Got Doomsday on the brain? Given that this Friday may or may not be the end of the world, you'd be forgiven if you do. So why not indulge your preoccupation with "Apocalypse"? The TV special, orchestrated by famed British psychological illusionist Derren Brown, is a fascinating take on apocalypse and apocalyptic thinking.
Brown has spent the last 12 years blowing people's minds on British television with his unique blend of magic, suggestion, psychology, illusions and misdirection. In "Apocalypse," he cranks everything up a notch with an elaborately concocted social experiment that places unsuspecting bloke Steven Brosnan in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Brosnan's family is in on it, and hopes that Brown's ultimate goal -- to stop Brosnan from taking his life for granted -- comes to fruition.
Of course, faking a zombie apocalypse was no easy task. We caught up with Brown to chat about how he and his team pulled it off, why he threw zombies into the mix, and what he has to say about the skeptics who claim the whole thing was staged.
How did you find Steven?
I tweeted for volunteers [Brown has over 1.4 million Twitter followers]. And then out of the thousands who applied, everybody was sent a questionnaire. And then we got about 500 people together who we thought could potentially be right for the show. We needed people who basically took their life for granted. You wouldn't normally tick a box on a questionnaire saying 'Yes, I take my life for granted,' so we had to work that out. We do a few tests and games and interviews with them, and then get a sense of it.
What we were looking for was someone who, on the one hand, did take his life for granted, but also, on the other hand, was somebody who you would like enough to root for him during his journey. He was just perfect for it. He was such a slob at the start, but then of course you really like him. It wasn't just about finding somebody who would be a good sap. He had to be somebody we could all relate to.
Trailer: "Derren Brown's Apocalypse"
What did he think he was signing up for?
They didn't know what they're applying for, they just knew they're applying to my new show. We just don't tell them what it is. There's lots of red herrings that got thrown in. When we were down to a smaller group, we got them interviewed by an independent psychologist to make sure that they were robust enough and there are no lurking demons that we might tap into. We picked Steven and we told him we weren't going to use him. And a few months later we set up cameras in his house and started to use him!
What were some of the biggest logistical challenges of putting something like this together?
It's massive. First of all, there are two big chunks of the program. The first chunk is pre-Apocalypse, when we convince this guy that this is going to happen. His whole house is decked out with hidden cameras, and his family obviously is all in on it. Even that's a tricky thing because you have to physically change tapes and cameras. So we had people basically living in his garden shed. The other thing is post-Apocalypse, when he wakes up in this post-Apocalyptic world. That's a huge, massive project. We have to film everything in a way that's completely hidden, he can't have any sense that anything's going on. The actors have to be trained to respond to him in any way that he reacts, we have to make sure that he's not going to attack any of the zombies. The biggest logistical issue is you're writing a drama for somebody who has no idea that they're in it. This is not a guy with a script. But that's the fun of it, that's what makes it unique.
Why did you decide to throw zombies into the equation?
[Laughs] Well, it needed an antagonist! Basically, the story is he goes through his "Wizard of Oz" experience. He wakes up no longer in his world, and he learns to value what he has. That's really what the show is about. So the journey that he goes on with the other 'survivors' is about learning to have courage, learning to be decisive and learning to be selfless. In order for that to work dramatically, you also need some sort of threat. The zombies in a way symbolize his earlier self, his zombie-like slob self.
Were you ever concerned about going too far with things?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I took his welfare -- we all did -- hugely seriously. But no in the sense that everything was in place and there was no way that he could go wrong like that. All of this is devised with the psychologist, as well. If he completely freaked out, we could always stop it. But actually once you're so far into it, it's always best to see the journey through because it's going to bring him this amazing transformation.
Did any of his reactions throughout the process surprise you?
What's interesting is how differently people react in these situations than they do in movies. There are always skeptics, always people who say, "Oh, it's all fake, it's all set up." I wouldn't react like that. I would just freak out, I would just attack everybody. The reality is sometimes people react in a way that's not quite what you would expect.
Did everything go as you hoped it would?
Yes. Pretty much. It didn't rain. He got everything out of it that he was supposed to. I think there was one moment when he was out with one of the other 'survivors' and he just caught sight of one of our crew who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It really had us on edge, but he thought it was one of the infected. The actor he was with just pulled him inside and made sense of it for him. That was a terrifying moment. It would take a huge amount to go wrong to convince you that the entire world around you is fabricated. It's the real "Truman Show." We were paranoid there would be some tiny slip-up that would give it away, but the reality is it's actually a very robust situation where it would take a lot to make him realize that everything was fake.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
The drive of the show came from a Stoic philosophy that said one way of being happy is to desire the things that you already have, rather than constantly desiring things that you don't have and winding up on that treadmill of just wanting more and more stuff. The way to achieve that is mentally rehearsing losing everything that you've got. It sounds very morbid, but carrying out that sort of exercise reminds you that the things you have are of value.
"Derren Brown: Apocalypse" premieres on Space on Wednesday, December 19 at 9 p.m. EST.