Q&A: Joe Lessard, EP Of 'The Curse Of Oak Island'

Post by: Rick Ellis 31 October, 2021

There are a small number of unscripted shows which have become icons over the past decade. Programs that continue to draw large audiences long into their run and History's The Curse Of Oak Island is one of them. The show continues to be one of the highest-rated shows on television and it also has one of the most interesting underlying backstories. 

As History describes it: "Oak Island is a tree-covered island on the south shore of Nova Scotia that has intrigued treasure hunters for more than 200 years. It is believed that the island is hiding one of the greatest treasures of all time, but no one has been able to find it. Enter Rick and Marty Lagina, brothers from Michigan who have bought the rights to much of the island to try to solve the mystery." Those sentences underplay the amount of effort and money that have gone into trying to just figure out who constructed the mysterious shaft on the island, much less the location of the rumored treasure. But it all makes for a compelling, history-based reality series that continues to offer up surprises ranging from an old Chinese coin to a mysterious paved road that appears to be heading from a ship's dock to the so-called "Money Pit" area. 

Joe Lessard is co-owner of Prometheus Entertainment and is the executive producer of The Curse Of Oak Island, which has its season nine premiere on Tuesday, November 2nd. I spoke with him by phone on Friday and he told me the show's success has a number of factors, including compelling characters and a mystery that is based in provable, historical facts. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

From a production standpoint, when did you start planning for the upcoming season?

It's been a continuum and based the way that last season came to a conclusion, with the revelation of a Gerhardt dump truck full of silver somewhere in the money pit area...it's been a foregone conclusion for us. We're just glad that it worked out and that we were able to safely get our crew to follow the Laginas and their team's exploits this season. And I have to say, it was a lot to look forward and so fair - we are not quite done filming yet - so far, it's been incredible.

Having a starting point for the new season helped a bit with the planning, but I suspect that like a lot of shows in this genre. any season of Oak Island has a number of twists, turns and unexpected finds, which means the production has to be very nimble along the way.

Even those it is a quote/unquote, "reality show," the fact of the matter is that we really shoot reality. The show is based on what really happens up there with Rick, Marty and the team's process plans. And we just make sure we're up there. The fact that we're on an island means there aren't going to be a lot of logistical struggles about figuring out where we're going to be. It's a matter of finding out what they're weekly plans are, and being at the right place at the right time to hit the record button and watch it all unfold.

Just from an editing standpoint and a production standpoint, you're doing a lot of episodes in a season. And it's inevitable that not every week is equally as exciting. So I'm curious about how the challenges of making sure that you leave every episode with a bit of a cliffhanger and enough of a tease for the following week? The last thing you want is for viewers to leave thinking to themselves "Well, nothing much happened this week?"

There are always those criticisms that we hear. It's fun for us to sit and watch the Twitter feed as the episodes are playing. But viewers tune into this show for a number of reasons. You've got this incredible backdrop of Oak Island, which is just such a picturesque beautiful place. It's got an incredible documented history that is very compelling, from all of the pirate lore to Nova Scotia being a hotbed for European conflicts, which gives a lot of speculation to where this treasure mystery comes from. Whether it's French or English or Portuguese - stay tuned for more on that. There are just a lot of interesting things to ground this story in. And we've had so many colorful characters from the very beginning. Daniel McGinnis, Anthony Vaughan, John Smith, Samuel Ball, all going through the generations. FDR, Robert Restall, Dan Blankenship, Fred Nolan and now these two brothers, who have followed this thing since they were children. They were lucky enough to get their hands on it and we were lucky enough to be able to follow them. It's going to be compelling every week.

We hear from fans all of the time who just love the history and everything that goes with it. We're all waiting for that Chappell vault to emerge from the ground. So to see them find little clues that might seem small in the grand scheme of treasure, when you find something like a ship's railing that carbon dates on multiple tests to 700 A.D. or earlier, to a dump truck full of silver being detected in the money pit last year, the anticipation never wanes. These guys, they do what they do. It seems more and more like this thing is real.

It's called The Curse Of Oak Island for several reasons. Everyone struggles to figure it out, even though it's only 140 acres. But science says this thing is real and it's just a matter of when these guys are going to do it. 

So week-to-week, how do we keep it interesting? We shoot it all as it happens and in editing we just try to construct as linear of a narrative as possible for the sake of the audience being able to follow and appreciate it in terms of conventional storytelling. But there's nothing conventional about it and I think everyone's locked in because they love the characters and they know the history and they can't wait to see what is going to happen, based on the data is telling us is there. 


As you say, one of the strengths of the show is that it's built on established, provable history. It seems very likely there is some sort of treasure on Oak Island. Or at least, there was at some point. I'm one of those people who think Samuel Ball might have found most of it. But having that historical base must help make it an easier show to produce.

