Creator/EP Sam Esmail and Writer Adam Penn Talk Character, Conspiracy and Endgame on Mr. Robot [Exclusive]
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
At TV Goodness, we love great TV. Weâ€™re always on the hunt for engaging shows that break the mold in some way â€“ even though itâ€™s getting increasing difficult to make time to watch them because thereâ€™s so much good stuff out there already. But when I heard about Mr. Robot months ago, I got excited. And, like over 1 million other people, I watched the pilot online before it premiered on USA Network.
Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed. In fact, with every week that passes I find Elliotâ€™s journey more engrossing. Is it because stories about hacking are in the headlines right now? Thatâ€™s probably part of it. But more than that, I like that someone like Elliot has an important story to tell that everyone can relate to. Heâ€™s flawed, but that makes him so much more interesting. Heâ€™s angry, but that makes him want to do something to change the world. Heâ€™s awkward, but arenâ€™t all of us in some way?
I had the chance to talk exclusively to series creator and executive producer Sam Esmail and writer Adam Penn. We discussed the genesis of the series, whatâ€™s ahead for Elliot and the other characters and just how easy or difficult it is to present your true self both online and off.
TV GOODNESS: Sam, I love that this is your first TV show and itâ€™s already getting so much great response from audiences and critics. What made you want to create this tense, conspiracy/paranoia thriller for TV?
Sam Esmail: â€œActually, I didnâ€™t initially create it for TV. I started it as a feature. I donâ€™t know if I got too long-winded or if there was just more story there, but it got way too long and cumbersome as a feature. So, I basically changed the first ninety pages into the first 2 episodes and then turned it into a television show, but I didnâ€™t really change the spirit of what it was initially as a film.
I think thatâ€™s why people feel like itâ€™s very different than a television show because there was no intention of doing it episodically. Really, itâ€™s one long narrative that weâ€™re telling. I even have the ending figured out and weâ€™re building towards that. There was never a conversion process to television. In terms of the length of the story and the characters and the world, it needed to be played out in that format.â€
TV GOODNESS: Thereâ€™s so much an ordinary person doesnâ€™t know or understand about technology and how that impacts privacy. Was part of the idea behind this show to help educate people while telling this really interesting and engaging story?
Adam Penn: â€œWith a show like this, you donâ€™t even have to set out to educate people because what weâ€™re covering is so paranoia-inducing naturally that I feel like you donâ€™t really have to do any soap-boxing or anything.
For me, I came into it almost like one of those normal people you mention. I didnâ€™t know a ton about how exposed we all are, other than the broad strokes that Iâ€™ve picked up. Now, after going through this process I know quite a bit about it. I think just the natural process of telling the story about this subject matter is enough to inherently educate people and scare the hell out of them.â€
Sam: â€œYeah, I second Adam. Because we donâ€™t follow the traditional television model, thereâ€™s no procedural element, â€˜And now this week weâ€™ll do a hack about this.â€™ We avoid that because weâ€™re just telling this one story. But along the way there are things the characters do that obviously enlighten people who may not know technology or are not as familiar with technology. They pick up on believable things that could happen in the real world.
But in a large way, itâ€™s almost as if because the world is educated already, like Adam just said, it helps the credibility of our show. A lot of times when you have a guy sitting behind a keyboard and he does some crazy thing, the consequences donâ€™t feel real because it feels a little unbelievable. But now in this day and age, it feels so believable with the Sony hack in the news six months ago and then the government just got hacked and the New York Stock Exchange just shut down. People really believe that hackers do have this power and so, if anything, there may be little things that theyâ€™re picking up, but I feel like itâ€™s built in already into the news that they just reading every day now.â€
TV GOODNESS: Can you talk to me about Elliotâ€™s journey and the challenge or maybe the fun of having an unreliable narrator be your main character?
