- Below Deck -A 'Below Deck' Producer Tells Us All The Behind-the-Scenes Intel Viewers Don't See
Boats. Beers. Battles between the guests and the crew: there’s a lot you already know about Bravo’s hit series, Below Deck. Season 7 of the series ended earlier this year, and Season 5 of its Mediterranean spinoff returned Monday, June 1 with its predictable but no less welcome cast friction, drunk guests, and breathtaking scenery. Yes, there are tried and true elements of the show, but according to Below Deck field producer German Abarca, there’s a lot you don’t know about the series.
Abarca has worked behind the scenes of Below Deck for “six to eight of them now” — which is to say, so many seasons that he can’t recall the exact number — and is a reality TV vet. He’s done every job from camera operator to producer to director on some of your favorite shows like The Real World (Miami! Boston! Seattle! Hawaii!), The Bachelor and Bachelorette (“I always have a soft spot for Bachelor because I did Season1” and he’s been working with the franchise ever since), and The Joe Schmo Show (“they don't do it anymore; I wish they did!”), and many, many others.
But, throughout his 20-plus years working in television, Below Deck has a special place in his heart. He started on Season 2 with Captain Lee Rosbach in the Caribbean and when Abarca and I spoke in late March, he'd just finished filming Below Deck Season 8, also in the Caribbean.
We’ll get into what it’s like working with Captain Lee and chief stew Kate Chastain, but first, let’s explore a little of the sausage-making, because filming Below Deck is an undertaking.
In some regards, it’s easier than filming other reality shows — it can be categorized as a “house reality show,” which essentially means that Abarca and his team mostly stay in one place (even if the yacht moves) and don’t have to plot out how they’re going to film a race, or a competition element, or a cooking contest.
“I kind of half joke about it with a friend of mine who's done this show that it's more of a camera management show than anything else,” he says.
But, “it's still crazy because, especially when you're on a charter, there could be something going on with the stews at the same time that something's going on with the deckhands at the same time there's something going on with the guests,” he explains. It can be difficult from his air-traffic-control position in the control room on the yacht to make sure it all gets caught on tape.
Here’s a rundown of how it works. The production crew (not to be confused with the deck crew, who are cast members on the show) are split into three teams: the morning crew, the mid-shift crew, and the evening crew. The whole crew stays at a hotel near the marina where the yacht docks and they tender back and forth to the yacht for their shifts when the yacht is anchored, and they'll walk to the yacht if it's docked.
The morning shift typically starts at six or seven in the morning, and all three shift sizes range from five to 20 team members (a total of 50 members of production went to Thailand to film Season 7, according to BravoTV.com). Each team overlaps a little with the previous one, allowing for some hand-off style updates between the production crew members.
As a field producer on the show, Abarca sits in the control room on the mega yacht next to his producer colleagues who keep track of what’s happening with the cast — his job is to follow the story and make sure it’s captured on camera.
The producers are listening to the audio coming through from the cast, the guests, and from mics placed throughout the yacht. “We can listen to whoever we want, no matter where people are or where crews are,” Abarca explains.
When they hear something they want to be filmed on the hand-held cameras (there are, however, surveillance and robo cams are all over the yacht, he tells me, which help producers find out where people are) Abarca dispatches his team to film it.
So, for example, say that a producer overhears Kate starting a conversation that they want filmed. Here’s how it goes down: A producer will say to Abarca, "'OK, Kate's down in the crew mess, and she's talking about whoever,'” he says, “so I might go, ‘Hey, Paul, head down to the crew mess, you've got Kate down there.’”
And Paul, whoever that is, will head there with his camera. Sausage, made.
Abarca works the evening shift — he prefers the night shift because it’s cooler then — and when he shows up, he gets the rundown on what he’s missed.
“The EPs [executive producers] from the daytime will download us on everything that's happened during the day, so that we know what to look for,” he says. Maybe the update is “a continuance of a story from the morning into the evening or something that hasn't happened yet, or what they think is going to happen that night.”
So, would that update look something like: The guests are super wasted after a beach party. Kate is exhausted. She hates beach parties. Chef Ben Robinson said he was going to serve lamb tonight, but it turns out he doesn't have lamb, so he's going to substitute beef. And we know that the charter guest doesn't want any beef, and we expect that to be a thing, so look out for that.
“Yeah, yeah, 100%. It's almost like you were there!” Abarca tells me. (The Below Deck fan in me beams.) “It's almost exactly like that.”
I’m stressed out and ready to tune in just thinking about it.
Abarca offers another example — sometimes the information hand-off includes an emotional, rather than purely logistical, rundown. The daytime production crew might inform him of cast drama, like, say, the chief stew is frustrated with her second stew, and they think tonight she’s going to talk to her about it. Abarca will get that info, and then decide how to make sure it’s caught on tape, if it does, indeed, go down. It’s somewhat intense, he says, because the drama is all unfolding once he gets there.
“As soon as we get my evening cameras up, I'm like, all right, find Kate and stick with her. Don't leave her unless I tell you to. And [the cameraperson will] just follow her everywhere, everywhere, and everywhere.”
