7: The Contenders
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.
pretty quick shoot. Twenty-one days. fifteen hours a day. six pages per day.
Pretty hectic. I assumed you crashed at the end?
because the shoot was actually] six days.
Congrats on the festival. I assume that was a slam dunk?
Not always. I have friends who had expected an invite and
didn't get one.
[to Dan] You grew up in Danbury, Connecticut. Life in Danbury?
I grew up not to far from there, in Westchester New York.
[who's interviewing whom here?] Harrison.
Oooh [smiles with approval].
But I'm down here [in the D.C. area] now.
It's very cool today. I wish we had more time to see it. You're off to Boston
[disparagingly] Yeah. We came in last night for dinner.
Ah, dinner with the outgoing president?
No, or with any of the incoming grunts.
[trying to steer him back to his origins] Any brothers or sisters
back in Danbury?
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].
You still do?
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."
Did she bring you cookies? Is she that kind of mom?
[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
movie. She read the script, which she thought was really "pacy".
She used the word "pacy"?
I'm not sure of the exact word. She thought it was engaging.
saw the project as soap opera. [Of course, like most moms, she's
About those brothers and sisters? Older? Younger? Middle
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
Boston area with his wife. He's a Boston College alum. And a big,
Internet guy. That's it.
When did you catch the filmmaking bug?
In college, at SUNY, Purchase [right next door to Harrison!].
[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,
Anthony Mingella, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme) you have worked with.
Of course, most of us remember you as Catherine Martin, the frantic
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
or Remembering Sex, two 1998 outings.
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].
Yes, that did make it to Washington. Yet there's films like The
Pickle that gets killed by the critics.
Well I was in that for maybe [and thankfully] five seconds.
Is there a preference for a director that you like to work
with? [She points Dan and smiles, broadly. Dan laughs approval of her
I continue my thought…] other than one who happens to be in the same
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
Theater] on something now with André and Wallace Shawn. All the other
folks you mention were fine directors.
Where did you meet Steve Buscemi? On Trees Lounge?
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
just stopped by to visit and was thrown into the film.
You've also done some television, guest starring in episodes of
Homicide, The Larry Sanders Show, and Law and Order.
And The Equalizer?
You remember that?
He was a vigilante.
Yes, to right the wrongs. And I've been directing. A short film
called Sheeps Meadow [which aired on the Sundance Channel] and a
length documentary [Honky: Portrait of a Bluesman, a film about
bluesman Jake La Botz].
Do you and Dan compare notes?
I'm going to direct Dan next.
In the films you've acted in, how much directorial style have
you absorbed to use in your own films?
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
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
treated everybody. He treated everyone on the set as if they were the best
person for their job.
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.
The first scene you shot, in which everyone was apparently a
little giddy, was the music video Love Will Tear Us Apart.
[smiling at the memory]. Ah the music video! That was an actual
song from the '80s.
The last scene was the mall location, an agonizing sequence.
[getting to my question]
Did you have favorite sequence while
you were shooting the film?
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
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
birthing scene. Like very scared.
That was the easiest thing we shot.
Yes, it was actually, amazingly easy. And then sometimes
totally the opposite happens. You expect something will be a piece of
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
shot. There was a lot of magic there.
Do you folks have a cameos in the film?
I think my mom's in the [home movie] wedding video. She's one of
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
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
You wouldn't initially recognize that because [my film] looks so
[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?"
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
flexible with their cast, such as Christopher Guest and the zany
creative members of his Best in Show. He let his stars do whatever
reason, or close to) they wanted. Your Survivor gone crazy concept
is a timely offering.
Yes, it's this weird sort of confluence of reality and the
satire we've made.
I notice that you "found" Brooke when you saw her in a play
back in 1995, an off-Broadway production of Little Monsters. You
developed your script, developing Dawn's character with Brooke in mind.
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?
[a broad smile] I was VERY happy.
Did he tell you that he was doing this?
No! I had never met him.
That's really weird [Dan and Brooke look at each other and
break into appreciative smiles].
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
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
I do that.
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.
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
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
[then February 2001] of its intended release. [The release later
slipped to March, following the Sweeps and Survivor II season].
It was really USA's decision.
Hopefully you didn't bear the brunt of outrage from the
[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!
winces at the missed opportunity].
I went to a Macintosh computer seminar this morning [Brooke
admires Apple's "Knowledge is Power" note pad I'm using for our
where the moderator was talking about Caller ID on his computer,
fictitious conversation as his telephone rings, "It's Aunt DAWN! I'm
to pick it up." [Brooke and Dan laugh. Brooke's eyes light up with
See! These people had Caller ID.
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.
out there. A collective karma.
Your producers [Blow Up Pictures] made Miguel Arteta's Chuck &
Buck, one of my favorite films of last year.
Wasn't that great! I've never seen anything like it!
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
via a EIKI Powerhouse digital projection system; the transfer to 35mm
preserves the film's video freshness.] What about your other digital
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.
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
When this film is eventually shown in television—and I know you have
radical ideas about presenting the concept as a "show"—do you think
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
There is no Newbury.
But maybe they will start looking for it
Maybe they'll look somewhere between Newtown and Danbury [two of
the locations used in the film].
[to Brooke] In the film's press material, Dan calls you
Oh good. I wondered [whispering, initially], "What did you call
Is that a good description? [Brooke grimaces] It was a gutsy
role in this film.
Picking up a gun and shooting people? I think so.
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
the disgust her character felt, raising her hand and turning her head
Because she has to do it.
All the characters have their own sense of morality [Dan nods
in agreement]. Some more warped than their fellow contestants. The nurse.
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?
[turning to her director] So how long did we decide?
Two shows. On the third show you're out.
Yes, if you win the third show, they let you go [alive]. I had
won the fifth and sixth contests.
It's as if Richard Hatch went on to Survivor II.
So it's like Jeopardy, where you can retire as an undefeated
champion after five shows.
Yes, but with The Contenders [the original title, changed to
avoid confusion with last year's The Contender] it was after the
If I won Series 7, I would retire.
Click here to read Elias Savada's review.