Making its world premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 11, was Giancarlo Esposito’s dark satire, This Is Your Death. The film stars Josh Duhamel as Adam Rogers, a blithe reality show host whose life is transformed when a contestant on his “Bachelor”-style show is gunned down by a spurned bride who also kills herself.
Appearing on a morning show (hosted by an appropriately smarmy James Franco) the following day, he delivers a rant about the appalling state of television and how everyone — himself, the producers and the audience itself — are culpable.
Summoned by his boss, Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen in full villain mode), to face the corporate bigwigs, he is certain he’s about to be fired, but she has different plans. The murder/suicide drew such high ratings that they want him to do another program immediately. He is matched up with a reluctant producer (Caitlin FitzGerald) to create a new series — “This Is Your Death.” The premise is simple: contestants who have nothing left to live for will commit suicide on live television via means of their own choosing, and the funds they’ve raised will be donated to their surviving family members.
The show is a hit for bloodthirsty audiences. As its popularity soars, Rogers begins to fancy himself somewhat of a Messiah of Death, even telling Ilana, “I want people to die for a higher purpose.” The tables are turned, however, when his own troubled sister (Sarah Wayne Callies) shows up as a contestant.
Similarities to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network are obvious (Adam’s rant is reminiscent of Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” speech), but the story is more rudimentary. Director Esposito takes the role of a hard-working husband and father who, finding himself aged out of the job market, applies for the show when he feels he has no other alternative.
Speaking to the stars and director on the red carpet, I got a chance to ask them what they thought about the film. Callies said, “[The film is] a bit of a warning, which is to say, ‘Let’s take a look at the balance between our need for attention and our need for intention.’ What if we recalibrated the external ‘look at me’ and the internal look inside? It’s satire, so of course it’s ridiculous. We know it’s ridiculous, but there’s also a grain of truth. We’re not necessarily saying this where we’re heading, but we’re vectoring ever closer to it.”
About his role, Duhamel commented, “What I loved about [Adam] is that he has this revelation on live television. ‘Why am I hosting this crap?’ He points at the camera and says, ‘It’s my fault, it’s your fault, it’s the network’s fault…’ The irony of it is that he goes on to host this show where people kill themselves on live television, and he gets caught up in it all, becoming what he originally set out to speak against.
“The main point of making the film is that it is a commentary; it is a satire. How we consume media, how we and our children are influenced by what we see. Are we desensitized by things that we should have more sympathy for? It’s almost like ‘anything goes.’ It’s shocking, but getting viewers to watch is all that matters to these people.”
I asked Esposito what drew him to the story, and he said, “It was dark, it was uncomfortable, but it was an investigation of reality television, an investigation of what we consider entertainment. We sit there are watch people do weird things on television. We get excited by it, but is it natural? Is it really great television? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We don’t have the ability sometimes to distinguish between what is real and what is not.”