The two Black Mirror episodes that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September—“San Junipero” and “Nosedive”—are unexpected in that their endings don’t make us feel too terrible about humanity. One might even go so far as to suggest that they are somewhat heartwarming. But just before the The A.V. Club sat down with creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones in Canada, we watched the episode “Shut Up And Dance.” That installment proved that the British series has not completely abandoned its dark soul as it made the jump from Channel 4 to Netflix. Yes, Black Mirror is still in the nightmare business.
Brooker and Jones enlisted a bevy of eclectic talent for the new season, which consists of six episodes that span a range of styles despite all hinging on anxieties of the digital age. “Nosedive,” a satire about the perils of our hunger for social media “likes,” has Atonement director Joe Wright behind the camera, Jurassic World’s Bryce Dallas Howard as its star, and Parks And Recreation’s Mike Schur and Rashida Jones attached to the screenplay. Elsewhere, notable names from both film (Belle’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw, 22 Jump Street’s Wyatt Russell) and TV (Halt And Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis, Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald) pop up. Brooker and Jones spoke with The A.V. Club about putting their teams together and what it means when they hear something described as “Black Mirror-y.”
The A.V. Club: What did having this season at Netflix do for you? How did it change your process and your way of making the show?
Charlie Brooker: In a way it didn’t. One way it did slightly change things was the first script I wrote was the episode “San Junipero.” Because I’d seen some people going, “All right, they’ve gone to Netflix and it will all get very Americanized,” and I thought, right, it’d be funny to fuck with those people by setting one in California. That’s probably pretty much the only difference. Certainly it’s more global generally.
Annabel Jones: Yes, it’s certainly liberating in the fact that if we were doing it for a British network you’d need a very compelling, strong reason for it not to be set in Britain. But even when we have set them in America this season, it’s always got to feel earned, I think. It’s got to feel there’s a reason behind why we’ve done that.
CB: Our shorthand was to think of each one as a different genre piece. We’ve got a police procedural, and we’ve got a horror romp. “Nosedive” I’d say is a social satire, “San Junipero” is a coming-of-age story, “Shut Up And Dance” is nasty, and “Men Against Fire” is a war tale.
AVC: I watched “Shut Up And Dance” this morning and it certainly is…
CB: A nice way to start your day!
AVC: I actually watched “San Junipero” and “Nosedive” first because I knew those were what was screening here. “San Junipero” especially is more optimistic. What inspired you to take that direction with it?
CB: That’s sort of the way the story went. When sitting down to write that, in a way I was thinking, “Okay, I want to slightly confound expectations of what a Black Mirror story is.” Hence, it opens in California in 1987 so that people go, “Okay, I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting someone to be frowning on an iPhone,” which is how most of the other episodes open. It was partly that I was trying to confound expectations. But what it’s grappling with or what’s going on in that story is not necessarily that entirely optimistic. I’m not like the Unabomber. I’m not some anti-technology person. I think it’s often how people would assume that if they don’t know me. Whereas in Britain people might know me more for my comedy writing background, things like that. And I’m known as being a massive dweeb who’s into video games and so on.
AJ: And as you say, even though I think the ending is bittersweet, the idea of it is profoundly unsettling. The idea is mind blowing, no pun intended. That prospect is life changing. Your whole perception about mortality—again, spoiler…
AVC: It also has a romance that has a nice ending. It made me think of “Be Right Back,” which is also directed by Owen Harris. I was sobbing at the end of both of them, but for different reasons.
CB: Mission accomplished! We made you cry. Good.
AVC: Did you tap Owen for those episodes for similar reasons? For romantic elements?
CB: I think we thought, because he did such a terrific job with “Be Right Back,” he might respond well to the material in this, and he did.
AJ: And he loves music.
CB: He’s a big ’80s music fan. My God, the debates we had about music. There was a lot of back and forth and Spotify playlists being sent around…
AJ: But he’s a great character director. And that’s what you need on a piece like this, which is sort of quite heavy thematically or concept-wise—you need someone who is going to deliver.
CB: And he’s a big ’80s movie fan, so it sort of looks like a John Hughes movie.
AVC: There are a lot of names involved this season that people recognize. Rashida Jones and Mike Schur wrote “Nosedive.” Dan Trachtenberg just got huge thanks to 10 Cloverfield Lane. How did you build that? Were people coming to you and saying, “I have an idea, please let me do this?”
CB: We always have the ideas. We sort of keep them. It’s sort of a mix of people—some people that we reached out to and some people that slightly came to us, I think?
AJ: I think one of the many advantages of being with Netflix is they’re very well connected and they know everyone. So they’ve often said, “Did you know someone is a fan?” and it’s like, “Oh my God, that’s incredibly flattering,” and so you just approach people gingerly and say, “Would you be interested in this?” and then they are.
