Manhunt is the real-life game of cat-and-mouse, pitting former Navy SEAL Joel Lambert against the world’s most experienced hunting and tracking units. In each episode, Joel faces a daunting task: after being abandoned in unfamiliar foreign territory with nothing but a basic survival kit and a canteen of water, he has up to 36 hours to reach a pre-determined extraction point, while being pursued by a different hunter force each week – Maori warriors in New Zealand, nomadic Mongolian hunters in Mongolia, a backwoods survivalist group in Florida, the PGJE Mexican State Police Force on the U.S.-Mexico border, Ghillies in Scotland, and the Aiken County Sheriff’s Bloodhound Tracking Team in South Carolina.
You don’t get to speak to a real life hard-as-nails US Navy Seal every day, if ever. We phoned Joel up in Los Angeles and had some questions for him…
The filming locations are scattered all across the globe so, this is sort of a three part question. Which of the terrains have been the most scenic, the most unforgiving and the place that you’d probably go back to and possibly live or retire?
Of the places that I’ve gone have had something for me, I mean when we set up the fronts, when the producers are setting up where we’re going to do them, they’re looking for scenic locations, they’re looking for places that are unforgiving, they are looking for places that you know are very interesting in those respects, so all of them have had that. For me though, I hate the jungle, I really just don’t like that environment, so the Philippines has been the most unforgiving just as far as weather and terrain and vegetation, but New Zealand which was the most scenic by far and was also one of the most unforgiving in terrain for the first half of the hunt. I kind of got shoved into an area that I didn’t want to be in and it was some of the most dangerous terrain I’ve been in. Several times over the course of a day I would turn and look at my cameraman Bob. Bob is a former SAS guy who runs my safety, he oversees the whole safety of the show and I’m like, if Bob knew where I was at right now he would shut down the entire production because it was just really, really sketchy. Places I’d love to go back and retire, two of them, New Zealand I loved and then also every time I go to Africa I really find myself really turned on at a very deep level, a very primal level just because …
Africa has got so much to offer, you’ve got the whole world in one location.
Yeah, it’s true, it’s beautiful and there’s so much there but I think that the core reason why I keep getting drawn to Africa is because we’re part of the food chain there, it’s primal, it’s still very wild, it’s still very violent in the animal kingdom and also in among humans and it’s just a very rich and primal and unforgiving place in a lot of respects and that is something that I feel gives us, I mean it’s who we are as humans, you know and if you live soft and don’t experience that you’re not living, you know, living isn’t on the mountaintop, it’s when you’re climbing that mountain so when it’s hard and when it’s dangerous and when it’s challenging, that’s when you have the opportunity to just be your best and every time we go to Africa I feel that and that just really excites me.
Yes, it sort of just brings you back down to earth doesn’t it, the sort of like the root of where everything began kind of thing?
Exactly, it puts everything in perspective, you know you don’t realise. For me anyway, living in Los Angeles or living in America or living in a major city adjusts you and then you go someplace like Zambia, like Luangwa or Kruger or Kilimanjaro and you just realise okay, I was off a little bit, you know, now I feel respect, now I feel I get it, you know.
Yeah, so tell me how real is the danger involved during filming and what are your biggest challenges?
Well, you know the danger is very real but doing a full escape and evasion scenario and I’m making choices within that that aren’t for TV. They’re for a real escape and evasion scenario so I do some things that are very sketchy and the stuff you see me do that’s very sketchy on the show is… I mean I’m really doing that, that’s me making choices that maybe aren’t the safest. Like with the lions and everything in South Africa and running away from it. That was all very real and very spur of the moment, so there’s that, there’s that danger but that’s just kind of part of the package, the danger that has been the most distinctive and I think the most. The crew didn’t know what they were getting into and all the danger involved in trying to film something that’s moving very quickly and something that’s moving very aggressively and dangerously. Having crew members trying to keep up with that and capture all that action as much as possible at the time, I think that’s probably the biggest danger. It’s a very real danger and it’s also the biggest challenge. Besides what you saw probably in the behind the scenes of the first season episode with the flying fish and the killer bees and the dengue fever, there’s been cases of MRSA. We’ve had guys pulled out, guys evacuated out of the field, emergency, we’ve had to fly in cameramen in the middle of the hunt, emergency to get in and take the place of other guys. People have quit. The danger is real and there have been some people who are still having surgeries because of things that happened during the first season.
