The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode has some strong language. It also has some mild spoilers for Mr. Robot so head’s up before you listen.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 449 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig is off on a secret mission but luckily I have another New Jersey born writer to fill his shoes. Sam Esmail is the creator of Mr. Robot and executive producer of many shows, including Homecoming and the upcoming Angelyne.
Sam Esmail: Hi. I didn’t know Craig was from Jersey.
John: He’s from New Jersey as well. I forget which city he’s from, but he’s New Jersey born, went to Princeton. All of that.
Sam: OK. Cool.
John: Thank you for hopping on the show with me. This is a Friday afternoon we’re recording this and you had just gotten off another call. How’s it going for you?
Sam: You know, it’s weird. I get asked this question a lot, but I think you would understand this. As a writer, I mean, I was in the middle of working on my script before this whole thing went down. And guess what I do every day? I lock myself in this room that I’m in right now in my little office in the house and I spent all day in here and walked around and took little breaks, little walks, and came back in here. So, my life personally hasn’t been as impacted as others. But obviously, you know, what’s going on is pretty disturbing and the sort of deluge of upsetting news every day is obviously taking its toll and my concern is for everyone out there.
But, yeah, like being a writer weirdly we’re kind of built for this kind of moment.
John: Yeah. It’s been really strange. I’ve felt guilty at times that my life has not been more impacted and that like – obviously there are things that are profoundly different but a lot of things are sort of exactly the same.
John: The last time we spoke was in front of a big crowd at the WGA Theater, so most of this episode is actually going to be the interview we recorded at the WGA Theater as part of the Writers Guild Foundation. And that was pre-pandemic, so that was February 25. And it’s only, you know, six weeks ago but it feels just a lifetime ago. To be in a crowded space. To shaking hands.
Sam: I know. And afterwards the fans coming up and being able to talk to them. I mean, that would be a surreal scene right now. It’s so crazy that that was only six weeks ago. It does feel like decades ago. It’s crazy.
John: I’ve been thinking about you a fair amount during this time because I want to imagine what Elliot is thinking about this type of situation. If you were still making Mr. Robot this is an opportunity – it’s the kind of chaos that you feel like he might be seeking. But also technology has impacted this is in such a huge way right now. So you and I are talking on Skype because you’re not a fan of Zoom.
Sam: Yes. By the way, John, you still use Zoom. I don’t understand it. All your listeners should know do not use Zoom. It is not secure. Even if you make the settings private it’s still not secure. There are plenty of other more secure platforms out there to do your video conferencing.
John: I’ve been using a variety of them. It’s been interesting how Zoom has become the default despite–
Sam: Weird, yeah.
John: Despite many concerns. But also privacy in the sense of we’re about to start contract tracing.
Sam: Yeah. Apple and Google are doing that. Yep. We’re there phoning you and GPS coordinates.
John: Headed for interesting times. So there’s definitely another season that you could write out of this if you wanted to. But, you were in the middle of shooting something else right now, too. So I want to talk about production also.
Sam: Yeah. So we were in the middle of – my wife is starring in this show called Angelyne, which is about the true story of this person Angelyne, sort of an LA icon. I think anybody in LA would know who she is. She sort of like invented social media before the Internet. She’s basically the first person famous for being famous, for being on billboards.
John: She was sort of like an Instagram star before there was Instagram.
John: I mean, instead of on your phone she had these giant billboards.
Sam: She had these giant billboards and she was able to convince people to get those billboards for basically no money. And she was essentially advertising herself as a personality. But that was it. That was it. It was those billboards. That was what she was promoting.
And so weirdly, you know, obviously that’s interesting in and of itself, but this article came out in the Hollywood Reporter and when you actually hear her life’s journey it’s so fascinating and has so many layers and goes into so many interesting places. It was adapted into a television limited series for Peacock, directed by the great Lucy Tcherniak. We were I think about two months into production. We have about two months left, or thereabout. And I remember the day I went to set and it was raining and it was during lunch and we just shut down in the middle of the day. Just because it was like that Thursday before things just started going down and you could just see the domino effect.
I had closed our production company’s offices the day before. And then just in the middle of that day as the news just started to break that this thing was spreading we called Universal and they completely supported us and we just shut down for the day. And we’re sort of in this weird limbo right now, right, because productions have this consistency, you know, day to day. Emmy was in a grove. I mean, her performance is so nuanced and so specific and she trained so hard for it in the months leading up to production. To then all of it kind of coming to a grinding halt is crazy. Just crazy.
But the stuff we have is great. We released a trailer a week ago. And we’re excited to hopefully – when it’s safe – to get back into it.
John: Now, here’s a question for you. A lot of limited series and shows that know that they are only doing ten episodes, they will block shoot. That is where you’ve written all the scripts and then you plan it so you’re shooting part of episode and part of episode three and part of episode five, which can save you a tremendous amount of money in terms of locations and actor availabilities. There’s lots of really good reasons to do that.
But I can also imagine that it’s a real challenge in something like this. If you were block shooting this you may not have any finished episodes.
Sam: No. That’s exactly where we’re at. We believe that now – so Lucy is directing all the episodes. And we did have all the scripts written ahead of time, so we were block shooting. And, yeah, now we’re kind of – we have footage, we have scenes, but no completed episodes. Really nothing to put together except for a really awesome trailer which I urge everyone to check out.
Yeah, it’s strange. I mean, there are probably some plusses, right? You can kind of look and see where you want to add or subtract. But ultimately, yeah, it’s just a really awkward place to be in right now. But, you know, look, it’s low on the priority list of things we’re concerned about because of everything else that’s going on.
John: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Finishing a limited series is not the highest.
John: So let’s time travel back to February, back when we can remember when we could just happily talk about your great show Mr. Robot. We talked a little bit about Homecoming as well which I have now finished and really loved.
Sam: Oh thank you.
John: At some point off-camera I’ll ask questions about Homecoming because I really just thought it was remarkable. If you have not seen Homecoming and you’re looking for a show to watch during this quarantine time I highly recommend Homecoming.
