There are not many filmmakers who would readily admit that TV reality show “Cops” is a key source of inspiration. But Daniel Minahan has long admired the show’s in-your-face verite, and took the concept several steps further with his futuristic feature “Series 7: The Contenders,” unspooling in the Premiere section at Sundance.
“I’m kind of a purist because I like the old (reality) shows,” Minahan says. “The new ones are mean-spirited and mistrustful.”
Shot on digital video, his longform off-kilter take on a reality show was conceived long before “Survivor” and “Big Brother” hit the U.S. TV scene. But the timing was ideal: USA Films picked up Minahan’s film just as “Survivor” premiered Stateside and plans a release just after “Survivor II,” “The Mole,” “Temptation Island” and other reality gamers bow on U.S. television.
Structured as several back-to-back episodes of a faux reality show called “Series 7” — which throws lotto-drawn participants into a hunt-and-kill game — the film is both a cautionary tale and a spoof on just how far a high-concept format can go.
“I hope it comes across as being critical of those shows,” Minahan says. “I’m kind of ambivalent about the shows — they’re an invasion of privacy.”
Best-known for co-scripting “I Shot Andy Warhol” with director Mary Harron, Minahan, 37, worked in nonfiction television at PBS, MTV and the U.K.’s Channel Four after attending film school at SUNY-Purchase.
He met Harron while working on BBC’s arts magazine “The Late Show” and started planning a documentary on Valerie Solanas, which later evolved into “Warhol.”
Similarly, Minahan took on ’70s fashion icon Roy Halston with the screenplay “Simply Halston,” which Christine Vachon will produce. Minahan says his next feature directing project will be a “very straightforward thriller” shot on film.
“Digital works best when it fits the material,” he says.
The original “Series 7” script, written in 1995, had the TV show as merely an element of the film. But when digital impresarios Blow Up Pictures, producers of “Chuck and Buck,” came in as financiers, Minahan decided to tell the story strictly through the TV episodes, shot entirely on video. The project was also workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, which gave him a chance at a dry run with actors.
To make the reality concept as convincing as possible, Minahan says he cast unknown actors. “I wanted to cast people who looked like real people.
“I tried as much as possible to structure (the film) like a remote TV shoot,” he adds. “I’m comfortable shooting on tape — it’s what I know.”