Charlie Brooker said the idea for Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back” was sparked by two things: the first was when was he was trying to clear space on his phone (in the days when you had limited storage) and he came across a contact for a friend who had passed away. He found himself caught in a strange moment of sadness and guilt at having to delete the person’s number off his mobile phone – even though he would never need it again.
Secondly, one late night scrolling through Twitter, he imagined that everyone on the site was dead and were just being emulated by a piece of software. This collision of thoughts perfectly captures the world of Black Mirror: melancholia, black comedy, technology and our relationship to it all mixed together and played out as harsh realism, no matter how absurd or cruel the scenario.
Over the course of three months, we spoke with the key creators of Black Mirror to reflect on its three series to date, discover its origins and future, and uncover how the episodes are built for the most wildly original and unrelentingly dark show on television. Strap in.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Charlie Brooker (Creator): We’d done a show for Channel 4 called Dead Set which was kind of a forerunner to Black Mirror. Its premise was that there’s a zombie apocalypse during a season of Big Brother and the last people in Britain to find out are the Big Brother housemates – a group of people who have been chosen to not get on. Channel 4 liked it and asked, “What else would you like to come up with, what else interests you?”
I’d always liked shows like The Twilight Zone or Hammer House of Horror or Tales of the Unexpected. I wanted to do a show like that. I’d read this biography of Rod Serling who created The Twilight Zone and it was interesting why he did it. He created that show because he was a playwright and was trying to write TV plays about racism and McCarthyism and they were getting censored. He realised if he dressed it all up as a metaphor he could write about anything he wanted but would use aliens or whatever as an analogy. I thought, “If you were doing that now, what would the obsessions of today be?” Technology seemed like a fairly obvious one. The original pitch suggested eight half-hour episodes, each one by a different author with a technological twist at the core. That was the original idea, then it morphed.
Annabel Jones (Showrunner): Charlie and I have worked together for a long time. Seventeen years or something like that. We’ve done all our shows together. In terms of the dynamic – it’s mutual disrespect. We complement each other quite well. He’s the natural pessimist and worrier and I’m forever trying to put a positive spin on something. We are quite competitive about who can out-gross each other. In Black Mirror that combines itself to create sometimes grounded, credible worlds. Although there are certainly moments where we’ve stretched our credibility.
THE CHANNEL 4 YEARS
In 2011, the first series of Black Mirror aired on Channel 4. A grim satire of modern society, the show examined our relationship with technology in a way that hadn’t been seen before on TV.
THE NATIONAL ANTHEM
Charlie Brooker: I think the first episode that was written was “15 Million Merits”. There was another episode we were going to do that was totally different, which was kind of a war parable, not a million miles away from the “Men Against Fire” episode that we ended up doing. It was all a little bit odd and it was probably painfully earnest. We had a director on board, we were gonna do it, we were greenlit. Then Jay Hunt came in from Channel 4 and word came back that she wasn’t a fan of this particular script. We had a conversation about it, there was a bit of back and forth, things came to a head and I was gonna have to go into her office and try and convince her that we should do this episode as scripted.
But there was this other idea, “The National Anthem”. I had this meeting with her and she was outlining the reasons why she didn’t particularly want to do (the other episode) and I was kind of agreeing with her. I was thinking, ‘No, hang on, you’re right.’ I then just pitched the idea of “The National Anthem” to her.
I think the way I described it was that it was a bit like an episode of 24, a ticking bomb thriller but with a ridiculous premise. She laughed and then we had a conversation where she asked, ‘Does it have to be a pig?’ We had a bit of back and forth on that and then I went off and wrote the first ten or eleven pages over the weekend and sent her an email saying ‘this is the tone of it’ and she went for it. We were on from that point.
