Given its fortuitous release during the current “reality TV” craze, you might expect that “Series 7,” the new USA Films release structured as the marathon broadcast of a show that features contestants actually trying to kill one another off, was inspired by the likes of “Survivor” or “Big Brother.” But as writer-director Daniel Minahan, who visited Dallas recently along with Brooke Smith, who plays Dawn, the reigning champion on the phony program, explained, the chronology was reversed.
“I wrote it in 1995,” he said, when “Cops” and “The Real World” were the only examples of the genre on the tube and what Minahan called the “weird hybrid of game show and reality” had yet to appear. “I was watching a lot of those shows. As a documentary filmmaker I thought, ‘Isn’t this an incredible way of telling a story?’ It was like documentary, but it was exploitative and pumped-up–this tabloid way of storytelling is so dynamic. Then I worked in TV as a segment producer in news magazine shows, and started to realize how blurry the lines were between entertainment and news: news-gathering is another brand of theatre. Somewhere in there I got the idea.” Minahan then wrote a draft, “and we brought it to the Sundance Directors lab in ’96 to workshop it. You actually take actors–I brought Brooke and two other actors there with me– and we rehearsed scenes and shot scenes on videotape, and then advisors watched the scenes and gave you feedback. So I’ve been living with it for awhile.”
So has Smith, whom you may remember as the kidnapped girl who’s the object of Claire Starling’s search in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Not that Smith knew much about the TV genre when she got involved. “I resisted totally,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a television and was like, ‘Oh, God, now I’m going to have to watch all this stuff.’ But the honest truth is when I was alone in my house, watching ‘The Real World’ in Hawaii, I just wanted to know what was going to happen to Ruthie. I was totally sucked in.”
Smith heads a cast of actors who aren’t well-known but have worked widely on stage and screen. “We worked very hard to cast people who weren’t recognizable,” Minahan explained, “because I thought it was important as part of the concept of the film: they needed to be actors who disappeared into the roles and looked like regular people.” Stage experience was also helpful when it came time for the performers to play their scenes. “It was more like theatre, really,” the director said. “In a regular film you would do set-ups, singles on everybody and then a master-shot. In this case we just shot it like a documentary–we let the whole scene run. So in that way it was more like theatre, because the actors had to sustain the whole scene and we didn’t break it down into tiny parts.”
Smith also pointed to what Minahan termed the “intimate set” as helpful in maintaining the proper spirit. “We went on location in Danbury, Connecticut,” she recalled. “We could get rid of our whole other lives for this short period of 21 days, and because it was a small crew and there was minimal lighting and we shot it like one of those [reality] shows, that just helped.” She worked hard, she added, to give the character of Dawn an underpinning of humanity, though she’s a person skilled in blowing others away and has a rough-and-ready attitude despite the fact that she’s very pregnant and finds that one of her competitors is an old high-school sweetheart. “As Dawn I was feeling exploited, because Dawn is someone who knows she’s being exploited, but the difference is that on this show she comes back into contact with this person she really loves and is forced to play that out in front of the camera–to try to be three-dimensional when they’re [the show’s makers] trying to force you into a sound bite. She knows she’s being exploited, but it’s very seductive.”
Minahan and Smith explained that originally the script had included cutaways from the program marathon to behind-the-scenes glimpses of the show being put together, but that eventually all that material was jettisoned. “That’s how we made our [satirical] point before,” the writer-director said. “Now we make our point through exaggeration.” And, as Smith noted, by luring viewers into taking sides in the combat: “This implicates the audience. It makes the audience complicit a little bit.”
One criticism that has been raised against “Series 7” is that it doesn’t fully explain how the killing competition actually works–it posits the premise that contestants are randomly chosen (within a given locality, apparently) and then are compelled (by whom is unclear) to play until only one survives. And the only “prize” is that the winner gets to play again, until, after a certain number of victories, he or she can retire from the game. (If Dawn wins this seventh attempt, for instance, she’s apparently off the hook.) But Minahan said that ambiguity on these points was intentional, even necessary. “I wanted to keep this away from any kind of monetary or celebrity thing,” he explained, adding that he finds the current crop of “reality game shows” rather “mean-spirited” for emphasizing financial gain and constructing means for contestants to remove their rivals for cold cash: “[They’re about] finding the person you hate and getting rid of them–they’re anti-social in a way. [Here] you had to win your freedom. It was like gladiators or something. It’s a satire, so if I tried to explain too many of the rules, then it started to go into the zone of science-fiction, but it’s not a science-fiction movie–it doesn’t hold up in that way. You just have to go with it and play along. You have to imagine this absurd world, where entertainment is above the law.” And then he added with a smile: “Which is not so far from the truth.”