My interview with Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

12 Jun

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail discusses the importance of story authenticity, portraying mental illness, and playing with memory.

Hit television series Mr. Robot on the USA Network stars actors Rami Malek as vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson, and Christian Slater as the eponymous Mr. Robot.

To date the show has been nominated for six Emmys and received numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Television Drama Series.

Mr. Robot was created by Sam Esmail, who thought about the storyline for 20 years before even putting pen to paper. In an exclusive interview with Creative Screenwriting, Esmail discusses the process of creating characters based on real people, the importance of personal experiences in storytelling, and how they have taken their time to reveal the relationships between their show’s characters, as they explore abstract concepts such as memory, truth, and the consequences of one’s actions.

You took great risks in writing season one of Mr. Robot. How did those risks contribute to the show’s longevity?

Honestly, we didn’t look at it as risks at the time. We were just doing what we thought was authentic and real, and we were exploring the character that we all were intrigued by and compelled by.

As long as those things felt good to us in the writers’ room, that was something that we were always on board with.

Because we hadn’t seen anything like this exactly on television or in the movies, to be honest with you, risk was something that just never factored into it. Once you start letting those external forces enter into the creative process, then it ends up being more about research and what you think the audience will like or what the audience hasn’t seen before. So we tried to keep that out and just really tried to tell an interesting story about a compelling character.

Your characters come from a variety of backgrounds, but they all share a similar mindset. How did you create them?

I’m very much about ‘you write what you know.’

This is pretty easy for me because I have a lot of friends in the tech world and in the hacker world. I’ve also just read about hacker and tech news just as a hobbyist. So I’ve been around these people and it’s really a very interesting subculture that I actually never thought was accurately portrayed in Hollywood, whether on film or TV.

I just really drew a lot from that, and I drew a lot from my own life, from people that I know. I took as much as I could from personal experiences, as well as from other writers in the room. Authenticity is kind of our motto in the room, and not only goes for the technical accuracy on the show, but for the people as well. In fact, more so for the people, because we wanted these to be very specific and very real people.

Your protagonist Elliot Alderson suffers from a mental disorder. How did you research his psychology for the show?

Again, he is based on people that I knew, and also from my own personal experience in dealing with social anxiety.

We also have a psychologist as a consultant who deals with people with Elliot’s specific disorder. We involve her in the writing process a lot in terms of just breaking a story to begin with, to kind of get into his whole point of view.

What it ultimately comes down to is that we want the experience of watching the show to feel like what a person suffering from this disorder feels, how that person would experience the events that happen in Elliot’s life.

So it’s a combination of bringing a consultant on, as well as just doing a deep dive into the disorder, and the friends and the people that we know with the disorder, and getting those details right. Ultimately it really comes down to showing the details, and showing the anguish of the day-to-day struggle of it.

I think that’s the thing that really resonates with Elliot, and the way that Rami portrays it. He asks those questions. Even if the script doesn’t have everything, Rami then thinks about it. He takes the time to dissect it and says, ‘Well, how would somebody with that disorder walk, how would someone with that disorder walk across the room?’

That’s not on the page, that’s something that Rami then researches on his own. And he also talks to the consultant. Then he gets that behavioral detail in there as well. Because authenticity is such a priority, it really just kind of all comes together from everyone taking a deep dive into their own respective department and figuring out that research. 

You portray a lot of his memory problems through hallucinations or visions and dreamlike sequences. Will we see more of these kinds of sequences in season three?

Yes, that’s sort of the rhythm of the show. I liken it to when you’re standing very close to a painting and you think you’re seeing one thing, and then you take a step back and you’re seeing a bigger picture. Then you take another step back and you’re seeing an even bigger picture. Every time you take that step the story gets reframed in a way.

That’s the way that I think we tell our story. There is a linear story, but as we fill in the details of the past, the present starts to get reframed. So we have this circular logic to our storytelling.

For example in the first season, you are following this relationship between Elliot and Darlene, and then once we reveal the past content of that relationship, everything before it gets reframed. So yes, that’s definitely going to be a device that we use moving forward.

It’s interesting that the audience doesn’t really know if what we’re seeing is real or simply Elliot’s perception of reality. Is Elliot’s perception of reality a metaphor for a current social and political environment?

Yes. I don’t think we intentionally do that, but because I bring so much of who I am, and how I feel about the world, and my worldview into the show, and I encourage the other writers in the writers’ room to do the same thing, it can’t help not be. These are the issues that are important to us.

