An interview with Derren Brown
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Derren Brown is back! Fresh from his Bafta and RTS-winning series last year, the scarily-brilliant illusionist is back with his most ambitious series ever. That might sound like hyperbole. It isn't. The man himself recently tweeted: "Currently editing what I think might be the best TV show I've ever made..." Read on to find out more.
The first two shows of your new series are titled Apocalypse. Explain a bit about them.
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, one way or another, 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.
So you've drip-fed him the idea of a potentially cataclysmic meteor collision. What next?
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?
Where did this idea come from?
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 that you value, 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 if regret, of things you never said, or taking people for granted, and 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.
How do you ensure that someone doesn't come out of an experience like this with PTSD?
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 that these people are going to be absolutely fine. And throughout we have our psychologist and medical team watching the whole process.
How long does the experience last for him?
It's over a weekend. The build-up is a couple of months. Then 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 a really intense weekend.
After the two-part show Apocalypse, there's a show called Fearless (w/t). What's that about?
The thing with that is, we're still filming it, and we're still putting it all together, so there's many different ways it can go at the moment. It is hugely shrouded in secrecy, so it's difficult for me to say any more than that. But that's the area that we're in.
What scares you? What are the fears that you have to confront? Do you get nervous before your live shows, for example?
No, I don't, actually. In fact, I've had to find nerves for that, because nerves are quite useful. 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 blokeish 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 too badly from fears - I'm quite happy to engender them in other people though!
The last programme is Gods and Monsters, which is a psychological look at religious belief.
Yeah. We're still filming that at the moment, so there might be a few shifts that I'm unaware of. But it's a talk that I'll be giving in front of an audience, incorporating lots of experiments. And yes, it's looking at a psychological take on religion and the experience of God and the supernatural. It'll be peppered with experimental stuff, it's not just another atheist talking about why he doesn't believe in God.
It's an area of interest to you - you've done stuff with Richard Dawkins, and you've filmed specials about evangelists and so on. Why is it something you felt compelled to return to?
I think because having been there myself, having been a Christian, I have an interest in belief. The reason why I came out of it was because I couldn't quite justify the belief, intellectually, to myself. The belief felt like it stopped feeling like it had any substance to it other than I was believing because I was already believing. So then the reasons why people believe became much more interesting. So it's an area of interest. It's also an area that I'm aware is spoken about a lot. Equally, just because I don't believe in God, in the same way that I don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster, doesn't mean I have any sort of agenda about it.
Having had faith, did you ever miss its warm embrace?
I had one moment of that, very shortly after deciding that I didn't believe. I must have woken up feeling a bit miserable about something, and started to make that link which says to you "It doesn't matter how bad you feel, you know that actually you are loved very much by this thing that is totally separate from your own on-going personal experience. So I had a moment of thinking "Oh. I can't really call on that anymore." But that was very quickly followed by "Ah, okay, so now it's up to me. My feeling of self-worth is going to come from me now." And I found that rather liberating.
You tweeted recently "Currently editing what I think might be the best TV show I've ever made..."
Yeah, that was about Apocalypse. We're still editing it, so you never quite know what the finished product is going to be like. But in terms of the experience of making it, it feels like the strongest thing I've done. That doesn't necessarily translate into other people thinking that. But I'm very excited about it.
Your last series, The Experiments, won you an RTS award and a BAFTA. Does stuff like that matter to you?
When you're the guy on the screen, you're generally getting acclaim for stuff that's a team effort. I was very aware that the award meant a huge amount to the team, because they're not the ones getting the credit for it every day. 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. So yeah, I think it's hugely important.
Derren Brown: Apocalypse begins on Friday 26th October at 9pm on Channel 4.