“All the stuff that has our planes running and traffic lights going was designed by humans who, by their very nature, can make mistakes. And that’s what hackers are trying to exploit.”
On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, the writer/director/producer of “Mr. Robot,” Sam Esmail, talked about how his childhood geekery and inability to code led to his Emmy-winning USA series.
You can read some of the highlights from Kara’s interview with Sam at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Sam Esmail, the screenwriter, producer and director best known for creating the USA Network TV show and hit “Mr. Robot.” The show stars Rami Malek as a hacker and cyber vigilante who’s recruited by a mysterious anarchist to take down the company known as E-Corp. “Mr. Robot” was nominated for six Emmys in 2016 and in September it won two of them: Outstanding music composition for a series and outstanding lead actor for Rami Malek. Sam, welcome to Recode Decode.
Sam Esmail: Thank you, Kara.
So you’re the brains behind this fantastic show.
And the beauty.
And the beauty [laughs]. That’s amazing, you’re not in front of the camera.
[laughs] Yeah, I know, I’m shocked by that.
So I [was] told about it, I guess from NBC people, [who] said, “You’re going to love this show when it comes out.” This was way before it was happening, and they were getting ready to put it out there. Let me talk a little bit about the show first, about its implications and why you decided to do it. But first I want to talk about your background, because you’re a geek.
Total geek, yeah.
So why don’t we talk about your background. You’ve been in Hollywood for how long?
Well, technically, I don’t know what “being in Hollywood” is, because I went to film school and then came out here in about 2001.
What film school did you go to?
I went to NYU undergrad, then went to AFI for grad school.
All right, so good background.
That’s when I first came to Los Angeles. I graduated in about 2004 and struggled for a while, and then, around 2008 I wrote a screenplay that got on this thing called the Black List. That’s when I got an agent and manager and started getting jobs as a writer.
Right, so what was the screenplay?
You know, I never wanted to be a writer. I went to film school to direct. Purely, that was my goal, to direct films. When I graduated, I didn’t really find any material that excited me, and there was this real frustration at the time — it’s still a frustration with the Hollywood films. They were a lot of not-original ideas and a lot of derivative stuff. So I wrote this script called “Sequels, Remakes and Adaptations,” because it was sort of my way of opining [about] the Hollywood industry. It was a little bit about a struggling writer, etc. And I wrote it to direct it just as an independent film.
Something to get you excited.
Right. But then, the script took off on its own and it made the rounds and …
“Who is this guy?”
Yeah, exactly. Literally, the script opens with this sort of VO [voiceover] kind of blasting Hollywood and giving them the middle finger.
Which they love.
Yeah, that was the thing.
They love being insulted.
And they were like, “Oh my god, we love you,” and they brought me into all these meetings.
“You hate us, we love it!”
Yeah, exactly. And then, the irony of it was I kind of got stuck into the system, and I started getting pushed to write the new “Hangover” and these broad comedies, because it was kind of a satire. So I was pigeonholed as “the broad-comedy guy.” And it wasn’t anything that I wanted to do. So I struggled for a few years after that. And the other thing was, nobody wanted me to direct, not even my own scripts.
Right, they just liked your clever writing style.
Right. Because I wrote another script a year after, it also got on the Black List, and I got jobs out of that, but no one actually … I think there’s still this weird thing that writers can’t be directors, which is strange to me because I think the great thing about writers is [that] they’re storytellers, and that’s what you really need in a filmmaker. Sometimes I think the misconception is [that] directors just need to be very visual and it’s all about style and crazy angles and whatever, and not about the storytelling.
Anyway, so I kind of stopped writing, stopped taking jobs, and I decided to just write something that I know I’m going to direct, something small, on a more contained budget. And that’s when I wrote my first indie feature, “Comet.” And directed it, got that made.
So you had something.
Right, so I was announcing to the industry, “Okay, here it is. I’m a director, you can’t say I can’t direct anymore.” And then I was writing “Mr. Robot” while I was making it as a kind of follow-up feature. And then I got into trouble while I was writing it because it went on way too long. It was like 90 pages and not even barely through the first act.
So it was a TV series, not a movie.
So then I turned it into a TV show, yeah.
So go back further than that. You and I have talked before. You were interested in my book on AOL, which I thought was pretty interesting.
Yeah, which I read back when I was at NYU in the late ’90s.
I was fascinated.
So as a kid, were you a geek?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So you know, I had the Commodore 64.
Oh wow, you really are.
I would pirate games off of that with my friends. It’s weird, my fascination with tech was kind of combined with the fact that my parents would never pay for anything. It got me more involved, because I would have to find clever ways to get things for free.