We always talk about the show as almost being a period piece­­—almost—of 2015. Because this show still lives in that year, yes of course it is going to include the moral relativism of the world, and this sort of contradiction of truth and reality that we’re seeing now. That’s all sort of incorporated into the theme of the show.

Elliot makes his biggest game-changing decisions while not under the influence of either street drugs or prescription meds. Is this also a social statement?

Again, I don’t know if we make social statements. I don’t feel like it’s that direct, but we definitely include our own worldview.

When we make choices like that, we really first come from a place of character. We come from a place where we ask, “Is this the truth for Elliot?” And then we take a step back and ask, “What are we saying in general?” Because obviously TV is a mass entertainment form, and we know that in every episode we have a theme and we always want to speak to that. So yes, every decision we make, we always try to factor that in. It ultimately always comes down to a question of “Are we being honest in terms of Elliot’s emotional training?”

I noticed that Elliot’s disorder directly contributes or correlates to other characters’ deaths. How is he being impacted by other characters’ deaths?

I think Elliot is a very internal guy. He often doesn’t speak much, but then says a lot in his mind. Which is the contrast, and the way we use the voiceover: he is very verbose and open to us, who he considers as friends, but to others—to the outside world—he holds everything in internally.

Literally, season two is about that war within. That’s where most of the action in Elliot’s storyline took place, because we wanted to kind of underline that point. Elliot, the person he is to the outside world, is not the same Elliot that is living in this chaos within himself.

So these deaths are obviously impacting him, but in a very internal way; he’s internalizing all of that and that will reach a boiling point. That’s what this series is all about: how much of this can Elliot take on? How much of the consequences of his actions can he keep internalizing?

If the first season focuses on Elliot’s awareness and season two is the internal battle, then the third season is full-on disintegration.

Let’s look at some of the other characters in the show. Elliot’s sister Darlene  remembers their mother, and not their father being abusive. So their stories are completely different.

You’re right to see that contradiction, where her interpretation of the past is very different than Elliot’s.

That’s where we play a lot with memory. Elliot obviously has those issues where he is repressing both people and whole swaths of time. Again, this circular storytelling that we’ve embraced, is the reflection of how Elliot starts to remember things. As those pieces come in, you’ll start to see that the present storyline will continually be reframed because of the information we learn.

In season two, it seems that Darlene has grown up. How has her increase in commitment to her cause spawned that growth?

Darlene has her own sets of issues. I always say that the first season was really getting into Elliot’s head. The second season is about getting into everyone else’s.

Darlene has her own demons, and her own path that we have just started to scratch the surface of. It led to her being a murderer, and the way that Carly (Chaikin) plays that is in the moment after. As you look into her eyes, you ask, “Is that who she is, or is that not?” Is she playing a part, or is she really this way deep down?

The FBI agent Dominique DiPierro (played by Grace Gummer) suffers some serious internal injuries as well as physical injuries during the course of the show. What will motivate her to keep working?

I’ve always looked at Dom as sort of the flip side of Elliot. Whereas Elliot has weaponized his loneliness to essentially take down the economic order, Dom on the other hand uses her loneliness as a way to dedicate her whole life to law enforcement and to bring about justice. Those are the two polar opposites.

Grace, who brilliantly plays Dom, kind of speaks to that in the finale of season two, when she tells Darlene that she doesn’t necessarily think that she is a good detective, but the only reason that she’s gotten that far is because she has no life. She has too much time on her hands, and she has dedicated all of her time to it.

I think that’s what makes that character so special. There is a little lack of self-awareness about how good she is, but on the other hand she makes a good point about herself: she does have that flaw and uses it as strength.

The characters are so deep, so ‘flesh and blood’, that it seems like you’ve been working on them for years. Is that correct?

Well, not necessarily pen to paper. In writing anything, there’s always that gestation period where you’re just thinking. I actually think that most of writing is thinking.

So I’ve been thinking about it for years. I would say that I’ve had it in the back of my head since I was in college. It starts with just that inkling, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to tell a story about these people?’ It grows as other details come at you. Then you hit the monsoon of details, and it finally kind of translates to enough excitement for you to get on the laptop and say “I have to write this.”

So yes, in that way it’s probably been 20 years. Pen to paper, once I got to that point, and once I allowed all the forces over those years to sort of coalesce and come together and motivate me, then it just took a few months to actually write it.

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