Sam: By the way, the second season of that is coming. Just to peddle that really quickly. And that’s coming in about a month, May 22. And the trailer is dropping pretty soon starring Janelle Monáe. I did not direct it. The great Kyle Patrick Alvarez did. And he did a fantastic job. It does not disappoint.
John: I’m very excited to see that. So we will travel back in time and listen to what life was like in February and then we’ll come back at the end and do our One Cool Things.
[February Interview begins]
Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be here. Craig Mazin is usually next to me, but we’ll just pretend Craig is here with little bits of umbrage.
Sam: Wow. Those are big shoes to fill. Craig.
John: They are. Sam, it’s a pleasure to actually finally meet you.
Sam: Oh yeah. Likewise.
John: I was saying in the green room I’d seen you at cocktail parties and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show, but it was always a cocktail party for some For Your Consideration something and I never got to.
Sam: Well that’s a shame because, I mean, by the way, do you ever invite people onto the pod?
John: Yes. We do. You’re in town you’re saying.
Sam: I’m inviting myself is what I’m saying.
John: Fantastic. We would love. We will follow up this conversation with a future conversation.
Sam: OK, cool. Wait, by the way, is this – do we know?
John: This will ultimately be on the podcast at some point.
Sam: Cool. All right.
John: We might save it for some moment where like Craig is in rehab or something.
Sam: Got it. Shouldn’t be too long. OK.
John: Sam, I just want a little survey of the audience here, because I have a hunch that we have a lot of writers and directors. Who here is a writer? All right. Who here is a writer-director? All right. So you can speak very well to these things. So unlike most things you go to where they are asking general questions about Mr. Robot or like inspirations, I really want to get very specific and granular and try to get some advice that’s useful for these people in this room here tonight.
So, I thought we might start with how you got started as a writer and a filmmaker? You grew up in New Jersey?
Sam: I grew up in New Jersey. Yes. Oh wow. Hoboken. Any – oh wow, OK. Hoboken-a-joking. I grew up in New Jersey. I never wanted to be a writer. I was kind of scared to write. I knew I wanted to make movies and that’s as far as I took it. And then eventually I knew I wanted to direct. And I went to NYU Film School. Wow, OK. We’re doing well tonight.
John: And so you went into NYU Film School as an undergraduate with the intention of learning how to direct?
Sam: And then I left NYU and this is when I had the spark of trying to write because I would read the scripts of my fellow students and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. And I had a very specific thing that I wanted to do. So I figured I’d go to school to learn how to write. So I went to Dartmouth. Oh, nobody from – OK.
John: Silence. Crickets. We’ll put crickets in post.
Sam: Well I was only there for two semesters.
John: OK. So you’re at NYU for film school and you finish film school.
John: And then you went to Dartmouth for a writing program to learn–?
John: And it wasn’t screenwriting, it was just writing-writing, right?
Sam: It was writing-writing. And it was not for me. It was like haikus and essays on Bob Dylan. I lasted two semesters. And also there was snow. Lots of snow. All the time. And they have a trimester. It was so confusing. So I left after two semesters and decided I needed to go back into film school. Spend more student loan money and go deeper into debt.
And came out here. I went to AFI.
John: Some applause there.
Sam: And I went into the directing program. Because, again, I just thought – I got scared of writing. I got to be honest with you. Writing is so intimidating to me. You’re staring at a blank page. It all has to kind of come out of your head. To me having now directed and written, it’s still the hardest thing to do. It’s pure creation, you know?
And directing I’m not saying that’s a walk in the park, but directing you’re translating something. You’re taking this document. Actually Tarantino, the way he describes it is that he adapts the script into a visual medium. And I think that’s pretty accurate. You’re working off of something. Whereas with writing to me it’s you and a – I don’t know. Back in the day it was like a Word document with the terrible formatting and tabs. It was miserable. I didn’t want to do it.
So I went to AFI and I was in the directing program. Graduated. Was very broke. Started editing porn to pay rent, as one would do in Sherman Oaks. And I wanted to direct, but again I had that problem where I was getting scripts that were not exactly my cup of tea. But I would even say, you know what, fuck it. That’s OK, right? OK, cool. I was like, fuck it, let me just direct whatever. I would try and just make myself – force myself to like a script. I can do something here. I can maybe rewrite the scene.
But then the next problem was you’ve got to find the money to make the movie. And it was just so expensive. And, again, I was really broke. The porn money wasn’t that great. And honestly the cheapest art form in terms of making it was writing. So, it was literally my only pathway. There was just no other avenue to break into the industry.
So I wrote a feature. My first feature, it was called Sequels, Remakes, & Adaptations. It got on the Black List. This is 2008. This is like a year or two after the Black List. There was like, you know, it was pretty fairly new at the time.
John: Absolutely. So I want to talk about the Black List.
John: But I want to make sure we finish up the conversation about film school because you spent a lot of time and a lot of money in film school both at NYU, and then the Dartmouth program, but really at AFI. Was it worth it? Were your film school studies worth it in terms of helping you get your career where it is? Do you look back at that time and say, oh, that’s where I learned how to do X, Y, or Z?
Sam: Are there any faculty members here? Film school is expensive. It’s very expensive. In fact, I think the tuition at AFI is almost double what I paid at the time, and it was a lot back then. And honestly it wasn’t until after the first season of Mr. Robot I was able to pay it all back. There’s a point where I was like, man, I’m either going to hit it big or die in debt. I didn’t really see a middle option there.
I don’t know. The answer is I don’t know. I think it’s obviously going to a day job, which I ended up doing, I mean, after the porn, which was a day job, thankfully. I then went on and was assistant editing reality shows which is basically porn without the sex. And I would write at night. And that was hard. I mean, I wrote Sequels at night till 2am and got up in the morning and went to work. And that sucked. And film school allowed me not to do that. I could do it during the day.
John: So film school was a chance to avoid that really hard work that you knew – you kind of sensed at some point that you needed to do it. That’s why you went to Dartmouth.
John: Because you recognized you needed to do it. And then you still went on to AFI and tried to say like, no, I can just direct and not have to do the writing.
Sam: Yeah. And that’s a hard thing to do. I mean, honestly, when I look at – a lot of the directors that I love it’s few and far between that they’re not writer-directors weirdly. I mean, Fincher is probably one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers who only directs. But if you are specific about what you want to say and how you see the film, I think it’s so ingrained in the writing, you know?
