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Q&A: "Siberia"s Jamie Winterstern & Sam Dobbins
This past week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jamie Winterstern and Sam Dobbins about their show, “Siberia”, which airs Mondays at 10/9 central on NBC.
“Siberia” centers around 16 reality show contestants who arrive in the harsh climate of the Siberian territory of Tunguska. They prepare to battle each other and the elements to claim a large cash prize only to find that many unexplained events begin to occur. While the participants assume that the events were merely created by the producers, they slowly realize that they’re not being set up -- and no help is coming to save them. Little do the contestants know that in 1908, a strange event occurred deep in Tunguska in which the entire village vanished...
Jamie co-directed the latter half of the season, primarily focusing on episode 7, “First Snow”, which centers around a horrible blizzard that strikes the camp, for which the contestants are completely unprepared. The actors portraying the contestants did not actually have on proper winter clothes, and like their characters, had to battle the harsh snow. There were many challenges that Jamie faced while filming this episode, such as continuity in the snow.
Sam Dobbins, whose character is also named Sam, really had to battle it out in the snow -- in one scene, he lies in the snow and the other contestants discovers that he has frostbite. Like his character, Sam also hails from New York and shares his no-nonsense personality.
As “Siberia” wraps up its first season, Jamie is currently ironing out the details to option a book about the perils of hockey, steroids, and pain killers. He is also eagerly awaiting the renewal of “Siberia”.
During our chat, Sam and Jamie told me what it was like to film in snow that comes up to your waist, why the series changed to a documentary-style as opposed to a reality-style, and their favorite part about the show!
YH: What was it like to film this particular episode (Episode 7)?
JW: It was very challenging. First off, it was my first stab at television. I’ve been shooting a bunch of commercials and promotional videos prior to this and editing a feature film, so directorially, this was a big job for me. I wanted to get off on the right foot. We were shooting 3-1/2 days per episode, at about 15-16 pages per day. When you’re moving at that pace, there are instances when you have one take to get it right. It was winter, it was -40 degrees with three feet of snow. Talk about continuity in the snow! Having to know what your shot selection is, and knowing that you can’t walk that far deep in the snow (you can’t really reset snow), and our actors not wearing boots… it was a cluster of challenges. This being my first directorial television experience it was really overwhelming!
YH: What were some of the specific challenges that you faced?
JW: Prep was a big challenge for me. I was brought on to do 4 episodes, and during production, they brought me on to do a fifth. We only had two weeks to prep. Normally in television, the director will shoot for a week, then get the following week off to prep for the next week, so the weeks would be staggered. I found myself directing three to four weeks straight, so my prep time came after we finished shooting at a coffee shop where I would prepare for the next day and end up getting about three hours of sleep. On top of that, there was the snow, the cold, the continuity, our cast not wearing winter clothing... For the first couple of episodes, they’re stuck in the spring clothes. So we had to be conscious of when to bring them on set, rehearsal times, etc. It was all just a really big mathematical equation and a huge learning experience for me.
SD: It was the coldest I’ve ever been. I grew up in New York, and it gets pretty cold there, this was way colder. One second we were walking on packed snow, and then the next second you were up to your hips in snow. That was snow! When we were shooting, there really wasn’t a way to keep warm. When we weren’t shooting, the actors would hole up in the van. Jamie and the rest of the crew, they were outside all the time. They were in the elements a lot more than we were.
JW: We weren’t a  blockbuster show  with lavish trailers.  We had a very small budget. We had the van, where the cast would jump in and warm up, and then we were ready to film, they would jump back out. At night, the wind chill would reach those minus 40 degree temperatures. They were really getting numb. Sam was lying in the snow for an extended period of time. He’s a trooper. The guy won’t flinch! You’re telling him, “Put your jacket on, we’re going to take a quick break,” and he’s saying, “No, no, I want to stay down here.”
SD: Well, I was in a bit of pain. All we had was this big open field and the van to jump into. There were good times too though. When we weren’t shooting, Jamie kept us as warm as possible.
JW: The actors were wearing spring shoes. Sam was wearing dress lace shoes, Joyce [Giraud] was wearing boots, Daniel [Sutton] was wearing Vans -- when you’re walking and trudging through three feet of snow, your feet immediately get wet. Some of these takes went from a minute to five minutes, and the actors would lose feeling in their toes. We had to be very conscious of when we were shooting from the knees up, which isn’t so easy for me, because if you look at the style of the film, sometimes we would catch their feet -- so more likely than not, I always had to play on the side of safety, and say, “I’m sorry but you have to wear your fall shoes.” They were all troopers.
YH: This particular episode looks a lot more like a documentary than a reality show. What made you decide to film this particular episode in that style?
