The Director of ‘Escape the Undertaker’ On How WWE Went Interactive
Pro wrestling is a unique hybrid of sports and artistic endeavor, and it requires its performers to adapt to the whims of an audience on any given night. The wrestlers respond on the fly to the crowd and vice versa, playing to the fans for sympathy or derision. It’s a highly interactive medium — which makes the WWE an interesting choice for an interactive special on Netflix.
Their first is called Escape the Undertaker, and it stars a 30-year veteran of the WWE, the Undertaker (real name Mark Calaway), cast as his in-ring character — a vengeful, all-powerful graveyard employee — as he protects his mystical urn (long a staple of his wrestling act, supposedly the source of his supernatural grappling prowess) from the team of the New Day — Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods. They want the urn for themselves, and so they arrive at the Undertaker’s house — yes, the Undertaker lives in a surprisingly posh mansion — to steal it. But there are many different rooms to explore, along with secret passages and hidden surprises. In this interactive special, the viewer gets to decide where the New Day goes, and how they try to snatch the urn from the Deadman’s possession.
The man who directed this unusual blend of film and video game is Ben Simms, who’s already a veteran of several previous interactive shows for Netflix, including You vs. Wild, where users get to decide how survival expert Bear Grylls navigates his way through some treacherous terrain. This time, Simms trades out the jungle for the squared circle; we spoke to him about what goes into making these kinds of interactive specials and how it compares to a traditional feature. We also learned what it’s like directing the Undertaker, and why Escape the Undertaker seemed to anticipate one current WWE storyline.
What are the specific challenges of making something interactive versus making a more traditional narrative feature of the same basic story?
The simplest way to put it is any challenge you’re going to have in a regular TV show or film is increased exponentially. Any little tweaks you’re going to make, it’s not just “Oh, we need to do this twice.” It’s usually “We’re going to need to do this 4x or 8x times.” Which is also part of the fun of it; trying to make that puzzle work. You just have to find creative ways to maximize your production value and storytelling, much like you would in anything else. It’s just sort of amped up a bit.
Is there a known number of distinct variations of Escape the Undertaker you can watch? Like how many different paths are there through the story?
I honestly don’t know off-hand how many different variations. I will say that it takes a good two or three viewings to get close to seeing every aspect of the story, and that’s if you’re making different choices every time. That’s one thing I loved about this title is there’s a lot of different ways to experience it. And the idea you’re going to get a different version of the story and different levels of success, the more you try to navigate it — that]s the fun of interactive.
How much of making an interactive film is putting yourself into the mindset of the viewer and trying to figure out the way people’s minds works? You have to give them choices that are going to be appealing. And I imagine you can’t make the choices too easy — you want them to sweat out what to do, I assume.
Oh yeah. That’s the main thing going into it is it’s important for it to be balanced. That’s what you want; you want it to be a close call. You don’t want it to seem so obvious.
At the same time, you can tell there’s some viewers that just want to torture the characters. They’re like “How much can we mess with this character?” Which is fun. That’s fun to do as well. Others just want to get the perfect score, or see how quickly or how unscathed can they get through it. At its core, it’s what’s true to the story. If there’s a choice that just seems like it’s out of left field and doesn’t make sense to the story or to the character, I think those are the worst types of choices. As long as it works within the world that’s created, that’s the way to go.
Where did you shoot the film? I was surprised to see the Undertaker living in a very nice mansion. I always envisioned him living in, like, a cemetery or a funeral parlor or something. I guess he’s been a wrestler for 30 years making a very good living.
Yeah, we shot the whole thing in Atlanta. And, yes, that was one big thing — this is a co-production with WWE —we all just tried to figure out what his lair looks like. There are some supernatural or surreal elements that you wouldn’t find in a normal house. We tried to strike that balance of keeping it mysterious, based somewhat in the real world where you can understand ... he has to live somewhere right? But again, there’s a morgue in the house, there’s other elements within the house that you wouldn’t normally see.
There’s a lot of different ways to do horror and suspense. I’m always a fan of monster in the house. It’s very relatable and you can get pretty creative with it. So that was part of what drove the decision as well.
Working with the Undertaker, who’s this character with a long and sometimes kind of confusing history in the canon of WWE, is there any kind of internal document of like the official mythology or continuity of the character?
It’s somewhat unwritten, but it’s coming from [Mark Calaway, AKA the Undertaker]. He was amazing to work with on the project. I did as much homework as I could to just make sure I really understood the character and the lore and his ethos and stuff.
But yeah, if something didn’t feel right, he would tell me. If it was on point, he was excited about it, I could tell. I’d like to think I did my job because for the most part as far as the story goes and the role that was create feels very on brand for him, and for the New Day.
I would imagine working with pro wrestlers would have some advantages in this kind of world and story. They’re used to working on the fly, so they’re probably good at improvisation. And the physical stuff they do all the time in their day jobs, so they probably can do most of their own stunts.
It was honestly an embarrassment of riches. They’re very used to doing live performances week in and week out, so that was very advantageous in terms of being efficient with how we shot things, and being able to adapt and get creative. They would have input and they did everything. All of them did everything themselves. So that was huge. We weren’t trying to do any sleight of hand or trying to hide anything, it’s just these guys in the house doing their thing.
There’s a line at one point where Big E is walking around and he sees the old championship belt, and he says something to the effect of “I need to get one of these.” And between when you shot the special and when it’s coming out on Netflix, Big E actually became WWE champion. How much credit do you want to personally take for his success? It’s almost like the show summoned that into existence.
Yeah, I took the urn and I willed that to happen.
Yeah it’s funny how that worked out. There was a lot of talk about how can we make sure this fits into the world of WWE. I can’t say there was ton of planning going into that line specifically, but we wanted to make sure we incorporated stuff from all of their careers. We all worked really hard to make it feel like it’s not just this standalone thing, but it’s within the world they all exist in. So it’s nice that you would pick up something like that because it’s not an accident.
I am fascinated by these interactive specials in general. And I’m wondering where it can go from here. Like, what is the next evolution of this? So far, most of what we’ve seen are anthology shows or self-contained one-off stories. Watching this, I’m wondering what the next step for this medium might be, whether it’s something bigger or more episodic. Do you have any sense what the next evolution of interactive might be?
I think the gap between TV, film, and video games is obviously closing and converging a bit. This type of interactive content is somewhere in the middle. So I think there’s a space for it, and for it to grow. I hope it gets bigger, because then it can be bigger and better stories. I just think there’ll be more and more ways to expand on storytelling that’s outside of TV and film.
Escape the Undertaker is available now on Netflix.