When I first heard the concept for Lost in the Wild, a new Travel Channel show starring longtime friend-of-Uproxx Kinga Philipps and Emmy-nominated filmmaker J.J. Kelley, I slapped my desk hard enough to make my coffee cup rattle. The idea — to research cold cases of people who went “out bush” and never came back — is so finely tuned to fit our current cultural obsessions that I had to stew for a solid hour, wishing I’d pitched it myself.
The second my jealousy abated, I reached out to Kinga, J.J., and the Travel Channel for an interview. After all, UPROXX is where people go to feed their true crime and travel fixes, this show was basically made for our audience.
Watching screeners over the Christmas holiday, I was delighted to discover that the concept — my favorite travel TV idea since Karla Cavalli’s wildly underrated Planet Primetime — had been executed with precision and care, living up to and, in many moments, exceeding my hopes for it. It’s full of deep investigations of missing persons with far-flung locales and diverse cultures as the backdrop. Each episode not only scratches the mystery genre itch, it’s also a kinetic, experiential slice of adventure out in the great, wild world.
Check the interview below for details from the production process and insight into how each of the hosts saw pieces of themselves in the stories they chased.
I have to say — this show, when it came out, it struck like a thunderbolt. It’s such an incredible concept. There are very few high concept shows that really work in travel space and this does. So maybe just start by talking to me about how the concept came about, where the two of you found each other, and how this became the thing you wanted to pursue and pitch and create.
KINGA: Well, I think I’ll let JJ speak to that — because he was actually involved before I was — but I’ll say this: we appreciate very much you thinking that. Both of us, having worked in television for such a long time, you get kind of worn out on concepts. But when I got the phone call about this idea, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is so new, so fresh. I have actually never seen anything like it.” And it combined two major genres — the True Crime genre, which is so popular right now with podcasts, and the Adventure space, which I love.
Which is all to say that for me, it was absolutely a no brainer. I jumped on board so fast that the dust still hasn’t settled.
J.J.: We got started about three years ago. The production company Ping Pong reached out to me about a series that would follow people who go into the wild. And that felt incredibly meaningful because there are those people who disappear in wild spaces and when you think about it — when somebody goes missing — if you’re in a city or you’re on the edge of human habitations, there are differences. When somebody goes into the wild, you have very few witnesses and you have very few people who might help explain what happened to you. So, for me, and for anyone who likes to go off on adventures and into the forest and into the jungle, I just realized: That could have been us.
Yeah, that line between “My adrenaline is pumping but I’m all good” and “oh, shit, I’m over my head” is very fine.
J.J.: The more you travel, you find these endless stories of people who disappear from developing countries and you don’t know what happened to them. We hoped we could bring some kind of closure to their family members and maybe find out what happened to them in these places, and, to be honest, when I was filming the pilot and I was alone in the woods talking to the camera, it felt incomplete. I wanted somebody who could bring a skill set to the series in terms of investigation, and somebody who could help build ideas and really this perfect candidate came in and saved us. Kinga is into adventure, she’s into exploration. She’s always up for it. She would be the first one on the trail, she would be the first one up in the morning, she had great ideas, great enthusiasm.
KINGA: The first one covered in leeches.
J.J.: She’d be the first one covered in leeches and she never complained about it. It was perfect, it was perfect. We had a really nice balance in terms of the backgrounds that we bring, that we complemented each other really well. I think why it worked so well is we were just extremely passionate. A lot of jobs you finish and at the end of the day you’re ready to watch TV or zone out. We would dive into these stories and work with the background information, I think it’s fair to say we were both obsessed with every story that we had.
It’s interesting that you saw pieces of yourselves in these stories. And maybe that’s why I love the concept so much — I see pieces of myself.
KINGA: These stories definitely feel very poignant to us as adventurers and travelers. We’ve done a lot this sort of thing on our own. Exploring in deserts, mountains, you name it. Like JJ mentioned, in any one of these scenarios it really could have been any one of us that someone was doing the story on, and that rang true repeatedly with so many of these stories and so many of these characters. We felt so much of ourselves in some of these people. Most of these people were seekers, they were explorers. They were out there looking for something, to have an experience, to escape into the wild, to live in a different space, exoticism of different cultures… it was all very appealing to them and we really related to that. Meeting these lost people’s parents and hearing the backstories on who some of these people were. They were our people. They were our tribe.
