The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Episode 404 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off this week, but he will be back next week. Luckily I have somebody really remarkable to talk with about things. This is Charlie Brooker, the creator-writer-executive producer of the remarkable anthology series Black Mirror, the most recent installments of which dropped on Netflix this past week. Charlie Brooker, welcome to the show.
Craig Brooker: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: I want to talk to you about so many things about the individual series, individual episodes, bigger questions such as what is television, what is reality. So…
Charlie: Yeah. I might not have answers to all of those things. I’ll try.
John: I’ll give you about 30 seconds. I’m going to plug the live show one last time.
John: So be thinking.
Charlie: 30 seconds. Right.
John: Our next live show is this Thursday, June 13, and the Ace Hotel. It’s a benefit for Hollywood Heart. Our guests include Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Alec Berg, the showrunner of Silicon Valley and Barry, Rob McElhenney, the showrunner of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and his new Apple show, Kourtney Kang of Fresh Off the Boat.
Oh my god, we have too many guests. I don’t know how we’ll fit all that in, but it’s going to be a remarkable show. So come see us this Thursday, June 13, at the Ace Hotel. They released some more tickets so you can still get a seat if you would like to see that live show.
If you’re there at the live show there are going to be some games, there’s going to be giveaways, there’s going to be cool stuff that you can only encounter at the show. So, please come out and support a great charity, Hollywood Heart. Craig and I will be together on stage. Craig’s head will be immense from the success of Chernobyl. But, you know, he has still graciously agreed to participate in this live show.
Charlie: He’s lowering himself. You see, he’s lowering himself to take part.
John: So someone on Twitter this last week asked, “Have you and Craig ever had successes at the same time?” Because Craig has Chernobyl and I have Aladdin. And I said, no, not that I’m aware of. And so I think we’re going to become insufferable.
Charlie: You can’t call each other out on it.
Charlie: Because you’d both be right.
John: So it’s going to be a really interesting live show. So there could be some fireworks.
Charlie: But you’re not going to listen to anyone. You’ll just be monsters. You’ll be like Godzilla.
John: Craig’s rider for just this live show has been crazy. It’s been months of negotiation. But I think we finally got through most of it. We’ll try.
Charlie Brooker, welcome to Los Angeles. People by your accident might guess that you do not live in America.
Charlie: No, I don’t.
John: I did not know anything about you or your show until I was on a live show for Slate Culture Gabfest with Craig. We did a little crossover episode. And Natasha Lyonne as her sort of endorsement, her One Cool Thing essentially, said you have to watch this series Black Mirror and I didn’t know what it was. I wrote it down and I started watching it immediately. It is a remarkable program. And I would have assumed that you had done nothing before that, but then I checked your credits and you’ve done a tremendous amount. You have credits all the way back to ’99.
John: And most of them seem like comedy things that are related to cultural moments. Rewind your–
Charlie: That’s fair enough. I mean, I’ve had an odd kind of accidental career. I started out I was a cartoonist at one point when I was a teenager. Then I became a video games reviewer. Then I started doing a website that had sort of topical – it was extremely vicious satire of television on it. And that led me to get work. Simultaneously I started working for a topical comedy show in the UK. And I got a gig writing TV reviews for The Guardian.
So most of the stuff that I’d done until about 2008, in fact everything I’d done until 2008 was comedy. So all the TV stuff I’d done was comedy. And in the UK I sometimes present shows. So I do a show intermittently now that’s kind of Daily Show esque, I guess you’d call it, which was called Screen Wipe. It was about TV. Then we did News Wipe, which was about the news. Started doing annual 2016 Wipe or whatever you’d call it.
And then I sort of developed a parallel career I guess, 2008 we did a show called Dead Set which was like a zombie series. It’s kind of like a prototype Black Mirror in a way in that it’s an absurd premise that we then play straight. So a zombie apocalypse happens and the only people who survive are the participants in a series of Big Brother that’s going out in the UK. And they’re 10 people who have been chosen to not get on.
So, yeah, and then myself and Annabel Jones who is my sort of co-conspirator on all of this stuff, we were asked would you like to do something us. And we’d always been a fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected. I don’t know if you’ve got that over here.
Charlie: It’s like Roald Dahl short stories. Really creepy. And Hammer House of Horror was another show, don’t know if you ever saw. And the show we came up with was Black Mirror and we that was in 2011. At the same time as we were doing Black Mirror we were also doing a show called A Touch of Cloth, it’s like Naked Gun. So polar opposite stuff.
So in the UK I guess up until 2008, 2011, I was mainly known for doing comedy stuff.
John: So talk to me about that initial conversation about the idea of Black Mirror. Going in they say how about an anthology series. What is the discussion that leads to the specific idea for Black Mirror and what does it look like in those meetings? What are you describing to them?
Charlie: Well, initially it was slightly different in that it was – there wasn’t going to be a focus on technology so much. It’s become sort of shorthand for that in a way. It was very much just going to be an update on Twilight Zone style stories. I’d read a biography of Rod Sterling. I felt that at the time those kind of things were missing from television. And when I was growing up – I didn’t see The Twilight Zone until I was a teenager, but the BBC used to put on really strange one-off controversial, thought-provoking, high-concept plays that would always generate a lot of controversy and often be quite horrifying.
And I felt that that sort of thing at the time was slightly missing on television. And then when they rebooted Dr. Who, which was about 2006 or so, I thought well maybe – because that’s almost an anthology show.
John: It is. Yeah.
Charlie: I thought well maybe there’d be an appetite for this. So that was what we – originally the pitch was it was going to be eight half hours. I was only supposed to write like two of them or something. And it said, I think originally it definitely mentioned technology might be one of the themes, but the idea was just to look at shows like The Twilight Zone and where they would be doing an episode about McCarthyism or something like that we’d be doing terrorism say.
And then because we were only doing three we ended up – the technological stories seemed to be the most interesting ones. Although actually I’d written a whole completely different episode first which we were about to start shooting that, again, didn’t have any technological element to it at all. It was incredibly earnest. And then a new head of Channel 4, the Channel that put it out in the UK, a new head of Channel 4 came in and she did not like this script. I have to say probably in retrospect she was right. They were going to pull the plug on it and if this wasn’t going ahead basically the whole show wasn’t going ahead.
So, there was some panic going on on our part. So I had a meeting with her where my job was to try and persuade her that this was a good idea, that this very earnest episode we were doing about the Iraq War was well worth her time. And if she wasn’t going to go for it, in my back pocket I had the idea for the national anthem episode which is the one with the prime minister and the pig. And I thought well if she doesn’t go for this I might as well pitch that because what have I got to lose.
John: Absolutely. Something versus nothing.
Charlie: Exactly. So, I ended up pitching that and luckily for me she laughed. Her first question was does it have to be a pig.
John: That’s a classic development note question. Does it have to be a pig?
Charlie: [laughs] Well, and we went through all the different things it could be there in the meeting. At one point I think I suggested a wheel of cheese or a frozen chicken. And then we went, no, a pig is probably best.
John: It has to be a pig.
Charlie: Yeah. And I went off and wrote the first ten pages or so, just to try and persuade her. And it was a parody of 24 that I was basically writing. And luckily for us she went for it. So, I mean, that episode is obviously one of our most divisive ones and I think in the UK it’s received slightly differently than it is say here, because I was known for doing fairly unusual comedy stuff.
John: Absolutely. So people could see the joke of it played differently there than it does here.
John: But I want to get back to this idea of you talk about Twilight Zone, we had Tales from the Dark Side which sounds like a similar kind of thing, generally they’re self-contained stories that ask a question and there’s always a fantastical element or big sci-fi element that lets you focus on differently. In your case it’s technology and it’s a what-if on technology but a generally a very near technology. Things that are almost possible today. And how early in the process of these first three episodes of this first season – so the first three episodes are The National Anthem, which is the one with the pig, Fifteen Million Merits which is the prison-ish situation, and The Entire History of You. So those last two are much more clearly near future technology things. How soon did you know that that was the unifying theme?