Otto Bathurst (Director): When we did our press screening, it was a very powerful event. We had a lot of press in the theatre and for the first 15–20 mins everyone was on board really enjoying it. Then when we got to the moment of everyone watching the prime minister fuck the pig – the room just changed completely. Everyone realised they were responsible for what was going on and they had a part to play in it. That was a very satisfying moment, because I feel very strongly that in life we have to take responsibility for the world we created: we buy the papers, we watch the news programmes. Some people find the episode very hard to watch, I say to them, ‘Deal with it! Watch it! ’Cos we created it.’
“When we got to the moment of everyone watching the prime minister fuck the pig the room just changed completely. Everyone realised they were responsible” – Otto Bathurst
When the David Cameron scandal broke Charlie and I’s Twitter feed exploded with people asking if we were visionaries. To me it’s a bit of a distraction – it was funny, of course, but that’s not really what the show is about. We were saying, “Look at where we got to, look at how dark we’re prepared to go for sensationalism. Is there really no bottom to our decency and responsibility in society?” What David Cameron does in Oxford University on a Saturday night when he’s had too much to drink is a bit of different conversation.
Annabel Jones: Yes, at heart it’s about the shifting powers of our institutions and how the police can exercise control, or can’t control, stories in a world in which Twitter and the media are breaking stories before they can. The news institution plays a role, as does the public’s appetite for humiliation.
FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS
Joel Collins (Production designer): Konnie (Huq, Charlie Brooker’s wife) co-wrote the episode. Putting my mind to it, I think Charlie was quite a night owl and I remember him saying that it was brilliant writing the show with Konnie as they both stayed up all night together solving the puzzle. “Fifteen Million Merits” did something brilliant for the first season of Black Mirror, a season of three films. It ensured the individuality and possibilities that lay within this particular anthology with one show being routed in the present, another being pure ‘world creation’ and the third being an alternative but very tangible future. All very different, but all tonally lived within the same space.
“Fifteen Million Merits” took a lot of engineering because most of it was real. There were almost no visual effects. We had people behind all of the screens. We had buttons and computers behind all of the sets and if you touched the wall it would scroll or move or something would flash up. People watched it and no one could work out why the reflection was in his (Daniel Kaluuya’s) eyes because normally it would be green screen but there is a certain fakeness to that. Even though that world was hyperreal, it wasn’t fake. And that became my feelings towards the design for Black Mirror – all of it has to be quite accessible and tangible, none of it should ever feel fake. It has to be almost touchable for the audience.
THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF YOU
Jesse Armstrong (Writer): I keep a notebook of ideas and I had one in there which was unusual for me because it was about technology. It was about how the exponential growth in the amount of data you can keep on a chip meant that you’d soon be able to keep a lifetime’s worth on something the size of a grain of rice. And off of that, how useful it might be to have a passively recorded history of your whole life? That’s easy to market, right? See your wedding, the birth of a child, never forget a business meeting, an agreement.
“I thought about how essential forgetting is to successful human relationships” – Jesse Armstrong
But from that, I thought about how essential forgetting is to successful human relationships. I’ve read a bit about memory research and it’s quite fascinating how plastic, fungible and shifting our memories are. That sometimes freaks people out, but it’s also essential to make life bearable, to be able to forget humiliations, painful moments in relationships. What if you could keep all of these things knife-sharp and you weren’t quite strong enough to not keep touching the wounds?
George Clooney’s production company expressed interest (in turning it into a movie), and Team Downey (Robert Downey Jr’s production company) optioned it. I spent a few weeks in LA and many months in London trying to get the story right for the Downeys and Warner Brothers to turn the idea into a movie but it was tough.
BE RIGHT BACK
Owen Harris (Director): With “Be Right Back” the idea was something that stemmed from a friend of Charlie (Brooker) who had passed away. He was going through his contacts and came across the name of a deceased friend. When he went to delete it he felt very compromised by this action of deleting someone because they were dead. So we flipped that – now when you pass away you leave behind this identity that can live on, through Facebook accounts and all this personality that’s left behind that can still be accessed or used. I always felt that “Be Right Back” in particular – but all of Black Mirror – deals with technology, but it’s also a very human story.
