When Mr. Robot premiered, last summer, it drew viewers into the dark and largely unknown underground world of computer hackers and quickly catapulted to the top of the list of must-watch shows. Created by Sam Esmail, the series tackles issues such as cyber security and the alienating impact of technology on our lives as seen through the eyes of Elliot Alderson, a brilliant but psychologically damaged computer programmer who moonlights as a vigilante hacker, masterfully played by Rami Malek. Esmail is not only the showrunner; he also directed every episode of season two, which recently ended its run on USA Network. His unconventional shooting style and his very specific visual grammar, coupled with the intricate plot, have made Mr. Robot unique in the television landscape.
WS: Where did the idea for Mr. Robot come from? Were there real-life events that served as inspiration for the series?
ESMAIL: Yes, I would say there were three forces at play that motivated me to write the story. One is that growing up as a tech nerd, I was always a little frustrated at how we were represented in film and TV. I always wanted to tell a more accurate story representing that culture, specifically the hacker culture. The other two real-life events that came into play were the financial crisis of 2008 and the Arab Spring. Those were the events that began to form the main character of Elliot Alderson and what that journey was going to be like for him.
WS: Did the success of season one influence how you approached season two?
ESMAIL: I tried not to let it influence how I approached season two. The temptation was to replicate what we did in season one but with more bells and whistles. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible, because I felt that I had a duty to stay true to Elliot’s journey and what he’s going through. I liken it to if the whole series were a movie, [season two is] the second 30 minutes of that movie. We’re continuing on the path that we had started in the first season, remaining with that through line and staying as honest as we can to Elliot’s journey. We hoped people would jump on board and be as engaged with it as we are.
WS: I understand you did not shoot season two as a typical episodic TV series.
ESMAIL: We shot it more like a feature. In television, it’s called block shooting. It’s essentially how you would shoot a feature when you go to a location and shoot all the scenes that are at that location and then move to the next location. And that’s just for efficiencies of production. In features, that’s done all the time. But in television it’s obviously a little bit more overwhelming in terms of the work because you are talking about, in our case, 12 scripts, 12 hours of content. Sometimes we are at a location for a week or even a week and a half to shoot all the scenes from all the episodes for the entire season.
WS: You chose to direct all the episodes of season two. I’m sure that just being a showrunner is a ton of work. How did you add directing to your plate as well?
ESMAIL: I run the show very differently than most showrunners in that the filming part of it is actually a huge priority for me. It’s not necessarily the writing, but how we are going to adapt that screenplay into what we are going to see on the screen. But even in the first season, I was basically on set every day, as much as I could be. So the transition to directing every episode in the second season wasn’t that farfetched because it streamlined the process a little bit. Rather than me having to articulate every week to a different person what the tone of the show is and where the arc is in that episode, I was able to direct every episode, and we were able to streamline that whole process.
WS: Since you were block shooting, did you sit down with the actors ahead of time so they understood the whole story arc from the beginning, or were they just given the parts of the story they needed to shoot each day?
ESMAIL: For this to work, we had to shoot it like a feature, so we had written all the scripts beforehand. And even before I wrote all the scripts, I called all our main leads and ran them through their whole story line for the whole season, just to get their feedback, their thoughts. After that, when we finished all the scripts, I brought all the actors in and we did two days of table reads where we read through the entire season.
WS: Were the roles of Elliot and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) difficult to cast?
ESMAIL: Absolutely. In the case of Elliot, what’s hard about a character like his is that he can be very cerebral and very inward. And there is a juvenile, obnoxious side to him when he goes off on his rants. It’s very hard to act like that and find the humanity in that. We went through a lengthy audition process. When Rami came in it was clear that he embodied that humanity that we were looking for. He did the fsociety scene from the first season, and instead of coming off didactic, he came off as a person who is incredibly vulnerable and in a lot of pain, and that is exactly what we needed. He also put a lot of warmth into a character that can come off as cold. Rami is brilliantly able to add that warmth as another layer on top of it. He is just outstanding.
As far as Christian is concerned, that was a no-brainer, because although I didn’t consciously do this as I was writing the character of Mr. Robot, I’m a huge fan of Christian’s work, from Pump Up the Volume to Heathers to True Romance. I have to say the Mr. Robot character in a lot of ways shares a lot of similarities with Christian’s anarchist characters in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume. So when his name came up, it was pretty clear that he could be amazing in this part.
WS: What themes did you want to explore in seasons one and two?
ESMAIL: There are a lot of themes at play, everything from how modern society functions in the context of technology to how delusional we are in terms of the control we have in our lives. And then it runs from a family drama, obviously Elliot and Darlene, brother and sister, and a childhood friend, Angela, to how they are disconnected. But honestly, at the heart of it all, I think we are exploring the theme of loneliness. The deepest theme is that despite technology and all the positive things it brings in connecting us, maybe we are actually more disconnected [than we realize].
WS: With all the scenes of coding on computers, was it important to you to be accurate, and what reaction did you receive from the hacker community?
ESMAIL: Luckily enough we have received very high marks from the hacker community. And yes, accuracy was incredibly important. It’s one of the priorities I had going into telling a story about this culture—I would be as authentic as possible in representing not just the hacking but the hackers and [how to be a hacker]. Part of [it was] looking at Elliot’s character and his anti-establishment rants (and that mentality is present in the hacker culture) but on the flip side, the screens had to be accurate, what they were attempting to do had to be accurate. And often we go through painstaking lengths in production to make sure that everything that is shown on screen is as true to life as possible.
WS: I understand you don’t use green screens. When Elliot is at the computer, Rami is actually typing in code?
ESMAIL: Yes, he has to type what we see on screen. And the reason for that is twofold. One is the screens have to be built beforehand; we can’t start making up stuff in code. And two, Rami can see what he’s doing. When an actor is just staring at a green screen, and he’s just miming something—even though he doesn’t actually know what he’s reading anyway in code—there is a sense that it’s not authentic.
WS: Your shooting style is different compared to other series.
ESMAIL: I grew up watching a lot of movies and of course I learned a lot from those movies, and that obviously still influences how I think about shooting a scene, how I visually construct a scene. The other side is that I read a lot of film criticism growing up; that was my film school when I was young. I learned a lot about how things would work, how a frame could tell a story more than the dialogue or more than the script, how music and production design and all the different elements make a shot work. Those two things form my visual style.
WS: Tell me about your relationship with USA Network. They seem to have given you a lot of freedom with this show.
ESMAIL: I can’t speak more highly of USA. I have no idea why they even let me do half the stuff I’ve done on this show, but it’s a testament to the courage and the trust that they have not just in me, but in everybody on our production. I am extremely grateful for their support and their collaboration because they get involved in the best way possible and jump in when they feel that they can be helpful creatively. That’s all great.
WS: You are very knowledgeable, but do you have tech consultants on the show, too?
ESMAIL: Oh yes. Not only do we have a writer who is very well-versed in cyber security, but we have also had a couple of tech [consultants], one who actually works for a cyber-security firm and another who used to be in the FBI working in the cyber squad. So we have two people from different backgrounds.
WS: Did you imagine when you started incubating this idea that hacking would show up in the news as prominently and often as it does these days?
ESMAIL: Honestly, when I first wrote it, hacking still wasn’t [prominent in the news], although I always read up on those stories. [The hacker group] Anonymous had made a bit of a name for itself, but it wasn’t really in the public conversation. After we shot the pilot, the day that we got picked up [by USA Network], the Sony hack happened. And then President Obama talked about it in the State of the Union address, and that’s when it started to kick into high gear in the public conversation.