And it’s also – like I’m not necessarily – I didn’t want to be a director so I could adapt Peter Pan for the 20th time or anything like that. I really wanted to kind of come at it with some original storytelling or original twist on whatever. And a lot of that comes from the writing. It just became apparent after – especially after AFI – that writing was a necessary path for at least the way I want to make films.
John: Because you wanted to be able to tell an original story which is why you wrote a script called Sequels, Remakes, & Adaptations.
Sam: Exactly. Which, by the way, is all about the frustrations of trying to tell an original story in Hollywood. And by the way that was 12 years ago? I mean, I think it’s come down and gotten worse now. I mean, it’s almost to the point where I don’t even feel like – it’s like a dirty word to pitch an original film in the studio system right now. I mean, they need something. I don’t care if it’s an article or a blurb in the obits somewhere. They need some – IP is like the favorite word in town. And when you say it’s original it’s a little, you know, it’s scary. It’s scary to them. Scary times for original.
John: And I do want to talk about sort of the evolution of the industry and how streamers changed some of these equations. But let’s get back to, you write a script, it gets on the Black List. That wasn’t a magic leap. So what happened? You finish the script. What happens with the script?
Sam: So this is the good thing about AFI. Because I made friends, at least some of the people there liked me to call me a friend. And one of my friends, Vince D’Amato, was an assistant I believe at an agency. And I just sent it to him so he could read it and give me notes. And just sent it to his boss. He liked it and sent it to his boss. And I got signed by William Morris. It was honestly that fast. And then he sent it around. It never sold, but people around town liked it. And I remember initially that was a weird phenomenon, right?
John: And I had the same situation with Go. Like Go got passed around town.
Sam: Well that sold.
John: It ultimately sold. It got sold to a tiny company. But it got passed around. I was in a bunch of meetings with people saying like, “We really loved your script.” And I’m like, oh, do you want to buy it? “No, no, no. We would never make this movie.”
Sam: So weird. Yeah.
John: But you end up having the water bottle tour of Los Angeles.
Sam: Water bottle, yes. They want to sit down and talk to you just about where you’re from and who you are.
John: So how do you capitalize on those meetings? How did you capitalize on those meetings? So this was your first time really going in and talking to people who could employ you. So what did you do in those meetings as you were talking with those folks?
Sam: Didn’t really do much. I just – I was very confused initially. But I ended up, like honestly one of my first generals was at the time Paramount – Paramount Vantage. They don’t exist anymore, do they?
John: Paramount Pictures?
John: Oh, Vantage.
Sam: Remember, they were so cool at the time. They had done There Will Be Blood and I think No Country or something. And in that meeting is now my, I mean, we didn’t talk for years but now he’s my producing partner, Chad Hamilton. He was my manager at Anonymous and he became my producing partner. The second meeting I had was at DreamWorks. Jonathan Eirich who is now one of my good friends.
So I ended up making friends and socializing at these meetings. But I don’t know if I was any good at selling myself as a writer because the one thing I said in these meetings which was death was “I also want to direct this script.” Oof, that was like the fast ticket out of the office, you know. Nobody wanted to hear that. They either wanted to hear you’re going to write and then what’s your next, at the time I think The Hangover was like the big – and because Sequels was a little bit of a comedy, a little bit of a weird comedy, they wanted me to write Hangover, or come up with the next Hangover. That was kind of a recurring theme on that first water bottle tour.
John: So I think an important thing to take out of this is that you start getting these meetings but those meetings don’t pay you money.
John: You’re not able to pay your rent off of general meetings.
John: So what do you do? What were the next things you were writing?
Sam: I was still doing this day, you know, the reality shows, you know, porno without sex. And I was trying to do these meetings on my lunch hour. And here’s the thing. I kind of saw that Sequels was not going to sell. Everybody was doing the thing where “It’s really great, it’s really awesome. We’re not going to buy it. No, that’s not going to happen.” And also the other thing is I knew I wanted to direct it which was definitely not going to happen.
So, what I did was I just started writing something else. Because that’s the one thing, I mean, if we’re going to start going down the advice lane here. The one piece of advice is the minute you finish your great script, start writing a new one. It’s just keep going. That is the fastest way to get to where you want. I think I did that almost every time I finished a script. I literally would put it away and just at least wrote the shittiest first page of the next screenplay that I would write.
In this case it wasn’t that shitty. It was another script called [Norm the Movie] which then ended up on the Black List a year later. Also did not sell. But I took a lot, you know, took more meetings with different people. Very nice.
John: At very point did you consider yourself, OK, I am a screenwriter in the sense that I am getting it – both in the sense of like I’m OK designating myself as a writer and I’m a screenwriter in the sense that I get meetings as a screenwriter. People are considering hiring me as a screenwriter.
Sam: It’s weird though, because I had a day job. And I think that was – I would say that I wasn’t a writer because I was an assistant editor. And that’s what I did for most of my day. And the writing came at 2am because it was the only time I could afford to dedicate to that. Or weekends. And I really wanted it to be my fulltime job. So I did the plunge. After Norm didn’t sell I saved up some money and just quit. I said let me just give myself a year and just go for it.
And I pitched a movie to my friend at DreamWorks and got hired. Actually, I should say before that I did pitch a movie to at the time Mandate based on a graphic novel that they had by the great Lindsay Doran. I don’t know if you guys know who Lindsay Doran is.
John: A lot of people in this room knew. She’s a frequent Scriptnotes guest.
Sam: I mean, she was the first producer I worked on on a paid job. The money wasn’t – it was my first job, but the value I got from having her as a mentor and a producer. And you should listen to her, I think she’s had Ted Talks, or videos online. She knows more about story than anyone else. And she’s really smart and she gives really insightful notes. And she’s a fan.
That’s the other thing. And you’ll notice this. When you start working with people who are just doing the perfunctory job of giving you notes you can tell and it’s a drag. Because they’re just making shit up just to get you to do some busy work. She just cuts right through that and knows exactly how to shape everything. Anyway, I could go on about Lindsay. But anyway, watch Lindsay Doran videos.
