For the last 12 years, British illusionist Derren Brown has created and hosted a variety of popular television programmes that deal with real acts of mind control. In his new 2-part special, Derren Brown: Apocalypse (airing Dec 19, 9E/6P), he thoroughly screened many candidates for an unspecified TV series before selecting Steven, a British man in his early twenties, who takes his family and friends for granted. As far as Steven is concerned, he didn’t land the TV gig. However, with the help of Steven’s loved ones, some elaborate phone hacking, and a few well-timed acts of hypnosis, Brown manages to convince Steven that he survived an apocalyptic event that killed most of the world’s population. Steven experiences this fictional apocalypse as if it really happened—and Brown captures the whole thing on camera, complete with explosions and a zombie outbreak. In an interview earlier this week, Brown discussed the challenges of maintaining this elaborate illusion and the effects it had on his once “loathsome” protagonist.
SPACE: What was the starting point for Derren Brown: Apocalypse? How did you come up with the idea and what made you think it would be worthwhile territory to explore?
Derren Brown: The horror story apocalypse part of it was us sitting around trying to come up with some ideas and actually sometimes the big simple ideas are the most difficult ones to find, but when that got mentioned—someone believing the world had ended—anything that feels like you could never do it, anything that feels like it would be unproducible, that’s always the kind of stuff that gets me excited. The other side of it is the transformational journey that this guy goes through and that’s always been quite an important thing for me. I started off doing these kind of mind reading tricks and it grew out of that desire to impress cause you know it’s a form of magic and really magic is the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people. I kind of wanted to use the same skills, which are routed in hypnosis and suggestion, to just do something a bit more grown up and a bit more interesting. I started making these shows about taking someone else on a transformational journey, on a psychological journey where I would be pulling the strings behind the scenes.
You mention in the program that it also has some roots in philosophy.
The Stoic philosophers have this idea—this goes back to the Romans, but I’m a big fan of the Stoics—that, in order to feel satisfied and have a happy life, you have to learn to desire the things that you already have in life as opposed to just desiring the next shiny object that you don’t have. One way of doing that is to mentally rehearse the loss of everything that you value because that makes you value those things more, so that’s sort of what the show became: somebody just doing that for real, stepping out of his life a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life and realizing how much he valued it. Steven is very much someone who took his life for granted. He goes through this Wizard of Oz with zombies experience and learns that there’s no place like home by the end of it.
In spite of his unsympathetic qualities, it seems like you have a complicated sympathy for Steven. How did you feel about him while you were putting him through this ordeal?
When we were actually making it, all of us just ended up falling in love with him. It’s sort of unavoidable. It was important to have somebody who, on the one hand, ticked that box of taking his life for granted obviously because that has to be the starting point of his journey, but it also had to be somebody that you would like enough to root for. He really does start to change, particularly in the second part of the story. You go through a journey in terms of your own response to this guy, who starts off pretty loathsome and then you just like him more and more, you root for him more and more. It was important to find somebody who would give us both of those things because, ultimately, it would be lovely for people see themselves in him. This thing of taking your life for granted is not just Steven. We all do it on some level.
Was there ever any nervousness that something might go wrong or he might hurt himself? It seems like you had to navigate some complicated legal issues.
I’ve done enough shows like this to know how they have to be done, but it’s always done in conjunction with an independent psychological team, who vet the people that we’re using to make sure that they’re going to be robust enough for it and also to let us know if there are any areas we need to avoid. One of the things was that Steven witnessed a car crash when he was young that was quite difficult for him, so we had to make sure that there was not anything that involved cars crashing or anything like that. When the actual program is happening, we’re all watching every moment of it to make sure he’s all right. It’s really important to have independent voices on it too, who don’t have the same interests in a dramatic TV show. It’s structured in a way that it was a safe place for him to be and he always feels safe. The hope that his family is alive, for example, is never too far away.
Did you have to check in advance to make sure he was responsive to hypnosis?
Yeah, that was important. There were a couple points in the show where I would need to put him to sleep to get him from A to B, but what I couldn’t do was walk up to him and hypnotize him because he couldn’t see me, he couldn’t know that I was there. It was part of this audition process when obviously he has no idea what he’s being auditioned for. At the start of that, they get conditioned to fall asleep at the sound of my voice, at the click of my fingers or a hypnotist’s fingers, they get used to that command and falling asleep. Once that’s in there, then it’s really easy to exploit. It’s also helped by the fact that I’m well known in the UK. He’s a fan of me, so all those things makes him more suggestible. There’s a sort of prestige effect. If you’re a well known hypnotist, you’ll have more success than one that isn’t well known.
Were you thinking about 28 Days Later at all? I kept thinking it would be tempting to use that movie as a guide if I were in Steven’s situation.
Yeah, completely. There’s lots of zombie film references in it and there’s a 28 Days Later gag in the second part. One of the interesting things about it is how differently people react than you think you would yourself. I always have people who are skeptical about the shows and one of the things people often say is that it can’t be real because they wouldn’t react like that. It’s really surprising to me the difference between how we think people would react—because of what we’ve seen in movies—and how people actually do. I did one thing years ago involving zombies. It was a guy waking up in his own video game that he’s been playing. He’s getting attacked by zombies and he’s just woken up with a gun in his hand and this guy just stands and jumps in the air and screams at the top of his voice, just screaming and jumping on the spot. It was really interesting how different it was from what someone does in a movie when they’ve got zombies attacking them. They’re kind of relatively composed or heroic or something.
The actors in horror films usually try to make themselves look good, but Steven’s completely modest because he doesn’t realize he’s being filmed.
I always find it really fascinating—and again it helps if you find someone who’s suggestible—how they will fit into this drama because essentially we’re writing a drama for somebody who’s got no idea they’re in a drama. They’ve got no script. They’re essentially a lead character in a horror film that has no idea he’s in a horror film. It’s kind of a Truman Show thing. I’m always paranoid that any little thing is going to make it all fall apart. There was actually one point when a member of the crew got spotted by him. We’re tearing our hair out, but he just thought it was one of the infected and didn’t think anything of it.
What was his reaction when it was all finished?
You do see at the end how he reacts. It’s very emotional to sit through that second part, but what was important that he got out of it was that his life changed. We’re still friends, we still see each other. I’ve done a couple of these shows and you put somebody through this experience and you just really end up feeling for them, you feel very close to them, even though you’ve never really met them properly or they have no idea you’re watching them. It would be very odd to just finish the show and then not see them anymore, so I always end up remaining friends with these people and it also allows me to make sure that the work continues and if there are any challenges that come up that I can address that with them.
Has the experience had a lasting effect on his personality?
Yeah, completely. Absolutely. It’s still him of course. It’s still Steven. It’s just a much better version of him. It’s obviously not for me to say specifically what things he must do differently. It’s not my place to do that, but what you can do is have somebody realize the big lessons, the big, broad strokes and give them newer ways of thinking and feeling that they can then take back and apply. He’s in a really good place now. He’s a changed guy.