So it is THAT real?
Yeah, that’s real. It’s very legit and you know it’s funny – is that during the first season, the production crew and company – we had tough production guys, guys that worked on Deadliest Catch and guys that were tough camera guys, but no-one knew, no-one understood what this was going to be like and so when it was as dangerous as it was, there were a lot of casualties, a lot of people got hurt, a lot of people quit. In Season 2 everyone was much better prepared for what this was really going to be like so we didn’t have the injuries that we had in the first season because people were a lot more prepared.
How tough are the teams who are trying to capture you, because every time it is something different?
It is, and all of the teams, every one of them is tough and is very good at what they do but they have different assets. You know, they have different strengths, they have different capabilities so we try to structure a scenario where if it’s five guys on horseback or if it’s 75 guys on horseback. ATV thermal imaging, helicopters, dog tracking units, which some of the units have been like that, we try to structure my insert and my route to make sure that we have a great hunt, you know, so if there’s five guys on horseback, they’re going to start right behind me and it’s going to be a much closer hunt, whereas if there’s you know like 75 guys and all these air assets and everything. Then they’re going to have a harder time picking up my trail because if they’re all concentrated in one spot on the border and I entered and there’s 75 guys with helicopters all looking for me, there is no hunt there, we have to structure it so that there is a moment in the beginning where there is equality, you know what I mean. So all of them have been fantastic. We just have to try to structure the hunt so that we have a great hunt depending on who we’re going up against.
That must have generated great footage throughout, so do you have any idea what the type of scenes go into the unused pile or the cut scenes that don’t make it to the final cut?
Oh yeah, yeah, it’s very frustrating for me with a lot of that because what they have to do is make a 46 minute TV show with a nice arc, nice interactions between myself and the hunter force, an exciting insert and an exciting extract or capture and that all has to force fit in the 43 to 46 minutes. In reality, the hunt took from 12 hours to 56 hours, so take the stand downs out, say a 56 hour hunt was out there 3 days for that one, take two 6 hour stand down periods out of that and now you’ve got 48 hours of footage of the hunter force and of me. So you’ve got 96 hours’ worth of stuff, worth of deception trails, booby traps, strategy – all that stuff so they just have to pick those few things and arrange them in a nice little story arc. Sometimes what is exciting for me is the overall strategy and the longevity and maybe I’m thinking several steps ahead and I’m trying to do this or the hunter force is doing the same thing. Those things aren’t captured just because we only have 46 minutes to tell a story in. So that’s what really ends up in the unused pile, which is frustrating for me. I’ll do things that I am super proud of. I’m so excited about how clever that was and there’s no mention of it when the show is finally edited.
Do you have any idea what kind of tech is used during filming. Red Epic camera’s, do they use any drones, GoPro’s? Do you have any idea of the kind of pics that goes into this production?
Well, the two biggest qualifications on the camera here is actually that its very light and very portable because these guys are moving quick with it and then also they have to be extremely durable and rugged because of the environments that we’re in. So the executive producers settle on Sony EX3s. The EX3 camera has been pretty durable, we’ve gone through a lot of them. I think in Season 1 we went through 25 cameras over the course of Season 1. That’s all kinds of cameras, that’s not just the EX3s but the EX3s are the main shooting cameras and then at night they have these little Sony’s… I don’t know what they are but it’s a little small camera with an infrared illuminator. It’s small – probably about the size of a bottle of Coke and then we use a lot of GoPro’s. There have been times that I’ve gotten separated from the camera crew or I’ve had to tell my camera guys to stay here, we’ll link back up and I’ll just grab a GoPro and I’ll go off. There’s a lot of hours where maybe things are quiet and I’ll stop down and I’ll grab a GoPro and do some talk about all survival stuff. And drones, we use drones as well but we’ll only use drones during the like the insert, the extract.
