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By Mike Johnson on 2021-10-05 17:00:00

It's extremely rare to break new ground when it comes to World Wrestling Entertainment content, but as of this morning, fans who dare get to control the fate of WWE's New Day - Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods - when the trio approach The Undertaker in an attempt to combine the Power of Positivity with the mystical power of The Undertaker's magic urn.  With that stage set, it's on the viewer to guide the heroes through the Undertaker's haunted lair, with the interactive choices that will be laid out for them determining the fate of all the players involved and the very course of the film itself. 


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At the center of Escape The Undertaker, the puppet master pulling the strings for a very unique and groundbreaking WWE presentation, is Director Ben Simms, who helped perfect such interactive content for Netflix with You vs. Wild, where viewers guided survivalist Bear Grylls through all sorts of predicaments as he battled the natural elements.    Simms has been one of the central forces in a number of Grylls projects, twice nominated for Emmys, for creating unique content and pushing the boundaries of interactivity on Netflix's streaming service.

Now, Simms gets to do the same, only this time, Grylls’ natural elements are replaced by the fantastical world of WWE in an environment that pushes the mythos of their characters beyond anything they could do in a live performance setting while also trying to keep the audience engaged and guessing as they, like The New Day, venture through this unique WWE adventure.


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The fact that this project was so unique for WWE was exactly what attracted Simms, who was a WWE fan when he was much younger, to the project, as he sought to do something that has never been attempted previously in the WWE space.

“So I've done a good amount of interactives with Netflix and with Electus and Propagate, the production company that's done the You vs. Wild title and yeah, just Rob Buchta, I've worked with quite a bit on many different projects, “ explained Simms.  “He's the show runner, as well as Liz Schultz, who's also an Executive producer on the show.  it was sort of presented to me by them, and it was hard to say no. Obviously, interactivity has got a lot of challenges, but it also has a lot of opportunity to tell an exciting story multiple ways, so that aspect of it, especially considering it's featuring the Undertaker and The New Day, is what drew me to it initially. So yeah, I was involved pretty much from pitch to completion and saw it all the way through post to hand it off.”

“Once this opportunity kind of came up,” Simms added, “I was excited about the fact that I'd have the opportunity to get reacquainted with it and just dig a bit deeper into what's going on in WWE now.”


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While the New Day wants to acquire The Undertaker’s urn in the film, Simm’s chance to mine the history and mythology of The Undertaker in a way that had never truly been attempted before was a major lure to bring him on board Escape The Undertaker.

“That was actually probably one of the biggest things that drew me to it...The Undertaker has been around for so long and he's still shrouded in mystery somehow. I mean, there's obviously a long history and a lot of lore behind him, but what was fascinating to me is we were able to expand on that even still, and sort of maybe not an origin story, but just give more context and a backstory to just who this mysterious character is. That was probably the most exciting part.”

So, why the choice of The Undertaker’s urn as The Maltese Falcon of the film, The Macguffin that must be acquired?

“From the early stages, it was something, we were always trying to find sort of that through line of what the motivation was going to be for The New Day,” explained Simms.  “I think initially, once you compare The New Day to the Undertaker, there's sort of a treasure trove of opportunity there because they're just, they're both very, very well known. It's sort of old school versus new school, they're dynamic in their kind of how they represent themselves is very different and just very different sides of the spectrum, so that element of it was exciting.  It was actually Rob Buchta, the show runner, who just as we were going through, just different iterations of ideas.  We did quite a bit of research in watching even just matches and some of Undertaker's documentaries and stuff. It just sort of presented itself.”

“The urn is just such an iconic symbol associated with the Undertaker so as soon as that sort of presented itself, it was, I don't want to say easy, but it was just, it just made sense and everything was essentially built around that,” continued Simms.  “The part that got a little bit interesting was because they are such different characters, how do we stay true to their brands but also make it realistic to the story for them to want to pursue it? Which, I like to think we did.  I mean, that's the fun part about having three different characters in The New Day, is they're all going to have different motivations as well. So that's what makes it a bit fun to have the viewer decide who they're going to align with, and who they want to associate with…

Simms trails off, before continuing, coyly,  “Sometimes, it might even be the Undertaker….”


