Shoot to Kill

April 2001--Production designer Gideon Ponte, who got his start as a curator in the London art scene, has made his name in movies with such high-concept independent projects as Michael Almereyda's Hamlet and Mary Harron's American Psycho. His latest, USA Films release Series 7, is also concept-driven, but with a very different feel. The movie, which is written and directed by Daniel Minahan, takes the form of an episode marathon from a reality TV show called The Contenders. Video cameras follow six contestants, including heavily pregnant reigning champ Dawn (Brooke Smith), around suburban Newbury, CT, as they attempt to kill each other.

Ponte describes his job on Series 7 as "protector of the concept." All of the sets were locations (mostly found in the filmmaker's home town of Danbury, CT) that the designer helped select and that his bare-boned crew slightly altered to fit the needs of the film. "We went in with the idea of not tinkering with anything, but obviously there's a script, and there are characters," says Ponte, who between recent films has designed Gucci campaigns and Madonna's latest album. "I went in and tried to make it work, I guess that's it. It was really odd, because American Psycho was completely built, and after that, I just wanted to get back to something much more raw. The main thing was just nailing it—making sure that at no point did we try to make it artistic."

To suitably "nail" the look, the designer says he watched "a ton of these programs": things like The Real World, American's Most Wanted, and Cops (Series 7 was shot in 1999, when Survivor was a mere gleam in CBS' eye). "One I particularly liked," says Ponte, "was The Learning Channel's Trauma: Life in the ER. It was just sort of gratuitous. You really can see people dying, and it's completely accepted. And it's really bizarre that that's a possibility, that it's sanitary and easy to watch."

The Series 7 screenplay was developed in the Sundance Writers Lab, a process in which Ponte was involved. Something of a proprietary sense may have been at work in one of the most important things the designer says he did to definitively establish the look of the film: "I made sure we went to Connecticut to shoot it. Originally Killer Films, the producer, was like, we can shoot it in Staten Island. I said, I don't think that sounds like a good idea; it's not the same."

The script didn't offer that many clues to Ponte. "It's not written in that Brooke's character's sister should live in a mansion, or that the teenage contender should have a fairly modernist house," he says. These elements were worked out in preproduction with Minahan, followed by a scouting process that Ponte says must have driven location manager Andrew Yeo crazy. "It was looking for a found object, but for each of the houses, the ones we used weren't the only ones we looked at. It had to have the character in it." For a middle-aged nurse contender, "we wanted to have this overdecorated, precious home"; a cop character needed "an evacuated environment with a satellite dish bigger than the house almost." As for the teenager, "you had to get the feeling that she wasn't allowed to make a mess, even in her own bedroom."

The location manager was also surprised that, in most cases, Ponte wanted to use the locations with not a lot in the way of alteration, more "taking away stuff" than anything. An eccentric older male contender who lives in a rundown bunker-style environment "was the only one who was a full dress. I found a house that I liked, but it had been abandoned. We got insulation material and went crazy with it."

The movie's off-camera announcer, graphics, and music all contribute to the illusion of reality TV, but most crucial to the effect was DP Randy Drummond's digital camerawork. Says Ponte, "We looked at all the different video standards, because we didn't want it to look degraded; we wanted it to have an electronic feel, but be able to pump it up to 35mm." From a design standpoint, he adds that there was some nervousness about what the video would do to reds and other colors. "But we didn't avoid them, because if this were a real reality show, you couldn't."

Photo credit: Abbot Genser ©2000 USA Films.