Charlie Brooker: I read a book about OCD and obsessive thoughts, partly because I’d started taking anti-smoking medication and went bananas and thought I was going to jump out of a window and gauge my own eyes out, which are not nice thoughts to have in your head. Someone told me to read this book called White Bear. I hate it when people misuse OCD, but I am quite OCD. I was fascinated by this book and it stuck around as a title, because originally that episode was completely different and it had a very different storyline where the title would have made more sense. Originally there was a cover story like a zombie thriller or something like that where people had become mesmerised by a signal, but then I had a better idea and rewrote it. In this season we have an episode named “Crocodile” and the title doesn’t make any sense either, unless you’re me.
THE WALDO MOMENT
Daniel Rigby (Lead Actor): At the time in the UK we had the coalition and there was a general sense that people were utterly fed up. But the populist surge hadn’t begun yet. I remember reading back then about a man dressed as a penguin running for mayor in Italy. And a few years ago Darth Vader tried to be president of the Ukraine.
It feels like there are lots of parallels. Voters latching on to a symbol they feel will upend the system and represents the antidote to all of their grievances, even if logically it doesn’t quite add up. I had some scenes where I had to cry, which I always find challenging. Laurence Olivier apparently used to imagine a wolf having its paws nailed to the floor. Which I guess worked for him. I tried thinking of something a little less gory, like someone throwing a hamster in a bin.
Jon Hamm (Lead Actor): I have zero social media, I think it’s poison, but the fact that the technology exists isn’t inherently bad, it’s just really what people tend to do with it. I had been a YouTube connoisseur of various Screen Wipes, then after that, I was at a premiere of a friend’s movie and Bill Hader was introducing the movie. He was telling me about this show called Black Mirror and I was like, ‘I’m down’. I went home that night and literally watched the whole thing and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ It turned out I had booked some work in the UK and so I asked my PA, “Is this guy (Brooker) available for lunch, dinner, drinks?” Anything so we could hang out. Turns out he was, so I hung out with Charlie and Annabel and we had a really nice night.
“I have zero social media, I think it’s poison” - Jon Hamm
Charlie said, ‘Ahh, too bad we don’t have a part, we have a script but it’s for an English guy and I said, ‘That’s OK, whatever, I just wanted to meet with you – I didn’t expect a part or anything.’ Then by the time I got back from the UK I got an email from him and said “You know... we can make this guy an American.”
I got to tell a cool story which was weird, interesting, creepy and scary – not necessarily a genre I work in a lot. Stepping into a such a cult British show with such a fanbase, I was excited and I was very hopeful. I was just really trying not to mess it up. When I saw how it went down and the response was just so positive, I was relieved. I just really enjoy Charlie’s work – he’s got such a whip-smart sensibility, he’s unflinching and that kind of energy is really fun to be around.
THE MOVE TO NETFLIX
After two seasons, the relationship between the show and Channel 4 appeared to have soured – Brooker hinted that the show didn’t move to Netflix for financial reasons. For the first time ever, a whole series was available to stream all at once, with double the number of episodes. It was an international success.
Annabel Jones: For season three we certainly didn’t want to lose what was unique about the show but at the same time, we thought of Black Mirror as quite local and actually it had travelled to lots of different countries. We thought, ‘God, how stupid of us to think it was just a British thing.’ We’re talking about technology and people’s relationship with technology is quite universal, so we were really encouraged. There could have been the tendency to suddenly become a big Hollywood blockbuster and have the big conspiracy thriller-esque stories, but we were never going to do that because those are not the stories we wanted to tell.
“We thought, ‘God, how stupid of us to think it was just a British thing.’ We’re talking about technology” – Annabel Jones
Max Richter (Composer): “Nosedive” is all about the seductive power of network affirmation. Everything in its visual world is shiny and happy. From the musical standpoint, I decided to score the film as though everything in it were unreal – to evoke a dreamlike sense of safety and comfort. The music is constantly telling you “everything is OK”, even though it is increasingly obvious that this is false. In this way, I managed to open up a psychological space between the score and the action that makes Lacie’s descent into chaos, and her final redemptive moment of disenchantment all the more affecting.
