It might be a while until live sports are back on TV, but all hope is not lost: Wacky game shows abound this summer to fill that void. Netflix’s Floor Is Lava, a version of the childhood favorite, is the latest under-the-radar reality hit to inspire extremely passionate viewing.
The competition, filmed a year ago not on a Los Angeles studio lot but in a former Ikea in Burbank, pits teams of friends, co-workers, and family members against one another as they attempt to make it across an obstacle course without falling into a pool of viscous, bubbling “lava.” (Want to know what’s in it? You’re out of luck, since it’s a proprietary blend of nontoxic chemicals that creators Irad Eyal and Megan McGrath spent months working with scientists on before coming up with the final mix.)
The duo told The Hollywood Reporter about their top-secret formula and answered many more burning questions (pun definitely intended) that audiences will have after bingeing the quarantine pleasure. And while the series has not officially been renewed for a second season, they also discuss the changes they’re planning on making if it eventually returns.
How did you come to film in the old Ikea in Burbank?
McGrath: The studios here, we called everybody. We asked all of the main studios and nobody wanted 100,000 gallons of lava on their stuff, which is understandable. Even the places with giant pools that typically hold water, lava is heavier than water so they didn’t want that in their pools either. So we ended up lucking out and we found this Ikea and it was huge. We had all of our different teams in there. There was a welding shop and the casting department and challenge producers had a giant office that they were working in. It ended up working out really well. The main stage is in, I guess the self-serve area of Ikea?
Eyal: It’s that final checkout area with the massive shelves. It’s the biggest room in the entire Ikea. We took everything, cleared everything out of there. So we had all the space that we needed.
How long did it take to plan the challenges and construct the set and get everything ready before you could even test them out?
Eyal: The challenges took a while because there was a lot that went into it. We wanted it to be a game that required some physical ability, but also you didn’t have to be a triathlete to succeed. We wanted it to require brains or flexibility or balance. And so all of those courses had to be balanced out as well to require all different skills. We also wanted to have a little bit of play-at-home. So in the moment when the viewer gets to see the whole course we wanted people at home trying to figure out, “oh, I would go from the pyramid to the obelisk or whatever.” And actually, we’ve gotten a lot of tweets like that, where people talk about screaming at the TV, like, “no, no, don’t go on the pyramid!” It took a little while to figure out exactly how these courses would be laid out, because they aren’t just linear courses. They’re sort of playing fields with unlimited possibilities.
How much did you test it before you got the contestants in?
McGrath: The challenge team tested everything. We had like a sort of like an above ground pool, but an industrial version of an above ground pool, out in the parking lot of the Ikea. So that just had water in it. And before the props were finished, the obstacles were finished, we put everything in that pool and the challenge team was able to test it out, see how everything moved, see how you could climb to the top or where your foot could grab on or your handholds or whatever it was. They tested everything in the tank outside, and then once it was in the real tank with the lava, we had sort of just like civilians who signed up to do it, be the temporary volunteers. Irad was a brave volunteer. He tested it out one time.
Eyal: I did, I ran one of them. It was amazing. I mean, when you think about it, there’s only about 120, 150 people who are ever going to get to run these courses. Even if we did a season two, these rooms are probably not coming back. So it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and there was no way I was not going to do it. I ran through the Antiquities Basement and I didn’t make it.
McGrath: I was going to say, spoiler alert, he failed. [Both laugh.]
Eyal: It’s a lot harder than it looks!
But it looks hard, though!
Eyal: What you don’t realize when you’re there, when you’re in the room, there’s only a few spots in the room where you really have a perspective to see the whole course. And so you’re trying to sort of figure it out. Even when I knew the course, you’re trying to figure out what your best move is from a spot where you you don’t have all the information until you get up to a vantage point. And so it is really challenging and then of course, the lava’s bursting and bubbling and smoking all around you, which definitely makes it scarier.
McGrath: I’ve seen a lot of chatter on social media about either. “Oh, I could definitely do that,” or “I would fail miserably.” There’s really no in-between. My boyfriend, we were watching here and he was like, “I could make that jump.” And I’m like, “No, that’s an eight-foot jump, I don’t think so.” So we taped it out on the hardwood and he did not make it. [Laughs.] But It was a fun exercise for sure.
