There’s been a lot of buzz building over the past few weeks around “Dead Set”, the new 5-part zombie horror series set in a fictional “Big Brother” house. UK readers can watch the show right now as it broadcasts on E4 every night this week until Friday, ahead of its DVD release on 3rd November.
Attending the press launch for the series with my good friends Paul McEvoy (FrightFest) and Chris Tilly (IGN) the three of us had the opportunity to sit down with “Dead Set” writer/producer Charlie Brooker, actors Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Adam Deacon (Space) and Chizzy Akudolu (Angel), plus director Yann Demange to talk about what happens when zombies meet reality TV.
Q: When you wrote the original concept did you already have Big Brother on board?
Charlie Brooker: The original idea was simply “24’ with zombies but then I was literally watching “Big Brother” and thought it’s a siege, it’s perfect, and I’m perfectly placed to do it. There was a point where it looked like we weren’t going to get it done; there were a lot of variables, it had to go through Channel 4 because they own the copyright to “Big Brother”, and it looked like they weren’t going to do it. So we were going to take it to BBC Three and then we’d have had to make it like “Voyeur House” or whatever and that would have been a pain in the arse in that you’d have to explain the rules or how it was slightly different from “Big Brother” to avoid a legal case. The joy of doing it with “Big Brother” is that everybody knows how it works and everyone’s got an opinion, whether they think it’s the most appalling pornographic piece of shit ever broadcast or a great big laugh.
Q:And where do you fall?
Charlie Brooker: I’m somewhere in the middle. You get a lot of people who define themselves by how much they dislike “Big Brother” and they make a huge show of going, “Turn that shit off, I will not have that in my house!” like a Victorian gentleman talking to a strumpet, and I’m not one of them and nor am I one of these people who go, “It’s all brilliant, I love it when they all boo at people and call them cunt.” I’ve watched a lot of it and I always find that I’ll watch the launch night and I’ll think these people are pricks and then all it takes is for me to really hate one of them and then I’m like I’ve got to watch it. It’s like an amplifier – I’ve described it as a twat amplifier – where you take all the characteristics of somebody and magnify them. It’s like being locked in a room with somebody and things seem massively significant or somebody will seem like the biggest fucker you’ve ever seen in your life. I’ve sat there and voted for people. Then they come out and you see them being interviewed and they’re quite reasonable really; it’s just a person.
Q: How did you feel about the reality TV element in the script?
Kathleen McDermott: I think it was bound to happen that somebody was going to make a programme about reality makers on TV, so I think this is a way of actors getting revenge on reality people, showing them how we actually do real acting (laughs). I thought it would be good when I was reading it, I mean everybody got around at one point and said, “What would happen if somebody actually did get stuck in the Big Brother house?” We really thought about it, the reality of it.
Andy Nyman: I think that “Big Brother” is such a part of the fabric of what television has become in this country, to see the mechanics of it a little bit is firstly very sexy because you don’t think beyond those four walls when you see the thing and secondly, just to get a glimpse at how it all works only enhances it for when you see it next time. It’s that brilliant smiling out for the cameras, but that fucking anything-for-ratings under the surface.
Jaime Winstone: I’ve seen “Big Brother”, I mean we all watched the first one, it’s an amazing human experiment. I can’t say I watch it now but when I first met Yann I was figuratively spitting with excitement. I really love it, just because it’s such a good combination of amazing writing and drama and a touch of reality TV, I really think it does it justice. It’s so different and fresh and new, perfect for the new 21st century generation audience, it’s just what we need right now I think.
Q: You all seem genuinely enthusiastic about Charlie’s script and the finished product.
Jaime Winstone: It really does push boundaries and kind of shocks you in terms of what you see. You know, it’s amazing that we’ve gone there with it and everyone’s been so game. The combination of Charlie writing it and Yann shooting it and the production side of it, that combination of three different aspects works so well with the bunch of actors that we had, it’s really good.
Andy Nyman: It’s clearly a really smart idea and a great script. We all know that we see things that are great ideas, the scripts are good and then something just gets lost and it doesn’t quite work. But with “Dead Set” I think we are all genuinely proud and excited about it.
Chizzy Akudolu: I did an audition on Thursday and I didn’t find out until the Monday and all that weekend I was like if I don’t get this then there’s no way I can watch it when it comes out, I can’t even be in the country, I’d just go mad! The script is brilliant, I love my character; she’s moody, kicking up a storm and I was ready, very ready. I watched 28 Weeks Later before the audition and after I did my lines I asked if I could do my ‘zombie face’ – I think my acting was crap but it was just my ‘zombie face’ that was brilliant (laughs).
