Q-and-A With Daniel Minahan
What is a "series 7"?
It's a marathon of episodes from the 7th season of a television show called The Contenders. We came to the title Series 7 after much deliberation. I liked it immediately: it sets a tone that's menacing, sexy, mysterious. What came before? What happens next? Stay tuned....
The tricky thing was getting a TV show to hang together like a movie. I started the screenplay with a three-act structure and decided that each act would be one half-hour episode of the show - ending up with a 90-minute feature. It was a combination of the TV format and feature film screenwriting, a hybrid of two very different disciplines.
How did this hybrid come about?
Before writing this script, I worked for several years producing segments for tabloid newsmagazine shows. I always felt like a spy in that job. When I left a job producing spots for a network newsmagazine, I was brimming with ideas and ready to send it up; I had to get it out of my system. I started the script while we were in production on "I Shot Andy Warhol." I took everything I had learned producing TV segments and set out to create The Contenders - beginning with a bible for the show, which described the look, the rules, etc. Then I was invited to the Sundance Writers Lab and Directors Lab, where I workshopped scenes from the script with actors, including Brooke Smith in the lead role of Dawn.
Was it always conceived as a movie?
Yeah. While developing another movie for two years at a studio, I kept threatening to get a video camera and shoot Series 7 on tape - and then all of a sudden people started making features on DV (digital video). I even tried with a television show runner to develop it as a real TV show for a network which shall remain nameless. After several meetings, they came back with the suggestion that it be "more sexy, and less violent. " But the satire is based on the idea that people were killing each other on TV. The last notes that came back from the network included the request, "Can you make it more like Ally McBeal?" That's when I decided to go back to the idea of making it as a movie. When my studio project finally went into turnaround, I pursued Series 7 full-on.
Producer Jason Kliot and I decided that, in order to make it work, I would have to pull off the "brackets" around the TV show. Originally, it was a TV show-within-a-movie, but how would I show the difference between reality and the TV show when the whole movie was shot on video? The answer was to just turn it into a TV show - and show it as a movie. When I decided to just deal with it as a TV show, that strengthened it a lot. I completely committed myself to telling the whole story only using television conventions: interviews, voiceover, B-roll shots (a technical term for footage that you cut away to), graphics, dramatic re-creation.. I used all of those things to move the story forward, just as you would on a TV show.
Casting 'real' People
Has the television documentary field, to your mind, retained its integrity of late?
It's hard to say. When I went to work in television, I guess I was a television journalist - although that seems like an oxymoron. I suppose there's a truthful and honest way to report stories on television, but I think television journalism is completely subjective. There is sponsorship, and there are products to be sold. When I worked for a certain network, there were certain stories that were killed because they conflicted with the agenda of the people who ran the network. All the information we get is filtered through basically a commercial venture. At this point it's "infotainment. " It's not necessarily good or bad.... it's just the way it is.
After having been away from television for a while, did you need to re-acclimate yourself to the medium to flesh out The Contenders?
I interviewed people that I knew who were working, or had worked, producing tabloid TV shows like Cops. I collected material and got a feel for the world they worked in. At the same time, I completely immersed myself in "reality" television. I collected and viewed hours and hours of tapes of The Real World, Road Rules, America's Most Wanted, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, Cops, America's Funniest Home Videos - you name it. At a certain point, I became really obsessed by them and couldn't stop watching - they're so intrusive, so raw... yet all theater, all show biz.
After a few weeks of this, I had become fluent in the language of these shows - I started to think like a producer of one of these shows. I took a lot of topical, very loaded subjects and started assigning them to my characters. I started layering these stories until I had a storyline that was so far out that it became satirical - like with Jeff's character.
That role must have been tough to cast.
Susan Shopmaker (who did the film's casting) and I agreed that the film would depend on the actors seeming like real people: no star turns or recognizable character actors allowed!
After interviewing just about every actor in their late 20s to early 30s, I got to meet Glenn Fitzgerald. It was just one of those cliché moments where the guy walks in and you just know, "That's him. " Glenn brought a lot of sensitivity to a very complex and ambiguous character. He totally immersed himself in "reality" shows and became a big fan of The Real World Hawaii series.
And you mentioned that Brooke Smith was already involved with the project, starring as Dawn Lagarto.
Yes, Brooke and I have been on this for years. In 1995, I saw Brooke in a way-off-Broadway production called "Little Monsters," with John Cameron Mitchell. She played a dominatrix and a drug addict. At that point, I had only the idea for the script. From then on, I wrote the story and developed the character over a long period of time with Brooke in mind, knowing her strengths. We met for the first time a year later, when I sent her the script.
After that, Brooke worked with me to develop the character of Dawn. I was invited to the Sundance Writers Lab, and then the Sundance Directors Lab, where I actually shot selected scenes from the film, kind of a dry run. Later, we did readings of the script as I wrote new drafts. Brooke was totally fearless and put a lot of herself into the character. Brooke became obsessed with Cops - she watched it all the time, and would call me up: "You won't believe this!" On the set, we discovered that she has a natural talent for shooting guns.
