If you were shocked by the trailer for “Derren Brown: The Push,” that might be due to your location relative to the Atlantic Ocean. The one-hour TV special/social experiment, where one man is placed in a situation designed for him to commit murder, comes from Derren Brown, whose previous psychological mazes have tried to get retirees to steal a valuable work of art or convince people to bet their life savings on horse races.
Brown is a known TV quantity in the UK from stage and screen, but he’s virtually unknown in the United States. That’s why the simulated murder on “The Push,” his first big exposure to most Americans, was like throwing people here in the deep end.
“I’ve had 15 years of doing this kind of thing in the UK,” Brown told IndieWire. “When ‘The Push’ went out there originally, there was just a feeling of, ‘Oh, there’s Derren Brown doing another show.’ I’d sort of forgotten how mad the premises of these things can sound if you haven’t known me before.”
Finding that elusive participant for “The Push” was a process in itself. Chris Kingston, the eventual centerpiece of the special, was one of many who volunteered to be part of a Derren Brown project, not knowing what the final outcome would be. Aside from the glimpse inside the casting process that audiences see in “The Push,” Brown explained that there’s an even more extensive screening process that ensures anyone who is taking part won’t be in danger of being exposed to past trauma.
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“They see an independent psychologist who does know exactly what’s going to happen in the show to make sure they’re suitable for it and it’s not going to trigger anything that we couldn’t be aware of,” Brown said. “If you’d been involved in a traumatic car crash when you were young, we don’t want that person doing something where they’re going to witness a car crash. There’s an elaborate process and ultimately I’m looking for somebody who will be the right balance of suggestibility, so they’ll follow the tracks I lay down for them. And also people that show their emotions, people that are interesting to watch going through those things. That’s very important as well.”
Even with these heightened emotions at play, if it seems like Brown was enjoying himself during the filming of “The Push,” that’s by design. Because of the extensive planning that goes into making these scenarios completely immersive for people like Kingston, there’s not a lot that he can do besides let everything unfold.
“When it actually comes down to that weekend when we film it, then I can at least enjoy myself. I’ve done the hard work, I can just sit down and let it play out. And then it is amazing, waiting for the guy to turn up, waiting for him to walk into this elaborately engineered scenario. There’s nothing like it,” Brown said. “It’s the bit I look forward to most. The show was devised by me so that after all the months of stress and the logistics to make something like that work, that it would be just as amazing experience to sit back and watch it play out.”
That prep requires a little bit of honest-intentioned treachery, even before the cameras roll on the big day. Similar to one of the key elements in “The Push,” one of Brown’s previous specials required him to come up with a plan to get a model of one woman’s face without her knowing.
“The logical way of doing that was to make her win a free spa day where she’d get some amazing face mask thing put on. But of course it wasn’t. The moment this stuff is slathered on her face, the beauty therapist steps out and this big burly SFX guy comes in,” Brown said. “The whole thing was framed for her as this relaxing, detoxifying experience. She loved it. It’s interesting to see how the psychological framing of it made a difference to her experience. It’s like you’re creating a movie that the main character just doesn’t know that they’re in.”
Although these specials depend on someone being put through an incredibly emotional test, Brown sees these as positive experiences. To ensure that people like Kingston aren’t just used as a one-time pawn in a TV scheme, Brown says he makes a point to keep in contact with those who’ve taken part in his specials.
“This one has more of a darker message, but even so, I’ve done these shows for 15 years, and everyone who goes through it has always, regardless of how dark their journey seems, loved it and been exhilarated by it and been grateful for it,” Brown said. “I’m actually having dinner next week with the people that did ‘The Push.’ Because I only do one, normally one or two a year, it’s quite easy to stay in touch with them. There’s a duty of care around people if you’re going to put them through that sort of thing. Otherwise it would just be reckless.”
With a career origin in magic and live performance, Brown approaches his TV work from the perspective of someone who “only just recently bought” a TV. When asked about where he thought “The Push” might fit into the American perception of reality TV, Brown described his work as different from the kind of competition or celebrity-based unscripted work that usually gets put into that category.
“That reality show format is the kind of thing I find awkward and exploitative and uncomfortable. I really don’t like it,” Brown said. “I never really thought of reality TV as such, I just sort of ended up finding this format purely, and it was really a desire to create a drama.”
Aside from the more recognizable nods to David Fincher’s “The Game” and “Weekend at Bernie’s,” Brown’s idea of the dramatic DNA of “The Push” is closer to the film and literary world. He pointed to Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation” as a recent favorite.
“I like films that sort of play out in one confined area. Films that have a feeling that you’re watching a play, a contained environment and a creeping tension,” Brown said. “A lot of the shows have an Agatha Christie kind of thing going on, where you have a whole group of people making something happen in that ‘Orient Express’ kind of way. Confined situation and environment, elaborate conspiracy. I find all of that exciting. The challenge is to find interesting and different variations using some of those ideas, instead of just repeating yourself.”
Brown was just nominated for an Olivier Award in the UK for his show “Derren Brown: Underground” and hopes to bring a new show to Broadway this fall. On top of that, he’s far from done with TV. A new Netflix special is targeted for release before the end of 2018.
“I’m still editing a brand new special, which we’re making as a Netflix original, and will hopefully come out later in the year. It’s probably going to push a lot more buttons than ‘The Push’ did in terms of the outrage that people will feel when they hear what it is,” Brown said. “Not everything is about causing controversy. That would be a very boring way to go. What I try and do is find a dramatic hook that’s interesting, that would make you want to watch. But then also a good and intelligent reason for actually doing it. That’s the formula, if there is one.”
“Derren Brown: The Push” is now available to stream on Netflix.