Mr Robot interview: Sam Esmail on hackers, Fight Club

With Mr Robot now available to stream on Amazon Prime, we chat to creator Sam Esmail about the 90s, geekdom and on-screen hackers…

First: an admission of incompetence. The most interesting question to put to Sam Esmail, creator and showrunner of the best new series to come out of the US this year, only came to me on my way out of the interview, while stood on the lushly carpeted staircase of the Mayfair hotel hosting the Mr Robot junket. It’s this: how does Esmail’s show square its anti-capitalist, anti-corporate themes with a US home on an NBCUniversal channel owned by multi-billion dollar corporation, Comcast, and now a UK home on Amazon Prime? That, I would have liked to have asked.

Mr Robot, for those who don’t yet know, is the story of Elliot Alderson [Rami Malek], a socially anxious cybertech security worker who becomes involved with a hacker group aiming to take down a multinational corporation. It’s stylish, clever, packed with nerd detail, and well worth your time.

Here’s our chat with its creator, taking in the long tradition of terrible on-screen hackers, Mr Robot’s nineties influences, hidden nods, Christian Slater, and why the show is the spiritual successor to Fight Club

Right. You’ve made the hit show of 2015, it’s teeming with contemporary themes and reflecting, with startling accuracy in some cases, up-to-the-minute real-world events, so I think the obvious place to start is…Superman III.

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Superman III. That was a good movie… about hacking! [Laughs] The Richard Pryor character!

The Richard Pryor character, who went to an evening class and learned how to hack a weather satellite…

That’s right, God! I totally forgot about that. You’re the first one that’s made that connection. I was keeping that a secret and now you’ve totally…

…blown season two wide open?

Exactly.

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My real question then, is why has it taken so long for film and TV to represent hackers in a way that doesn’t make actual hackers want to pull their hair out?

I have no idea. Honestly, it’s one of those things where I thought it was so obvious growing up. I’m a huge geek and I’ve been a huge computer enthusiast since I was a little kid and I grew up with coders and hackers and I remember finding this whole world fascinating and the people in it fascinating and part of my frustration was I would go to the movies and I would watch these terrible, terrible films about hacking and I just didn’t get what they were missing. But you know what, it afforded me the opportunity to like, make my own show.

To fill that gap.

Exactly.

What would you say has been the most egregious representation of hacking on screen?

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[Exhales loudly] There’s so many.

You ripped Hackers to shreds in episode five of Mr Robot

Yeah I did. Maybe it is Hackers, although that does hold a special place in my heart… they all kind of do, I mean, The Net. Did you ever see The Net with…

Sandra Bullock. Yes.

That was a pretty bad one.

Can I suggest Swordfish?

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Swordfish, that’s pretty bad. God, even some contemporary films right now… I mean, even up until last year. I haven’t seen Blackhat but I hear that’s pretty up there. It’s weird, none of them… they could not trust that filming a guy on a keyboard was good enough, so they kept adding all these weird cheesy effects to try to force some drama out of it, and for me, I didn’t get it. I don’t understand it.

You can guarantee then that we’re not going to see a hacker nightclub like Cyberdelia in season two of Mr Robot?

No. [Laughs] I guarantee you.

Mentioning the scene from Hackers you included in Mr Robot, there are obviously loads of pop culture nods and references woven into season one, things you’ve put in that people in the know will get. With all the mad scrutiny that this show was put under on the net, was anything missed? Did anyone not get something you inserted?

You know I don’t think a lot of people… I mean, you tell me, because I haven’t really gone into all the message boards and every Reddit message board about us, but no-one really got The Third Man reference in the pilot. From what I read at least. Did you get it?

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The…? Nope! Obviously not!

In the Ferris Wheel. You know, there’s that huge scene. It’s a great movie and there’s a great scene on a Ferris Wheel. There you go.

Talking about fan scrutiny, knowing that people are going to be, literally almost, analysing every frame of season two… you didn’t know that going into making season one?

No, I did not!

So how does knowing that affect how you approach season two?

I think the only thing it affects is that maybe I’ll be more scared [laughs]. But it’s not going to change anything, because I love adding details. We take every opportunity. Typically, I think a lot of people, even in our production sometimes we’re just setting up the shot, doing things as you would traditionally do and I would always have to say ‘wait a minute guys, let’s stop, let’s think about this. Is this the right frame? Is this the right composition? Are we adding the right details? And then I’d bring the production designer over. ‘Oh, you know what would be cool is adding this small little thing, adding that…’, and you start to get everyone in that mode of like, we’re enriching every possible moment in this show with as much texture and character and world-building as possible. So, I don’t think that attitude is going to change, we’re just going to now be under a bigger microscope I guess, next season.

