to work in scripted television anymore,” said Kahler. “I jumped around a lot of music videos and documentaries, and stuff like that. Then, about 12 years ago, I started doing television and have been doing that ever since.”

Through the years, Kahler has earned producer credits with several major TV companies, including the Discovery Channel, History Channel, ITV Studios and Viacom Productions. He’s been involved with many shows but enjoyed some of his biggest success working on the Discovery Channel’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” serving as executive producer and development executive from 2011-14. His efforts on that show earned him an Emmy nomination for outstanding unstructured reality program in 2014.

After his time with “Alaska” ended, Kahler moved onto another major survivalist television hit, earning executive producer credits on 11 episodes of the History Channel show “Alone,” which is currently in its fifth season.

Though he has had a lot of success through the years, Kahler never expected his television career to take off the way it has. He credits the long hours he has put in for taking him to the heights he has reached.

“This industry is really strange,” Kahler said. “You just kind of work on one project at a time and then all of the sudden you get one or two hits and it just gets busier and busier.

“As far as the success goes, I think it just comes with hard work,” he added.

If his past is any indication, “Castaways,” will likely enjoy the same triumphs as Kahler’s other major projects. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the series is a social experiment that shows what happens when 12 strangers with no survival training get stranded on a desert island with limited and scattered supplies.

What differentiates this show from the many other documentary-style competition programs in the survival realm, is that it places a heavy emphasis on the pasts of its participants, which it fleshes out through flashbacks.

“From the very first pitch, it was really about telling the stories of these people, regardless of the situation they were put into,” said Kahler. “I wanted to use a technique that scripted television uses a lot, where it is kind of non-linear storytelling — where you flashback to their normal lives.”

The fictional Netflix television series “Orange is the New Black” is the show Kahler used as an example of the way “Castaways” wants to make use of its flashbacks.

“Unscripted (television) just never did that, and I really wanted to try it,” he said. “I really thought that, if we got people into an interesting social experiment — like a disaster scenario or survival situation — we could not only tell their backstories, but everything that happened in their life back home would reflect how they behave on the island.

“There are two parts to it,” he added. “The first part was the social experiment, where you see what happens when you drop this group of strangers on an island as if they were shipwrecked. That is the catalyst to tell the story of not only what they do out there, but also the lives they left behind.”

To get those flashback scenes, Kahler had to have production spend 30 to 40 days filming each contestant prior to them leaving for the island. That required 12 camera crews going out around the country, which made the show that much more expensive and difficult to pull together.

“You are really shooting 12 different shows and editing it into one series, so it is a lot of work,” Kahler said.

The show’s setting being in Indonesia is no coincidence. It’s an area that is near and dear to Kahler’s heart, as he spent a significant amount of time there as a child and had previously worked on other shows in the country as well.

“I know a few people out there,” Kahler said. “I reached out to a handful of people and had them start to look around and ask fishermen (for a good place to shoot).”

It took checking out six or seven places in eastern Indonesia before Kahler found the perfect place for “Castaways” to be shot. The area’s remoteness is what made the location so appealing to him.

“Even in a place like Indonesia, there are people everywhere,” he said. “We settled on this spot because it is extremely daunting as far as the landscape and predators that live there. At the same time, it could provide the minimal resources needed — there were fish in the water, coconuts on the trees and stuff like that, where people could survive if they were able.

“In order to get that remote, you just have to get out there,” added Kahler. “I always worry with these shows, that if it doesn’t feel truly remote for the participants, the experience just won’t be authentic, and people will behave differently. If they saw a hotel 100 yards away it just wouldn’t be the same feeling.”

Though he has a lot of experience in documentary-style TV, where anything can happen, Kahler said he was surprised at times while filming “Castaways.”

“What was so surprising is that they really did view companionship as important as food, water, shelter and all of the things that we need for survival,” he said. “Even though they may have thought their survival skills were good enough to get through something like this, they needed other people to get through it.”

The next episode of “Castaways” is at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.