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How “Mr. Robot” Hacked Hacker Culture

“I had never seen it done well in film or television,” says Sam Esmail, creator of USA’s new show, about the secret life of programmers.

How “Mr. Robot” Hacked Hacker Culture
[Photos: courtesy of USA Network]

Corporate greed, cybersecurity, and youth in revolt are on a high-stakes collision course in USA Network’s new series, Mr. Robot.

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Elliot (Rami Malek) works a nine-to-five that has him protecting the digital assets of conglomerates he loathes, but his raison d’être is white hat hacking–whether it’s bringing down child pornographers or protecting the people he cares about from unsavory boyfriends. Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of an underground band of likeminded hackers, recruits Elliot to spark a revolution against the 1 percent–to basically dismantle the wall that separates “us” and “them.”


But there’s an irrepressible loneliness crippling Elliot–one that can be seen as an amplified version of the emptiness hovering at the periphery of the digital age. Granted, Elliot’s morphine-addled isolation has morphed past the brink of paranoia, but he isn’t numb to the patina of happiness society projects. To use his own words: “Fuck society.”

“I always imagined this character Elliot being a younger person who wanted to channel his anger through technology in a positive way to bring about change,” says Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot. “The irony of Elliot not being able to interact with people in real life but knowing their intimate details because he hacks them–that duality becomes the compelling part.”

Esmail spoke with Fast Company about the real-life parallels that inspired Mr. Robot and how he sidestepped the comically painful hacker tropes that have long plagued films and TV shows.

Where did the idea for Mr. Robot come from?

Technology is something I’m really fascinated by. I was always sort of a geek growing up. I always thought the culture of computer programmers was interesting. I had never seen it done well in film or television. This idea germinated throughout the years, and I really wanted to put pen to paper and go for it. It was a combination of things: the financial collapse had happened. I’m Egyptian, so the Arab Spring influenced [and] inspired me. Those events came together in this perfect storm, and I started writing it as a movie.

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Mr. Robot was originally conceived as a movie? What made you turn it into a TV series instead?

I got to about page 90 and I realized I wasn’t even done with the first act yet. I knew this really can’t be a movie–there’s just too much story to tell. I saved up all these little stories and character quirks from the hacker/programmer culture throughout the years, and it just spiraled into this bigger tapestry, and that’s when I decided to turn it into a series which I had zero experience in. I had never been in a writer’s room or even been on a TV show set. I took a stab at it and basically truncated the feature and made that the first episode.


You’ve never worked in TV before, so how did you bring your film sensibilities to Mr. Robot as a series?

Everything from how I wrote the episodes to how we made the pilot and how we’re making the rest of the episodes is purely from a feature filmmaking standpoint, specifically an indie feature filmmaking standpoint. If you think about it, you’re doing a lot more content for a lot less money. So it’s almost like we’re making little indie short films every week. There’s no procedural element to Mr. Robot. I find it interesting when I hear the feedback from people who think there’s going to be this hack of the week. That’s just not the case. We’re basically making a very, very long feature–we’re digging deeper into characters and other storylines that you couldn’t really have time to do in a feature.

On the character of Elliot, what about hackers and computer programmers fascinates and inspires you?

These guys and girls I’ve encountered lack in social skills–it is a stereotype for a reason–but have brilliant minds and they have this really interesting intuition and insight and passion for the world; they just don’t know how to connect to other people. What I thought was great about that in terms of creating drama is that’s such a great obstacle. All great television and films are really about the drama and relationships between people. If you have these incredibly passionate people who are dysfunctional at that part, that makes for a great irony or contrast. That’s the part that gets left out when you watch a lot of films and television about hackers or computer programers which baffles me. That is the journey we see Elliot on–he cannot talk to people to the point where he can’t even go to his best friend’s birthday party because he’s afraid of interacting with someone. And that becomes the fascinating part of the show.

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Hollywood has often been slammed for its inaccurate portrayal of computer programers and hackers–what are they getting wrong?

There’s the casting element. I’m not trying to diss on Chris Hemsworth–I actually think he’s a great actor, but casting him as a hacker in Blackhat just doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps there’s a hacker out there who looks like Chris Hemsworth, but it’s highly unusual and it really doesn’t play into everything I’ve just been talking about in terms of the antisocial disorder. The larger aspect to it is people don’t understand hacking. The interesting thing about hacking–and it kind of goes into social engineering a little bit–is finding a flaw in a system. That aspect of the psychology is such an integral part of hacking. I think the way Hollywood misrepresents it is that it’s about a guy getting on a computer and he’s able to control a security camera. First of all, that’s not accurate or real. And on top of that, that’s no fun because the beauty of hacking are the clever ways in which you find out information.

When making Mr. Robot, what did you want to get right in terms of representing not only hackers but technology in general?

I have a rule on my set that we don’t use any green screen for computer graphics–it keeps us honest. It’s a lot harder to do because you have to build all those screens before you shoot it. The other aspect of it is the actors interacting with a green screen are not understanding or reacting to what’s being shown on the screen. There’s all these shortcuts people are trying to do when they’re making a show about technology that winds up with a product where the credibility is sapped. Especially today with more and more people who are technologically savvy, that credibility is increasingly more important. I took the simple route of let’s actually shoot this as real as possible. If our tech expert is saying it cannot be done or it cannot be done easily, then we don’t do it. We only adhere to hacks that have happened that we’ve researched.

The pilot episode was an intense start to Mr. Robot’s 10-episode run–what can we expect from the rest of the series?

To borrow a J.J. Abrams expression, it’s set up in a very mystery box kind of way, and I think a lot of people enjoy looking for the clues and looking for the misdirects and piece it all together. But it’s more about the characters. I wouldn’t say it’s about hacking in the sense that we’re going to show you all these neat little tricks of how to hack whatever. Hacking, if you look at it in a broader spectrum, is about finding the flaws in people and manipulating people. And if you take it to that broad of a spectrum, really you’re just talking about people. That’s what people do to each other every day–whether in a positive or negative way.

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Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday, June 24, at 10/9 C on USA.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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