Engineering the Fantastic
Alumnus Ben Simms made something of a head-spinning career pivot after graduating from the U of M with a degree in aerospace engineering and astrophysics.
Picture this drama playing out
on your television: Three beefy
professional wrestlers well known
to WWE (World Wrestling
Entertainment) fans—Kofi Kingston, Xavier
Woods, and Big E—are approaching a
forbidding mansion. Flames undulate in
braziers on the porch. A symbol like an
evil star clings to the stone arch above the
entrance. Abandon hope, all ye who enter!
In the intensely dualistic WWE universe,
these grapplers, a team known as The
New Day, are the definitive good guys,
representing everything positive. They
have come to the lair of the Undertaker,
the ultimate “heel,” or bad-guy wrestler—a
pale practitioner of the dark arts.
Welcome to Escape the Undertaker, a
Netflix special that debuted last October.
Presiding over the whole thing as director
is Ben Simms (B.A.E.M. ‘04) a former
aerospace scholar. Even more unusual
is that this directorial effort is creepy,
campy—and interactive! At key points the
viewer can choose the direction the story
will take (“follow whispers/follow fog/follow
lights”). It’s a labyrinth of alternate scenes
The WWE saga is the biggest directing
job yet for Simms, who has spent the
last 16 years building a mainly freelance
career as a producer, director, and
photographer on myriad projects in Los
Angeles, after first making a name for
himself producing a wildlife series for
British adventurer Bear Grylls.
How does an aerospace engineer end
up working with animals in the wild and
wrestlers on a spook-house set? According
to Simms, the progression was more logical
than you might think. Part of it has to do with
using his engineering skills in ways quite different from, say, crafting lunar modules.
Simms struck out for California a year
after earning his bachelor’s degree at the
U of M, with the intention of looking for an
aerospace job. “But there was a friend from
high school who was working in film production in LA,” he says. “He explained the ins
and outs of production. And eventually,
somebody was sick on a set, and they asked
me if I wanted to come in and be a PA [production assistant]. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And I
showed up and just never looked back.”
A series of production assistant
gigs—handling various logistics on film and
TV shoots—led to Simms becoming operations manager for TV coverage of several
football seasons for the NFL Network.
Here, his engineering background was a
major asset. He designed a quickly collapsible set for sideline interviews during
Thursday night football games.
“I was able to talk with the producers,
the directors, and the network, who
wanted the set to function and look a
certain way,” he says, “and then go and talk
to the engineers and machinists. I could
mock stuff up and draw how I thought
things should work. There was a great deal
of efficiency there because I could speak
After his NFL stint wound down, Simms
connected with an executive producer of
one of Bear Grylls’s shows, in which the
former British special-forces hotshot made
forays into the wilds of Panama. Simms
came on as an assistant director, coordinating an oceanside scene that had to be shot
in 30 minutes before the tide went out.
“Bear likes to work fast and efficiently,”
Simms says. “I grew up being quite outdoorsy and I like challenges where everything is new and fast and exciting.
We hit it off, and my relationship with him
grew from there. I’ve shot with him in
China, India, all over Europe and Africa.
I’ve probably done around 100 episodes
of some type of programming with him in
The work has been intense. “The hairs on
the back of your neck rise a little bit when
you’re trying to coordinate a shoot with a
lion or a cheetah or a rhino,” says Simms,
no doubt understating the case.
The most recent Bear Grylls series, You
vs. Wild (2019) on Netflix, is also interactive.
The viewer can send Bear here or there on
quests to rescue threatened wildlife or find
lost animals or whatever, and Simms and
crew had to shoot all the options in a complicated marriage of storytelling—writers
work out the basic scenarios—and improv,
as Bear and Simms and crew respond to
weather, animal behavior, and everything
else that can happen in extreme environments. Call it a special kind of real-time
Those experiences prepared Simms
for the fictional multistory world of the
Undertaker. The wrestler-actors are good
at improv, he says, because they play characters in the ring. But he also enjoys having
more control over what happens than he
did in his Grylls days. “I think it’s making me
a stronger storyteller,” he says, “because I’m
used to having to pivot on a dime because
of an avalanche or tigers being nearby.”
And then he says something that is very LA. “I’ve got a few more things on the scripted side in development now. I’m looking forward.”
Jon Spayde is a writer in the Twin Cities.