Brooke Smith’s three most prominent roles have been in The Silence of the Lambs, Vanya on 42nd Street, and, now, Series 7. Meeting her, you might guess that her closest personal affinity would be with her portrayal of Sonya in the Chekhov adaptation, not with her role as a hard-boiled reality-show contestant in her new film. But mention Girls Against Boys, the D.C.-rooted post-hardcore band that provided Series 7’s score, and the memories come pouring out.
“I was in lots of different bands on the Lower East Side,” Smith reveals. “I used to come down here and hang out in the early ’80s. Go to the 9:30 Club and stuff. I knew the Bad Brains. They were a huge band.
“I knew all those guys. Minor Threat. There was a place called d.c. space that I played. That’s when I was in a band called Whole Wide World.
“I have books just stuffed with pictures of Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags. I went on tour with Bad Brains. Go-go music was great. [Bad Brains vocalist] HR turned me on to that.”
“The first question I asked her was, was she punk or New Wave?” says Series 7 director Daniel Minahan. “And she said, ‘hardcore.’”
“I was New Wave for, like, a week when I was 13,” Smith admits. In fact, she was able to use her own wardrobe for one Series 7 scene, a goth music video scored with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that her character helped make in high school.
“I think the video in the movie really freaked out my dad,” she laughs. “I could just tell that he thought it was, like, an actual tape from high school.”
The hazy distinction between real life and video is the point of Series 7, a rigorously deadpan parody of reality TV; it purports to be a championship series from a TV show in which everyday people win by killing all the other contestants. “I have a real appreciation for the theatricality of TV news magazines and reality shows,” says Minahan, who previously worked for the Fox News Network. “The way the information is presented and the way the characters are drawn is very cinematic and very melodramatic.
“I was just so fascinated with the extremes Cops or America’s Most Wanted would go to, and the kind of outrageous things they would do. As a filmmaker, I had this kind of ironic appreciation of the way they were so much like movies.”
Smith, however, says that she doesn’t watch much TV. “The only news I watch now is the BBC. Because it’s not all about America. But I watched tons of [reality TV], just before we did [Series 7]. And I did get really sucked in.”
Minahan conceived Series 7 before Survivor and other similar shows caused a publicity boom for reality TV, but it took him years to get the film made. The protracted preparations reminded Smith of her rehearsals for Vanya on 42nd Street.
“I like working on stuff for a long time,” she says, “because I spent four years doing this Uncle Vanya, which became Vanya on 42nd Street. And it seems to me that it just gets deeper and deeper somehow. You can work on Chekhov for a long time.”
Smith and Minahan began Series 7 at Sundance’s Filmmakers Lab, where the actress “was just getting to know Dan, and I was just getting to know the project. It just kept evolving from there.”
“She’d read the rewrites,” says Minahan. “So it was something that just really evolved as we got to know each other more. And it just made it that much easier when we got on the set to just actually have to shoot it.”
“I called Dan almost every day during those four years to say, ‘Can we make this movie now?’” Smith recalls. “Whenever everybody was in town we’d get together and rehearse. We just enjoyed doing it so much it became like a band or something. Like jamming.”
When filming finally began, however, it had to be done quickly. “It was a lot to shoot,” Minahan says. “We had a very short shooting schedule, and we shot so much because it was like we were shooting a TV show. We had a lot of layers: voice interviews, the cutaway shots. I think working that quickly kind of kept it alive. There was just like an energy to it. It was much faster than most films.”
“It was the fastest I’ve ever worked on anything,” Smith agrees. “Because this was digital but not just because it was digital. We had a small crew because we wanted to be like those shows. Usually, it’s that hurry-up-and-wait thing. And it was not that at all.”
“It was hurry-up-and-shoot,” says Minahan.
“On a reality show,” he explains, “you get one shot at something. You can keep interviewing people until they’re finally burned out, but it’s pretty unusual. A show like 48 Hours, they shoot a lot. They come into a room and shoot it from every single vantage point. They hose it down.”
Smith apparently hasn’t heard this term before. “They hose it down?”
“Complete coverage,” Minahan replies. “Then they build it out of that. We had a very specific idea of what we wanted each time. We had to make it look like we did that kind of coverage when we didn’t.”
Because she’d studied the role of Series 7 contestant Dawn Lagarto for so long, however, Smith was sure of the characterization. “I felt that I really knew who Dawn was, so that I could just react. I was open to a lot more stuff. It almost was like shooting a documentary and I was this person.”
Smith identified so strongly with Dawn that she insisted on the name, even though there was a potential legal problem, because the original Dawn Lagarto was a childhood friend of Minahan’s. “I loved that name so much,” she says. “I was not going to give it up. I don’t know why.”
“I was writing the script and I liked the name,” Minahan recalls. “I never got around to changing it, and then, by the time we got to the shoot, I said to the producer, ‘You know, that’s a real name.’ Lawyers are so strict about what you can say, because they don’t want to get into some kind of litigation. Like you can’t say, ‘Sony.’ So I said, ‘What about Dawn Lagarto?’ But they didn’t find a Dawn Lagarto in their search. She’s married, so she has a different name.”
Sony is not the only corporate name lacking from Series 7; one note of TV reality missing from the film is the presence of commercials. It’s an idea Minahan says several people suggested, but that he never entertained. “In movies, commercials almost never look real,” he notes. “You can never really match the production values of commercials, because they put so much money into them. I felt it was going to be too corny. We could have had commercials for life insurance, security systems, and things like that. But I think that would have gone into the Saturday Night Live realm of parody. This kept it a little bit cooler.”
The director, however, regrets a few Series 7 gags. “For the most part I was pretty strict, but there are a couple of moments that still haunt me. A self-inflicted knife wound to the back. It’s delivered really straight, but it’s the one that’s maybe too much.”
The simulation of reality-TV reality was vital to Minahan’s idea, which is why the film has no “backstage”: Although viewers glimpse cameramen, they never see the show’s producers or directors.
“I thought that it would be more menacing not to see that,” Minahan says. “When I decided that it would just be the TV show, there was no place for that. It would be very unusual on, like, The Real World to see producers or the whole mechanism behind it. I felt like I’d already seen that movie.
“It was more creepy not to see it for me than to have a visible villain. In a way, the villain in this piece is the audience, because you’re really implicated in it, and you’re just watching.”
Although Cops was his primary inspiration, when scripting Series 7 Minahan also thought of science-fiction films. “There are all these sci-fi things like The Running Man, Rollerball, The Stepford Wives, Soylent Green. Those were the films that really turned me on when I was growing up. Just those kind of sci-fi movies that went into social commentary.”
Minahan may retain his affection for such films, but making Series 7 has diminished his interest in reality TV. “After making my own show, I lost my hard-on for it,” he admits. “And I think the combination of reality TV with game show is not working for me. But I am still curious to see all these new shows that are coming out.” Mark Jenkins