We usually get different coverage or usually sometimes I’ll have a near miss that I won’t allow my camera guy to shoot because he would compromise me. I mean, they’re that close so it really pisses off the producers but I’m not going to get caught so he can get the shot. We’ll go back on another day and they can stage a shot where they were really close because there have been times where they’re 25 metres away, the sun is facing right into me and if the camera guy would have lifted up his camera he would have given them a flash right in their eyes, from you know, less than 30 metres away and it would have been over.
What do you carry with you when you’re trying to avoid capture, what’s your most useful tool.
Well it all comes down to mind-set. My mind-set in the initial focus is always the number one thing, but taking a step down from that the one thing I always want to have with me and if I had nothing else, I would take a large fixed blade knife, just because with that I can do so many things and I can make so many things that I can use. Without a large blade, you need to get a sharp rock or a piece of flint or something that you can cut and manipulate the vegetation. So that would be the number one thing and then the other thing that I take with me that is specific for when I was in the seal teams – everybody had an escape and evasion kit and some of them, people would make them and issue them. Guys would make their own and it just has several small items in there that allow you to purify or carry water, smear or capture food, signal, navigate, make fire. In mine I’ve added things for booby traps and trip wires and things like that but it sits in a small Nalgene bottle and that is kind of my to go to piece of kit.
Do you have any hobbies that you recognise would be bit out of character for a Navy SEAL? Do you collect stamps, do you catch butterflies?
Hahaha, well I live in Los Angeles, there are no butterflies there. But you know, if anyone were to see me with my dog they probably wouldn’t think I was a steely eyed killer! That’s a good question because one thing I always did especially when I was operational was swing in the opposite direction on what little time I had off – I would go to opera, I would go to the art museum. I think I was just trying to balance myself out because here we are in Afghanistan and training and doing all this crazy stuff and when I’d come home all I wanted to do was the exact opposite. Just to try to balance. As I got out, I wouldn’t feel the drive to do those ultra-cultural things quite as much, I kind of swung back towards the middle and then when I’m off doing Manhunt it kind of makes me swing a little further back out to want to do the cultural stuff, because it’s hard you know?
Do you reckon you would be able to go up against Chuck Norris?
Well Chuck’s not a bad individual, but you know those movies he did Missing in Action, do you remember those, well I talked Chuck through Missing in Action 1, 2 and 3.
Haha, great! So what is next for you?
Right, it’s Season Two of Manhunt which I’m super excited about, it is a bunch of different things, put me up against some hunter forces that were indigenous, a tribal type people which totally changed everything, it changed everything you know. In the military or law enforcement tracking, I know how they are thinking and what they’re going to do. When you put me up against a bunch of Mongolians on horseback I don’t know quite as much, so I’m super excited about that. I also have another show called Predators Up Close and I was just in South Africa again a couple of months ago diving and working with the great white sharks off of Simonstown. I tell you what, I used to spend my career in the ocean at night as a navy SEAL and I am glad I didn’t see these giant 25 ft. great white sharks, waltzing out of the water with seals in their mouths, because my imagination was good enough.
You’re more of a land animal?
No I’m a water guy. The SEAL teams, that’s a water thing but you do imagine great white sharks when you’re in the water at night for hours and hours. In the end I didn’t really need to know exactly that there were, but the new series is fantastic. We did polar bears, we did great white sharks, we went to Zambia and worked with lions and hyenas and it was a fascinating look into the world’s biggest and baddest predators from the point of view of a special operations person. Our technology has developed things to make up for the lack of what nature gave us humans, these animals have these claws and teeth and this night vision. Technologically created night vision and sonar and radar for us. How these animals work and how they hunt and how their tactics are utilised was fascinating so that’s going to be an intense series.
Thank you so much for your time and I’m looking forward to checking out the series and hopefully I’ll get a chance to catch up with you again pretty soon.
Sounds good man! I appreciate your questions, they were great. Nice talking to you!
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