Sam: â€œItâ€™s weird. J.J. Abrams coined this term a while ago when he did Lost — the mystery box series, where there is a puzzle and questions and the answers often lead to more questions. To me, thatâ€™s the first incarnation of interactive film and television, or whatever you want to call it, because it involves the audience. They want to question whatâ€™s going on. They want to try and solve the mystery themselves. They want to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together, so theyâ€™re always looking for clues and it really gets them engaged on a whole different level.
So, with us the unreliable narrator is so much fun because it does exactly that. It engages you with the main character in a way that youâ€™re trying to figure things out along with him. I wouldnâ€™t say that came first. Obviously, the character of Elliot lent itself to what Adam just said, the paranoia and also just the world weâ€™re in, the technology world, where people are not what they seem online versus offline. That all lent itself to this mystery box genre. Itâ€™s just so cool. It engages people on a much more passionate level because theyâ€™re trying to solve the mystery along with you.
Adam: â€œThereâ€™s also the whole subjectivity of it all which, for me, is the most exciting thing about the show. Iâ€™m a big believer in highly subjective storytelling. Almost like the opposite of the classic sitcom like Cheers where the ensemble- [this is] the polar opposite. Weâ€™re stuck in this guyâ€™s head, basically.
Itâ€™s really fun to be so in deep with one character, just really portraying the world through his eyes to such an extreme degree. And I feel like drama lends itself to that naturally. It certainly helps with the whole paranoid techno-thriller aspect as well. So, for me the most fun aspect of telling Elliotâ€™s story is that weâ€™re with him more than most other shows can get with their main character.â€
TV GOODNESS: Sam, you mentioned the online versus offline thing which is so true. Even Elliot thinks he can learn everything he needs to know about a person from hacking them. We find that isnâ€™t true when Shalya talks to him and shows him her art. Is that a comment on how people should get off their computers and social media and go interact with a person?
Sam: â€œRami [Malek] loves to say that. [Laughs.] He loves to say that a lot, â€˜cause I donâ€™t think heâ€™s a big computer guy. And I happen to be one, obviously. Iâ€™m actually very fascinated with how technology has impacted society in general.
I wouldnâ€™t [say] weâ€™re trying to say one thing or the other. Weâ€™re just trying to raise questions and have a conversation about it. The reality of it is, no pun intended, things are blurred. Identities are blurred. Are you the person that you want to be online? Is that the real you? Is that the hidden you? Is that the deep down inside you that youâ€™re afraid to show people in real life or is the real life the poser? Or vice versa? Are you playing out some fantasy online?
The thing about technology is that it has blurred that to a certain extent. It raises the larger question of, â€˜What is real? Where do we fit in?â€™ Are we instinctually doing this just because technology has introduced that as an easy way to manipulate our personalities or to manipulate our information or a perception of who we are-â€
Adam: â€œOur image.â€
Sam: â€œ -our image. Is that innate in us or is that a consequence of technology. That, I donâ€™t know the answer to and I donâ€™t think the show purports to have an answer on that. I think itâ€™s really about raising the question and having that conversation â€˜cause I think itâ€™s an interesting question.â€
TV GOODNESS: The more we learn about Elliot, the more interesting and complex he becomes. What can you tell me about his motivations and what heâ€™s willing to do to achieve his goals?
Sam: â€œMorality is a big issue, for me. Itâ€™s so weird because a lot of people bring up the morality of Elliot and they always toss out the word â€˜anti-hero.â€™ The thing about it, to me, is that people are flawed innately. No one does just pure good or pure bad. I think itâ€™s always in the middle and a mix of the two.
So, Elliot is just a person who has the good and bad qualities and makes good and bad choices. The one thing that always stuck out to me is that heâ€™s angry and obviously uses that to a large extent to fuel a lot of his choices. But for me, thatâ€™s not necessarily a negative emotion. Anger can be channeled for positive change and that was one of the big themes I wanted to raise in the show.