And then I got the job at DreamWorks. I pitched an idea. They liked it. You know, a little bit more money than the Mandate job. And so that’s when I took the plunge and said, all right, I’ll quit. I’ll do this. And hope that that would last a year.
John: And so you quit your job. You’re hoping it’s going to last a year. And what point do things start to look like they are sustainable. That you can actually keep doing this. So you can actually get something made. What is the first thing that looks like, OK, this isn’t just a writing job that might lead to something. It actually is a thing I can see, I may have a career here?
Sam: It was – and this is no fault of DreamWorks because I everybody there I love. Again, Jonathan is one of my dear friends. And Holly who I still think is at DreamWorks, she was amazing. I just remembered after that experience then my heart tugged the other way. And I said wait a minute, I’m in this thing to write things for me to direct. And there was just something about the process of begging and scraping and fighting to get these jobs to write a script to hand off to somebody else.
You know, the philosophy about screenplays is that the screenplay is the thing and then the movie is a different thing. And then the other philosophy which is the screenplay is the blueprint for the movie. And because I started off wanting to be a director I’ve always looked at it that way. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that now, because there are screenplays that you can read and that are beautiful to read on their own. And then the movie is like a whole other thing. And then there are screenplays you can just tell it is just to make the movie. And I think I’m just more of the latter. And so how can I make a living knowing I’m only doing 50% of what I want to do with this idea, or this story that I want to tell?
And so after the DreamWorks job I decided to just, again, as soon as I finished I started writing Comet. I wanted to write a contained indie film that I could direct. And I was like the next thing I write is the thing I’m going to direct.
John: So this is a script that you’re setting out from the very beginning thinking like these are the limitations I have. I don’t have very much money. I need to be like one location, really tight, small, that I can – with people I know and the skills I have I can make this movie?
Sam: Correct. And I wrote it. At the time I was – they really wanted me to be a certain kind of writer who came up with ideas like The Hangover.
John: Your team meaning your representatives?
Sam: Yes. My agents and managers. They wanted me to write high concept comedies. And I just – they’re great and I’m a huge fan, but that wasn’t who I was. So I decided to leave them and I was essentially – I didn’t have any representatives. And that’s when I circled back with Chad. So now this is like five years later since I met him in one meeting, my first general meeting, my first meeting ever in the industry, and now he’s a manager at Anonymous. And he has always been a fan and wanted to sign me. I said well here’s Comet and I was very clear. I was like this the script that I want to make next. I’m not going up for pitches. I’m not doing any other jobs. I want to direct this movie. Will you help me do this?
This is it. And he read the script, liked the script, said let’s do it. And so we went on this long, arduous journey of trying to get the money, which we did. And got a great cast and I finally went out and directed my first film.
John: Now, all the time that you spent in film school at NYU and at AFI, then it was actually useful. Because you had production experience. So it wasn’t like you were the first time on a set. You had actually shot stuff before. So it wasn’t brand new to you to be making a film.
Sam: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, when you’re doing a student film it’s not the, you know.
John: It’s not the highest [crosstalk].
Sam: Yeah. I think I was like booming one of the films I was directing. Yeah, it’s different. It’s different. And the pressure is so different, right? Because I think with student films – and you want to retain that as much as possible, because with student films you’re experimenting a lot. I remember at AFI, I mean, I fucking did the weirdest shots, like the actors would be here, I’d be over there in the corner shooting a closet or something and thought I was artsy.
You can’t do that. You can’t play. And it’s sad because I think you need some of that. And thankfully I was able because I had such a great cast and crew on Comet and people really believed in it. We were able to play a lot but the one thing I knew – like I think it was the second or third day I was like I got this. This is what I enjoy. Like all the pain of writing scripts and handing them off, or writing treatments, and writing pitches, and going to pitches. Like all of that sort of paid off when I got onto the set.
John: What is it that you like? Do you like that you have a team of people around you? Do you like the decision-making? Do you like that it’s this or that and not the 50,000 choices that you have with words on the page? What are the things about directing that you prefer to writing?
Sam: It’s not necessarily a preference. It’s that idea I had when I was sitting in the office and I was like, oh, this might be cool, and then I’m there on set and Emmy Rossum is saying it to Justin and I’m like, oh, that’s fucking cool. You know?
John: So it’s going from this thing you have in your head to having to express into words which are sort of an imperfect way of expressing idea to when you see it on the monitor, when you see it in front of you, it’s real.
Sam: Right. You know how when you write, you know parenthetical? Right? You know, I try not to get too parenthetical happy. I don’t know how many actors love the parenthetical. I’ve seen some actors just–
John: Cross them all out. Yeah.
Sam: Cross them all out. But to me I love the parenthetical. I wonder if Rami crosses them out? No. I think Rami, no, he doesn’t cross them out.
John: Ask your wife.
Sam: I’ll ask Emmy. Yeah, that’s a good point. But I love the parenthetical because I don’t know about you but when I write I am picturing it. And I change the parenthetical. I’ll be like, OK, she’s said when she says this line. And then I walk away and just changing that to, no, she is happy when she says this fucked up line and it totally changes the scene. It makes you rewrite the rest of the scene. Those are powerful things. And then when you are on set and you get to see like a real actor who has got real chops do that, the intention that you had, that very small detailed intention that you have, that to me is worth everything.
John: So there are many writer-directors who when I interview them they feel like the process of production is just the hell they have to go through in order to have–
Sam: It is. No, production is miserable. Go ahead.
John: It’s both delightful and miserable.
Sam: No, no, it’s pretty all miserable. But, but, it is, it is. Look, all of your dreams for the most part fall apart and you have to fix everything in post. The moments that I am talking about are few and far between and they make everything – yeah. That’s what I mean. Let me be clear. It is not Disneyland every day on set.
John: All right. So you’re shooting Comet. You’re deciding, oh you know what? I actually do love directing. This is what I want to do.
John: You finish the film. What happens with the film and how do we connect the dots between that and Mr. Robot? What is the trajectory between those two projects?
