Exclusive Interview: Charlie Brooker Talks Black Mirror’s Move to Netflix


PREMIUM: Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker talks to TV Drama about what viewers can expect from season three of the dystopian drama with its move to Netflix, where it debuts next month.

TV DRAMA: After having put a flag in the ground with comedy and satire, what led you to veer a bit darker with Black Mirror?
BROOKER: The first sort of dark drama that I did was Dead Set, which is a zombie/horror series that sounds like a comedy because it’s set in the Big Brother house. I’ve always been a fan of horror movies, science fiction and dark twist-in-the-tale stories. I feel like those actually go hand in hand with comedy. Often when I first think of the Black Mirror ideas they make me laugh. Comic writers generally have an affinity with those kinds of “what-if” stories—stories that explore an idea to its logical conclusion, which is often an absurd one. In that way, it felt like a natural progression to me.

TV DRAMA: A lot of the themes in Black Mirror are rooted in the idea of a highly technological future. Was that the starting point for the series?
BROOKER: After I’d done Dead Set, we were thinking of another project to do that was a drama. I had always been a fan of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror. Also, when I was growing up, the BBC used to put on these one-off TV movies that were often very conceptual and quite controversial. I felt like there wasn’t much of that happening anymore.

I began thinking about doing a series of what-if stories. I thought about, If you were doing The Twilight Zone today, what would you be talking about? At the time of The Twilight Zone, McCarthyism and the Cold War were foremost worries. Today, technology is the thing that’s swept in and is upending everything—for the better or for the worse. I’m not afraid of technology; I’m a gadget-lover! I’m quite geeky when it comes to technology. I’m also neurotic and a worrier. If you present me with some new gizmo, I naturally think of (either to amuse myself or because I’m worried) ways that it will go terribly wrong. In our episodes, technology is never really the villain. It’s a tool that’s in the background that our characters are using to wreck their own lives.

TV DRAMA: The first two seasons were a hit with global audiences far outside the U.K. Did you expect the series to resonate so well internationally?
BROOKER: Oftentimes when you’re making a show you just have your head down and are trying to fight fires and get it made. So it was a really pleasant surprise that it seems to have gone down well globally. The topics we’ve been tackling are global ones. When [Black Mirror] first came along there weren’t many shows dealing with this kind of stuff, so that helped as well. On the one hand, I thought it was a very British show and I certainly didn’t anticipate it catching on around the world. On the other, I suppose that in retrospect the themes are global.

TV DRAMA: How did the deal with Netflix come about for season three?
BROOKER: When the original seasons went up on Netflix in the U.S., there was really good word of mouth about it quite quickly. It felt to me that a platform like Netflix, a streaming platform, was the ideal home for an anthology show like Black Mirror. Traditionally anthology series like Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected would struggle slightly in [linear] broadcast schedules because there’s no cliffhanger at the end of the episode to get everybody back next week. On Netflix the whole thing launches in one go, so it makes it more like a short film festival or a collection of stories. It’s the sort of home that anthology shows have been waiting for. In that respect, Netflix was the perfect partner.

TV DRAMA: How did your experience working with Netflix on season three differ from that of the previous two seasons with Channel 4?
BROOKER: In some ways, it didn’t differ at all. I’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve often had a lot of creative freedom. With Netflix, though, you don’t have the restrictions of trying to come up with cuts for ad breaks, and you don’t have to deal with all sorts of censorship issues that you might if you were on an overseas commercial broadcaster. You’ve got freedom of duration and don’t have to cut things to a commercial hour.

All the notes, observations and feedback from Netflix have been really smart. It’s been a positive experience. They’re encouraging and enthusiastic. It’s not that they applaud absolutely everything we do, but if they have any criticisms they’re always very well considered, thought-out and useful.

TV DRAMA: What are the advantages of working with a different director on each episode in the series?
BROOKER: In many ways, it’s perfect because you want each story to feel distinct from the others yet have enough in common that it fits under the Black Mirror umbrella without feeling random. The stories are pouring out of my head, and different directors interpret things in different ways. We get them involved in the scripting process and have lots of conversations, and the script may evolve in ways that I hadn’t initially foreseen. We’ll do rewrites and move things around. Sometimes they’ll come in with a really interesting stylistic idea that would not have occurred to me in a million years. What’s great is that it means you’ve got all these individual idiosyncratic interpretations of your source material, which immediately lends a lot of variety.

On top of that, there are all sorts of challenges. Everyone has different quirks and different ways of seeing things, and the challenge is that you’re always starting again. You don’t necessarily have that shorthand that would develop if you were making a series in which there was an ongoing story. You’re learning the ropes again each time.

TV DRAMA: Season three has a much larger episode count. Was that something you and Netflix worked out together?
BROOKER: We’re doing this season of six and another season of six, which is double what we did before when each season had three. They’re also bigger in scope. We arrived at that number together. We didn’t want to suddenly start making ten because we wanted to make sure that they retained the same quality that we had before. When we were doing three per season I was also doing all sorts of other series, whereas now I’m focusing most of my time on this. If you’re doing a series that has one overarching story line, you don’t have to recast every time. For us, all the sets have to be rebuilt; we have to create the world each time anew. In that respect, it’s a lot harder. Six felt like a good number to aim for, and thank god we seem to have done it!

TV DRAMA: With a global platform, and a larger budget, did you feel that you had to go bigger with the new episodes or make them more international?
BROOKER: It doesn’t feel like we had to; it just sort of followed where the stories went, to be honest. Of course, we did bear in mind that this is going to premiere globally and that probably affects the kind of palette that you’re working on. Diversity was something that I wanted to up in the series generally. Having said that, there are quite a few quirky British things in there because I’m proud of my home country! It’s hopefully British but outward looking, which is kind of the opposite of Britain at the moment! [Laughs]

There are certainly some stories that are expansive in scope. There are definitely ones that are bigger than what we’ve done before, but we haven’t gone for the spectacle just for the sake of it. There’s probably more variety in tone than we’ve done before. When you’re doing six episodes instead of three, you can say, I want one that’s funnier or I want one that’s incredibly dark, so it balances out overall.

TV DRAMA: What’s your take on the binge-viewing phenomenon? It seems as though getting sucked into a screen and devouring hours of episodes on end the way viewers do with Black Mirror is just the sort of technological dystopia that your show addresses.
BROOKER: Endless pleasure! You always want one more. It’s kind of irresistible. People have always sat down in front of the TV for hours, ever since the invention of television. I was recently bingeing [a series] on Netflix, and it does feel very moreish and slightly decadent, but it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your time. This feels to me just like getting engrossed in a good book. While I can see that to someone peeking in your window, it probably looks disturbing, but what the hell are they doing looking in your window in the first place? [Laughs]