An Interview with Scott Wilson of "Departures" and "Descending"
It was a genuine pleasure to chat with Scott Wilson, and an even greater pleasure to be able to post our conversation here. As I mention in the introduction of the interview, Departures is, in many ways, what got me into travel, and I've often looked up to Scott as a representation of what I could accomplish travel wise if I put my mind to it.
Here I am, some seven years later, about to become a full-time travel blogger, photographer and freelance writer, and it's hard for me to say that I don't owe a fair bit of that to this show, and Scott himself. And, in truth, interviewing him was a bit of a full circle moment for me, as I feel like this is exactly where the Chris of seven years ago would want me to be.
We talk Departures, Descending, and everything in between. Enjoy, and don't forget to let me know what you think in the comments below! While the transcript is below, I'd strongly recommend giving it a listen to get a true feel for the conversation, though feel free to scroll down to catch a few pictures and quotes!
By the way, if you haven't seen Departures, follow the link below to catch the first season through Amazon Prime, or you can buy the DVD set of all three seasons from the Departures website.
Below, I've included the transcript in clean verbatim (ie. I didn't write out each and every um and pause etc.) for any of my readers who may be hearing impaired. Furthermore, I sympathize with those who may prefer to read than to listen. You'll find pictures and quotes strewn throughout as well.
CM: So what are you up to now? I think, if I can trust Twitter, you were in Laos recently, maybe on a motorbike?
SW: Yeah, exactly, yeah! That was my last trip. It was mainly just a vacation, but I was also doing some writing for Canada Moto Guide. So yeah, I went in mid-January, just for a couple weeks in Laos, and a little bit of the Philippines, just some places that I have never seen before. So I thought I might as well go take a look. One thing that I haven't been able to do until now, that this combined, was the travel and motorcycling passions together. So this was kind of the first foray into that. So it was great, just perfect. The bike allowed me to have access to places and people and things that otherwise would be a lot more difficult to access. So it was nice. It was really neat. I'm actually going to be heading next week to South Africa to do something similar, kind of a motorbike related event and hopefully can do some exploring camping stuff by bikes.
CM: Cool, very cool. I have yet to brave the motorcycle, I'm still more of a scooter guy, it seems. But, I mean, I would like to, but thinking about all that - does it feel like a long time ago since you started off with Departures or does it feel like it's more just sort of been that that was the first step into where you are now?
SW: It does feel like a long time ago when I actually start thinking of the dates themselves. So, you know, when I think back to the fact that this June will represent 10 years since we started filming the first episode. So that makes me feel old, it makes me feel like it was a long time ago. And yet, at the same time, I get to see Justin a few times a year and we still have this friendship that never ages, which is awesome. And I was actually able to connect with him in the Philippines for a few days. Or, we made our paths cross because we were so close in relative terms to each other at the time. Both being in Southeast Asia, we were able to coordinate schedules and hang out for three days. And when I'm with him, it feels like no time has passed at all, and that's really cool. That's a really cool feeling. Even under the situation of work, or in this case just being on the road strictly for vacation, just for us…you get the same guy and it's the same guy that I became really good friends with back in high school, the same guy that I traveled all over with for Departures. And it's good to know that it's the same guy today. And clearly we still love travel, and we still travel well together.
"It was documenting real travel and real friends and real people through the ups and downs."
CM: Yeah, I don't doubt it at all. Actually I think that's probably what really struck me and struck many people with Departures is that relationship with the three of you, you and Justin and Andre seemed really seamless. Do you feel like that really was the case, do you feel like the show did justice to that relationship?
SW: I think so, yeah. I think so because we've heard time and time again from people who have watched the show, from viewers, that that is really tangible that that really does come across. And it's good to know because it is a real relationship, you know? Reality TV got destroyed by overproduction and scripting and throwing non-actors into roles where had to act in everything. You know? Reality TV would have been a great descriptor for what
was, except that, that term got destroyed. So what we did was…was documentary. It was documenting real travel and real friends and real people through the ups and downs. And so when Andre and I were creating and developing a show idea, we had to find that other person that “co-host.” And we knew from the get go, it wasn't going to be somebody that we were going to cast. We're going to find somebody for the role of the co-host. It had to be somebody that I had a history with that, you know, we had a friendship and a relationship and everything. And that's why Justin was a perfect fit for that. So it kind of turned into a real life perfect, “odd couple kind of thing.” It was great. That was great.
CM: Yeah, I can definitely feel that in some of the episodes, you'd be like, “Okay, time to move on, Justin” and he’d just need get some more saké from the corner in Japan or something before taking off, and you’d be like “alright, alright, I'll put up with that.”