Sam: Well, so before I started shooting Comet, the minute I finished Comet I started writing Mr. Robot. And it was going to be my follow up magnum opus to Comet as a feature film. And I had to stop writing Mr. Robot because I was going in prep in Comet and I was also, I mean, I’ve said this in countless interviews and I’ll say it again, but I was 90 pages into the script and I wasn’t even close to finishing act one.
Sam: And that’s a problem, John.
John: Yeah, you’ve built a big world there. So I’m guessing you didn’t outline carefully?
Sam: I never outline. I should listen to your podcast more.
John: Craig can talk about outlining. Craig is a big outliner. So, I was looking through your script preparing for this, for the pilot, and so on your dedication page you have two quotes, and one of the quotes I really love and it’s from an Internet meme apparently circa 2011. “Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank and he can rob the world,” which is a great quote.
John: Is that a real quote or did you make that up just for the script?
Sam: I have no idea.
Sam: But it’s cool.
John: It’s cool. And it definitely informs the idea and the tone of Mr. Robot. So, let’s talk about intent. So, as you start to write this feature film, Mr. Robot, what are the influences but also what is it that you’re hoping to be able to say that – what is the movie you wish you could see as you start writing it?
Sam: Wow. OK. How do I start? Well, there were three things. I had the idea of doing a movie about Hackers when Hackers – remember the movie Hackers? Yeah. And I was like why does it have – I mean, I watched Hackers religiously, but I did not necessarily know if I liked it. But I was like why do we have to – there was a good way to make a movie about hackers and so that was like the first seed. And this is like ‘90s, right? I don’t remember. ’96 or ’97.
So anyway I kind of let that go. You know, I’d do a bunch of things. I did porn, reality shows. And then 2008 happened, right? And the financial crisis. And I am enraged. And I think back – this is by the way just as we’re doing the advice checklist, those ideas that hang around, those are the ones. I really think – I believe this – I think David Lynch said this when he came to AFI when he screened Mullholland Drive which was like this mind-blowing experience. And he believes that ideas that are like – I’m going to butcher what he said. But they’re in the ether somewhere and you sort of catch it.
Well I kind of believe that. But I believe it in this way which is I think your mind tells you what you want to write. Because this idea kept coming to me. When the financial crisis happened it told me. I mean, I was angry about it, but it told me the hacker that’s in your movie is mad about this. He is furious about this.
And then, again, I was broke and student debt, blah, blah, blah. And then the Arab Spring happened. And I’m Egyptian. And I saw it with my father and my mother. We literally watched it on the news. And I saw how technology could bring this confounding – having been to Egypt never thought anything like this could happen where people rose up and actually fought for their freedom. And so it was a way of using technology to harness that power and bring people together. And that was the kind of – that’s when I knew. And I always start with characters. That’s when I understood Elliot.
So, all of those ingredients led up to that first day of writing Mr. Robot. And so when I start with the character, I start with Elliot, right. I’m like, OK, who is he, what’s his story, what does he want? So he wants to, OK, so he wants to cause a revolution. What does that mean and what does that look like? What does he specifically want? And I start getting into it.
And I really do a lot of thinking. A lot of thinking. And I don’t write any of it down. I should write that down. That’s bad advice. Write stuff down. I try and use Evernote now. You have a notebook. Do you use that?
John: I do use that.
Sam: You’re analog.
Sam: OK. God, I would lose that all the time.
John: I have a software company but I do sort of also write stuff down, especially the ideas that you get at 11 o’clock at night. Do I get out of bed or do I not get out of bed to write it down? I will write it down in the notebook.
But I want to get back to – so your idea is floating. This idea of I want to do something about hackers is sort of floating out there. And then you see Arab Spring and that’s a thing. And then you see the financial crisis. A lot of times as we talk – in my experience but also as I talk to other filmmakers, it’s like there’s ideas sort of competing for attention in your head. They’re sort of going, hey, pay attention to be again. And eventually like they can gang up together. What if we all got together? We could be a super group. And we could make him write about us.
And so it sounds like these are all things that sort of just demanded your attention. They came together to form one super group.
Sam: I mean, it did. And honestly now having done that I realize I think that was my frustration – and I don’t know how you do it, because like then there are these amazing writers that can find a way just to do it more on demand, like you do. Like a lot of great writers do. And that was my struggle trying to just be a writer in the business. I just didn’t know if I could, all right, do this comedy about X, Y, and Z and they’re going to, and now go.
There was a part of me that needs it to come to me in the way that it did.
John: So as things were coming to you, you said you had Elliot. But did you have Elliot as our voiceover, as our narrator, that we’re inside his head?
John: And that he knew that we could see what he was doing and hear his thought?
Sam: No. Then the DID of it came after that. And that was a tricky thing. When I thought of that, when I was like well I want to explore the idea and I want to explore mental illness, I was worried. A lot of that stuff can get gimmicky, right? A lot of people, you know, they use mental illness as a gimmicky storytelling device. And I was really scared to death of that.
I think that’s part of the reason why I got super long-winded, because I just want – I was like really wanted it to feel like this authentic person who is really struggling with something very serious and very internal. So, I did all this research on DID. You know, I also suffered from OCD and social anxiety disorder. I also did a lot of morphine. And those disorders a lot of what I was personally going through. And there were times where I would spend my therapy sessions not talking about me at all, talking about Elliot. Mind you, I was broke. So I really shouldn’t have been doing that. I probably should have taken it myself.
But anyway, I look at Elliot. I mean, Elliot started to be a real person to me. You know what I mean? And to me that was important. Unlike you, maybe not unlike you. I don’t know how you do it. But before I write I figure out everything. I need to know the ending. Do you need to know the ending?
John: I don’t always need to know the ending. I need to know a general destination I’m headed for. But I don’t need to know specific stuff about the ending necessarily.
John: But when you say the ending, so you knew the ending of the feature that you were trying to write?
Sam: Which is the ending of the show.
John: OK. Oh, the ending of four seasons of the show?
Sam: Yeah. That’s how long–
John: I think that really wasn’t maybe a feature you were writing. I think it was longer than that. So, you ultimately were able to get there.
Sam: But think about that as a feature. I still think it could have been a cool feature if I just shut up a little bit.
