Black Mirror: Bandersnatch interview – ‘We all had our Stefan moment’

Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones tell us about the unique challenges of making interactive Netflix film Bandersnatch

Warning: contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones are out of “the hole” now, but creating Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch, Netflix’s first interactive film, was unusually demanding. “Everyone went a bit in the hole,” Brooker says, reflecting on the process. “We all had our Stefan moment,” Jones agrees, with a laugh.

Stefan is Bandersnatch’s protagonist, a young videogame coder who loses his grip on reality when he starts to feel as though someone or something is controlling him. Something or someone is controlling him—us, with a remote control or touchscreen in our hand, we’re guiding his every choice, from breakfast cereal to grisly murder.

Bandersnatch is an audacious piece of work. It’s witty and dark and inventive and, in its self-awareness, finds a way to justify the interactive form. With countless multiple branches, hidden pathways and implanted Easter Eggs, it’s little wonder the process brought the Black Mirror team to “skirt around the edges” of madness…

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So, it was obviously just getting too easy then? Only doing the six original, conceptual Black Mirror films a year. You must have thought ‘I need a bit of a challenge?’

[Laughter]

Annabel Jones: We obviously didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for.

Charlie Brooker: We thought we knew. That was the thing. It wasn’t like we were going [puts on a silly voice] ‘Erdy berdy, this’ll be easy! This’ll be just like any other episode!’ We thought it would be a little bit more difficult and I think we said, oh, it’ll be a bit like doing one and a half, two episodes… [Exhales loudly]

AJ: On the first day we got out the Post-It Notes, and then we progressed to ‘let’s get a whiteboard’, and then you very quickly go ‘oh God’, we are inventing the whole scripting infrastructure and production infrastructure and everything to go with it, and then your heart sort of sinks [laughs]. You you realise, God, this is going to be awful.

CB: I’m sure the tools are available. There are tools for writing interactive fiction. I had to learn [free online writing tool] Twine to write that in, but there aren’t really, that I could find, tools aimed at scriptwriters who are used to writing scripts. So we had to use a hybrid of everything. I was using Final Draft and Scrivener and Twine and it was just like [another exhalation]. And that’s on top of the logistical nightmare of coming up with any of it!

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In the episode, Colin says, “When it’s a concept piece, a bit of madness is what you need.”

CB: Mm-hmm.

How close did Bandersnatch bring you to madness?

CB: We skirted around the edges of it a bit I think.

AJ: I think we all had our ‘Stefan moment’.

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CB: Everyone went a bit ‘in the hole’.

AJ: Yeah, ‘in the hole’ became the phrase of the film I think.

CB: People would go ‘Oh, I’m in the hole.’ It was funny in the way that it went. There was a sort of domino effect, because early on when we were first discussing it, it seemed difficult, and then I went off beavering away and I kept saying to you [Annabel] ‘this is really weird’. Because I’d written another script that we were already sort of in pre-production on, for a different, ‘normal’ episode, and I was going ‘This is actually really hard’.

Everyone had that moment of vertigo at some point. They’d just go zzzzzhhz. But, you know, you live and learn! It was fun really!

And you pulled it off.

CB: Hopefully! Well, it worked. It works. One of the most important things to us was that the system worked and that it was easy for people to use, because it’s not on a games platform and it’s not really a game.

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AJ: We’re presenting it as a film, but an interactive film.

CB: But it’s got gamey… it’s got gaming… plumage.

But the beak is all drama?

CB: Yes, or it’s a drama cow driving a game… car? No. That’s the worst analogy that I’ve ever thought of.

It’s kind of made you poacher-turned-gamekeeper in the sense that Black Mirror is usually about new technology and now you’re actually presenting new tech? Have you considered the eventual end-point of this technology? At some point maybe we could all be electing our politicians between Netflix specials?

CB: It couldn’t be much worse than what we’ve already got, so maybe that would be an improvement?

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AJ: [Laughs]

CB: In a way, it’s not new. The only thing really that’s new about this is that it’s streaming on Netflix. That’s what feels new. That and also it’s seamless, there’s no gap between the elements.

AJ: It’s being presented to a mainstream audience as a film for them to enjoy and respond to, and it happens to have interactive elements. We hope you have that emotional engagement with the protagonist. You are with them, you feel for them. Whereas—and this may be my ignorance, but from other interactive things that I’ve seen—the decisions that the character makes are so big and diverse that you don’t really have a sense of who that character is, and therefore you don’t have that same emotional reaction. But that may be my limited experience of other interactive things.

Have you seen the walkthroughs online that people have put together?

CB: I haven’t really.

They read like modern poetry. I’ll give you a bit of one. “Sugar Puffs, The Thompson Twins, Accept, Accept, Go Back, Refuse…”

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CB: You read that like it was Beat poetry! You’re right.