Rashida Jones (Writer): I had a personal relationship with the notion of feeling oppressed by the need to be level-ten nice to everyone. I’m not sure its specifically due to me being a celebrity, I think being a woman it happens a lot and it’s just part of my personality. I have had experiences with having to be saccharine sweet because I don't want to offend anybody, I don’t want anyone to dislike me. All of that is exacerbated by social media and by the fact that I am somewhat recognisable.
“I don’t think people in the public eye have that opportunity very often – you can’t just say fuck it because you think constantly about what you’re doing to your ‘brand’” – Rashida Jones
Charlie had the idea of the scene where they bring out her graphs and stats because it’s a post-empathy world where you have to let somebody know how they are being seen by the rest of the world if they want to get that apartment. When we first started talking about this character the question was, ‘How nice was she really? How much of it was a game because she knew what she could gain and how much was just wanting to be liked?’ What was intriguing to me was the idea that she really did want to be liked.
There was a bit of wish fulfilment for me because she does at some point just say ‘fuck it’. That’s really liberating and I don’t think people in the public eye have that opportunity very often – you can’t just say fuck it because you think constantly about what you’re doing to your ‘brand’, as they say. (laughs)
Joel Collins (Production Designer): I was quite eager to find a world for this story because it couldn’t be now. It didn’t say in the script what time we were in, but I felt like it just couldn’t be a world we understood just by going down the high street. So, I looked and found this abstracted world like LA meets The Truman Show. I flew out to South Africa where I found an island which was built like LA. I recorded that island and brought back those pictures and Charlie loved it, and it became the flavour of the show, which was slightly hyperreal. Joe (Wright, director) came on board and being Joe, he’s a visual genius, and loved this kind of slightly out-there concept.
Daniel Trachtenberg (Director): I was a huge fan of the show and would have been extremely intimidated if Annabel wasn’t so disarmingly kind and if Charlie and I hadn’t found out we were both raised on the same healthy diet of video games and movies. Bioshock and Resident Evil were inspirations (and referenced in the episode). The tone and genre-bending of movies like Army of Darkness and Big Trouble in Little China were influences as well.
All of the full-on genre elements made the shoot a fun one. But the challenge that is specific to the horror genre is that you really have to trust your instincts and your understanding of the craft and rules of the scare – because it’s not scary when you read it, it’s not scary when you’re shooting it, and it’s certainly not scary when you’re cutting it and watching the same scenes over and over – so in that sense, it can be quite daunting.
SHUT UP AND DANCE
Alex Lawther (Lead Actor): I’d had an uncomfortable feeling from the start of the script that something about the stakes for this 19-year-old Kenny didn’t add up... Then it was a punch to the stomach. How rare it is to read a script that does that to you. I don’t think I had before, and maybe not since.
I remember getting quite unwell. I think the body sometimes has a hard time distinguishing between make-believe and reality, and I got a bit out-of-kilter. (Since the show) I have had a few strangers come up to me explaining that they Blu Tack their webcams now.
Charlie Brooker: People often tape up their webcams with a bit of Sellotape. Although not transparent Sellotape, I hope. We wanted to do an episode that was absolutely horrifying and had no sci-fi in it, so that was very deliberate. It went through various iterations to start with – it was set in America, there was a point in that where the hackers had a drone with a camera and that was introduced much earlier on. The drone was following him around for ages and we thought that it gives it away too early on. We kept paring it back and making it less and less glamorous. So it has this grungy, nasty, grimy feel throughout.
“We wanted to do an episode that was absolutely horrifying and had no sci-fi in it” – Charlie Brooker
Clint Mansell (Composer): The subject matter was heavy for me – my girlfriend had died 18 months before. But it was also cathartic, beautiful, sad and therapeutic too. A lot of musical choices had already been made when I started on the episode, and a lot of the 80s songs were already in place. The 80s vibe for the score felt like the right approach – John Hughes was mentioned. I started on ideas which came together quite well, but it took a little time to capture the right tone.
