David Rees stars in Going Deep with David Rees | © 2014 NatGeo

David Rees stars in Going Deep with David Rees | © 2014 NatGeo

National Geographic Channel’s GOING DEEP WITH DAVID REES, Mondays nights at 10 and 10:30 PM, is, as host and co-creator Rees says, “an honest to God how-to show.” GOING DEEP explores in depth things people tend to take for granted, like how to open doors, tie shoelaces and make ice cubes.

During National Geographic’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour, Rees sits down to delve into GOING DEEP.

AX: How did you get into the idea of studying the origins of everything?

DAVID REES: I had an artisanal pencil-sharpening business and I got a book deal to write a book about pencil-sharpening techniques. And at first I thought, “How am I going to fill a whole book about how to sharpen a pencil?” And in the end, we had to cut sixty pages. Because I realized, once you get into the history of pencils and the mechanics involved and different pencil-sharpening techniques, it’s like a bottomless pit of knowledge. Some friends of mine in the TV industry were like, “We should pitch a show that’s based on this.” So we thought, we’ll take what I did for pencils, the pencil-sharpeners, and just do it for everything. Anything that you do every day without thinking about, there’s got to be a better way to do it, or some assumptions that you’ve been making that are incorrect, or some interesting science that underlies it, so that’s how we decided to make a how-to show about things that you think you know how to do.

AX: How did you get into an artisanal pencil-sharpening business in the first place?

REES: I used to be a cartoonist, and then I quit cartooning, and then I ran out of money and I got a job working for the census in 2010. On the first day of staff training, because the census forms are all filled out in pencil, they gave us a bunch of pencils and they said, “Okay, everybody, now sharpen your pencils.” They gave us a little pocket sharpener. So we’re standing around these trash cans, sharpening our pencils, and I was like, “This is fun. Sharpening pencils is fun. I wonder if I could figure out a way to get people to pay me to sharpen pencils.” So it was a challenge I set for myself – ““How would I have to position myself to convince people to pay money to do something they usually do on their own without thinking about it?” So that’s how it started.

AX: How do you select your topics for GOING DEEP?

REES: We have a list of a hundred topics. A good topic for us is one where, if the viewer saw it listed in a TV listing, they’d be like, “How are they going to do an episode about how to open a door? There’s nothing to learn.” To us, that’s the sign of a good episode – if when we think of it, someone’s like, “There can’t be anything you could teach me about that.” The whole spirit of the show is, “Everything is really interesting and crazy when you really drill down and look into it.” So it has to seem incredibly simple, it has to be something that most people do just about every day, or it’s a common enough experience that everyone has had it. It can’t be how to brew beer, because most people don’t brew beer, and also, because most people would be like, “Yeah, brewing beer sounds complicated. Can’t do it.” Or it has to be something you grew up doing and you haven’t thought about learning it since you were a kid and you probably have some mistaken assumptions about it, like how to flip a coin.

If it has some kind of weird place in our culture, we’ll do it, or if it has something to do with my life personally. I really wanted to do how to climb a tree, because when I was growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me climb trees, because my mom thought I would hurt myself and my dad thought I would hurt the tree. So I was like, “This is a dream deferred. I’m going to make an episode about how to climb a tree. And there’s nothing my parents can say about it.” And we actually at the end of the episode fly down to North Carolina where I grew up and I climb the tree in the front yard that my parents never let me climb. I climb it all the way to the top. So sometimes it’s just for me, it’s like, “Yeah, I have a good excuse to go climb trees. I want to make an episode about it, because that’ll be fun.”

AX: What kind of expert did you find in tree-climbing?

REES: Well, that episode was awesome because we went down to Duke University, to the primate lab, and met with some lemur experts. I had never seen lemurs before. We were in an enclosure in the woods where lemurs just bounce around freely, and that was so awesome, I almost started crying. Those animals are nuts and the way they can bounce from tree trunk to tree trunk, and they walk right by you, and because they’re primates and they have forward-facing eyes, they can turn and look at you, and then bounce away.

We did a segment using three different types of lemur.

So that was great, because we learned why lemurs are the best climbers, because their big toes are like our thumbs. They have toes that can grip the trunk as they climb. They have incredibly strong legs relative to their bodies, which we don’t. And then other experts we met with – we went to the Redwood Forest in California and met with a [woman who] calls herself an “arbonaut.” She researches life in the tree canopy. Way up in the top of those trees, there are animals that never set foot on the ground; they live entirely up in those treetops. She was talking about how you could potentially damage a tree by climbing it. One thing we wanted to do was teach people how to climb a tree responsibly, without damaging it.