Adam Deacon: For me, again, I thought it was really fresh. And I’d worked with Yann before when I was sixteen so I went for an audition and I never got a call back and – like Chizzy was just saying – I really wanted the part so I called him up and I found out that I was still in the running and a few days later I got the part and I was seriously over the moon. This job was such an exciting job, it’s so fresh and new, you want to be part of it. It looks like we had a much bigger budget than we did so I have to take my hat off to Yann. If it had been left in the wrong hands it could have become very corny. It has to be said I think Charlie’s writing is amazing, it really is fantastic. It’s laugh out loud funny, especially the character of Patrick who’s supposed to be the producer of “Big Brother”, I was like, wow, how would Endemol allow this?
Q: Can you say a little about the character of Patrick?
Andy Nyman: I play Patrick, the producer of the show who is just a fucking animal. But what’s delicious about him really, I think, is that certainly as it progresses is that he’s sort of right a lot of the time. As you get deeper into it, whilst the bile is so Charlie Brooker – not necessarily that that’s what he thinks – but as you get more and more into the plot so much of what he espouses rings true, so it’s interesting, you kind of hate him for that.
Q: And whose idea was the moustache?
Andy Nyman: I went in to audition with the ‘tache and I got this call the next day saying they want to offer it to you, do not shave that moustache off!
Kathleen McDermott: It’s so spectacular; it makes him even more annoying.
Andy Nyman: It does, doesn’t it? I didn’t really think about it but it’s perfect.
Q: Did you get much input from the “Big Brother” team?
Yann Demange: To be honest with you, we didn’t really need it because Charlie is such an expert on “Big Brother”, he knows it so well, we didn’t really need a consultant. I mean, I don’t have a clue about “Big Brother”, I’d be more interested in the narrative and he’d be the authenticity, the litmus test, he’d tell me this is “Big Brother”. We were always researching for it to be truthful.
Charlie Brooker: Weirdly “Dead Set” is going through Zeppotron and it’s part of Endemol, but creatively it’s completely independent so you’d think that the “Big Brother” production team, when they got wind of it, would immediately be like, “What are you saying about the show, how are you depicting the staff?” but there was none of that, they we’re just like, “Oh brilliant, anything we can do to help?” The scene where Pippa’s being evicted we did on a real eviction night this year and they put an extra half hour time delay on it just for us so that we could use their crowd, so they really went out of their way to help us. At no time was there any, “Who’s this Patrick character, why is he such a bastard? We wouldn’t do this,” it was almost disappointing. They basically said, “Great, do what you like, it’s very exciting isn’t it? Good, you mean we all get killed? Great!”
Q: Did you get to see any of “Big Brother’ being filmed?
Andy Nyman: I never saw any of it being filmed, but Kathleen had the joy of doing the eviction night.
Kathleen McDermott: The eviction night was absolutely fantastic; I loved every minute of it. I was in the camera run and it was so weird seeing how small the house was compared to the one we had on set. That’s what Davina kept saying as well, the set we had was twice the size of the real “Big Brother” house, it was huge. I could hear them all screaming behind the doors – it was Belinda’s eviction night – and I was like, are they going to boo, are they going to cheer? You just don’t know what they’re going to do; it really is just a pantomime. But when you’re standing there and you hear Davina shouting, “You have been evicted!” you know that the doors are going to open any minute now and it was a brilliant experience. I’ve never stayed in the “Big Brother” house so that’s the closest I’m going to get to it.
Q: Would you like to be a contestant on “Big Brother”?
Chizzy Akudolu: Hell no!
Kathleen McDermott: No, not after that.
Andy Nyman: All the joy of the eviction, none of the pain of being in there.
Jaime Winstone: It’s just mental, I’d go crazy.
Adam Deacon: This programme really shows what goes on behind the scenes… so for me, no, I wouldn’t want to be on “Big Brother”.
Q: I spotted a number of ex-housemates in the opening episode and of course you’ve got Davina McCall [“Big Brother” host] playing herself too.
Charlie Brooker: There are quite a few blink and you’ll miss it cameos as we didn’t want to give them huge speaking parts because they’re not actors but you’ll see a couple of them as zombies. When Davina is eating somebody in the corridor that’s Eugene she’s eating so that’s one for your viewing number three on DVD. We wanted them in the sense that you might notice they’re there in a crowd of zombies, like Saskia, Aisleyne and Brian, they’re sort of there but we’re not going, “Look, look at that!”
