Illusionist Derren Brown on how he destroyed the planet in new TV show (also trailers)
IF Derren Brown ever asks for a volunteer, think very, very carefully before saying yes. The illusionist, mentalist and magician has long moved on from card tricks and cold reading.
His repertoire of psychological experiments and stunts includes everything from performing Russian roulette live on TV to successfully predicting the National Lottery. But as his projects get bigger and bolder, so does the role played by those taking part.
His next venture is a case in point. He begins a new series of specials with a two-part show, which is a journey into a living nightmare, where the planet has been devastated by a catastrophic meteorite strike, zombies roam the wasteland and he is one of a handful of survivors.
Called Apocalypse, for one poor soul, a young volunteer called Steven, it really is the end of the world.
He said: “The show is about taking somebody who basically takes his life for granted, and suffers from that lazy sense of entitlement that many of us do, and giving him a second chance at discovering the value of what he has. So what we do is end the world for him.
“It’s over two episodes, which I’ve never done before. The first part is getting him to believe that this is going to happen, that the world is going to end, or at least has a chance of ending.
“It was based on a seed of truth, because there was a meteor shower around August, so we just used the idea that this shower was masking a much bigger potential collision.
“The end of the world happens. And he wakes seemingly two weeks later in an abandoned military hospital, in a post-apocalyptic world, and goes through a meticulously-crafted horror movie plot. The point of the plot, aside from being exciting to watch, is that it takes him through various lessons that are going to be useful for him, in terms of teaching him things that he needs to know. Are his family still alive? Is he going to get back to them?”
It’s a jaw-dropping concept that involved months of planning, hacking into his phone, controlling his Twitter and news feeds, having TV and radio presenters record special versions of their programmes just for him, and more than 100 actors. Once you have recovered your senses, however, it sounds a bit like a sick joke masquerading as entertainment.
According to 41-year-old Derren, however, ultimately it’s for his own good. Honest.
He said: “It’s rooted in Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher. The Stoics were all about living tranquilly, avoiding negative sensations and engaging in life. One of Seneca’s things was the value of mentally rehearsing losing everything, so that you learn to value it more. He would say, ‘Every time you kiss your daughter goodnight, remind yourself that she might not be there in the morning’. I know that sounds morbid, but it actually allows you to never have that feeling of regret, of things you never said, or taking people for granted.
“Also, if anything bad ever does happen, you are maybe somehow mentally rehearsed for it. So it was taking that idea and doing it for real – taking everything away, so that he would value what he had.”
But how do you ensure the experience doesn’t damage the volunteer, that they don’t suffer from zombie nightmares or post traumatic stress disorder?
It helps, of course, that Derren has form. His previous specials include The Heist, in which he convinced four middle-managers to commit an armed robbery in the street, and Hero at 30,000 Feet, in which he helped a total novice land what he believed was a packed passenger plane. The real answer, however, lies in a meticulous selection of volunteers and thorough psychological examination of those who take part.
He said: “There are various layers to that. He has no conscious memory of what’s happened, but at a deep, unconscious level, he does know.
“It creates a sort of safety net around the experience. It draws it short of any mortal fear, because something in him that he won’t be able to put his finger on, knows that actually, this is all right. It’s a subtle thing because he can’t be walking around thinking, ‘Oh, this is all fine’.
“Another layer is that the selection process is very rigorous and people are chosen very carefully. We have independent psychologists who interview them. They don’t let them know what’s going to happen, but they make sure these people are going to be absolutely fine.
“And throughout, we have our psychologist and medical team watching the whole process.”?In the aftermath of Apocalypse, Derren will also tackle Gods and Monsters, a psychological look at religious belief, while the next special is set to be called Fearless, although fear itself is something Derren seems to have mastered.
He said: “Most people’s fear of being in front of an audience can generally be conquered by being completely on top of what it is they’ve got to do.
“What does scare me? I don’t like spiders, but I’m not as phobic about them as some people are.
“I couldn’t sleep if there was one in the room, but I’d at least be able to stick a glass over it.
“When I was at university, I had a sort of fear about going to the gym and that kind of blokish environment, which was rooted in a feeling of total inadequacy, which is what fear is. But then I just got over it, I started doing those things.
“I came across the idea of running towards the things that frighten you. Once you go and do it, you realise that the fear of it is far more powerful than actually doing it. When you do it, you realise it’s nothing at all. So I don’t really suffer from fears – I’m happy to engender them in other people though!”
Derren saw his last series of specials, The Experiments, win a Royal Television Society award and a BAFTA, and he hopes The Apocalypse will be just as well received, if not for himself, for the team of people behind it.
He said: “When you’re the guy on the screen, you’re generally getting acclaim for stuff that’s a team effort. It’s a lovely thing to get, and it’s nice to feel that the shows are recognised, but I didn’t feel particularly triumphant. But I do think it’s hugely important to recognise the massive amount of people that go into making a show.
“And people who work far harder than anybody should. The amount of utter commitment to it is extraordinary.”
Right now, he’s in the final editing stages of Apocalypse, which is sure to be controversial.
The surprising thing about the show is that, for all the months of preparation, the actual Apocalypse itself took place over a weekend.
He said: “The end of the world happens on a Friday, and on Monday morning he wakes up in his own bed and it’s all over.”
It’s going to be a hell of a weekend.
Derren Brown: Apocalypse is on Friday, on Channel 4 at 9pm.
Sources for those are youtube.
So excited for this, it looks like a sort of walking dead/28 days later zombie scenario mixed in with some metiors. I'd love to see how a person would actually react.