Derren Brown’s first venture into Netflix programming, “The Push,” was built on finding out whether circumstances could convince one person to commit murder. For his latest special, his next move was to see if the opposite could be true.
“This one actually came out of walking around New York. We were just talking about what would be a nice thing to follow from ‘The Push.’ Essentially, one is trying to kill someone and the other is saving a life. There’s a nice counterpoint there,” Brown told IndieWire.
“Derren Brown: Sacrifice” is another of the title entertainer’s foray into immersive hypothetical experiences geared toward a single person. The 50-minute long special follows Phil, an American and self-described immigration opponent. The idea of an elaborate months-long process is to see if Phil can be convinced to give up his life for a man he thinks to be an undocumented immigrant.
That eventual premise wasn’t the exact one that Brown and his writing team began with, but the goal for “Sacrifice” was to build an experience around challenging an individual’s inherent prejudices. “Sacrifice” itself quickly shows the process of narrowing down a number of potential participants to Phil, who Brown said showed the highest on their in-house bias test.
“We felt it would probably largely be around racial bias. That was always a big, big part of it,” Brown said. “It’s ultimately why we used him, apart from the fact that we thought he’d be a good person that people would relate to and would want to follow and care about.”
Brown acknowledges that building this special around challenging one man’s ideas about immigration policy might be seen as a political act. But for Brown, he says he sees it through a decidedly different lens, particularly one he previously made a central part of his live show “Derren Brown: Miracle,” which debuted on Netflix earlier this summer.
“The idea is not to turn a conservative into a liberal or vice versa. It’s about coming to the edges of that and just being a human being, stepping out of the constraints of these grand narratives that right and left give you of a particular view on the world,” Brown said. “We are very polarized and those positions are heightened by the filtered bubbles that we live in, but actually I think as human beings we’re better than that. Having said that, of course, yes, it will resonate at that level. It doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing, but it’s not making a political point. I think it’s making a humanitarian point.”
Producing something like “Sacrifice,” with its international collection of filming locations and various moving parts, meant that there were plenty of opportunities to go wrong. There are points in the process where it’s very clear the outcome of a particular step in Phil’s journey did not play out as intended. Still, despite that possibility for things to slip, Brown said that he and his team weren’t necessarily focused on contingencies.
“You can’t really plan them before because it’s going to come out of Phil’s particular story. That’s not really something you can really write before knowing him,” Brown said. “There’s not really anywhere else you can go if it doesn’t work. Our main concern was just making sure Phil was alright.”
That desire to make sure his subjects are OK — in whatever context that may be — is something that weighs on Brown in ways that audiences might not expect. As Brown told IndieWire, after “The Push” aired, he stayed in contact with the main subject Chris.
“They’ve all ended up being friends, people I’ve stayed in touch with. I’ve seen over the years the effect it has had. If anything, the challenge is to let go and not feel the responsibility,” Brown said. “As time goes on, it becomes important to me to make sure that it isn’t just a TV show. Probably wrongly, but I end up feeling a kind of responsibility to make sure that the point of the show really plays out.”
Part of that is making sure that Brown not only stays in touch with past participants, but that he gives each new initiate into the the Derrenverse a chance to meet his other colleagues.
“I brought Phil over to England to watch the show as soon as I had it. I invited Chris over and also Steve who did a show called ‘Apocalypse’ which was another great big very ambitious hidden camera thing. I wanted them to meet. I wanted Phil to have that network of people that he could be in contact with people that had been through similar things that have done this.”
As for how the next alumnus might join this group, Brown says he’s not entirely sure of the next idea. He’s eyeing a possible Broadway run with another live show in 2019 and he’d like the Netflix relationship to continue. Regardless of how any future specials might come together, he says he’s always surprised by the process of watching an idea become a reality.
“It’s always a kind of extraordinary aspect of the job, sitting down, thinking, ‘God we just dreamt this up one afternoon picking at sushi on a coffee table,'” Brown said. “I think the biggest surprise of doing it over the years is how well people do just do follow those tracks. It still surprises me.”
“Derren Brown: Sacrifice” is now available to stream on Netflix.