The Camp: Interview with creator Jacobs Langdon

Myla Glenford: Where did you get the idea for The Camp?

Jacobs Langdon: A couple of places. When I was a kid, there was this show on TV called Lost, and I wouldn’t miss a single episode. It was incredible. Great storyline, engrossing; it had a tremendous influence on my later ideas. I really loved the idea of a group of people facing the unknown, facing adversity, and trying to cope as best they could. Of course, at the same time, the War on Terror was only a few years old, and Guantanamo was still routinely in the headlines so I guess you can see some of that in there, too. There were a few other things, like the Stanford Prison Experiment that was later used to make the German film Das Experiment, old sci-fi films like The Running Man, uh, even 24. Yeah, there were loads of these little influences I could mention, but if I had to pick out one thing that really inspired me to do The Camp, it would have to be an old Japanese game show from the late nineties called Denpa Shonen.


MG: Never heard of it.

JL: [laughs] I’d be surprised if you did! It wasn’t really known outside of Japan. I only found out about it watching some re-run of an old “Top 10 Reality Shows” programme or something that I stumbled across during a data sediment dive. I started digging around for more info, and the more I learnt, the more I was just completely stunned.

What the makers did was they had an audition for a bunch of people on the pretext of being picked for some show-biz related job. The guy who got picked, Nasubi, was a small-time comedian, and they promptly blindfolded him, basically kidnapped him, and locked him up in what was effectively solitary confinement for over a year. He was forced to strip naked and remained that way for pretty much the whole show. In the beginning, he had no food, toilet paper, nothing. The only way he could get food and other items was to enter postcards into contests and win; in order to free himself, he had to win around one million Yen in prizes.

Over the duration of the show, his nails grew several inches, his hair and beard grew, and at one point he was forced to eat dog food because that was all he had. The incredible thing was that he became a celebrity in Japan by enduring all the hardships. In fact, I found out later that the show itself is still listed as a comedy in Japan, despite the mental strain he’d gone through, the starvation, the suffering.

Anyway, that’s when I started thinking about the ideas that eventually became The Camp.

MG: Some people have suggested that your main ideas came from the cult Japanese film Battle Royale.

JL: Yeah, to an extent. I was about thirteen or so when I first saw it, a friend of mine from school had this pirated DVD copy of it. He told me I just had to watch it. It really blew my mind [laughs]. It certainly freaked out my mom. I’d forgotten about it and had left it in the player. She came home and started watching it while I was in my room doing homework or writing or something. She was a bit freaked out for a few days, thinking I was going to suddenly start plugging the kids at school.

MG: [laughs] Did you?

JL: [laughs] No, no. I sometimes wish I could have, though.

MG: Okay, so you’ve got these ideas going around in your head. What happened next?

JL: Well, since the days of YouTube, the barriers to entry for video have been really insignificant. I mean, getting a digital HD camcorder, video editing software, distribution across social nets – it costs virtually nothing. The real issue I faced was purely legal. Could we get away with the show’s format? I mean, having Nasubi kidnapped paled into comparison with the idea of placing contestants against their will in a gulag, claiming they’re enemy combatants, and putting them under immense physical and mental stress to see what they would do, see if they will escape, whatever. It was a huge risk.

MG: I remember reading somewhere that at first you wanted to use only convicts?

JL: Yeah, that’s right. I figured it’d be really easy to get them signed up since they’d effectively given up their rights. But then I realised that it wouldn’t work; very few people would connect with hardened criminals. Most people would want them dead anyway, and probably just wouldn’t care. What we really needed were people that the audience would immediately be attracted to.

MG: How did you come up with the idea of using teenagers?

JL: There was this article I read about private rehab centres for teenagers that exist all over the world. The Chinese are particularly notorious for it, even for things like Internet addiction, but they are also prolific in the Allied nations, particularly the US where a whole private industry thrives from it even though the science is there to help them. A lot of parents, many from more religious backgrounds, didn’t want their kids’ addictions solved through mind or body hacking, so they would sign them into these rehab schools. The thing that immediately struck me were the overlaps in their methods of mental reprogramming and those used by the military for interrogation.

