Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail comments on the sleeper hit’s eerie parallels with real current tragic events and why trying to veer the hacker show away from what’s happening in today’s society would be a misstep.
Written by Denis Faye
(September 11, 2015)
There’s no denying that Mr. Robot – USA Network’s sleeper hit about a mentally unstable vigilante hacker – nailed the zeitgeist of this summer. It was so culturally spot-on that it managed to parallel a number of current events. In fact, the season finale was delayed out of respect when a particularly violent scene mirrored the tragic on-air killings that took place in Virginia last month.
According to show creator Sam Esmail, while one can’t help but be impacted by coincidences like this, it’s important to put them in perspective. “We're not doing a period piece, we're doing a show about today,” he explained in an interview with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently. “As long as we're authentically reflecting what we feel is society and the modern day conundrums of 2015, we're doing our job right. Unfortunately, it has these eerie parallels with reality that are sometimes incredibly uncomfortable. Obviously, I have mixed feelings about it, but at the end of the day I just think it would be a misstep if we were to veer off that ideology of trying to reflect today's society.”
That said, he plans to keep his ear to the ground for season two. “We're going to start up the writers’ room within a month and everything that happened and all the reactions from the first season are going to come into play,” says Sam. “Some people try to ignore criticisms or audience reactions. I think that's a little silly, I say why not take in that feedback? It can only help as long as it doesn't distract us from what the real story is about for the show.”
As Elliot flits in and out of reality, how do you make sure that everything actually makes sense in the real world of the show and not just from his perspective?
Photo: © 2015 USA Network
Christian Slater and Rami Malek in Mr. Robot.
One of the things I told the network – which for a lot of television shows is unusual – is that I really wanted all the scripts to be done before we shot, for this very reason. Continuity on the show is incredibly important, but it's also incredibly time consuming. To call it serialized is almost an understatement. We had to do the classic setups and payoffs but that could go over eight episodes, seven episodes, so we had to belabor every choice that every character made to make sure it fits.
So there's that component and there's also point of view. Elliot has a very specific point of view. He sees, for example, E Corp as Evil Corp, and we have to make sure that made story sense, and we're very careful about that. If Elliot's not in the scene and we are in someone else's point of view, we do not see that. That's just a small detail of what I’m talking about. Point of view was something that we were very deliberate on. There were checkmarks we needed to go through to make sure that when we crafted a scene, we knew what point of view we're starting from.
And then the plot details, that was more math. We had a huge board up in the writers’ room, and we had to make sure everything added up.
With all that accountability in mind, it seems like you’re writing for three audiences. You have people who watch it as the episodes come out, you have binge watchers and, because it’s going to be a cult show, you're going to have people that watch the show over and over and over again looking for all that continuity. Were you mindful of that?
Oh, yeah. I was a huge fan of Lost, and I remember engaging a lot online, but more importantly in person. I remember just talking to my friends and my colleagues at work about the last episode and theorizing and going over the details and where things added up, where they didn’t – and if they didn't, was it intentional, was it not, and what does it mean that it's not adding up? That sort of level of engagement is something I find exciting.
A lot of people are trying to crack this new form of interactive storytelling. To me, it never felt right because it boiled down to a choose-your-own-adventure. Just because we have the technology they want to do something where you have the choice where the character goes. That was never interesting to me. What's interesting to me is having the story engage you in an interactive way, involving the audience in an interactive way, but it doesn't require the pushing of buttons. It’s the anti version of that. It involves them emotionally connecting, intellectually connecting to the story – it goes back to the classic storytelling technique of “I want to know what happens next, but I also want to know what happened before and what's happening right now and what happened in the other storyline that I didn't get to see for that time period.” It's basically sort of a 360 panorama of storytelling technique. When you open up that box, it becomes a lot more fascinating and a lot more engaging.
We’ve talked about structure and story, but you also invest a lot in the characters, right?
It's strange because the genre that you would define the show is probably thriller – I like to say cyberpunk, but maybe it's a mashup of the two. In either genre there are obviously things that you expect: twists and reveals and surprises and a little bit of action and a lot of people on keyboards typing – but none of that matters if you don't care about the characters.
Part of my motivation for doing the show was out of my frustration of watching Hollywood get it so wrong when it comes to hacker shows or shows about technology in general. They always have to force some kind of drama out of it. To me, showing what actually happens, presenting the world authentically is a lot more fascinating.
The reason why they've avoided it is because it feels really obscure, no one really understands what coders are typing on the screen – which is true, but I know when I watch a lawyer drama I don't necessarily understand all the jargon. The key thing in all of this, whether it's a doctor show, a computer thriller, or an action movie, is if you do not care about the people, none of it matters. With Mr. Robot, it's always a hard thing to answer when you say, "What's this show about?" When I really think about it, the show's about Elliot first and foremost. The hacking and whatever else you want to pile on top of it are just icing for what the real journey is, which is his story.
When you do show the hacking, what got me through were some very visual cues, different colored things or graphics. Were those things added just to help people like me get through those hacking scenes?
The short answer is no. I tried to stay authentically as possible to what they were doing, and we used our tech consultants to help us through that. I honestly think it's Elliot – Rami Malek’s performance – that helps you, not maybe understand what the technical jargon means, but what the stakes are. And obviously visually too, we obviously use the visuals to represent Elliot's emotions, not really the tech. So if you understand where Elliot's at at any point during any of the hacks, then you'll get what's going on, you get what's at risk or what the success is. We can walk you through all that through the eyes of Elliot.
Do you have a grand vision, is there a giant arc for this show or is this a playground where whatever strange happens is going to happen?
I do have a giant arc for this. It's a very giant long-winded arc. Initially this was a feature and the first season was actually the first act of that feature, so in screenwriting terms we're just now getting to the story, this is the 30-minute mark. The second season is actually the beginning of the second act, which is traditionally where the real story begins and everything else is just setup.
What I wanted to explore goes back to Elliot's journey and part of that is his awareness or realization of his Dissociative Identity Disorder, which is a real thing and it's a complicated thing and it's a strange thing. And that was what the movie was going to be about, that's what the show's going to be about. I’m just going to do that until the second season, because I want us to be engrossed with Elliot first.
What does one do when they're facing their alter ego, literally, when they are losing time to them, when they're losing control to them, when they're losing their identity to them? How do they negotiate that, how do they cure that? There are so many different levels to that and what I find fascinating about it is that what we wanted to do with the first season – and I hope that we've done that successfully – is to get inside this person's head first before we went into that space. Ultimately I think that's why it serves better as a television show than a feature. I found that out as I was writing the feature and I got to page 90 and I wasn't even close to being done with the first act.
To get on that strange or less solid ground of a person suffering from this disorder, we really need to be with them first, we really need to be on solid ground with them initially to get to that place.