To many, Darren Lynn Bousman is seen as the director of cult horror films such as REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA, THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL, ABATTOIR, and of course, SAW II-IV. In the last few years, however, he has turned his sights to the immersive scene with the creation of THE TENSION EXPERIENCE and THE LUST EXPERIENCE, otherwise known as THE EXPERIENCES, an ARG (alternate reality game) surrounding a mysterious cult that brings participants together through the use of forums, mysterious phone calls and meetings, all of which culminate in the eventual lead up of the main shows.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Bousman about all things immersive, how the famed Russo Brothers (AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR) became involved in THE EXPERIENCES, as well as his upcoming psychological thriller ST. AGATHA.
“I was in the middle of something that NEEDED me to exist. I could not rely on my phone, or some distraction, I was the center of a story happening all around me. That moment everything changed for me.”
Darren Lynn Bousman
Hi Darren, thank you so much for speaking with me today! I think it’s safe to say that most people are familiar with your work from your films; however, you have now switched gears and have become a staple within the immersive/haunt community. For those not familiar with THE EXPERIENCES, can you tell us a little bit about what those are?
THE EXPERIENCES are real world activations that put you in the center role of the narrative. Movies are passive… they require little of you. Your role is to watch, and hopefully enjoy. The idea of THE EXPERIENCES are they require you to be ACTIVE. You must participate to unlock what it is. We love a good movie, right? Imagine instead of watching an actor playing a hero saving the victim, YOU are the hero, actually saving the victim. It’s Immersive. It’s much easier to get lost in a world where it is stimulating your five senses.
How did you get involved with the immersive community and what initially inspired, or was a source of inspiration for you, Clint Sears, and Gordon Bijelonic to start THE TENSION EXPERIENCE?
I became desensitized with feature films. There is such an over saturation with films it’s overwhelming. My films were getting lost in the sea of the millions of others out there. It was hard to get anyone to “truly” pay attention. Yes, people would download them, and click the play button, but were they truly present? Were they actually WATCHING the film? Or, were they checking Instagram or Facebook. Were they on Snapchat, and answering emails? We as a society have such short attention spans now, to get anyone to TRULY immersive themselves in the content has become harder, and harder…
I hit a wall. It was demoralizing. One morning a few years back I woke up and needed a break. I felt I was a hamster running on a wheel that never went anywhere. I went on a journey looking for something to inspire me… I went to New York and saw a ton of theater. One of the shows that I caught was Punchdrunk’s SLEEP NO MORE. One of the first things you have to do is turn your phone off and put on a mask. Two very simple requests, but I felt… felt… naked… Not only was I unable to communicate with the outside world for three hours, I was invisible behind this mask. For three hours, I was transported… I was not only in a different world, I felt moved, I felt important. I was turned on and pumping with adrenaline. Why? Because I was in the middle of something that NEEDED me to exist. I could not rely on my phone, or some distraction, I was the center of a story happening all around me. That moment everything changed for me.
At the end of March it was announced that THE EXPERIENCES would be partnering up with The Russo’s Brothers to bring these productions to new destinations, with the first being a permanent location in Las Vegas. How did this partnership come about?
The Russo’s are massive fans of Immersive. When TENSION opened in 2016, about halfway through our run, we received a phone call from Joe Russo’s camp, asking if we could squeeze him in at the last second. He had read some reviews and was working on CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, or maybe at that point THE AVENGERS… Him and about six of his team flew to LA for one evening to attend TENSION. The moment he left, I received a text message from him asking if they could go back the next night. It was pretty surreal.
Joe [Russo] came backstage and was enthralled with the mechanics on how something like this was pulled off. Again, talk about surreal, he has directed some of the biggest blockbusters ever, and yet here he was asking US questions. We stayed in touch after TENSION closed and he actually wrote an essay for me when I made the “Behind-the-Scenes of Tension” book. When we decided to do LUST, he was in the middle of shooting AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR… Once again, we get a phone call, Joe wants to fly in and participate. He flew in Friday night after wrapping shooting, and came to our Saturday show, then was back on set 24 hours later. We received a text message from him that week that said he loved what we were doing and wanted to help us realize what this could be. The rest is history!
The landscape of immersive experiences and haunts is changing at a rapid pace. One of the big conversations right now is safety and regulations, not just for the guests, but also for the creators. Having gone through both THE TENSION EXPERIENCE and THE LUST EXPERIENCE I can say I never felt unsafe. Are there specific protocols that you have in place to make sure that safety is always the number one factor? What advice would you give newcomers, especially fans of yours, who are interested in attending one of your shows but have never done an immersive experience?
Safety is a HUGE issue for us. All it takes is one accident all the hard work takes a back seat to injury. The trick in pulling one of these off is the “illusion” of danger. Making the audience feel like they are fucked without ever crossing that line. If people would peek behind the curtain they would be disappointed. What appears scary is mundane when you see it from our side. However, if we, and our actors, do our job correctly, your suspension of disbelief kicks in and you forget what this all is, and you do become terrified something is about to go terribly wrong.