Anyway, quite a few of these places could get away with it because the parents had signed over consent. In most cases, the kid didn’t have a clue they were being sent in until they walked through the door and had it locked behind them. This was the perfect way for us to get participants on the show without them knowing what was really happening.

MG: Did the parents of the children fully understand what was going on?

JL: Absolutely, and they were 100% behind it otherwise they wouldn’t have put their children no the show. Some of them told me they saw it as a more modern version of Hell Houses used by evangelicals to instil fear in children about abortion, sex before marriage, homosexuality. Obviously, some parents were in it for the money, royalties from book deals, that sort of thing, but for the most part they thought it could help their children.

MG: It really struck a chord with the viewers. The first season was the most downloaded, talked and complained about in Double Vision’s history, and is rated in the top ten most controversial internet shows ever.

JL: [laughs] Well, yeah, but it’s easy to understand that. Any television show aims to get the audience involved, and controversy is never a bad thing. Look at Big Brother Village in Germany, for example. There was a massive outcry following the murder of that guy, uh, Daniel, or David – I forget – but their viewing figures went through the roof for months afterwards. It was the same with Nasubi in the nineties: even those who hated the idea of the show couldn’t help but laugh and watch. It’s been that way since the Romans had gladiators killing themselves for fun. The crowds loved it, and wanted to take part in it. That’s entertainment at its most basic level.

MG: Which leads me on to my next question: in a way, you removed Big Brother and replaced him with the actual audience. Where did you get the idea from?

JL: I remembered reading about an experiment – the Milgram experiment if I remember right – that showed people would quite often carry out orders even when they knew they were causing harm to someone else. A group of people were ordered by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another group who were actually actors. The actors pretended to be electrocuted, and each time the first group were ordered to increase the strength of the shocks, most of them would do it despite the apparent pain of the actor.

So, I started to wonder: would it be possible to get the audience to administer punishments through votes and so on under the direction of authority figures that we would present on the show? The answer, of course, was yes. I mean, in the first episode we did, the viewers immediately followed the advice we gave to apply sensory deprivation for two days on one of our participants to induce a state of psychosis, all because our expert said it would be an easier way to control and, ultimately, help him. The audience response was so overwhelming, in fact, that I think only about five percent of all votes voted no.

MG: You took this same approach a step further in the second season.

JL: Yeah, I mean, the first season was just really raw. Like I said, it hardly cost us a cent to film and distribute, which was good because most of our money went into the sets – well, most of it went to the lawyers [laughs], but after that it was the sets – and we couldn’t afford to go really high tech. But after the first season, money just flooded in, sponsorships, donations, book deals, you name it, and then Dream came along and said, “Well, we’re keen to fund the show.”

So with all this cash coming in, that’s when I could really push the limits, so I figured it would be a great idea if we could actually automate a lot of the stuff that happens on the set, you know, robotic sentries, cameras, some active denial systems, that sort of thing, and give control of that over to the audience. I knew it could work because of the success of the Border Patrol Network

MG: And in the UK they’ve been using similar ideas for some time in high crime areas –

JL: Yeah, exactly, so I knew it could work, Dream were happy with the idea and gave the go ahead. The audience response so far for season two has been brilliant.

MG: We’re almost out of time, but I just wanted to ask one last question. Some have hailed you as the greatest TV entertainer for a decade, others claim you’ve helped destroy America’s moral and cultural values … how do you see yourself?

JL: [laughs] See myself? Well, that’s what I would ask the audience. I’m just a mirror of them, really. If they think I’m a destroyer of American culture or values or whatever, that’s because I’m a reflection of them. In fact, most of the key figures in mass entertainment also faced the same criticisms and praise. Look at the history of reality television. I mean, Chuck Barris could probably be said to be the birthplace for what later became reality TV, but he was often accused of destroying American society, culture, morals, of polluting the airwaves. He gave people themselves, and then they blamed him for it. I expect that, so I don’t really worry so much about the criticism, or the praise, for that matter. I’m just an entertainer. Being told that someone enjoyed the show is good enough for me.

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March 6, 2007