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It’s like they scooped us!


Daniel Minahan and Brooke Smith sit across from me in one of those bizarre hotel suites that are part comfy lounge area, part board room. So, we’re drinking coffee at a huge table, surrounded by standard hotel “decor”—sofas and mirrors and arty black and white prints—while we talk about their movie, Series 7: The Contenders. It’s appropriate that the setting is vaguely surreal, because the film is a surreal satire of reality. Written and directed by Minahan (co-screenwriter of I Shot Andy Warhol), the movie satirizes reality-game shows: in Series 7, the object is to kill your opponents: each entrant is given a handgun and a camera crew and tv viewers root for their favorites. The stakes are, as the announcer intones dramatically, “life and death!” Smith (best known as the tenacious kidnap victim in Silence of the Lambs) stars as Dawn, the show’s reigning champion. Eight months pregnant as the film begins, Dawn has 10 kills under her belt, and a bleak determination to survive, protect her unborn child, and, of course, win the game.


Minahan and Smith have an easy rhythm together, adding on to each other’s descriptions, laughing like old friends. In fact, Minahan wrote the role of Dawn for Smith before he even met her. He recalls that in 1995, before Survivor was a twinkle in Mark Burnett’s eye, “I had the idea for the script, and saw her in [an off-Broadway production of Little Monsters]. I recognized that she would be perfect for the lead character, and then wrote it for her.”



Cynthia Fuchs:

How did you approach the characters’ reactions to and awareness of the camera?



Brooke Smith:

I hadn’t really watched those shows before this project. I’d seen them sometimes, but then I really got into them, and now I don’t watch them at all. Once the movie was done, that was it. But it seems to me that the people on the shows are very aware of the camera. Nowadays, a lot of young viewers especially are ready for their close-up, because they’ve grown up on The Real World.



Dan Minahan:

When we were preparing for this, we were trying to find that zone of real people on camera. And we were using improvisation and watching shows and mimicking them, and one night Brooke called me up and said, “These people are acting.”



BS:

Right. I saw a cop, on Cops, who was playing a real scene in real life, and then someone got between him and the camera, and he literally pushed the guy gently out of the way, because he wasn’t involved, he was like, the friend of the criminal they’re about to arrest. [Laughs.] But that was tricky, because you were so aware of acting like you’re aware of the camera.



DM:

Because it’s breaking the rule of film acting, which is that the camera is not there. I would encourage people every day, to think of the camera as a character in the film. You can react to it, you can ignore it, or you can push it away. It gave people something really good to work with, and it gave them this immediate self-awareness.



CF:

And reality shows tend to have a class-specific dynamic—they’re upscale like The Real World or they’re underclass criminals like on “Cops.” The film is very aware of that, despite and because of the fact that it’s shot in Danbury, Connecticut.



DM:

Yeah, I grew up in Danbury. I set it there because there was a wide range, from people who live in trailers to people who live in subsidized housing to people who live in mansions. Dawn [Smith’s character] is from a very middle class family with aspirations; her sister has an SUV, she lives in a McMansion. Her sister is like “new money,” and has brought her mother to live with her.



BS:

But Dawn was kicked out, and ended up out on her own, so she has a more working class feel. She’s not really white-trashy, but she has a been-on-her-own quality.



DM:

The interesting thing to me is that Dawn uses the camera to empower herself, and to reveal her family, to get even, when she doesn’t get what she wants. That’s one of my favorite scenes, because it does so many things at once. It’s a Real World bitch fest, and humiliating for Dawn and her family, but you really care about Dawn after that scene, because you realize that there’s nobody on her side, that she’s been rejected by her family, again.



BS:

And it shows that Dawn hasn’t received a lot of love in her life, so it’s just undeniable that the camera becomes seductive. There’s a camera in her face and they’re asking her how she really feels about things, supposedly. I don’t think it was calculated that she went in there to expose them.



DM:

I think she really wanted to make amends.



BS:

Exactly.



DM:

It’s such an inversion. In the real world, when a kid gets on tv, you love them and they’re successful. Where in this world, your kid gets on tv and it’s bad. The mother and sister don’t even let her into the house—they meet her in the garage.



