Film Independent Thu 9.17.2020

Interview: An Invite to ‘Murder Mystery Dinner’s Immersive Crime-Solving Experience

With air quality up and down the West Coast currently hovering somewhere in-between the National Weather Service’s “Ugh, no!” and “Arghhh!” air safety categories, there’s—somehow—even less incentive to go outside these days than there already was. In fact, it’s a bit like that Vince Vaughn movie where he goes to prison, and then Don Johnson’s corrupt warden character proceeds to send him to a secret second prison inside the regular prison. That’s what 2020 has been like; a bit of a hat on a hat, shall we say. Point is: regardless of where you are and what biological and/or ecological crisis you’re currently dealing with, you’d probably really appreciate some sort of fun distraction right about now.

Enter Murder Mystery Dinner Party. As its name implies, MMDP has taken the conventions of the standard, IRL “murder mystery party”—a favorite pastime of quirky geeks, inveterate puzzle-solvers and immersive theater enthusiasts alike—and reinvented the beloved (if niche) experience as a participatory online role-playing project utilizing such cinematic tools as pre-recorded video, acting and improve, screenwriting and creative sound design.

Though Murder Mystery Dinner Party is far from the only immersive creative project to find success reimagined for our new Zoom age, it’s certainly one of the impressive, earning a glowing press mention in the New York Times despite being run by just one single person—creator and dinner party “host” Cortney Matz, an LA-based musician, writer and game designer with lots of ideas.

We recently spoke to Matz—an occasional Film Independent blog contributor—about Murder Mystery Dinner Party and how it overlaps with her pre-COVID film and digital media background. Here’s the conversation:



Cortney Matz

To start, why don’t you describe what this project is, exactly? 

Matz: Murder Mystery Dinner Party is the name of the whole concept, which is like a virtual dinner party where you solve a mystery, similar to the kind of in-person live events where you go and participate. I’ve tried to take that concept and turn it into a game you can actually play [online] with your friends or with strangers. We just have a dinner party—like 10 people who get together over Zoom and I facilitate the whole thing, in character. This particular show is called “Mystery at Boddy Mansion,” which is a not-so-subtle hint at the game of Clue, which is one of my all-time favorite pastimes. I play the owner of the mansion, and all of the other characters are people I’ve created who go with that story. It’s a comedic look at the deductive reasoning process. It’s a lot of fun!

How many people are involved behind the scenes putting this together?

Matz: Yours truly! [laughs] So far, it’s completely owned and operated by myself. Starting soon, I’m going to be releasing new shows—I have new stories around Dracula’s Castle, I have a Sleepy Hollow murder mystery and a Hollywood story, and then we’ll do a Christmas Carol kind of story with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future—and for those I’ll be bringing in actors to play the main roles, partly because it’s more fun to riff off of somebody else that just leading the whole thing myself. It’s an added level of production value to actually have someone playing Dracula, or to have somebody playing Ichabod Crane.

Tell me about the scripting process. We obviously deal a lot with screenwriting here. But how is what you’re doing for this project similar or dissimilar? I imagine it’s bit more like writing for video games, where you have to anticipate a variety of different scenarios.

Matz: A little bit. It’s probably my favorite kind of writing. I do have a background in screenwriting and I’ve written a lot of marketing content, so I write a lot. Really, the dialogue is my favorite part of a script. The concept is that there are characters and there are clues and everybody is sharing their clues—their own little bits of information, and the whole group has to work together to find out what it means. And all the clues are planted in the scripted portion of the dialogue. It’s not that hard, but when you have four different people to keep track of, and you’re pretending to be one of them, it gets a little hectic. So I’m basically facilitating, calling on people and letting them know, “Hey, it’s your turn.”

A recent performance of ‘Murder Mystery Dinner Party’

Was this project specifically borne out of a response to everyone being housebound during quarantine? I know you do a lot of work in the game design space. Had you been working on this already?

Matz: When quarantine set in, I already had a bunch of gigs lined up which, like a lot of people, all fell apart. So suddenly I had the space in my life to be, like, “What do I want to do now?” I spend a lot of time playing Clue and thought maybe I can get some friends together and play over Zoom. So had the board and the cards and it was super-awkward and frustrating and it took forever. I was super annoyed. I thought, you know, maybe there’s a hybrid, and that all of that plus my interest in mystery games was leading me somewhere. So I just took a stab at it. I had all these scripts lying around from when I was maybe going to do a live dinner party, and then I had this brainwave that it could all just be online.

When you go to these sorts of murder mystery dinners in person, a lot of the experience is in the atmosphere that’s created. How do you approximate that online?

Matz: I’ve run into some hurdles trying to do sound design because not everyone’s system can handle it; it’s too noisy or it doesn’t translate. But there are a few video clues that pop in here and there, just to surprise everybody and keep things fresh. I trigger those with a sound effect, so it goes from just being a standard Zoom call to more of a dynamic soundscape. So that’s kind of an extra element where you’re going to see a screenshare with video. I’d love to do more of that. For Dracula, I might have a few more sound cues.

You had a nice write-up in the New York Times recently. How do you go about publicizing or advertising a one-woman show like this? How do you build an audience for this sort of thing with limited resources?

Matz: Well, I have to give a huge shout out to the Everything Immersive website, which is run by a group called No Proscenium. It’s an organization dedicated to the immersive theater community. I got connected with them a few years ago when I was working with a friend of mine on her escape room concept, and I just kind of kept an eye on it and every now and then new shows would pop up and I’d say, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” That community was a huge step up for people hearing about my show in the beginning. Word of mouth has been huge as well. People share my Facebook posts, and I’ve been really surprised at how well it’s been received. Part of it is the novelty of how, back in April, there was nothing to do. So kind of just getting on that bandwagon and being kind of new helped. And I’ve just been able to follow that into the space we’re in now.

To learn more about Murder Mystery Dinner Party, click here.

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