Punchdrunk Theatre Founder Felix Barrett on Defying COVID-19 for "World's First" Immersive TV Drama 'The Third Day'

Felix Barrett - H - 2020
Stephen Dobbie

Punchdrunk Theatre founder Felix Barrett

Although a live public event had to scrapped due to the pandemic, Punchdrunk is instead planning a 12-hour real-time TV marathon for its HBO/Sky miniseries.

Having spent the last two decades pioneering what has become known as “immersive” theater, in which audiences are allowed to explore vast buildings as the drama plays out around them, Brit theater company Punchdrunk — best known in the U.S. for the show Sleep No More — has set its sights on a new medium.

The Third Day — a Sky/HBO production with Brad Pitt’s Plan B exec producing — which has been billed as the “world’s first immersive TV drama,” is a miniseries following Sam (Jude Law), a man drawn to a mysterious island off the English coast and populated by tradition-obsessed locals. Naomie Harris, Katherine Waterston, Emily Watson and Paddy Considine also star in the drama, shot on the small island of Osea (about two hours drive from London) and separated from land by a causeway that is submerged during high tide.

Split into three parts — Summer, Autumn, Winter — the second section was to be The Third Day’s immersive element, told via a one-off live event in the U.K. that people could physically attend and “inhabit the story as it happens.”

Then the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Not only did the pandemic put a serious spanner in the immersive works (the live public event was immediately scrapped), but with the lockdown impacting post-production, it pushed back the May broadcast date to September. On the upside, this has given The Third Day the opportunity to have its first bow at the virtual Toronto Film Festival, one of two TV shows given the honor this year.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett, who co-created The Third Day with Dennis Kelly (Utopia), discusses his hugely ambitious “COVID pivot,” effectively replacing the live-event with a continuously shot 12-hour film that will be aired in real-time. Essentially, there's no breaks, no green rooms, and — aside for a 20 minute broadcast cushion for compliance — very little room for error.

What exactly do you mean when you say The Third Day is the world’s first immersive TV show?

For me, the word immersive is about being plunged into something. Watching TV is watching a piece of theater in an auditorium. But immersive means you’re actually physically present. You’re in the world. Everything’s 360. You’re smelling it. You’re tasting it. It’s actually tactile and palpably real. So the original conceit was that you'd be watching the first few episodes of a drama, about a man going to a strange island and gearing up for a peculiar local festival. At the end of episode three, that twist would be that the festival was happening in real life and, having watched it, you’d have the opportunity to physically go there and witness in real-time the next part of the narrative. That was the dream, but obviously in a post-COVID world, we can’t have a large audience. But we do still want to embrace, to the best of our ability, the immersive quality.

How are you going to manage that?

For us, the best option was to actually replace the audience with a camera and just capture it in real-time over 12-hours, so it’s almost as though you’re there, witnessing everything. So it’s a COVID pivot that we’ve made. And an amazing layer of complication we’ve made for ourselves. We’re basically now shooting a 12-hour film, in real time. But it was so important to us, and to everyone involved that we couldn’t be defeated by COVID. We can’t do it live, but this our new project. It’s as much a call to arms to creative.

What’s already been shot?

The six hours of conventional TV has been shot, but on October 3 — which would have been the day of the live event — we’re shooting 12 hours and broadcasting it as live, with a 20-minute buffer for compliance. Once we start, we’re rolling.

How does this work with the cast in this post-COVID world? Can you have huge numbers of extras etc?

Again, we’ve had to trim back. It’s a huge production, but we’re having to stick to Sky’s COVID protocols. We’re only allowed 300 people on the island. So that’s about 100 performers and the rest are crew and security. It’s a big endeavor, but what’s so great is that because it’s now turned into this hybrid of theater and film, most of the TV crew are coming back to shoot it. I’m co-directing it with Mark Munden who directed Summer, the first block.

And the plan is the same, that this will broadcast after episode three?

Yeah, and because of the nature of it being theater, it’s being broadcast on Sky Arts as a channel takeover. For the actors, when you’re making TV it’s very episodic and you’re in and out of character and hanging around while sets change. For this, they’ll be in character, without a break, for 12 hours solid. There’s no green room to go to, you can’t go back and do something again. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. What’s so exciting is the danger of it. We wanted to get the frisson of the live performance.

Do you have to watch the 12-hour element to understand The Third Day?

So basically it’s three stories, Summer, Autumn, which is the live event, and Winter, and they’re all connected by Osea Island. And you can really watch any of them, or if you want the full experience, all of them. But it’s optional. Our audience can pick and choose what they want.

I understand you're friends with Jude Law. Did that help the casting process with him?

I do know Jude and the thing with him is that he’s a brilliant screen performer but also an amazing stage actor, and they’re very different skillsets. And we needed someone who could do both, and there aren’t that many people. So I went to him and said we were shooting a TV show and then you’re going to be in it for 12 hours, and he was like, well that’s a cool challenge. He was actually involved many many years ago, when it was just a seed of an idea and we came back when it was fully scripted and we had Sky, HBO and Plan B on board and he just jumped back in where we left off. He’s such a trooper.

Does The Third Day mark a new avenue for Punchdrunk? Have you got more screen projects in the pipeline?

What’s interesting is that over the years that we’ve been doing our shows, more immersive work has popped up. We always ask our audiences to take a risk and step into the unknown. If they know what they’re walking into, they won’t be flooded with adrenaline and it becomes easy for them. So we started thinking whether we should apply our principles and level of mystery and intrigue to other disciplines, and The Third Day is an amazing step up for TV. Having done it now, we’d love to do more, because it’s such a rich area and we’re in this golden age of TV. Broadcasters are really up for pushing it now. So I hope this is a new beginning.

Are you already having conversations about what you might do next?

Definitely. We’ve got other irons in the fire.

Would film be a consideration? Could the same experience be achieved?

I’m sure if the right project came along, we’d jump at it. But at the moment TV offers that versatility and spontaneity. It’s quite malleable and you can be really playful with it. The question is: how do you flip the conceit of film? We haven’t quite thought of that one yet. But we’re really enjoying flexing our creative muscles.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the arts, particularly theater. How has Punchdrunk fared?

It’s been tough and we’ve had a lot of staff furloughed and our shows in New York and Shanghai closed, although I think our one in Shanghai was one of the first to reopen. Because of our convention — our shows are in huge buildings and spaces where people can explore — there’s already some natural social-distancing, which is a bonus. And because of this idea of taking risks and taking our forms to other disciplines, we’ve been starting to explore these other models. And actually that means we’ve got a little bit more resilience, because if one project is under threat we’re able to work on our others. But we really feel for the sector, because it has been so brutal.

You recently signed a deal with Pokemon Go creators Niantic to work on gaming apps in the augmented reality space. What are we going to see coming out of that?

It’s incredibly exciting. We know that there’s so much experiential, immersive work and there are so many companies making it now. But I think the future is basically layering game mechanics on top of that. Basically, you become your own avatar. Imagine playing Legend of Zelda across the real world. Niantic have the technical knowhow and gaming brilliance to do that. With Pokemon Go, they mapped the entire world and populated it with Pokemon creatures. The brilliance of the Niantic engine is that it enables us to transform the streets in which you live and turn them into your own movies. And you become the hero. It's a new form of entertainment and no one’s really been doing it yet. But we’re working towards our first project and we think it’ll be a proper game-changer.

Sounds like there might be a lot of people walking into lampposts…

Well, actually we’re trying to work out how you can play the game where the phone is in your pocket, where you’re looking around and absorbing stuff.