Hacking. So you had a Commodore 64, which says a lot.
Yup, and then, reluctantly, I had a Mac, an Apple, but it wasn’t open. There wasn’t much you could do past the things that Apple wanted you to do. So then I got a Windows 31, which I thought was ugly. I remember feeling like, “This is just not as good as the Apple.” But you know what?
You can’t open the back of an Apple.
Exactly. So I could upgrade it more. And I got a modem pretty quickly, like in the early ’90s, and was on Prodigy. But honestly, I just started doing BBSs a lot, which for those who don’t know — I’m sure your crowd does know — [is] Bulletin Board Systems. So people would be running this at their house and you would dial into their house and then just chat or post a message. And that was cool.
Did you do it at school? Or was this just your hobby?
No, this was just at home. So I’d race home after school.
Where did you grow up?
In New Jersey.
New Jersey. So you’re sitting there in a New Jersey suburb hacking away.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then what happened was, the internet started coming around, and we’d start hearing about this internet where you could go anywhere, but it wasn’t open for commercial use, right? Again, Prodigy was a very closed network. And I think AOL had …
AOL was just starting.
Yeah, but again, a closed network — at the time, at least. So what we had to do was we went to the local college — I was 14 so I was in high school — we’d go to the local college, this is how terrible the security system was. You’d just say, “I’m a student,” they would give you an internet account and they didn’t think anything of it. So we just got a free internet account. You just had to have the balls to walk up to the person behind the desk and say, “Yeah, this is me,” and they’d ask you what your major was, something like that. And then you’d make up some bullshit and they’d give you the account.
And what did you do on the internet then? There was FTP — God, I can’t even remember.
So we would go in IRC [internet relay chat] a lot, and there would be …
There’s a chat service.
Yeah, a chat service. And the one that I remember was Olahav’s. It was in the Netherlands. And it was a popular one, I mean among Americans.
Where The Well was, I’m trying to …
Yeah, and so that was the thing we did because then you got to talk to people from all over the world. I was a nerd, so I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. The fact that you could just meet people and talk to them and not have to … You know, I’m socially awkward, and not have to deal with the stress of going up to somebody at a party, but now you’re hidden behind [a computer].
What did you talk about?
You just make friends. You just talk about what you do, where you’re from, you know. The thing that you would do a party, the thing that a normal person would do at a party. It was so much easier to do when you’re at a keyboard behind a screen. We were all sort of enamored by the idea that, “Wow, you’re in Minnesota and you’re on this thing talking to me, and I’m in New Jersey.” It was crazy.
And then we would, you know, if it got a little closer, we would snail mail each other pictures and letters. And that’s when things could get serious. My friends would make girlfriends, you know. And it was like, “Wow, okay, cool. Oh wow, she sent you pictures.”
So why didn’t you go into tech? Why did you go into filmmaking?
I tried. I took Pascal, and I was terrible. And then, when I went to NYU, I minored in computer science. I just couldn’t code. I just didn’t have the patience for it. I remember I could come up with ideas …
Right, for programs.
And I did. I came up with an idea and I started an internet company.
It was called Oogle.
No, it was actually called Portal Vision. We raised like $6 million.
Oh, so you were a startup guy.
Yeah, I was. And I was the president and CTO.
What did Portal Vision do? It sounds like a porn situation.
No, although that’s where the real money happened. But no, what happened was this is the late ’90s, AOL was — obviously, you know this —
Yes. Yes, I do.
— Huge. They were the biggest company. I remember at the time everyone was like, “That’s it, they won.” Like there’s no way you could [beat them]. Sort of the irony. I think people felt the same way about Yahoo. But AOL was the one and they had just bought …
Well, no. This is before. So they had just bought Netscape.
And that was like, okay, game over, they’ve taken over. And you know, Microsoft’s probably the other one.
Yeah, MSN and Internet Explorer. And so that was the other kind of … But AOL as a service provider was unparalleled. Everybody was just on AOL because of that client-based software. And if you remember the other ISPs, like Earthlink and Mindspring, they had these shitty dialers that was kind of crappy and confusing to work. And then you’d get in, and then you’d have to launch another client for your mail and then set that up with your SNTP server. And you know, I just saw people struggling.
AOL’s marketing slogan was, “So easy to use, no wonder it’s number one.” And it was.
Right, and the thing about it was, you logged in on the client software, the email would pop up, your instant messenger would pop up. Everything would be right there, and you could browse. And it was like a one-stop shop.
So my idea was to build that software called Portalvision and then sell it, license it to Mindspring, to Earthlink, to AT&T. The thing that I obviously didn’t anticipate, and this is why I’m probably bad at this, is that broadband came about, and that all went away. Including the unstoppable AOL, they kind of went down with that. And, you know, 2000 hit, and there was the big bust.