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Pushing and utilizing the WWE Intellectual Property in a way that has never been attempted is certainly a major attraction for someone streaming Escape the Undertaker for the first time, but like all projects, even with new technology and the ability to go in new directions, the central core, the heart of the creativity needs to be grounded by the performances of WWE’s talents, who Simms marveled at after working with them on the interactive film.

“Those guys are out there week in and week out performing in front of a ton of people live, “ Simms broke down.  “So, we were able to shoot elements of [Escape the Undertaker] almost as if it was live and just really be efficient.  That's what brought us time to just really raise the production value and sort of build this world around them...those guys were amazing. They just stepped right into stuff and we were able to just really do some things in certain scenes in as few takes as possible, just based on their talent alone, so that was great.   The production team as well, just really sort of ran this hybrid production where it was almost shot as live, but still had this just filmic element to it where we could kind of take the best of both worlds and combine them.”

As far as the experience of the film, Simms himself admitted that even he, as the person who helmed the project, isn’t quite sure how long it may take a viewer to explore and make it through from beginning to end, but that’s the point.

“There's varying run times for it. To be honest, I don't know the exact run time if you were to, what your shortest viewing experience could be, but what I can tell you is you're not going to be able to really experience everything just by going through the adventure once. The whole story and way the world is set up, there's just a lot of different kind of twists and turns and ways to navigate through what you're up against in trying to escape the Undertaker, so as far as when there's going to be choices and how involved you're going to be, it's essentially timed out to where you're not really going to be able to put down your remote, which is sort of the idea, so it's something that you're going to be engaged with the whole time.”

With something as complicated as the technological aspects of an interactive film and needed to ensure the continuity of every choice, the post-production and editing process was something that Simms and his team paid exquisite detail to.

“So I think the biggest challenge is just making sure that sort of tonally, and just the variance in scenes when they do twist and turn or combine and sync together, are cohesive and all come together in a way that you want and you expect, because the fun part of the interactivity is just the types of different experiences you can have.  Some are going to be scary, some are going to be exciting, some are going to be good, some are going to be bad, so it's just finding that balance and sort of looking from scene to scene to make sure everything's just balanced in a way that it's going to be satisfying, regardless of the order you watch or what your choices are along the way.”

When asked how different Escape the Undertaker may have been, production-wise from his previous experiences working in conjunction with and against Mother Nature in You vs. Wild in comparison to the more theatrical, over the top elements of a WWE-branded project, Simms broke down the differences.

“So this was one of those, there was just a very, everything kind of seemed to work well for us to hedge our bets to just get the most out of each of our days. You're right. When it's something like Bear Grylls in You vs. Wild, there's other challenges, right?   We're dealing with weather and the environment and sort of the danger of even getting crew to a lot of locations. For this, that time and energy was essentially put into just a lot of pre-planning and pre-lighting, and choreographing how we're even going to move in and out of scenes, since we're going to have to do things multiple ways, and the big advantage was having The Undertaker and The New Day who are used to doing live performances, right?”

One of the advantages of an interactive project in the WWE realm is that even for performers deeply ingrained in performing on the fly, production can map out things well in advance in order to prepare for a greater fan experience as one ventures through Escape The Undertaker.

“Without getting too deep into just the details of specific time and budget, that's always sort of what determines it. And when we know that going in, we're essentially building the story around that and how we're going to shoot around that.  It's for sure storyboarded and planned out in certain aspects.  At the same time, again, with [WWE] performers, they're able to potentially come up with things on the spot that we're open to improvising, or add some nuance to this scene.  So I think the big thing for me was essentially setting up a playground for them and just kind of turning them loose in some of the scenes.  Of course, there's a plan and intention for what we need to get out of the scene, but just especially with the big personalities that all four of these guys were, it was nice to give them that freedom and sort of have some happy accidents that nudge the story.”