Later, I had to call the real Dawn Lagarto, my childhood playmate, and ask her if we could use her name for the lead character. I told her that the character was an eight-months-pregnant single woman and killing machine - not based on her in any way. I also explained that I had tried to change the character's name, but that Brooke Smith was by now completely attached to the name and wouldn't give it up. The real Dawn has since married and has a new last name, thought it was funny, and agreed to let us use her old name. When she came to visit the set, Dawn explained to us that "Lagarto" means "lizard" in Portuguese, and is a kind of good-luck talisman. Isn't that perfect?
On Location With The Crew
How did you assemble your team behind the cameras?
One of the challenges of Series 7 was to tell a feature-length story in the language of a TV show. So, rather than find feature film people who could mimic a TV show look, I set out to find people who really work in TV for a more authentic feeling. After many weeks of interviewing television people, I discovered it was hard to coax hardcore people away from the TV world to work on an independent feature. (Producer) Katie Roumel and I finally found people like myself who had worked in television but had moved on to features.
(Director of photography) Randy Drummond, had extensive experience shooting for TV shows like America's Most Wanted - but he also shot "Welcome to the Dollhouse. " I treated Randy as one of the actors. I said, "What would you do in this situation?" That's the way we chose and designed our shots, and blocked out a scene: "If someone has a gun in the room, how do you behave? If you think there's danger, what would you do?" I got him to work more from instinct.
(Production designer) Gideon Ponte had won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Art Direction, and had done "American Psycho. " As a European, he's an outsider looking in, and appreciates the subtlety of the interiors I had in mind.
When and where did you shoot Series 7, and under what conditions?
We shot in November - started November 15th and took time off for Thanksgiving - and December of 1999 in Danbury, Ct. - my hometown. I set it there (fictionalized as 'Newbury, Ct.') because it's a place I know well... maybe it was also a kind of revenge fantasy. We kept it pretty low-key when we came to town because we didn't want people to react to the subject matter of the film; this could easily be misunderstood as an exploitation movie. Some of my favorite locations in Danbury were the homes of friends and family. You can only do that kind of thing once before people realize that it's not really magic having a movie crew taking over your house and breaking things. It was great having my family around... I don't know what my mother will think when she sees the film.
We shot for twenty-one days over four weeks - an intense schedule. We had an excellent AD who kept us on schedule. We shot an average of six pages a day, which means we had to work very quickly. We did fifteen-hour days. I kept telling myself that this would give the film a more authentic, urgent feeling, and it did. It was also very exhausting. Afterwards, I slept through the holidays.
We had committed ourselves early on to working with a very small, scaled-down crew. It's what I know, from documentaries and TV shoots. The idea of having a big crew breathing down my neck was unappealing to me. I wanted to keep the feeling on the set intimate, and as much like a documentary shoot as possible. Most departments consisted of one to two people, which was a lot more work for everyone but did allow us to move quickly from set-up to set-up and from location to location.
The camera department was two people and a swing person who did grip and electric; the art department was three people; the wardrobe department was one person; hair and makeup was one person. It allowed us to work very quickly - otherwise, we never would have made it. We used very little lighting, only when we absolutely needed to. I wasn't interested in making a "Dogma 95" film, but I knew if we kept it simple it would only reinforce the "reality" television feel of the film. We always steered away from the "cinematic" choice, and used our television experience.
Unlike the normal film shoot, we basically shot three times as much: we would shoot the scene, then we would shoot the footage to be cut into the scene (B-roll shots), then we shot the interviews that went over many of the scenes. It was a lot to shoot.
As much freedom as we had shooting digital videotape, we didn't have a lot of time to just shoot. The producers would call and say, "Just shoot whatever interests you, just go out there and shoot it. " And I would say, "There really isn't any time. " I think that's one of the big misconceptions about shooting on tape: while it is much cheaper material-wise to shoot, and you can make a choice like I did not to use a lot of lighting and move more quickly, but you still have to edit all that footage. So if your shooting ratio is way too high, you're going to end up spending the money in post-production, trying to get caught up.
What was the maximum number of takes - one or two?
No, it wasn't quite the Ed Wood school, but we tried to keep it to a minimum. The great thing is that because of the nature of what we were doing, mistakes were okay. Weird things would happen that we could work with, that I could keep. But it's still storytelling, so we had to find the most economical, best way to tell the story.
Was there a lot of improvisation on the part of the cast?
Well, it was very tightly scripted. But I rehearsed the most difficult and tricky scenes with the principals a couple of times - and in the process, I rewrote and pared down a lot. The goal was to make it seem as natural as possible, so I actually cut a lot of expositional dialogue in the rehearsals. And by rehearsing, if we really knew what was a scene was about and could block it out well, then it would go more quickly on the set where we had a limited time to shoot them.
