Richard Hatch had nothing to do with it. Really. Writer – director Daniel Minahan conceived ”Series 7” — a dark satire about armed game show contestants who hunt each other to the death — a full five years before CBS’ ”Survivor” made a killing. The movie had been workshopped at the Sundance Institute in 1996 and shot in winter of 1999, so Minahan and his cast had no idea that reality television would be as hot as Ogakor rice by the time the movie hit screens.
”For the three years between Sundance and shooting it,” says Brooke Smith (”The Silence of the Lambs”), who stars as the film’s pregnant returning champion, ”I called Dan at least once a week, saying ‘Can we make it now?’ I thought the world was ready for it then. Now it’s insane.”
Granted, the insanity almost stopped when CBS’ strangers in a house series ”Big Brother” caught such bad karma that reality TV looked to be going the way of ”When Dodos Attack.” But this season’s ”Temptation Island” and ”Survivor” 2 have breathed new life into real life. Not that distributor USA Films was worried; the company was confident ”Series 7” could succeed even if no one listened when the new tribe had spoken.
”If the second ‘Survivor’ didn’t work, we”d be putting the final nail in the [reality] coffin,” says studio president Russell Schwartz. ”That it?s even bigger than the first makes ‘Series 7’ an equally strong statement, because it shows how absurd everyone”s obsession is with the genre.” (The movie opened March 2 to a vigorous $15,000 per screen in limited release; it goes wider on March 16.)
Shot on digital video (and transferred to 35 millimeter film for theatrical showings), the movie is structured as a marathon of three seventh season episodes of the fictional series ”The Contenders.” Appropriately, Minahan first pitched it as a staged TV show to Fox, which loved it…except for the killing. ”They wanted recurring characters,” says Minahan, 37. But, he adds, ”if I had people running around shooting each other with paintballs, who cares?”
With a budget of less than $1 million, Minahan shot ”Series 7” incorporating techniques he absorbed from an early ’90s gig as a segment producer for the Fox newsmagazine ”Front Page” and from his longstanding addiction to ”The Real World” and ”Cops.” While assembling the footage, he and editor Malcolm Jamieson studied tabloid shows and co- opted the sensationalistic tricks — like freeze frames and lens flares — to mimic the way reality TV can make a trip to the beach look like O.J.’s Bronco chase. ”We’d watch shows and say, ‘I love that, let’s use it,”’ says Minahan. ”These effects make something dramatic that wasn’t before.”
If the film hits big, Minahan (whose only previous feature credit was as cowriter and second unit director of 1996’s ”I Shot Andy Warhol”) hopes to bring the last Contender standing back for ”Series 8,” which he’s once again pitching as a television series. With crash and burn happy reality TV growing increasingly lurid, however, some viewers might not get the joke. Recently, when someone asked Minahan to describe his movie, the filmmaker replied, ”It’s about a show where people kill each other.” ”Oh, yeah,” said his inquisitor, ”I think I saw that on TV.”