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Lock and Load: Daniel Minahan Broadcasts “Series 7”

Series 7 may be the antidote for anyone disturbed by the onslaught of reality TV shows, spearheaded by Survivor and The Real World. As an assault on cultural indifference, this new feature co-produced by the fearless Christine Vachon and her company, Killer Films (Safe, Kids, Boys Don’t Cry), pits six contenders against each other on a nightmarish syndicated game show. The object: Kill or be killed until only one survivor remains.

Writer/Director Daniel Minahan (co-writer of Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol) took great pains not to play it as science fiction, making the film feel ‘like the world we live in, but taken to the point of absurdity. The more vague I kept it, the creepier it would be.’ We caught up with Minahan on the afternoon before Series 7 opens wide to theaters everywhere (March 16, 2001) after a successful limited release in metropolitan art-houses. Will audiences respond to the laser sharp accuracy of this pitch-black comedy, or will Series 7 strike too close to home?

You could have gone in many different directions with the title. How did you choose Series 7?

I wanted something that sounded sexy and mysterious, that would suggest that this show had been around for a while, and that had a number in it. So my editor, Malcolm Jamieson, came up with Series 7, and I thought it was great.

I thought your cast found the right stylized note. Could you describe the rehearsal process?

We experimented a lot. First, we watched shows and tried imitating TV stuff. We tried improvisation, but that kinda seemed like just, well, actors improvising. Finally, the breakthrough came when – it sounds really obvious, but when Brooke (Smith) called me after watching tapes I had given her of The Real World or some show. And she said, ‘These people are just acting.’ The idea was that people on these shows play the part they think they’re supposed to play. Oh, she’s the Bitch. He’s the Uptight Born-Again Christian. As it turns out, all I needed to do was remind people that there was a camera in the room, and that it would be a character in Series 7. That naturally gave the performances the self-consciousness that I wanted.

I also concentrated on paring down the dialogue. I took out a lot of exposition that felt more like a film than a documentary or TV show. We would play out a scene and I’d say, ‘Well, this is something I could handle in voice-over, this is something the show would explain.’ I tried to make it as colloquial as possible.

Was there any struggle with your actors feeling exploited by this material?

Yeah, it became especially interesting during the interviews [used throughout the film]. The best way was interviewing the actors in character. The scenes were scripted, but I found they seemed contrived when we shot them that way. So I said, ‘Tell me in your own words.’ I would press them to get the response and cover the material that I wanted. It was like I was the producer of this horrible TV show that was torturing these poor people. Connie (the killer nurse, played by Marylouise Burke) seems to be the villain of the piece, but it’s really the producers of the show.

Did this make you feel self-conscious?

Well, it was weird. Brooke would become very defiant and I’d be, like, ‘Are you mad at me?’ (laughs)

It made me really happy to see Brooke Smith in the lead role. She’s got to be one of the best-kept secrets in the industry…

Not any more!

How early was she brought into the project?

Very early. I wrote the script in 1995 and sent it to Brooke in ’96. We workshopped Series 7 together in the Sundance Directors Lab. Most of my experience had been on documentaries, so it became important to really work on the more emotional scenes, like the reunion of Dawn (Smith) and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald). My experience with Brooke was a high learning curve for me – and I love the whole collaborative process of working with actors. It’s amazing to me what they can do.

Is it true that the name Dawn Legarto (Brooke’s character) was based on a childhood friend of yours?

Yeah, it was the girl who lived two doors down from me in Danbury, CT.

Do you know if she’s seen the movie?

She hasn’t seen Series 7 yet, no, but she’s been following it. I contacted her and asked her if we could use the name, letting her know the character was not based on her in any way. And she thought it was hilarious! Like, ‘Yeah!’ Besides, she’s not actually called Dawn Legarto anymore. She got married, so she’s safe.

Oh, good! (laughs)

And as far as we could tell, she’s the only Dawn Legarto. It’s a very unusual name – it means ‘lizard’ in Portuguese.

Could you describe the process of shooting Series 7? How did your background producing tabloid newsmagazine shows for Fox contribute to the ‘look’ of the film?

Well, that had a lot to do with it. My Director of Photography [Randy Drummond] and I set out specific rules for ourselves: How we should shoot everything, what kind of lighting setups we should use and when. Our whole approach was to run the scenes in their entirety, allowing room to ‘discover’ things with the camera during long takes. We didn’t want to break it down into coverage as found in a normal movie. Through doing this, we would end up blocking the scenes in an organic way.

