Series 7: The Contenders
Q&A with Dan Minahan and Brooke Smith
interview by Elias Savada, 9 March 2001

The cross-media satire Series 7: The Contenders blends the Survivoresque  aspects of reality television, Shirley Jackson's fifty-plus-year-old New Yorker  short story The Lottery, gladiator experience, and a dark, deliciously droll  brand of black humor. It's a unique experience, much as my conversation with  writer-director Daniel Minahan and star Brooke Smith was during their initial  publicity tour for the film in early December last year. In real life,  outside of their make-believe digital video, Brooke is nothing like Dawn, the  determined and eight-month-pregnant champion who is on the gun for the other  randomly selected contestants in Minahan's suburban Connecticut nightmare. My  first, rhetorical question was whether it would be in my better interests to  wear a flak jacket and an automatic pistol, aside from this being Washington,  D.C., when approaching the pair. My common sense thought otherwise ["It's  only a movie. It's only a movie."] and my weapons were much more docile: A  pen, a pad, a smile, and a digital recorder. Actually the gracious actress  probably was looking for some ammunition several times during the joint  interview as their guest insisted on calling her Thorne [editorially  corrected in the text below] before realizing his embarrassing blunder. ["Hi,  you must be Thorne!" he greeted her cheerfully] Good grief! Thankfully he  was spared injury save some well deserved scorn. Appearance-wise they make a  cute couple [no, there is no hanky panky here]. They're smartly dressed.  Dan's in a white shirt and dark suit. No tie. And barely any hair, the result  of what looks like a razor buzz a week earlier. Brooke has a head full of  dirty blonde curls and is attired in a red blouse, and smart pant suit. They  are thoughtful and courtesy subjects, happy in the afterglow that Series 7  has been picked for screening at the forthcoming Sundance Film Festival.

Elias Savada: A pretty quick shoot. Twenty-one days. fifteen hours a day. six pages per day. Pretty hectic. I assumed you crashed at the end?

Dan Minahan: [Yes, because the shoot was actually] six days.

ES: Congrats on the festival. I assume that was a slam dunk?

DM: Not always. I have friends who had expected an invite and  didn't get one.

ES: [to Dan] You grew up in Danbury, Connecticut. Life in Danbury?  I grew up not to far from there, in Westchester New York.

Brooke Smith: What town?

ES: [who's interviewing whom here?] Harrison.

BS: Oooh [smiles with approval].

ES: But I'm down here [in the D.C. area] now.

DM: It's very cool today. I wish we had more time to see it. You're off to Boston this afternoon?

BS: [disparagingly] Yeah. We came in last night for dinner.

ES: Ah, dinner with the outgoing president?

BS:  No, or with any of the incoming grunts.

ES: [trying to steer him back to his origins] Any brothers or sisters  back in Danbury? 

DM: Well I grew up there and left in the early '80s to New York. I'd  come back for Christmas and stuff. [I get the impression he's not interested in revealing trinkets about his past].

ES: You still do?

DM: Of course [smiling, as is Brooke].  My family was around on the set [in which Danbury is fictionalized as Newbury]. My mom [Joan, who gets a "special thanks" credit] would track us down around town and "visit."

ES: Did she bring you cookies? Is she that kind of mom?

DM: [stirring his coffee and smiling over at Brooke]. Yes. We  all looked forward to her visits. We'll see what she has to say when she sees  the movie. She read the script, which she thought was really "pacy".

BS: She used the word "pacy"?

DM: I'm not sure of the exact word. She thought it was engaging.  She  saw the project as soap opera. [Of course, like most moms, she's absolutely  right].

ES: About those brothers and sisters? Older? Younger? Middle

DM: Oh God, I hope he doesn't mind that I mention his name. [Dan  doesn't, actually, reveal his name]. I have a younger brother who lives in  the Boston area with his wife. He's a Boston College alum. And a big,  Internet guy. That's it.

ES: When did you catch the filmmaking bug?

DM: In college, at SUNY, Purchase [right next door to Harrison!].

ES: [turning to Thorne, er, Brooke, I ask…] Your background?  Obviously theater. And a lot of film. I was impressed by the array of  directors (Sydney Pollack, Robert Altman, Steve Buscemi, Henry Jaglom, Louis  Malle, Anthony Mingella, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme) you have worked with.  Of course, most of us remember you as Catherine Martin, the frantic kidnap victim welled up at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Regrettably, some of the smaller pictures you've been in never made it to this town, like Broken Giant  or Remembering Sex, two 1998 outings.