Charlie: I guess it was, so Fifteen Million Merits had been written but so had this other earnest episode. As soon as that one was – the one that we were going to do was sort of scrapped, The National Anthem I realized there was a sort of drumbeat of social media going throughout it. And I thought, well hang on a minute, and we’d already been speaking to Jesse Armstrong who wrote The Entire History of You which was the third one. And so we realized well all three of these are about technology. And then we realized that, well, really we can use technology in the same way that The Twilight Zone would use the supernatural to tell a story. We can have fantastical things happening. And a lot of the technology we show is impossible, but because of the era we’re living in you kind of go along with it. As long as it looks grounded enough, and it looks like it functions the way you imagine it should, you kind of go with it. So, I think it was then. And then once we’d done that first – I think it must have been by the time we were finishing Entire History of You I thought well this is the way forward for the rest of the season.
It’s strange though, because then looking at the second season one of the episodes there is White Bear which – it looks like it’s a comment saying aren’t people on phones zombies. It’s a zombie movie with people filming things. So I think that was – sometimes we like to remind ourselves it’s not a sci-fi show basically. On the show itself we can lose sight of that.
John: Let’s talk about, as you’re figuring out an episode, because with an anthology show like this where each show is about a thing, are you starting with what the one-hour of entertainment is going to be about? Is it the idea or is it the character? Because ultimately the character has to drive that thing. But in this anthology that is so idea-driven you have to be able to sell that idea. So where was the push and pull between those two?
Charlie: Yeah. And that’s something that I think I got better at now. There’s certainly – when we’ve done weaker episodes it’s because the story is dictating what happens. It really depends. So sometimes – sometimes the story idea comes about from as you were saying a what-if, some crazy scenario that you imagined. You think, OK, that’s interesting. The different ways that could play out, I’m immediately interested in that. Other times it really depends – something like San Junipero which was – actually I’m going to rewind a bit. Actually Be Right Back was probably – Be Right Back was an interesting one.
So Be Right Back which is in season two, and I think it’s – I feel it’s one that’s slightly unjustly overlooked as an episode. It’s one of my favorites. And Owen Harris directed it who also did San Junipero. And that had stemmed from an experience I’d had that was in the ‘90s a former flat mate and friend of mine had died. And then it was one of the first times that somebody I knew had passed away. And then a couple of years after that, if you remember at the time when cell phones had limited memory and you could only store like a set number of phone numbers in there.
John: Oh, of course, yeah.
Charlie: And I was trying to make room for a new phone number in my phone which meant I had to delete old ones. And I scrolled through and I saw the name of this friend of mine and thought I can’t delete that. Even though it’s just a number I literally can’t ring that ever again. And there was something very strange – unexpected and strange about that moment. And so I knew I wanted to do a story that sort of spoke to that strange connection you can feel with – a very impersonal piece of technology can throw up something, an incredibly personal moment.
John: So I want to clarify that. So that leads to an idea that can be the premise of an episode, but it’s really an emotional spark. It’s like I have an emotional connection to this thing that I know is not the actual person. It’s just all of my memories is embodied in this slot in the phone.
Charlie: Yeah. It’s a little souvenir. It’s like one of the few reminders I had of this person. I didn’t have photos of this person. That was the one thing I had. And I was suddenly struck by it.
And then as is often the case, I think, with our episodes what happens is you’ve got an idea like that or really not an idea just a feeling, you’ve got that, and then I got really interested in the world of sort of psychics and mediums who purport to be putting people in place with their loved ones who’ve passed on. And these two ideas sort of glommed together and I was sitting up late one night. We’d just had our first baby. And I was doing the sort of night shift, which incidentally was weirdly a brilliant motivator because I knew I could only work in short bursts.
John: So many writers I’ve talked to say productivity actually soared because they knew they only had little windows of time.
Charlie: Yeah. It’s like Pomodoro technique or something that screams at you. And you can’t go outside. You can’t go anywhere. You’ve got nothing else to do. And I was on Twitter or something like that and I just saw updates from people scrolling past and I was just struck by what if I was the last person on earth, all these people were dead, and these messages were being generated by some kind of AI. And then you sort of remember these other ideas you had and you go, OK, I’m starting to see a story here.
Now, at that point I thought, so then you sort of end up creating the characters. I’m not sure the process by which I sort of thought who would find this the most upsetting possibly, if there was something that could generate text based on someone’s personality. Who would find that most upsetting? And the answer was a sort of recently bereaved widow who is expecting a baby, sort of my port of call, and so I think this is a very rambling answer I’m giving here.
John: I like it though.
Charlie: And that’s an odd one, because that episode I didn’t – at that stage in doing the show I hadn’t learned to plan things either. So I would write scripts as I went along.
John: You were just doing it by feel.
Charlie: Yeah. Just. Which meant that I ended up making all sorts of errors.
John: What’s an example of an error you would make by doing it that way?
Charlie: Ooh, in the original National Anthem there was a whole subplot involving the government picking up anyone who had ever been on some sort of terror watch list and trying to beat a confession out of them that tonally went – I was trying to play for comedy. It was like somebody gets beaten to death in an interrogation room and it–
John: Did it shoot?
Charlie: No. No it didn’t. So there was one scene in National Anthem as well that tonally, there’s a porn star he meets in National Anthem, there’s a guy they rope in to try and perform this act. There’s a moment when the two of them, the prime minister and the porn star meet in the corridor in the original script, and the porn star gives him the only good advice he gets all day long about how to deal with what’s about to happen. And we dropped it because just tonally it was very much at odds – but sometimes, White Bear I completely – White Bear is a good example of something where I totally messed it up. I wrote the whole – that was the next episode.
Now it’s one of my favorites because it’s got a really horrific twist and it’s a bit – I was trying to channel things like the Wicker Man and like there’s a short Spanish film called, I think it’s Spanish, called La Cabina. Have you ever seen that?
John: No, I don’t know La Cabina.
Charlie: Look it up. I won’t tell you anything about it except it’s about a guy and a phone booth. That’s all I’m going to say. It’s about 15 minutes. I was trying to channel that sort of thing. And I originally wrote that script three times. We were about to shoot it. I had written this thing, I had this notion about if you’ve seen White Bear there’s a story they tell the main character in it about–
John: About what’s actually going on.
Charlie: About what’s going on. And they say there’s a symbol appeared on all the TVs and everyone is behaving like zombies effectively. In the original script that was–
John: The actual premise.
Charlie: That was the actual premise. There was just this mysterious symbol appeared that made 30% of the population act like psychopaths and 30% act like bystanders. And 30% were the quarry. And I wrote it – it was very confused. But we had to shoot it because we were running out of time. We were literally scouting locations we were trying to work out, because I’d written in all these complicated locations, and we were based on a sort of former maybe US Air Force base in the UK. And we were looking for places to shoot the locations that were mentioned in the script. And one of them, it said it was a shop, but we couldn’t find a shop, but we could find this gas station.
And the location guy, we were looking around, and he said well you’ll have to film this way because there’s a fence around this whole place. So we can’t ever see in that direction. And I thought well a fence around the whole, that’s actually – oh, hang on a minute. And suddenly had a much more interesting idea. And just went off and rewrote the whole thing. Like just threw it away and rewrote the whole thing in like two days or something.
We had a director on board already, so we had to say to him, Carl Tibbetts, I had to say to him, sorry, I’ve totally rewritten the entire script. And luckily he was – but that happened because, and I’m in two minds about that. That happened because I hadn’t been doing any planning, I’d just been trying to write this story from a slightly confused premise. And then because I was forced into a corner suddenly I was in a position where literally I saw this fence around the thing and suddenly I sort of had a eureka moment and realized I could sort of dig myself out of the hole. You can’t dig yourself out of a hole, can you?