With so much built into the expectations of anything related to The Undertaker, when asked if fans might expect some other personalities to appear over the course of their journey, Simms cryptically responded, “What I can tell you is there may be some surprise references or appearances by some people close in the Undertaker's circle.  Make the right choices and yeah, there'll be some, I think, pleasant surprises....” before trailing off, leaving it to sit there for one to ponder as they venture through the film's possibilities.


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Of course, when it comes to guarded personalities and the importance of the aura for a character, until the last several years, there wasn’t anyone more closely protected than The Undertaker.  With this interactive film giving the audiences a new extension on The Undertaker following his exit from weekly WWE storytelling in November 2020, adding a new layer while also working hand in hand with The Undertaker was a responsibility Simms wasn’t going to take lightly.

“That was one thing I wanted to make sure I was very cognizant of the entire time, as he of course knows the character better than anybody, “ Simms noted.  It was a co-production with [WWE Studios], so they were of course involved and they know their brand and their characters better than anybody, obviously.   My biggest thing was just to stay true to him and who the Undertaker is and I can't say enough nice things about working with him. He was very collaborative. If there was something that maybe didn't feel right for him as a character, he'd let me know or he'd let us know and he also, it was nice to see him get excited about stuff that we came up with and pitched to him. It was one of those things where sort of just everything was working for us and I would hope to do it again.”


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If The Undertaker represents the darkness to legions of fans, New Day certainly balances the other side of the scales in terms of the light and like Undertaker, Simms enjoyed the process of working with Big E, Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston.

“[The New Day] were also just amazing to work with in the sense that it was very, I think I mentioned it earlier, it was very, just advantageous to go, ‘Okay, here's what we're going to do.’ We try it, they nail it almost immediately because they're used to doing things live.  We can make adjustments, we can try stuff, but they were also just, especially Xavier, were just so good at just pitching stuff and just throwing out, ‘What if we did this? What if we tried this?’  That part of it was fun because they, again, they know, not just their performing abilities, but their physical abilities as well, which was just such an advantage, and not dissimilar to Bear [Grylls] where they do all of their own stuff, so that part of it was exciting because we could sort of just keep kind of pushing and pushing stuff and squeeze as much as we could out of each scene.”

Perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the project is that nothing, of any kind, leaked in advance of Netflix's official reveal several weeks ago.  For that to happen in 2021, in the days of social media leaks for projects of all sizes and scope going viral in mere seconds, keeping Escape the Undertaker under wraps was an accomplishment in itself.

"I mean, it was tough in some respects, mostly from those of us working on it, because everybody has been really excited about it," Simms admitted.  "Obviously, with everything going on the last year or so, there's been some challenges in production and this one for sure had its challenges along the way. But the nice thing is we didn't have to wait too long from putting this thing together, to putting it out to the world, so I think that was one aspect, just the timing of it sort of helped keep it under wraps. And we also just had a really tightly knit crew. It was something that was for sure talked about for quite a while, but I think everybody sort of understood that we have something kind of special here, so everybody wanted to make sure it was a surprise and it did come out the way it did. So I think that was a big part of it."

With the film being released this morning for streaming on Netflix, Simms is thrilled that Escape The Undertaker can become part of Halloween season excitement for professional wrestling fans.

“Honestly, I am excited. I'm actually excited that it's going to be the beginning of the month so that people have time throughout October to experience it, even if it's the beginning of the month before Halloween. So I hope it becomes...that would be the ultimate, I think, satisfaction, if it becomes the type of thing that people annually enjoy and revisit it almost like a Christmas special. I think that would be a massive win.”

