If you watched the first episode of Dispatches From Elsewhere and found yourself thinking this story rings a vague bell, you’re not crazy — the show is based on a real, interactive social experiment game that happened in San Francisco in 2008. Created by Oakland-area artist Jeff Hull, the fictional “Jejune Institute” recruited people by posting these mysterious fliers all over the city and then “inducting” the players into the institute.
What followed was this crazy, three-years-long journey of self-discovery, puzzles, riddles, paranoia, and entertainment. It was all captured by Hull and his colleague Spencer McCall in order to make a documentary about the game called The Institute. It was this documentary that caught the eye of Jason Segel, who created and stars on Dispatches From Elsewhere. Here’s how he came to find the documentary and how it became an anthology series on AMC.
Segel’s Artistic Malaise Led to Finding This Show
Segel’s fellow EP Mark Friedman told Heavy at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour that Segel knew he wanted to do something with The Institute, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Jason watched [The Institute] four or five years ago and he optioned it, but then he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Is this a movie? Is this a TV show? He sort of sat with it for a while … then he met the guys who created it, Jeff and Spencer, and they set up a little game for him also, so he went through the experience — the mystery, the anxiety — and came out the other end of it having learned something.”
Segel added that he felt a general malaise in his life and this project really appealed to him on a very basic level as an artist.
“I hadn’t done an artistic check-in with myself in a really long time and the things that I was sort of known for were no longer relevant to me,” said Segel. “And I realized that that was a really scary and interesting feeling I hadn’t encountered in a long time, not knowing what to do next; not really knowing who I was at 34 years old because who I was had been dictated to me for quite a long time. And I wanted to write about that. I thought that that was a really interesting subject.”
Segel went on to say that right at this time in his life, he “stumped into this crazy experience in real life” and is dramatized on Dispatches From Elsewhere.
“I found it really moving, that a bunch of people in really different stages of life, from totally different walks of life — socio-economically, politically, ethnically — were all taking part in this thing because something was missing from their lives. And that was just so interesting to me, that we all maybe are much more alike and much more confused than we are being told to believe. We’re supposed to see our differences and I wanted to make a show about how we’re much more similar than we realize that we are.”
The Institute Isn’t a Spoiler, So Go Ahead and Watch It
“I don’t think it matters” if you’ve seen The Institute or not, Friedman told us, adding, “I think you could watch it and you’d go, “Oh, I see the connections!’ But it doesn’t spoil it if you have seen it because the show goes in this way different direction.”
“We consider [Jeff and Spencer] part of the family of the show,” Friedman added. “Jeff, who created the game, I had lunch with him before we started and they came to visit the set. They’ve been very supportive. We haven’t run from the connection because this wouldn’t exist without them, so we’ve always been very respectful of Jeff and Spencer.”
While The Institute was definitely the inspiration for the TV show, Friedman told us that it’s more of a “jumping-off point” because as you expand to eight, nine, 10 episodes of TV, you have to expand the story. The show’s producers also wanted to expand the participants.
In the original social experiment, most of the players were young people who had the kind of time on their hands to be able to run around San Francisco solving puzzles. On the show, they wanted to feature a wider variety of people, so the core cast in addition to Segel includes Andre Benjamin, better known as his stage name Andre 3000, transgender actress Eve Lindley, and two-time Oscar winner Sally Field.
Dispatches From Elsewhere airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.