John: Well, you can dig a different hole to–
Charlie: You could dig some stairs?
John: Yes, you could use your shovel to maybe dig your way up to something.
John: That’s probably. You dug yourself out of it in a way.
Charlie: I dug myself, I stood on the shovel.
John: What it sounds like though is you’re trying to both plan for what you’re going to need, but also be flexible for better ideas as they come up.
John: And so you were ready to be lucky. If you had felt confident about the episode that you’d written you probably would have ignored the fence and stuck with what you had.
Charlie: Yes. Definitely.
John: Because you allowed yourself to feel some insecurity you could say, oh, OK, there’s a better idea. There’s a way of containing this. Because I mean what you’re describing sounds like a completely different episode. Because I love White Bear. I think it is great. And it relies on that twist at the end about what’s really going on. And it sounds like if you hadn’t planned for the episode to be one way that twist never would have come.
Charlie: Absolutely. And that was why, I mean, I just knew it was – it was like sort of realizing at the altar you had married the wrong person or something. This was happening and I knew it wasn’t right. And everyone basically knew the script wasn’t right. And then so suddenly to have had this moment was such a relief, but it was also terrifying. And then on the next episode of that season, which was the Waldo Moment one, that’s where I really ran out of time. And I was kind of not happy with my finished script. I think there were lots of good ideas in it but I didn’t – weirdly it should have been a separate thing. It should have been like a separate miniseries or something like that. I should have had more time to develop.
John: Absolutely. It didn’t feel like it wanted to be in one hour of time.
John: And let’s talk about that though because the format of an anthology series is about an hour long for episodes, although you’ve gone past those boundaries now. You have to set up your premise very quickly, or at least your world-building premise. Like this is what is possible in this universe of this episode. And people have a general expectation about what kinds of things can happen in a given episode, but there’s a pretty wide range.
You need to establish your characters very, very quickly. And you though have to decide at what point do you let the audience know what the episode is about. And that feels like a fundamental choice you’re making pretty early in the process or not?
Charlie: Yeah. I mean, White Bear was a good example of something where I guess in a way, I haven’t really thought about it, but because I had a story that I then was going to throw out but was going to use as the fiction they tell her within the episode, it meant that I had to sort of cover story that I could tell the viewer for about 75% of the running time. And then in a strange way, once you know what it is you’re hiding and you’ve worked out how long you’re going to hide it, it curiously makes some things easier because it actually limits your range of options. It sort of forces your hands on all sorts of decisions I guess. Which I hadn’t really thought about.
I mean, I found the stress of doing White Bear, it nearly falling apart and then me feeling like I hadn’t really done a good enough job with the Waldo Moment meant that when we did the Christmas one and that one I planned like meticulously. And that was interesting because that was another story where there was this big sort of reveal. We knew there was going to be a big reveal. Once you know that it sort of means you can spend, yes, and I’m always slightly worried that the audience is going to get there first. That they will – San Junipero, I thought people were going to get that in the first instance, like when they first – there’s a moment early on where Mackenzie as Yorkie is trying on different outfits. And it looks like a sort of a montage that you’d see in a John Hughes movie or something like that. Owen who directed that as well is a huge John Hughes fan and wanted to sort of channel all these things.
And in the script what it’s saying is that she – at one point it says she sort of magically changes outfits. And look. And Girlfriend in a Coma is playing on the radio at one point. And I thought everyone is going to immediately twig what is going on here. And I was pleasantly surprised when people didn’t. Although that’s again something – the other thing I guess I’ve learned is that I think that the most important draft in a way of the script is the edit. So myself and Annabel spend a lot of time in the edit and it never ceases to amaze me how much you can continue to tweak and change – you can rescue things that haven’t worked and you can bring in new things you didn’t notice yourself. And when you’re playing – when you’re revealing something that’s also crucial because that’s how you – you’re trying to gauge at what point people are going to understand exactly what’s going on.
White Bear actually there’s little flashbacks in that as well which I thought, oh, people are going to guess this.
John: And they don’t.
Charlie: And they don’t.
John: So White Bear is an example of sort of a two-stage reveal. First that the world is not what she thinks it is, and that we think we have good insight into who this character is or sort of that we’re seeing it through her eyes. And she’s a trustworthy narrator to some degree but there’s more going on. Shut Up and Dance is again that sort of same situation where we think we understand the premise quite early on that he’s being compelled to do these things and we don’t realize that there’s more to him than we sort of knew at the start. And looking back it’s like, oh, that is what that first scene was and we don’t know that’s why he was chosen.
Charlie: That was another one that changed actually. So Shut Up and Dance originally, so there’s like Kenny who is the young kid and Hector who is the older guy who he meets, and originally there was a reveal that Hector who Kenny – they’re both being blackmailed. For people who haven’t seen the episode they’re both being blackmailed by anonymous hackers. And originally the reveal was that Hector had been waiting for an underage prostitute in the room. And so the story was he’s sort of guiding Kenny along and he’s forcing Kenny into doing the more unpleasant aspects of this sort of horrible game they’ve been sent on.
And I came to the end of the script and we’re like it just doesn’t – you sort of know he’s a bastard from the first time he turns up and that’s not very interesting. Well, what if Kenny has got that secret then? That’s more interesting. And, oh OK, we care about him from the first time we see him. Then you can go back and you can go, well OK, what’s a good way of making us care about Kenny. Well, we’ll show him doing something that seems kind. So in just about the first scene you see him handing – a little girl has left her toy behind and he goes and hands it to her. And of course on the second watch that takes on a very sort of sinister – it’s actually Annabel’s daughter.
John: Oh no.
Charlie: Well no one wanted to put their own kids forward for that. [Unintelligible] She won’t mind me saying that. Her kids are all – they’re in lots of the episodes actually. And so afterwards you realize so that I realized was the beauty of knowing what the ending was. I’m so amateur. I realized that it’s helpful to know what the ending is when you’re writing the bit at the start. Because you can start kind of doing all of that stuff.
John: But everyone listening to this episode would assume though that you start at the ending. Like a mystery story where you sort of start with the ending and work your way forward. It doesn’t sound like that really is the process for you.
Charlie: Sometimes it is. Sometimes – I mean, when I get very excited about and episode, when it works at its best is when I sort of see what the end scene is. And sometimes then when you’re writing it that changes. San Junipero, good example where originally I did write a sort of story treatment for that. And, again, originally, I should say these things in order. So originally I’d written a short story treatment and it was a man and a woman. And the reveal was, oh, they’re old people. That was sort of the extent of it. And it ended at the point one of them meets the other one in real life and sees that they’re paraplegic. That was the ending.
And then I was sort of thinking, well, isn’t this more interesting – and they were going to get married in it, but isn’t this more interesting if they’re getting married – if we make it a same sex couple they can get married in 1987 which wasn’t possible in 1987 and that in itself is sort of more interesting. I started writing the script from this sort of rough outline I’ve got. And when I got to the point where they meet in real life in the script I thought, oh, I’ll keep going then. I don’t want it to stop here. I wonder what happens when they do get married then. So I sort of just kept going.
So from that point on it was much more – that was me sort of feeling my way along to the end. And then what that meant was, and I never used to believe it when people would say, “Oh, I started writing a scene and the characters just did this and I didn’t know where it…” I used to think you liar. And but that’s what happened. There’s a scene where Kelly and Yorkie have a kind of confrontation and you find out what is going on and what’s Kelly’s deal basically. And why she doesn’t really want to put roots down in San Junipero. A backstory with a husband and daughter. And that kind of just came out – and I don’t think that really changed at any point. And it was sort of like, you know, it’s one of the most powerful moments in the episode.
