The Version Interview... Derren Brown on his new Channel 4 show, Pushed to the Edge.
Derren Brown is back on Channel 4 with a brand new tv special which will once again push the boundaries. Here, he tells us more...
Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge is your latest project for Channel 4. Explain what it’s all about.
It looks at social compliance and social influence, which is something that can operate at all sorts of levels. It’s particularly relevant with our political situation, with people being radicalised into doing bad things, but it can also operate on a private, quiet level socially. When we find ourselves in groups or with charismatic individuals, we might do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. This show takes the idea of social compliance and shows it at a very dramatic level. I’m very interested in how we take ownership of our own stories and our own lives. So this show is a dramatic play on that idea.
It certainly is dramatic, isn’t it? You take it to the ultimate conclusion.
Yes, absolutely. What the show asks is whether the mechanics of social compliance can be manipulated to push someone off a building to their death. Could it be taken that far? The plan to get there is through slowly turning up the heat. Here’s a person that finds themselves in a situation, not realising that it’s all an enormous fabrication for their benefit, and that every person they meet is an actor. It’s all secretly filmed. Slowly, starting with the most innocuous deviations that they’re cajoled into, it builds and builds, in the same way that if you want to boil a frog, you have to put it in cold water and slowly turn the heat up. If you put it straight into hot water it leaps out. It’s a process of increasing the compliance and seeing how far they can be taken. And it was a genuine experiment, in that sense – there was no guaranteed ending for us at all.
It’s a massive undertaking. What were the logistics like, and how long was this in the planning?
It was planned for about four months. It’s a show where the scale of it becomes more and more evident as it goes on, I guess. There was a huge amount of background work involved. The main filming of it happened over the course of a weekend. As with a lot of these things, a lot of effort went into preserving the reality of the situation for the people who are going to go through it. You have to psychologically vet the people who might go through it, to make sure they’ll be robust enough. It’s quite a dark rollercoaster of a journey. And there’s also the logistics of getting them where you want them to be, and controlling their understanding of reality. There’s a huge amount of very delicate work.
What makes someone suggestible?
It’s a tricky one. It is just a personality trait. I don’t think it’s easy to say what makes someone like that, any more than you can say what makes somebody extrovert or introvert. In this case I was looking for compliance, which is not quite the same as suggestibility, though there’s quite a big overlap. What you see in the show is a compliance test, where we can very quickly see who is more compliant in the group. We use that as our means of whittling it down to our favourites. Suggestibility is a very loose term. You may not be the sort of person who responds well to a hypnotist on stage, but you might find, for example, that a doctor administering a placebo to you is something you respond well to. We all have it in one way or another.
The actors are tremendous in this. It’s very different from doing your bog-standard stage or TV job.
It is, yes. Some actors are very good at working with improvisation, which is needed in this. Others need a much clearer track laid down for them. But just because someone’s good at improvisation doesn’t mean they’re actually that convincing. Most improve stuff is comedy and it’s played for laughs, whereas this has to be utterly convincing. I really enjoy that part of it, making the whole thing utterly real, and we have some particularly arch moments. But in this one, the actors needed more in the way of emotional management on the day than the subject taking part. I’ve done these sorts of things a few times before, and I know that the actors are going to go through their own journey, which is going to give them all sorts of feelings of guilt. It’s quite different from the carefully choreographed emotional journey that the participant is going through – I know when the participant goes through it, they’ll always feel great about it, and will get something really positive out of it. But for the actors, it’s a different thing. They’ve brought someone to a very dark place, and they may not have that relief or closure at the end. There’s the guilt of playing an awful practical joke on somebody, seeing them in tears, and not being able to look after them.
You say this is a positive experience for the subject – but doesn’t something like this have the capacity to distress them? Aren’t there some things we’d rather not know about ourselves?
The nature of the whole journey is done in a way to make sure that ultimately it’s ultimately a positive thing for them. Within five minutes of the end happening, they were fine. Subjects, over the years and going back across quite a few shows, are always in a very positive place at the end of things. We aren’t in the business of doing horrible things to people and then laughing at them. This certainly isn’t about who’s a bad person or a good person. We all have a strong moral sense. The point of this situation that we move them into is what happens when a clear discrepancy is created between what you know is right and what you feel you have to do. That’s really what this is about.
When the whole event is actually taking place, do you enjoy the experience, or is it too stressful for that?
I do enjoy it. I very much enjoyed this one. I’ve also got used to doing things like this, which I think makes it less stressful. I hope I haven’t become blasé to it, but I’ve got enough faith in the procedure to understand what’s happening. After months and months of work, it is amazing to see it finally happening. And, in spite of all its darkness, this is actually quite a funny show as well, and that also made it really enjoyable to watch. Of course there’s tension. But I’m always amazed how smoothly things go, and how people just fall into exactly what we want them to do. It’s amazing how malleable people become. We think we’ve got these values and morals that we could never transgress, but all that goes out the window.
Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge is on 12th January at 9pm on Channel 4.