Exclusive interview: The Curse of Oak Island producer talks bones, Freemasons and what’s to come

Marty and Rick Lagina
The Laginas, who producer Joe Lessard says are a big part of The Curse of Oak Island’s appeal

Excitement around The Curse of Oak Island is at an all-time high after a series of huge discoveries already made this season — including human remains, pottery fragments and mysterious voids deep underground in the famous Money Pit area.

But what goes on behind-the-scenes, and what are Rick and Marty Lagina like in real-life? We spoke exclusively to one of the History show’s executive producers, Joe Lessard, who is Senior Vice President of Development and Production at Prometheus Entertainment and has been involved in the series since the start.

Some of the things he revealed are:

  • Exactly how many episodes there are this season
  • What Rick and Marty are like in real-life
  • Whether the brothers are Freemasons or not
  • Details about Charles Barkhouse’s membership of the Freemasons
  • What having to have a permanent archaeologist around means for the team
  • How the show is filmed
  • What it’s like to spend time on the island, including at night
  • Some hints about what else is coming up this season

As fans prepare for the next episode, in which more details about the human bones will be revealed, here is our interview with Joe Lessard:

Monsters and Critics: Thanks for sparing some time with us and also thanks for creating such a cool show, we’re big fans. Can we start with what the fans are all talking about right now — the discovery of human remains. That can’t have been something that you guys were expecting!

Joe Lessard: Oh no, not at all, I mean, the mystery of Money Pit, well, we know historically, was that a vault was reported around 1897 and a piece of parchment gave breath to the whole position of important historical documents that could be in there as well as a treasure vault.

So for the guys to pull up what looks like human remains, and is testing out to be so, takes it to a level where you know you’re not just telling a good story but they really are finding clues that are going to help unlock this mystery at some point.

M&C: Definitely, and I suppose that ties in with the pottery as well. Now that Laird the archaeologist is much more involved, has that really changed the dynamics of the way things work?

JL: Yeah, well, Laird Niven has been involved with the guys for some years now. He actually did a survey of the island when they first got their treasure trove license, before there even was a show.

Then Culture and Heritage kind of put more of a magnifying glass on the guys this year based on what they have been finding over the last several seasons. It was a possible hinderance, but it’s also an opportunity for the guys to have someone who’s right there, accessible, at any given moment to weigh in with an expert opinion right away on what they’re finding.

You know, Laird took a look at that bone sample — which Rick thought at first was a hard tropical wood was thinking ‘what can that tell me about the mystery?’ — and Laird says ‘no it’s bone, Rick’.

Right there and then, they get more of a clue as to what they are dealing with and it’s shocking and exciting.

M&C: When you’re actually filming the show, are you following the guys around all the time or do you know when they are going to start a big excavation or are going to do something significant and then go and film them. Is that the way it works?

JL: Yeah, you know, before the start of any season we brainstorm with the guys to find out what they’re doing and how we’re best going to cover it.

So we are kind of on their schedule, we’re following their agenda, and just trying to be in the right place in the right time. Anytime they are active on the island, whether its a weekday or the weekend day, there are always cameras.

M&C: Right, and do you have a period over where you film, a specific set of months, or does it just depend?

JL: We film when they’re active. It tends to be in the warmer months because that’s when they can do, you know, there’s a better and broader search agenda.

But there are times when in the dead of winter, for whatever reason, those conditions are favorable. We’ve been out there in February with them on the swamp and it was frozen so that they could run a metal-detector across the ice.

But, yeah, generally from late spring through summer to the beginning of fall is the ideal time for them to do the best drilling and digging, and hopefully find discoveries.

M&C: Do you spend a lot of time on the island yourself?

JL: I do. For the first four seasons I was there for virtually all shooting. As we progress, I have have responsibilities for other shows so I try and manage from LA when I can. But yeah, for key moments, when big things are coming up like a dig in the Money Pit or finale type stuff I go up there and I’m there “boots on the ground”, as Rick would say.

But we’ve got a great team of producers that can keep tabs on everything that’s going on, plan, and try to be ready for whatever’s going to happen next.

M&C: Rick and Marty come across as quite different characters on the show, what are they like in person?

Craig Tester, Dan Henskee, Dave Blankenship, Marty Lagina, Rick Lagina
Marty and Rick with Craig Tester, Dan Henskee and Dave Blankenship

JL: What you see is really what you get. The family element in these guys is so strong, I mean, they really have been kind of a team for more than fifty years, since they were kids, trying to fantasize about the Oak Island mystery.

Now, as you see them, as grown men kind of having reached middle age and getting to do this for, you know, however much time they want to do every year….they are sophisticated but at the same time very down-to-earth, everyday people.

They are curious, accessible, and…they’re charismatic as heck. I mean I think that’s one of the major assets of the show. It’s a great story, but I think people love this program so much because of the point of view coming from Rick and Mary Lagina.

M&C: Yeah, I think you’re right, I mean I think a lot of families watch it together as well. That’s the feedback we get from the fans on our site. Changing tack, a couple of times recently Rick has sort of hinted about a possible Knights Templar connection that might be found this season. Is that something you can shed any light on?