The trick was getting the actors not to play to the camera, since they were supposed to be untrained. I would say, ‘No, don’t turn your face toward the lens. Just walk down the street. We’ll do the work. Don’t worry about it.’ We were loosening it up a little, gaining their trust. In most film acting, the performer colors it all in, pretending the camera’s not there. In our approach, it’s about letting it be present and keeping it real.

You had a tight production schedule, but you also worked with a really small crew. Did that help?

We tried to keep it as intimate as possible. I didn’t want a huge production apparatus because (a) I wanted to move quickly, and (b) I wanted this to feel more like a documentary, which I was more familiar with. I think people felt like it was a quiet set, not a big, chaotic, paramilitary machine.

You have these great teaser commercials peppered throughout –

Those promos, yeah! It’s probably the only feature that has promos in it.

At what stage did the promos emerge?

They were indicated in the script, but we decided to add more. After we had a cut of the film where the story was in shape and it was working, we brought in this TV promo producer named Jason Bowers. He packaged the whole thing for us (as he would for a real TV show) and re-arranged it into a three-episode marathon. It was really interesting to work with him as he finessed what would ultimately become our ‘frame.’ Without the promos, it was just a weird, existential documentary – a lugubrious meditation on Reality TV. (laughs) Yeah, before pushing it more and more toward tabloid, it was a real downer.

Was your hometown of Danbury, Connecticut receptive to Series 7 being shot there?

We had to notify the police because we were using firearms, but they were very cooperative. We were also very low-key. I knew I didn’t want that sort of ‘Local Boy Done Good’ news story. If anyone got hold of this script, it would have bee
n very easy to misrepresent: ‘Oh my God – what is this? Shut ’em down!’

During production, we borrowed locations from the people of Danbury, which you can do approximately once before people realize their house will be completely trashed.

It’s amazing that they actually let you stage domestic combat scenes in their living rooms!

Yeah, I know! It’s nuts! (laughs) I would never let a film crew into my apartment!

Connie’s house was actually my mother’s best friend’s condo. Her house was so full of antique collections that I would tell everyone, ‘Take your shoes off! No drinking in the house – use coasters! Don’t get any blood on the floor!’ And, of course, this is the house that gets completely boarded up. Brooke has to come and tear all the plywood down, then she’s stalking through the house and kicking open the doors. After the first take I told her, ‘Brooke – y’know, take it easy! This is my aunt’s house!’

She said, ‘Omigod, I thought the art department brought all this!’ and I was like, ‘NO!

What is your response to the idea that satirizing a TV show is redundant? Is it possible to be too retro (i.e., a satire of a satire)?

I think when people say that, they want to feel ‘smarter’ than Series 7 – which, as a movie, really brings you down to its own level. Anybody who wants to feel that way will probably have that reaction. It’s like watching professional wrestling: You’ve got to go with it, you’ve got to play along. That’s part of the fun.

When I created Series 7, I was thinking of shows like Cops and The Real World. Now, I don’t think there’s anything satirical about these shows. Maybe people who get stoned before watching them might think they’re satires…but that’s a little bit too complicated for me! (laughs) I do think I would watch these shows and find something funny about them, but I don’t even see Survivor as a satire. Nothing Swiftian there – it’s just corny!

You mentioned that Series 7 is also a commentary on the media’s power to invade privacy. Obviously, the world you present is a satire, but what are your concerns for the future of privacy rights?

To me, invasion of privacy is a form of violence. I’m very ambivalent about it. Having produced this stuff, I know the power of bringing a camera into somebody’s house. People will do almost anything you ask when you’re there with a camera crew. Now, it would be puritanical of me to point a finger and say, ‘This is a bad thing,’ because people are complicit with it. But I do hope Series 7 points out that antisocial aspect – the brutality of these shows.

My friend was troubled by Series 7. He thought the audiences were laughing at the characters.

I don’t know – I found the characters to be very sympathetic and endearing. I mean, they’re brutalized by this TV show, but there are several moments where the truth slips out. The humor points out the hypocrisy of what is being presented as ‘reality.’ I don’t think people with cancer are funny, but if I can pinpoint how these people are exploited, the presentation can be ironic.

What do you think causes people to become desensitized to violence?

I don’t think people are really desensitized to violence. If they are (to real violence, as opposed to cinematic or make-believe violence), it has to do with the fact that the most popular form of entertainment right now is following O.J. Simpson or Woody Allen – taking real people’s lives and presenting them as a form of entertainment. This blurs the boundaries of public and private life.

Can we look forward to Series 8?

Yeah. The next thing on my plate is a psychological thriller, but one of the things I’m pitching in the upcoming weeks is Series 8 as a limited TV series (3 episodes). I think it would be a blast to see on TV.

Cool. Who are you pitching it to?

Cable, definitely. You know, ‘too hot for TV!’

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