A stuntwoman ascended to the top of a 50-foot tall wooden tower at the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu as a crowd of 85 attendees watched from below. The audience erupted in gasps and cheers as the stuntwoman reached the platform at the summit and lifted a torch in triumph.
The stunt kicked off proceedings for the premiere screening of Amazon Prime’s new young adult thriller series, “Panic,” which was held outdoors on Wednesday night at the rustic venue tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains. It was reminiscent of a scene from the show’s pilot episode in which teenagers jumped off the peak of a cliff into a treacherously shallow lake filled with rocks while bearing lit torches.
“Panic” follows a group of recently graduated high school seniors in a rural Texas town who annually participate in Panic, a high-stakes game of increasingly dangerous challenges, to win a life-changing amount of money. Overseen by mysterious judges, the graduates perform death-defying feats including walking across a highway blindfolded, playing Russian roulette and beating open a wasp’s nest in a bid to claim the prize and escape their small-town lives.
As the previous year’s competition had turned deadly with two students losing their lives, the attention of the local sheriff’s department is laser-focused on discovering the identity of the individuals behind “Panic” and putting a permanent end to the game. The series is based on a 2014 novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, who is also the writer and an executive producer of the show under her production company Glasstown Entertainment. Joe Roth and Jeff Kirschenbaum of Roth/Kirschenbaum Films and Adam Schroeder also served as executive producers.
Though Oliver’s 2010 debut book “Before I Fall” became a major motion film in 2017 starring Zoey Deutch, this was the first time that the author adapted her own work for a different medium. “They took this unbelievable chance on me,” Oliver told Variety. “In retrospect, it’s unbelievable that they thought I would be able to do it so I was determined not to fail them but I really wasn’t experienced so it probably took me many more drafts than it should have.”
She continued, “Someone asked me if there was a learning curve. I was like, ‘How do you say learning Mount Everest?’ It really is a completely different form of writing because your imagination interacts with the real world.”
The pilot order for “Panic” was initially greenlit in June 2018 and was ordered to series in May 2019, however, production was stalled several times. Olivia Welch, who plays series lead Heather Nill, opened up about the process. “It’s really surreal since I’ve been doing this show since 2018 and now it’s like wow, it’s the night that everyone’s talked to me about it,” she said. “It’s my first premiere of anything that I have ever done so it’s really, really cool.”
Welch went on to say, “It’s been such a journey. We did a pilot in 2018 in New York and there was a break where it was getting tested, as pilots do, and then it got picked up and we moved it to Austin where we filmed and then got stopped by the pandemic. And then we took another break and we filmed again and now it’s here.”
“Panic” also stars Jessica Sula as Heather’s best friend, Natalie Williams. Though Natalie is eager to compete in the game to further her dreams of Hollywood stardom, Heather is initially reluctant before circumstances force her into the competition where she squares off against her closest friend. Sula told Variety that shooting during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was “strange.” “There was a lot of protocol but it was keeping us safe and we were happy to work,” Sula said. “In any circumstance, we were happy to be back.”
David W. Thompson, who plays “Panic” emcee Diggins said that the cast became extremely close during filming. “I feel like it’s kind of a cliché to say we became a family but we would go out like square dancing and some people really adored the board game Clue and we had a lot of board game nights,” he told Variety. “We would get up early and go to barbeque places and it was a really fun time.”
Amazon provided a truly immersive experience for guests who attended the screening. Attendees walked down a wooded trail to enter the venue and find their places in socially distanced two-person “pods”, which were seating arrangements surrounded by wooden frames and decorated with Western-inspired knick-knacks. Once seated, guests were presented with a meal of their choice with the options of carne asada tacos, smoked chicken tacos or grilled tofu. Each table was adorned with a wildflower bouquet and a bucket with popcorn, concession stand candy and sets for roasting s’mores over the individual mini fire pits that came along with each pod.
Guests also enjoyed chilled beverages from small coolers that they could take home with them upon their departure. After viewing the first two episodes of the show, attendees exited through a corn maze with the aid of flashlights in gift bags, which also included knit blankets.
Camron Jones, who plays Heather’s friend and potential love interest, Bishop Moore, explained that he was excited to celebrate the premiere in person.
“To be out and about, I was just telling my girlfriend, it feels great to see people,” he said. “We have been cooped up for so long. So, it feels great to get outside.”
When asked if she was worried that the show’s title would discourage viewers after such a chaotic year, Leslie Ann Leal, who plays co-emcee Summer, told Variety, “One time, a lady asked what I was doing in Austin. I was like, well, I’m filming a project. She said, so what is it called? I said ‘Panic.’ She’s like, ‘Panic’? Great, just what we need. And then she walked away and I didn’t know what to say!”
However, Oliver explained that viewers who gave the series a watch would come away with a different feeling.
“I was concerned about hashtags such as #dontpanic because panic, the actual feeling, is not something that you can just choose to not feel,” Oliver said. “And that’s very important, I think mental health has not even been at the forefront as much as it should be. ‘Panic,’ ultimately, I think I would be worried about that if the show ultimately said something different about panic than it does. I think that when you see the trailer, you might believe and you are kind of supposed to believe something that the show ultimately reveals to be a lie about many of the ways in which the world tells you to be afraid.”
All 10 episodes of “Panic” are available now on Amazon.