Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale Interview

Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale, Monday 25th April 2011, 9pm, Channel 4

Derren Brown is a man on a mission. His latest project, Derren Brown: Miracles for Sale, sees him take on the world of faith healing, where rich men prey on the vulnerabilities of the sick and needy to fill their already-bulging wallets. Brown’s disgust for this world has stirred him to action, and the result is a film that is by turns shocking, disturbing, hilarious and inspirational. Here, he reveals a little more about the project, and explains why it was his most stressful shoot yet.

Your new programme is Derren Brown: Miracles for Sale. What’s the concept?
It’s an attempt to lift the lid on the world of Faith Healing and the way we’re doing it is by trying to launch an ordinary guy off the street here, as a Faith Healer in Texas. Creating a fake Faith Healer and seeing what we can get away with, the point of it being to expose what is, at least what I consider to be, a foul scam at the expense of the desperate, sick and needy.

Why take someone off the street, when this is something that you could do so expertly with your skills?
I think it just wouldn’t have the same impact if it was me. My point is that anybody can do it. These things that are apparently miracles, like the blind being able to see and all the rest of it, they’re not, they’re just sort of tricks and anyone can learn tricks. I could have done it myself but I think it wouldn’t have been such a clear cut contrast between special skills and no special skills. Here’s a guy who actually hasn’t even been on stage before and yet can do exactly the same thing.

How did you go about recruiting your fake Faith Healer.
We hold auditions, the idea was that people wouldn’t know if was a Derren Brown show, they wouldn’t know what it was about. They’re auditioning. We just told them ‘Be the star of your own show’ and they knew that the content of the show was being withheld. We boiled them down to four and then had to choose one of the four who I thought would have the right skills for it.

Why this whole area, why Faith Healing?
One of the things of about this area is, it’s offensive. The scam is offensive. You don’t’ have to be a believer or not, it genuinely offends people. It’s nothing ultimately to do with the church. I say in the show it’s nothing to do with God or faith. It is a scam and I think it’s….it’s coming over here, more and more often which makes it worthwhile as a subject to deal with. It’s such an ugly thing. I’ve been to events in London that some of the big names have come over and done and it’s just awful. You’ve got a couple of thousand people – its small events compared to what these guys do in the States. It’s just the worst crowd manipulation. And it would be fine if people go away just feeling a bit better, of course that would be fine. But it’s not that, it’s just a wake of despair that’s left.

What tends to happen at a Faith Healing event?
You have three or four hours of the audience being whipped up into a state through up-tempo songs, quiet meditative songs and then up and down, up and down. Giving money every now and then and then the healer comes out and creates further hype and massive expectation which has been brewing since the beginning. He then starts saying this healing is happening in the room and invites people forward and it’s all done with a huge amount of urgency. There are people who filter out those that are going to be safely brought up on stage – who have bad backs and things that have responded to the adrenalin. So they’re brought up. Anybody with an arm missing or Down’s Syndrome or anything that’s visible is kept safely away. If you look behind the camera at these sorts of events and you’ve got drips and hospital beds. People who have been dragged around the country in the States…people are just carried, kids being carried by their parents just from one event after another. The parents are just spending every last penny they’ve got on this. So they’re going away constantly wondering why it is that God doesn’t love them. And even those people who have come up on stage and bounced around for the sake of the show, the next day they’re going to wake up and probably feeling a lot worse as they’ve been doing stuff they probably shouldn’t have done. And again it’s just this wake of despair.

And the Faith Healers are getting rich on that despair?
These guys are just raking it in. The big names earn way more than any Hollywood A-lister because it’s tied in with this thing called the Prosperity Gospels. It takes this idea of ‘sow and you shall reap’ and turns it into a financial incentive. So the logic is; you give me $1000, and Jesus bestows his blessings financially. It says in the bible ‘you sow and you reap a 100 fold’. So you give $10 and you get $1000 back. You have to give more than you can afford otherwise you’re not giving in faith. You have to give in faith. And when nothing happens, it’s your own fault because you didn’t have enough faith or maybe you didn’t give enough, maybe you have some secret sin in your life. We had a story of a girl who had MS and she’d heard a testimony on the GOD channel ‘I had MS and I paid $1000 to this Pastor and it took my MS away’. It was just an actress talking. But this girl who was 13 believed it and she started putting money away and sending it to this guy on TV, month after month. She was doing it secretly, she didn’t want to tell her parents and eventually it was $1000 and she didn’t get cured so she rang up the number on the Channel and said ‘Well, what happened?’ and was told ‘You’ve probably got secret sin in your life.’ So she doused herself with petrol and set fire to herself and killed herself. She was 14.