BS:

It’s always amazing to me that on the real shows, when people have to sign waivers, that they sign them because they feel they have to, or it’s that pressure to jump class, somehow. You have to wonder, why are they signing them?



DM:

We thought a lot about that, and I think it’s just that people feel validated and they get to be seen. Half the time on “Cops,” people are so fucked up or drunk and high or whatever, that they probably don’t know what they’re signing.



CF:

There are certainly limits to what documentary can do; today, documentary makers and audiences are have doubts that documentaries can convey “truth.”



DM:

Yes, especially like Michael Moore, so that the documentary filmmaker is more of a presence or a personality, unlike Susan and Alan Raymond who invented reality tv basically, who were still into verite, and believing that the camera was objective. The interesting thing is that Susan and Alan Raymond [makers of An American Family, the breakthrough PBS documentary series in 1973] did these “police tapes”; they did a ride-along, back in 1981, with a very corrupt sheriff, who mistreated people. But Lance Loud [the son in American Family] came to see Series 7, and he really liked the film, which meant a lot to me.



CF:

The American Family connection makes me think of that intense relationship between Dawn and Jeff. How did you develop that?



BS:

Because of the circumstances [the competition] and the fact that he comes into her life at just that point, definitely cranks it up, because he’s the only person, as she says, who can “still hurt her.” It was tricky to do it, because to be forced to play out this reunion in this sacred relationship was really intense, so for me, it had to happen in our eyes. What was moving to me when I saw the film was that they’re these three-dimensional characters who are forced into these soundbites by the show. Why do you have to be anything, the way everybody defines everything, gay or straight, this or that.



DM:

I think at a certain point, we had to trust that the set up was there, and you can’t act all of that. It’s inherent in the story, being revealed as it goes along. You can’t play eight months pregnant, that you used to be in love with this guy who’s gay. It was about finding a strong connection and playing that, a tenderness in this world that’s completely brutal. We worked really hard on the reunion scene.



CF:

I can see that, because it’s right on the edge of being totally corny and totally visceral.



BS:

Exactly.



DM:

And then we did all those interviews to supplement it, like they do on The Real World. So it’s like they’re narrating it as it’s happening, which kind of pushes it into parody, but at the same time, I like to think of that scene as the heart of the movie. You have it both ways. I know people who see it as a complete joke, and others who see it and are completely moved by it. That’s the success of that scene, depending on who you are and where you are in the film, you can react differently.



CF:

It exposes the violence, or the intrusion, of the technique at the same time that it exposes the “emotions.”



DM:

It can remind you of a lot of things, but that’s the intention of it. I grew up loving Rollerball, The Stepford Wives, and Westworld. I was this paranoid little fat kid with this weird view of the world. Stepford Wives was shot in Danbury and the area where we shot. So to me it comes out of that tradition, but also my experience working in television, and this Orwellian fascination with Cops. Because we were doing it as a low-budget and digital video film, I convinced the producers that we should use unrecognizable people. That was important. Otherwise you’d be saying, “Oh, that’s Steve Buscemi as the clerk.”



CF:

On the same tip, how did you choose locations that would be recognizable or ordinary, the garage, the mall?



DM:

They’re all in-between spaces, very particular to the moment we live in. There are scenes in vestibules and foyers; our production designer understood that we were doing something subtle. You could choose to shoot in a great 1950s diner, but that would be too cinematic—I tried to choose locations that were unremarkable, the same way we tried to use people who looked real.



CF:

I’m glad that you mentioned the word “subtle,” because it seems there’s a balance between something entirely theatrical and spectacular and something that’s subtle and self-undercutting.



DM:

The weird thing is—as you’ve just described it—the whole thesis of reality tv is that it takes these mundane, unremarkable moments and makes them into spectacle. Turning the camera on ordinary people somehow elevates their lives, because it’s shown to so many people. You’re talking in more formal terms, but I think it’s just the nature of what it is. We never crossed the line into this Saturday Night Live parody. We played the scenes for real, not for humor, because you would have stepped out of it, and betrayed it.



BS:

The whole reality tv thing is also interesting in the way it makes people into celebrities. It used to be that if you had a talent from something, you would be on camera, but now, it’s if you’re chosen and you’re on tv, then you must be someone.



