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It was a real Kentuckian who wrote and directed “fake” Siberia reality show for NBC

Cast of "Siberia," new NBC show. Kentuckian George Dickson far right.
Cast of “Siberia,” new NBC show. Kentuckian George Dickson far right.

In a format described as ” ‘Lost’ meets ‘Survivor,'” tonight’s new NBC show, Siberia, breaks new ground on TV as a “scripted horror series within a ‘reality’ show.”  And, it is, as we say, a Kentucky Proud product.

Centre College alum Matt Arnold, who was just, according to “Deadline Hollywood,” signed by major Hollywood agency ICM, is the creative and practical force behind the concept, production and direction of the 13 episodes shot in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. And, he cast his fraternity brother, Centre and Sayre School grad George Dickson as: a salmon-blazer-and-palm-tree-print-polo-wearing Kentuckian.

The character, “George,” is just one of a group of 16 people dropped into the Siberian wilderness as part of a reality show that they have signed on to. What they hadn’t signed on to and aren’t aware of is that that the area near Lake Baikal where they have been dropped is the site of one of science’s (and science fiction’s) biggest mysteries: The Tunguska Event.

Whether it was a meteorite, a natural atomic bomb or aliens that generated the incredible impact and burning force in the Siberian woods in 1908, it apparently is still out there.

If making it through winter in the Siberian forest for a prize of $500,000 weren’t difficult enough, just make that a horrific, horrible, haunted, maybe radioactive forest.

Shot by a camera crew that had more than 100 actual episodes of “Survivor” under its belt, the camera work and production values work to evoke the reality show aesthetic within a horror concept. The characters created by Arnold hit the reality show tropes and archetypes — including the just-off-the-polo-pony Kentucky anti-stereotype. Once you meet the group, you want to know just how these individuals will react to the challenge. Dropped in Siberia in a sleeveless bright yellow blouse and a miniskirt, for example, what will you kill and sew up to stay warm in the rebuilt “abandoned settlement of 24 people?”

The reviews from some of the critics that matter, have been positive, hopeful and full of praise for Arnold’s inventiveness. The USC Film School grad has been praised by reviewers from the Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News and lauded as a deconstructionist of genre by The New Republic.

Tonight at the Blue Heron, at least one cast member from Siberia will be toasting the series’ debut. No word on whether Dickson will be wearing the salmon blazer. (Asked if it was actually Nantucket Red, he said “Salmon.”)

Like most stories about Kentuckians, this one begins at Cannes. That’s where the two men who knew each other in college reconnected. Dickson, a bond analyst turned actor, was at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival as the producer of a short (“Fiasco”) that made it to the festival and Arnold was there with one of his projects.

Dickson said, “A year passes and I’m in Kentucky and he contacts me to start interviewing for his show. Three rounds later, I was given the part.” The two worked together to create the character which is an indigenous but less well circulated species of Kentuckian than “the  stereotypical view of Kentucky being very country.” Arnold said to Dickson “You and I both know that Kentuckian that people don’t know.” So, Dickson said,  “I would go to different thrift shops and work on my costume. I had a great time with the costume.”

(Spoiler alert.) It would seem that Dickson’s character, George, doesn’t last very long on the show, apparently. But he said he really enjoyed making his minor role one that resonates.

“I almost look at acting and film as a war of attrition and if you keep yourself in the game long enough, you’re going to have some success. I am grateful for a good friend sending the elevator back down, to quote Jack Lemmon.”

Dickson praised Arnold’s directorial skill on the August/September 2012 shoot and his recent good fortune in Hollywood.

“Matt was just signed with ICM, kind of like being the fifth pick in the NBA draft.” In describing his style on set, Dickson said: “I would use terms like ‘driven,’ ‘fearless,’ ‘extremely inventive.’  He sticks to his guns and really takes care of his actors.”

As for the Tunguska Event, the disclosure of that element to the cast came as it did in the the “reality show,” from the “host” of the show. So, the confusion and fear experienced by the cast is based on a real unknown. The Tunguska Event is one of the most referenced scientific phenomenon in pop culture, and is the basis for several works of fiction.

“And that is the brilliance of how Matt did it. We didn’t know. He would walk around with the script in his back pocket and say ‘OK, we’re going to need a fire. George is going to volunteer to start a fire, but he’s going to be really bad at it.’ When I leave the show, I only found out about it 3 minutes beforehand.”

Dickson said he thinks fans of the paranormal and people who like being scared and watching a little drama will like “Siberia.”

“Siberia” premieres on NBC tonight at 10 p.m. Follow the show on Twitter @NBCSiberia.

Kakie Urch is an assistant professor of multimedia in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. She has been to Siberia. The real one.