John: The Matrix is an amazing movie, but it could have also have been a series as well. All the journey that Neo goes through and everything he discovers, we can totally imagine that as a series as well.
Sam: That’s true. And I think there are stories that probably can go both ways. But I have to say like I ended up because I was paranoid about the gimmicky mental illness shtick, like to me this was the only way I was going to be able to tell Mr. Robot. And it just so happened – so after I finished Comet I came back to this 90-page not even first act and was scratching my head, not knowing what to do, and Steve Golin, rest in peace, he at the time was making this little show called True Detective. He was all about TV.
And the guy was like a genius. This was before TV like – yes, I think Breaking Bad had just finished and Mad Men was on the air. But I mean what that first season taught me in True Detective was that TV was traditionally just supposed to be a writer’s medium, but that was to me an amazing marriage of writing and filmmaking.
John: Yeah. It’s incredibly cinematic. It has really big movie kind of things. And it trusts that the viewer is going to be comfortable being confused for quite a long time.
John: Which is very helpful for your show.
Sam: Yes. Yes.
John: I want to talk about mystery versus confusion. Because mystery gets us sort of coming back for me and at a certain point people will say like I’m just so confused I can’t even follow what’s going on here.
Sam: I’m familiar.
John: So, tell me about as you’re now looking at this thing you’ve written as being a pilot and therefore we have to plan out what the season looks like, what were the decisions about how to lay out the mystery of stuff and how – who is that woman that Elliot’s talking with? Oh, wait, that’s his sister. How do you make those decisions as you’re laying stuff out?
In the second season where the point of view you realize late in the season was not at all what you thought. How are you balancing those decisions? How early are you deciding what you’re going to put in what episode?
Sam: I’m never like, OK, so what’s the big mystery this season and work backwards from there. I always tried to stay with Elliot. And in terms of like surprising the audience, I like that. I think it’s great when you get to a moment, any moment, any scene, and you’re surprised and something unexpected happens. That’s what you should be going for all the time, whether you’re doing a twisty mystery movie or just a comedy. You want people to continually be surprised. The problem is you don’t want to build stuff around the surprise.
And I think that’s the trap that – you know, especially with a movie where there are going to be these big twists, if you start making it an exercise as opposed to an emotional journey with the character it’s going to end up feeling like that. An exercise. And that was another thing – I remembered just doing Comet and then going into Mr. Robot, I remember when Mr. Robot came out. Yeah, it’ll be a little small show. Maybe just a few of my nerdy homies will watch it and that will be that.
And I was shocked that more people watched it. But I think it’s attributed to the fact that I really cared about it. I mean, I really cared about this guy and I really cared about his story. And that to me – that always trumped the mysteries or the reveals. And honestly when people, because people did figure it out. I went to Reddit and people figured out the twists ahead of time. I wasn’t that bothered by that. That wasn’t my point.
John: Because you weren’t making it for the twists. You were making it for the character moments along the way. And Elliot’s relationship with the other characters in the show is emotionally meaningful in the moments. It’s not all about the big reveals later on.
Sam: Yeah. I honestly thought at the end of episode two when he meets Darlene I was like, oh, well people will figure it out. That’s his sister. And weirdly everyone was just so fixated on the robot, from the first episode. They were like, oh. And I remember the network was like, “You know, I think people figured it out.” And I was like, cool. OK. Sure.
John: So, I want to talk about, Mr. Robot was made for USA. It was released a week at a time and big gaps between seasons. So you have the advantage of building up expectation over the course of the week. That people see an episode and they see it in real time and there’s time to discuss. There’s watercooler moments that can happen. And it can build over the course of the season.
How different would Mr. Robot have been if that entire first season had dropped in one moment? In like a Netflix model where it all comes out at once? How would it have played differently do you think?
Sam: I just think you wouldn’t have the community. I remember when I used to – I was obsessed with Lost. And to me the joy of Lost was I went over to my friend’s house and we all watched it. And not even at the end of the episode, in the commercial breaks we would be fucking yelling at each other theories. And like you’re fucking wrong. Oh my god. Wait, wait, wait, wait, we’re going to come back.
John: The smoke monster is actually the…yeah, yeah, yeah.
Sam: Oh yeah. The whole thing, we’d go online. We had the laptop up with the message boards. Because I don’t think, Twitter didn’t really exist in the early years. It was message boards. And I loved that. That was a communal experience. Actually that’s akin to going to the movies and then having that conversation afterwards. That’s part of the experience for me. And so when you do the binge model, which we did on Homecoming – you know what’s good about that, but this is strictly just a selfish thing, is you get it all over with, right? I mean, like if you’re airing every week the critics are shitting on you one week, and then the next week they’re not. And then they’re like, well fuck, what’s the point of this. And I’m like just wait. Next. Just give me a week guys. Jesus fucking Christ.
John: As if you’re making the next episode. Oh no, we’ll change it based on this.
Sam: Oh, this is pointless. They’re setting this up and it’s not going to go anywhere? Really? What are you going to say next week when we pay that off and then they’re on to some other? So that was like, you know, and whatever. So that’s a selfish dumb thing. Who cares about that?
To me it’s the communal experience and that weekly – like right now I’m obsessed with The Outsider. I love that show. I think the other day I had lunch with Julia and she likes that show too and we just talked – and we had our theories and myths. And that was great. And I don’t feel like I do that a lot with the binge mode.
John: So you come into Mr. Robot not having worked on a TV show. Suddenly running a TV show. What was the learning curve like for you going in just as a person who has written stuff and directed stuff but suddenly you’re running a show? How did you get up to speed with that?
Sam: So, I started dating this girl Emmy, and she was on a show, Shameless. And that showrunner, his name is John Wells.
John: He’s had a successful career. A little show called ER.
Sam: West Wing. China Beach. I went up to him and I said please tell me everything, because I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. And he’s like, “You know what?” I’ve got to tell this story, even though the WGA is going to hate me for telling this story.