Owen Harris: Charlie picked “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (to close the episode). What drew me to San Junipero was the genre – a chance to do a sort of John Hughes-esque tale of optimism. I grew up on those sorts of films – Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off... They obviously flavour your perspective at a certain age. Cinema isn’t trying to do that at the moment – it was a thing, it really was a genre, that ‘cinema of optimism’. That’s sort of what lured me in.
Obviously, It’s a great story. I love the little breadcrumbs on the way and the twist, and I thought the characters were really interesting. It was this overriding sense of optimism even when dealing with quite dark subjects. It’s an interesting contrast to play around with. Its funny, it’s spoken about as being Black Mirror’s most optimistic piece. I didn’t necessarily read the ending in such an optimistic way. If you think about it these two people are now locked in eternity, in limbo forever, which is great in a way (because) they’re in love. But I mean, I’d probably be in the club after a week of that!
“The subject matter was heavy for me – my girlfriend had died 18 months before. But it was also cathartic, beautiful, sad and therapeutic too” – Clint Mansell
Annabel Jones: Owen did such an amazing job on Be Right Back, a beautiful, beautiful story about grief and mourning and how you manage to grieve in a world where you can be exposed to so many images and memories of the deceased. When Charlie had written “San Junipero”, we were looking for that human story and small, intimate details and moments that are going to make the film sing – with Owen’s cinematic qualities, it just seemed a perfect fit. So we sent him the script. He had love and nostalgia for John Hughes movies, so that excited him. He remembered that era and what it meant to him.
Owen Harris: We shot it in 14 days. We shot it in a studio in London, then we shot the exteriors in Cape Town. We flew into Cape Town and the next day we were shooting. It was an incredibly fast shoot. The great thing about Cape Town is wherever you put the camera it feels quite epic all of a sudden.
None of us had any idea what sort of impact it would have, we’ve all been completely blown away. When shows go on to Netflix it means the response is global. That was insane. Finding out there are club nights in Milan called San Junipero and winning the Emmy was just mind-boggling. It’s been fantastic. It’s a testament to Black Mirror.
The Emmys were great. A lot of fun. I had a pee next to Robert De Niro in the toilets, which was amazing. It was a lot of fun. It was just a big surprise when your name gets called out and it’s absolutely true. We were absolutely, 100 per cent certain we weren’t gonna get anywhere near it. When they call your name out it’s very thrilling.
WHERE NEXT FOR THE BLACK MIRROR UNIVERSE?
Joel Collins: We’ve been able to travel a bit more since moving to Netflix, which is something I was really desperate to do from the first season – to give the show fresh originality time after time, you can’t just stay in grimy, grizzly England. I noticed that when we went places, a lot of people like Black Mirror, so it made life much easier for us to know that people knew what we were doing, what we were about. When we did the first two seasons or seven shows, very few people knew it and there were a few fans in Britain but not many.
Charlie Brooker: What’s weird is that to start with there weren’t any connections at all between episodes. If there was one, it would be for one of two reasons. One, just to amuse ourselves. The art department would say you need some texts scrolling along the bottom of this news channel so I’d say ‘What about this?’ and it would allude to some other episode. Or it’s simply because we need something that appears on a TV screen and so we ask, ‘What can we clear?’ We’ll often decide to use a clip from previous episodes because it makes our lives easier. Then as time went on and people started to pick up on this, so we started to deliberately put in more and more of these things. Now people are asking if it’s a shared universe – I say no. (That said,) in this season we have an episode called “Black Museum” where we have deliberately put in references to other episodes and we actually explain things that happen in other episodes.
Joel Collins: It’s a very big journey for the audience. It’s long, it’s extraordinary and it’s multi-layered. But it also houses a lot of secrets that can be unpicked.