Netflix’s The Circle is bewildering viewers everywhere. Part reality show, part game show, part dating show, the series follows contestants living alone in apartments and competing against each other solely over a social-media platform called the Circle in order to win $100,000. But the catch is that some of them aren’t who they appear to be. Catfish are among us. And the show itself isn’t innocent of similar behavior.
Although the U.S. version, which came out on January 1, flashes aerial shots of American cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, the show is definitely filmed in Northern England. “We wanted the building to be in a nonspecific location for the U.S. version — the feeling that it could be anywhere,” Tim Harcourt, the show’s creator, said in a statement to Vulture. “However, it didn’t make sense to add shots of the U.K. and its cities — in fact, it was confusing — so we added U.S. cityscapes to give it an American feel for the majority of the audience who assume it is somewhere in the U.S.” So the show was catfishing us all the entire time. Don’t hate the player, hate the — oh, wait.
The building in which the show takes place, and the social-media platform created specifically for it, make up the foundation of The Circle’s approach to fabricating international reality TV. There are four completely unique versions of the series for four different nations (Brazil and France are coming soon to Netflix, and the original is on the U.K.’s Channel 4), and, as you might’ve guessed, there are producers behind the scenes facilitating all the convos. So to get a better sense of The Circle’s inner workings, Vulture spoke to Harcourt about tackling the show’s unusual logistics: everything from personalizing the “arena” for each different version, to faking a voice-activated social platform, to helping facilitate players’ catfishing attempts.
The show has really taken off, funnily enough, on social media. What do you make of the response from American viewers?
It was a little bit slow at first, the first week, but it seems to have really taken off, especially on Instagram and Twitter. It’s great. Obviously, it’s been running here [in the U.K.] for a couple of years, but a lot of people’s responses were so fresh — just the joy of discovering something really new. A lot of people were sort of like, “Oh, I didn’t expect to like a reality show, but actually I loved it and I was hooked,” which is great, actually. We’ve got a long history here of making what I would call good-quality unscripted shows. So there’s less surprise here when something like that pops.
The Circle takes an approach to reality programming that we haven’t really seen much here in America, especially the concept of them living so close to one another but not being able to meet, as opposed to other reality shows where they’re living together in mansions. What was it like finding a building to shoot in?
Finding the apartment block is incredibly difficult because what we need, really, is a completely empty apartment block, because we don’t want to be sharing it with residents who are living there. We end up sort of taking over the whole thing. We have to drill cables and put cameras up, but you also need an apartment that’s not overlooked by other people. Especially because for the British version, in particular, it goes out every night and at the same time as it’s being filmed, so you wouldn’t want anyone holding up a big sign saying “Rebecca is actually a catfish.” It takes about four or five months and you kiss a lot of frogs and you go to a few crappy apartment blocks in your time. But we love the one that we ended up with. And then, also, we sort of help make all the apartments look really desirable and like great places that people would want to live if they were by themselves or in a couple.
You can definitely see distinct personalities in each of the apartments. Do you swap out the designs as new people come in, or is the entire block filled out?
We have about 12 apartments ready to go, and as somebody leaves an apartment we usually redesign elements of it. So the next one to come in will always take the first one vacated. We filmed all four versions of the show in the same apartment block in a town called Salford in Manchester in the United Kingdom. And for each version — the Brazilian, the American, the French, the British version — we had to sort of design personal touches that made it feel like home for everyone who was living in there. So the Brazilians like it to be very light. They like to have lots of plants. The Americans, they wanted all their creature comforts. We fill all their fridges with food that they loved, American food or Brazilian food. We made it feel like home to everyone that’s living in there. For all intents and purposes for the viewer, it is kind of home. We show pictures of America, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but I think it’s pretty well publicized on the internet that it’s not filmed in Chicago — it’s filmed in the north of England.
Right, so, for the Brazilian version, are there stills of Brazilian cities?