Eyal: The good news is watching people fail is just as fun or more fun than watching people succeed. So it works either way.
What is the lava made of?
McGrath: We’re keeping it under wraps! It’s a proprietary blend. I can’t tell you what it is.
Eyal: It’s literally our secret sauce.
McGrath: We tasked Hollywood’s biggest chemists and slime/goopy substance-makers to come up with our lava. We did a ton of research about what lava looks like and how it moves and how it glows and we tried to really create that in ours. We spent months testing different lavas and different formulas.
Eyal: The reason we’re being so secretive about it is because it really did take a long time to nail this down. You want the lava to glow. “Oh, that’s easy,” the chemists said, “we could just add in some glowing chemicals.” Well, it turns out those things are carcinogenic. So you can’t have that in there. So it took a long time to figure out exactly how do you make this thing bubble, flow, be slippery, be viscous in the right way, and also be safe that people can be submerged in it for minutes at a time, hours at a time, whatever it is, and come out safely.
When people fall into the lava, did you tell them to make it as dramatic as possible?
McGrath: It’s so funny. We didn’t tell them to act. We told everybody to have fun with it and really go for it: push, pull, swing, climb, play, use everything in the room. But we never told people to act in any way. I think it’s just what happens. I think when you’re playing this and you’re in that room and there’s 100,000 gallons of lava in front of you boiling and bubbling and smoking, you just turn into your 8-year-old self again and you’re playing, and that’s what you did when you played it in your parents’ basement. When your brother touched the carpet, you would always say, “noooooo!” in that in that fun way. So I think people just went for it. We had really good contestants and they had a really good time with it.
Why do you think this show is cutting through right now? Do you think it’s because there are no sports right now, or is it because it’s such a basic childhood game that people are revisiting?
McGrath: I personally think it’s a combo of all of those things that you just said. I think it’s that we’re all stuck inside. I think it’s that people are looking for something to make them laugh and bring their family together. Kids are watching it, but they’re also playing it while they’re watching. We’re getting so many pictures and videos of kids creating their own obstacle courses at home, which is really fun. It’s technically screen time but it also gives them something physical to do. The no sports thing I think is huge. This really does fill that void. People are screaming at their TVs, they’re either rooting for the contestants or rooting for the lava. It just depends on what team it is, what episode it is, you can flip back and forth between who you’re rooting for. So I think it really did cut through the clutter in this beautiful way and it’s bringing a lot of people together, which we are happy to see.
Eyal: It’s this sort of perfect nostalgia. You can go back to a time when you played a simple game we all played. Yes, it’s a little crazier, and it’s a little wilder, and it’s a little slapstick, but I think it does take you back to a simpler time, which I think we all need right now.
Do you have any other schoolyard games that you would want to tackle in this way?
Eyal: We are working on a couple but we’re going to keep it under wraps. One of the great things with Floor Is Lava is seeing people comment, “How has this not been done before? How has no one thought of this before?” And when you come across an idea like that, and you realize, “oh, it hasn’t been done before,” you run with it as fast as you can because you know that it’s going to connect with a lot of people.
With every successful reality format, there are always celebrity additions. Have you thought about that? Has anyone reached out to you after watching?
McGrath: We’ve been getting a lot of tweets and Instagram stories of celebrities watching it. Kristen Bell was watching with her family. We would love Kristen and Dax [Shepard, her husband]. Jesse Tyler Ferguson posted about it on Twitter and we all were fangirling out over here on our text message threads about that. Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted about it. I think that was one of the ones that sent everybody into a tizzy on our end. Yeah, there are a ton of celebrities who are reaching out. I think, like Irad said, it just cuts through.
Eyal: The most important thing, though, is it’s not enough to just be a celebrity. You now have to put together the team. You going to have to think, who are the other two people that I’m going to trust out on the lava field? So that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for teams of three that are really committed to it.
Have you sold the format to other territories yet?
Eyal: Well, the way it works on Netflix is it streams immediately all around the world. So it’s a great thing. It’s already available all around the world. When we follow the charts, we’re really excited to see that it’s number one in the U.S., but at the same time, it was number one in Iceland, and it’s number one in Canada and it’s number two and like going up the charts in the U.K. and in South America, in Korea, and so it’s already all around the world. It really resonated with the whole globe.