So, John Wells is the nicest man on the planet. It’s like, “You know I’m doing a talk about the WGA Foundation. It’s a showrunner’s talk. You’ll be my guest. Come.” So, I’m like this is fucking great. Because literally my room opened in a weeks and I have no clue what I’m doing. So, I go and I’m John Wells’ guest. And he’s up there and he gives this great speech and it’s awesome. And I’m sitting in the corner. And I think there’s like, I don’t know how many people they pick for that, like 20 or 30 people. And I’m taking notes. John Wells has this meticulous schedule. Even his dinner plans.
John: The trains run on time in a John Wells [crosstalk].
Sam: Oh yes, they do. And I’m like writing it down and I’m like, oh, this is great. And then John Wells finishes his speech and is like OK, thank you guys. And he leaves. And so the next speaker goes up. And I’m like, great. And they start talking. And I’m writing notes. And then it’s WGA members, one of the people who is working at the WGA giving me dirty looks and the minute John Wells was gone walks up to me and asks me to get the fuck out of there.
John: Yeah, you’re not in the showrunner training program.
Sam: No. Which is fair. Because I didn’t earn the right to be there. But that was honestly the few notes I could scribble in that one hour was what I had to go into it. And what’s great about what John does is there’s a structure that he maintains in his writers room and just all of production. And that really helped me. Went in and the first thing I said to the network is here is my writers room schedule. I mean, I literally just ripped off John and said here is my schedule and here is when every episode is going to be due for the whole season, which they said you’re the first showrunner who has ever done that and we’re going to hold you to it.
But I actually like that. You know, it just kept me–
John: So how far ahead were scripts supposed to be from production?
Sam: So typically on a television show, especially back in those days, I mean, five years ago–
John: But really a different universe.
Sam: It is so different. But back in those days you’d get the first few episodes written and you’d start shooting and you’re writing while you’re editing while you’re shooting. And I just couldn’t do – I was planning on directing. I wanted to be on set even when I wasn’t directing. I just felt that part of it, the filmmaking part of it, was so important and I wanted to be as involved in that as the writing. So, I told the network I really wanted to write all the scripts. Which, again, in those days is fucking crazy. That’s just not done.
John: So you wanted to go into production with the scripts done and locked-ish. Like ready to shoot.
John: And was the intention of cross-boarding, so you’re shooting things in different episodes at the same time?
Sam: No. Because that was the first season, so we had a different director every episode. So we just went in order. And USA, I don’t know why they were nice. I’m just like this nobody who came out of nowhere and said these are my demands. I didn’t say it like that. But they just believed in the script and they believed in what we were doing. And they said OK. And so we wrote all the scripts. We were in prep in New York, so I was flying back and forth. Every Thursday night I’d get on the flight back here to LA to work in the writer’s room over the weekend and go back to New York.
John: So scripts were written but you still had your writers–
Sam: Well this is prep.
John: So this is just your prep.
Sam: So then by the end of prep then all the scripts had been written and then we started shooting. And I directed the first episode. Because we had shot the pilot already, which was episode two, so I could not be in the room obviously. So, I had to get it all done before we started shooting.
John: But now a lot – in these five years there’s a lot more shows that are done the way you’re describing in terms of there’s a room that gets together and things are written well before there is – stuff is happening. Sometimes it’s because they are going to cross board it, so an elaborate production schedule. But sometimes it is so that they can really sign off and approve on the whole series before things start shooting.
How much change from that first season, how much in the scripts changed while you were shooting the first season?
Sam: Oh, all the time. Yeah. And that’s like the nimble part of being the showrunner and the director is that on set – and I had this great partner, Kyle Bradstreet who is an EP on the show, who would sit on set with me and we would talk about the next day’s scenes. Is this right? This is bugging me. And he’d bring up. And then we’d be shooting a scene that would pay off in that scene. That’s the great thing, again, this is the great thing about block shooting is you can continually start to see the mosaic. Because it is s a mosaic. I mean, even the one thing that I learned about Mr. Robot in terms of the way I think of storytelling, it’s like if you’re looking at a picture and you’re standing this close to it and then each time you go to the next scene you take a step back. And what you’re seeing around the thing you just thought it was now gets re-contextualized. And you keep taking a step back until you start to see this whole picture. I think that is what showrunning is.
Because you are talking. Craig did five hours on Chernobyl. And, you know, Mr. Robot, we’re doing 10 hours.
John: You are twice the show he did.
Sam: Yeah, exactly. Yes. You tell him, John. But you’re like painting this one dot. And then you continue to step back. Pretty good. And then you go back. And that’s the way writing was on a TV show. Kyle and I would sit there and, “Is this, OK, I’m going to add this one line in. But four episodes later you’ve got to rewrite that and we’ll compare notes.” And it was a continual – in that way it was a way different art form than feature screenwriting, you know what I mean?
John: So you alluded to the fact that part of the challenge of the week by week schedule is that you as a showrunner have to respond to the show coming out each week. And so with the first season was the whole season done before the first episode aired?
Sam: No. That was the other thing. Because I’m a crazy person, I was on set. We’re airing shows, so I’m having to fly out from New York on Thursday, edit all weekend till Sunday night. I remember I got the 2am flight Sunday night back to New York so I can be on set Monday morning. And I just did that. And I had to because I was locking episodes. Of course, most showrunners they wouldn’t, like OK we’re not going to go to set then. And I mean I was so crazy I think at one point, I actually remember this, there was an important scene and I couldn’t be there because it was Friday. They were shooting it on Friday and I had to be here in LA. So they FaceTimed me and they put the laptop on my director’s chair. And I looked at the – don’t do that, by the way. Bad advice.
John: You got it done. But so what lessons did you take from that and apply to seasons two, three, and four? An example would be like could you just move the whole thing to New York and not be going back and forth? Did you get more stuff done ahead of time? Like what changes were you able to make so that you could have the process be a little saner for you and for–?
Sam: Well, I don’t know about saner. But the big change was I directed every episode after that. So the entire second, third, and fourth season I directed. We block shot the entire thing. That mean that the strategy behind that a little bit was showrunners like John Wells, he walks from the writer’s room to the edit bay to set and he does that trip every day. I can’t fucking do that. I just don’t have the mental capacity. I need to write and dream big and just sky’s the limit. Then I need to go to set, have all those dreams come crumbling down. And then after I wash that away I go into the edit bay and then you do the final rewrite.
