How The 'Temptation Island' Showrunner Convinces Couples To Date Other People
Would you and your partner participate in a social experiment to see if you're truly meant to be together? What about if it involves being separated and dating other people, and every aspect of the entire experience is filmed, edited for dramatic effect, and broadcast on national television? That's exactly what the couples on USA's Temptation Island sign up for when they're cast on the show, a reboot of the original early-2000s series of the same name that follows couples "at a crossroads in their relationships" as they date other people to determine if they're really with the right person.
But who in their right mind would be willing to take a very real committed relationship and subject it to the pressures of reality TV producers, and what does it take to withstand such emotional upheaval? As part of Bustle's Behind Reality series, we spoke to Temptation Island showrunner Scott Jeffress ahead of the Season 2 premiere on Oct. 10 about how he convinces couples to sign up for what could end up being a televised breakup experience, finding cracks in a couple's relationship, and how you can spot when someone isn't here for the right reasons.
How involved in casting are you, and is it harder to cast the couples or the singles?
Our casting director can speak to that of course, but I’m involved every step of the way. They weed out a lot of the couples and singles before we do, but we look at anywhere from six to eight different screenings with 20 singles and probably six couples. Out of all those, the ones that they hand-picked already, we decide usually 16 couples and probably about 80 singles to bring out and interview in person.
Singles, they’re relatively easy in the sense that they want to be on reality TV. We’re truly looking for people with great personalities; good characters who are really at a point where they want to find love and want a relationship. Most of them are that, some of them are there for different reasons. For the most part, we want sincerity. We truly want people who want a relationship and haven’t been in one in a while. Couples, it’s much harder to get. Once we narrow down the couples, we really pick and choose the singles based on the couples.
Do many legit couples actually apply for this themselves, or do you find them through other networks?
We do a lot of social media outreach — Facebook, looking on Instagram, reaching out to people who sound interesting and have some credibility as far as their careers go. We don’t want everyone to be an actor or a bartender. We try to find people who are catches and also people who have interesting relationship issues. It’s usually one of the two in the couple is dragging the other [on the show] kicking and screaming. They see this as an opportunity and convince their partner it’s worth trying out, see what they think. ‘Let’s at least do an interview.’ We hear it, we can tell the guy is dragging the girl there. We see that right away. Or, ‘Well, he wants me to come.’ Yes, but tell me about your relationship. By the time they’re done with the interview, they can see the purpose for them coming. They can see, yes, it probably would help. It’s usually one or the other and many times, they’re not into the idea and have to be talked into it.
How much do you learn about the couples’ relationships before filming? For instance, Kaci and Evan from last season had the most heart-wrenching finale. Did you personally have an idea of what would end up happening between them?
Yes, absolutely. I can usually tell you what’s going to happen. I’m not always right, but I’m pretty accurate with what I think will happen with a couple. When we met Evan, he was so good, it was like, this guy’s going to be on the show, period. You know, what we do when we bring them to Los Angeles and interview them in person, we sit them down as a couple and do a nice long interview. Then we separate them and interview them separately. That’s when we find out everything. The way we approach it, we ask a lot of questions when you’re together, [and when you’re alone we ask], ‘Is there anything you would’ve said differently with them out of the room?’ They all come up with one thing. We find out somebody’s cheated or has a wandering eye. Or someone’s not quite as into the other person as they are into them. We start to really suss out where the relationship problem is.
Kaci was very simple, she had issued an ultimatum: 'Either we’re engaged and have a wedding date by my birthday, or I’m moving on.' Ultimatums are tough, and that’s really what their story was. [Evan] wasn’t ready for that. Turns out, he wasn’t ready for that with her.
The fact that he found Morgan on the show — we knew we had several women he would be very interested in — he took to her right away and it was a beautiful, blooming little romance. There was a lot more build to that relationship than you saw, but it was a real love story. And that’s what we try to have, we want a love story. We try really hard to make sure that [someone in a couple] will fall for one of the guys or girls.
How hard is this to sell to couples as an experience that would be good for them, given that it ends pretty often with them breaking up?
I think what we try to do is explain what the purpose is — [to find out] if you’re with the right person. If you’re having questions and you came here at all, then this is the place to find out if this is the person for you or not. And the way to do that is compare. There’s a lot of comparison: 'This guy reminds me of my boyfriend because of this and this.' Then they start to realize, dating this other person, they gain this perspective.