And the reason people have written these out is because they think that it’s possible to ‘win’ Bandersnatch

CB: [Laughs] Yes, I know! That’s quite odd. It’s interesting that people approach it in a different way depending on what they’re expecting. To be fair, we’ve slightly built that in, in that we’ve got a guy who’s literally reviewing the game! That was deliberately enticing you to go back and try again.

To get a good review for Bandersnatch?

CB: To get a good review, but then it’s not possible for you to get a good review and for Stefan to be happy.

AJ: [Laughs.]

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CB: I can see that if you’re going ‘this is a game, I can beat it, therefore I must be able to get 100% completion on the mission’. It’s the equivalent of getting ten headshots and seeing every corner of the map and completing it within two minutes and getting gold.

Unlocking all the trophies.

CB: Yes. I wanted it to have little trophies and achievements at the end of each thing—which you can do—but [nods head towards Annabel] I got talked out of it [laughs].

AJ: But it doesn’t end—well, it does sometimes—it doesn’t end with the game review. You see Stefan’s reaction to it. It’s compelling him to go on and try again.

You just said then, Charlie, that Stefan can’t have mental well-being and a five-star review?

CB: No, I said he can’t have a happy life and get a good review. Within the game.

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There are often autobiographical elements in Black Mirror though. You mentioned once that Bing’s TV show at the end of Fifteen Million Merits was jokingly referred to on set as ‘the Screenwipe show’ [in reference to its similarity to Brooker’s series of news, TV and games round-ups].

CB: Mm-hmm.

This is a story about somebody on deadlines, under a lot of pressure, trying to be creative in a commercial system and ultimately, being judged by reviews…

CB: Yup.

So how autobiographical is Bandersnatch?

CB: I haven’t murdered anyone, cut their head off and stuck it on my desk.

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AJ: That branch is coming!

CB: That branch is a-comin’! Certainly there are elements of it. There are conversations that he has in it that we had in real life. There’s a bit where he goes ‘Sorry, I added a whole new path and it’s made it crash’, literally that happened.

And you, Annabel were saying ‘take it out, it’s complicated enough’?

AJ: I was going ‘We don’t need that, just don’t bother’, and it was  [adopts hysterical voice] ‘but I really want to do it’ and I was going ‘we don’t need it, it’s fine’.

CB: It was worth it.

AJ: Yes, it was.

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CB: A lot of it is tongue-in-cheek. There’s a sort of gag in that he gets a five-star review from this little bastard

Thanks!

CB: No! The fact that the reviewer in the show, played by Paul Bradley, the kid with the bow-tie, he goes ‘five out of five! Brilliant!’ and actually Stefan’s life is fucking terrible, is quite funny to me.

That wasn’t meant to be a grand statement though. I certainly don’t think that you have to be a miserable person to create something that people will enjoy or would be a success [laughs], but the process of creating anything, there are points of misery within it. There are lots of points where you think ‘This is rubbish’ or ‘I’m stuck and this is terrible’ or ‘Errgghhghghg I’m drowning in this, it’s awful’ so there are elements of that reflected in it, but it’s not like you have to suffer from your art.

AJ: And you’re not interested in videogames and you weren’t a teenager in the 80s and you didn’t have a Spectrum…

No autobiographical relation at all then. With Bandersnatch, is there a sense in which you’ve made an uncritiquable Black Mirror episode?

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CB: Apparently not! [Both laugh loudly]

…in the sense that viewers might say about previous episodes ‘I wouldn’t have ended it like that. I’d have done this that and the other’ and now you’ve said ‘go on then, have a go’.

CB: Here’s the ingredients, you cook it yourself mate!

‘You make the decisions, then it’ll be perfect’ sort of thing.

CB: Well, evidently not!

You’re ceding a lot of that control because you can’t control what order people are going to experience bits in. Originally the Netflix very-much-fourth-wall-breaking path was hidden. It was much more of a bonus if you got through it once, but we opened it up earlier on. Now if people experience that first off… it’s quite a divisive one. A lot of people really like it, some people go ‘ooh, that’s too self-referential, I don’t like it’. For those people, it probably would have a different feel if it had come after the end credits. You can’t please all of the people. It’s just going to disappoint people in myriad different ways. [Laughs]

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You’ve at least made viewers vary their critiques.

CB: It varies the tone of their yelps of delight or moans of complaint [laughs].

Prior to Bandersnatch, you said that Playtest was the least well understood Black Mirror episode.

CB: In terms of people going ‘what happened?’ and not getting what’s happening, yes.

Is that still the case, or has Bandersnatch overtaken it?

CB: Bandersnatch is deliberately… some people have said today ‘what’s the right ending?’ We’ve got ones that we might prefer over other ones but in a way the right ending is sort of all of them. The fact that there’s a bunch of them is sort of the point. You’re not meant to necessarily see all of them, but the fact that they exist in parallel is kind of the point. That is a bit weird. I don’t quite know what it is [laughs]. The disparity of that is sort of the point—in as much as it has a point.

