On the heels of Deadliest Catch’s most-watched season ever, EW talked to Executive Producer Thom Beers about the evolution of his series, what it was like to film Capt. Phil Harris’ final days, and where the gritty reality show will go in its seventh season on Discovery. (SPOILER ALERT: Don’t go to the jump if you’ve yet to watch tonight’s season finale).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were you trying to accomplish with the season six finale?
THOM BEERS: We’re back to fishing. We had a traumatic loss this season with Capt. Phil, but I think the lesson in the last episode is that we all go on. We carry that loss with us, but we still have to go back to work. We’re swinging the focus to the other subjects in the series. Edgar’s body is wearing out and he has no place to go, but Sig is not going to give up the helm of the ship to him. The other Jake … his father is still missing. And now the question will be, what will happen with Phil’s sons? Where will that go? There are some interesting cliffhangers.
Can you talk about this season as a whole and what it meant for you as a producer?
This being the sixth season of a series, you’d think that people would be losing interest. But it actually created more interest. Obviously, the loss of Phil Harris was a big blow, but that didn’t really happen until episode 14. We had a huge increase from episode number one on out. Clearly we’ve struck a chord. It’s the most popular male soap opera out there. Now that people are unemployed and trying to figure out their future, I don’t think the interest [in the show] will abate. Everyone is thinking, Could I possibly do that?
Did the surge of interest in the show this year catch you by surprise?
I look at it like a convergence. Everybody who ever watched the show in the past came together for the last couple of weeks. There was a sense of closure. At the same time, and I hate to say it, I think a couple million people showed up with their own morbid curiosity to see if they were going to see a guy die on television. I think that had a little bit to do with the huge spike in ratings. But I think that core 5 million all came to show their respects.
Was it difficult deciding between how much to show of Phil’s passing without seeming too exploitative?
It was hugely difficult. But we’ve been with that family for five years. It wasn’t like we were a film crew who just showed up. But even after five years, we wanted everyone to be very comfortable with this. We obviously weren’t going to show anything that was distasteful. We were treading on really thin ice. Of course I had the shots of someone yelling ‘clear’ and getting the paddles out, but why would I show that? The whole point of it was to show that point-of-view of a family member at home who would get the call. That’s the way we all live. That’s how we find out how our fathers have died or passed away. The whole idea was to make it totally accessible to everyone who experienced a family member’s passing. It was the rawest, barest form of filmmaking we have ever done. I pulled away, there was no music, no sound effects. I stayed with shots longer. When you are in those moments, everything slows down. I wanted to give it that same sense. Those pure simple moments of a man on his death bed telling his son he was sorry he wasn’t a great dad and his son telling him he was the greatest dad in the world.
What was the most emotional moment for you?
[Beers pauses.] Uh, I’m having one right now. [He pauses, and his voice quivers.] That moment Phil said ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a great dad.’ That, to me, it just ripped my guts out. I saw it 19 times during edits and that was the toughest episode I ever did. It took me three different days to look through it. I couldn’t watch.
Let’s go back to when you pitched this show to Discovery. How on earth did you convince the network that crab fishing could make for compelling TV?
It’s a funny story, because it goes back farther than that. It was 1999 and I was doing a single two-hour special called Extreme Alaska. I was looking for everything that was extreme in Alaska, and I read this story about crab fishing which, at that time, was called the deadliest job in the world. I talked my way onto a boat with a camera and went to sea. I was going to do a 12-minute segment for this two-hour series, I thought I’d be out there for two or three days, and come back. Little did I know that we were about to sail into the worst storm in 30 years. Within 24 hours I was 200 miles at sea, wind pushing 70 knots, and waves at 40 feet. Two boats sunk, seven men drowned, and they never even found the bodies. I just kept filming. It was the most amazing thing I had ever done in my life. When I came back — and that trip went from four days to nine days because of the storm — I didn’t say a f–king word during my first day back. I just grunted. I had gone so feral. It was scary. Then I went to Discovery and said, ‘Look, this is 12 minutes in a special and I’m telling you right now, the footage I have, I can make you the greatest one hour you’ve ever seen in your life.’ That show became The Deadliest Job in the World, and to this day it’s still one of the most profitable shows in the history of the Discovery channel. It just aired and aired and aired.
Is there any sense of responsibility you feel about conveying this type of lifestyle?
This is the life they have chosen, this is their lives. They are second and third generation fisherman, and this is what they know. it’s very lucrative, but at same time, there is a lot of physical abuse, eating and smoking – though they don’t drink when they are on the boat. I worry about my cameramen and secondhand smoke in the wheelhouses. I’ve always been up their asses about quitting smoking. We thought we’d let them all try to stop smoking, because it would make great drama because they all turn into complete f–king assholes. It would be great for them. But they won’t.
If there was anything we learned from that behind-the-scenes episode last week, it’s that it’s a real balancing act to find the perfect cameramen to follow these captains.
Sig always threatened to throw his cameramen overboard! These guys didn’t come from doing Blind Date and The Biggest Loser. These guys are guys who are looking for a big adventure. They worked for me on other shows like Ice Road Truckers, Extreme Trucking, and Black Gold. These guys are a certain breed. You keep them outdoors, you never let them come in, you throw a hunk of meat out to them once and a while, and you never let them on the carpet. And it’s not bad when you get nominated for an Emmy four years in a row [including several this year].
Have the captains ever pushed the envelope on the water because there were cameras present?
The woman who owned the Cornelia Marie with Phil felt that he drove the boat a little too hard for television. I don’t know if there was a subliminal effect. We were going to jump off the Cornelia Marie a few years back because the boys were pandering to the cameras, they were acting. We were like, ‘Dudes, stop this sh– or we’re gone.’
What’s to become of the Cornelia Marie? Do you think the sons should allow fans to contribute money so they can buy it?
I think that would be awesome. I think we should do that. We’ll get it done.
Do you feel you have to lighten up the show for its seventh season?
You make shows out of what you are given, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The first show of this year, a boat was sinking. Every year a boat goes down, every year five or six guys die. That’s the reality. This wasn’t the only heavy year. Every year is heavy. I sweat it every year, thinking I’m going to get a call hearing that my crew has gone down with a boat. It’s a nightmare.