SW: That's right. Exactly!
CM: So, if I understand it, well this formed out of the fact that you and Andre had been to film school together, is that correct? And, you'd been working on a project pro-bono and got this idea and decided to go for it? I was curious, is this something that was born out of looking at other people, or even sort of like a Long Way Round or anything by Michael Palin. Was this something where like you were on the back of a tradition, or were you more like “we got to do our own thing and make it ours”?
"No gimmick. No 'doing it on $10 a day' or anything like that, it was just going out there and seeing it and doing it."
SW: Well, as you say, Andre and I, we met at film school and became really good friends and business partners right away. And we were working on another travel show, Kennedy Travel Show, while we were still in college, and loved the travel, the free travel we were getting. And kind of like you said doing pro-bono work for school credit and for the travel experience. But yeah very, very early on we both decided that, that wasn't the way we would do a travel show if we were ever lucky enough to have our own. And that kind of started the initial…it kind of germinated the seed, you know? What would a show be if we developed one? We were certainly influenced by some of the earlier travel shows at that time as well. As you mentioned a Long Way Round was one that was a huge influence for us where their approach to how to document travel and how to present it was somewhat fresh at the time and we really liked that. And watching early episodes of Lonely Planet, as it was originally called before then (it kind of changed and subbed out into a few other titles, which escape me right now), But the Lonely Planet brand was a big one for us as well - watching Ian Wright and people like that kind of do their thing. Yeah, it really helped shape the idea for us. It was a very plain and simple idea. It was almost too simple for a lot of the people who we were pitching it to initially that, it was travel plain and simple, it was going to be two friends backpacking the world going to places that know maybe weren't so well documented and just seeing what was there you know - Not professionals, not, you know, well trained mountain climbers.
SW: No gimmick. No “doing it on $10 a day" or anything like that, it was just going out there and seeing it and doing it. And yeah, we were happy with the results. I think what we intended came across. And I think there were a lot of viewers that got that as well. I think a lot of other travelers got it. “That's how I travel.” And that was another big influence as well, running into other people, other travellers on our travels and talking with them about what their experiences were. You share a lot of similar experiences. Somebody is talking about you know these ups or these downs during their travels, and you think, “oh yeah well I can relate to that. That happened to me in Africa, that happened to me in Asia,” or whatever else. And so that very honest approach to traveI think was the key.
CM: Yeah, I definitely agree. I'm also pretty big in to travel, and I watch plenty of travel documentaries. Let’s say I'm watching a Rick Steve documentary. It seems like all of a sudden magically (nothing against Rick Steve’s or anything), but magically he's in the middle of a cultural dance and everything is going so swimmingly. And it seemed like that was the thing in Departures. It was like “we're going to show, we're not just going to magically arrive there…I think probably more than half of the way people were going to connect was the journey itself, right?
SW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And most of the time you know any pre-planning and pre-production that we did would, for better for worse, and much to the chagrin of our producers at the time, would often just go out the window on the first day in the country. Because, you inevitably met someone or come across something that would shape the rest of your trip. And again, I think that's just what happens in real life with a lot of travelers on their travels is you run into somebody else or you uncover something or you land in a place and you're just like, “Wow. I was going to leave here tomorrow, but I think I'm just going to stay for three more days. This place is amazing,” or vice versa. You think you're going to spend four days in some city that you think has so much to offer, and you kind of think,” you know, it's not for me, let's roll out of here, let's keep moving.” So it was always being flexible. And then, like you said, it was always about the journey. It was always about getting to these places as much as it was about the places themselves.
CM: Is there any place in particular where you remember arriving and just saying, “we really misread this. Let's add time, let's tack time on,” and it really paying off?”
SW: Well, one place in the show it comes across as well is that, we had no idea that we were going to Antarctica. We were filming a show turned into two episodes in Chile. And ended up down in southern Patagonia in Punta Arenas, and we just happened to connect with someone who had access to Antarctica. And it was an epiphany. It was like, “Oh my God, we have to take this opportunity. Let's make this work come hell or high water.” And I think we were actually supposed to fly home for Christmas about that time. And we called everyone back home and said, “yeah we're going to be a little late. We're going to be a few weeks late.”
CM: Ha ha ha!
SW: “We saw this opportunity to go to Antarctica. We obviously have to take it.” So that was one where we had no idea what was going to happen, and we took it, you know, we took the opportunity when it presented itself. But I think we did it on a smaller scale all the time, probably every trip something happened, or someone that we ran into offered something or "why don't you stay here?" or whatever else. And all of a sudden, you've done a day or two of filming and it just feels like you're spinning your wheels and you're not really getting heartfelt content, and then all of a sudden this one person just shines for you. It lights the whole crew on fire to do and see and experience what they're talking about. So you never know. Ha ha!