So what’d you do with the $6 million? What happened to it?
Well, like every other startup, we lost it. I mean, we developed the software, we made it.
So you’re done with Portalvision, now you’re in school. You did this in school.
So yeah, I did this in between NYU. I went to Dartmouth briefly, and I didn’t last there very long.
You don’t seem like a Dartmouth guy.
Not quite douchey enough.
You don’t play lacrosse, sorry. Oh, sorry, Dartmouth people.
Yeah, that is a prerequisite, yeah. And then I was like, you know what, I’m going to go back to my passion. Because my first first passion, even as a kid at 5, it was movies. And it was something that I remember: When I went into computers, I was like, “Well, this is the thing I’ll do now to make a lot of money, but movies will be the ultimate goal.” So when I couldn’t even do that, I went back, and went to AFI, and that’s when I went back to film school.
So we’re going to talk a little bit about how developed “Mr. Robot.” We talked about the before. In a lot of ways, you’re combining your love of tech with your love of movies or films.
So yeah, it’s funny, because I heard your intro there and you talked about “Hackers,” which is 100 percent accurate. Well, that’s the thing. So being a tech nerd and being in the culture, my friends were also kind of obsessed with the same thing. We’d go see those movies. We’d see “The Net,” we’d see …
Oh, “The Net.” Remember? Uch, terrible.
With Sandra Bullock, right?
Yeah, Sandra Bullock.
And there was Orion, with the guy who was married to Reese Witherspoon, that guy. He had one. A Bill Gates-like character. There were a zillion of ’em.
And the “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” There were all these [movies], they just never … When they got to the hacking, it was like they always defaulted to this weird thing about CGI 1s and 0s flying at you, and it was just silly. And even when the movies tried to be serious — there was “Swordfish” and “Strange Days” — it still always fell flat. And to me, I always felt like the culture was incredibly interesting, why not just represent it authentically? So it was always in the back of my head.
Because Hollywood is terrified of tech people.
It’s bizarre. I don’t get it.
Yeah, everyone’s got their high-school persona, and that persona is a nerd who’s just sitting there hacking away in the night. Well, look at what Donald Trump just did on the stage. A 400-pound guy, who now I feel sorry for his email accounts right now.
I really want to send him a Season 1 DVD just to be like, “they’re not really 400 pounds.”
No, not at all.
All right, we’re talking to Sam Esmail, he is the creator, director — everything?
Well, director, yeah, writer, executive producer.
The man in charge of “Mr. Robot.”
There you go.
And when we get back we’re going to talk about “Mr. Robot” and its very dark depiction of cyberspace.
We’re here with Sam Esmail. What [nationality] is that?
Egyptian, I love that name, it’s fantastic.
Do people call you Es-mail? Your email? Fan email?
Yeah, that’s actually how I pronounce it.
How do you pronounce it?
Yeah, like S and then the mail.
I’m just teasing you. So how did [“Mr. Robot”] get to the screen? You had written too much and you decided to turn it into a TV show? How did it get to the screen? Because it’s fantastically dark in that way. But, you know, now TV shows are obviously the place where all this incredible creativity is going on. Talk to me about how that happened.
Well, it’s weird, because it was all fortuitous. I didn’t know that it was going to be a TV show. Again, I really wrote it as a follow-up feature. So when it went really long, I thought I was in a lot of trouble. I didn’t know how to pare it down to 120-page script.
And at the time, my manager, he works at a company called Anonymous Content, and they had just released “True Detective.” And I loved it. I looked at it and I was like, “Wow, this is really cinematic.” Because again, directing was my first and foremost goal, so to me that was really important.
A movie-like television show.
Exactly. So I was like, “Why not? Let’s change this over.” So I had 90 pages, I literally lopped off that last 30, it was a 60-page pilot. Found a good ending to it. And then we went through the process of taking it out to all the different networks, and you know, at the time USA was kind of going through a reinvention process. I mean, honestly, if it wasn’t for them and it wasn’t for this weird timing where they really needed something …
Right, the era of Netflix, like doing “House of Cards.”
Yeah, and USA was like, “We want to get into that game.” And I had this crazy script and it was just kind of, you know, that fortuitous [thing].
What was the impetus for you when you were writing it? What were you trying to do there?
There were three things. Initially, it was, I just need to write something about the hacker culture and tech culture that I didn’t think was being represented. So that was in the back of my head for years, since I was 14 and I was like, “Oh, that will be a great movie. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m going to come up with the idea.”