So, that was a good combination I guess of the two approaches, sort of planning it, thinking I knew where the ending was going. And then I went for a run in the middle of it, because like any basically dying mammal I now have to do exercise just to stay breathing. And I was going running and Spotify was on. And I was listening to ‘80s music because the thing was set in the ‘80s. And Heaven is a Place on Earth came on.
Charlie: And I was like, oh, that describes, and I liked the rye joke that they’re in a server basically on earth. And then I was immediately worried that we weren’t going to be able to clear it. And so I came back and wrote the ending really quickly. And so the whole script was one of the fastest ones I’ve written. It’s Sod’s Law that it’s turned out to be one of the most popular. It’s typical.
John: Now, after that season you went on – so season four had USS Callister, Metalhead, Black Museum. USS Callister sort of stands alone as just a great science fiction – it’s a remarkable episode.
Charlie: Oh, thank you.
John: Congratulations on it. But talk to us about the genesis of that because it’s obviously a very clear appreciation and reaction to a certain kind of Star Trek type TV show and, again, you established the premise really early on and yet our central character who seems like our point of entry ends up becoming the villain of the story. How does that develop as you’re working through story on that?
Charlie: That was, I can remember very clearly the genesis for – the whole story came about, we were shooting an episode for season three called Play Test and we were on the set and they were setting up for a scene involving special effects which we hadn’t used many of. And I said wouldn’t it be good, now that we’ve got this sort of tool, we can use special effects, why don’t we just do a space episode. That’s quite often how we think our way into episodes is how can – because we’re sort of almost – it helps oddly for me to imagine what’s the Black Mirror version of a space opera basically.
Charlie: So, we knew we wanted to do an episode set in space and I’d also – somewhere along the lines been thinking what if you had – this is a horrible story – have you heard of Josef Fritzl? Do you know Josef Fritzl?
John: I don’t know who it is.
Charlie: He was this horrible man who kept a family in a dungeon. There was a guy in America who kept women in a dungeon. And so there was a sort of well what if you had someone who is a tyrant but they’re wielding ultimate power over a bunch of people who are copies of real people. And so those two ideas sort of glommed together and you think, OK, you could do – immediately there was something appealing about the idea of a world in which you have the captain of a spaceship who you think is the hero and then you realize none of this is real and he’s a madman effectively. Within this world he’s a horrific tyrant.
And then you think well why is he a tyrant in this world and then it’s like, oh, OK, he’s kind of – he’s enacting his grudged from his daily life where he feels powerless. And it’s office coworkers. And immediately there there’s a sort of comic gulf between the two worlds. That was an interesting example of, again, the first draft of that actually didn’t have the 1960s element in it. And I was thinking it would be fun if it had something else. I think it came about from an idea like well what should the spaceship look like. And I was like I’d love it if we did a Black Mirror episode that opened and it looked like Star Trek from the ‘60s. That would really confuse people. And then you think actually that’s quite interesting.
John: And appropriate.
Charlie: It’s a great look and also the power dynamics within there that now look dated, even though Star Trek was an incredibly progressive show, Kirk is going around the universe sort of trying to romance green women half the time. So, yeah, so that added an extra element. When we came to the – the original script that we shot, it was much clearer early on that Daly, there was something wrong with him. And I remember this was one of the times we got a note back from Netflix on the first sort of loose cut they saw where – so very early on Daly is in the office Nanette Cole comes in and they meet and he clearly – he’s delighted that somebody is being nice to him and seems to admire him.
And then Walton played by Jimmi Simpson comes in and sort of whisks her off and he’s very slick. And you see Daly looking sort of jealous. Now originally it was written in that you see his fist clenches. And Netflix said I don’t know that you need that actually. It’s really more interesting if you don’t know how you feel about him. And we cut it out and immediately it was much more interesting because it meant that the reveal that, oh, this guy is a bastard came just a few minutes later. You see him walk it onto the deck of the ship and grab Walton by the throat. And you realize he’s a monster.
So that’s a good example of something where losing something that I thought was a clever bit of a foreshadowing delayed the reveal to such a degree that it just had a lot more power I think for people. Because you really – people sympathize with him at the start because he seems – we also cut some dialogue, there was a bit where Michaela Cole’s character is talking to Cristin, who is Nanette, and she says, “Oh, Daly is a bit of a creep basically.” And we toned that – we cut – again, there was something in there that made it more apparent. She was like he’s creepy. She went into more detail. And again it gave too much away.
That was really good fun writing that episode as well because it meant we got to do all the stuff that we thought we could never do in Black Mirror. So it ends in a sort of chase through an asteroid belt towards a wormhole. All of that was just really good fun.
John: So let’s talk about, many of these episodes, I’m thinking of USS Callister, fresh example, is there’s a bit of magic hand-waving. You have to accept this is part of the world. And that’s true also in features. Like most features are based on sort of a premise concept that you have to accept that this is a thing that we’re going to say is legitimate in this. And so in the case of USS Callister it’s not only can he build these virtual worlds but he can just off a piece of DNA recreate the entire person.
John: So that doesn’t actually make sense and yet it is so fundamental to the premise that you are willing to accept it.
Charlie: Well that’s a very good point actually. Because we did spend, again, I’d forgotten this. This is one of those where you repress a memory. I’d forgotten that we spent a long time in the original draft, it was co-written with Will Bridges. And we spent a lot of time trying to explain why when Nanette wakes up on the ship she has all her memories in place. If she’s a clone she wouldn’t know anything.
And actually so in the original draft there’s a whole bit of business that involves – there’s a piece of technology from Season One/Episode Three, Entire History of You, the Grain, that records all your memories. So what we had, we had a whole explanation of that. Everyone has these memory grains and Daly has hacked her memory grain and he’s uploaded. And it was like well why would he do that? What’s the point? And also why do we have to establish that?
And I knew some people would go, “Well that doesn’t make sense.” There’s a line in it where somebody starts explaining, I think that Dudani starts explaining why they’ve got their memories intact. And Michaela Coel’s character just tells him to shut up.
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Charlie: And you kind of get away with it. I remember when we did Dead Set, the director of that was a guy called Yann Demange, and he used to wave away bits – I sometimes get very caught up on the logic of things. And he’d go, “It’s a movie moment. It’s a movie moment. It doesn’t matter. It’s a movie moment.” And he was right. I spent days arguing that it wouldn’t rain in San Junipero. Days. Because Owen wanted to shoot a scene in the rain and I was like, no, no, it wouldn’t – why would they make it rain. It’s paradise. Why would they make it rain? And he was like, “No one cares about that. It will look lovely.”
Charlie: And he was right.
John: Rain can be nice. It can rain in paradise. One of the strange things about Black Mirror is that you’re writing about culture that is constantly changing and because you have become – because your shows have entered the cultural conversation people say like, “Oh, this is such a Black Mirror moment.” What does it feel like to be reflecting culture that you’re also changing? And to what degree are you aware that, you know, like these three episodes that are dropping right now, they’re going to enter the cultural conversation and change thoughts on that.
Are you mindful of that now in your success with the series?
Charlie: You can’t not be, I guess, to an extent. But you have to try. I mean, I just find that a terrifying thought. There’s something about that that’s absolutely terrifying. Because also it means that you’re – we generally try to give away very little about our episodes in advance because we want them to be a surprise. But we also know that, yeah, and I suppose also with an anthology where you’re – one of the things that, you know, we became known for was doing incredibly brutal endings and wiping all hope from the universe for a moment. Which I love doing every now and then. And sometimes we kind of almost deliberately overdo it, like Crocodile was a deliberate – well that’s a whole story actually.
So, you’re aware that – there’s a large subset of people who are coming to your show who want that. They want that horrible sort of feeling. But if you give it to them every time you’re not doing your job, I think, of the anthology show – of our anthology show we’re trying to be as varied in tone as we can within the… – I wanted to do an Airplane style episode.