You talk about Chris McCandless — of Into the Wild fame. There are huge names like Percy Fawcett and there’s the whole “Livingstone, I presume” moment. These are all sort of “of a genre.” How did that history inform the show?
J.J.: You definitely had some people in this group of eight stories we decided to tell this season who were bonafide explorers and survival and wilderness experts, and something went wrong for them. Some of the stories stretch back to the 1930’s, some are four months old. Some of these people didn’t have the experience and they set off on a day hike or went to run a marathon in the jungle and never came back. With the explorers and the adventurers, they know that every time you go out into the jungle or outback, there’s a risk. But I think that for some of these other people, they’re cautionary tales of the maxim: “hindsight is 20/20.” You look at their own stories and you go “If you just told people where you were going, if you just had basic survival knowledge or a few items or a few things, everything could have been so vastly different.”
KINGA: As JJ said, we’re not just exploring, we’re not looking for Amelia Earhart or trying to remix stories that are so incredibly well known. Some are better known than others. Some of them we’re looking for a kid in Malaysia who took off and his family is still looking for him and this was four months ago and he most likely had a mental disorder. So there’s a variety of stories in there.
The thing that I loved most about this series is you really got to see the world. We went to so many different countries. We have one story in the United States in Colorado, but the rest are international stories. We found more and more, it became more apparent to us that if you go missing in the United States, there’s a pretty good chance that a future investigation is going to be launched to find you. Local law enforcement is going to work with Search and Rescue all the way up to the FBI and they are going to find out, as best they can, what happened to you.
That’s not always the case in developing countries. When you look at the prominent industry in those countries. We went to the Himalayas — where there’s massive hashish production — and they don’t like the government coming in, they don’t like the Embassy poking around.
And then you have governments that might not want to be associated with people vanishing, right?
KINGA: Exactly! We looked at areas that had tourism as their iconic industry and they wanted to grow tourism. Then you have these two young, beautiful Dutch girls who go missing, and they don’t like to see the headlines around the world that this area is where people go missing. So again and again, we find the forces where the government or the local authorities wanted to shut investigations down. If you go missing and there’s no body, and they went to the edge of this raging river, they want to say “Oh, they just fell in this river.” “They fell in that crevasse over there.” There is no evidence because it just got washed away.
We were in these wild spaces in these developing countries, looking at cases that were five or six months old, and they had no bodies, no blood, no bones, no evidence at all. Yet they said ” We’re not even looking for that person anymore. As far as we’re concerned, it’s over.”
It’s fascinating for us, as viewers, to watch you two navigate different cultures to search for answers. How much of a challenge was that?
J.J.: You’re in the Amazon jungle or the Himalayas — both cinematically incredible — which adds to the experience and wild aspect of these stories. These people weren’t just going off in Bakersfield. They’re in the Parvati Valley, or they’re on a mountain in Zimbabwe. With that also comes a lot of cultural nuances. We had a lot of spiritualism inside of these stories — in the sense that local folklore would sometimes override better judgment. When we were in places like Zimbabwe or the Philippines or Malaysia, we would have people chalk disappearances up to local mythology and allow that to explain what might have happened to a person, rather than the facts.
KINGA: I would add on top of that, what I loved about these shoots. We really picked up where local investigators left off. We called them depositions, we picked out interviews that we conducted with police officers who had gone into the cave, first responders, family members, key witnesses and really for the first time ever, brought an account of what they think happened to this person. The facts that they know of, what they saw with their own eyes. So we’re collecting that evidence and documenting it, putting it out to the world.
At the same time, we were there to investigate and uncover new information. We were up the Amazon and we were looking for this one individual who was the key figure of the disappearance of two people and the murder of another. He was the only person seen with these people who had disappeared or were murdered and all of our searches lead up to this one person. He lived up the river and we found ourselves face to face with him. It makes you realize it is all very real.