And then we met with a guy who’s a national champion tree-climber. He showed me how to use the ropes, where you’re climbing a tree almost like scaling a mountain. So for that episode, and with all the episodes, we try to get a broad spectrum of experts, and maybe people who are experts on something that’s not immediately connected to the topic but have something interesting to say, because we do want to point out how a lot of these things that you think aren’t connected actually are connected. It’s just a matter of perspective, how you look at something.

AX: How many people are involved in deciding, “What shall we do a story about?”

REES: The show runner, Dan Miller, who is great, because he has had a lot of experience making how-to shows, or science shows. I knew I was going to be able to show up and bring all the humor and the weird stuff, but I knew that we needed someone really stable, who was really solid in nonfiction programming to keep it grounded. So Dan and I, and Christine Connor and Jo Honig, my two friends who are the executive producers who I sold the show with, are involved in that. And then the researchers, who really are the heroes, because they find the experts and figure out what we need.

And then obviously Nat Geo has a say in what topics we choose.

AX: Did you look for a home for GOING DEEP, or did National Geographic immediately seem like the obvious place?

REES: We made a sizzle [reel] and went out and pitched it to a bunch of places. National Geographic understood the show was not a joke, and they seemed really enthusiastic about it. They said [they would], and they did, give us a lot of creative freedom, which is really important to me, and working with them was really cool, because the fact that they’re National Geographic I think got us access to places we maybe wouldn’t have gotten access if we had been with [other cable networks]. We got to go to some pretty hardcore scientific labs and talk to some really amazing people.

[For] the ice episode, [GOING DEEP went to] the Ice Lab, where they had that ice that’s four hundred thousand years old. it turns out it’s hard to find ice that’s older than about six hundred thousand years old, because that ice was snow that fell and got compacted under thousands of years of other snow falling, and it turns to ice. And then it moves down through all of these layers as precipitation continues and eventually it’s starting to melt. And after about six hundred thousand years, most of that ice is going to cycle back and melt and become water. So it’s hard to find something from millions of years ago in the ice. But we did get to taste some ice from about 50 B.C., that was about two thousand years old, and some of were like, “Is this going to have some old, crazy disease, like a two-thousand-year-old virus that’s been frozen and it’s going to wake up in our bodies?” But it all worked out.

AX: What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned that you didn’t already know going into it?

REES: I can think of a couple things. One thing that blew our minds is that flipping a coin is not inherently random. You can train yourself to get better at flipping coins to skew the results in your favor over time. I always thought there was something inherently random about it, but the randomness comes from all the variables that we introduce as clumsy, physical people who don’t do it often.

Another thing was, we did an episode on how to throw a paper airplane. I went to NASA and met with a NASA scientist and I finally understood for the first time how planes fly, how the wing generates lift. To finally understand that was really, really cool and it’s one of those moments on the show that’s really the spirit of the show, like being a kid again. You’re like, “Oh, I get it. I get why the grass is green.” Or, “I get how to tie my shoes.” And for us to have those moments is very much the goal of the show. Because even as adults, sometimes you have to relearn this stuff or get a new perspective on things. And those moments are like, “Holy s**t, that’s amazing.”

We went to Salt Lake City to see cadaver arms, to learn about the muscles that are involved in shaking hands. I thought it would be really cool to open up a hand and really look at what’s involved in this activity that you don’t usually think about. And it took us a while to find an expert who had access to what we wanted. And at one point, I think we were going to give up – “We can’t find a surgeon or a cadaver.” I was like, “Let’s give it one more week, let’s really try to do this, this is really important, I think this is going to be really profound.” And we found this guy in Salt Lake City who is an anthropologist specializing in the study of hands. He specializes in the history of fists and punching, actually, and the stress that it puts on a hand. The reason that humans can punch is our opposable thumbs. Other primates can’t make a fist and punch, but we can, and the relation of that to a handshake is that one purpose of a handshake is, you are literally showing the person that you’re not going to strike them. You’re proving that you’re not making a fist because you’ve opened your hands and you’re not holding a weapon.

This guy had a cadaver arm and they took all the skin off so that you could see the ligaments and the tendons, and then they tied strings to them and when I would pull on the string, you could see how it affected the hand. And the great thing about it was, it shows you that moving your fingers is this huge connection along your arm. The handshake doesn’t just involve the hand, it involves basically this whole part of your body.

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about GOING DEEP WITH DAVID REES right now?

REES: If you’re watching an episode about how to tie your shoes, you should have a shoe in your hands so you can play along at home. We’re really into that idea. When we’re making an episode about how to fold a paper airplane, you should sit down on your sofa with a big pile of paper. We want it to be interactive. You should definitely play along at home. It’s a how-to show. It’s not a joke. We’re going to teach you things whether you like it or not. That should be our motto [laughs].

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ArticleGo Deep with David Rees on his how-to Series on NatGeo

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