Derren Brown on failure, Trump and racists (Exclusive)

Derren Brown: Sacrifice sets the subject an ultimate test
Derren Brown: Sacrifice sets the subject an ultimate test

Illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown has been spellbinding audiences with his seemingly effortless yet utterly confounding stunts and experiments for the last two decades.

From his early days of Mind Control to the now infamous Russian Roulette stunt to his very own Thorpe Park ride – Brown has continually delivered the unexpected and could certainly never be accused of being a one-trick pony.

And now, he’s jumped on the streaming trend, and switched from his longterm Channel 4 home to Netflix. Derren Brown: Sacrifice is a one-off Netflix special which explores one of the most prevalent issues of our time – immigration.

Brown takes a white American man Phil with tepid views on immigrants as his subject. And via various mind control exercises attempts to permanently altar his beliefs. Can Phil, a blue collar American who believes immigrants are taking his and his community’s jobs, be swayed to the point of laying down his life to save a Mexican immigrant?

It’s a compelling ride, and we sat down with Brown to find out more about the inspiration behind it and what’s next for Britain’s most famous hypnotist…

Sacrifice, seems very timely given the current political climate – was it inspired by a specific event or encounter?

I wanted a show that was relevant. It is ultimately a show that is about stepping outside of the narratives that we live by and the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are that just end up restricting us.

An example of those would be political narratives so you sort of have that right wing narrative that says is to protect the group and you keep the group strong and that might happen at the expense of weak individuals but the priority is the group and then the left wing urge and the liberal urge is to protect those weaker individuals even if that means overall stability suffers.

So while people get very polarised and think the other side must be mad, bad, wrong and so on, the reality is you need both. You need a dialogue between the two, and somewhere between the middle of that humanity and truth does emerge but it is complex and messy. This was a show about someone who steps outside of a narrow socio-political narrative and finding bigger and more human qualities – like kindness and humility.

Derren Brown in Sacrifice. (Netflix)
Derren Brown in Sacrifice. (Netflix)

There seems to be a shift away from just creating ‘good telly’ or even sensationalism – Sacrifice is very moralistic – why the shift?

I’ve always tried to avoid anything that’s just sensationalist for the sake of it I try to combine a strong dramatic hook that would make you want to watch the show with a subtext of a good, intelligent reason for doing it.

So this is the same, the last show The Push was about someone getting killed whether you could persuade someone to murder – Sacrifice was about redemption – a more uplifting tale about saving a life even though it was a dark journey to get there. And doing something that would sit and resonate well in that time. But it isn’t a political show it’s about human qualities not political ones.

There is a scene in the quarry – and it doesn’t go as planned – unusual for you – you even said ‘I laid down the usual traps’ – do you see that as failure? How do you feel when things like that happen…

It is failure! But it’s failure that’s sort of OK. I don’t worry too much about it because there are other bits of the jigsaw puzzle that I can then turn to next. I can then get him back on track, even if that part didn’t quite go off as planned. If it failed at the very end then that would be very different, then we think OK this hasn’t worked, we can’t go back and do it again, that would be a much bigger problem and challenge.

I see it a bit like if you’re juggling you drop a ball occasionally because you have to remind people that it isn’t easy and there is a danger with a lot of the stuff I do, certainly the stuff I do on stage, if it all just works, it can detract actually from the finished product.

Failure is interesting. I don’t mind when it happens. My main concern was that Phil was worried that he had let me and the team down. He thinks he is taking part in a completely different show and thought he might get disqualified. Phil was my main concern.

Phil, yes he has these racist undertones, but overall he’s quite a likeable guy – is there any concern that on the show you’re exposing him – is there an ethical question here?

I guess it is where we land really. We could have done it with an absolute monster racist cartoon hardcore person. The trouble is that then the show becomes about look how clever I am to make this guy to this but I wanted someone we could relate to and ultimately really like because then emotionally you care about him. I think his views like a lot of people are objectionable at the start but you start to like him then you really like him by the end. That felt like a good balance.