Kathleen McDermott: When I saw Davina doing her takes running down the corridor chasing you [Andy], I was watching her behind the scenes and she was surprisingly good at that, she had her hands outstretched and her face –
Kathleen McDermott: Brilliant. I love the whole scene where her head is resting against the water cooler, the way she’s doubled over.
Andy Nyman: That’s phenomenal that sequence, that Mika song, what a great choice!
Q: There’s quite a lot of humour to begin with but then it gets a lot darker doesn’t it?
Charlie Brooker: In terms of hardcore horror what you see in the first episode is nothing compared with what happens later. I was extremely gratified when I had a rough cut of one of the episodes and I showed it to somebody and she ran out of the room and vomited, that was great!
Chizzy Akudolu: I think with zombies and with horror you have to go for it and I really believe that we haven’t had anything on TV like this before.
Andy Nyman: Absolutely, as it should, it’s very dark but I think there’s that Charlie kind of core of bleak humour, sort of acid that runs through it all. I don’t want to say too much about what happens but it certainly leaves you with that empty dread that all good zombie things should really.
Q: Were you held back by making this for television, was there anything you wanted to show that you couldn’t?
Yann Demange: No, actually one of the cool things was that E4 never lost their bottle. I always thought they were going to censor us and actually they just let me and Charlie run riot with it and it gets more violent and the humour gets darker all the way through to episode five and we were never censored, so actually where I thought they might not let us do all of this, they did, so fair play to them.
Charlie Brooker: I think there was maybe a bit of a worry at one point about a scene with a knife at the time when knife crime was very much in the ether because people were getting knives stuck in them like pin cushions, but apart from that I’ve been amazed that we’ve got a few Fulci-like moments in it. We’ve got a bit of eye trauma which is the classic Fulci staple, we’ve got a prolonged evisceration and we’ve got quite a lot of feasting because I thought there’s not enough feasting in zombie films these days, you don’t see them fucking eating enough. I mean the effects guys who did a fantastic job were just in hog heaven, they were like kids in a toy shop. I think one of them walked off The Wolfman to work on this because he was like, “You mean for TV I’m getting to show people being pulled in half? Fantastic!” And you’d think that they’d say it’s too gory, but no, weirdly they haven’t. Maybe they will the night before it goes out and suddenly it’ll be broadcast with pixellation!
Adam Deacon: You know, in society right now it’s unbelievable, you get so used to hearing, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” If you’re in the cinema you can get away with a lot more than you can on TV so I think this is a series that really pushes the boundaries and says, “People want to see this kind of stuff so let’s give it to them.”
Q: So you didn’t hold back when you were writing the script?
Charlie Brooker: If anything, when you watch a horror film you want those cum shots; there’s no point in a 15 certificate zombie movie, you want to see somebody being fucking ripped apart at some point or otherwise why have you bothered? So we tried to build at least one of those moments into each episode and then around episode four and five hopefully by then people are really hooked and then we really throw it at them with great big meaty handfuls so that’s about the point when people will be going, “I wish I hadn’t started getting into this programme, I feel a bit sick.” So if anything we were totally up for going the other way. Yann did an amazing job I think. Because we had the budget for a digital TV programme, the idea was always to do something with a cinematic sensibility and I think he pulled that off. He wasn’t originally a fan of the genre, he hadn’t watched many zombie films but he honed up and did his homework and really got into them, the Romero movies, and he really got it and then he was egging me on to write in a few more bits, you know that balance between absolutely gratuitous gore and amusingly gratuitous gore, and I think hopefully we’ve struck the right balance.
Q: Are you a fan of zombie films and do you prefer the fast ones or the classic slow types?
Chizzy Akudolu: I’m not a big fan of zombie films. When I was growing up I couldn’t take them seriously because I always thought you could just run around them and get away.
Andy Nyman: I’ve got to say, it’s all changed, the rug has been pulled out now – [REC], number one. It’s extraordinary, properly scary – I can’t remember the last time I was that scared, oh my god! Before that, again maybe not a popular answer, but the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, I preferred it to the original, I know that’s sacrilege, but I really did.