Did you have moments in the show where you were able to add significantly to the body of research of some of these stories?
KINGA: Definitely, Congo. But I would say every story we added to the merit of it, because we are actually sitting people down and getting their first-hand accounts. A lot of times, the actual depositions that were done by law enforcement were buried. So the family members wanted to find out what this possible suspect said about this family member, they wouldn’t be able to know. We were able to bring that to light and able show that.
At the same time, really, we are showing these bombshells that were quite unexpected. I remember, one of the law enforcement agencies we worked with coming up to us and saying ” We could use you. You’re a journalist, and you can do things that we can’t do.” So we had this unique ability to be able to work behind the scenes and at the end of every episode we would say, “we have a call to action” because there’s a good chance that somebody watched the show might know something more and might bring up some kind of information, and we tell people who to contact if they have a key piece of information, because I think again and again it’s one thing when a family member dies in the wild or maybe they died on Everest, and that’s really sad and heartbreaking. We know what happened to them. To not know, and to live the rest of your life and have no clue, no evidence, and the person is just gone into oblivion, and you have no idea what happened to them, for me, is the worst kind of tragedy.
The truth is, you’re offering closure, in many ways.
KINGA: Yes, and new information at once. I didn’t realize how huge that aspect would be until we actually got out there and started walking some of these trails, which were the last trails that these people were on. You start to experience it from their eyes and there were a lot of significant bits of information that came out simply from being in the same areas they were in.
You realize these tiny little things like “There is no way that you would ever get lost on this trail because it’s so clearly defined.” Or, you start to realize that what you would see from the tops of these mountains is very disorienting and you kind of start to put the puzzle pieces together of how a person would go in this direction or this direction. That’s the show, right there: hard-hitting information from the sources who were there and who were involved, and then us being able to take the audience on this adventure into these areas that clearly showing them the exact locations of where bits and pieces of the story actually happened.
Real quick, what do each of you consider your favorite episodes?
J.J.: Oh my god, this is hard. We had shows in locations like the Galapagos, like the Himalayas, Panama — places I always wanted to go to. For me, these were once in a lifetime spots and I have had a chance to see 111 countries now. A lot of them, I had never been to so it’s really hard to pick which one is my favorite. I guess I would have to say, I’ve been to India a number of times, but in that episode, I saw India in a whole new light.
When you talk about the landscapes, the Himalayas are an absolute knock out. We went up this incredible trail. For me, it was just drinking tea, waking up in the morning, against the Himalayas and looking off to different glaciers, that was for me, the perfect trip. So I’d have to say that.
KINGA: That’s a good one, I did love India. That track we tracked for — I think 10 hours — and stayed in tents and sat around by a fire with our recorders and had tea, it was just magnificent. The Galapagos had always been on my list, as a diver, that blew my mind. I think for an extra week of diving, that you have to realize what you’re doing there. So you’re in these beautiful locations and you’re having these moments of awe and wonder, but you’re also always very conscious of the story that you’re telling, which are not happy positive stories. None of these stories, thus far, have happy endings. You’re always torn between the two.
I very much related to the Panama story. I had actually been there over New Years a few months before we did the story, and I found that same story while looking for a hike, and got completely obsessed with it. When I was brought on and Ping Pong brought me on to the show, that was one of the first things that I said, and that was one of the stories.
That story to me is very powerful because I did one of those hikes in Panama, just like those girls did. I have done hikes like that, by myself, many times, and I have done hikes like that with my girlfriends many times. In that story, in particular, there really wasn’t anything that those girls did wrong. They went on a fairly trafficked hike in a rather safe area, they did pretty much everything that they should have done right. In hindsight, you can always look back and say “ah, they should have had more here, they should have had a compass, they should have had a satellite phone.” I haven’t always had those things when I traveled. That one really hit hard for me, because that was the closest experience that I could say “Wow, that could have been me six months ago, honestly.” That story was really powerful to me.