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‘Deadliest Catch’ and ‘Axe Men’ Creator Thom Beers Talks About His New Show, ‘COAL’

By / 03.30.11

No Mistakes
Tags: No Mistakes

BroBible: You've gone from Alaskan fishermen to ice road truckers to axe men to Texas oil men to now coal miners in West Virginia. Why was this the next story you wanted to tell?

Thom Beers: This was a story I’ve been wanting to tell a lot longer than that, it just took us four years to actually find a mine. It’s a little different with coal mining, it’s a little different than any place else. You have to find a mine that’s small, that’s privately owned, that people have real stakes for. You also have to find great characters with a great story, and that took forever. You know, sometimes it just does, it takes a lot of time. Also, people that are willing to trust us. There’s a lot of tragedy in coal mining and people certainly didn’t want to open themselves up to an exposé. Because of our track record of telling these tough-jobs, tough-locations, high-stakes, high-reward shows, we need to get that kind of trust. It all came together with the Cobalt Mine in West Virginia, so it’s a great 10-hour series.

Mining has thrust itself back into the public psyche over the past few years — but, as you mentioned, for all the wrong reasons: from the Chilean miners to other recent accidents.

It’s funny, when we started the show, as I said, we’d been negotiating for four years, but when we heard of the Chilean mine tragedy, we were like “Oh, we can’t do this now, we need to wait for the results of this.” And they came out and we all looked like geniuses because we’d been working on this for four years. It was a nice bit of marketing promotion. I think that’s what makes people interested. When I did “Deadliest Catch,” I did it for one reason: I read the ocean reports in '98-'99 and they said that crab fishing was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. That’s why I went there. You know, you raise the same scenarios and the same possibilities, but as we know from looking at “Catch” after seven years, it’s no longer about fishing. It’s become a modern-day male soap opera. It’s about relationships, and the trials and tribulations about running the ship.

Tell us about Mike Crowder and Tom Roberts, the two founders of Cobalt Coal. Why did you choose these two guys as your main characters?

Because these guys got their own stake in the game, and that’s very unusual. We found these guys, and they’re standup guys. Tom's been in the business for years; Mike’s a business man, which is great, because you’re basically watching a guy who’s experiencing for the first time the challenges you have when running a coal mine. They were two terrific characters, they had their own stake in the game. They put in millions of dollars in this mine, and the point is that it’s make-or-break time for them. As Tom says in the opening of the show, “Look, I’ve made and lost millions in the mining business.” He wants one more shot at it.

Life in the Mine
Tags: Life in the Mine

Why tell the story of coal miners? Why coal?

Coal prices are going up, and obviously when you’ve got nuclear power plants that are melting down in other parts of the world, and oil rigs are basically spilling out in the Gulf of Mexico, coal doesn’t look that bad. What we wanted to focus on more was just the coal operation. It’s an anthracite coal, a hard coal that’s used for making steel, so it’s cleaner; it’s metal-enriching coal. The price of that is about $100 to 110 a ton, and it makes pretty good money. I mean, look at oil right now, $70 a barrel is breaking even, they’re selling for about $110 a barrel, and they’re making just unbelievable money. Small miners are seeing it’s a very narrow seam, they don’t have a big base where they can go, “Let’s just carve out a bunch of coal.” They’re working on the edge, they’re working trying to make a buck in a very small seam. They’re up against the big boys, they’re well-funded with big equipment, big machines, the power is regulated, everything is good. Their power is keeping up, their machines are keeping up. So these guys are trying to compete in a world where obviously everything is stacked against. I read something recently about Mark Twain, who once said “In order to be successful in business, you have to have equal amounts of intelligence and stupidity.” You have to be smart enough to be in this business, but if you were smart, you’d never be in it in the first place.

What are the conditions like in the mines?

Low top, it’s really tough, about 34 inches. They actually have these things called “mercy holes” where you have to dig just to stand up. Imagine working 10-hour shifts on your knees, it’s not an easy world, man. About 50-degree temperature, sometimes rain from storms gets in, so you’re cold, miserable, in the dark, and if your lights go off you’re completely in the dark, so it’s pretty spooky stuff. The roof could fall in on you, it has all those same qualities of danger that “Catch” has. Basically, it’s schematically beautiful because it’s a little tough but it’s in a controlled light like that where it’s much more dangerous. This is not only a tough environment for the miners, but also for our crew.

What about the other miners — who are some of the more colorful characters that viewers will meet?

Jerry “Wildman” Edwards is kind of the boss in the hole. He’s just a “good ole boy.” It’s funny because if you look at him, he’s got a great set of chompers, big white teeth, and his face is all covered in coal, and he’s such a character. Andrew and Andy Christian are a father-son team, and those guys are incredibly charming and fun. Also Kenny, Kenny’s a character. He’s less involved in the series but is actually a great miner. He’s the guy that dug the hole in the wall, and he was an operator when his son-in-law (his daughter’s husband) was killed in a mining accident. He promised his daughter he’d never go back in the hole again, and this is a guy who’s worked a different job, but they really needed him in the bottom, in the hole. It’s an interesting conflict, very personal.

What's most surprising about life in coal country?

It’s the generosity of spirit. It’s funny, you know, it’s the acceptance of going to work in the coal mine and the worries about working “in the hole.” Mothers don’t want to see their sons go in, but at the same time, it’s the best-paying job around. A guy said, “It’s either this or flipping burgers, and I ain’t a burger-flipping kind of guy.” There are not a lot of options in some places, and it’s a tough job, it’s hard and very dangerous. But you know what, it’s high-risk, high reward, so they’re willing to take that chance.

You're speaking in a couple weeks at the NAB Show on a panel all about these high-risk, high-reward shows. What are the keys to making shows like “Coal,” “Deadliest Catch,” and “Black Gold”?

It’s a number of things, but people don’t really realize the time and energy that goes into making the shows and make the stories pop, make them interesting. We’re shooting 400 hours for every hour that’s on the air. Honestly, we have to make that interesting. It’s a lot of tape, but we’ve done it with a team of great producers and editors with us. These guys have learned in the six to seven years working with us how to make these shows. It’s an interesting curve, and that’s the key to making these shows, that’s half the battle right there. Casting is the other half. It’s not hard to find the right, interesting environment (there are plenty on television), but it takes the right team, the crew to shoot it right, ask the right questions, and put it together right. That takes years to develop, to put together that kind of team. I can remember the day I was doing an interview, and it all just finally came together. It was only my 18th year in the business, and I had finally figured out how to make a television show.

What’s next on your agenda?

A series we’re doing right now that we’re really excited about, we can’t talk about it until the network wants to talk, it’s basically two guys racing each other around the world, that’s been really fun. “Storage Wars” has just been kicking butt over at A&E, we’re obviously looking to keep doing that. So it’s great! Let me tell you, finally it’s evolved for a long time, but we’re finally getting into the scripted world. It’s a pilot we’re working on, this drama, we’re working on those ice roads, up in Alaska, we’re working on the drama, our agenda is going out of the world that we’re comfortable with.

“COAL” premieres tonight on Spike TV at 10 p.m.


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