Charlie: And I was talked out of it. I was talked out of it. I’m still not sure. I vacillate on that. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea or a terrible one. I really wanted to do one. I’ll have to do it under some other guise.
So there’s a weight of expectation I guess and I think – I mean, it’s very flattering when people go this is a bit like Black Mirror. Oh, that thing they’re doing in China, that’s quite Black Mirror. Oh, have you seen the news? It’s like an episode of Black Mirror. It’s flattering, it’s free publicity. It’s also terrifying as a mammal. It’s just frightening to think that the worst case scenarios that we’ve often been describing that those are reminding people of things they’re seeing in everyday life.
It’s something we don’t tend to – Annabel and I, we never really know whether the show has that much impact because we’re so busy. Because it takes so much time basically. Because they’re all – they’ve all got individual directors and individual casts. And a lot of the crew is completely different. We literally don’t really often get to go out and speak to people. [laughs] So it’s quite jarring when, I think last time I came to the US I was at immigration. They said what are you doing here. And I said I’m doing a thing, I’m doing a show. And they said what is it, and I said Black Mirror, and they’re like, “Oh!” And they called someone else over and said this is the guy who does Black Mirror. That’s really surprising and frightening because you think I’m going to just inevitably at one point going to let these people down.
I am now resigned to the fact that because we try – I think because we try to make the episodes as idiosyncratic as possible, when people inevitably compile their lists of which ones are their favorites you get some which are always near the top, but generally speaking I’ve read people hating on episodes that other people have loved. So you know that you’re never going to please everybody. And I think that’s sort of – hopefully that means we’re doing our job. Or at least failing in the right way.
John: I mean, you’re kind of unique in the realm of showrunners, and we’ve had many showrunners on the show, Aline Brosh McKenna, Benioff and Weiss, Damon Lindelof, who have been running these long time shows that have these huge fan bases who are invested in characters who they’ve seen over the course of years. And you don’t have that baggage. Every episode is its own thing and starting its own moment. So you don’t get the benefit of returning characters who can do stuff where you don’t have to set them up from scratch every time. But you get the freedom from expectation. A very limited set of expectations placed on any given installment of Black Mirror.
And I want to talk about Bandersnatch in relation to that because it’s billed as a Black Mirror experiment, a thing. Was it originally going to be a normal episode? When was the decision to make it its own event moment thing?
Charlie: Well originally it was part of season five. So we actually shot, so the season that we’ve just – they don’t like you to say dropped apparently. I was about to say dropped. No, no, no, it’s fine. I mean, I say dropped all the time. They say, “Don’t say dropped.” But I don’t think they gave me another word to say.
Charlie: So, what? Appeared?
John: Launched? No. Season five…debuted?
Charlie: Slithered? Slithered out?
Charlie: So Striking Vipers which is the first of the three, we’d already shot that. Smithereens had been written and there was some overlap with the filming of that with Bandersnatch.
Bandersnatch was always going to be interactive and that was an idea that – so Netflix had said to us, I think we were over for some season four stuff, and they said we’d like you to do an interactive story.
John: Oh, great.
Charlie: And they showed us how this tech worked. And me and Annabel both nodded and were very polite and said that looks great. And then we left the room and went no flipping way are we doing that because it’s going to be a gimmick. We don’t want to do it. And then a few weeks later we were having a – so the way it works – so I generally write all the scripts but I’m always working with Annabel, bouncing ideas off her. We have a healthy disrespect for each other, so she will not be shy about telling me that she thinks an idea stinks.
And so we have a sort of back and forth conversation. And during one of those conversations I had – I wanted to do another episode set in the past. And I wanted to do something about vintage computer games. That was–
John: Because that’s your background as well.
Charlie: Yeah. And so there’s a lot of real nostalgia for me in Bandersnatch. And then I had this idea which was, oh well, what if you’re controlling – it was about somebody starts receiving messages from their computer. And then I remembered the interactive thing they’d just shown us. And I was like well what if that’s you and then so he becomes aware that you’re there. Oh, that’s interesting.
And also, and I didn’t realize this at the time, but I’ll get onto that in a minute. Sorry. Because there’s a thing about interactive stories that’s just interesting generally. So that was it. Then we went back to Netflix and said, OK, we’ve got an idea. Originally it was much more simple. And then I started – so in trying to work out how to literally just write the story outline for this, I started out literally we were in the office and we had a whiteboard and I started with the flow chart. And then you quickly go on. I need a bigger whiteboard because I’ve run out of room. And then it was like, OK, there’s some software that does a flowchart for me. Maybe. No, actually, I need it to track what’s going on and remember what’s going on. And Netflix were also saying please test as many different things as you can.
So, then somebody said you should use Twine which is this interactive fiction software. And I looked at it and I thought I don’t have the time to learn that. That just looks complicated. It’s like html basically. And I used to do a bit of html stuff years ago.
John: But then you have to mark which characters are there and if there are any items that would carry through.
Charlie: Yeah. But what was useful, I ended up going back to Twine because it worked like flowchart software. So you’d make a cell and you’d type something in it and then it would automatically do the sort of piles that joined up. And as I did that it got fun. Planning it got fun. And it kept growing out into – so it kept expanding sort of length ways and width ways. And then suddenly you’d sort of think oh I can add a whole branch where this happens. And before you know it, you’ve of course fractionally it all expands out. So I did that. And then what I think what we realized I think was that it’s useful – if you’re doing an interactive story I think it was – what we stumbled across that I think was useful was because the main character of Stefan is separate, he understands that these commands are being given to him. It’s not like something where you’re just telling him what to do and he just does it. Because it’s hard to keep him consistent if you do that.
So I was playing Red Dead Redemption 2 which I think is a very, very good open world game. It’s great. There’s a scene in it early on where you go and sort of have a conversation with one of your lost loves. And it was like quite well done. He has a conversation with this ex love of his on the doorstep and it’s quite poignant. And the turns away, gets on his horse. And then I accidentally like ran into a pig and then thought, oh, I’ll get off. I think the pig ran at me. So I shot the pig, sort of by accident. And then like somebody came running after me. And I thought what sort of character is this guy now? Murders a pig on the doorstep of his lost love. He’s a psychopath.
Whereas when there’s some sort of narrative distance it means that no matter how successful people found Bandersnatch or didn’t, it meant that hopefully Stefan was always a troubled young man reacting to a problem. And so he would start to resist what you were telling him to do.
So that was interesting. And then I learned a lot – there was one big thing that we had to cut out, and it’s incredibly hard to cut things out of an interactive story. That was the other thing I discovered. So originally the whole thing was structured a bit more like an escape room. So there was a central puzzle that you had to work out, which we have a bit of it down one branch. There’s a bit to do with the phone number. The psychiatrist’s phone number.
It was originally structured so you would always come to a point where he was trying to remember a phone number and he couldn’t remember it. And the idea was that the first time you encountered this you’re like well how am I supposed to know what the phone number. I can’t possibly. And so you’d get frustrated and it would sort of loop you back. And then by the time you’d failed in two different ways you’d realize that these recaps it was showing you–
John: Had new information.
Charlie: Were telling you the number. We had to massively simplify it because people just did not – I mean, we shot it. But people just did not understand what was going on.
John: Well ultimately you’re making a show about a guy developing a video game and the end product is sort of like the video game. It has to be tested and played like a video game to see whether people can actually get it. It’s not normally audience testing. It’s literally like can you – and people aren’t necessarily expecting a puzzle.
Charlie: No. They’re not expecting a puzzle, although weirdly – well, we did get some feedback afterwards. People did understand, one thing which was terrifying was that it was appearing quickly that people couldn’t remember a number. It was a five-digit number they were given and they couldn’t remember it for more than like 15 seconds. That was one of the first big boulders in the road we discovered.