JL: Well, I can’t go into any great detail at this point about where we are going. But I was with Rick recently when he was giving a different interview and he was saying…you know, Rick is such an interesting character about being on television, he does not like to be in front of the camera. He’s never understood why people think he is an interesting subject in the Oak Island saga.

But he says himself that if you were going to watch one season, this is the season to watch. It’s incredible for us to be tracking this story, and we are just trying to do our best to convey what’s happening to the audience in a believable and fun way.

Theories abound and theories vary, they come out of every direction and one of the favorite ones that people, I think, want to be true is the possibility of a Templar connection. All I’ll say is that I think people have a really good reason to keep watching!

M&C: Marty’s vineyard has a lot of Templar symbols and iconography, and it seems to be something they are really interested in. Do you know if Rick and Marty are Masons?

JL: Yeah, Rick and Marty are not Freemasons. Charles Barkhouse, their team member, is a Freemason and in fact, recently, I think just this year, advanced beyond the highest degree to the level of what they call Knights Templar in the Masonic order.

I think the intrigue in the Masons is certainly on Rick and Marty’s radar, but they are not themselves members, at least not disclosed.

Although I did catch Marty once on an episode of Drilling Down, the first season of Drilling Down, when they were with Matty Blake in the studio and Marty, playfully — he didn’t tell anyone about it, I just happened to catch him in the green room and I pointed it out to him — he had this symbol on his chest, of kinda like the ‘M’ where your hand is kind of spread out and your middle and ring finger are kind of together to form a ‘W’.

I think he did it trying to be playful, but then again I think he did it in such a way to keep you guessing!

M&C: Well I guess if you get that funny handshake, that’s how to know! Do you know many episodes we are going to get this season?

JL: There are 16 episodes this season, over 17 hours [the premiere was two hours long].

M&C: That’s great and, what about…I know we are still in this season, but do you think there will be another season or does it just depend?

JL: You know, I think that this treasure hunt is going to go on for as long as these guys are able to do it. I mean as far as the programming, as far as we, the producers, are concerned we don’t want to see it end, but, you know, it’s always up to Rick and Marty about whether they want to continue with the program following what they’re doing.

I think that they’re having fun, I think that the program has shown them as much as anyone how powerful this story is, because the island is now a magnet internationally for people to come visit.

We see it more and more when we’re up there. They have their own museum now on the island to cultivate more and more and ingrain with the province of Nova Scotia to make it a legitimate museum so that they can house their artifacts as quickly as they can.

Every year when they find stuff, per their treasure trove license, they have to hand things over. So they’re now getting to a point where they are recognized not only as a point of interest but a place that has its own cultural interpretive center, its own museum.

So I think that that’s just showing them and convincing them that they’re on to something special and that people want to come and take part in it with them and one of the best ways is for people to watch them on television as they continue their search. So I think that everyone is hopeful but, you know, stay tuned, we’ll see.

M&C: It’s interesting you were talking about people going to visit. I noticed there is a picture that has being doing the rounds of Rick standing at a wood-lined shaft giving some kids a tour [which also featured on the pre-season photographs]. But that shaft is something we’ve not seen yet this season. Is it something that is coming up?

JL: Well, as we speak we’re still on post-production on the show. We shoot everything that happens and then we do our best to try and tell the story in such a way that people can follow it. So there are certain things that we put in the programs and there are other things that might not make it to television.

We are still cutting so it remains to be seen what will come in, but what I will say is that as they’re uncovering things on the island sometimes they are finding new things and sometimes they are finding things that sort of harken back to previous searches.

That image is something that certainly has a historical significance and has become certainly a point of interest on the tours that they run on the weekends during the summer. In terms of will we see that particular thing on the show remains to be seen, but it’s certainly an interesting thing and a piece of Oak Island’s very mysterious and, I would say, rich past.

M&C: You were saying that you spent quite long time on the island yourself. Do you get a vibe off it when you’re there. Is there an atmosphere? I mean, it’s quite a historical place.

JL: Yeah, I think that everyone on the crew feels that it’s a special place and not just because it’s a really fun place to call your office for a decent part of the year. But there is a weird vibe. It gets very dark at night, it gets so dark that you can’t see anything.

I’ve attempted several times on my own to walk the island at night and I’ve not made the full trek yet. At some point you wan’t to get back to the car where there’s lights. You know, it’s a place where your imagination can run wild because the possibilities are endless for what is going on there.

There have been paranormal stories in the past with people having reported seeing ghost of British soldiers. And Dan Henskee, one of the treasure hunters on the team, has had some pretty infamous experiences where he thought he was overcome by the spirit of a dead priest at one point.

I would say there is a…it’s always interesting, it’s always compelling and captivating. There are times on the island where I think everyone’s had some sort of experience that was a little bit out of the ordinary and a little discomforting.

M&C: Have the guys invested a lot of their own money in this whole process? Marty always has an eye on the cost of everything. He doesn’t want to drill too many extra holes, he’s quite aware of that… 

JL: That’s absolutely true. Well, this was a treasure hunt before a television show came along. Marty and Craig and their business partners back in Michigan in the energy industry, partnering with Rick and Dan Blankenship, they’ve all got their own skin in the game. Every year they decide what they can do with what resources they have available.

M&C: That’s great, thanks so much and good luck with the rest of the post-production, we look forward to seeing it!

The Curse of Oak Island airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on History.

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