The Brazilian version has pictures of cities like Salvador and Rio and São Paulo. Again, we completely redesign the interior, so when you see the Brazilian and French versions in 2020, most of the apartments are unrecognizable.
So then each version of the show has to film at different points in time?
We filmed the American version first. We started filming that in the middle of August of last year, at the end of a quite hot summer. You can see them sitting around and not wearing anything, Joey having his shirt off. After we finished the American version, we filmed the British version for Channel 4. That’s the second season in Britain. And that went out every night. And then that show finished and the whole Brazilian cast moved into the building. Then, they went and a whole French cast moved in at the beginning of December. So, basically, we were allowing different casts to come in and play the game on what, effectively, I suppose, is like the arena or the pitch which is our building.
What was it like seeing how the different cast members moved about in the building?
It’s really interesting, actually. I loved the American cast. They felt very morally centered. They don’t turn on each other strategically, and they are all true to themselves and true to their friendships, and they feel the connections they’ve made over the Circle are really genuine and possibly more important than winning. The Brits, on the other hand, would probably sell their grandmother for a prize. They happily turn on each other. Brazilians were all very suspicious of each other all the time, and the French were incredibly strategic, intelligent, calculating. We saw lots of these different gameplay strategies, as well as the huge cultural differences we have between different people playing. The Brazilians were sort of flamboyant and wanted to party every night, whereas the Americans were quite happy on some nights to sort of read their book in bed or sort of just chill. It was incredibly interesting to have an insight into all these different cultures.
More about the building: How did you construct the now-iconic circle on the outside of the building?
I haven’t got the exact dimensions, but it’s about a 25-meter diameter aluminum track, I think, which is bolted onto the front of the building and then we run LED lights through and around the circle. In the first season, everyone thought that we had created an effect in postproduction with the lights, but actually the lights are on the front of the building, reflecting and shining into the players’ rooms. In fact, there’s a hotel in Manchester where, if you go up to the 20th floor, there’s a bar. You can quite clearly see the lights from our building if it was on.
Is there a control room where you’re watching everything go down?
There’s an absolutely huge control room. We ran all the wires from that building into this — it was like a disused college university campus opposite [the building]. In there, we had a huge control room, which at any time would have between 20 and 30 producers and camera ops working, recording, logging everything that was going on, and also studying the game and sending all the messages from the Circle. It’s like sort of a bit like being a general in an army, I suppose.
The app the Circle was created for the show, but how exactly does it work when a player wants to send a message?
The app is a proper piece of chat technology, a bit like WhatsApp, I suppose, with bells and whistles and lots of extra bits. When we first set out, we tried to use it all by voice recognition. If we had done voice recognition to the level that the Circle does it, I’d probably have a job working for Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates by now. So what we actually have is, when you talk to the Circle, there’s a producer who’s transcribing what you say. Instantly, that gets pushed to the next room. So there is some humanity in the app, and that’s a couple of producers whose job it is to take dictation from the players.
Some of the catfish on the show use photos of someone they know, like Seaburn. But in the case of Mercedeze, we’re never told who that actually is.
I think Karyn said that she’s never met the girl when she refers to the person Mercedeze. But what we did is we asked Karyn what sort of person she wanted to play as. She provided us with a number of people and profiles that maybe she knew of and then we helped her approach them to, effectively, license their photos and also let them know the upside and downside of the fact that their photos are being used. Playing as a catfish can have its rewards, but it’s also difficult. She couldn’t find anyone very close to her whose profile she wanted to use. So when we’re asked by players if they can have some help, we can step in.
Catfish or not, what do you think makes a successful gameplay on the show?
I used to think it was people who were authentic and honest, but actually, I don’t think that is the secret to being successful, though that can be a brilliant strategy for doing well. I think the secret of success is being a brilliant communicator. You look at some amazing people out there — amazing CEOs, men and women out there who are successful as broadcasters, like Oprah Winfrey or Sheryl Sandberg, people like that. The thing that they all have in common is that they’re incredibly strong communicators.