Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
A mysterious monument. Whispers of a conspiracy. Grisly murders and a search for clues. It’s the stuff of darkened theatres, the type of thing we love to sit back and enjoy. But what if you could join the search—and never be quite sure how much is real and how much is pure invention? Guidestones, an interactive web thriller, lets you do exactly that.
When I first saw the series’ website, I assumed the Guidestones were simply a cool piece of fiction. A mysterious granite monolith, engraved with instructions for surviving the apocalypse, keeps solitary watch on a hill in Georgia. Intriguing, but hardly based in reality. Except that they are. Nearly 200 thousand pounds worth of real, and almost as controversial. (You can get a fascinating look at their history in this Wired article.)
And the Guidestones interactive series? Not only does it involve the fascinating real-life Guidestones, but its creation sprang from a real mystery. That clinched it. It was time to sit down and figure out the twists and turns with creator Jay Ferguson.
To start with, I can’t help wondering if I’m the only person who’s never heard of the Georgia monolith, and just how Ferguson discovered it.
“There was an article in Wired magazine,” he says, “and it was about the Georgia Guidestones and a friend forwarded it to me and I became immediately fascinated with the structure. So I started doing research . . . and then I came across this woman in a chat room. She had this kind of crazy story.”
At first he dismissed it. “And then I went back and started researching a bunch of the things she had said to me,” he continues, “and there was some validity to some of it. The series itself certainly isn’t entirely what happened to her, but her story was kind of a jumping-off point for me. So it was definitely inspired by an actual person.”
Although Jay’s background is in documentary filmmaking (in 2008 he won the Canadian Society of Cinematographer’s top award for cinematography), at the time that he encountered the real-life conspiracy he was also trying to figure out “interesting and unique ways to distribute things online.” Guidestones the thriller was born.
In spite of the mystery, controversy, and even vandalism surrounding the structure, the series’ crew didn’t run into any problems filming at the site.
“We just showed up and started shooting . . . and nobody ever turned up. I wondered at that, because there’s nobody really to talk to. Nobody knows who’s in charge of them. I sort of had my fingers crossed and everything was fine.”
The result is a gripping series that had me hooked from the start. The story follows two journalism students, Sandy Rai (Supinder Wraich) and Trevor Shale (Dan Fox), thrust into dangerous and cryptic events when a course assignment leads them to the trail of a recent murder.
Each episode arrives in viewers’ inboxes in real time—that is, they follow the timing of events as they happen to the characters. So if the action moves quickly, with major discoveries only minutes apart, viewers will get two or three episodes in quick succession. If there’s a gap (say, where the characters are travelling), viewers won’t get a new episode until a realistic amount of time has passed. That might be a day or more, since the action takes place across three continents.
But that doesn’t mean you have to wait before figuring out clues. As Ferguson notes in one of the site’s trailers, “you don’t know when the next episode’s coming, but if you watch the last one . . . and you scrutinize it, there are clues in there that can help you get to find out what the characters are going to discover in the next episode. You can actually get ahead of the protagonists if you choose.”
There’s a Guidestones app as well (for both mobile and desktop), where viewers enter clues they’ve discovered and get new information. Several episodes have links to supplemental content, like videos and blogs and other sites built specifically for the series.
Ideally, Ferguson would like to do at least one more season of Guidestones, and possibly two.
One interesting connection to the engravings on the real Guidestones is an ongoing project of Ferguson’s, the documentary Uncivilized. It’s a complex, fascinating series that explores modern global civilization, and I noticed that some of its major themes—like sustainability and the collapse of civilization—are reflected in his online thriller.
Although he didn’t consciously highlight those themes in Guidestones, Ferguson believes that “we’re all a little bit curious about the future. Especially in a time when you can see change happening so rapidly, [both] positive and negative. I think every day I’m constantly engaged with this notion of what are we doing to ourselves, and how much of it is random and how much is controlled.”
As far as future projects, Ferguson believes that “audiences, less and less, want to be totally passive in their storytelling experience.” He likes the idea of “being able to tell the story across multiple devices. So you could be watching an episode on your TV or your laptop, and then engaging in a different way in the story on your phone or other device.”
No doubt Ferguson will impress with his next innovation, since Guidestones is top-notch. The lead actors, Wraich and Fox, bring an unstudied, natural feel to the screen, and I’ve actually caught myself wondering at random moments what their characters were doing—as if Sandy and Trevor are real. The overall quality of the series easily rivals larger productions, and the blending of fiction and reality is seamless. Are those crumbling buildings and their dark histories real places or inventions? I still need to Google to find out.
For now, though, it’s time to check my inbox for the next episode.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
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