CB: We’ve got this video game-themed idea and I’d known [that Trachtenberg] did this short film called Portal. He’s a big games person. 10 Cloverfield Lane is very suspenseful, and that particular episode is kind of a horror suspense story with a gaming theme. We were like, “Are we really going to get him?” I guess it’s a pretty attractive gig in a way for a director because you get a lot more leeway and freedom than you would on a serialized show. You can cast it, set the look, the tone, everything’s different.
AJ: And maybe more freedom that with a studio as well.
CB: Because it’s just us fucking idiots going, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
AVC: What about bringing Rashida Jones and Mike Schur on? That’s one of the more surprising creative teams.
CB: Originally, I think we initially figured [that episode] would be more comedic than it ended up being. It’s kind of got a weird serenity to it. It’s creepy. I knew Rashida was a fan of the show. We’d be talking before. We reached out to her and she put us in touch with Mike Schur. We all started talking on the phone or on Skype, and it just sort of congealed in that way.
AVC: Do you map out the whole season and the stories and then go find who you’re going to put on the projects?
CB: Sort of.
AJ: You’ve got to curate the season, and you want to make sure there’s enough variety and change of tone in the six, so we have a vague idea of what those six are going to be and then Charlie’s tasked with writing them—or most of the scripts.
CB: It is a bit like sequencing an album or something like that. It’s like thinking, “There’s some optimism there, that’s a jet-black one.” There’s a real mix of absence of hope, chinks of light.
AVC: Charlie, when there are episodes when you conceive a story but don’t write, are you overseeing?
CB: Oh yeah. Certainly the story stuff, and then from beyond that point you just meddle. There’s constant, nonstop meddling. I suppose the thing that maybe people don’t realize is that we get involved in every single aspect. For instance, in “Nosedive,” the design of the phones and the screens—I get really obsessive about that sort of thing so I’m constantly getting involved in all of that.
AVC: Has Netflix changed at all the way you cast the show? One of the interesting things, at least from an American perspective, about coming to the series a little bit later is some actors have certainly blown up since you cast them…
CB: Like Domhnall Gleeson or Hayley Atwell…
AJ: It’s all down to us.
AVC: Now that there’s more of a worldwide hype, has that changed how you look at the casting process in terms of getting people like Bryce Dallas Howard, who’s been in some major blockbusters in recent years?
AJ: Bryce also does a lot of smaller indie movies as well. You just want it all to be authentic. Every detail has to be right, so you want your actor—I know it’s such a cliché thing to say—but you want your actor to be the right person for the role, otherwise the whole thing doesn’t feel credible. It’s amazing to have Bryce on the film, absolutely honored, but she nails it. You absolutely understand her plight. You sense her insecurity, but at the same time to want to shake her and say, “Live your life.” But I think there’s a range of actors—there are some maybe more high-profile ones and there are some up-and-comers like lovely Alex Lawther in “Shut Up And Dance.” It’s always about finding the right cast. And Jina Jay, our casting director, just has impeccable taste, so we’ve got a good team of people.
AVC: How did you get Joe Wright to direct “Nosedive,” and why did you see that episode as being a good one for him?
CB: Well, he just responded to the idea. What happens often is the script is written and once the director comes on board you have lots of conversations and it mutates again. He brought on a whole kind of visual layer and style that I don’t think we’d anticipated at all at the scripting stage: The sort of artistry of it, the look of it, the feel of that world. We’d have conversations about Truman Show or Pleasantville—[having] a slight eerie serenity to things. He brought a tone and a style to it that is incredible, I think. There’s a cheerful sadness to it, and a lot of that is also in Max Richter’s score, and I think Joe had sort of seen that in his head quite early on. You obviously want all the episodes to be idiosyncratic and have their own personality. That’s probably happened more in this season than it has maybe in previous ones. There’s a real variety of looks and feels, so I mean, whereas you can see “Shut Up And Dance” is quite kitchen sink and grimy and “Nosedive” is sort of beautiful and “San Junipero” is sort of epic ’80s, and that’s across the board with the other stories we’ve got as well.
AJ: And you can do that in a run of six without destabilizing the whole.
AVC: How did you settle on that pastel color scheme in “Nosedive?”
CB: It was all Joe I think really. I remember looking at it going, “That’s either going to be brilliant or weird. I don’t know.” It turned out luckily to be brilliant. I hadn’t conceived of that, and that’s fantastic when that happens. That’s exactly what you want to happen. Someone comes in with a whole new aspect that hadn’t occurred to you.
