In order to make a TV show about a mysterious game, Jason Segel had to play a game himself.
“I was in search of — something I wanted to write about, is maybe the simplest way to put it. And answer the question of, ‘Why I personally am doing this in the first place?’” the actor-writer-director says about stumbling on Spencer McCall’s 2013 documentary “The Institute,” which chronicles the mysterious interactive experience known as the Jejune Institute.
Created by artist Jeff Hull, the Jejune Institute originated on the streets of San Francisco in 2008. Participants were first engaged by fliers and online postings, then received instructions to arrive at a specific address, at which point a whole new world of mysteries would be opened up to them.
After watching the documentary, Segel reached out with questions for the people involved — and, he says, they hung up on him.
A month later, he received an email with a time and an address in San Francisco. Arriving there, he says, he was asked to surrender his phone and ID before attempting to solve a series of puzzles, which took him on an adventure through unexpected realms.
“I was basically stripped of all of the armor that you put on in life,” he says. “They do this amazing job of making you feel a part of this thing that doesn’t care who you are or the particularities of your life — and challenges you to be a part of something.”
Segel was hooked: “I had to walk into a bar and say a password,” he says, “and then the bartender handed me this item that I needed to have. I felt like I was in ‘Carmen Sandiego.’”
But Segel grimaces a bit as he remembers the next part. “And then as I’m walking out, the bartender is like, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve seen you naked in the movies.’”
This reminder of his nude scenes in 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” didn’t dampen Segel’s enthusiasm for the project, and he ended up proving himself to the necessary authorities. “I got an email saying, ‘We were watching you. You have divine nonchalance. Meet us at this other location.’ And there, they told me that I could write about it,“ he says.
Segel says, “It was like a rite of passage,” and Hull admits that this was the point. The Jejune Institute had ended a couple of years prior, and Hull had another scavenger hunt-esque project called the Latitude Society that he wanted to see Segel complete.
“I don’t know if I was ready — maybe I was skeptical,” Hull says. “There is something about shared experiences that can be transformative and that can build social cohesion. So, yeah, I was actually trying to initiate him into my world a little bit.”
His reluctance is understandable, because the Jejune Institute is considered an iconic contribution to a genre of storytelling that has for years been difficult to describe or explain. One of the most common terms, “alternate reality gaming,” describes an interactive experience where players follow a story and solve puzzles across multiple platforms. But it’s one Hull tries to distance himself from: Those who engage with his projects are not “players,” but “participants,” he says, and “we’re really inviting participants to have their expectations challenged or subverted.”
Less pithily, perhaps, Hull explains what he does as “narrative storytelling in a genuine space, getting people out of the kind of two-dimensional space of the screen. And then playfulness and where those three things interact. You have this opportunity for transformation.”
Having seen the first few episodes of “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” Hull says, “I thought that was intact.”
The series, premiering on AMC on Sunday, co-stars Sally Field, Richard E. Grant, Eve Lindley and Andre Benjamin, and though it relocates the action from San Francisco to Philadelphia, the idea remains closely linked with Hull’s creation: An eclectic group of strangers get caught up in a mysterious experience that may or may not be real, but definitely pushes every one of them out of their comfort zone.
Two-time Oscar winner Field had heard something about how “Dispatches From Elsewhere” was based on a real property, but it didn’t really matter to her. She signed up after reading the first four scripts for the series.
“It really was what was on the page,” she says, adding that she loves what happened as she and her fellow cast members became a true team, “finding clues and stumbling into things and what could it be. The mystery of it, I think we all found that to be really, really fun.”
In real life, Field says she has no interest in a similar experience. Life is already “a real-life game,” she says. “And I don’t need to sign up for somebody else’s game. My own game is hard enough.”
The line between all of these things — games, experiences and the real world — is a massively complicated question. Hull, a newcomer to television, actually compares bringing one of his creations to the screen as an example of one of his own adventures:
“You are showing up with a little invite card and ... unlock[ing] a nondescript door into an automated space and then you’re thrust down a slide into a basement and then you’re going through a darkness,” he says. “For one person, that might be really thrilling. And for another person, that’s completely terrifying. So, the new adventure of collaboration with Jason and building that relationship was at times thrilling and at times terrifying [for me].”
For Segel, adapting the mystery of experiences like the Jejune Institute is “the perfect metaphor for life. I think we are just born. We have no idea what the point is. And it’s our job to try to construct meaning from our experiences.”
“In the same way that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is, you know, ‘We must get to the Emerald City’ — we have a million versions of that in our lives,” he continues. “‘Once I get this thing, all my problems will be solved.’ The goal part always ends up not being the thing. You get your brain, your heart, your courage and your home along the way.”
‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’
When: 10:05 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)