‘Escape the Undertaker’ Director Ben Simms Talks ‘Taker, VR, and the Future of Netflix
Netflix’s new “choose your own adventure”-style interactive special, “Escape the Undertaker” finally releases today, allowing viewers to traverse the Undertaker’s mansion as they control WWE’s The New Day to see if they can survive the horrors that await. The Streamable spoke to the film’s director, Ben Simms, about what viewers can expect from the special, as well as his thoughts on the future of Netflix’s content offerings.
Ben Simms On ‘Escape the Undertaker’
Simms said he was approached with the opportunity to work on ‘Taker by Netflix themselves after his work on “You vs. Wild.” “The executives I worked with there brought it to me, saying, ‘You know we could probably do something pretty cool with this,’” Simms said. “Obviously, it’s got some big names from WWE and that was the exciting part of the opportunity: it’s a pre-established brand with pretty iconic characters”
Simms really seemed to enjoy his time not just with the Undertaker himself, but with The New Day — WWE Superstars Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods — who serve as the story’s protagonists. “They’re super collaborative,” Simms said. “They obviously know their characters better than anybody, right? So yeah, that guided a lot of the storytelling as well in a fun way.”
We tried our best to pry some info from Simms about which WWE Superstars or Legends we could expect to see in Taker, but he wouldn’t budge, saying, “There’s a couple of surprises. I don’t want to give away too much, but I know there’s one person that fans will be pleasantly surprised to see. Someone close in the Undertaker’s circle.”
He did, however, give us some insight on how the Undertaker’s long, illustrious career would be showcased throughout the special. “Escape the Undertaker is really all about the Undertaker and The New Day, but there’ll be a couple of winks and nods. There was a treasure trove of things we could reference but we wanted to concentrate on the fact that The Undertaker is so mysterious, so how do we get to the core of him as a character?”
Fear not, wrestling fans, Simms assures us that we’ll be able to “take a bit of a trip down memory lane,” and that we’ll for sure “need to watch the film multiple times to catch everything.” Our fingers are crossed for an American Badass reference.
The New Day as the Perfect Protagonists
While we completely agree that The New Day, who are just as much fans of pro wrestling as they are proud to be pro wrestlers, serve as great protagonists, we brought up the idea that we could’ve potentially seen John Cena or Roman Reigns as the stars of this special. Simms said it has to do with the past vs. present motif, as well as the talent themselves.
“There were just a lot of tropes we looked at in terms of the old school versus the new school. The way (‘Taker and The New Day) approach the sport is just very different. And yet at the same time, all parties involved are massively successful. So I think the big thing, especially with interactivity, is making sure everybody has somebody to root for, you know, so there are aspects in this story where perhaps they might get split up and stuff for a while.”
“And the hope is, as a viewer, you’re kind of aligning yourself with who you identify as a character, for better or worse in some cases. I think the juxtaposition between The Undertaker and The New Day who, in many ways, couldn’t be more different was fun to play with. But at the same time, I think through the story, you kind of find out at the core they’re similar in some ways.”
The Creative Process for Interactive Films
As someone who has done quite a bit of interactive content — 2 seasons of “You vs. Wild” and the upcoming ‘Taker flick, Simms has a good idea of how to start formulating the story for one of his projects. “I’ve probably done about 14 hours of interactive, and between the ‘vs. Wilds’ series and ‘Escape the Undertaker,’ I slowly kind of see what works for me — that the story is going to pretty much always dictate my approach,” Simms said. “You kind of start with a spine or a game plan and, and just based on budget and time, you have to have a general idea, but not until you’re really entrenched in the story are you going to find there are certain things that you can expand on.”
When asked about whether or not he has to devise a set number of branches per each story, Simms said that there’s no “magic number,” but that, yet again, the story dictates how the filming goes. “I don’t personally think there’s a sweet spot of, ‘Okay, there’s got to be this many choices,’ it’s just got to be true to the story,” Simms said. “It’s somewhat different every time, but you pick up little tricks along the way on how you can be efficient.”
Simms cites the Undertaker project as one that he’s especially proud of when it comes to efficiency, crediting the actors themselves for making it such a smooth project. “I was super happy (that), we were really able to squeeze every ounce of production value out of it, in large part because of the talent,” Simms said. “I mean, those guys do live shows every week, right? If not multiple times a week. They’re on point, we were never waiting on them. That was a huge blessing because it bought us time, and we could just really get into stuff.”