The Arab Spring, being one of things that inspired me, is a positive revolution [where] anger was channeled by young people for positive outcomes. But itâ€™s a mixed bag. Anger, obviously, is a slippery slope that could go down a really dark path, but youâ€™re always in this morally questionable gray area. But, then again, I think we always are. Itâ€™s never clear cut. So, we have all of our people and all of our characters live in that gray area and I just personally think thatâ€™s where the most interesting outcomes happen because thatâ€™s whatâ€™s most real in my opinion.
TV GOODNESS: I donâ€™t think you can give me a straight answer on this and Iâ€™m hoping you wonâ€™t. As Iâ€™ve been watching the episodes, and I re-watched the pilot a few times, Iâ€™m wondering if Mr. Robot is real or a figment of Elliotâ€™s imagination.
Sam: â€œThe question of reality is a thing that we bring up initially. Elliot brings it up. He doesnâ€™t know if the Men in Black are real. He actually questions whether any interaction is real. He questions his own sanity the whole time. That, to me, goes back to the larger thematic issue of our present day world. What is fantasy? What is real? The whole catfish syndrome is a part of what weâ€™re addressing.
I canâ€™t answer the question directly, but I think in general, thematically weâ€™re constantly questioning reality. And, specifically, because weâ€™re in the head of Elliot, weâ€™re just constantly playing with his unreliable point of view.â€
TV GOODNESS: Youâ€™ve got such a great cast here. Can you tell me a little bit about what to expect from them in the next few episodes?
Sam: â€œAdam wrote Episode 4, airing on Wednesday, which is my favorite episode by the way. Itâ€™s really the first time we go into the other hackersâ€™ lives.â€
Adam: â€œWe get a little more time with the other members of fsociety, which was really fun to write and explore. Basically, itâ€™s to elevate them so theyâ€™re not just computer geeks in the background. They actually have things they bring to the table and concerns and worries. We start to bring out more of the fsociety team coming up, which I think will be fun for people.â€
Sam: â€œEpisode 3 was the first time we really delved into- we donâ€™t even open on Elliot. We open on Tyrell. Weâ€™ve delved into Tyrellâ€™s backstory a little bit.
The thing about the show is that we take our time, much to the chagrin of some people, Iâ€™ve noticed. In Episode 4 weâ€™re finally talking about the fsociety hackers. We want every character to feel multidimensional and layered and we want to explore them and we want to take our time doing that.
But itâ€™s been really fun because we get to hit the themes from all different perspectives and all different points of view. It also gives us a breather from Elliot, who can be relentless at times — and I love him. Heâ€™s near and dear to my heart. Heâ€™s a fascinating character, but just to see the other people around him and to fully flesh them out, it creates, I think, a better experience and [shows] how Elliot reacts to them after knowing who they are.â€
Adam: â€œAnd to see people react to Elliot, which we havenâ€™t gotten a ton of yet.â€
TV GOODNESS: Letâ€™s talk about Tyrell. I loved that you started the last episode on him and itâ€™s interesting to see the lengths heâ€™s willing to go to in order to pursue his own goals.
Sam: â€œI love all our characters, but heâ€™s another one of my favorites because when I first conceived of the story, in feature format, I needed a formidable nemesis. Evil Corp was that ambiguous, larger-than-life evil empire, if you will.â€
Adam: â€œTyrell is the human personification of that.
Sam: â€œExactly. So heâ€™s the human being that we can look at, see how he goes to bed at night, see how he wakes up in the morning, what his routine is. To me, thatâ€™s the fascinating part of Tyrell and Iâ€™ve got to be honest with you, Martin [Wallstrom] does a fantastic job portraying him. Heâ€™s not moustache twirling, even though he does the most despicable things. He feels like a real person to me and a large part of that is due to Martin bringing such humanity to the character.â€
Adam: â€œIn last weekâ€™s episode when he says, â€œIâ€™m just a businessman,â€™ I think thatâ€™s the most telling line of this character. That gives us a window into what heâ€™s about, what heâ€™s trying to do. That really spoke to me, when he says that, after he takes the assistant home.â€
TV GOODNESS: And that his wife is so willing to play her part in all of it is so interesting as well.