"You find a crack in the armor and go for the jugular. You push so they will explore what’s right for them."
Maybe that’s the problem, the issue in the relationship. There are things in the relationship that they don’t like about their boyfriend. Then they kind of move on and find somebody who will listen to them or pay attention to them and not ignore what they’re saying. Each little thing as you interview them through the process comes out: 'Oh my gosh, yeah, [this new guy] actually cares what I have to say, I don’t have that in my relationship.'
All of a sudden, you find a crack in the armor and go for the jugular. You push so they will explore what’s right for them. A lot of them find that they’re in the wrong relationship and they’re ready to walk away. We give the push.
At the bonfires, contestants see out-of-context clips of their partner exploring other relationships, which seems like torture. Is there any way to emotionally prepare for this? What qualities are you looking for in the types of people you put in this situation?
Any couple that comes on and says, 'There’s no way we’ll break up, we’re in love with each other,' I say, bring it on. This is a way to really test the relationship. If you truly are a match with each other, you’ll walk away together. Usually, they buy in and say, 'We need to try it.' There are so many different issues: ultimatums, parental problems, [past] break-ups and getting back together, age differences, maturity levels. We’re looking for unique, different issues in relationships that aren’t all the same across the board.
As a veteran producer of reality dating shows like The Bachelor and Are You The One?, what are the particular challenges of casting for Temptation Island?
The harder task is finding couples that are willing to gamble with their relationship. We’re constantly doing outreach to find interesting people that are willing. There’s no question that some of these people want to be on a reality TV show; they’re willing to put their relationship on the line to be on [TV]. But once they get there, it’s not about how they want to be famous, it’s about, 'This is real.' They realize, 'Wow, I really do love my girlfriend.' Then they’re in and it’s too late.
How can you tell in casting who’s sincere about going on the show, and what are your strategies for determining that?
We embrace the fact that everybody wants to be on TV, that’s unavoidable. We try to get past that and get into relationships. It's mostly singles that would come on and want to be a character and stir sh*t up. We don’t really go for the over-the-top characters too much — we’ll throw one in a season — but they usually don’t work out. The couples see right through them, and they’re not going to go out with them. It’s really a waste for us. We feel like the show has drama on its own, we don’t play singles’ fights.
Couples, I’m pretty good at spotting fake couples. We had a good example this season, this woman who was a singer who did some studio recording. We do our social media search on everyone, too. She was probably coming to further her singing career. They were a great couple visually, in their initial Skype interview. I got the sense that they would look at each other and say, ‘Did I say the right thing?’ and I kept looking at [my co-worker] and she goes, ‘I don’t know.’
I called over the radio, and said, ‘Have him give her a big ol' kiss.’ And he leans over and pecks her on the cheek. And I turn to the network and say, ‘They are not a couple.’ Come to find out, soon after that, they were not a couple and somebody that knew them told us, ‘They don’t date, they just work together.’ You have to spot those, really dig in, watch their body language with each other and how they respond to each other. You can kind of tell; I’ve done enough couples shows to know whether a couple is real or not. They just didn’t have their act down.
With something like this, I imagine it’s hard to fake it once you’re isolated on the island unless you truly choreographed everything.
It’s going to be very difficult for fake couples to come in. We question everything: past relationships, we catch people lying. Social media, interviews, people seem a little sketchy or stories change. Things like that are red flags that pop up all the time.
When you cast couples, do you find out things that one person in the relationship doesn’t even know, and what do you do with that information?
We do find those things out, but we don’t disclose them. As a producer, I don’t believe in revealing private relationship [information] that I’m privy to but they aren’t. I would rather produce into it and have it come out when they’re sitting together. I’m pretty strict about that. When we do separate houses [for the guys and girls] on Temptation Island, they are isolated information houses. The producers and crew will go from house to house and it’s important that you don’t use your knowledge of what’s going on at one house to go to produce what’s happening at the other house.
If it comes out in the house and it ends up in a clip, we will play that clip [at the bonfire] of them revealing something their partner may not know. That’s one of the times where yeah, the components of what they said one night while drinking — it came out of their mouth, and you have to take it how you’d take it. Do you think they really meant it, [when] you don’t know what happens before or after?
It’s such a great format — the clips are fantastic. After every bonfire, everything changes. It literally resets the house every time. That’s what’s great about it. It’s a great tool for a producer to use to really push the story and push these people into these narratives.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.