Phil Morden, of Milford, was one of 16 competitors on this season of History Channel’s “Top Shot” reality show. I interviewed Phil after he was eliminated from the show on last week’s episode. In the first part of the interview, Behind the scenes of Top Shot Season 3, Phil talked about the challenges, his relationship with the other competitors, and addressed allegations by Season 2 cast member, Ashley Spurlin, that the producers could “fix” the results of the challenges.
In this article, the second part of our interview, Phil talks about the differences between the Blue Team and the Red Team, the personality conflicts on the show, and gives his thoughts on what was behind Jake Zweig’s decision to suddenly quit the competition.
Rob: You mentioned working with Cliff when he needed some help. How much did the personalities play into the dynamics within the teams and then across teams? How much did the personalities actually affect the performance?
Phil: I think personalities play a huge part in any team sport. Being on the Red Team, I thank God that I missed that last target with the S&W .500. Because, now that I’m able to watch each episode from the start, I see how the Blue Team operated. I was so pleased with how we on the Red Team handled ourselves, even in adverse times. We always were laughing and having a good time. The more comfortable you are with your teammates, the better you shoot. You don’t want to let them down. And now watching the Blue Team, they can’t even talk to each other about how to sight the rifles in because they were so focused on these dominant roles on the team. There were very few people on the Blue Team who would step back and really listen to each other which I think hurt them.
Rob: On a previous interview you mentioned you made some friends on the cast, people you stay in touch with. Can you say who they are?
Phil: There’s really no one on the Red Team I don’t talk to. I talk to Paul Marinaccio almost every day. I talk to Mike Marrelli quite a bit. I talk to Chris, I talk to Cliff. You are there for so many weeks and you have to get along with these guys, so you form a bond with them. I can’t say enough good things about these guys.
Rob: Now as far as how people are portrayed on the show, how much of that is their true personalities showing through and how much of it is the creative editing where they shoot hours and hours of footage and then pick 15 seconds to show?
Phil: I tried to stay out of all the drama and everything and I think I did a pretty good job of that. I think they portrayed me exactly how I acted. I think Mike Marelli got kind of a bad rap the way he’s portrayed and that’s a shame. Once you got to know his sense of humor and his personality he was a really nice guy. They used a lot of things Mike said almost in a joking context and put a twist on them to make it sound like he was that arrogant, and he really wasn’t. For us it’s kind of an inside joke that they are just ripping him apart. But, in all honesty, Mike was not like that every second of every day.
Jake, on the other hand, was. There were times he was ten or twenty times worse then they can show on cable television because they can’t bleep out that many words in an hour-long segment. This is supposed to be a family show and it turned into some MTV thing with him constantly swearing. People have asked me, since I’ve gotten home, if he was really like that in real life and I have to tell them at times it was worse. This is surprising to them because they can’t fathom how it could be worse then what is portrayed on TV. But, other than that, everybody else is almost spot on as far as their attitude and performance. This was really good to know because you worry about that when you out for something like this because you don’t want to made a fool of. You get home and you watch it and you realized, “Ok, that’s exactly how I was acting. That’s exactly how Dustin acted.” It calms you down quite a bit.
Rob: Now, why do you think Jake was the way he was? Watching it as a viewer I got the impression he was playing it as a game different from everyone else. He wanted the prize money and this was the strategy he picked. But that theory kind of died when he voluntarily left the show. You think that if he was just saying “I’m going to be an ass so I can win the money,“ he would have gone to the elimination challenge to try to stay in the game, but then he didn’t.
Phil: Yeah, I honestly don’t know. When that fight started between Mike (Hughes) and Jake, they got real roughed up and they were ready to go, and then, this was not shown on TV, but at one point I stepped in there and I said to Mike, “Mike, he wants you to hit him so you get off the show. This is obviously more important to you then it is to him. Just take it easy, go out of the room and relax.” He calmed down, and he came back later and he said, “Hey, thanks so much for that. I’m glad I didn’t do something stupid.“ Well now we watch that episode on TV and the first interview after that is Jake saying, “I wanted Mike to hit me so he would get sent home.”
