'Floor Is Lava' secrets: How Netflix series bubbles to the top in reality TV's summer of silliness
Remember that childhood game where you jumped from chair to couch to ottoman to avoid a floor of imaginary molten lava – and, hopefully, a parental scolding?
Producers of Netflix's wild new reality TV competition, "Floor Is Lava" (now streaming), took that literally, save for the actual magma.
In "Lava," teams of friends and family members try to get from one side of a room to the other, jumping on beds, tables and chairs, inching along walls and literally swinging from chandeliers to avoid disappearing into a steaming sea of reddish-orange liquid.
Rooms range from kitchen and bedroom to a planetarium with an Apollo capsule, all featuring odd and outsize artifacts, including Easter Island heads. The goal: Get as many teammates to to the exit as quickly as possible without falling into the liquid, which spells instant elimination for any contestant.
"Lava," hosted by Rutledge Wood ("Top Gear"), isn't alone in TV's summer of silliness, an escapist alternative to the reality of COVID-19 and social and political unrest. ABC has "Don't" and mini-golf-themed "Holey Moley"; CBS has "Game On," and Fox plays "Ultimate Tag."
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For now, "Lava" appears to be the standout fall-down entry, topping Netflix's list of the Top 10 U.S. titles the weekend of its release on June 19, and this week. Each winning three-person team gets $10,000 and a $29 lava lamp, or "volcano of victory," as executive producer Irad Eyal calls it.
"We wanted it to feel like an action-adventure movie, like 'Night at the Museum' or 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (and) give everybody the opportunity to do all of the things that you were forbidden by your parents to do when you played at home, like swinging from the chandelier and climbing on the curtain," Eyal says.
Co-executive producer Megan McGrath says "Lava" strikes a chord during challenging times and makes for fun family viewing: "We always thought it was a good idea, but right now it's sort of the perfect storm of terribleness in the world, and people really need a laugh. … We're getting so many videos and pictures of kids playing it at home while they're watching. It's a wonderful thing to see."
Eyal and McGrath explain what goes into staging "Lava," including 80,000 gallons of the "molten" concoction in the studio tank and 20,000 more as backup.
Question: Where did the idea for this show, which was filmed last summer, come from?
Megan McGrath: At Christmas a couple of years ago, I was visiting my parents in Pennsylvania. I went into the basement. It hadn't changed at all since I was a kid, and it all came flooding back to me. I remembered playing for hours with my brother, jumping from the couch to the coffee table and throwing the cushions on the ground to act like lily pads to get away from the lava. And I realized we could make it into a pretty epic game show.
Q: Where did you shoot a show that required an elaborate set with a huge tank to hold a volcano's worth of liquid?
Irad Eyal: A lot of Hollywood studios turned us down because they did not want 100,000 gallons of lava on their sets. We ended up filming it in an old IKEA in Burbank, which was a perfect space because it was enormous and structurally sound enough to support all of the lava.
Q: What is the lava made of?
Eyal: We can't give away our formula, mostly because we spent months figuring it out. We had a company set up a laboratory where we tested all different formulations. We wanted it to be the right color, the right viscosity, the right slipperiness. It has slimy properties (and) a certain glow. … They were also inventing different ways to make the lava bubble, smoke and explode. … They had things called belchers, bubblers, smokers and blowers that got the lava to react the way we wanted it to.
Q: How deep is the lava?
Eyal: That's another thing that's under wraps, but the goal was safety. We wanted to make sure that they could fall from 10 feet up and not get hurt. (None of the contestants was injured, he said.)
Q: How did you design the rooms and the various escape routes?
McGrath: We wanted it to be an open course where there there's no one answer. We want the teams to solve it creatively, so we had to make sure there were tons of different routes that people could take. … Spoiler alert: In Episode 8, there is a girl named Ari and she goes a completely different way that we had never seen before. Nobody on our team had thought it was possible. It was amazing.
Q: How much do contestants know in advance about the course, especially secret tools such as the staff on the wall or the key in the pizza oven?
Eyal: We didn't tell them anything about it during casting. They didn't even know the name of the show. They would come to the set and see it and figure it out for the first time. They knew there were objects that could transform the playing field, things they could manipulate. We let them know everything is in play, feel free to move stuff, grab stuff, jump and lean on things – just so they would know that they were free to go nuts.
Q: When contestants fall into the lava, they disappear. Do you stop filming when they emerge?
Eyal: The goal of the show was the game you played as a kid has come to life. So we don't want to do anything to break the illusion of it. What I can tell you is everybody on the show worked hard to figure out ways to have them plunge into the lava without getting singed, burned, drowned, injured. All those contestants want to come back and play again. They all survived.