"It was always about the journey. It was always about getting to these places as much as it was about the places themselves."
CM: Yeah, I think that would be the other thing too is that for a lot of people it was this thing where you expected that you would have had to appease the people who might have been aiding in the funding and say, “we'll be here this day, we'll be here this day, we'll be here this day.” It’s difficult to say, “well we might spend two or three weeks,” and they'll say, “what's the one week gap for!?” And like, “uncertainty, of course,” you know?
SW: Exactly, just in case, that's why. And you're right,10 years on now from starting the first episode, we realized just how lucky we were to have had the team at OLN, Outdoor Life Network, that was the original broadcaster. We were so lucky to have that team there that we did, they gave us an incredible amount of creative control and the ability to just go with things. And they saw potential that early on was a huge risk for them to take - that leap of faith on us. And I think it paid off for both of us. And after the first few episodes started coming in, they were like, “okay, keep doing your thing, this is working.” And to get that today, it’s incredibly difficult because with TV, money is just that much more tight, and there's that many more people to answer to. And so yeah, oftentimes now have to have a lot more of a plan in place, I's dotted T's crossed before you can even set out to do something like that. So it was a perfect storm, it was right place, right time, right team, right everything. So it's hard to find. It's hard to have that perfect storm happen multiple times.
CM: All of the research I've done about how you approach networks etc. etc. it's constantly talking about, “you have to have a niche, you have to have a place,” and it’s directly competing with that is the notion that everybody loved Departures because it was just a couple of guys traveling normally. Do you know what I mean!? It’s this competing dogma where the people say, “we want more of what you did” and the networks are like “no, people don't want that.”
SW: Yeah. Exactly, and what's frustrating is, again, 10 years on, that’s sort of the same uphill battle we still continue to have to fight. So often, Andre and I (we are still business partners and everything and working on new projects.)…we can talk ourselves blue about what this idea is…but, in the end, it's sort of like, you know what? let's just go shoot something and show them what it is. It's not until they see it, that they'll understand, in the very beginning when we were developing it, we had shot a demo, we had yet to pitch to the networks. And we winded down to a few independent producers to get their two cents on it. “What do you think? What do we have to do to polish this before it goes in front of networks?” And every one of them sat down and looked at it said, well you know, like you said, “what's the gimmick, what's the catch? What is it that is going to make it unique?” Well that’s what makes it unique, it’s just a plain straight travel show. There's no punches pulled, and it is what it is. And they were all sort of like, “Okay, well good luck.” And, as I said, we're just very lucky to have approached the right team, the right network at the right time that saw that, because even then it was a risk. And especially at the time we had no other television résumé behind us, so it was a huge risk for them. And we're incredibly thankful that they took that risk, because it allowed us to do the show and make the show that we envisioned, that we wanted, we didn't have to compromise really at all during three seasons of production.
CM: Yeah, I guess it's a perfect lead to ask…I think you guys publicly said that you would be open to doing a fourth season of Departures if it was possible, but as far as I understood you wanted to make sure that you were doing justice to the first three seasons. Is that true?
SW: For sure.
CM: And also do you need a fourth member of your crew?
SW: I think now we're probably on a waiting list for run to like two or three hundred.
CM: Yeah, that's what I've figured. Ha ha!
"...it was a perfect storm, it was right place, right time, right team, right everything."
SW: But no you're right. I mean and that still is true today. I mean Andre and myself and Justin, I think we all have a passion and there's always going to be an incredibly special place in our hearts for Departures. And we never said it was over. We never said it was done. We just needed to walk away from it for a while and explore other options and other things to not feel like we were one trick ponies, and that we had other interests and other inspirations - that we wanted to show off other places that we wanted to explore another aspects of the globe, we wanted to explore under water. And so when the right time is to go back to it? Well I mean I know a lot of people will say now, or like 10 years ago you should've kept the whole kind of thing. Let's do it. I don't know when the right time is. But the biggest point in all of it is definitely that yes we have to be true to what we've already done. And I think if we're going to make a Season Four, it's just going to have to be bigger and better than any of the previous three were. We're all our own worst critics. The three of us are our own worst critics and so if we're going to do it, we're going to do it right. And it's going to be better than any of the other episodes. So sooner or later we will get back to it I think for sure.
CM: Great! Great news for myself and everybody else. I was going to say, just slot me in around 250 or so and I'll take my play wait on the list.
SW: Ha ha, right on!