One thing I will say that is important for Clint, Gordon and I is permitting and insurance. 95% of the work we do no one ever sees. Dealing with buildings and safety, dealing with fire departments and police chiefs and insurance brokers. We hope we are creating an environment where people trust us. And the only way to get that trust is to do the laborious work to ensure we, and them, are protected.
It’s clear that THE TENSION EXPERIENCE and THE LUST EXPERIENCE are just the beginning of this journey that you are all on. Why was it important to expand and where would like to see THE EXPERIENCES go? Piggy backing off of that, what changes would you like to see, not only with your events, but the immersive community as well?
Here is the biggest concern I have for Immersive Theater. If I look at the immersive community in Los Angeles, it’s the same 400 people that go to our show that go to Creep, that go to Delusion, that go to Nocturnal Fandango… It’s awesome that the immersive community feels like a family where everyone kind of knows everyone. However, these things need to expand past the die-hards. To quote Sean Parkers character in The Social Network, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” For this medium to grow, the audience must grow. I think there is still this stigma around the word immersive as the word itself has become over-saturated. Everyone throws it around now so it’s lost its power. I want to see the audience grow, and for new people to discover this insanely amazing art form.
Switching gears a bit, you have a new movie coming out titled ST. AGATHA. Can you tell us a little bit about the film?
ST. AGATHA came to me during THE TENSION EXPERIENCE. It was a small movie being shot in Atlanta. I read the script and envisioned doing it with the same family of TENSION. I spoke to the producers about it and convinced them to let me bring my team. I ended up taking like six of the TENSION actors to Atlanta as well as Clint Sears, the writer, to turn ST. AGATHA into something more in my wheelhouse. The story is set in the 1950’s in the south. A 20-something unwed woman ends up pregnant and due to a series of unfortunate events has nowhere to turn to deliver her child. You must remember, in the 1950’s it was absolutely taboo to have a child out of wedlock. Our heroine (Sabrina Kern) turns to this convent in hopes of using them until her child is brought into this world. Needless to say, horrible things happen.
As you mentioned, you brought along some of your TENSION family, most notably Sabrina Kern, who plays the main character in THE TENSION EXPERIENCE. How was it going from directing her in an ever-evolving production to directing her in a stand-alone film?
Sabrina is my BFF. There are certain people you just “click” with and Sabrina and I just click. I see this as the beginning of a very long relationship. I’m lucky. I’ve been lucky in my career that I can work with people I like. If you go back through my films you will see I have a stable of actors I use again, and again, and again. It was also awesome to see her grow as an actress. This was her first feature film. I championed her from the beginning. She is a talent.
ST. AGATHA is being described as a “female-driven, elevated genre film” with a strong female cast at the forefront. What was it about the screenplay that made you want to become involved?
The first draft of the screenplay written by Sara Someetti Michaels, Andy Demetrip, and Shaun Fletcher was brutal. I mean, fucking brutal. I remember the first time I read it I was like ummmm this is fucking dark. And that says a lot coming from me. I met with Sara who is also one of the producers on the film. She sold me on the world, and her vision for why she wanted to make it. I brought in Clint Sears, also of THE TENSION EXPERIENCE, to help me turn what they wrote into something more in my wheelhouse. Clint and I have been collaborating for almost 20 years now, and I wanted someone to jump in that I thought could balance the sensitivity of the subject with the visceral nature of violence.
I have to ask, since you are directing such a female-centric film, many may wonder why not have a woman director helm the movie. What would be your response to that and was there specific research you did to help understand the backstories of these female characters better?
Hollywood and movies are a business. With the success of the SAW franchise, I have been able to get a certain level of film green lit as a director. Sadly, I have not had the same luck with producing. My name means little to nothing as a producer, hopefully soon that will change. Originally in the script, if I recall correctly, there were a lot more male parts. When the script started to restructure we thinned out the roles and were left with a 90% female cast. That said, if you go back through my films, the majority of them feature a female as the lead protagonist. SAW II (Shawnee Smith), REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (Alexa Vega), MOTHER’S DAY (Rebecca DeMornay), ABATTOIR (Jessica Lowndes), THE TENSION EXPERIENCE was all about Sabrina Kern… and the last thing I just produced, CROW’S BLOOD, once again, an all female cast. I grew up around strong women… I live with the strongest woman I have ever met right now, my wife Laura. To me, I guess, I see them as people and not genders. They too have stories, and for whatever reason, I have also just connected with material where females are the central lead in the narrative.
Between THE EXPERIENCES and promoting ST. AGATHA, I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy busy you must be. With that said, I know you are always thinking a step ahead, so do you have any additional projects you are working on that you can talk about?
Back to Immersive Theater for me! I am devoting the next year to building Tension, and another yet, unnamed immersive project I am working on!