BS: I don't think those two were ever distributed. But what about  Vanya on 42nd Street!  [Smith received an IFP Spirit Award  nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Louis Malle's final feature film].

ES: Yes, that did make it to Washington. Yet there's films like The  Pickle that gets killed by the critics.

BS: Well I was in that for maybe [and thankfully] five seconds.

ES: Is there a preference for a director that you like to work  with? [She points Dan and smiles, broadly. Dan laughs approval of her choice.  I continue my thought…] other than one who happens to be in the same room  with you?

BS: No, seriously. One of my favorite experiences was with [stage  Director] André Gregory, because I worked on that [Uncle Vanya, the basis for  Malle's subsequent adaptation] for four years and I am working with them [The  Victory Theater] on something now with André and Wallace Shawn. All the other  folks you mention were fine directors.

ES: Where did you meet Steve Buscemi? On Trees Lounge?

BS: I met him on [Robert Altman's] Kansas City when he played my  husband [Johnny Flynn]. When he was doing Trees Lounge I think I literally  just stopped by to visit and was thrown into the film.

ES: You've also done some television, guest starring in episodes of  Homicide, The Larry Sanders Show, and Law and Order. And The Equalizer?

BS: You remember that?

DM: He was a vigilante.

BS: Yes, to right the wrongs. And I've been directing. A short film  called Sheeps Meadow [which aired on the Sundance Channel] and a feature  length documentary [Honky: Portrait of a Bluesman, a film about Chicago  bluesman Jake La Botz].

ES: Do you and Dan compare notes?

BS: I'm going to direct Dan next.

ES: In the films you've acted in, how much directorial style have  you absorbed to use in your own films?

BS: I think a lot. I pick up stuff everywhere. Even when I'm not  working on films. Certainly working with Jonathan Demme [on Silence of the  Lambs], which was the first big thing I did. He's a great director. For me,  when I'm directing I unconsciously go back to that experience, and how well  he treated everybody. He treated everyone on the set as if they were the best  person for their job.

ES: I see similarities between that film and your  film [pointing to Dan] because of their gritty nature. The concept of Series 7 compresses an entire television series into an eighty-five-minute compilation using every [reality television] trick in the book, obviously drawing from your background in television.

DM: Right.

ES: The first scene you shot, in which everyone was apparently a  little giddy, was the music video Love Will Tear Us Apart.

DM: [smiling at the memory]. Ah the music video! That was an actual  song from the '80s.

ES: The last scene was the mall location, an agonizing sequence.

DM: Right.

ES: [getting to my question]  Did you have favorite sequence while  you were shooting the film?

DM: Oh wow. [Dan puts his hand to his chin and thinks a few  Moments]. That's hard [He turns to Brooke]. What did we have the most fun  shooting?

BS: Well, it's interesting how, before you do it you think it's  going to be one way. And then it's always surprising. I was very scared of  the birthing scene. Like very scared.

DM: That was the easiest thing we shot.

BS: Yes, it was actually, amazingly easy. And then sometimes  totally the opposite happens. You expect something will be a piece of cake…

DM: I did love shooting the scene in the garage with [Brooke's  character Dawn's] mother and sister. That was also one of the first things we  shot. There was a lot of magic there.

ES: Do you folks have a cameos in the film?

DM: I think my mom's in the [home movie] wedding video. She's one of  the guests.

ES: How close did the film's final cut jive with your initial  vision? The script has to be extremely tight on a film of this nature [Dan  nods his head in agreement]. Nearly as tight as, say, M. Night Shyamalan's The  Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. I see the same type of control in your film.

DM: You wouldn't initially recognize that because [my film] looks so  sprawling.

BS: [in a win for the interviewer who calls her by the wrong name]  It's interesting, because I think he's right. A lot of people have  asked, "Was it a lot of improv?"

ES: I was just assuming that you were putting material in or taking  it out during the rehearsals, based on input from the cast and crew.  Something didn't work here or there would get jettisoned. Some directors are  rather flexible with their cast, such as Christopher Guest and the zany  creative members of his Best in Show. He let his stars do whatever (within  reason, or close to) they wanted. Your Survivor gone crazy concept certainly  is a timely offering.

DM: Yes, it's this weird sort of confluence of reality and the  satire we've made.

ES: I notice that you "found" Brooke when you saw her in a play  back in 1995, an off-Broadway production of Little Monsters. You eventually  developed your script, developing Dawn's character with Brooke in mind. Yet  it wasn't until a year later that you finally met, at which point you dropped  the script in Brooke's lap. How did you feel about this?

BS: [a broad smile] I was VERY happy.

ES: Did he tell you that he was doing this?

