First, you would have seen a flyer, an advertisement for a human force field experiment, or a camera that took photos of the past. If you had called the number printed at the bottom of the pamphlet, you would have been directed to the 16th floor of a building in the San Francisco financial district and told to unlock an office door.
Thus began your “initiation process” to the Games of Nonchalance, an artistic and social project experience which took place in San Francisco and Oakland from 2008 to 2011 and sent around 7,000 people to a avant-garde treasure hunt series. Some participants did not know if they came across a game or a big conspiracy. Others feared being drawn into a service cult.
Now, in a cunning example of art imitating art imitating life, this immersive experience has been redesigned as “Dispatches From Elsewhere”, a 10-episode series created by Jason Segel, starting on Sunday at AMC.
“This one felt particularly magical in the way it all came together,” said Segel, speaking by phone from a park bench in Burbank, California.
It was also, he added, “super, super hard”.
Given the extreme slippage of the original material, this checks. Created by an artist and former data manager named Jeff Hull, the Games of Nonchalance was an alternate reality game that blurs fact and fiction, leading participants to an elaborate drama in which rival organizations called the Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Public Works Agency fought for control of esoteric technology.
For three years, players have followed hidden clues in anonymous phone calls and pirate radio shows, charged with sabotaging the Jejune Institute and tracking down a young woman named Evalyn Lucien – or Eva, as in ” Eva Lucien “- who was somehow involved and said he disappeared in 1988.
Some treated Nonchalance like a lark, a blunder. Others have approached it with serious fanaticism. Segel found out after seeing “The Institute ”, a 2013 quasi-documentary by Spencer McCall who was cunning, raising more questions about the phenomenon than he answered.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I was looking for,’ he said. The CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” had reached the end of nine seasons, and Segel was in the middle of what he called a “moment of existential crisis.” He no longer knew what kind of artist he was or wanted to be.
The Games called Segel’s kid who had read the portal’s fantasies and still wanted to know that he had been selected for a big business – the kid who had ignored Disneyland rides in favor of Frontierland’s roaming in costume. cowboy.
“It came to me when I needed it,” he said.
The creation of “Dispatches” reflected the complexity of his inspiration in the real world. Shortly after watching the film, Segel contacted McCall, who put him in contact with Hull, whose production company had co-produced “The Institute”. The hull, Segel explained, hung up on him. I checked this with Hull. “Yeah, go ahead,” he said.
Then a cryptic email arrived. Its content: an address in San Francisco, a date, a time. A week or two later, Segel went up the California coast and found himself participating in the first chapter of a new project, The Latitude Society, who dragged him into a hidden passage in a hidden library, then down the street, following clues from one local business to another.
“During this hour, I felt anonymous,” he said. “I felt like I was a kid playing pretend.” Later, another email arrived. He said, “You have divine nonchalance.”
Hull had approved the project.
The Games of Nonchalance came from Hull’s courses for a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts at San Francisco State University. During his studies, he began to think about how he could use different media – maps, voice messages, installation art – to create a story.
“Divine nonchalance” was a feeling he had wanted the game to cultivate in its participants. He described it as “a kind of naivety, almost like a childish relationship with the world around you – that lack of inhibition that stimulates creativity and inspiration and allows random beauty to occur”.
Hull had designed the game in the hope of creating a psychic change that would make the ordinary world more magical. After having visited the “initiation center”, a player could have been led to find a buried treasure, blindfolded in a chapel or dancing at the corner of a street with a man disguised as Big Foot.
The border between the end of the game and the beginning of reality has sometimes been blurred. McCall’s film describes at least one debilitating injury and a lot of unhealthy obsession. Several actors seem to know deep breaks with reality. A player says he broke into a stranger’s house for answers. None of this can be true.
For a while, Segel considered making “Dispatches” a feature film, but he finally realized that he wanted to write a series; asking the audience to show up at the same time each week seemed a little more participatory. While developing the script, he had moved to a farm in a small town an hour or two from Los Angeles, which informed his thinking about the project – and everything in between.
“I think it changed my life,” he said. “I felt like I was part of a community. The real thing was just to try to feel a part of the world around me. “
He also decided to focus less on the mythology of the project than on its participants – ordinary people who willingly plunged into the unknown. His character is an Everyman with a dead end job who, like Segel, faces an existential crisis. The other main characters, played by Sally Field, Andre Benjamin and the newcomer Eve Lindley, are equipped with their own inner calamities. Segel wanted to investigate what brought them to the game and how and why each person played it.
“Many stories tell of someone who discovers that he is extraordinary,” he said. “And all of that is this idea that we can all be ordinary together and that it’s beautiful.”
Based on the first episodes, the result is a change of genre, a flexion of the forms and an eclectic tone. Benjamin, who plays a man who believes Nonchalance is more than a game, said he didn’t know the series was actually based until he filmed episode 8. He tried to define the show.
“It’s fantasy, it’s a kind of science fiction, it’s drama, there is a love story underneath, there is mystery, there is a tragedy, there is some kind of everything, “he said. “It really is a journey.”
Production incentives have resulted in a change of setting from the Bay Area to Philadelphia – a good choice, said Segel, because of Philadelphia’s Rocky Balboa grain and its thousands of public murals. As Hull did with the Games, the producers tried to incorporate as much local street art and ephemera into “Dispatches” as possible. The actors and the team were in constant motion.
“This kind of work on the seat of your pants was exciting, rich, risky like hell,” said Field, who plays another participant, a woman who seeks meaning after her husband falls ill.
The other challenges were tonal. “If you go too awkward, you lose people and it seems fraudulent,” said Mark Friedman, the show’s showrunner. “And if it stays too grounded, it’s not fun enough.”
Hull, who with McCall is an executive co-producer, had visited the writers’ room to answer questions and share anecdotes. He was not worried.
“I think the show is going to be very real and very strange,” he said.
Segel, Hull and Friedman have suggested that the series, like the game, could encourage audience participation. There have been unhealthy murmurs on Easter eggs and other items that could reward special attention and rewinding, and on a possible component of the real world. In a rush to do more, Segel was unbearable.
“I’m sitting here with a giant smile on my face,” he said on the phone. “You cannot see because we are not in person.” Which seemed at least a little nasty.
But the creators of the show also hope to delight the spectator who does not want to play with him, who would never have drawn the leaflet or danced with Big Foot. (Friedman is one of them. “I’m, like, afraid to dance at a wedding,” he said.) Television, like life and artistic projects in alternative reality, can have its own surprises.
When I told Benjamin that I had seen the first four episodes and that I was honestly baffled as to the destination of the series, he laughed. “Oh, you’re in it,” he said. “I’m telling you, there you are.”