I always start with characters, so I started thinking about the character of Elliott. And then 2008 happened, the financial crisis. And I was like, “Oh, it’s gotta be …” And you know, Anonymous, the hacking group, had just come out. And LulzSec. So I was like, “Okay, this is kind of like the sort of group that Elliott might be involved in or might partake in.”
And then the 2008 financial crisis happened. I was like, “Okay, this is awesome, it’s going to be an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment character who’s angry and who wants to take down the system.” And then I cooled off a little bit because I was like, “Who wants to hear a guy rant about that for hours and hours?” I thought that would get a little grating. And there wasn’t a humanity to it. So I went away from that. It stayed in there, but the character wasn’t complete yet.
And then the Arab Spring happened and, you know, I’m Egyptian, so I have a lot of family out there, a lot of cousins. I went out there about nine months after the revolution happened to just talk to my cousins, who were young, who were online, who were part of that whole movement, using technology and honestly just channeling that anger that they had against their country, against the way their society was being run, in a really positive way. That was the missing piece. That was the thing that really moved me.
Right, it’s not all nihilistic.
Exactly. Even though anger tends to have this negative connotation, there can be a positive part of it. So that’s when I sat down and I was like, “Okay, I figured it out. This is [it].”
That film “Darkly,” it’s got a lot of darkness around the edges. Lots and lots of TV shows are doing this now, and actually after yours, which is kind of interesting, I guess. “House of Cards,” same thing. You’re saying it’s a hopeful note.
Yeah, I mean, the show isn’t about nihilism. I actually don’t find that that interesting. I think that can be an aspect of it. There can be, from hopelessness, though — it’s that old clichéd quote: “it’s darkest before the dawn.” I think we can get to that point and I think a lot of people can feel that, especially now, this current election, you can feel, “wow, we’re really kind of letting go now, this is really the darkest our society has ever been.”
But for me the interesting part is, “well, what are you going to do about it?” And here is a guy who is actively trying to make a difference.
It’s interesting, because a lot of things you talk about then became something that was real. Encryption, spying, hacking. We all knew it was there, but now it’s ever-present.
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s not as if we’re predicting anything.
It seems like it, though.
I know it does, but I think honestly it’s there, it’s just not talked about. Even to this day, the encryption debate, I don’t know if people completely get what the consequences of that is. The fact that the FBI wants a back door to everything. Are we really having a real public conversation about that? I don’t know if we’re quite there yet. But I love the fact that the show to some degree is kind of sparking that conversation.
And it’s also topical, it really is. I mean, the Sony hack, the Russians now, the Democratic National Committee hack, WikiLeaks.
Yeah, it’s a lot of power that these hackers have, and I think honestly, in a really kind of morbid way, a lot of those news events help realize that people used to think guys on keyboards or girls on keyboards, well, “what are the stakes there? That’s not exciting.” Well, with these news events, you can see the stakes. These people can influence elections, take down banks, take down Sony, take down a huge corporation.
I think that they only show that they’re petty people. That was what we got out of there, right?
They’re nasty, petty people. We thought they were and now we know they are. Same thing with the DNC.
What’s weird is that the hacks isn’t about them taking down the system, right? It’s exposing human flaws.
Although you could say, “who knows if they’re [behind] the banking crisis.” I always think, whenever I see something happen, like, “Oh, an airplane,” I’m like, “Oh, there was a hacker.” I think everything was a hacker at this point. And I think I might be right, in some way.
It could potentially, yeah.
So I think one of the things is there’s one thing of exposing people’s emails or what Julian Assange is doing at WikiLeaks. That’s one thing, that’s just embarrassing people essentially, with their own language. The other part is systems. The idea of ruining systems, either infrastructure or banking or anything that has real implications, and I think that’s where you’re delving [into], actually.
It’s interesting, because the whole great thing about the hacker mentality, and something that I don’t think movies completely understood, it’s finding the flaw, whether that’s the flaw in the person — finding embarrassing emails — or that’s the flaw in the system, which is designed by a person. And that’s the whole great thing. All the stuff that has our planes running and traffic lights going was designed by humans who, by their very nature, can make mistakes. And that’s what hackers are trying to exploit.
Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to talk about that in the next section, because AI changes that entire thing.
Right, because now that system is developed by systems.
Right, exactly. But let’s talk about the show. Where do you go with it from there? When you have this sort of free-floating anger, this paranoia, there’s also elements of greed and anarchy — where do you go from there?
So, remember that I initially thought of it as a feature. When I was sitting down and writing it as a feature, I did have an end goal in mind. And honestly the movie — I always say the movie — or the show, at this point, it’s not about hacking, it’s about hackers. So at the end of the day, this is going to be about Elliott’s emotional journey. We started him at a certain place and the ending will be about that kind of character arc where Elliott’s going to grow and change. That’s the end goal, without spoiling too much.