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When you were doing that, calling a halt to things and saying, ‘let’s do this, let’s do that’, was everybody else on set kind of thinking [frowns and taps imaginary wristwatch].

Yes! But you know, going back to the hacking stuff, one of the rules I had was that we’re not going to green-screen any of the computer screens, which was a nightmare for production design, because it means now they have to build every screen before we shoot, which means getting all the code written and then the actors would have to learn what to type to put in the screen, which is one of the reasons why I did it, because I always can tell when actors are kind of like fake typing.

Richard Pryor!

There you go! So that was a pain in the ass for everyone, but I think eventually they kind of got the value of that. Hopefully they did.

Did you find it gratifying that all those details were picked up by fans, or was there an element of frustration that all your secrets were being discovered?

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No! Because they weren’t secrets. I wanted people… what’s odd is when you do get focused on the details when you’re making the thing, you don’t think people are going to notice every little thing but you do it because you want the sense that it feels rich in details. That’s it. Like, you didn’t think everybody was going to pick apart every shot, and when they started doing that, for me it was kind of flattering because it meant that they actually really cared about the show and they really liked the show to invest in it that much time. And then they read more things into it than I intended. And then they caught a few of our mistakes!

Such as?

Well, there were dates, there were definitely dates that we missed on the pages that we had to fix and hopefully we can fix before we put it on the DVD. So they were actually kind of like script supervisors.

Like beta testers?

Yeah, exactly.

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I want to talk about the title, because it’s one of those titles that, when you first hear it, you think a little bit, really? I remember an interview with [Mr Robot lead] Rami Malek about when he first got the script and thought, Mr Robot? Huh? It kind of announces itself as a joke, but then when you get into it, there are so many interpretations. Like Elliot’s social interactions are robotic, Tyrell’s perfectionism is robotic, capitalism is like a machine making robots of us all…

Yeah. When we talk about thematically, yes, a lot of the reason why I wanted to name it that was because it touched upon ‘are we automating our lives? Are we just going to work from nine to five and are we just zombies?’ I could have called it ‘Mr Zombie’ I guess.

Whole different thing!

That’s a whole different genre, right. But also Mr Robot was like a combination of technology and humanity and that’s another big theme of the show. Drilling down even further, I guess there was this kind of weird backlash on the title at first because they thought it was a little jokey, but there was an intention to that because I remember growing up—and this is before the big Best Buys and the big electronics stores—when you had the mom and pop computer stores that always had these little goofy titles and that’s where I kind of drew my inspiration from. I remember there was one store called Motherboard Mayhem or something like that!

It’s like hairdressers, they’ve all got to have a pun in the name. Curl Up and Dye…

Yeah exactly! I enjoyed that and I wanted the spirit of the title to be along those lines.

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I have to ask, you mentioned once in an interview that the name ‘Elliot’ was chosen for very specific reasons.

It is, yeah.

And it’s too much of a spoiler to give any hints as to why?

It would be, yes.

Should we be thinking Spielberg?

No, you should not [laughs]

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Right. But the name Tyrell is definitely a nod to Blade Runner?

Oh yeah.

And is Back To The Future Part II your favourite film as well as Elliot’s?

I did love that out of the three. I loved one, and obviously one is the more popular one, but there was something about two.

Two is the connoisseur’s choice.

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I think so.

Another reference is the retro Sega-style logo, which instantly takes people our age back to a certain time.

Yeah, exactly.

Let’s talk about the nineties vibe in the show. What was it in nineties culture you wanted to pay homage to in the series? Watching the first episode I was reminded of so much I watched as a teenager back then.

The tone that I always associate our show to the most is probably those late-nineties thrillers. Se7en, Fight Club, The Game… I mean, those are all Fincher movies, but then you have The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense… it was such a great time. You just don’t see those mid-sized budget thriller films anymore, but it was such a great time for that. It may have been the last great era of paranoid thrillers. The last time I remember that kind of rush of paranoid thrillers was the seventies, with Parallax View, All The President’s Men, Three Days Of The Condor…, but that was the tone I always associated with. So maybe that’s part of the nineties thing? I mean, that’s when I watched most of my movies growing up.

It all seeps into you?

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Yeah, exactly. The Sega font was also a part of that too. The weird thing is because the show is so modern and of our time, I did want to contrast it with the analogue era back then, pre-digital.

Talking of retro then, we have to talk about Christian Slater. He was a big part of certain early nineties movies.

That’s true.

Was that deliberate? Like meta-casting?