DM:

The difference between this and The Real World is that in The Contenders, you’re picked. But, when I was researching, I got these books and audition tapes for The Real World, and it’s an unbelievable process these kids go through to get themselves on tv—they put themselves on tape, they do interviews, they write essays. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “What kind of person wants this?” It’s not like you’re plucked out of obscurity.



CF:

Yeah, in order to expose yourself. And the reunion shows are interesting, in that they comment on what they’ve done, a year later.



BS:

We loved The Real World in Hawaii, that was the only one I’ve really seen. I couldn’t watch “Survivor,” because I thought, if they’re going to really eat worms, they should dig them out of the sand; the worms shouldn’t be served in some little Barney’s coconut bowl.



DM:

It was a game show. And it was so condensed, everything was so telegraphed by the way it was cut; it didn’t have the same kind of “natural” flow of “The Real World,” because it’s a game show. It’s apples and oranges—a game show, or just let it happen. The in-between is so contrived, and the rules of Survivor keep meandering and changing, like cigars and yachts. It turned into corporate office politics, demonstrated when [Richard Hatch] won. [Laughs.]



CF:

How do you think people consume these shows? Do producers know their audiences?



DM:

Here’s the thing. I think with our film, because it’s a film, we tried to make the characters sympathetic, so you can care about them, whereas Survivor and Big Brother are predicated on hatred, rejecting people, and exclusion. That’s sad. It’s still fascinating to watch, but it’s anti-social, or at least, it’s not nice. I’ve never seen a show that was so mean-spirited as Survivor. The person I was so looking forward to getting to know was Sonya, the woman who played the ukelele, and she was the first one thrown off.



BS:

And wasn’t the idea of Big Brother that people watching the show voted people off?



DM:

That’s creepy. It’s bad enough on America’s Most Wanted, when people fink on the criminals, they rat ‘em out. [Laughs.]



CF:

Or better, they rat out the actors who play the criminals in the re-enactments.



DM:

[Laughs.] At least the criminals have done something wrong. But in Big Brother, it’s just when you don’t like someone.



BS:

And I like the way that in Series 7, obviously Dawn doesn’t like what she’s doing; she just has to get through it. I like her breaks with the rules.



DM:

There are moments of humanity that sneak through. I think it has more dignity than Survivor, even though people are killing each other. [Laughs.] The weirdest thing is that we didn’t know that these shows would exist when we came up with the idea, so it’s like, they scooped us! This was supposed to be a satire. We describe it to people, and you tell them, “It’s a reality tv show where people are forced to kill each other,” and they say, “Oh yeah, I think I saw that.” And you say, “No, you didn’t.”



BS:

I was afraid it was going to happen, between the time that we actually made the film and when we’d find distribution. I was in Africa with this little short-wave radio, in the middle of the bush, in August. And they were talking about a show that’s already gone, when murderers were telling about their crimes on tv.



CF:

That was a Court-TV show called Confessions, and they only ran two episodes, one featuring the Preppie Murderer. There was such a hubbub about that.



DM:

This is the perfect example. I heard about it, and I happened to catch the one where, immediately afterwards, they had a show of commentators, including Alan Dershowitz and Marc Klaas. It was such pure exploitation. They had the titillation of showing it, then flogged themselves in the next moment. It was just perfect. Polly Klaas’s father actually thought it was good. He felt that it made it more real and tangible, what they did.



BS:

I want to read that book you were reading, about gladiators.



DM:

Yes, I was researching gladiators, because the parallels to Series 7 were so obvious, the human sacrifice. To me, that film was a total parable of Hollywood violence.



CF:

Going to the movies is a different thing than watching tv, for your film too—when you’re paying money and going to a theater to see this film, it’s not the same as reality tv.



DM:

I think it gives it a strong context, because you’re really watching, you never step outside the show. I did pitch it to a network executive, and he asked, does everyone have to die? I said, yeah, that’s the point. And then, can you have a recurring character? I said, okay, a cameraman could be that. Can you make it sexier? Okay. But the final straw was when they asked, “Can you make it more like Ally McBeal?” And we said, no.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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