Then we had a problem with translation. Because I hadn’t really thought that through. The numbers were buried in dialogue. So there were numbers like two which were just it’s two, what, but obviously when you translate that around the suddenly you can’t do it. So that was a problem. And you can’t predict what – people did understand that it was a puzzle and it was interesting that they said that people appreciated the fact that there was a puzzle involved and they enjoyed that. That was something they came back and said they enjoyed. But they also found it quite confusing and baffling.
So I don’t think that’s something we quite nailed.
John: You couldn’t cross that gap.
Charlie: Yeah. And another thing was there were some things – there was one branch of it, this is one thing that frustrates me about it. There’s one branch of it where we completely break the fourth wall and you can tell the main character that you’re watching him on Netflix.
John: I really liked that moment. It’s absurd and also–
Charlie: It’s ridiculous.
John: And it makes you feel like, OK, I’m aware that there’s a comedy happening here.
Charlie: Exactly. Well, that’s the comedy. Totally upends it and it turns it into a comedy. The thing that I can’t quite – originally that was not accessible on your first go through. And then we were sort of concerned – it was one of these things where we were concerned that people would just get down to a more normal real world ending so to speak, certainly a less fourth wall breaking ending, and would miss that. And that was probably a bit of insecurity on our part to make that accessible from the start. But what that meant was that when it came to that point and it gives you two options, frustratingly slightly more people pick the Netflix branch because they didn’t quite understand what the other one was. It was like a symbol.
And so I think for some people that meant that their first experience of getting to a sort of fairly meaty ending broke the fourth wall and therefore sort of possibly undermined the drama of everything else in a way. So I’m not sure – I’m in sort of two minds about that. It was also a lot of business to do with dreams. Like you have to – where he goes through the mirror and stuff. There was such a logistical nightmare going on. Yeah.
And we ended up having to cut a couple of endings out because we just – it was just getting unwieldy.
John: Do you get data back showing which paths people took most?
Charlie: Yes. We had a whole sort of postmortem debrief they did where they showed us – or we don’t get numbers, of which I’m delighted about because there’s just such relief. But they did tell us – the one that really stuck in my head was when it comes to why the chopping up the body or burying the body it was exactly the same percentage split as Brexit in the UK. It was 52 to 48. Which surprised me actually because I thought most people would not want to – it was 48% wanted to chop the body up and I thought that would be much lower than that because that seemed such a gruesome option.
But generally speaking most of the sort of percentages were kind of roughly where we thought they would land. There were a couple of exceptions. There was a certain amount of stuff we could tweak because the whole thing was obviously weird because having done – just to rewind a bit – having done the story outline in Twine I then started – I realized that I couldn’t find tools that did this, that let you write screenplays in this interactive way. I just couldn’t find something that did that.
So, we ended up realizing, OK, what we need to do is assign a sort of number to each of these cells, at 1A, 2B, and so then I used Scrivener to create this confetti of individual little scenes. Wrote those up. And then had to export those into something else. Paste them back into Twine. So there was this convoluted route we went to. Because we had to get to a point where we had a script that you could read and it would say if you want to do this turn to page such and such.
And also you could read on an iPad and literally click on it and it would take you there, which sort of made life a lot easier for actors. But because the tools weren’t there it was one of those things where you end up with about five different applications open. Then Netflix built a tool for the edit which then managed to import – they imported my Twine thing directly into the edit which made life a lot easier. But it would crash. There would be things where it would be like, oh no, Colin is alive. He’s meant to be dead.
John: Yeah. Your episode crashed Netflix probably. The entire system probably.
Charlie: The outline crashed. The outline would crash. There was this whole thing where Colin Whitman can jump off a balcony and if he does he’s dead for the rest of the story. And sometimes he would just pop up again and we were like what’s going on?
John: What’s happened?
Charlie: Which was quite in character for him actually. That was why I kept adding more Colin Whitman. As soon as we knew we had Will Poulter I kept adding more and more Colin Whitman as well because he’s great.
John: We have questions from listeners and I picked a few that I thought might be good for you. Chelsea from London asks…
Charlie: I’ve come all this way to hear from somebody from London. And they’re called Chelsea.
John: “I watched Searching the other night, a film that’s basically all social media, and towards the end I found it was asking too much of me in terms of suspending disbelief. As writers, how can you tell when you’re asking too much regarding the suspension of disbelief? Obviously genre plays a large role in this, but for a film set in the real world how do you know where to draw the line?”
Suspension of disbelief. So, within your shows you are establishing the fundamental premise of sort of like what happens in this world. But do you struggle with suspension of disbelief in your episodes?
Charlie: You’ve cited a couple of examples. There’s a good example in USS Callister where we sort of hope you’ll just go with it. Striking Vipers, the new one, there’s a whole thing that they can do in this game that they shouldn’t really be able to do. But we just think you’ll go with it. So sometimes you just sort of gauge it that way.
I haven’t seen Searching so I don’t know specifically what it is. I often find that with the depiction of computers still a lot of the time in movies or TV they are shown doing things they can’t possibly do in the present day. And that’s often quite frustrating.
I think we do spend a lot of time kind of on product design as well to try and make it look like all the technology is just very functional, like quite sleek. A lot of the time we’re sort of trying to remove technology from the backgrounds as well. So there will only be a couple of little devices. And hopefully that makes it feel more grounded.
And there’s also generally that rule that you can withstand one fantastical thing happening.
Charlie: As long as that’s – I think as long as people enjoy that enough. That’s the other thing. As long as people enjoy that enough they’ll go with it. And if two impossible things happen. That’s the famous Speed example. The bus jumping in Speed where you don’t really believe it could do that.
John: So you get that fundamental suspension of disbelief that is part of the premise. And so I think your episodes tend to do that. It sounds like what Chelsea is reacting to is choices that characters have made or twists that are revealed that she’s not believing the characters are really doing that thing.
John: It didn’t feel real to the rest of the world that she’d set up.
Charlie: I mean, well that is a trickier one. Because that is – and that’s just done to how authentically you think the character is reacting. I mean, in Black Mirror really quite often, and this is something that sort of depresses me when I look back at it, we’ve got in our episode somebody – it starts out somebody slowly realizes they’re in a trap. They start struggling. It gets worse. The end.
John: Yeah. [laughs] There’s a premise!
Charlie: So in a way we often don’t let them escape which is one of the reasons why hopefully people go with it. I don’t really know. I think a lot of it is just as long as you feel that the characters are reacting authentically to the moment then you will go with it. And in terms of the concepts, again, as long as you’re only trying to do one crazy thing at a time, again, people will hopefully go along with that.
It’s a difficult one though because, yeah, that is a tricky one. I mean, we’re lucky as well in a way that we don’t often I guess, because our stories are shorter, we can kind of burn all the characters up and the scenario up really quickly before the logic would strain it too much.
John: Well also the universes that you’re creating and because they’re only a single episode we can assume that this technology exists and we are seeing it in the context of this one story. And we don’t have to worry about like, wait, if you could do that your entire universe would be very different. I look at Westworld and Westworld is a show that has to grapple with that because there is technology that exists in Westworld and you’re like would it really be used in this way?
John: And so if it is used in this way, what does the world outside of Westworld look like? And that’s what they’re dealing with in the third season of Westworld.
Charlie: See, now I deliberately haven’t watched Westworld because I’ll get crippling professional jealousy. I tend to avoid things that I think might be – and the number of times we’ve gone, “Oh, it would be great to do a Black Mirror western. Oh, hang on, Westworld exists.”
So another good example I guess, so Be Right Back. Actually so Be Right Back is a good example I guess of something where when writing it I was aware that – so it starts off she starts communicating via email, a messaging app, with her deceased husband. Then it sort of escalates and she’s talking to a synthesized version of him on the phone. Then he says would you like to meet me. And at this point I thought people are not going to go along with this. That there’s a sort of android version that shows up.