Charlie Brooker: I like both. I think in the remake of Dawn Of The Dead they kind of had their cake and eat it. If I’m right they start off running and then as they decompose they get a bit slower, when they’re like bigger in numbers. We’ve sort of gone for that although I think basically once you’ve seen zombies running then if we’d gone for shambling zombies in this then I think you’d have just laughed, like in Shaun Of The Dead. Because we’ve got a lot of comic elements going on as well, I think if you combine that with ‘the shamblers’, as I like to think of them, you would just laugh every time you saw one and we wanted you to be scared of them. There’s also a practical consideration which is that it’s cheaper; if you’ve got running zombies you can have one and it’s a threat whereas in an old Romero movie you need ten, minimum, to pose a real threat or else you can just stroll away from them with a fedora on. So we’ve got fewer of them but it means later on when we do have them in large numbers you think fucking hell I’ve seen them all running around so I know they’re a real problem.
Andy Nyman: There’s a scene later on where I’m being chased and there’s no let up and there was no, “Okay let’s slow down a bit, Andy’s only got short legs, he’s a bit heavier than he should be, let’s just slow it down…” no fucking way.
Q: Were you scared when you were filming the zombie scenes?
Jaime Winstone: Your instincts and your imagination are your only tools and you have to use them and be scared and feel fear, and the reality of it is we’re making a zombie programme and oh my god, these people are eating people and they’re dead and they’re walking, and that’s what I love, it’s fucking hardcore.
Chizzy Akudolu: The first one I encountered was the zombie in the camera run and when I first saw him he was sat in a chair getting his make up done. I thought the make up was brilliant, it’s scary.
Adam Deacon: The make up is very convincing. There was such a low budget they didn’t have a lot time to do this stuff but I think they got the best make up artists out there.
Kathleen McDermott: You are genuinely scared when you’re doing it. I’ve got a friend who did The Descent and I was asking her did you get scared and she said, “We were because they didn’t let anyone see what the crawlers looked like before they actually went out,” so I wanted to know if that’s what I’m going to be like when something’s coming at me and I’m thinking oh my god, what do I do?
Andy Nyman: It is scary. And also the reality is when you hear ‘Action’ on anything your heart goes, your blood’s pumping a bit, your adrenalin’s going and then when you’re playing the game of ‘we’re scared’ and when they’re at the gates and there’s 150 of them coming at you –
Q: You shit yourself?
Q: Did you get to improvise much on set?
Jaime Winstone: Yes, Yann’s quite free like that, he was so good in terms of where our characters were going. There’s a lot of stuff, screaming and crying in the script that you just have to take to your own place, your own level and Yann did that with me. You know, he stuck me in a room and put a zombie outside and I was scared, and that’s what you want as an actor.
Andy Nyman: We [Patrick and Pippa] spend two days in that room together and it’s so well written, my god, they are chalk and cheese. I think we were lucky actually; the way it worked was because the script is so good, it’s a joy to act this stuff, so once that was done and in the bag they really allowed us to do what we wanted, especially the stuff in the room. They’d leave it running after takes, if there were lines that didn’t feel right then we could mess about with them, there’s a lot in there that’s improvised actually. We had such a hotbed in that room!
Kathleen McDermott: We were cooped up in that room so long they thought they might as well let us go for it, so that’s what we did, we just totally let rip.
Andy Nyman: You can really see even in those opening scenes she wants to fuck me! (laughs)
Q: Do you think you will sell the idea to other countries?
Charlie Brooker: I don’t know, I dare say they might, it’s there for the taking, definitely. I know that we’ve had some interest from horror fans abroad who’ve expressed an interest. In the States we’ve got some meetings coming up with people who’ve got wind of it. We haven’t really tried to push it over there, we’re going to see what happens. They have “Big Brother” but it’s not a very big show over there so I don’t know how much of it translates. If they could pick it up and show it for shit all on their network then maybe they’d do their own version and then I’d get a tan and I’d be in an office in the Universal lot fucking an intern, I don’t know. (Sarcastically) Yes, that’s what’s going to happen.
Q: Would you like to do more horror in the future?
Jaime Winstone: Hell yeah! I am a big, big horror girl, I grew up on horror from the likes of The Shining to Fright Night, horror’s my thing. That’s what moves me and makes me scared and that’s what I love when I watch something, so definitely more horror to come I think.
Charlie Brooker: I’d love to do something that’s short form like “The Twilight Zone”, “Tales Of The Unexpected’ or “Hammer House Of Horror’, something like that, because I really loved those sorts of shows. I have a lot of ideas that could sustain half an hour basically and are nasty so I’d like to see something like that but it’s difficult to sell in this day and age but hopefully if this is a success then it’ll happen.
Many thanks to the “Dead Set” team for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll be posting a full review of the series here very soon; be sure to check out the official “Dead Set” site to learn more about the show!