For Executive Producer Justin Kelly, the Greatest Reward is Adventure
In this world of social media and manufactured moments, anyone who has experienced the truly spontaneous events which can occur has an appreciation for taking life as it happens. Reality television is a deceptive moniker for stories which are maneuvered into drama but Justin Kelly has made a lifelong career of actual reality productions. Though he has worn various hats in the industry, he’s been Executive Producer for a number of years now on some of the most popular shows which explore man’s relationship with nature and the planet. While many of his peers are walking the red carpet and eating at chic restaurants, Kelly and his crew are sleeping in subzero temperatures mere feet away from the most dangerous and graceful animals on Earth. His work is far from unrecognized. His credits are populated with productions such as Discovery Channel’s number one flagship show Gold Rush: Alaska, National Geographic WILD’s Alaska’s Grizzly Gauntlet, and the Great Bear Stakeout (BBC/Discovery), as well as others. Justin’s success in television ironically locates him far from the city spotlight, in some of the most remote northern areas man has seen. The EP sees this as a positive aspect as he relates, “I thrive in difficult circumstances and I love the challenge. Fortunately, I’ve not had any setbacks out in the field; perhaps I’d be less inclined to want to do this kind of work if I had. I’ve always wanted to do this job since I was fourteen. I’d be more inclined to worry about NOT being able to do this kind of work than the potential dangers it comes with.”
In Justin’s work environment, the anticipation of danger is more commonplace than on the vast majority of sets. As the Showrunner for Alaska’s Grizzly Gauntlet, Kelly was tasked with more than finding the best stories, talent, and location; he did so while placing himself and his film crews in the immediate proximity of wildlife such as Polar bears and Kodiak brown bears. The show follows Cameraman and survivalist les Stroud on a daunting journey through the Kodiak wilderness as he studies and encounters these grand and potentially lethal animals. For the Great Bear Stakeout, Justin served as both director and producer. Along with his film crew , the same crew which made David Attenborough’s Primetime Emmy award-winning wildlife series Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, Kelly spent five months in the Alaskan wilderness alongside Grizzly bears to capture footage of what these animals’ lives are truly like. While narrators like (BAFTA nominated) Billy Connolly and (Golden Globe winner and Primetime Emmy nominee) John Goodman delivered their contributions from a comfortable recording booth, Justin made his from amidst the potentially lethal aspects of nature; the most imposing of these being the bears. He relates, “This was perhaps the most challenging and rewarding series to work on. Being out in the wilderness for five months was challenging but what made it harder was dealing with Grizzly bears. They have an incredible sense of smell (A Grizzly bear can smell 2100 times better than a human) and you don’t want to attract them unnecessarily. They’re particularly curious about plastics or anything petroleum based and they’ll easily overrun your camp if you’re not careful.”
Even in the vast north of the Yukon, men and their creations can be just as dangerous as giant bears. As Co-Executive Producer for nine seasons of Gold Rush: Alaska, Justin and the production experienced major forest fires, mud slides, ice covered roads, and severe storms to attain the exciting footage of the mining companies featured in the show. While these natural hazards are constantly looming, it’s sometimes the most unexpected that offer instant tragedy. Kelly concedes that the heavy machinery like huge dredges, rock truck, and bulldozers found on the location have the ability crush a human without the machine’s operator even noticing. Random safety checks and inspections are a requirement to keeping everyone on their toes.
In spite of the potential for disaster, these programs have rarely seen any injuries. Call it viewer pathos but the specter of danger paired with exceptional storytelling is a certain formula for success. Justin oversaw three separate locations of the multi-million-pound production Gold Rush: Alaska which became the anchor of the demographic of males (ages 18 to 49), enabling the Discovery Channel to monopolize this male viewership for nearly a decade. Critical acclaim was also bestowed for the show via an ASCAP Film and Television Music Award (“Top Television Series”) and an Astra Award (“Favourite Program – International”). When questioned about his personal ethos for cultivating greatness in such a program, Kelly reveals, “I’m a very hands-on person and it’s important for me to be on the front line overseeing the filming and ensuring it goes smoothly. Of course, it’s a necessity to have the right team with the right skill set. The secret to keeping them at the top of their game and happy is having great cooks who can make anything. Safety is a requirement but a well fed and happy crew goes a long way.”
A career like this is as much a calling as a profession. One does not endure the most brutal aspect of weather and flirt with wild beasts simply for a paycheck. While proud of the programs he’s been essential to manifesting, Justin Kelly downplays the idea that his vocation leans towards tempting fate. For him, it’s about the experiences he has wanted to take part in since his days as a fourteen-year-old boy in Scotland. With a tone of wonderment, he specifies, “It can be exhausting. Often you’re far away from a shower or hot food and working in very cold temperatures of -20c, doing something like tracking Caribou migrations…but it really is worth it when you get that elusive footage of a Grizzly bear from twenty feet away, or the Caribou that you’ve been trying to trace suddenly appears on the horizon. It’s a lot of hard work, but is incredibly rewarding when it pays off. You find yourself standing ten feet from a Grizzly on an almost daily basis. It’s quite a special time. I don’t think I could ever pay for such a life experience.”
Writer: Patrick Wilson