All right, but does he have to be improved on? I mean, that’s the one thing — look at “Breaking Bad,” that didn’t end so well.
Right, well, it’s not “improved.” I wouldn’t use that word. I’d say “changed.”
Hollywood likes to do the improved, you know what I mean? It’s the moment of like, “Ah.”
Yeah, that’s not that interesting.
Yeah, no, not at all.
But I do think he should change and he will, yeah.
So talk about that actor, because he seems to embody it perfectly.
Yeah. He’s not a 400-pound geek.
No, he’s not.
What an idiotic thing to say.
Really. I mean, just really old-fashioned way of thinking.
Well, that’s what a bully would think.
I do feel bad for his emails. Soon we will know everything we want to know about Donald Trump, but go ahead.
Is that true?
No, I just think you don’t say something like that without engendering some sort of retaliation.
It seems like they will. Why wouldn’t they?
No, no, it’s true.
They were pretty pissed in a lot of the message boards and stuff.
Yeah, I would imagine so. I mean what a … yeah, anyway. So Rami.
So here’s the thing. We auditioned, I’d say, over a hundred guys. And I thought we were in real trouble. I actually was contemplating just not doing the show, because we weren’t finding the right guy. And by the way, the guys that were coming in were great, I mean really good actors, they came in and had an interesting take, but none of it felt right, and I thought we were kind of done. And then Rami came in and he totally transformed the character.
How so? What was it about him?
Well, he added the warmth. The thing that I kept fearing about the whole [thing] — look, a guy who’s going to rant and rave about society and how it needs to change, and who has mental illness and is a drug addict? There are all these things to not like about this person and not want to spend time with this person, more than anything. It takes a really precise take on that to add that warmth, to add that, “Wait a minute, this is all happening because he’s in a lot of pain.” And there’s a forgiveness that you can have as an audience member when someone performs it like that. But that is such a fine target to hit.
Yeah, he does it beautifully.
And not only does he hit it, he’s not trying. It’s effortless. And when I saw that, I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute, not only can he do this, but I can add things and layers and complexities to it and push him in moral boundaries, and he’s going to be able to pull it off because he’s got that center.”
And the other characters, the female characters for example?
I got really lucky. I talked to a lot of show runners. Because I had never done TV before, so I got a lot of advice, and from the stories, I hear it’s tough doing a show — you’re working with these actors for years — to have that right chemistry and to have everyone come in with a good attitude every season, year in, year out. And I’ve only done two seasons, but I got to say, my cast is incredible.
And Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, Stephanie Corneliussen, I mean, and now Grace Gummer came on in the second season, just brilliant, brilliant actresses, all doing very different things and none of them really playing a love interest. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it’s kind of unusual for a female protagonist to not have that.
I think Christian Slater’s his love interest.
Well, there you go. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
In a different —
God, Christian Slater, amazing.
Yeah, how did you pick him? He’s had such an unusual career.
Yeah, well as a kid …
He was the big hit, right?
I mean, “Pump Up the Volume?”
“Heathers,” I loved. “True Romance,” you know. But “Pump Up the Volume,” he was a hacker. He was kind of a hacker. He was hacking the radio waves. And that spirit, I always tell him — because I didn’t write this with him in mind, but subconsciously I must have — because that character in “Pump Up the Volume,” and that character in “Heathers,” is the “Mr. Robot” character. Whether I want to admit it or not, subconsciously, it was there.
How did he come on? How did you get him on?
So we’re doing the whole auditioning process for “Mr. Robot,” and my casting director, Susie Farris, who’s amazing, she kept giving me lists of names. And there were the kind of people with the bigger names, and people with not-so-big names. And Christian was always on the list of the people with the big names, and I was like, you know, I saw Christian’s name and it kept coming up. I was like, “This guy … wait a minute, he’s perfect.”
So then I was like, “Let’s sit down with him, let’s talk to him.” And I talked to him and then — this is how I knew — one of the first questions he asked, he just read the pilot, he didn’t know anything else about the show, he knew the secret of Mr. Robot right away. And that was one of the first questions he asked me. And I was like, “Well, if I answer it now, he’s got to be my guy.” So I answered it. I was like, “Now that I’ve answered, you are my Mr. Robot, because you can’t be walking around knowing the big secret.”
All right, we’re talking with Sam Esmail, who is the creator and director and writer for “Mr. Robot.” When we get back, we’re going to talk about how tech has impacted entertainment. Sam is a hacker himself, I guess.
A really bad one.
A bad hacker, and when we get back we’ll talk about that and more.
