So how did they regulate self-gratification? PEOPLE spoke to the producers to find out

By Aurelie Corinthios
April 20, 2020 11:28 AM
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If you’re reading this, you probably spent the weekend ripping through Too Hot to Handle on Netflix. If that’s the case, then you probably have a few questions about how this fascinating social experiment unfolded — and we’ve got the answers.

The new eight-episode dating series, produced by Talkback, drops 10 singles, all extremely hot and notoriously horny, in a beachside villa. The contestants enter “The Retreat” thinking they’re in for the sexual adventure of a lifetime — only to find out they must abstain from sexual activity of any kind, self-gratification included, for their chance at the $100,000 prize.

But how did they regulate self-gratification? Was alcohol consumption monitored? And will there be a second season? PEOPLE spoke to Louise Peet, series producer; Jonno Richards, executive producer and Talkback managing director; and Charlie Bennett, director of development at Talkback, and no topic was off-limits. Well, except for who voiced Lana — they’re keeping that to themselves for now.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Credit: Netflix

How was the concept developed and how long did you work on it for?

CHARLIE: About two years ago, Laura Gibson [the creative director at Talkback] and myself had a conversation over the phone about an episode of Seinfeld called “The Contest.” Basically, the idea is that the core cast makes a bet with each other that they can avoid self-pleasuring for longer than the rest of them. It was a very funny episode, and it made us think that there was possibly something reality-based to make from it. So that’s where the idea came from. Then this show Love Island, that is very successful in the U.K. and is in the U.S. now, that felt like a sort of good template to put on it. And it grew from there, really.

JONNO: I think it was always about trying to find a show that was funny, but also something that felt timely and would speak to people who are out in the dating scene now. Nowadays, people who are dating a lot and are hooking up a lot, they move quite quickly. So the idea was, how can you use that funny concept to perhaps help people form deeper connections, as well as it being entertaining as a social experiment? So it’s funny, but there’s something — you hope — real happening there as well.

CHARLIE: There’s a moral spine, or moral backbone, to the show.

LOUISE: And also, it’s quite relevant today. Even though, as Charlie said, it has taken a few years, which all good things do take, there is relevance now as single people are unable to get their quick fixes with social distancing. So it’s more relatable than we could have ever imagined.

How much was the show inspired by Love Island?

LOUISE: I think the most natural evolution for this show as a social experiment and the way that the show comes across is more Big Brother, not Love Island. Love Island is just a dating show. And this isn’t just a dating show — the people are more important, the workshops are more important. We all love Love Island, but this is different. It has Lana, who is the most unique thing to come out of this other than the format itself.

JONNO: The events that happen in Love Island are really just designed to get people more intimate with each other, whereas ours, while it is viewed as romantic comedy and it’s funny and it’s entertaining, the workshops actually are rooted in something. They are about trying to break down barriers and help people grow.

LOUISE: All our workshops very much drove the story. Like Jonno said, they served a purpose. It wasn’t just learning about vulnerability, it was how your learnings about vulnerability can make your life better in this retreat.

Credit: Netflix

When and where did filming take place, and how long was “The Retreat” from start to finish?

LOUISE: We went to Mexico for a month and we were filming for about 21-25 days in April 2019. Mexico was just the most beautiful place we could ever have imagined. We wanted it to feel otherworldly. The cast are otherworldly, Lana is otherworldly, so we just wanted to feel as exotic and hot and sexy as possible. So Mexico, for a long, hot month, was the perfect place to set this.

Credit: Netflix

The timeline isn’t made clear to viewers — is that by design?

LOUISE: Obviously, as it’s a TV show, entertainment needed to take precedent. And days of the week don’t mean anything when you’re living somewhere that feels hyper-real. All that matters is that they are on this program to make them better people, and they’re going through this process, and we’re enjoying the ride with them.

CHARLIE: We didn’t want to feel like other reality shows, where it’s day three, or day four. There wasn’t that kind of [structure]. The process was the most important thing — that’s why they were there, not to make it to day three and then get evicted or not get evicted.

Did the villa already exist, or was it built for this show?

LOUISE: I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but it wasn’t built for the show. That would have been quite an impressive build if it was. We were the first people to stay in it, though.

How was alcohol consumption monitored?

LOUISE: The cast had access to food and soft drinks all day. If they had alcohol it would be as part of a party, or a date, or a nice evening chilling at the retreat. When they had alcohol it was monitored as ultimately they were there to develop themselves and their ability to form deeper and more meaningful relationships. We all know that alcohol doesn’t always help us achieve that goal!

Who was on set with the contestants every day?

LOUISE: We had producers there 24/7. Not the same producers [around the clock], but people were always on location. Like every TV show, you have medics, you have security guards, you have people who know how to book cars, you have people who can make you a sandwich. Also, we had to keep an eye on them, didn’t we? So there was no self-gratification in the middle of the night! That was someone’s job as well.

Credit: Netflix

How did you regulate self-gratification? There were no cameras in the bathrooms, so they could have gotten away with it, right?

LOUISE: They absolutely could have. They could have. But we had, honestly, the best spying, pervy producers we could possibly find. Just kidding! So we just got them to listen — if there was anything suspicious going on in the middle of the night, they would have to be listened to by our transcribers, or our producers, who, unfortunately for them, had to start deciphering what different levels of breathing meant. I.e., was it an innocent trip to the bathroom, or something else? Best leave that to people’s imagination! We just had people watching 24/7.

