When Dave Burris ’ 87
got promoted on
the reality TV show,
he looked to Dean Smith
for leadership lessons
Working on the reality show Survivor, as Dave Burris ’ 87 does, you
learn a lot about human nature — but also animal nature. In the African
wilderness a few seasons back, Burris strayed just a little too close to a
baby elephant and was almost trampled by the mother. Then there was a
close encounter with whales last year in Samoa.
“We were scuba diving to scout locations for underwater ‘beauty
footage,’ and we kept hearing whales,” Burris says. “We never actually saw
them until we got in our little boat to go back. Within the first minute,
three whales came up not more than 20 yards away. They stayed alongside
us for about 10 minutes, which was just stunning. I didn’t have any
Jonah-inspired fear, although they could have thrashed us if they wanted
to. But I can see how some people get obsessed with whale-watching.”
Burris has worked for Survivor since 2004, traveling the globe to devise
and document the show’s many ways to torment contestants. For this sea-
son’s Survivor: Nicaragua, he was elevated to executive producer, alongside
the show’s founding trio of Mark Burnett, Charlie Parsons and Jeff Probst.
“When I got promoted, the first book I read was The 12 Leadership
Principles of Dean Smith,” Burris says, citing the book by one of Smith’s
former players, David Chadwick ’ 71. “I figured he knows a little some-
thing about that. There’s a certain amount of pressure. I’m the only exec-
utive producer who hasn’t been on the show from the very beginning, so
I’ve got to hit a very high mark that’s already been set. But the camera
guys, editors and support crew are all so outrageously good. I feel like
I’ve been appointed to the Supreme Court.”
Burris got his degree in political science, but he was active with
UNC’s student TV station, where he had his first hands-on experience.
The House Undergraduate Library’s video collection, which gave Burris
his first exposure to many classic films, was another big influence. So was
the English 42 film-criticism class.
“That really helped cement my understanding of film from a story-
telling perspective,” Burris says. “How the elements come together to tell
a good story.”
After graduation, Burris moved to Los Angeles and fell in with UNC’s
Trying not to get trampled by elephants or capsized by whales are some of
the challenges Dave Burris ’ 87 has faced as a Survivor producer.
SURVIVOR PHOTOS COUR TESY CBS.COM
Hollywood cabal, a group that includes Bring It On director Peyton Reed
’ 86 and Blades of Glory co-writers John Altschuler ’ 85 and Dave Krinsky
’ 85 among its dozen or so members. Burris caught a break in 2003 when
he did a story-production stint on Monster House, a home-improvement
reality show overseen by Thom Beers (of Deadliest Catch fame).
From there, Burris caught on with Survivor. He’s been there ever since.
And while he’s also working on some big-screen projects (including an
adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2006 novel, The World Made Straight), Burris is
happy to be there.
“I’m still not sure how I managed to impress the Survivor people enough
to get hired,” he says with a laugh. “But this is the top. Any move from
here would be lateral at best, just another challenge. I started out in the
field, getting my feet wet with the camera guys to track the story through
contestant interviews — I was the guy asking questions. That’s how we get
both the narrative and inner monologues. One of the fun things about
Survivor is there’s always subtext and true intentions, which you get to
see: ‘I told so-and-so I’d align with them, but I was really thinking I’d just
string them along for a few days before cutting their throat.’ ”
— David Menconi