With so much of his work being behind the scenes, I asked Simms to reflect on what the most satisfying aspect of his job is, especially on the precipice of the release of such a unique undertaking (no pun intended).  

“I think what's most satisfying for me is usually right around, as we're wrapping up the physical production in the shoot, is if I've done my job, I feel like I've hopefully gotten the best out of everybody and that we've achieved what we set up to do,” Simms noted.  “Now, it doesn't always mean it's going to be perfect and it doesn't, I just want to know that I left it all in the field, I guess you could say. So that to me is probably the most satisfying part, because as you mentioned, it's for performance. It's media, so of course, it's great to see people's reactions and for other people to see it, but a lot of times, that's subjective and you can't always control how people are going to feel about certain things. But to me, if you're pulling off something you intended to, that to me is the most satisfying aspect of production.”

Having dived into the WWE realm, what if the hour glass was reversed, sending WWE performers onto one one of Simm’s other regular projects, Running Wild With Bear, where celebrities step out of their element and into the wild with famed survivalist Bear Grylls, discussing life and life experiences as they work in tandem with Bear to achieve their goals and exit the wild.  How would a WWE personality fare in that world?

“Their personalities amongst their characters are just so incredible and it's such an interesting [thing]”, explained Simms.  “They show up and do these amazing things in the ring, and I think it's obviously big and translates in the ring and on TV, but there's a whole other side to them I think that would be appreciated even more if it was somebody, like Dave Bautista, who was with Bear [on Running Wild], which was just, it was just nice to get to know that person and understand the complexity of them and what their characters mean to them.

So, flipping the hourglass again, how would Bear Grylls, who has mastered surviving out in the most extreme natural elements, deal with The Undertaker in the realm conjured up for Netflix in Escape The Undertaker?

“That would be interesting,”  Simms admits.  “I think that would be quite the cat and mouse game because he's super resourceful, obviously, for those familiar with him have seen. So I think if it was strictly him, Bear trying to escape and him using everything around him, I think he'd probably have a bit of an edge because he's pretty crafty, but then if you add the supernatural of the Undertaker, I think that's probably kind of the equalizer. So yeah, it's tough. It's tough for me to see who would come out on top on that, but I'd be open to see it. I think that'd be an interesting crossover, for sure.”

Whether such an oddball pairing comes to pass (hey, we did once get Freddy vs. Jason, so nothing is off limits in the entertainment world) remains to be seen, would Simms be interested in submerging himself back into the WWE Universe again for future interactive projects?

“Yeah,” Simms says with zero hesitation.  “Oh, I'd love to. Yeah. I'd love to. Like you mentioned, there's such a wide range of just characters and backstories and alliances and feuds, and I think there's so much opportunity to just expand on this world and whether it's some completely new type of interactive or if this is a jumping off point to just a universe of these, I think there's a ton of opportunity there. So yeah, I hope it's well received enough and enough people are about it that I'd get the opportunity to do that.”

So, as the sorcerer who had the ability to weave this very different WWE experience together for fans across the world, what’s Ben Simms’ advice as to the best way to Escape The Undertaker?

“My advice, I think I'd say, I think the best way to watch this is either with friends or family because watching it on your own, I'm sure is obviously a great experience as well, but in my experience with interactivity, watching it with other people and just getting into the debates on what's best for each character, in my opinion, sort of heightens the experience and you can almost see who's going to come out on top within your family. So yeah, my advice would be not just necessarily strategy for The New Day, but I would say watch it with family and friends.”

Does New Day escape?  Has a new WWE Halloween tradition been born?  While Ben Simms has set the stage, it's up to you to decide...

Escape The Undertaker is now streaming for Netflix subscribers.  Also just released for Netflix subscribers is Ben Simms’ latest interactive film starring Bear Grylls, You vs. Wild: Out Cold.

Mike Johnson can be reached at

Ben Simms Photo courtesy: Ben Simms.  All other Photos courtesy: Netflix.


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