BS: No! I had never met him.

ES: That's really weird [Dan and Brooke look at each other and  break into appreciative smiles].

DM: I don't think so. She had made a really strong impression on me  [Her role in the play was as a dominatrix and a drug addict!]. I always think  it's best to think of someone when you're writing. I always need to. Even  when I'm reading a script I have to picture "Oh, this might be."

BS: I do that.

DM: I do a lot of "This might be so-and-so." What the voice is like.  The range of the character. The kind of things they're good at.

ES: I don't know if you want to comment on how you felt when the  film was pulled from last summer's Venice Film Festival and the subsequent  Toronto fest. There was some criticism at the time. The producers had  promised the film, but USA Films was reluctant to screen the film so far in  advance [then February 2001] of its intended release. [The release later  slipped to March, following the Sweeps and Survivor II season].

DM: It was really USA's decision.

ES: Hopefully you didn't bear the brunt of outrage from the  festival organizers.

DM: [sympathetically] No. [Venice fest director] Albert Barbera was  very complimentary. He was very upset because he thought it was a very  important film. I would have liked to gone to Venice. [Who wouldn't! Brooke  winces at the missed opportunity].

ES: I went to a Macintosh computer seminar this morning [Brooke  admires Apple's "Knowledge is Power" note pad I'm using for our interview]  where the moderator was talking about Caller ID on his computer, mimicking a  fictitious conversation as his telephone rings, "It's Aunt DAWN! I'm not  going to pick it up." [Brooke and Dan laugh. Brooke's eyes light up with  amusement].

DM: See! These people had Caller ID.

BS: There's a play going on in New York that I just read the script  of, and it's Jeff [one of the Series 7 finalists] and Dawn. There's something  out there. A collective karma.

ES: Your producers [Blow Up Pictures] made Miguel Arteta's Chuck &  Buck, one of my favorite films of last year.

DM: Wasn't that great! I've never seen anything like it!

ES: Well I [and others] haven't seen anything like your film,  either. Taken together, both films show the progress being made toward a  digital media delivery scheme. [Series 7 was first shown to the D.C. press  via a EIKI Powerhouse digital projection system; the transfer to 35mm film  stock preserves the film's video freshness.] What about your other digital  projects?

DM: Well, I used to work in TV. Initially when I wrote Series 7 it  was a movie. I had a TV show within that movie. When we decided to go  digital, I realized I wouldn't be able to differentiate between the two.

ES: You even have a cute "due-to-the-nature-of-this-program"  disclaimer at the beginning of the film, further blurring the boundaries.  You've thrown a huge assortment of reality television techniques into the  making of this project, which might end up confusing some unenlightened  members of the audience. Series 7 is a very radical form of entertainment.  When this film is eventually shown in television—and I know you have even  more radical ideas about presenting the concept as a "show"—do you think some  little old lady will assume your film as non-fiction, as in a twenty-first century version of the War of the Worlds episode that panicked radio listeners years ago? Will moviegoers take this as a variation on The Blair Witch 

DM: There is no Newbury.

BS: But maybe they will start looking for it 

DM: Maybe they'll look somewhere between Newtown and Danbury [two of  the locations used in the film].

ES: [to Brooke] In the film's press material, Dan calls you  "totally fearless."

BS: Oh good. I wondered [whispering, initially], "What did you call  me?"

ES: Is that a good description? [Brooke grimaces] It was a gutsy  role in this film.

BS: Really?

ES: Picking up a gun and shooting people? I think so.

BS: Well yeah, but not that simple, though. It wasn't just picking  up a gun and shooting people. I think Dawn has a morality, an incredible  [reluctance to her fate? Brooke doesn't finish the sentence, merely motioning  the disgust her character felt, raising her hand and turning her head away].  Because she has to do it.

ES: All the characters have their own sense of morality [Dan nods  in agreement]. Some more warped than their fellow contestants. The nurse.

BS: Hmmm.

ES: It's Series 7, a very popular television show. I assume it's  been on for that many seasons. How long has Dawn been reigning champion?

BS: [turning to her director] So how long did we decide?

DM: Two shows. On the third show you're out.

BS: Yes, if you win the third show, they let you go [alive]. I had  won the fifth and sixth contests.

DM: It's as if Richard Hatch went on to Survivor II.

ES: So it's like Jeopardy, where you can retire as an undefeated  champion after five shows.

DM: Yes, but with The Contenders [the original title, changed to  avoid confusion with last year's The Contender] it was after the third one.

BS: If I won Series 7, I would retire.

Click here to read Elias Savada's review.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.