And there were two things that helped. One was the story was deliberately set in the middle of nowhere. So they were in an isolated farmhouse. She was on her own. So you’re not thinking does somebody down the road have one of these? And there’s a scene we cut out. There’s a woman who originally recommends this to her. And originally there was a scene where you see Martha phoning this woman up and going why did you do this. And you see that this woman is in bed with a robot of her own. I think we actually shot that and we cut it out.
So, we isolated them so you’re not thinking too much about the outside world. And so hopefully those logical questions don’t come into it.
John: That’s Westworld as well. Westworld is on a ranch.
Charlie: Yeah. The other thing we weirdly lent into the absurdity there, so when she gets this thing it literally comes sort of packaged up like a rubber man. And she puts it in a bathtub and drops nutrients into the water. And meanwhile she’s got Donald Gleason in her ear telling her how weird this is and weirdly acknowledging that it’s weird and it’s crazy.
John: You’re hanging a lantern on it to make it clear that this show is acknowledging that this is an odd moment.
Charlie: So you’re not sitting there going, well, come on, this wouldn’t happen. Because somebody onscreen is saying that. Saying isn’t this strange? So, I think hopefully, yeah, those are two tricks we got away with there. We quite often tend to isolate our characters generally because it means you’re not considering the whole of society.
Jesse’s original script for Entire History of You had loads of really great extra details about the world in which everyone is recording everything all the time. But it was just too much. Stuff for a whole movie or a series in its own right.
John: Brett asks, “As a musician transitioning to a writing career I’ve been wondering given the power of streaming in both music and film is this the best time or the worst time to get a foot in the door?”
So we are clearly in a really strange, interesting time. This is also a moment where I can ask, “What is television?”
Charlie: Yeah. I don’t know. I really don’t know what it is. And I don’t know what constitutes. I mean, if I look at, obviously Bandersnatch, what is that? I don’t know what it is. It’s sort of a game. It’s sort of a film. It’s not on a gaming platform.
John: But it could be. I mean–
Charlie: It could be.
John: If it weren’t filmed, if it were done all just with CG characters then it literally would feel like a game.
Charlie: The number of times I was like it would be so much easier to do, when we were filming it, would have been so much easier. Yeah, I don’t know. And then things like, so Roma I watched at home, because I’ve got two young kids, really busy doing the show all the time. Never get to go out to go to the cinema. So I watched Roma at home and I had such limited windows in which to watch it. I watched it over three nights in sittings, divided up, like it was a series I was binge-watching, which I was perfectly happy to do. Which makes me a huge philistine.
So like we don’t even know quite what, like Black Mirror is an anthology show, but then sometimes we do standalone one-offs. I think we’ll probably do more of that sort of thing as well in the future. So, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I know we got some stick for when we did San Junipero it was like 61 minutes long and it got entered into the Best TV Movie category. And I know that annoyed some people. But tough luck.
I mean, I was delighted that we won, but I sort of thought, well, hopefully that means if we can be entered in that category and then people liked it enough to vote for it, well, you should get extra points shouldn’t you for taking up less of people’s time in this day and age? Like the shorter the better.
Something like Russian Doll, I really loved Russian Doll.
John: Oh my god, l loved those episodes were so short.
Charlie: 30 minutes long.
John: Going back to Natasha Lyonne again.
Charlie: And, well I met her the other night because I went to a Russian Doll event and I told her my favorite thing to say to people who I admire their work, and it’s true, I said I liked Russian Doll so much it made me angry.
John: Oh, me too.
Charlie: I was furious that I hadn’t thought of this show and I hadn’t written this show. And obviously there were certain things that it had in common with Bandersnatch. It was brilliant. And it was short. Don’t you wish sometimes you could sort things by length? Make life easier.
Sorry. So the question–
John: The question is–
Charlie: Is it the best time or the worst time? I would say it’s surly one of the best times.
John: I think it’s one of the best times, too.
Charlie: Because there’s so much. I mean, there’s a sort of probably unsustainable mountain of stuff being made that that means by just logic would dictate that there’s a need for more stuff. The machine needs more coal being shoved into it. So, it’s a pretty good time to do that. And also I guess technology is at the point – the thing that sort of changed my whole career, so he talks about transitioning from one career into another. So I was a video games reviewer. And I did sort of comic strips. And I felt I was in a sort of ghetto. And I wanted to be doing TV comedy and things like that. And the way – and this was like 1998 – and the way I managed to make that jump was by doing this small little website that was sort of I guess uniquely mine. It was a small thing I was doing on a deadline that meant people were noticing it. And now the technology exists for you to make – you only get two chances to make your own stuff in your career. One is at the very beginning and then sort of near the end.
John: Yes. You’re either a nobody or JJ Abrams.
Charlie: Exactly. So you might as well, so you have the means to produce stuff. Write a script. Make a short film. Just do anything that is uniquely yours. And then hopefully people can see it. The problem is of course you’re up against everyone else who is doing the same thing. That’s the downside.
John: Absolutely. The firehose problem is that there’s so much content it’s hard to pull those things out. So there’s at least three series that I have sort of backed up, like I really want to watch those things because I know they’re fantastic. I just have only the same 24 hours.
Charlie: It’s like being air traffic control, isn’t it? These things are taxiing round and round and round. Well, I mean, even something like Game of Thrones which is like the most – was it the most popular show in the world? Still, you know, I watched it all. Most of the people I know haven’t seen it. It’s the most popular show in the world. This is the only period in history when – I was watching a reality show not that long ago in the UK and one of the contestants his job was described as TV Presenter and Barman. And I thought this is the only period in history where those two – that’s two valid careers that one person can have. Because there’s so much content around.
John: I think the other reason why this is the best time is that with the globalization of things your show and any show is available everywhere to the culture at once. And so when I was in Scandinavia doing Arlo Finch press I was talking to one of my publishers and she said, “Oh, what are you watching?” And I said there’s a few things I really want to watch. Haunting Hill House. And she’s like, “I love that.” And it had just dropped. Sorry, we can’t say dropped anymore.
Charlie: Oh, you can say dropped. No. Say dropped.
John: It had debuted worldwide. So she was watching it in her own language. I was watching it in English. And we could have this conversation in ways that never happened before. So that globalization of things is a unique moment now.
Charlie: And you can watch – so I binged watch – I mean they’ve given a terrible title in English, Money Heist. Have you seen Money Heist? It’s called La Casa de Papel which I guess translates as the House of Paper, or something. So that’s probably too close to House of Cards. I guess that’s why they changed it to Money Heist. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But it’s incredibly addictive. It’s basically 24, it’s Spanish though. It’s 24 about one bank heist.
Charlie: I mean, it knows it’s ridiculous. It gets so ridiculous. And it’s something that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across if it hadn’t been for streaming platforms. Yeah. And that’s one of the most popular shows in the world I think outside of the US and Britain. It’s amazing.
We never thought Black Mirror would travel, because it seemed so idiosyncratic to us. But it’s very odd when they drop it. I’m going to say drop it. When they drop it. Drop it. What are they going to do? Delete it? They’re not going to delete it now. It’s too late.
When they drop it on the service it is a really weird sensation that you start getting feedback from around the world in a sort of wave as it goes through time zones.
John: So one thing I do want to point out that’s different though is Netflix, let’s hope it goes on for 100 years, but likely it won’t. And so at some point the episodes that you’ve made will exist somewhere? So traditionally there’s been a way to find old episodes of things and you can find those things, or a movie exists. We talked before about movies used to be on DVDs so you could at least like always find a movie. Sometimes you can’t find a movie. Something like the Bandersnatch episode without a server to run it on it doesn’t exist as a thing people can enjoy.
