Once upon a time, books were everything. Then movies were the star of the show. TV stole the limelight in recent years — and then streaming became the hot new thing.
Funnily enough, the behind the scenes journey of action thriller Most Dangerous Game echoes that evolution of the media landscape. This new adaptation of a classic short story began life as a movie before nearly becoming a TV show, and now it's arriving on our screens in a whole new form on bite-size streaming service Quibi.
Quibi, which launched April 6, features dramas, comedies, reality shows and documentaries released in "quick bites": episodes that are under 10 minutes long. A host of stars are involved, from Reese Witherspoon, Usher and Lena Waithe to Will Forte, Chrissy Teigen and Megan Rapinoe. Meanwhile, Most Dangerous Game stars Liam Hemsworth as a dying man accepting Christoph Waltz's invitation to be the prey in a hunt to the death.
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To find out more about Most Dangerous Game's twists and turns behind the camera, as well as shooting for Quibi's innovative "Turnstyle" feature, I had a phone chat with showrunner Nick Santora.
Q: With most of us quarantined at home by the coronavirus, it's an interesting time to launch a streaming service.
Santora: I'm just providing the stories, but anything I've ever written that helps people kill some time and take their mind off their worries, that makes me happy.
Was Most Dangerous Game created especially for Quibi?
About 10 years ago the writing team, Josh Harmon and Scott Elder, wrote a feature script. Then maybe seven or eight years ago some producers brought the script to me to take a rewrite pass at it. I read it and I thought what Josh and Scott had written was really interesting: the story of a desperate man who gets pulled into this incredible situation. I did my pass on the feature script, but like the vast majority of movies, it never got made. It was an independent company, didn't get financing, I don't know the whole story. Writers never know the whole story!
So, years later I'm working at [television production company] CBS Studios, and I tell them I worked on this project I think could be a TV series. [Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.] We set it up at NBC network. They were very excited by it, and then the executive who was the biggest supporter of the project, Jennifer Salke, took on a new exciting position as the big chief over at Amazon Prime Video. As often happens in the entertainment industry, when a champion of your project moves on, your project can kind of disappear, and it just didn't wind up happening at NBC.
More years pass. Then Quibi is launched. They liked the pilot script that was written for NBC, but I had to take that 48-, 50-page pilot script and turn it into a 135-or-so-page feature told in these minichapters, which was a new way of writing for me.
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Obviously it wasn't a case of dividing it up and handing it in?
I wish it was that easy! I have writer friends with old scripts they never showed anybody or that never got made, and they thought they could just whack their script into 7-to-10-page chunks and sell it to Quibi, and it just doesn't work that way. Quibi would see those efforts — or lack of effort — from a mile away.
What you have to do is treat each one of these chapters, these minibites, as a separate episode with a beginning, middle and end. Even if it's a smaller part of a larger collective story, each of these chapters has to take you on a ride with an arc, and it has to end with a twist or a turn or a cliffhanger or reveal — something that makes the audience say, I want to watch the next one. It's a potato chip. You eat one potato chip and you want to eat the next one.
Quibi was happy with how it came out, which is a testament to the original writers, and to the crew and cast and to the director, Phil Abraham, who just absolutely crushed this thing. He's so talented and such a pro.
What was it like sort of shooting for Quibi's Turnstyle feature, which shows a different image depending how you hold your phone?
From the beginning, we knew prep would be integral, because not only did we have to have the traditional storytelling format of the horizontal visual frame, we had to have the vertical frame be visually arresting if people turned their phones. So at the beginning of this process Phil asked if there there was money in the budget for a third camera that could be dedicated to shooting images for the vertical frame.
My response — what the heck do I know, I'm a writer — let me ask our line producer who deals with the budget. We worked it out, and we have wonderful visuals whether you're holding the phone horizontally or vertically, as a direct result of the hard prep that was done by everybody beforehand. It's also, after 20 years in the business, exhilarating to prep and produce a film in a way you've never done before, after hundreds of episodes of television.
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So did you have a vertical camera and a horizontal camera shooting at the same time?
This is where the talent of someone like Phil Abraham comes into play. Phil and I would know what the intention of the scene was, what we needed to get out of it emotionally and story-wise. Once the locations were found, Phil and his DP [director of photography] and his entire crew looked at it, and together they would come up with a visual composition that was interesting in the traditional sense and filled the frame in the new vertical manner.
They had the camera set up so while they were shooting the traditional horizontal frame that people are used to when they watch a movie or television show, they also had a camera capturing a different shot with more above and beyond. So if two characters are talking in front of a skyscraper, the horizontal shot shows the two characters, maybe tight on their profiles, and for the vertical we capture these two people dwarfed by this massive skyscraper that goes from the bottom of your phone to the top of your phone. We wanted to make sure we weren't providing Quibi with a vertical that was just the horizontal with a big block of black on the top and a big block of black on the bottom.
Finally, the show is based on the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell, that's been adapted into many movies. What did you feel was relevant about the concept, and what needed updating?
What is relevant is the concept of an ordinary human being trapped in extraordinary circumstances. As for updating, we shot in Detroit, one of the coolest, most fun cities in the world. Detroit's got a great history, and we were able to incorporate some of the more iconic locales of a great American city.