Tuesday, February 4, 2014

INTERVIEW. Former Navy SEAL, Joel Lambert, on his amazing new adventure reality series, Manhunt, Tuesdays on Discovery Channel.

It's truly must-watch television - Manhunt starting tonight on Discovery Channel (DStv 121) at 20:30.

In this new adventure reality series, Joel Lambert, a former American Navy SEAL, is dropped in remote location across the world (including South Africa!) and then has to make his way within 48 hours to an extraction point - as he's pursued by that country's special forces and best trackers.

In a round table interview in Johannesburg in November when Joel Lambert visited South Africa and I had the opportunity to meet him in person, I kicked off the Q&A session about Manhunt (which is known as Lone Target in the USA).

(And yes, Joel Lambert has that perfect for television and entertainment with a deep baritone voice. And not all of the questions are mine, I asked the first question and we were three journalists in the room covering television who took turns. The ones marked "T" are mine, I won't take credit for questions I didn't ask but forms part of the overall interview session.)

T: What would you say is the - obviously going to all different kinds of places - the similarities between the people pursuing you? They all obviously have different training and different things that they look out for and equipment. But what's the same?
You know, some of the similarities - that really a good question - probably comes down to more technical aspects of tracking which depends on how good they were with the tracking. They would have different amounts of assets. Some guys like in the Philippines, they were just jungle fighters - the guys just had rifles and they didn't have any assets.

Then in Poland they had helicopters and thermal imaging and a SWAT team and dog tracking units and the guys on horseback and 75 people. But really the similarities would be the techniques that you would use to track a quarry. So that I could pretty much count on.

Everybody tries to find my general direction of travel and just try to follow my footprints. But if you just follow my footprints, I will always be ahead of you. Forever. You need to get ahead of me and get me.

So once they had my general direction of travel - for which I try to confuse them as much as possible - eventually they find out what general direction I'm going in, then they're going to try and move assets in ahead in front of me.

They're going to the road and check along the roads to see where I've crossed and start boxing and pinning me in. So tactics like that can be executed with different degrees of effectiveness depending on the assets they have. But the techniques and tactics are the same.

T: And were there people who were more clever or faster in terms of surprising you?
Yes! Absolutely. Absolutely. Some tracking units ... some of them are smelling leaves and stuff. Other guys, they're not that great trackers but they have the tactics that they can use to box me in and they have the advantage of numbers.

You were a Navy SEAL for a living, what was your initial reaction?
The reason I had to do it was the same reason I knew I had to in the SEAL teams is because it scared the *&#$ out of me. And I knew that's why I had to do it because I didn't really want to do it because it was not a comfortable thing to do. It was not like I'm done with the SEAL teams, I'm going to kick back for a while and get fat. I'm going to relax.

They brought this to me and I thought, oh now I'm going to have the reputation of the SEAL teams on me. I'm 41 years old now. I'm going to be out there with dudes who are 22. They're in fine shape and hungry. I'm going against entire countries. And for these dudes its a matter of national pride to get my head on a platter.

So they pull out all the stops - including cheating - I'm not going to say what, but they pull out everything. So that why I knew I had to do it because I didn't really want to. Ha ha ha ha.

T: What would you say, having done SEAL training, what kind of life lessons do you think that instills in a guy for your life after that?
It creates your existence, man. It is ... it was my enlightenment. In the course of SEAL training - I was an instructor for the last couple of years - we peel these individuals like an onion. We peel them layer by layer and layer and there's some very painful things. And very few make it through. Because as you get to a layer and there's a rotten spot, that person is gone.

But when you get to the very core you have peeled everything away. it gets to the very core. If you get to that and you stare at the core of your existence, it is gold. Once you've done that and you come back out, life has a flavour you never otherwise would have had. And it changes everything.

And all the other stuff - the brotherhood, the operations and the actions - that is all great. But what it really does is its Jung. Its archetype. It goes below who you really think you are. And once you resonate with that, it changes everything.

What is it like to then almost go back to "normal life"?
When you go through this training, it creates in you, you become - I don't want to say different. It's not like brainwashing, or tearing down a building and building it back up. It's nothing like that.

What it is, is its you getting in touch with the primal. The hunter. The animal that you are. And once you get in touch with that and you kind of become that, and you're thinking you, but you're in touch with your instincts, you become something different. And it's awesome.

Then you go through the training and the selection and then there's two layers of you. But you come back to your normal humanity. Not quite normal. But you come back into it.

There's a switch and its right near the surface. And it flips and then colours are sharper and your hearing focuses, and you don't feel pain and you just do what needs to be done without thinking about it.

As I have been out of the teams who - kind of are instinctive animals - things takes a little bit longer. So doing the show is kind of putting me back in that, as much as it can with a camera, like changing batteries and all those sorts of things which have to happen. Eventually they call and we have a camera issue. So we have to stop and sort it out.

Aside from those sorts of things, it really is in some ways harder. Because it's just me. I don't have 14 dudes with me and someone in command in me or us putting our heads together and figuring it out together, or rely on each other.

How much of the shoot is off the cuff and how much do you have to follow a script in terms of how they want the narrative to flow?
There's no real script as far as the narrative goes, but there's certain pieces that they want to see like the jungle - lets talk about dehydration and water.