JW: Matthew Arnold, our creator, had a strong opinion that the show had to look like a reality show. The conceit was that “Siberia” was “Survivor”; we went as far to hire DPs from previous reality shows to make sure it looked like a reality show. But as you can see, over the course of the first six episodes, that detierates as the producers abandon ship. So, for all intents and purposes, the show is over. For me and my job taking over the second half of the season, with the stakes so high becoming either life or death for these survivors, it was now a drama show about survival. For me, I drew more on comparisons to the film 127 Hours. With television shows today, audiences expect more. I wanted to encapsulate a drama, and it became a drama. By maintaining the style of a documentary (District 9 is a good example of that style), where you still have these interviews, that become confessionals. This was the motivation to turn it into what you see now.
YH: "Siberia" is the first television series to be independently produced. What was it like getting the show to network?
JW: Michael Ohoven, one of our executive producers, who is a tremendous guy, paired up with Executive Producer Slava N. Jakovleff and together they found a way to finance the entire show independently. They raised a certain amount of money to shoot an entire season. Usually when raising private funds, which is rare in television, it's spent on the pilot. The fact that they took a risk and financed an entire season is unbelievable. It wasn't until months after we wrapped production did I find out about the network, then it was which Network? A major? Finally Michael with a giant grin gathered everyone in the office and said "NBC". It was just mind-blowing. I never imagined we would be airing on NBC.
YH: How did you first get involved in “Siberia?”
SD: For me, our casting director contacted me. She called me in to audition and I wasn’t available at first, so I put myself on tape. She got the tape and gave it to Matthew Arnold. He watched it and called me in for the callbacks; I auditioned. For the audition, we went over the material a few times; we also improved the scene a couple of times. And that was it. We didn’t hear anything for about a month, and then I got a call that I booked the part.
JW: This project was top secret. The pages that our cast got to audition with weren’t the actual scenes themselves. They didn’t see the real script. My half of the season really turned into a drama, but Matthew Arnold, who directed the first half of the season, felt that in order for the show to really feel like a reality show, there should be no dialogue -- it should pretty much just be improv. So Matt never gave these guys a script. Before each scene, he described the intentions of the characters, the action in the scene, and they all improved it. It was a very exciting experience. We would let the cast go for about 10 minutes and have four cameras rolling. It was pretty much as reality as you could get for a scripted drama.
SD: The direction and action of the scene was directed, but then we as the actors would just improv the dialogue.
JW: As for myself, my relationship with Michael (Ohoven) goes back several years.  He's like family and I look up to him as a mentor.  He helped finance my short film, “Son of a Don”. He hired me on to edit Matthew Arnold’s first feature, Shadow People, and then I was brought on to edit “Siberia”, and then I was brought on to direct episodes. It’s been unbelievable. I’m very grateful to Michael for giving me all these opportunities, and I’ve been enjoying growing alongside him as a collaborator.
SD: Jamie was amazing to work with. He’s a great communicator. Very quickly we knew what he wanted in a particular scene. I’ve worked on a lot of projects where I had no idea what the director wanted, and I found myself just nodding, doing whatever it was I was going to do. With Jamie, he’s very precise, he’s a great director. He gets what he wants.
JW: That’s very sweet Sam, thank you.
SD: You’re welcome. [both laugh]
JW: Sam’s amazing. The cast was great. It was a very tough situation for anyone. It didn’t matter if you were an A-lister or not, to have to work in that environment at that pace is really a set up for failure. And the fact that we’re on NBC just speaks volumes of the talent of everyone involved. That includes the cameramen, the props, the sound, the whole team.
YH: How did you relate to the character Sam on the show?
SD: We’re both from New York. We’re both blue collar, what you see is what you get. He has a little bit of a temper. At one point in my life, I might have had a bit of a temper, but I think I’m more mellow now. We’re very matter-of-fact. I think that’s the similarities between us.
JW: This isn’t to do with Sam’s character, but I did want to make a note of this. We’re a very tight group, and I think we’re all just taken aback by the whole experience. We all get together on Monday nights with friends and family and watch the show. I think that whole family-oriented experience you don’t see very often in this industry. It’s very nice to see your work collectively as a group, and look around and see these faces of these actors where they watch themselves on national television. It’s a real experience. It’s a gift of a lifetime to see that peacock at the bottom of my images.
SD: The driving force behind this show is the fans. We have amazing fans. The number of fans are going up. They really love the relationships on the show. They’re really getting involved. They let us know what they think. The fans are great.
JW: Twitter is huge for us. Our cast live tweets every show, and we get to interact with the fans. And Facebook as well. There’s a lot of connection between the fans and the cast.
You can keep up with Jamie on Twitter, Instagram (@HJWfilms), and at his website!
- Sarah Osman, YH Staff