Some people over here have the idea that it’s faintly ridiculous and almost comical. But what’s actually happening in a lot of cases is their actually threatening people’s lives, aren’t they?
People are being told to throw away their medication, which is obviously dangerous. Literally hearing the guy saying ‘when you stand up that cancer will be gone’. And you have to maintain the faith, because if you lose the faith then of course this isn’t going to work. So the way you demonstrate that is by not taking your medication, not seeing your doctor.

Obviously this is all taking place in America; you mentioned this is sort of coming over here…
There are English versions of it which are quite apologetic and suburban in a typically British way compared to what goes on in the States. But the American model, we’re getting more and more of it over there because we’re all in awe of American’s regardless of whether you’re sat in a congregation or sat in theatre or whatever. That sort of glitz, we still like it. So there are plenty of healers already, there are plenty of healing movements that go on in this country.

So why did you decide to go to America and do this?
Because it’s the heart of it. The charlatanism is much clearer out there because it’s a huge business and also that it’s the heart of it. It’s just more difficult, it’s more of a challenge, they are worthy targets out there. And here, I don’t know….the big names out there they put themselves about and you can find out what’s going on. Here, I have no idea. It’s probably all quite well meant here, I would imagine, and perhaps it becomes a slightly different thing. I just think you need to get at the heart of it to make the show meaningful.

What sort of skills did you have to teach your fake healer, and what was the timeframe?
It was about six months and had to be prepared for everything out there. The main things were, performance skills which I was working on him with and working on his sort of act. Being prepared for any healing stuff he could do. At the same time he had to be educated in scripture and how to twist the scripture by Christians who had been through that world – they obviously knew more about scripture than I did. So they were dealing with the biblical side of it and I was dealing with the performance side of it. We also had an acting coach. He had to learn some basic Swahili because he was supposed to have been out in Uganda for a while. He was brilliant. It was a really tough call. I think you get from the show it’s stressful.

There were volatile elements to the relationship weren’t there?
Oh completely. He’s somebody who internalises things a lot so is very; very sincere, which is great because that was important, that was really important with this show. We needed somebody that would, no matter how difficult it was, would continue to believe in it being an important aim.

It all looked incredibly stressful at times.
The whole thing was shrouded with this ‘are we even going to be able to make this show?’. There was this general air of concern that none of it was ever really going to come together. It was tough; it was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done. As a challenge it just got more and more difficult. You can kind off tell from the show, it starts off a slightly kind of slicker sort of feel. It felt like it was going to be ‘that’ sort to show and by the end of it it was like no, no we’re kind of making a documentary that’s just as much about us trying to make the show as it is about proving and showing what we want to show.

Was it fun?
Yes, yeah it was. It was probably less fun for our fake healer. It was hugely exciting and seeing him get up and do the show at the end was fantastic. It was a proper rollercoaster.

It seems astonishing that Faith Healing can go unchecked. Shouldn’t there be legislation?
Yes, that would be good. People have tried to bring it before the police, but because it’s a religious area, everyone’s a bit nervous to touch it. The big, big thing is it’s untaxed. If you say it’s a church that you’re getting your money from then you don’t pay any tax on it. I suspect that’s why Spiritualists and Scientologists and other people are most insistent that it’s a church, that’s it a religion, because that brings with it a massive, massive financial difference. So getting those things reformed, that sort of legislation would help enormously. If the incentive wasn’t there from that point of view that would surely help.

Not to give too much away, I take it you’re pleased with the end result?
Yes. As we were making the show I really wasn’t sure what sort of film it would end up being. It felt amazing being out there but is this going to really translate into a show that people will watch and actually? I think it’s a bit different from previous things and I think that’s a good thing. It’s kind of become a bit of a sort of road movie almost, a bit of an ongoing documentary. It’s very open, very honest – yes I do like it.

What’s happened to your fake healer now? Now that you’ve trained him up as a faith healer has he gone to America and started up a lucrative trade?
[Laughs] No he’s not. He’s gone back to his world of lifeguarding and being a diving instructor. I think he’s getting back into that. No, he didn’t show any signs of wanting to carry it on but I don’t know, it’s there in the back of his head isn’t it? By the end of it I was itching to get up and do it. I could see how this would become quite addictive after a while. How you could really just start to get off on it with 80, 0000 people at some of those big rallies.

So essentially, if the career all goes to pot then it’s going to be Pastor Derren in America raking it in?
[Laughs] No, is the short answer. But what I was thinking was is there a way that I can take all that, can I do it in a way that’s doing it and debunking it? Part of me just thought I’d love to get up there and do it, but I can’t think of any context now. There’s no way of doing it and it’s kind of frustrating. It’s like I really wanted to play the piano but there’s not a single piece of music that you could bring yourself to play. From a performance point of view, I can just see how it would start to appeal. The power-trip of it and the sheer bravado of it would just fuel you to go madder and madder.