Paranoia: the perfect tool to hook you into Sam Esmail’s thrilling take on a drug-addled, anti-social hacker
There’s a showbiz saying, or maybe I just heard it at an amateur magic show, that goes, “We sold you the whole seat, but you’ll only need… the edge.” This could be a second-rate tagline for Sam Esmail’s hacker thriller, Mr. Robot. Although it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it has a curtain-drawing feeling similar to The Matrix. It’s been likened to (or accused of stealing from) Kubrick. The writing is like Patrick Bateman’s menacing voiceover from American Psycho.
In Mr. Robot, an anti-social vigilante hacker named Elliot (Rami Malek) finds himself at the heart of a major takedown of Evil Corp (a stand-in for Google/Apple). However, he’s also figuring himself out. Elliot is addicted to morphine and questioning what’s real and what’s beyond his control. I honestly haven’t been this excited about TV since I watched viral HBO series The Jinx.
Mr. Robot is doing everything right. The pilot launched at SXSW festival and won the audience award for TV. Then, USA network did something unusual; they released the pilot on digital platforms that ran the gamut from iTunes to latina.com. Inspiration was taken from the show itself, as it was ‘leaked’ in a manageable, network-friendly sense. It racked up 3 million views – and that was all before it premiered on actual, tethered-to-the-wall cable. As a result, the show’s launch saw huge returns and topped lists of the most pirated show.
So people cared. Shortly, something peculiar began to happen. Events from a particular episode would repeat themselves in real life. A joke about extramarital affairs site Ashley Madison precipitated the monogamy-cleaving Ashley Madison hack back in August; the finale of the show was delayed after a major plot point was echoed in horrific shootings on live TV in Virginia.
When I suggest that perhaps Mr. Robot has one eye firmly fixed on the future, creator Sam Esmail laughs. “I joked that we should write an episode where there’s world peace and Elliot and Tyrell are skipping down 5th Avenue singing Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’.” Hey, could happen. Not convinced Mr. Robot won’t hook you from the pilot? Here Esmail explains just exactly what makes the show so unique.
THE OVERLAP WITH REAL LIFE IS EERIE, BUT UNPLANNED
“I can’t speak to why we overlapped so strangely and eeringly to reality; it was a little scary and weird. And maybe there is some synchronicity there and you can’t help but to have while you are trying to make a show of the moment but I have mixed feelings about it. There are such negative things that we sometimes get associated with, but at the same time I think it does speak to the fact that we are effectively trying to tell a story of today.”
THE SOCIAL NETWORK WAS A CATALYST FOR WRITING MR. ROBOT
“I’ve always been a geek growing up. All my friends are coders and some of them are hackers and I just remember feeling like there’s a whole world that is so fascinating to me. I remember growing up and watching movies and TV shows about hackers and they all sucked. I saw The Social Network and remember being like, ‘Finally, someone’s doing it right.’ That was probably a huge inspiration for me, a motivating factor to go write my own show.”
LATE 90S THRILLERS AND STANLEY KUBRICK WERE AN INFLUENCE
“I’m not apologetic about the fact that I am also a huge film nerd and I grew up watching a lot of movies. Kubrick is one of my favourite filmmakers. Kubrick invented this unsettling tone that I really wanted for Mr. Robot.
Tonally, I would say the thrillers of the late 90s (were an influence). There’s that stretch with David Fincher doing The Game and Se7en and Fight Club and then came The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, all those kind of paranoid thrillers of the 90s and the you’ve got those primal thrillers even going back to the 70s with Three Days of the Condor. There was a specific weird tone that you don’t actually see in movies nowadays but I really wanted to capture that and put that into our show.”
AS WAS JOEL EDGERTON’S THE GIFT
“Did you see a film called The Gift that came out? Joel Edgerton wrote and directed that. Here’s what I remember feeling after I came out of that film: I remember the sensation of – from moment to moment – having no idea what was going to happen next. It was constantly subverting my expectations. I remember feeling like, ‘This is odd that this is so special nowadays, cos to me that is great storytelling.’ That’s what every movie should achieve and it’s that we are so excited about – wanting to know what happens next, but we have no idea what.
“A lot of times we get into this formula […] especially in the superhero genre. Without even seeing any movie I know that there will be a big battle at the end and the superhero will win. It takes all the surprise and fun out of it”
A lot of times we get into this formula, like rogue sort of storytelling, where we know how it’s going to play out. Especially in the superhero genre, for example. Without even seeing any movie or reading any scripts I know that there will be a big battle at the end and the superhero will win. It takes all the surprise and fun out of it. It’s about taking tropes that you know and then turning them on their head; that is what was refreshing about The Gift.”
THE VOICEOVER IS HAUNTING, YET NECESSARY
“The VO is really important to me. It’s actually weird, most screenwriting classes you get told not to write VO. For me, I’ve never used it for exposition. It was a way to intimately have this relationship with your audience that you just cannot have in scenes with just two characters and dialogue. We’re only seeing Elliot’s reality and that was something we could only really achieve with VO. There’s an intimate nature to it, lots of great movies – Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange – use it to great effect. And why not use it?”
IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A FEATURE FILM, SO IT’S GOT A DEFINITIVE ENDING
“Lots of people read the first 90 pages (of the script) and thought there is a way to keep this as a full-length feature, but you’d have to take out all these elements, which really hurt. It would’ve pained me to even think about cutting Darlene out, for example, but those were some of the conversations I was having. But Steve (Golin, executive producer) read the pilot and he just thought ‘No, this is a show, this is a great world that you’re on to’.”
IT’S A PERIOD PIECE ON TODAY, ON PURPOSE
“Our show can’t help but be dated, because it’s about technology and technology evolves so rapidly that within a couple of years everything that Elliot uses is probably going to look old. We always looked at it as, ‘We’re making a period piece of today’. I thought it was very important to embrace that. And I’m not just talking about the technology, I’m talking about the people; I’m talking about the world; I’m talking about the themes of the show. I really wanted to talk about our modern-day dilemma and our relationship with technology in a modern-day context.”
THE MUSIC IS A BIG PART OF THE STORY
“For me, music is really important. I actually think that it’s weird that music isn’t valued as much. Often times a lot of people making shows or movies use it to help guide the audience to how they should feel. For me, it’s all about atmosphere and tone. It’s cheap when you try and just telegraph to the audience that something bad is about to happen, now there’s something exciting about to happen. Sometimes doing the opposite can be a lot more fascinating.”
Mr. Robot, all episodes coming exclusively to Amazon Prime, Oct 16th