Abarca says that this might sound boring (it doesn’t, whatsoever) but, “it almost becomes an art to be able to just listen and hear,” he says. If you pay attention, you can predict what will happen, and it’s satisfying to capture it.
Hiding all those people who do the capturing is also an art. One of Abarca’s team’s first tasks when hopping aboard for his night shift is tip-toeing the day shift crew off the yacht.
“We have to kind of, sort of sneak them out one of the breezeways. And we'll call it out like, ‘Hey, [they’re] leaving off the breezeway. Don't shoot the swim deck!’ Or sometimes we're shooting on the swim deck, and all the crew that's leaving is right behind the camera, waiting to try to jump on their boat. It's really funny. It's really bizarre,” he says with a laugh. It's tricky, because sometimes there is story happening simultaneously that needs to be taped.
The production crew also has to hide the yacht crew who work on the boat, but who are not part of the show.
That, Abarca says, is pretty easy, since there are only two or three yacht engineers or officers who aren’t supposed to be filmed. They have a meeting at the beginning of the season and go over expectations, but it can still be frustrating when one of the non-cast member yachties sits down with the cast member yachties, who, unbeknownst to the friendly non-cast member yachtie, happen to be having a conversation that Abarca is excited to get on film.
“It's an understanding that they need to do their work… especially in the case of any, God forbid, emergency or anything like that. But for the most part, we ask them, if we're shooting our on-camera cast and you just happen to be in there, kind of just sort of walk away and come back later,” he says.
The last thing Abarca wants is for a non-camera yachtie to interrupt the on-camera yachties and switch the conversation to something about laundry. “It just blows that scene!” he says.
Because, at the end of the day, they’re filming a TV show, and even though Abarca says that Below Deck is one of the most real reality shows he’s worked on — “it’s a bit of a rarity nowadays in that... it's very hands-off,” he says. But, “the producers will go in and talk to cast every now and then.”
“It'll be more, like, ‘Hey, remember you're on a show; you got to open up,’ or that kind of thing,” he says.
Thankfully, Kate didn’t need any prodding when it comes to being authentic. “She's everything you expect," Abarca says of the 37-year-old Below Deck icon.
“She's one of those sort of unique reality characters —” he cuts himself off. “I hate saying character because she's not a character. It is Kate,” he says.
“I don't know if she just gets it, or she's just who she is and she doesn't try to censor herself. That's why she's become so popular,” he says. Abarca won’t have Kate to rely on for Season 8 — she announced early this year that she’s not returning.
And Captain Lee is just what you’d expect, too. “Captain Lee is… Captain Lee!” He’s stoic and stern, Abarca says, and “he's got his way of doing things, and it's not always the same way that his crew would want to do it, but that's how he is.”
“A lot of times, the story won't necessarily involve Captain Lee,” Abarca says, “but he's got a penchant for walking in sometimes at the perfect time, when something's happening.”
“I don't know if you saw the Thailand season,” — of course I saw the Thailand season, are you kidding me? — “but it was a huge blowout one night when we came back from [the cast’s] night out, and I remember saying in the control room, we were like, ‘Oh my God, could you imagine if Lee woke up right now and found all these guys drunk and fighting?’”
Lo and behold.
“Five seconds later, you see him walking down. [I’m] like, ‘Oh my God, here comes Lee! Here comes Lee! Here comes Lee!’ And it was perfect timing. Perfect time, perfect place. It was just great,” Abarca says. Captain Lee said on the show that he’s “madder than a pissed off chicken” at his crew, and gives us the iconic, shirtless, double-door slam.
Abarca and his team have gotten good at predicting how all the relationships on the yacht will play out, from romantic to professional to platonic. Anyone, regardless of a two decades-long career in reality TV production, could’ve told you that Kate and Chef Kevin Dobson were not going to hit it off (they were the loudest ones fighting, you’ll recall, that stirred Lee from his slumber) but when you’re the eyes and ears, watching every move and listening to every whisper, you develop a real knack for matchmaking, or un-matchmaking.
“After a while, you know what you're looking for,” Abarca says. “Sometimes we're in the control room and I'm like, ‘Well, that's never going to happen.’” (That said, Kate and deckhand Tanner Sterback’s “relationship” on Below Deck Season 7 was one that Abarca did not see coming.)
He and his team also keep an eye on the interpersonal vibe between the yacht co-workers. Sometimes, he says, they’re in the control room wondering, “Is this new stew going to work out? Or is this deckhand too green, and he doesn’t know what to do and he's going to get fired?” The predictions roll in.
Below Deck and Below Deck Med are smash hits (Entertainment Weekly named Below Deck Med one of the best shows of 2019) and Below Deck Sailing Yacht found its footing — after a strong start, the ratings dropped mid-season, but climbed back to near-original heights by the end. Abarca isn’t surprised by Below Deck and its spinoffs' popularity: “It works!”
“Below Deck has become huge,” he says. It started as this “small Bravo show that really nobody knew about, and I think it's their number one show now.” Hypothetically, one could celebrate that success with a ride down the slide, no?
“In all the scenes I've done, I still have yet to go down to slide,” he laughs.
Maybe Season 9 could change that.