There were some adjustments to the course between the first half and the second half, and even some two player teams towards the end of the season. What went into some of those changes?
Eyal: We were inspired by movies when we made this. We were inspired by Night At the Museum or Jumanji. We were also inspired by video games, and we wanted to connect with the audience that plays video games, and we thought, “Oh, we’re going to be repeating some of these rooms. Let’s amp it up. Let’s make it level two, let’s make it a little bit harder and tweak things.” So we just wanted to change it up and give you some new thrills as you watch the whole season. So that’s why you see the booby traps. That’s why you see that we took away some of the props and some of the stepping points that made things easier. We tried to make it harder in the second round so that there was always something new.
The first episode was dedicated to someone. Who was that?
Eyal: That was Tim Sullivan, one of the executive producers. He was the business partner of Anthony Carboni, who is our showrunner, and they both came on to help us produce the show after we sold it to Netflix. He passed away during production, and we really miss him. It was sort of a shock to the whole team and so we wanted to let the world know that we were thinking about him when we premiered and that he helped us bring the show to life.
What are the biggest things that you learned from the first season that you’d like to do in a potential second season?
Eyal: One really big thing that I’d love to see and we want even more of is we love to see when the teams work together, when they’re reaching across, when they’re helping each other, boosting each other, pushing the canoe, all that, so I think we’re going to double down on teamwork. That really made it fun, makes it different from other shows, and it also brings out the personalities of these teams. Can they actually work together or do they turn on each other in the moment of crisis? We’re going to want to see more of that. We also hid a bunch of little secret easter egg kind of things throughout all of the different sets. The design team was really great at that too, and putting little quirky things in there. If viewers watch carefully, and maybe it’s going to take a second viewing, there is a little bit of a backstory, a little bit of a mystery to the show too. Where is this house? What is this mansion that has all these different rooms? Why is the lava here? And we’re going to want to explore that in more depth too just to give people a little bit more of the mystery behind the show too.
Were there any lessons the challenge team learned when they did the first runs of each room in that pool in the parking lot?
McGrath: Everything was custom built for this show. Even the couches, we took a couch and then stripped it all down and did a steel frame reinforcement and had to change what the cushions are made out of so that they could survive the lava. I know in that last episode, one of the girls from the SD Babes just threw all the cushions off the couch into the lava. So we needed to make sure that everything was basically lava-proof. So the stuff that they were testing wasn’t ever really the finished product in that pool outside. So they could go back and they could change the size of something or the handholds, make it harder or make it easier, and they definitely did that a lot. They learned a lot in that testing stage. But I think for next season, we just want more of all this stuff. We want more cooperation and more teamwork and more slapstick faceplants.
Eyal: Bigger props, more action, more lava. We’re definitely going to go bigger.
McGrath: Yeah, we’re working now to figure out how we can do that. We already have tons of ideas on making it bigger and better and epic — more epic than this season.
Speaking of epic, do you see kind of a larger playoff format where teams can compete against one another for an ultimate finale? Sort of like American Ninja Warrior or something like that?
Eyal: We love that idea. And actually, a lot of the teams have reached out to us begging for a chance at redemption, and also wanting to face off against people from other episodes. So that would be really great. We’d love to do that.
McGrath: When the contestants are watching it at home, this is the first time they’ve seen the other rooms that they didn’t go through. So people in the Antiquities room are emailing me, like, “I want to do the Planetarium” or “I want to do the Kitchen. I could do those spinny kitchen stools no problem.” So yeah, everybody’s begging to come back and play and get a different course and a different shot. It’s been really fun.
Which course is your personal favorite?
McGrath: I personally think the Planetarium is my favorite. I go back and forth between the Planetarium and the Antiquities room just because they’re so magical and over the top and not something that you would have in your normal house, which I love.
Eyal: I want my shot at redemption in the Antiquities Room. One of my favorites is the Kitchen. It’s it’s totally relatable. It’s kind of the silliest, wackiest room that we have with that giant provolone. I love the comedy of the show. I would love to put more silly, wacky, crazy rooms together too. It’s the combo of the ridiculous comedy and the thrilling adventure side of it, that’s what we’re trying to bring together.