JONNO: Obviously, we weren’t filming in the bathrooms, but we were listening all the time.

If they suspected something was happening, would they intervene?

LOUISE: We didn’t have anyone intervening — we didn’t have to. We didn’t ever have to arrive, no pun intended. The need to interrupt someone never happened.

Do you think some of them got away with it?

LOUISE: I have no idea. Only Lana would know.

Were the costs of infractions determined before filming started, or were they determined as the action unfolded?

LOUISE: Well, it was discussed before we started filming. We had some hysterical conversations — I never thought I would have conversations like this in a meeting room. So how much should a blowjob be? But it wasn’t until we got to Mexico and we were filming that we came to [our decisions]. We knew that the infractions had to be fair and uniform across the board. So a kiss was always $3,000, but maybe in another [season], if another [season] happens, then it could be another amount. There are no set rules. It’s not a price list, inflation could affect it. We just don’t know!

Credit: Netflix

How did you come up with the idea for Lana?

LOUISE: Going back to Big Brother, we thought that an AI [artificial intelligence] way to communicate with the cast would be amazing. Our senior producer Andy said he has quite a good relationship with the Alexa in his house. He feels like his Alexa is a part of his family, as we all do. We’re used to being directed by AI, and somehow we don’t get annoyed at them. So we were just thinking of interesting ways that people have these relationships with inanimate, artificial intelligence objects. And we thought, for this generation, it was the most clever way to communicate with our cast and also create a new character in the show, which is fun.

Credit: Netflix

You won’t reveal who voiced her, but what more can you tell us?

LOUISE: We can tell you why her voice was chosen. We definitely chose a Mary Poppins-esque, non-judgmental British female voice. Just for the authority and lack of judgment that we hoped would come across.

How did Lana decide when to give couples the green light?

LOUISE: When a couple showed that they were forming a deeper connection, then Lana would decide that they would get a green light.

JONNO: It couldn’t all be the stick. It couldn’t all be punishment — there had to be a little bit of carrot, a little reward.

Credit: Netflix

Was Desiree Burch, the narrator, on set?

JONNO: Desiree wasn’t on set. We would edit the show, then we would get writers to look at it. Then Desiree would come in and add her take on things and her tone to it. You’ve got Lana in there, so you wanted the [narrator] to almost feel as if she was watching at home and commenting on it and sort of taking the mickey out of people a little. Not [just] telling you what was going on, but she had to be adding something to it. So that’s why Desiree was so good, because she’s got that tone. She can be warm and she can be a little snarky, but it’s done with a wink and never too harsh.

LOUISE: And she’s perfectly international. She was born in California, grew up in New York, and she lives in London. So she has this really amazing international accent that comes out now and again. She’s brilliant.

Tell us about the decision to cast people from all over the world.

LOUISE: It was very much a global pitch [from the beginning]. It suited Netflix, which was the perfect platform to have something so global and international. And also, [casual] hookup lifestyles are very common globally. This isn’t just a problem that’s in the U.K., it’s not just a problem in L.A., it’s not just a problem in New York, it is worldwide. We found them everywhere. So why not put them all together?

Were you surprised by any of the ways in which the different personalities and cultures interacted?

LOUISE: It was great. It did surprise me, actually, that the Americans didn’t naturally gravitate towards the Americans, and same with the Brits and the Australians. You know, David and Sharron’s friendship was amazing, and David was as English gent as you can get. They didn’t care, and actually I think that is evident of what the world is like that we live in now. Maybe these are just quite dated ideologies, that people just stick to their own, and we need to start considering that the world is not as big as we think it is.

Credit: Netflix

How did you design the challenges?

LOUISE: Before going out to film, we had designed quite a lot of workshops, actually. We made sure that all the workshops always had a purpose, and that was very important. So although we did have more than we showed, and we didn’t film all of the ones that we had [designed], these were the ones that were story-relevant and scene-relevant. It is a reality show at the end of the day, but it hopefully will teach people some different ways of talking about yourself and looking at yourself.

Credit: Netflix

How did you decide when to bring in the new cast members?

LOUISE: Like most reality shows, and any good show, we had new people to bring in to spice things up. Depending on the group dynamic, and depending on the story that was happening at the time, we would bring people in as a way to bring a bit more energy to the retreat. It also added a little bit of temptation, which was great for us.

Was the prize always going to be allocated amongst the whole group, or could one couple potentially have won it all?

LOUISE: That evolved very organically while we were filming. We realized quite early on that everyone was learning, and if they weren’t learning — for example, Haley — then they would naturally be asked to leave because they weren’t progressing in the retreat. So when it got to the final episode, it was an absolute no-brainer for us to share it amongst the group. There’s a variety of ways it could have gone, but this felt really fitting for our series.

JONNO: I think it was reflective of the actual process and what happened, rather than being like, ‘Right, there always has to be a winner and it has to be a couple.’ It felt like the right decision at the time, as everyone was progressing.

Will there be a reunion? And if the show gets a second season, how will you adapt the concept now that contestants will know what they’re walking into?

LOUISE: We have to wait and see [about a reunion]. I have some ideas [for season 2], but I am keeping them top secret for now!

Too Hot to Handle is streaming on Netflix.