You're right, it's one of the few stories on television where it's based on a lot more than just rumor. Of course, a lot of people have gone into this thing based on faith. But it's just finding that there's a triangle-shaped swamp that's manmade. It's finding that there are deep structures in the money pit that predate any searcher activity by centuries. It's finding the U-shaped structure several years ago in Smith's Cove. There is all of this information that keeps being unearthed that says somebody was there doing something very clandestine. And now science is backing up the fact that there are precious metals and a lot of it in the ground. So it's an incredible, real, historically-based story where every legend and romantic theory that's been put out there - that seem fun to think about but ridiculous from a commonsense standpoint - there is evidence being uncovered all of the time that could prove any of them to legitimately be true. 

That's one of the things that I admire about the show. Some theories about what might be buried on Oak Island are probably a little more likely than others. But the show treats all of them equally, even less likely ones such as there being a cache of lost Shakespeare folios

Sure, and on the Shakespeare front it does seem less likely and as you say, we got with it. But in history, no one knows where those manuscripts ended up. There are historically based reasons to think that Shakespeare may not have been the author of the works attributed to him. And none of us were there. We don't know. But the truth of the matter is that those portfolios are missing and when someone drills down deep in the money pit in 1897 and gets a piece of parchment paper from what they believed to be a vault, based on what they were drilling through. And then Rick and Marty find parchment down there as well. Along with evidence of mercury.

And then one of the theories is that Francis Bacon was part of the real authorship of the Shakespeare folios and he wrote about how to store manuscripts in Mercury. So when you find out that stuff you just think, "Well, could it be true?" I don't know, let's keep digging and find out.

Obviously you can't talk much about happens in the upcoming season. But were there some moments, some discoveries where you just thought "this is going to change the arc of the show of the season in a dramatic way?

Yeah, all the time. Every season has been like that on Oak Island. When we first started producing the show, all we knew is that we had great characters in Rick and Marty, Dan and everyone. We had a great place to film with great history. And as we were watching it unfold, nothing was really happening. And at the very end - coincidentally - that coin appeared in the swamp. And I said, "okay, we have a show, we have a season. We're building towards something."

Every season, something like that has happened. In season five, there was the lead cross. And it was tested scientifically, it was determined that it came from Europe from a time when the Knights Templar were doing their thing. And last season ended with the silver. You can't plan for that stuff. We don't plan for outcomes. We try and follow what these guys are planning to do and be there to capture it. And every year, that island gives up secrets - little bits and pieces of it generally - that moves the whole thing forward. It's just kind of funny how it works. Because we don't have some master plan for how we are going to weave these things together. We just shoot what we can shoot and piece it together as clearly as possible for the audience.

You mentioned that production of this season of the show is just about completed. I'm assuming that once winter hits, that will shut things down.

Yeah, that's typically the case. Sometimes we will shoot something in the winter when it's prudent to do so. For instance, in season two they wanted to do some scanning across the swamp and they figured it would be easier to do when there's a very thick sheet of ice. So we went up there and shot them doing that. But generally, it gets harder to drill, the elements up there are extreme. Weather in Nova Scotia is difficult. Summer is hot, spring is wet and winter is brutally cold. They generally wrap things up around November and then look forward to what they can do the next year. If they don't find what they're looking for - stay tuned. 

We're coming to the end this year and it's been nothing but exciting. And we anticipate the fans being very gratified for hanging in there.

Having worked on this show for so long, having been part of Oak Island all these years, I suspect you have your own theory about what is there or what the solution to the island's mystery might be. 

From dinosaurs to aliens. It could be anything in between. A pet theory is fine and it usually lasts about a week when they find something from the 1500s and you think "well, this makes some sense based on conventional European history and what we know happened in this area." But then you find something that predates the Vikings. Or, at least what people think they understand about those cultures. Then you find a Chinese coin that is least 1,000 years old. So every theory is on the table. Because they have literally found something that could apply to any of them and corroborate them.

You've worked on some other shows in this genre and I'm curious if there are any other mysteries out there you'd like to tackle but haven't been able to for whatever reason: logistical, not the right cast or it just hasn't been the right time?

We have our hands full right now. We do some other series that have matured and they are all based on what real people are trying to look into and prove. 

Prometheus was founded by the late Kevin Burns. Prometheus was the God of Fire and Kevin just knew how to light a fire under incredible stories. He was always a curious person. And it's very eerie and fateful how all the shows that we do feel like they're oddly connected. From Ancient Aliens, which focuses a lot on ancient Egypt and those kinds of mysteries, and Central America, all of these places where there are pyramids. And strange lore about the Gods interacting with man. To Oak Island, which has this rich history with the Freemasons, who reach back to the Knights Templar. Who also had a lot of triangle imagery and mysticism and strange belief systems.

To the Curse Of Civil War Gold that we did for several seasons, which also involved the Freemasons. Think of the Skinwalker Ranch, out in Utah.  Strangely has a Masonic connection as well, along with alien connection. 

It sometimes feels as if we're telling the same story, just with bites from different settings. And we even do the UnXplained With William Shatner, which is a catch-all for all of those subjects too. So we're very fortunate to be in one gigantic sandbox, we just have little castles everywhere that we're concentrating on right now. 

Season nine of The Curse Of Oak Island premieres Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021 at 9PM ET/PT on History.



Last modified on Tuesday, 02 November 2021 14:59