AVC: I actually already had a debate about the ending of “Nosedive.” I found it, again, sort of optimistic.
CB: Anytime people are screaming “fuck you” and it’s a good thing, that’s optimistic.
AVC: How has changing technology evolved your thoughts about storytelling?
CB: When we first thought of the show we really wanted to do a sort of “what if” show of weird and wacky ideas. The fact that technology has swept in it means we take things that would have struck us as miraculous five years ago for granted. Like Pokémon Go would have been insane, and now it’s just like, “Oh, okay.” Or a Snapchat filter that [makes you] fucking look like a rabbit—that was like a hallucination. That would have been impossible a few years ago. Because we have that acceptance of technology as being a miracle worker, it means that it takes the place of the supernatural in our stories. So if, back in the ’50s, if you were writing these stories it would have been the monkey’s paw or aliens come down, someone finds a magic whistle or whatever, but now you can just have an app.
We did this show a few years ago in Britain—it was a comedy show—and for part of it we mocked up a promo video for a phone that allows you to call through time, and we showed it to members of the public and asked them about it and a surprisingly large number of them just took that for granted, like went, “Okay, oh that’s clever” because you’re sort of used to impossible things now, so I guess that’s partly it. I’m actually quite pro-technology, but I’m a worrier, so I like to envision worst-case scenarios.
AVC: How do developments that pop up—like those Snapchat filters—affect your storytelling?
CB: We try not to think about that. Often it’s a useful springboard, but if we sit there and try to think of an issue or a particular technology, it often doesn’t quite gel. Usually where the ideas come from is that we’ll be discussing something and I’ll have an idea that makes me really laugh and makes you go, “Oh, my God, that’s horrible.” And that’s when we know we’re in the right ballpark.
AVC: “Nosedive” feels like a more pointed commentary about specific technologies.
AJ: Interestingly, I think that sometimes the technology—I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant—the technology is catching up with us. We tend to be a few steps ahead, so you had the idea for “Nosedive” years ago, before even Uber was out.
CB: Yeah, originally there was a different idea where it was basically Brewster’s Millions. It was about a character who has to reduce their reputation to nil within 48 hours because of some terrible blackmail, and then when we thought about it we thought, it’s quite similar to “The National Anthem,” which is the prime minister and the pig episode, and also it’s quite one note if you do that because what do they do? They take a dump on the floor in public and then they do it again and again and it’s like, where do you go with that? It was weird because we’d been discussing that idea, and then a couple years later I started using Uber and I’m like, hang on, this is like that.
AJ: And if you can do that for a car…
CB: So basically what we’re saying is we should be copyrighting these things and trying to make money.
AJ: The Dan Trachtenberg episode is so much a more horrific exaggeration of Pokémon Go. It is that writ large, so when Pokémon Go comes out you think, “Okay, that’s helpful,” because that’s in the ether.
CB: It’s basically an augmented reality game that we’ve got going on.
AJ: So, for some people, that sort of eases us into the story, that knowledge…
CB: It’s a lubricant. Sorry, that sounded horrible. [Laughs.] You know what I mean, it greases the wheel.
AJ: It’s morning! I haven’t had my coffee yet. That word is not allowed before midday.
AVC: There are moments now when people can say, “Wow, that’s very Black Mirror-y.” Do you find that sort of helpful in terms drawing audiences in?
CB: It’s hard to know whether it draws people in…
AJ: But it’s free publicity, and how flattering is that to be in the lexicon?
CB: To be a phrase. I always used to say, “Well, that’s a bit Twilight Zone” or “that’s like something out of Hammer House Of Horror.” So no, it’s great if people are doing that. It’s also slightly terrifying in terms of what it says about the state of the world. So many people have said, “Oh, the Trump campaign, that’s kind of Black Mirror isn’t it?” It seems anything that’s basically fucked is Black Mirror, which is fine by us.
AVC: Well, the Trump campaign does evoke “Waldo.”
CB: Exactly, which feels increasingly prescient if I look at that episode. At the time I was like, “I don’t know if I’m on to something here,” and then now…
AJ: Well, there were signs of it in the U.K.
CB: Boris Johnson was basically the model for “Waldo.”
AJ: He’s not on Trump’s scale…
CB: Although he has got mad blond hair, so they’ve got that in common. Hang on, I’ve lost the thread of what I was saying…
AVC: We were just talking about Black Mirror being used a term.
CB: I guess it’s because the show is drawing on what’s in the ether at the moment, so in that respect it’s always going to reflect what’s going on in the world. So that’s quite a clever trick we’ve managed to pull off. People are looking around at the world and going, “This is like that show.”
AJ: “That I haven’t seen!”
CB: “And I won’t ever watch!” [Laughs.]