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Taking on Reality TV

"I guess you could kind of say it's a revenge fantasy," explained writer/director Daniel Minahan of his first feature, Series 7, a farcical look at reality-based television.

Prior to working in feature film (his credits include second-unit directing on I Shot Andy Warhol, which he co-wrote with director Mary Harron), Minahan produced documentary segments, profiles, and news features for British and U.S. television. After stints at MTV, Channel 4, the BBC, and PBS, Minahan took a job in Los Angeles with Fox News Network, where he worked as a segment producer on a tabloid TV news program.

Long before Survivor aired, Minahan became fascinated with the growing trend of "reality" television—unscripted programs that purport to show real events unfolding before the camera, but which in many cases were influenced by the show's editing and agenda. He collected and viewed numerous hours of tape on such shows as The Real World, Road Rules, America's Most Wanted, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, Cops, and America's Funniest Home Videos, and came up with the idea of pitching a "fake" reality show to the networks—a series that would comment on and satirize America's seeming fascination with these shows.

Minahan's proposed project, originally called The Contenders, featured a group of randomly chosen participants—ordinary folks forced to play a mortal combat game in which they must kill their fellow contestants until there is a sole survivor. A network ("which shall remain nameless," said Minahan) loved the idea for this spoof and tried to develop the show. Minahan soon ran into trouble, however, when he began getting suggestions from the network execs.

Recalled the filmmaker, "We would have these meetings, and they'd say, 'Can you make it more sexy and less violent?' And I thought, OK. Then I went back and they said, 'Do people have to die? Can they live?' And I said, 'It wouldn't really mean the same thing if we did.' Then, finally, they wanted to know if I could make it more like Ally McBeal. I said, 'I have no idea what you mean by that. I think maybe we're talking about two different projects.' So I thought I'd better make this as a movie."

Little could Minahan have imagined, when he began working on the film's script in 1995, that four years later Survivor would become such a huge phenomenon. (Series 7 went into production in November 1999, shortly after the CBS show made its auspicious debut). "I tried to imagine the most extreme, horrifying version of reality TV to make my point, and Mark Burnett [Survivor's creator] scooped me. He made it real," said Minahan, who harbors no hard feelings that Burnett beat him to the punch.

In Minahan's opinion, the success of Survivor and the onslaught of such spinoffs as Big Brother, The Mole, and Temptation Island, make Series 7 all the more compelling to watch. "These shows bring out the worst exhibitionistic, narcissistic, and mean-spirited tendencies in people," said the writer/director, who hopes his film will strike a chord with audiences.

So far it has. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, each of the film's three screenings was followed by very well-attended Q&A sessions, in which audience members expressed their excitement and, in some cases, disagreements about the film.

"People asked really good questions," said Minahan. "Usually those Q&As are just deadly and boring, but these people were all fired up. I always hoped that this was the kind of movie that people would leave the theatre arguing about and that would encourage discussion, and I think it is."

Playing It Real

Minahan took special care when casting Series 7 and knew that it was crucial to cast actors who looked like real people—not just pretty faces—for audiences to get caught up in the film, which is told as three back-to-back episodes (minus commercials).

"Susan Shopmaker was my casting director, and she was an ideal choice because she made her mark casting 'real people' in TV commercials," said the director. "So she understood the quality I was looking for in the actors, and she had access to and brought in these really great New York theatre actors."

Ultimately, Minahan cast Brooke Smith (Silence of the Lambs, Vanya on 42nd Street) as the film's lead character, Dawn Lagarto, a desperate, single pregnant woman and ruthless reigning champion of The Contenders. He also cast Glenn Fitzgerald (The Sixth Sense, Finding Forrester), Marylouise Burke (Bringing Out the Dead, Celebrity), Michael Kaycheck (a real-life New York City police narcotics detective who moonlights as an actor and recently had a small role in Requiem for a Dream), Richard Venture (All the President's Men, Being There, Missing), and Merritt Wever (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) as Dawn's fellow contestants.

Most of the cast members have long lists of stage credits. Among them, Smith has performed in Stop Kiss at the Public Theater, André Gregory's production of Uncle Vanya at the Victory Theatre, and Little Monsters with John Cameron Mitchell; Fitzgerald has appeared in Mizlansky/Zilinsky at the Manhattan Theatre Club and The Grey Zone at the Long Wharf Theatre, and he's currently in rehearsals for Kenneth Lonergan's new play, Lobby Hero; Burke recently won a Drama Desk Award for her work in Fuddy Meers and has appeared in the Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind, and Venture's extensive stage career spans Broadway productions, Mark Taper Forum shows, two years at the Arena Stage, and four years at the Long Wharf.

Said Minahan, "I think theatre actors have a very strong technical background because of the nature of what they do, and they have a great respect for the text. These actors I got to work with were really able to make this film feel like it's completely improvised and off-the-cuff, when in fact, it was very tightly scripted."

Smith was impressed that Minahan cast lesser-known actors—or, in a case like herself, actors who are not normally thought of as lead actors, to make the film more believable. "I'm really glad Dan was brave enough to cast sort of unknown people, which I'd like to see a lot more of no matter what the story's about. It's so refreshing to watch actors who look like people," said Smith, who found this film to be a particularly challenging experience.

"The acting was a weird blend of film acting, theatre acting, and documentary," said the actress. "Normally you're supposed to pretend that the camera isn't there in film, but in this I was playing someone who is not an actor but who knows she's on-camera."

Glenn Fitzgerald, who portrays Dawn's old high-school flame, Jeff, agreed with Smith. "The biggest challenge," said the actor, "was trying to recapture or behave in this way, which is kind of real. It required a certain kind of authenticity, which sometimes was very difficult to get at."

Made for TV

Minahan was also thankful to have the opportunity to workshop his project before going into production. He was invited to develop his screenplay at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah in 1997 and was subsequently asked back to workshop the script at the prestigious Directors Lab.

"The most important thing that came out of the lab for me was finding the tone of the film, because it has such a particular tone and it's played very, very straight," said the filmmaker, who brought Smith with him to the Directors Lab. "They really encouraged you to experiment there. We made fools of ourselves. We really tried a lot of different things. Not many directors get a chance to have a dry run of their first feature. It was a very valuable experience for me. Plus, I hadn't really worked with actors that much, and they forced you, as part of the lab, to get up in the first week and act yourself. That was very good."

As for advice he would share with first-time filmmakers, Minahan said it's always best to keep it simple. Unfortunately, he didn't take his own advice on his first feature. "We shot three times as much footage [compared with an average film shoot]. We shot the scenes. We shot interviews for the voiceovers. We shot B-roll. And then we had graphics to create. My editor and I had to pretend that we were this entire network of editors."

Minahan, however, was especially happy that he collaborated with key crew members who had a good deal of experience working on reality-based TV shows. His cinematographer, Randy Drummond, had started out as a TV news cameraman and later shot episodes of America's Most Wanted. Likewise, the film's editor, Malcolm Jamieson, had similar experience in television.

"It was the perfect mix, because they both knew how to make a movie and tell a cinematic story but they also knew how to create and give me the same production values as a TV show," said the director, who wanted Series 7 to look like an actual television series. "It always looks fake to me whenever there's TV represented in film."

Indeed, Minahan has succeeded in making a "made-for-film" television show—a darkly comedic and relevant statement for today. Don't be surprised if Series 7 has its own spinoff on television. Minahan is currently in talks to develop a Series 8 for the small screen. BSW

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