Sam: â€œYeah. The flip that we did that you first think heâ€™s this controlling husband that cheats on his pregnant wife and then you come to find out later, sheâ€™s fully aware of what he does and is actually maybe pulling the strings and controlling him. Itâ€™s a very interesting dynamic.
We always love to do that. We love to subvert expectations, but not just for the sake of being different, but because it adds layers and dimensions. People are not very linear. They make unexpected choices and they have unexpected situations and backstories. You would think one thing and then you discover another. Tyrell is just chock full of that, which I think is great for a villain.â€
TV GOODNESS: Sam, earlier you mentioned you had the ending in mind. Did you mean for the series or the season and if youâ€™re allowed to make them all, how many episodes do you think weâ€™ll get?
Sam: â€œFor the series. The ending of Season 1 is essentially what wouldâ€™ve been the first act of the feature, meaning roughly the first 30 minutes of the feature. So, again, I just got extremely long-winded and turned into ten hours.
In terms of the series, I think itâ€™s only 4 seasons, maybe 5. Definitely not more than 5. I want to build towards our inevitable conclusion and I want to stick to it and I want to be honest about it. I want to move towards it. I in no way want to drag it out or get filler or provide filler or any of that.
Obviously, I think the temptation is always there, especially if a showâ€™s doing well. But if weâ€™re lucky enough to last 4 or 5 seasons, I think thatâ€™s a good run no matter what. Thatâ€™s roughly, I think, where we need to get in order to tell this whole story.â€
TV GOODNESS: At the end of the day, what are you hoping viewers take away from the show, other than just really enjoying a great story? Or, is that it?
Sam: â€œWhat do you think, Adam? Whatâ€™s your hope?â€
Adam: â€œMy primary hope is just that theyâ€™re really entertained. Thatâ€™s obviously the number one goal. Beyond that, I guess it goes back to your question about educating the viewers, which weâ€™re not trying to do, but we can all be a little better about our security and stuff, so I think it wouldnâ€™t hurt if people took a little of that away.
But none of that should interfere with the storytelling and the entertainment value and just really feeling like youâ€™re with this character and in his head. If the audience legitimately feels like theyâ€™re in this guyâ€™s head, then I think weâ€™ve done our jobs.â€
Sam: â€œAnd I would say my thing is, I love Elliot. When I first wrote him, there was something about him that I thought was great and that was so intimate, yet so distancing. He was just full of contradictions in the most interesting and compelling way possible for me. Obviously, it was just brought beyond my expectations, brought to this whole new level by Ramiâ€™s performance. I think heâ€™s brilliant. Honestly, the show wouldâ€™ve been terrible without him. He is the guy that just makes it feel real.â€
Adam: â€œHe is Elliot.â€
Sam: â€œYeah. Elliot wouldnâ€™t exist without him. He brings a whole other dimension that I cannot take credit for. The guy just totally bought something out of what was written on the page into somebody that I think people feel that they know that guy, theyâ€™ve met that guy, they are that guy sometimes.
So, if anything, when we finish his journey I hope that people are with him and I hope get to know him and I hope people like that they got to know him. And I hope that they remember him like they remember a good friend, for however many years we get to do this. I just think thereâ€™s something he brings to the table. Maybe itâ€™s the educational thing, but my hope is that itâ€™s much more than that. Itâ€™s just a real person that maybe has never been on film or television before that people get to see and engage with.â€
TV GOODNESS: I think you guys are doing a great job. I love the show. Everyone I talk to loves the show. Iâ€™m a fan of Elliot. You were saying people talk about him likeâ€™s heâ€™s an anti-hero, but I donâ€™t see him that way either. I see him as a hero.
Sam: â€œYeah. Well, thank you. Cool.â€
Adam: â€œThatâ€™s cool.â€
Edited for space and content.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA Network.
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