We’re here with Sam Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot,” which is a television show about hackers, I guess. That’s the simplest way to put it, but it’s about society and how we’re changing, and it uses tech as a vehicle to do that. Can you talk a little bit about how you look at tech, and how Hollywood looks at tech? Because it’s always been such a fraught relationship. And you’re right, depictions have been bad. It’s yours and “Silicon Valley,” which is a mockumentary, essentially.
Yeah, yeah. I mean Hollywood, I think they don’t understand it and they don’t think that there’s any drama in it. Because I remember being told, “It’s not going to be exciting watching people on keyboards. It’s just not. It’s never going to be interesting and that’s why we have to force all this other stuff.” I haven’t seen “Snowden,” but I saw the trailer.
I just saw it this weekend.
Well, what did you think?
It’s a lot of typing. No, it’s good. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful movie, he’s a great filmmaker.
Is it? Okay, great. Because I love Oliver Stone.
Yeah, it’s very character driven.
I get worried sometimes, because I don’t want them to go down that road of, “We’ll just gloss over.” Because again, hacking is a lot more psychological than that. And if they could get over their hump of, “It’s too obtuse and audiences won’t understand it unless we do this weird graphical thing.”
Or else it’s just evil. Right?
Right. That’s the other thing.
I was watching “Westworld” and it’s again, technology — although it’s humanity in that particular series. But go ahead.
So to me, I feel like obviously, as younger writer/directors come up and they kind of understand it and then want to represent it more authentically, hopefully that mindset will change in Hollywood. Because in terms of just the old-fashioned thing, and then we talked about Donald Trump, those rules just don’t apply anymore. There aren’t 400-pound guys who are devilishly sitting behind a keyboard wanting to change the traffic lights, you know?
I think a lot of it came from the original Matthew Broderick movie, “War Games.” You know what I mean? That really had an impact on people of how the hacking culture [worked]. To me that was the biggest success, I guess.
Well, “Sneakers.” Although I don’t know if “Sneakers” …
With Robert Redford.
But that’s a great movie.
It is a great movie.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But one of the things that is important to me is that technology is also a situation that’s ruining their business. The Rubicon has been crossed. People are streaming on phones. Amazon and Netflix are disrupting their business incredibly, so there’s a real fear of the technology, too.
It’s the fear that’s going to kill them, not the technology. Look at Netflix. They’ve pounced on that. They’ve taken that as an opportunity to say, “Well, if no one else wants to embrace the technology, if no one else wants to say ‘hey, no, this isn’t something to be scared of but an opportunity to expand and offer entertainment in a way that wasn’t offered before,’ then we’ll do it.”
And they’re doing it really well. And I think that’s the thing. Even the way films are made right now, they’re talked about as universes, franchises, right? So it’s not just about one movie anymore, it’s about how many movies can you make off that one movie, and how many toys can you make and how many video games. You know, it’s now this whole kind of universe.
See, to me, it’s still an antiquated way of thinking. Because when you watch all movies … I think I watched “Mr. Robot” on my phone, the whole time. How do you, as a creator, how do you think about that? Are there creators like you? You’re obviously illuminated about technology. But do they understand what’s happening? When Google becomes a studio, when Facebook becomes critically important to distribution of entertainment.
I don’t know if they do. And this is the worrisome part. For example, we’re doing a book, but the book is not a marketing opportunity, the book is its own standalone thing, and it’s an interactive thing. It’s not just a book you read, there’s layers to it. A little bit like that J.J. Abrams book “S.” So that’s a thing.
And then we had a mobile game that we released, which is awesome and that is a story. So it’s not just a game that you play and again, not just a marketing fodder for the show, it’s its own story and all these little pieces you can embrace. That’s sort of the universe-building, that’s the world-building of the future. That’s why when/if Google becomes a studio, or Facebook becomes a studio … Oh, we also did a VR film, which is also another story that’s kind of like in between a couple episodes.
That would [be] Facebook and Google, yeah, in that case.
So that when you set out to tell a story, you’re not telling just one linear story from beginning to end as a TV show or a movie, you’re now embracing all the different avenues [where] people can consume storytelling.
Is the entertainment industry intelligent enough to embrace this in that way? I mean, they do it in pieces, but it seems so grudging. I come down here and they’re like, “Well, television is bigger than ever.” I go, “Nobody’s watching television.” It’s like they’re watching things on screens. It’s just like almost they wish it was done, but it’s not.
It’s weird. It’s the marketing. They look at all that other stuff as marketing. “Oh we’ll do a little VR thing and it’ll just be, like, you can walk around Mars, and that’ll get them to watch ‘The Martian,’” or whatever. I think that’s where it needs to evolve, where they’re like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t just marketing, this is new.”