Of course there will be people watching it who will agree with his views from the start, I don’t know where they will end off by the end, they might have a complete reversal experience and not like the outcome. It was trying to find a balance and relate to him and think about what it does in you rather than just laughing at someone’s beliefs.

There was also a whole thought on the side, is Phil going to be happy with this at the end? And the truth he does say these things, we didn’t cut out any of his opinions, he says how he feels and he watched it and says ‘I totally realised I was a dick but I don’t think these things anymore’ and that he’s very happy with it.

Do you think you could apply these exercises to anyone? Could let’s say a white supremacist change from doing the exercises shown in Sacrifice?

I am picking someone I think is malleable. It’s not the same as saying ‘Oh I could do this on anyone.’ It just isn’t true, there are always people I won’t do it with. I won’t be doing it again and again for other people.

Do you think if you applied these techniques to President Donald Trump – he has some divisive immigration beliefs – would it benefit him?

I doubt if he would be up for it! I’m sure he has other things to do. Also trying to avoid any answers about Donald Trump and the right wing!

Ok, well with shows like this you have so much control over an individual – is there this risk of ‘playing God’ or even developing a ‘God Complex’?


Well that’s always a risk! But there’s a lot of conditioning in this show. You get someone to feel something through an event, and you attach it to a trigger sound, that you can then play again later. If Phil was a robot at the end it would be a bit pointless. He had to have a real transformation himself, that to happen for real for him, I am nudging and providing a context for him, but ultimately it is about what he does and he takes credit for it – not me.

Would you sacrifice yourself for a stranger? Or would you need these triggers to be put in place?

I don’t know! It’s a really interesting question. It is so hard to think what would you do? I think if it was a loved one, a lot of us would do that, I think I would, but on Sacrifice it is a really slow countdown – he has to stand there and really commit to it.

But as for someone you don’t know would your instinct still kick in? Maybe that all goes out of the window at the last moment. I just don’t know. It’s a really interesting human moment. I think the vast majority of people would be very hard pushed to do that under those circumstances for a complete stranger. Phil said he wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for everything that came before. But it is still an interesting thing. What would do you? I honestly don’t know! I’ve never been in that situation.

Of all the projects you’ve done – what are you most proud of and why?

I have a real soft spot for shows like this where people have gone through a real transformation it is a nice thing to see a transformation that genuinely makes a difference for someone. And this one definitely does that. And as it is the most recent for me, it does feel the most freshest, and so it does feel like this is the one closest to my heart unavoidably.

Apocalypse was one I really loved because that was huge and big and fun and the sheer – this was two parts – it was massive. It is hard to say – I get really attached to them and the people that go through it, it is a huge emotional journey for all of us going through it. Really hard to say but I feel really really attached to Sacrifice, I’m sure I always will.

Is Netflix your new home now – will there be more Netflix shows?

I hope so! Hope so! It is up to them really. I’m not locked into it. It depends how well it does worldwide, not just here of course. I would think so nonetheless.

If money, capacity was no object – any project – any stunt – what would you like to do?

Nothing in the works! I have no ideas like that in the back of my mind because I think it is so important to come to it really fresh. Ok how did the last show go down? Is it worth doing something a bit more uplifting? What’s going on in the world at the moment? What’s important to me at the moment? Because I have to live with this for ten months. For that reason I never think about things in advance. A two week period or a month usually when I come up with it and then actually doing it.

What are you some of your favourite Netflix shows? Any recommendations?

Ooo! I’ve just finished series two of Making a Murderer but I suspect people have already heard of that! There is a great magic show – a terrific magic show called Magic for Humans which and the guy in it Justin Willman is so brilliant and likeable which is very unusual for magicians. That would be my current Netflix favourite!

Who do you see as your contemporary?

I don’t know really! When I started out there were probably four other people that did similar things to me like when I was mainly doing mind tricks etc. Now I’m not even sure what is I do! There was a point last year when I wrote a book on happiness which was essentially about Greek philosophy, I had a ghost train ride coming out in Thorpe Park and I had a show about someone getting pushed off a building so I don’t even know what that is! Let alone how to judge who else is doing it! I think it might just be me, which is very nice!

Derren Brown: Sacrifice is available to stream on Netflix now.

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