So, there were times I think everybody in the house saw the way that he was acting. He was trying to manipulate the situation to get people sent home. And yeah, if that’s the case, he should have went and shot against me because credentials wise, on paper, he has far more credentials then I do. I think, in the long run, Jake was afraid to lose to Dustin, Alex, and myself. Because we are three guys on the show who were there based on shooting ability and not what was on paper. You know, he didn’t care if he lost to Mike Hughes or Gary Quesenberry because they are very good shooters and they have credentials to show that. We don’t.
Rob: You guys were relatively unknowns in comparison.
Phil: Right, Mike Hughes is a very well known pistol guy in the USPSA shooting world and Cliff is world known in the revolver world. If Jake loses to one of those guys at least it’s honorable in his mind, “OK, I lost to a Grandmaster who shoots seven days a week, 10,000 rounds a month.” If he loses to me, who gets out to range and shoots, maybe, three or four hundred rounds a month, if I’m lucky, that is saying something about his natural ability. And I think that’s what scared him. And Dustin is the same. One thing they are not showing a lot of is that Jake would just hammer Dustin. Whether it was about Religion, or his family life, I think he was doing that to try to get under Dustin’s skin. And Dustin can handle that pressure very well. I think that made Jake nervous like, “If they show me really tearing into him, like I have been, and then he sends me home, this is going to be really embarrassing.”
Rob: And that leads to your elimination challenge where you were supposed to face off with Jake. Were you looking forward to that or were you dreading that?
Phil: I know it sounds very cliché, “Oh, I was looking forward to the elimination challenge,” but you got to go at some point. You know that you do. Whether or not you make it through the entire show without going until the end, you’re still in elimination to win the whole thing. And, after being there that long, and seeing these elimination challenges, and the people that came back from them. Their level of confidence had risen so much that you almost wanted to get in there and test your abilities and see if you could come back from something like that.
So, that was kind of exciting in itself. And, the fact that it was with Jake…Working in the video industry, what I do for a living, I know exactly how he was going to be portrayed. No matter what he thought, I knew they were going to make him look the way that he did. So, knowing that, I knew that people would just despise him. And being able to be the person to send him home would have been, you know, one of the greatest feats of anybody’s life. You know you’re on this TV show and you’re going to send home the most hated man in America? I mean it’s a huge thing for you. So you get very excited about that. You get excited to prove yourself in the competition. And then he kind of has his own out, by walking away. And, as soon as he did that, I said in an interview that “Jake is doing this because this is the way he can leave the show under his own terms. He’s not being sent home by anybody. He’s not being sent home by the youngest competitor on the show. He’s leaving because the competition is, in all essence, BS to him.” So, watching that happen was kind of mind boggling. You can see in the episode the kind of frustration we were all facing.
Rob: I’ve heard that Colby actually tried to talk Jake out of it. Were you aware of that?
Phil: Oh yeah. First, at the nomination range, Colby tried to talk to Jake. I think they had an idea because he had threatened so many times to leave. Colby asked, “Jake, is there anything you want to say?” and Jake said, “No, I’ve become a mute at this point in the competition. My heart hasn’t been in this since Sarah left.” Jake felt that he got screwed in the AK-47 challenge. (Note: Sarah has mentioned malfunctions with the AK-47 in interviews online).
Now, seeing how this all played out, I think Jake really did want to quit at this point. I think he thought, “Well, maybe Phil will shoot Gary’s target.” If we had a shoot off like Chris and Mike had in the previous episode I could have maybe gotten myself out of the elimination. I think Jake thought that I was going to shoot Gary’s target to try to save myself and then maybe he also had a way out of the elimination. If he out shot me and Gary he could have stayed out of elimination. So, when I shot Jake’s target, I think his world just collapsed on him. I think he thought, “Oh great, now I have to go to elimination against this guy that I’ve been busting up a lot and, if they show any of that on TV, and I get sent home by him, I’m going to look like a real idiot. Ok, here we go, I’m leaving now.”