You know, I get asked whether I thought of him when I wrote the character and in all honesty, I didn’t. However, maybe subconsciously I did, because I remember watching Pump Up The Volume a million times and Heathers and True Romance. But if you think about his character in Heathers and Pump Up The Volume specifically…

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JD, Hard Harry…

Yeah, those specifically almost seem like a younger version of the Mr Robot character. Maybe subconsciously I was kind of drawing from that. The other thing I always say is that I probably rip off every movie and TV show I’ve ever watched, so maybe I literally cast Christian Slater in that same character, I don’t know [laughs].

He must love you, for having finally written something that he can be brilliant in in 2015.

I think he’s awesome and I love him. It’s weird, he is kind of grateful and he thanks me all the time, and I’m thinking to myself, “You’re Christian Slater! You shouldn’t be thanking me, I should be thanking you, you’re awesome!”

Has he ever thought about directing an episode of Mr Robot? Because he did one of his old series, Breaking In, I saw.

I know, he did. Yeah, we’ve definitely talked about it. The weird thing is, I’m so specific when it comes to the vision of the show that I just wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. The guest directors definitely had to be very patient with me because, you know, you’ve seen the show, it’s very, very specific and it’s very stylised and it’s just hard to keep that kind of aesthetic cohesive throughout the whole season and allow guest directors to kind of do their thing at the same time. It’s a hard thing to negotiate.

You think maybe the friendship wouldn’t necessarily survive that working relationship then?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I wouldn’t threaten it with it, let’s just put it that way.

As this is your debut on television—which feels sort of odd because the show seemed to come out of the gates very self-assured—is there a sense in that you were freed up because you didn’t come into it with tons of baggage of how things are done in TV?

Yeah. A little bit of the uniqueness I think people responded to on the show was my ignorance. I mean, I just didn’t know to do it any other way and oddly enough, or luckily enough, USA Network sort of let me do it my own thing.

Aren’t you being a bit overly humble there, talking about ignorance? I also read somewhere you also said that without Rami Malek as Elliot, the show would have been, and I quote, “hokey as shit”.

Yes.

That’s generous of you, isn’t it, to say that it all rests on his performance?

Well, look. I sat through maybe a hundred guys doing that audition for Elliot. The character’s incredibly narcissistic and didactic and it really took someone special to put some humanity into that. Honestly, I was really concerned during the audition process because it wasn’t really working, and we were seeing great actors, so it wasn’t their fault, and I just thought maybe the script was terrible. I mean, I was really concerned, I didn’t know what to do and then finally Rami comes in and he just blows me away and he really elevated the material, I have to say.

Is that what you think his performance brings then, humanity?

Yeah. You know, to play a guy who’s socially awkward and socially anxious yet incredibly narcissistic and rants and is angry and tortured, that could easily, easily be a grating experience, to watch a character like that.

It has been elsewhere.

Absolutely, and so there’s that fine line, and if you don’t do that right, no-one—including myself—is going to want to watch that show. So what Rami did, not only did he play all those elements to a T authentically, he brought vulnerability to it, he brought emotion to it, he brought just warmth. I never even pictured the character as being warm at all, so that was a whole other dimension. That was the thing that I was missing, I would say, that Rami brought to it that would have been terrible if he hadn’t.

You mention the precise visual style of the show. I think it was Tod Campbell, your DP, who said that in his interview for the job, his aim was that it should be a reference point for other shows rather than the other way around, and that’s what got him the job. Is that something you’ve seen yet, or is it too early to say?

I think that’s way too early, right?

Let’s talk about voiceovers then. You could say this show has restored their reputation somewhat, before Mr Robot, there was a sense that people thought voiceover equals lazy storytelling.

I really hate that. I was told that in my screenwriting classes back in college and I think that’s so terrible. I mean, I grew up with Taxi Driver, Clockwork Orange… It’s not as if I’ve invented the use of voiceover! I just borrowed it from other movies and films. I think it gives you an intimate relationship between your character and the audience that you just cannot get with dialogue between two actors in a scene, it’s just impossible. Clearly, it has been used poorly—I’m not debating that—but that doesn’t mean that the tool itself is a bad way to go. I hope that future writers and filmmakers will keep using it.

We’ll have to wait til next year to see what kind of imitation arises, because that is how television works.

We’ll see. You have those cycles.

Maybe every network’s going to want their own Mr Robot.

You think so? Interesting. So you think we’ll see more hacker shows?

Maybe the long-awaited Hackers TV series…

Ha!

Mad Men is such a great show…

I love Mad Men.

So tell us what it feels like to hear someone like [Mad Men showrunner] Matthew Weiner praise Mr Robot.

