Mr. Robot is a television series that explores the world of a hacker, and while it is pure fiction, it isn’t unbelievable.
That’s been the biggest criticism of movies and television shows that portray hackers and all the hacking that they do, and Sam Esmail was very aware of that when he created Mr. Robot. Premiering on USA Network June 24 (you can also watch the first episode online now if you want a sneak peek), the cinematic series centers on a loner programmer (played by Rami Malek) who works as a cyber-security engineer at a firm in New York City and secretly spends his time off doing good deeds as a vigilante hacker.
“A lot of films and television shows don’t have any credibility because they resort to these forced, contrived situations where they just give their characters all these powers, and they take two seconds to break into a bank,” Esmail says. “You don’t buy it as an audience member because it doesn’t feel credible, and it isn’t credible. You’re seeing things on screen that don’t feel real, and you just get that even though you may not be a techie.”
Mr. Robot, produced by Universal Cable Productions and Anonymous Content, feels authentic, in part, because of the attention paid to detail. For example, when you see code on a computer screen, it is real. (Speaking of code, take a look at the official site for Mr. Robot.) Esmail hired a cyber-security engineer to provide the data that appears on computer screens during various hacking scenarios, and accurate sound effects are key, too—you aren’t hearing random blips and beeps. “I think having all the minutiae, all those little details, adds up to a much more credible experience,” Esmail says.
But viewers aren’t just eyeballing code while watching Mr. Robot. There is plenty of action, too. Elliot, driven by a sense of justice and often cloaked in a black hoodie, ventures around the city investigating—and sometimes stalking—the people he wants to help as well as those he wants to punish.
“Hacking requires a lot of social engineering. It’s not just about a guy on a keyboard coding or breaking into a system. It’s a lot of figuring out human behavior patterns and trying to find and exploit the vulnerability in the system of human behaviors. For whatever reason, television shows about hacking sort of always miss that huge component, which is where the drama is,” Esmail maintains.
There is only so much one man can do, though, and Elliot gets the opportunity to initiate change on a massive scale when Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of an anarchist hacking group, invites him to join the cause and presents him with the opportunity to use his skills to create a sudden and disruptive redistribution of wealth.
Here, Esmail, who wrote and made his directorial debut last year with the film Comet, talks to Co.Create about the origins of Mr. Robot. He also explains why he hired Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to direct the pilot, which won the Audience Award when it was screened at SXSW last March, and confesses to driving everyone crazy in the edit suite when Mr. Robot was being cut.
Co.Create: Watching the pilot, there were so many interesting things to appreciate, including the retro 1970s-style font you used for the titles as well as the music. Did you have a hand in all of those details as the creator of the series?
Esmail: Heavily. I would say to a fault. I get very specific when it comes to any creative elements. I was even involved in the font for the regular end credits and the music for sure. I wanted this sort of retro vibe. It’s in the way we shoot the show, too. It’s very old school, ’90s filmmaking and lo-fi. I prefer a grungier, lo-fi look.
Is it true that Mr. Robot began as a film script?
Yeah. I was writing it as a feature. But I think around page 90 I realized I wasn’t even halfway through the first act, and that’s when I knew this really couldn’t be a feature. Otherwise, it’d be a very long feature. I chopped 30 pages off and said, okay, this will be the pilot episode of whatever this becomes.
It just became something bigger than I had first thought. But I will say the good thing about me starting this as a feature was I had wondered in my head how the whole thing was going to end, and I saw it still worked in the television version. I knew where the series was building up to, and that’s always helpful to know. I think with television, generally, you start the pilot without knowing where you’re going.
Given the recent Sony hack and other hacking incidents in the news, do you think the release of this show comes at a good time?
Yeah. The advantage that we have now is 10 years ago when someone would watch a show about hackers, it felt a little too ridiculous. A person behind a keyboard wouldn’t have that much power. But I think now, in today’s context, with it being in the public consciousness now, in the public conversation, it is a legitimate scare. When they see in our show that a guy is able to break into a woman’s phone, they totally buy it because that’s what’s happening in the real world.
The main character, Elliot, is a strange, appealing guy. He is so intense and sensitive and not just a stereotypical computer nerd. Casting that role must have been tough.
We really invest in our characters more than anything else. Elliot is a hacker, but he’s really just a guy who wants to save the world. He has that superhero complex.
When I wrote the pilot, the one thing that stuck in my head was, the show basically lives or dies by the performance of whoever plays Elliot. And Rami did a brilliant job. You believe he could be a hacker. You believe that he’s brilliant. You buy it. We had to find an actor who could be likeable whether he’s doing morphine or hacking his therapist—that guy America will love watching no matter what he does.
Rami, as Elliot, narrates the show, and his voice draws us in. Did you hire him not only for his acting ability but also his voiceover ability?
I had never heard him do a voiceover. In fact, I was completely worried when we got to [recording it], which we didn’t even do until after we shot the pilot. I worried about what that was going to sound like, and we did spend days just fine-tuning what that voiceover was going to be because it’s a whole different art. The way you do the voiceover, how much emotion you put in—it’s very much amplified. Thank god his voiceover turned out to be amazing.
I have to give you credit for having Elliot live in a sparse, not-so-nice New York City apartment. It feels real. Television hardly ever seems to get it right when showing real New York City living quarters.
Oh my god, yeah. There is a tendency to build this big apartment, a huge apartment, that’s curated with these nice things, and I’m like no, absolutely not! You don’t curate your New York apartment when you’re broke.
Niels Arden Oplev shot the pilot. Why did you want to work with him to establish the look and the tone of the show?
I wanted to work with him because he did A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. That was one of the rare films about hacking that felt credible and real, and I thought he did an excellent job with it precisely because he invested as much in the character as he did in the technology and all of that.
Did you direct any of the episodes?
Yeah. I directed episode two. I also directed the season finale. I really wanted to do episode two. We did the pilot back in November. We got picked up in December, and we just started shooting in April. I wanted to direct the second episode to help keep the look and feel of the show, which I think is incredibly important, going and consistent, and then we got some great directors in between.
Going back to the idea of you being involved in every aspect of the show, did you sit with editor Joe Bini to cut the pilot, or did you let him do his cut first?
I’m sure working with me sometimes as an editor can be frustrating because I like to be in there, and I like to make choices. What happens is we have an editor’s cut, and then the director has their cut, and then the producers have our cut.
The pilot was difficult to cut because we were supposed to deliver a 43-minute pilot. Well, the original cut came in at 80 minutes. It was essentially a little indie feature, and so we kept cutting, and we kept changing and shaping, and it turned out the best we could do was 64-minute cut.
Thankfully, USA loved it and said fine, you can deliver as a 90-minute show on-air because that’s what it would time out with the commercials. It was an incredibly painful process because we didn’t know for the longest time what we were going to get to do an 80-minute cut.
So yeah, there were a lot of long days in the editing room. Joe’s a total professional. I don’t know if you know his resume, but he actually comes from the documentary world, so his vantage point was very interesting.
The edit is really the final rewrite of the show. Even with sound design, I’m very specific about the smallest sound effect, and, by the way, this drives editors crazy. I think it drives everyone in the editing room crazy. There were times when I wanted to stop the process because I wanted to add just a little bit of a car driving by. I think all those small details add up, and you can’t really see it until you just sort of build it and add to it and get immersed into it. It can be maddening for people, but in a way, everyone appreciates it. At least that’s the hope.