So, we all shot (at the nomination range) and Colby comes back to the house. “Are you sure you want to leave? This is a competition that 20-odd thousand people applied for, and you are one of 16 that made it on the show. Are you sure you want to leave?” And Jake said, “Yeah, I’m sure I want to leave. The competition is BS, blah, blah, blah.” So they just let him go. I think at that point the producers were just tired of hearing about it.
Rob: Well, and it’s not like they can force you to stay on the show if you want to leave
Rob: Now how much did that affect your mindset when you saw you did still have to do an elimination challenge and that it was going to be Mike coming back to be your opponent as opposed to getting a pass because the person you were supposed to shoot against had left?
Phil: It was a surprise to me, definitely. At the time I thought, yeah, I guess this is the fairest way to do this. Nothing against Mike Hughes, he’s a great shooter and a great guy but, like he said, this did give him a second life in this whole competition. And it really did. After two days of being home, when I got sent home, my whole mindset had changed. I wanted to go back so badly because I had this completely new outlook on the competition and everything. Mike had the advantage at the time.
My opinion on it, and my suggestion to the producers, was to have me and Gary shoot for the gift card. The reason for that is not to keep me from going home. But, in essence, a forfeit is a loss, and I think that everybody in the house felt the same way. If Jake left, there should be no elimination challenge. For Jake, that was the elimination, he sent himself home. Having us shoot for the gift card would have been very exciting for TV. People become more conservative when they are shooting to stay there. You want to make your shots count. And, if you were shooting for that $2,000 gift card instead, it would have been more exciting.
Rob: Now there has been some question, did the producers explain the rule as to what would happen if a contestant left at that point in the game at the beginning or it did it only get explained to you guys when it came up?
Phil: We were never told about that from the beginning. I think it’s one of those things they think is never going to happen. They’ve had people leave for personal reasons every season. And they never bring anybody back for that. The ruling was because we made it to the individual portion of the competition the last shooter was going to be brought back (when Jake quit). I don’t know if Jake put them in a bind and they had to come up with something on the fly or not, because he did screw them over. He left at 7:30 or 8:00 at night and they had to put a challenge together with one other person at 8:30 or 9 a.m. the next day. I think it was one of those things where they scramble trying to figure out what to do to maintain the integrity of the competition and that’s what they came up with at the time.
Rob: Do you thing then that it was a rule that had pre-established or a rule they developed right when they needed it?
Phil:I have no idea. I would like to think they had it pre-established by the way that they handled it, but I don’t know. They could have come up with it on the fly because who would have ever thought that would happen? You don’t expect the guy who has got a one-in-six chance of winning $100,000 to just up and leave the competition. So I think that if they had it in place they may have tweaked it a little because they had Mike Hughes out there within 12 hours of Jake quitting
Read the rest of the interview at, “Phil Morden gives his picks for the winner of Top Shot season 3” where Phil discusses what went wrong during his elimination challenge, his bet on who will win the show, and how being on “Top Shot” has affected his life.
You may also enjoy these previous interviews with Phil Morden:
Phil Morden talks about Top Shot season 3 with the Michigan Firearms Examiner
Phil talks about the audition process and gives tips on how to get on the show.
Phil Morden wants to ‘Reprsent Michigan well’ on Top Shot Season 3
Phil discusses the challenges of living with 15 strangers on a reality show and how his job as a video producer gave him an advantage.
Behind the scenes on Top Shot season 3 with Phil Morden
Phil discusses the challenges, how the competitors got along, and answers allegations by a former contestant that the producers “fixed” the results of the challenges.
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