Which I still don’t believe, by the way! Everyone keeps telling me that they heard him say that at the TCAs. I guess now, I do believe it because I did read the Vanity Fair article. It’s just so weird to me, because to me, he’s a giant in television.

The Sopranos, too.

Yes. And Mad Men is beyond brilliant and the fact that he’s a fan of the show still hasn’t settled in for me. That’s such a huge compliment. I don’t know if I can take it in just yet.

What does it mean when people like him tell you they’re fans? There’s also been Damon Lindelof, Steven Soderbergh…

Honestly, you almost can’t take it in, because then you’re just going to get a big ego and you’re going to screw everything up, and so I kind of just ignore it and I just remember who I was when I started Mr Robot, because we’re about to go into season two and that’s sort of the clarity I think you need to just keep chugging along. The temptation is always ‘oh, now I’ve got to do what I did bigger and better and badder’, and I’m trying not to do that. I’m trying to say ‘no, I’ve got to stick to the plan, stick to what we originally planned on from the get-go’. I kind of have to ignore it.

So, as Mr Robot started life as a feature film idea, am I right in thinking season two equates to act two of the movie?

Yeah.

Then the plan is that if you get to seasons three, four, and five, they’re…

The way I look at it, act two of a feature is always the longest act, so I kind of think season two and half of three is going to be the first half of act two, then maybe the end of three and four will be the second half of act two, then maybe five is act three.

Have you had any commitment from the USA Network on that front?

Of all five seasons? [Laughs] I wish! No, we have not had any… I mean, they know the plan. In fact, I get the opposite sometimes. They keep slipping in things like ‘we could go seven, eight seasons with this’ and I keep having to say no [laughs] we’re not doing that! I mean, not doing it with me. I keep reminding them that I only want to go four or five. For them it’s strange that a showrunner is asking for fewer seasons instead of more, but I don’t believe in dragging things out.

Again, we’ve seen it happen elsewhere on other shows we love.

Yeah, yeah.

You were a big Lost fan, I understand?

Huge Lost fan [makes the connection, laughs]! Yes, yes I was a big Lost fan [laughs]

Moving on swiftly.

[Etiquette breach warning: the laws of British reserve and self-deprecation demand that we ask you to please avert your eyes for this next bit, in which Mr Esmail says nice things about Den Of Geek.]

I love the website, by the way.

Do you?

Yeah. You guys reviewed our show?

Yes, we did.

I read a lot of your reviews. You guys are awesome. Specifically I remember the one article about… didn’t you guys write something about…

Fight Club?

Yeah! That was a great article. And it actually said everything… every time I got asked a question ‘Are you a rip-off of Fight Club? I kind of wanted to tell them ‘Read this article’, because that was exactly how I felt about the whole inspiration.

That’s really gratifying, thanks. I didn’t really want to bring Fight Club up because you’ve probably had to answer to that a lot since the season aired. Like, blah, it’s just Fight Club

Yeah, I do. Did you write that?

I did write it.

Oh my God, that was an awesome article! I got to say, awesome article and it really is true to what I feel about using Fight Club as my inspiration. The way you say, I think you described it—I mean you said it so well, I’m probably going to butcher it right now—but I think you said “spiritual successor” right?

Yeah.

That, to me, is exactly on point to how I feel about it. Because if people want to accuse me of being derivative of Fight Club, that’s totally fine, I’m willing to take that because clearly we were heavily inspired by it, and obviously we nod to it using the Pixies song [Where Is My Mind] at the end of episode nine. I totally accept that challenge, but for me, I feel more like the way you described it in that article, which is that we wear it on our sleeve, we don’t apologise for it, and for me, it’s okay to be inspired by other films.

[End of etiquette breach. You are now safe to proceed]

Our website is about enthusiasm, and being a geek in the way that you love things maybe a little bit too much…

[Laughs] Exactly!

So that seems to be the deal with all of Mr Robot’s references and nods. That there are derivations, because the things you love are right there.

Right. And by the way, honestly, if we were derivative, that would be a mis-step, but I think we did try to make something original out of the inspirations and I think that’s totally legitimate.

I’m being asked to wrap up so, we have a recurring question on the site that we sort of ask everyone, which is: what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

I don’t know how many… Jason Statham? I saw Spy on the plane here, he was really funny in that. I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the Transporter films, right, that’s him? What other movies? I didn’t see Bank Job…

Crank?

I didn’t see Crank, although I keep hearing Crank 2 is like, amazing.

Sam Esmail, thank you very much!

Mr. Robot, all episodes coming exclusively to Amazon Prime, Oct 16th