“This is the thing.”
“This is what we’re doing.” You know? And it all has to make sense. And it all starts from the beginning and starts from the creator, the writer, the director, whoever. The minute it starts being pushed away and it’s like, “No, we still gotta service the one big thing,” that’s going to take a lot of time.
And it’ll just be the economics of it. Eventually, someone’s going to come up with a big movie or whatever it is, a big thing, a big universe, and they’re going to start it from the beginning and they’re going to utilize every function, every screen, and it’s going to be an entire experience and it’s going to prove the model.
Can you imagine making a full VR experience, and that’s the thing? Could you imagine making [that]?
I don’t really want to call it a show, I don’t know what to call it.
I don’t know what to call it either. VR. Yeah, I absolutely would. But I don’t think that’s an answer either. The idea is, you’re connecting all of these things into one experience, into one story. One storytelling universe, if you want to call it that. And I’m not just talking about sequels and prequels and whatever. I’m talking about legitimately saying, “No, you will deepen your experience of the characters, of the world, by going into these other places.”
Do you like the concept of dumping the whole season at once?
Yes, I love it.
But you don’t do that.
I don’t do that, you know, [but] I love it.
Do you wish you could? Because someone the other day, I was here, was arguing against it. “We’re going to go back to the thing.” I’m like, “You can’t decide this on behalf of …” Because they were talking about the idea that — I think it was James Corden — nobody can talk about “Game of Thrones” because everyone’s at a different point of watching it in their watching cycle. Now that does come out every week, but some people save them and stuff like that, so there’s no commonality.
Right. Well look, the thing about weekly releases like what we’re doing, I love the community aspect of it. I remember when I used to watch “Lost.” This is what I think true interactive entertainment is: I watch an episode of “Lost,” I’m actually watching it with a few friends, we’re arguing two hours after the episode aired about what everything meant. Then I’m going online, going on a message board and interacting with other people there about their theories and my theories.
And then I see an Easter egg, someone found an Easter egg about “Lost,” and that takes me to a book, and you just fall down this rabbit hole, and it’s fun and it’s crazy and it’s awesome. If you dump it all, everybody’s sort of out of sync, like you said. You don’t really quite have that community experience. So there are advantages either way.
What do you like about the dump? You said you liked it.
I like it because it is more film-like. Because one of the things that I don’t love about TV, and I wasn’t a huge TV-watcher growing up, I don’t love the repetition. And that’s sort of the model.
The repetition? How so?
Meaning most procedurals, right? There’s a case of the week, there’s a formula to the show, there’s a pattern to the show. So there’s whatever, the murder at the opening, the cold open, and then you’ve got your two characters, they come in, and then by the end of the episode …
Lennie Briscoe always makes a joke about the murder.
There you go. And then by the end of the episode they solve the case, or they don’t solve the case. Or whatever it is, there’s a solution. And then rinse, repeat, we do that next week. Now, I’m not putting a judgment on it; personally, it’s not my thing. Obviously, they have their audience, and it works.
But for me, a film, you don’t do that with a film, right? There’s one story, there’s a singular story, you’re sticking to that singular vision the entire time. And if you can do that long form across multiple episodes, multiple seasons, for me I think there’s something a lot more fascinating, a lot more interesting about that.
Do you imagine that you will keep doing a show like season after season? What happens? Because it’s changed. Seasons have changed, there’s just discrete works and then it ends kind of thing. Where do you imagine this going?
In my head, I’ve planned it to be about four or five seasons. I don’t think it’s going to go any more than that.
And why is that? Because it used to be 10 seasons, 20 seasons.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, well again that goes back to that model of, “Let’s just keep it going.” There’s also the type of TV where it’s not about one singular story, like a “Friends” or like any sort of family drama actually, “Modern Family.” So what you do is you set up this family dynamic and it’s like life.
And it keeps going.
And it keeps going and going and you’re with the characters and it’s not really about the story, it’s about these people and what they’re going through.
“This week, a watermelon mishap.”
Exactly. And that, you know, again, that’s just not for me. For me, I want to be taken on a ride and then there’s a point, there’s a whole end to all of this.
I want to finish up with two more things. One, about your own tech usage kind of thing. But also, where do you imagine you’ll be, where Hollywood will be, in 10 [years]?
I think like you said, I wish I knew more on the business side, but if these tech companies, to see what Netflix has done, to see what these tech companies like Google, Apple …
Which are largely non-creative in a lot of ways, but go ahead.
But Apple, by the way, is kind of creative. And Facebook, if these guys decided to go into media, because the one I will say, I think Amazon did this really smart. Because I didn’t get it. I have Amazon Prime, but I didn’t get why Amazon was doing it.