CM: You mentioned under water. So I think I'd be a bit remiss to not mention that after Departures, you moved down to Descending and you worked with Ellis Emmitt, who is a sort of a crazy eccentric kiwi. And generally, how is that show different? I think even though they are the same in way, I'd be a little bit silly to ask but, how is it better or worse? I mean how is it different, the experience?
SW: It was...! I mean there were similar aspects to the approach. But it's a difficult project to describe in one sentence, I mean it’s an underwater documentary. It's an underwater travel documentary series if there is such a thing.
CM: There is now, right?
SW: It’s entirely a scuba show. It's not entirely for divers and it's not entirely underwater. But it's exploring that aspect of the planet. When Andre and I started diving and we realized that there was a huge aspect of the planet that we had never explored. In just three years we had started to see a lot of places. And the world started to feel a little smaller. So the best way to make it feel big again is to explore all the blue portion. When you look at the map, right? So we had some ideas and some places that we wanted to visit and explore, and with that in mind. And so that's kind of where Descending came from is this idea that a travel show can explore the other 70 percent of the planet which is water. So we did that. How they are different? I think the approach with Descending is a little bit more cerebral, a little bit. And obviously the dynamic changes a little bit with Ellis as a host there versus Justin, you know he's not a diver. He didn't kind of have that interest going forward into that project. And Ellis was a good friend of mine and Andres from New Zealand and had a lot more diving experience than we did. But a lot of his experience was very different from the experience we also had as well. So, it seems like an interesting mix to kind of put together and do the show that way. From a production standpoint it was a lot more taxing, just getting around with that much more gear. Obviously the weight of all the scuba diving gear that we have personally, let alone the underwater housings for the cameras, the lighting equipment for the cameras, all that stuff is brutally heavy. And when you're flying it around the world it's cripplingly expensive as well in overage costs and all that sort of stuff. So it was a real jump for the production. We wanted to kind of raise the bar, shoot 4K, you know shoot with a different camera and Andre cinematically wanted to kind of raise the bar for himself as well. And I think he was able to do that to kind of be learning scuba diving at the same time that he was filming underwater, as well as kind of learning all the bumps and grinds that come along that. So it was a real challenge. But again it was very fulfilling one.
"And so that's kind of where Descending came from is this idea that a travel show can explore the other 70 percent of the planet which is water"
CM: And Descending was shot in 4K but not released in 4K. Is it released now in 4K?
SW: We've made a few 4K sales of it. So it was never aired in Canada in 4K, it airs for instance in Korea in 4K, there are some networks worldwide that have bought it in 4K. Right now, Outside TV in the United States has it and I believe is airing at 4K, If they have that capability, so it is getting out there. And we hope that next year when certain licenses become available that it will follow suit onto Netflix and in some of the other places as well. So it will be released on iTunes by the end of the month as well. So we've just released all three Departures on iTunes, Descending will follow suit at the end of month. And as soon as Apple allows for the 4K downloads, then it should be active for that as well. So it's getting there, it's getting there.
CM: Great. You strike me as a guy who has probably got about two and a half million things on the go all the time. Is that fair to say?
SW: Yeah! I try not to think about the fact that there's all this stuff going on at once and just try to focus on what's in front of me at that time. But we're fairly busy, we're fairly busy between the corporate and commercial work that we do as well as obviously the ongoing television that we do too. So there's always something to tackle that's for sure.
CM: And so I guess the sort of final wrap of it is, you've covered the surface and you've tackled the ocean. What's next? Are you thinking space or...? Ha ha!
SW: Ha ha! I'd love to. You know one thing that I've always wanted to do if I'd always envisioned one of the episodes of a potential season would be to do some sort of like cosmonaut or astronaut training or something. I mean I don't know who's willing to pay for that, but that would be awesome - just space or something, hell yeah, that would be amazing, as I now have my pilot's license. So as a pilot, being in the air is a huge freedom for me. And yeah, if I could even get to the edge of space in a YouTube plane or something that would, I don't know maybe I just have to retire the passport at that point.
CM: Ha ha!
SW: That would be the ultimate for sure.
CM: I have no doubt that if you put your mind to you'll get there. And you know a few years from now I'm going to get a headline like, “Scott Wilson Tackles Space,” you know?! Ha ha!
SW: As long as some crazy eccentric person is willing to pay the bill then I'm going there.
CM: Ha ha! Scott thanks so much for chatting with me. I really really appreciate it. And I look forward to hopefully keep in touch in the future. Wish you nothing but the best. I appreciate the time.
SW: Awesome. No, I appreciate you reaching out, for the interest, and you time as well. It was great.