Show different techniques you can get water. And my extract. That's pre-determined and that's something they want to get [on film].

It's mostly survival. Booby-traps. Counter-tracking - which is vastly dependent on what they're doing and the specific environment.

They [producers] are constantly calling me and the tech advisor for the show and asking me write down a script for us and show us what are you going to do in this place. And both of us are like, the situation is going to dictate that.

I can write a whole bulls*t script for you and give it to you but as soon as we're actually in the moment, it doesn't matter. It will be what the situation is and we're going to react to that. So Discovery is wanting as much of a script as they can, but its just not the way it works. Ha ha.

T: Talking about the environments, were there environments that rattled you? Or have you've been to so many places already before you went to these places that you just go into autocue? And if it did unsettle you, how much time do you allow yourself before you adjust and just go?
Jungle kicks my ass. Every time. Ha ha ha. I hate the jungle.

High desert because of my time in Afghanistan, high desert I love. The veld here in South Africa I love. Cold weather I really love. High altitude I really love. Jungle I hate. And where do they send me? Somewhere in the f#@$# jungle! Ha ha. And it was horrible!

Because I hate the humidity. I don't want to go to Hawaii. Mountain places? Fine. Tropical places? Palm tree leaves? No thank you. Water and food are not a problem in the jungle but the problem is that everything you want to eat probably wants to eat you as well.

Bacteria. I got massive infections. Guys got Dengue Fever, guys got MRSA. Because in the jungle everything is wet. Everything is wet entirely. When you go in the jungle you can just count on the definition of being saturated the entire time.

Water is a problem, constantly having to hydrate, heat stroke, heat exhaustion. Bacteria getting into little cuts and little scrapes and abrasions. The sweat and the dirt and the microbes. Its a teeming pit of life. And you just get in there and it infects you.

T: How long do you go before you go, I can't continue, or is that not an option really?
Nah that's not ever an option. You go until they capture me, I escape, or I'm dead.

The South African episode is awesome. I won't tell you what happens. There is a point where it was like: "It is better to die and win, than quit and live. So this is the stupidest thing I've ever done. And it is stupid. And I know why its stupid but - ha ha ha ha - I've got to do it anyway.

T: What were the breaks between different countries and challenges?
Like during filming?
T: Yes. Like how long did you have to recover?
They wanted to, originally just stack 'em all together. That's the most efficient way to film. And they couldn't do it just because of the other units not fitting into ... these are operational units.

 I mean, like the guys in the Philippines they just came out of the field where they were fighting. Like real combat killing. Crazy stuff. So the schedule was dictated by these guys.

But after the first episode ... I came home. I was hormonal ... My adrenals, my adrenalin was just pumping. I would come home, and for several of the other ones I would come home and just sleep 10, 12 hours a night, taking 3 to 4 hour naps in the day, just doing nothing but eating.

I couldn't even make a hard fist with my hand. I just ... I was just bone tired. And then it would take me about a week to get to where I was pretty functional. And then there was usually about a two week break.

T: And jetlag. Does that affect you? Or not anymore?
Jetlag doesn't. Not for the hunts. Probably also because I'm not sleeping too much. When I sleep its because I'm exhausted.

T: And just one more thing, you didn't train in television presenting. Now your suddenly ... I suppose they tell you you need to keep communicating to camera and explain verbally. Is that something you forgot, or how long did that take before you get into that mode?
I'm figuring it out now. But that was a real problem during the series and the pilot that we did. I had no food and the area was brutal. It's just brutal, brutal stuff.So I go into operator mode. Just not talking. And the camera guys would come and go, "Hey Joel ..." "Shut-up." Ha ha ha. It was just not working very well.

My poor camera guy! I racked him up so much. Because he - he's a great camera guy, he's a great athlete, he can keep up - but he just doesn't have any tactical sense. So I'm like - I have so many examples of this. Like in the Philippines these guys were smelling the earth, they were amazing trackers.

So I'm walking from hilllock to hillock because I know these guys are on everything. And I just assume the camera guy is following in my footsteps. And I look over, and he's tromping through the bushes not caring where he steps while he's filming all this cool stuff! Like, do you not understand what we're doing here? Ha ha. And that would happen all the time, so ...

Would you do it again?
Yes. Yes. Until I'm dead.

T: Oh and how many episodes? How many places is it?
We did 6 episodes in 6 different locations and we have one behind-the-scenes episodes because we had - one of the executive producers almost got killed by a flying fish. We had to medivac out of there.

We had an attack of jungle bees. Guys went into anaphylactic shock and had to get epinephrine. Heat stroke. Had to go to hospital for 24 hours. MRSA. Staph infection. Dengue Fever.

So the behind-the-scenes is the fish attack and the bees attack. I tell you man, some of this footage is hilarious.

Seeing dudes getting attacked by a swarm of jungle bees. They just swarm. With the camera still running. Running through the jungle, screaming. And you can hear the swarm. Until he finally just drops all of his gear and just gets completely lost in the jungle. And the camera is running all the time. It's unbelievable.

Manhunt I is on Discovery Channel (DStv 121), on Tuesdays at 20:30.