And now you get it.
And now I get it. You know why? Because now while I’m watching my videos I’m like, “You know, I really need more toothpaste.” I’d never done that before.
Oh, and an Echo would be nice.
And then I got an Echo. And honestly, that’s what it is. It’s entertainment as the Trojan Horse to everything else.
Although I do think he likes making the entertainment, too.
I do, too. And you should like it. Otherwise it could look like honestly a disingenuous way of hooking people.
Hollywood’s never done that? Come on.
Honestly, the thing that works for Netflix and Amazon Prime is its quality. These aren’t just shitty shows, these are great shows.
And it must be great for a creator like you to have these outlets. It must be fantastic. You’re not prisoners.
What’s great about it is … there’s no pressure. For example, in the Hollywood or film industry, the pressure is [that] you gotta make $100 million across the world, so your movie has to be so vanilla enough that it [can] hit in China and hit in Indiana and hit in Japan. You know? And with Amazon and with Netflix and now, really, all television networks, they just want something really fascinating and interesting. They don’t really care about that stuff.
Yeah, it’s forced them into being interesting.
Last questions. What do you use in tech now? What do you think is exciting? What would you like to be invented?
I don’t love any social media app. I really don’t. I have them all, because I create an account on any new shiny object that comes out, but I’m not really a fan. I kind of like Twitter because I can read news. I wish there was a better RSS reader because I don’t think there’s a really great news reading app right now. I’m kind of disillusioned.
What about devices?
I’m Android all day.
Android all day.
Yeah, and I use Apple. I do have Apple products.
And the self-driving cars? These new foods they’re making? Because now it’s moving into some very serious …
Self-driving cars, I know there’s a big fear about that, but I gotta say, I trust that a little more than humans.
Yeah, you should.
I mean, we haven’t been very good about driving cars.
And then my last question: I interviewed Elon Musk earlier this year at our Code Conference, and he talked about a lot of things. He talked about going to Mars, he talked about his cars, a bit of everything. But then we moved into the idea of artificial intelligence and whether we’re all in a big game. He believes this is all fake.
Simulation. But he was talking about the idea of artificial intelligence, and that the best case scenario, given your stories about the power of technology, is that we’re all going to end up in the most benign sense, as house cats to computers. And they will take our places. And the only way we can battle it is by attaching neural networks to our own brains.
This is the whole singularity thing: Will machines evolve faster than us? And honestly, you can’t avoid saying yes to that question, because why wouldn’t they? They would just have much more power, much more processing power. And so it’ll come down to that spiritual question, and it’s a tough one: Is there something different about us that a machine won’t have? Is there that soul that a machine might not … I mean, they might have the faster brain, but are we just neurons and electrical impulses, or is there something more to us than that? I don’t know the answer to that.
Because I think your show is about humanity, it’s not about tech at all.
Well, exactly right. I think we tried to. In a weird way, we try and fight against our humanity. I don’t see my friends anymore. I don’t even call them anymore. I text them. We’ve devolved our communication. I remember when texting came out and it was so popular and I was like, “Wait a minute, we used to call each other on the phone, we used to hear each other,” and we would get so much more information out of that, but now we’d just rather text because of our own whatever, I don’t know what it is. Is it just easier or more efficient or too neurotic to get on the phone? I don’t know.
Well these tools really can take the place of lots of stuff. And they’re very pleasing.
Yeah. But they’re kind of dehumanizing, or they can be very dehumanizing.
But you know you talked about at the beginning, talking to people in Minnesota or across the globe.
Correct. But then what happens when it takes the place of actually going to see that person? On Facebook right now, I have friends who have families all across the country, they have grandparents and aunts and uncles, and they’re having kids, and because they see them in their feed, that’s good enough. Well, so you’re not going to see each other? You’re not going to interact? You’re not going to go on those family trips together? You’re going to actually be … “Well, I can see them growing up on the feed”? That’s when it becomes a little scary.
Are you pro-technology or anti-technology?
I’m very pro-technology. I think I’m pro-human too, so I want us to be catching, like, you know, technology makes things better. But we just have to understand that there are flaws in it just like in any system, and we just have to make sure that we can exploit those flaws and perfect it and not actually be a slave to it, you know?
Anyway, Sam, thank you so much.
Sam Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot.” I can’t wait to see what you do next. You’re going to do a rom-com, right?
Yeah, definitely, that’s my trajectory.
And at the end, the girl gets to get married and have a dress! That would be great, I’ve never seen that in Hollywood before.
Anyway, Sam it was great talking to you, thanks for coming by.
It was awesome.