“We were moving as if it was live, pace-wise as we were putting stuff together. And there’s an energy to that. And at the same time, if we had to redo something or something wasn’t right or we want to try something else, moving at that speed bought us the autonomy to then pump the brakes a bit when we needed to, to be like, ‘Okay, this is a linchpin scene — how do we get that right?’ When it works out that way, it’s really fun.”
The Challenge and Promise of Interactive Films
Simms seems to enjoy the interactive medium, citing it as an exciting challenge to attack. “What’s always been interesting to me about interactive and also the challenge is telling multiple stories multiple ways, which is exciting,” Simms said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re staying to the core of the story, but also taking some surprising turns. The one thing I usually say when I work with interactives is, ‘what can we do that we haven’t done in the past?’ How do we expand on what we’ve learned in the past?”
He then provided a common example as a way he approaches interactive stories. “You know you’re going to start at one place, like a restaurant, and we can take 20 different ways. Hopefully, all those ways can be exciting and different, but you’re still going to end up at the same place right? So within that, the differences might be, that you show up to dinner and you’re upset because it was the worst ride ever, but I might show up and have the best night because I just had such an amazing trip where there was no traffic. Then we have to figure out how to layer in the flavor. That’s why I think the story almost always dictates our approach.”
Simms also addresses “ragequitting,” which is something those in the gaming space have to consider, but not really filmmakers. “It’s a little bit of a psychological game with the viewer too because you’re trying to anticipate what they are going to get upset about or what they’re not going to get upset about. And you know, one thing that’s been interesting with it a lot is people just like being in control, right?”
“So sometimes you might think they’re going to make a decision within the interactive that’s logical and makes sense, and sometimes they just want to torture the character. It’s interesting trying to guess what they’ll do next. As long as it’s entertaining I don’t know that it matters but it’s just fun to sort of play that game with the viewer too. You don’t get a chance to do that with any other type of content aside from a video game.”
Interactives also present a great opportunity for family bonding, says Simms. “One thing that’s great too about the titles that are sort of co-viewing or an entire family can watch is because people can experience the same thing in different ways and both like it and just have completely different tastes and personalities so that to me is the exciting part. The nice thing with Escape the Undertaker and the Vs. Wild titles are that they would have been awesome stories anyway, but I think they just lend themselves to interactivity.”
When asked about future interactive films for Netflix or another streaming platform, Simms seemed ready for the next challenge. “If people are loving it, they’ll lean into what people respond to,” Simms said. “If it resonates, there’s always that opportunity to expand off of that.”
Netflix as Creative Partner
When working on his Netflix programming, Simms credits the company for being “awesome to work with,” and says they provide help but don’t interfere too much in what their directors are creating. “They’ve got quite an expansive narrative design team that really helps with the ins and outs and nuance,” said Simms.
The Future of VR/AR Films
When asked about the future of films in VR or AR, Simms was thrilled with the thought but thinks the technology needs a little catching up before directors are truly able to deliver a memorable experience within the headsets.
“I think as the technology gets there, and it’s more accessible, I think the stories will follow because the more immersed you can be the better. Everybody’s looking ahead whether it’s commercials that are shot with 360-degree cameras for VR or the type of thing you can still experience through a phone but it’s bigger and grander, how do we use that for storytelling? I think it’ll get there. But I don’t know how everybody doesn’t go in the direction of VR and AR.”
On the way out, Simms wants to make sure viewers experience Escape the Undertaker multiple times in order to see every single ending possible. “The biggest thing for those that are going to watch it, watching it multiple times to experience it multiple ways is the best way to do so. Give it more than one drive.”
Escape the Undertaker releases today, October 5, exclusively on Netflix.
Interactive Netflix Experiences from Ben Simms
October 5, 2021
The Undertaker has set a trap for the decorated tag team The New Day at his mansion. What they don’t know: The Undertaker’s mansion is an extreme Haunted House, packed to the brim with supernatural challenges. It’s up to viewers to decide the fate of these poor souls trying to survive the wrath of The Undertaker.