Charlie: But then someone will build a 2019 Netflix emulator. Emulation. I’ve got massively into emulation which is probably apparent from Bandersnatch. So hopefully the emulator – the emulation community will save the day.
John: Well, we’re already in a simulation.
Charlie: We are.
John: There will be emulation within the simulation.
John: It stacks nicely.
Charlie: Which is something–
John: Turtles all the way down.
Charlie: We wanted to do that in the episode, have a bit in it where he’s playing a simple game and you actually – like a Frogger type game. But we didn’t have time.
John: I get that. It’s time for our One Cool Things though.
John: My One Cool Thing, so I was back in Colorado this last week which is why Craig was hosting by himself. And we’re listening to Colorado Public Radio and there’s a voice and I’m like wait that’s me. And it was the only time in my life I’ve encountered my voice twin. I’m used to hearing my voice on the podcast. And this person sounded exactly like me. And so I listened enough so I could find out what his name was. His name is Matthew Zalkind. He is a cellist living is Colorado. And it was just a really odd moment for me because I almost only get recognized for my voice. I’ll be out at a Trader Joe’s paying for something and I’ll say something and they’re like, “Oh wait, you’re John August.”
John: It’s almost entirely by my voice. So it was so odd for me to be hearing someone else’s voice. I could give this person a script and he could read it and be like, oh, well that’s John. If I do get hit by a bus Craig could just bring this person on to do my job.
Charlie: Well, and presumably the technology to do that anyway is five seconds away if it’s not already.
John: Oh clearly.
Charlie: I think it’s partly in existence. So it’s nice that you’ve discovered that voice just before the tidal wave.
John: And going back to some of your previous episodes, I think I brought this up on the show before is that I’ve taken all of the text from Scriptnotes, because we have transcripts for all of the episodes and broken them down into Craig and John, everything we’ve said separately. Run through a Markov chain generator. So I do have a little bot that can generate Craig sentences and John sentences and have them talking to each other. So at some point there will just be–
John: Of Scriptnotes. We’ll have one episode that is just generated dialogue for me and Craig talking about things.
Charlie: It will be like, there’s a short Roald Dahl story about that. About an automatic writing machine. Because he was writing it in the ‘70s or something, it’s got literally foot pedals. He steps on a pedal to make it a bit more erotic and accidentally steps too far and stuff. So it’ll be like that. You’ll be able to just generate it constantly like 24-hour, an unending loop. What if it’s better?
John: What if it’s better? I mean, what is reality? Going back to your first episode of this new season which is the question of like who is the real person and what is reality if you know somebody only in a virtual way.
Charlie: And does it matter? If it’s as compelling as they’re finding it in that episode, yeah. Sometimes when we do stories like that it’s like I am no clearer on really – I don’t know that you always need to know the answer to the question you’re raising in a story, because I think it can be hopefully interesting if you literally do not know the answer to what’s going on entirely in that episode. I think that in terms of what that means is as confusing for me as it is for the characters I think. Maybe that’s just a weakness on my part and I should have just worked it out properly. Oh, you never know.
John: We’ll see. Craig could tell you because Craig wrote Chernobyl and he knows the answers to all–
Charlie: He does. But I have got to watch that. Literally everyone is telling me to watch that. And then I spoke to my wife last night and she was like, “I want to watch Chernobyl.” I’m like, all right. Yeah.
John: You’ll get home. You’ll watch it.
Charlie: Well, the government will make me watch it at this rate. It will be issued to me by the government. I have to wait. There’s an odd sensation. I have to wait. So I can’t start watching it now until I get home and watch it with my wife. We have to watch a nuclear meltdown together or my life won’t be worth living. And I’ll have to wait. I’m going to save that up. I’m going to save the Chernobyl disaster up to make my life better.
John: Charlie, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Charlie: My One Cool Thing is a game called Baba is You.
John: Baba is You.
Charlie: Baba is You. You can get it on the Nintendo Switch and I think from Steam and probably on other things. It’s a puzzle game and a logic game the likes of which is almost impossible to describe, but it basically involved – you’re a little white like a gerbil or a rabbit, I don’t know quite what you are in it. But you’re Baba. And you scurry around and you can push – how can I explain this? There are blocks of rules, so Baba is You could be one rule. Door is Shut would be one.
Now, you can shove the word shut out of the way and you can put You in its space and then you are the door.
John: Oh, fantastic.
Charlie: If you see what I mean. And so from that sort of – it’s quite a mind-bending premise in itself. And then it spins out these incredibly clever and mind-mangling puzzles. And my 7-year-old is obsessed with video games and I played it with him and had one of those incredibly humiliating moments where I was – because you can sit there sort of your brain sweating for hours as you try and solve one of these things. And we had one of those things where I was insistent that I knew the answer and I was trying to do something. And he eventually wrestled the joy pad from me and solved it in 10 seconds because that’s the future.
Just that. I’m obsolete. All of us becoming obsolete. But it’s brilliant.
John: Great. Baba is You.
Charlie: Baba is You.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Mackey Landy. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions.
For short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. I believe you are on Twitter. Do you want people to reach you on Twitter?
Charlie: Well, they can. I don’t often – I generally use it now for shameless promotion and then I don’t look often.
John: But that’s how I reached you.
Charlie: That’s how we met. See, I sometimes use it. It’s for DM’ing. But I tend to skulk I think is the word. Skulking. Yeah. Because I figured it was bad for productivity and general mental well-being.
John: I think that’s often likely the case. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs so we can Markov chains so that Craig and I can be talking in perpetuity for all time.
Some folks do recaps of the show and discussion on the screenwriting Sub-Reddit. So check us out there. Tell us what you think of the Charlie Brooker episode. I keep trying to drop your R.
Charlie: I constantly get that in America. Constantly I’m Booker. Everywhere I go. Is there a famous Booker here?
John: Well there’s Cory Booker. He’s running for–
Charlie: I’ve never heard of him. Who is he?
John: He’s running for President.
Charlie: How would I have heard of him? I’m from Britain. I’ve heard of Trump.
John: Oh my god.
Charlie: Of course I’ve heard of Trump. I had a proper argument with an Uber driver the other day because I got in the car, here, and he said, “Well they’re really rolling out the red carpet for Trump back in your country aren’t they?” And I said, no, people hate him. People hate him in London. And there was immediately an argument. Anyway. How did I get into that?
John: Because you have an R.
Charlie: Yes. There’s an R. And also I would like to make the case for like quite often I see people writing quite accurate parodies of Black Mirror where it’s my accent going, “What if, what if your mum run on batteries? What if you could 3D print an egg? Some British dude saying what-if.” And I think that is accurate, but I find it disturbing that Americans call the show Black Mir-Or. It’s not Black Meer. That sounds like a place. Black Meer sounds like a place. Blackmere. It’s Black Mirror.
But how do you say Mirror in–?
Charlie: You said it properly. Why do people keep saying Black Meer?
John: Because we live in slightly different countries and languages are constantly evolving.
Charlie: I feel churlish now. I feel like I’ve really – yeah, sorry. [laughs]
John: Well you’re coming from a land that often does glottal stops instead of syllables.
Charlie: We just can’t talk properly in my country.
John: That’s fine.
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Come to the live show. The live show is this Thursday at the Ace Hotel. Amazing people will be there. Also, I think by the time this new episode comes out Highland 2.5 will have shipped which has revision mode in it which is remarkable, so it’s what I’ve used to write all my stuff recently. You can have stars in the margins. You can use it for writing your next Twine episode.
Charlie: Yeah. I like the sound of that.
John: I’m going to send you a beta right now.
John: Charlie Brooker, thank you very much for being on the show.
Charlie: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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- Black Mirror
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- Money Heist
- Matthew Zalkind John’s Voice Twin
- Baba is You
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