The Secrets of ‘Floor is Lava’

An interview with the hit game show’s executive producer

No TV show has captured the American imagination more, as our national crisis grinds on, than Floor Is Lava. It’s innocent, fun, and goofy. Three, and sometimes two teams of three players each try to traverse a room full of obstacles while trying to avoid 80,000 gallons of “lava,” which isn’t actually lava but is definitely gross and sticky. There are epic face-plants, moments of hubris and occasionally inspiring teamwork, and funny commentary from the show’s host, comedian Rutledge Wood. It’s the perfect distraction from our ongoing societal meltdown.

But, like every game show, Floor is Lava contains mysteries. I was curious about so many things. So I contacted executive producer Keith Geller, who I may just know personally, to unravel the mystique. His answers will unravel everything you need to know about Floor is Lava, a game show that will certainly enter TV legend.

Floor Is Lava is undoubtedly the most popular TV show in the USA right now, just like Tiger King was when the pandemic started. Why this show, and why now? 

Something about family or friends trapped in a house and dying to escape seems strangely relevant to people right now! Floor is Lava is such a recognizable concept and as a game its so simple that its kind of a no brainer when you have nothing to do on a Thursday afternoon.

In what ways did it change from the original idea and pitch to the form it took? 

The show as originally pitched was very similar to what we made. In the original deck for the show, there was a lot more story to follow. which is one of the main differences in what eventually made to the final cut. One of the cool things about that is that the questions we might have answered, “where are they” “why are they there”?, are now questions that the viewers gets to answer for themselves.

What were the inspirations and roots? Is Wipeout the protgenitor of all this? Or were there shows from other countries? 

The obvious inspiration was simply the kids’ game but we wanted to make it something not just for kids, something that would also appeal to adults.  Yes, adults remember playing as kids but we needed two levels of humor, kids’ level and adults. Funny you mention Wipeout. Co-viewing was a huge part of Wipeout’s success. There were multiple levels of comedy on that show and adults knew that some of the comedy would go right over their kids’ heads and that was just fine with them. And…everyone loves Wipeouts.

When we started working on how the show would function we knew a couple things. One was that we wanted to create an experience that viewers would be able to play along with at home. We wanted the show to feel like a quest and that anyone could do it. Lava is not a typical “jumping” show and so we set out to create challenges that would have to defy that way of thinking. We wanted rope swings and climbing walls and some puzzles hidden within.

Floor Is Lava
‘Floor is Lava,’ on fire for Netflix.

Some of us had plenty of experience in the falling department from working on shows such as Wipeout and we know what it takes to keep people safe. For Lava we had to create realistic items in the rooms safe for gameplay. We also knew it wouldn’t be easy. The objective is to have everything look real. But we also needed to have every item in the room to be safe to land on. It was really a great collaboration between the challenge team and the art department. We could punch something and tell if it needed to be softer or if it was too soft that it would wrinkle under the feet. So lots of trial and error to get to the sweet spot. Some items were so intricate they had to be sculpted by hand over several weeks, like the Easter Island heads.

What were some challenges in designing the courses? Did you have to reject any ideas because they were too dangerous or didn’t work? 

The main challenge was fitting a complicated course into the room we were using. We built a custom tank which also had to fit special fx and walls as well as furniture game pieces, so combining everything in a way that fit and could play to camera was tough. We used different measurements for jumps and we wanted to have some jumps be harder than others. And we had to pre-measure this and set it up to whatever degree we could before it went into the tank. It was a lot harder to move things once they went in. When you’re dealing with 120,000 gallons of Lava needing to be removed or added into the set, nothing happens fast or easy.

We pitched probably 30-40 rooms. We really went far out in terms of room types. Our theory was that whoever owned this place was so crazy and rich that he might have rooms built for absurd reasons. There are normal rooms, like the bedroom. and there are far out rooms. like the planetarium. But we were into serious crazy season seven rooms like Catopia, a room that was built just for cats. The entry was like two feet wide and two feet tall for players to squeeze into and inside was a crazy obstacle course full of giant carpeted cat towers, cat bridges and napping ledges.  It was epic. Cat people would LOVE it.

We didn’t reject any rooms out of danger, more out of the concept to try and stay more grounded for season 1.

What is the “lava” exactly? 

One of my jobs on Lava was to create the Lava, so I am one of maybe 3 people that know EXACTLY what it is and how to recreate it–and I am sworn to secrecy over penalty of death. But I will tell you one thing for sure, you don’t want to fall in it.

What happens to the players when they sink under the lava? Do they go to some chamber? Or do you just cut away and then they swim out of the course? 

People going under the Lava never to return is part of the success of the show.  I can’t give anything away here except that they don’t go to a chamber and no one dies.

Is this going to lead to more shows like FIL? Have we entered a golden age of watching people eat it on American TV? 

I hope it leads to more shows like this. It’s what I do. Although I do hope to one day combine the classic shit-eating challenge show with Shakespearean storytelling. A Midsummer Night’s Face-plant?

Floor is Lava
But soft, what light through yonder ‘Floor Is Lava’ window breaks?

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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