On the set, when we had time, I did something that I would normally do when I was producing a TV show: "precap and recap" interviews. I would interview people, in character, before we went into a scene - and, often, after we shot the scene. I ended up using a lot of the resulting interviews in voiceover. It's basically the format of The Real World and Road Rules. People on those shows are performing for the cameras: they force situations, confront each other, and do whatever they think they should do to make the show more interesting. Merritt Wever, who plays Lindsay, is of that generation, she grew up watching The Real World and created a character who is playful and narcissistic and aware of the camera, like kids on those shows. She "got it" right away.
Surviving Production and Post-Production
Was there a point in post-production when you got wind of Survivor?
No, we actually found out about Survivor when we were on-location. We were like, "Oh, nothing will ever happen with that. " (Laughs) Then, we heard about it again and were like, "Wow, this is really cool. " When we finally saw it - (producer) Christine Vachon called me when it was on and said, "This is just like the film. It's as if they saw the script. " Which I think just shows that we did it the right way.
I'm glad that we went into production before we had seen any of Survivor. Otherwise, it would have felt like an Airplane (1980) sendup. We would have felt like we had to respond to it somehow. Whereas when we made this, we were just inventing our own form - it's as if The Contenders is its own TV show, rather than a Survivor knockoff. Survivor was shot in March and April 2000, and didn't get on the air until May. It took us a lot longer to make Series 7!
What did you concentrate on in the editing room?
When we were cutting the film, I found myself saying the same things that my producers would say to me when I worked in TV: "This is great, now just take out all the pauses. " You can't help thinking of all those clichés: "If it bleeds, it leads. " They informed all of the decisions and choices that we made.
(Editor) Malcolm Jamieson has narrative film experience, and had also cut hours of tabloid TV, promos, and documentaries; and (Promo producer) Jason Bowers helped to frame The Contenders and give it a context as "real" TV. If you pulled all the promos out, Series 7 would just be this weird documentary.
With the promos in, it frames it and says, "This is TV. " I think producing promos like he does - he's produced for HBO, Cinemax, Fox - is really a contemporary form of poetry. We had sketched in the spots where we thought the teasers should go, but Jason really perfected them: graphics, teasers, a knockout TV show opening sequence.
And the music score followed along those lines?
(Music supervisor) Julie Panebianco and I decided on an all-rock score that would kick your ass, like on The Real World and Road Rules, only better. (Music editor) Eli Janney and his band Girls Against Boys were perfect because they have a strong rock sound that flirts with a pop edge, and Eli had done music for TV and knew how to deliver that sound.
How did you come up with the early-'80s flashback sequence and the song "Love Will Tear Us Apart"?
I wanted to give Dawn and Jeff backstory - a love story. It seemed like a good way to do it, because I wanted to establish their connection as outsiders and freaks. I drew on my own experience - I think I made "that video" in high school, I think that a lot of people of my generation ran out in their yards with their video cameras and did that. Julie Panebianco and I racked our brains and came up with that song, which is so evocative and funny and beautiful: "Love Will Tear Us Apart," by Joy Division, from I think 1981. It's an anthem about this love that's destructive. You know, the lead singer from Joy Division later killed himself, so there's also this tragic association to the song.
It was the first thing we shot, so everyone was completely giddy. We shot it in an abandoned mental institution in Danbury. The actors got to run around in these Goth costumes. It just bonded everybody immediately - like, everybody made fools of themselves and there was nothing worse that we could possibly do. It was a great way to start the shoot!
That was the first thing you shot. What was the last?
The mall sequence, which was the hardest thing. In a way, I wish we hadn't left that for last. We shot it when the mall was closed, so we started at 8:00 PM and wrapped at 8:00 AM. We were all extremely overtired. It was the hardest for me because it was the most violent, and I had a lot of self-doubt just at that moment. Series 7 is a film about the representation of violence, but we still had to shoot those scenes. What I didn't realize is that shooting violent scenes is a violent act in itself. That surprised and upset me. I don't like guns. I grew up with guns and have a lot of respect for guns. I felt very responsible for them on the set - and I checked them constantly. That was something I hadn't quite bargained for: on paper it's one thing, but when you start shooting it... it's scary.
Series 7 is a bridge between between your past work in television documentaries, and your present career as a filmmaker. What do you want to do next?
"I want to get this thing on TV! I plan to expand The Contenders into a miniseries - to shoot three more episodes - and get it on television. Because, to see this in a movie theater is great - but I think to see it on television would be radical. The way I described it to the crew when we started working on this was, Think of it as if we're making The War of the Worlds. If someone turns on the TV and sees this, I want them to think this is really happening. "
"When we started Series 7 the idea of a television show where people kill each other was a pretty wild concept, but today it doesn't seem that far-fetched. "