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“Race To Escape” – A Conversation With Executive Producer Riaz Patel

As an hour ticks by, three strangers must work together to solve clues that enable them to gain release from their locked room. As they struggle, experiment, fail and reset, they watch a competing set of strangers embark on the same task. This is the concept behind Science Channel’s reality series “Race to Escape” – an idea that struck producer Riaz Patel when he was stranded in unfamiliar surroundings the night New York City lost power.

“Years ago I was in New York during a blackout. I had to figure out how to get out of a building I didn’t know with people I didn’t know,” said Patel. “There are a variety of dynamics that arise when strangers interact. It’s a very simple concept that allows for a myriad of behavior.”

Human behavior has been a point of fascination for Patel since he was a young boy. At fifteen, Patel worked in a mental hospital, where he began noticing connections between human thought and behavior. During his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, he began doing research in psychology, and received a medal from the National Psychology Honor Society for his research upon graduation. Working in a clinical setting seemed like the obvious next step, however that future lacked appeal to Patel. Television was a medium that provided him comfort as he grew up a gay Pakistani Muslin living in the US. Noting the importance the medium held in finding his own connection, he decided there was a place for him in Hollywood to help others.

“I packed up my Volvo after graduation and drove to LA,” said Patel. “I didn’t know anyone or how to get started, and being the early 90s, there wasn’t as much information to get in advance.”

Petal began setting informational meetings with film industry people to learn the ins and outs of the business. His first job was with the motion picture literary department at the William Morris Agency. After William Morris, he worked with Stanley Tucci, then Bob Balaban during the initiation of Chicogofilms, were he became part of the team that oversaw the development of 2002 Academy Award Best Picture nominee and Best Screenplay winner “Gosford Park.” While he appreciated the creativity and levels of perfection feature film production offers, he became drawn to television, where a producer could “take big swings with original ideas.” Focusing on reality programming that concentrates on “authentic human behavior,’ he launched Axial Entertainment, where he executive produced pilots and series for MTV (Why Can’t I Be You?), AMC (Into Character) and OWN. He also reinvented the series “How Do I Look” for the Style Network, an effort that resulted in Daytime Emmy Nominations in 2010 and 2011. Patel feels his ability to make choices that are best for the series is what ha allowed him to continue presenting unique reality programming that breaks out of the reality mold.

“It’s a strange world. The production is done before the show gets marketed; none of us have all the information to know exactly what (will resonate with a network), “ said Patel. “You always have to try not to act out of ego. The networks know I have strong opinions, but they are always for the benefit of the show.”

The concept behind “Race to Escape” was to create a positive social experiment. Three completely different types of people who see themselves falling within a particular profile: “leader”, “team play”, “creative thinker”, “organizer” and so on, are given an hour to unite and solve a puzzle – how to escape their locked room. There are two elements that were crucial to the concept working. The first was in the design of the room. Early in the process of developing the show, producer Kevin Healey suggested Patel look into production designer Joe Warson. Warson proved to be the perfect fit.

“Joe Warson has such a skill. He can envision what has never been made before,” said Patel.

Warson and his staff’s creative ingenuity brings to life the unique concepts the show’s producers define. During concept meetings before each show, the producers discuss non-traditional test that are contained within the four locked walls. Once the set defined and constructed, it goes through vigorous testing and adjustments – a process that can take between 10-20 run-throughs with three individuals unrelated to the development of the room.

“They can be friends, family, sometimes potential contestants who didn’t make it through casting,” said Patel. “We wanted people who knew nothing about the set and each other to watch how their minds worked.”

Casting the contestants is the other crucial element to the concept required to make “Race to Escape” a success. The goal of each team is to balance book smarts with street smarts and archetypes of personalities. The contestants all needed to be good sports who would be invigorated by the challenge of the competition, and leave learning a bit about themselves in the process.

“Assembling teams took more work than it seems,” said Patel.

With the first season of “Race to Escape” concluding on August 29th, Patel doesn’t expect any radical departure or adjustments to the show’s format any time soon. Because each room the contestants must escape from are always unique and the clues always different, Patel sees hundreds of episodes being shot with no fear of repetition or boredom due to predictable results. What he’s devoted to now are fifteen to twenty projects in various stages of development like so many spinning plates he must keep from toppling over. However, there are two unannounced projects that will soon be hitting the air: an hour-long special for Science Channel and a special for TLC. Prior to the release of these specials, he’ll fondly recall the last “Race to Escape” room’s dismantling for the season.

“We can spend a week building and testing the set. After the shoot, the room is dismantled within an hour,” said Patel. “It’s amazing.”

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