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AJ: But I think all the endings that are there, they’re not random or totally unearned in terms of character or story point of view. They are there and together do collectively make a whole that should feel cohesive.

CB: They all make sense in a way off the central spine. It’s always about a troubled young guy responding to the fact that he’s not in control and something is making him do these things.

Has anybody told you they’ve watched it entirely passively, without making any choices?

CB: Yeah. My sister-in-law did! Because she dropped her remote control. She dropped her remote control and then thought ‘I’ll just watch it then and see what happens.’

She didn’t get any sense of complicity in Stefan’s actions then?

CB: No. Well I suppose at some point she presumably thought, ‘I could intervene by picking up the remote control’ but generally if you do that it just defaults to the left-hand-side most of the time. But that’s not the way to watch it. I don’t know what we’d recommend in terms of the best way. I think the best way to experience it is on a television. You can watch it on a phone or whatever but. Then it’s also different if you watch it on your own or if you watch it with somebody else in the room with whom you will argue.

A quick question about Easter Eggs. Tucker in Tuckersoft… is that from Grange Hill?

[Both laugh.]

CB: No. No. Tucker is just…

It’s the bar in San Junipero

CB: And the software company.

Not Grange Hill?

CB: Not Grange Hill. Although I’m always up for a Grange Hill tribute. We had Todd Carty when we did A Touch Of Cloth.

AJ: Todd Carty! A lovely man.

CB: He was very lovely. Todd Carty played himself.

The books in WH Smiths next to the Jerome book, were they production design set-dressing or did you specifically write those titles?

CB: Those were production-designed. They did a good job. Often I’d write the titles for things like that but they did those ones. There are a lot of little Easter Eggs in there as well.

Easter Eggs for future episodes? The way Pixar include something from their next film in the current release?

CB: There are some in there actually. Not in WH Smith.

Where?

AJ: [Laughs]

CB: Not going to say.

Doing the interviews for the Inside Black Mirror book you did that came out in November, did going back through the material and reflecting on it, did it give you a fresh perspective on any of the previous Black Mirror episodes, in the run-up to season five?

AJ: I think because we’ve been in constant production, we never have time to stop and put our heads up and see what’s going on in the world. So we’re always surprised when people come in to things like this and say ‘People love the show in Romania’ and you’re going ‘Really? Oh my god’

Do they love it in Romania?

CB: Well that’s what they said. We only met one Romanian today so it’s not a good sample [laughs].

AJ: Well, other people will come in and go ‘my friends love it’ and that’s great to hear because we just don’t get access to that. But doing the book and being forced to look back and stop and reflect, I sort of thought ‘Oh my God, we have done a lot in a short period of time’. That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from the book. And how hellish he is to work with, obviously. Those were the two main things.

Charlie, you seemed quite self-critical in the book?

CB: Just trying to get in first!

AJ: [Laughs]

CB: The thing was, I really enjoyed that Russell T. Davies book.

The Writer’s Tale?

CB: Yes, because it’s so miserable in some ways. It’s so neurotic and troubled. You want to say ‘Here are the problems that we came across while doing it and I still think we could have done this and that differently, and if only we’d done that…’ That’s probably quite a good thing to hear if you’re thinking of wanting to write something yourself, or make something. It’s very easy to assume that everyone involved in any production is sitting around going ‘we are brilliant and everything we do is great and it came out exactly as we want and everything I did was perfect’ Often there are happy accidents and it’s all messier.

Dead Set - shambling and lurching its way onto e4 for Halloween time

Finally, we’re ten years from Dead Set

CB: Now nearly eleven.

When it arrived on UK Netflix at the end of last year, did you revisit it?

CB: I played a bit of it.

It was the first thing you two made together, wasn’t it?

CB: No, we’d done the Wipe shows.

AJ: It was the first drama we’d done though.

CB The thing that makes me feel old are the people going ‘Oh yeah, I remember that from when I was a kid!’ And you’re like ‘fucking hell!’ [Laughs.] And also, why were you watching that as a kid? Jesus! There’s a nostalgia element in it for some people.

Hopefully it stands up today. It went up on the US Netflix a little while ago and people were then discovering it. I want A Touch Of Cloth to go up. I don’t know if it will though.

How do you feel about Dead Set, looking back?

CB: It feels like a proto Black Mirror, in many ways, because obviously it doesn’t have the technological angle really, unless you count television, but the tone of it is I think directly relatable to Black Mirror. It was the thing that made us think we could do something else like it. In that way I see it very much as a sort of sister show. It’s its big sister. Oh, Big Brother! What a twat I am! Why didn’t I just say it’s its Big Brother?!

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available now on Netflix.