Matthew Arnold ’96 writes and produces Siberia television series
July 3, 2013 By Cindy Long
fake in television," Matthew Arnold ’96 explains. "Our show is a
true hybrid and a first of its kind for the genre."
Siberia airs on NBC Monday nights at 10/9 Central throughout the summer.
The heavily promoted and much-anticipated July 1 premiere of the NBC reality series Siberia is the creative brainchild of Matt Arnold ’96, and it's a concept he's been developing over several years. But Siberia's Centre connection doesn't stop there. The character of salmon-jacketed Kentuckian "George" is Arnold's Sigma Chi fraternity brother George Dickson ’98. Perhaps not the life paths one might expect from a physics and philosophical metaphysics double-major (Arnold), and a psychobiology major and former bond analyst (Dickson).
Siberia is unique in that it blurs the line between scripted drama and reality TV. Sixteen contestants are left in a remote location in Siberia with little more than the clothes on their backs. In this daunting, virtually uninhabited forest, they're faced with a series of potentially life-threatening challenges — think Lost meets Survivor — for the chance at the ultimate prize of $500,000.
Tunguska, the area where the group is left, is the site of a real-life mystery from more than 100 years ago: an as-yet-unexplained explosion that knocked down an estimated 80 million trees covering some 830 square miles. When the contestants in this enigmatic wilderness find a three-legged frog and hear unearthly growls from the surrounding forest, viewers are left to wonder what other mysteries and dangers are in store for the 16 castaways.
"I want to challenge viewers' expectations about what is real and fake in television," Arnold explains. "Our show is a true hybrid and a first of its kind for the genre. While the show was written, and we as producers always knew what was going to happen, we provided no scripts to the actors and would constantly surprise them by telling one character one piece of information and hiding it from the others, or throwing them into a situation without prior knowledge. The actors were reacting honestly in the scenes."
The idea for Siberia came to Arnold from an unusual source.
"I developed the idea over five years ago, while watching a documentary about a group of tourists that get captured by a Hutu death squad while on a tour in Rwanda," Arnold says. "I wondered what it would be like if something like that happened to the crew of a reality show like Survivor and the cameras were still running. Would the contestants know what was happening or would they think it was part of the show? They take these international contestants to foreign countries — who knows what could happen if the production crew accidentally took them into a very dangerous place? So I picked the most remote spot I could think of and Siberia was born."
Friends and former roommates aren't surprised that Arnold has made a career writing for film.
"I was always writing film projects, even as a teenager," Arnold says. "After Centre, I moved to Los Angeles and began working for Quentin Tarantino as a production assistant. As an office assistant at his company, I read Good Will Hunting before it was a movie, and I wrote and gave to the producer the math equations for the movie.
"The next year I enrolled in USC's School Of Cinema Television and wrote all of the film projects I directed," he continues. "It wasn't until I was out of school and trying to adapt a comic book for a company called Circle Of Confusion that I began to consider myself a writer, though. I offered to write the first 20 pages of the screenplay for them for free to try to get the job. They loved the pages and signed me as a writer and director."
Dickson's part in the show began in 2010 when he and Arnold happened to cross paths at the Cannes Film Festival. Dickson, who had retired as a bond analyst to take up acting, was there with a film he produced, Fiasco, and Arnold was there with one of his projects. A year later, Arnold contacted Dickson about the part in Siberia.
Dickson was quoted in a recent interview, saying, "I almost look at acting and film as a war of attrition and if you keep yourself in the game long enough, you're going to have some success. I'm grateful for a good friend 'sending the elevator back down,' to quote Jack Lemmon."
Arnold says that he's conceived of three full seasons, which could be expanded into four or five, and that his Centre experience has helped guide the way.
"I think my scientific background has found its way into almost every project I've done," Arnold says. "You can see physics references in a lot of the work I do. I also tend to draw a lot of characters from people I met at Centre, be they professors or students, and some alumni and teachers were instrumental in projects. Tony Haigh [professor of dramatic arts] was featured in my film Shadow People, and I called on my fraternity brother Jason May ’96, chief of staff at Columbus Regional Hospital, for some medical consultation advice for Siberia."
Siberia airs on NBC Mondays at 10/9 Central throughout the summer. Arnold says viewers should expect quite a few twists and turns along the way and hopes they enjoy the ride.
"Most of all, I want the audience to be entertained and to follow the mystery of the series," he says. "In this show, there are bits of evidence being planted, clues throughout, that all lead toward the question of what is really going on in the Siberian woods."
Follow the conversation about Siberia on Centre's twitter feed using #Siberia.
Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.