I need to have them. And I knew that about myself after the first season. And so that’s the biggest takeaway was going into–
John: You’re not having a tone meeting with each new director coming onboard to talk through what the thing is because you are – you know what the intention is behind things.
Sam: Right. Right. And those are fucking hard anyway. How do you do that? I mean, I tried to play music for certain directors. By the way, all the directors in the first season were fucking great. I mean, Deborah Chow who is doing amazing and I can’t wait to see what she does in her career, but all the episodes she did for Mandalorian. It was great.
But to me it was an inability of mine to be able to communicate this weird, specific thing that I was going for in tone. And tone is such a hard indescribable thing to me. So, that is primarily one of the reasons why – one of my shortcomings in terms of why I felt like I needed to be on set. Because it was just sort of a trial and error thing for me. You know?
John: So let’s talk about the switch over to Homecoming. So Homecoming is based on a really successful podcast. What was your first exposure to Homecoming, to that as a property, as a story, as an idea?
Sam: My agent, Joe Cohen, I think the first episode may have dropped, but he had all of them. And he said you’ve got to listen to this podcast. I think you’d really dig it. I said great. Oh, he actually said, “I think you’ll really dig it.” I’m like, yeah, OK, I will, but why are you giving it to me? And he’s like, “We should adapt it into a TV show.” And I immediately like, no, come on. If it’s great it shouldn’t be adapted. It’s probably just a great podcast and that’s OK. It doesn’t need to be a movie or a TV show.
And he’s like, “Just listen to it.” So I listened to it and the first, I binged it all the way through like in one sitting. And I was like this is great. Shouldn’t be anything but what this is. This is great. Then I listened to the whole thing again. I think I listened to it the second time with Emmy and I was like this is really good. And then I listened to it the third time. Just was like let me just close my eyes and picture this thing. And that’s when I was like, OK, there’s a TV show here.
It’s different as a TV show. It’s not going to be what the podcast is, which is fucking great. But it could be a great separate thing as a TV show.
John: So it doesn’t have the limitations that a podcast naturally has an audio-only.
Sam: But the limitations on the podcast were great.
John: Yeah. They were. [Unintelligible], but you wouldn’t just try to duplicate those same limitations.
John: You’d apply new things. So, what is your first meeting like with those writers? Is it all awkward that you’re coming in here as a multi-award-winning writer of a really successful show talking with them about this this thing they made? What is that conversation like?
Sam: I never thought about it that way. Honestly I just talked to them as a fan, which by the way is another thing that I would say. I want to be a fan of the things that I do. I’m such a movie/TV show fan myself. I just want to be able to geek out on it. So I talked to Eli and Micah, and I geeked out on it. I said I’m a huge fan. And they were like how would you adapt it? And I’m like I wouldn’t really change what you guys wrote necessarily, but this is the tone and this is the vibe that I want. And I started just doing that. I started just talking about vibe and gave them all my references. This is what I’m feeling when I hear the podcast.
And, you know, this was interesting and this happened when we were pitching the show, too. There was this weird knee-jerk reaction of, OK, we’re going to turn it into an hour-long drama and we’re going to make it more cinematic, you know, car chases, action set pieces, things like that. There was just this automatic we’re going to undo what you did in the podcast because it’s just a podcast. And we’re going to now make it cinematic, which means we’re going to show cars and stuff. I don’t know.
It was a very weird like – I think that was the instinct was that because it was two people talking it could not be cinematic. Or because it was two people talking that wouldn’t sustain anyone’s attention. And I was thinking to myself, well wait a minute, I listen to a podcast with two people talking and that completely sustained my – why on earth would I see them then all of a sudden, you know, that wouldn’t work?
And also why did we need it to be an hour-long drama? Because honestly that was one of those things where I think that is probably how a lot of adaptations get screwed up is there’s this weird expectation that it has to completely change and turn into this weird, I don’t know–
John: The hour-long drama is sort of an arbitrary format that we pick. And so a half-hour is actually really great. It’s not Quibi. It’s not 10 minutes. But it’s this nice size feel for sort of what the episodes are.
Sam: And also it fucking worked in the podcast. Why would we change that? And so this was all sort of I think music to Eli and Micah’s ears. Because I think they, look, the podcast was pretty popular. Everyone really loved it and they were taking a lot of meetings. But I think I was probably – I don’t know, I wasn’t in those other meetings – but I think they were excited by the fact that I really wanted to stay as true to the podcast as possible. But I wasn’t – in terms of that I wasn’t willing to change the story much. That it just meant when I adapted it to TV that there was going to be a tonal shift there. And they were totally onboard with that.
John: You’re involved with other podcasts. And you’re working on a narrative podcast?
Sam: Oh yeah. Yeah. The End Up. Look at you, John. OK. All right. We’re going to talk about that.
John: Well I’m just curious. Are there any things out there that you’re envious that newer people get to do? That basically sometimes I look out there and I see people who are just starting their careers. They can sort of do anything and things are a free-for-all. So what advice would you have for these people out here who are looking at things? What do you think is really interesting that you might steer them towards trying to do?
You know, podcasts are kind of a brand new format. The narrative podcasts. What else?
Sam: I would, honestly, well it depends. It’s all up to your means, right? I mean, if you want to be a filmmaker and you have money, go make a film. Go make a short. Go make an indie. You know, I just read because Leigh Whannell is one of my new favorite–
John: Yeah, he’s remarkable.
Sam: Did you see Invisible Man?
John: I haven’t seen it yet. Friday.
Sam: But what about Upgrade?
John: Oh, I loved Upgrade.
Sam: Fucking great. Do you know what the budget–?
John: Nothing. So Leigh came on Scriptnotes. It was nothing.
Sam: It was like $3 million.
John: Well, it was a Blumhouse movie but as an action movie.
Sam: Fucking great. Anyway, if you have $3 million…or if you can get $3 million, go make something like Upgrade. If you don’t have $3 million, or can’t get $3 million – to me then my other option was write, which is what I did. That doesn’t cost that much, right?
John: I think implicit in what you’re saying about your early start is you kept delaying writing for a very long time because you were scared of it. And if you actually started writing earlier you might have gotten some stuff written earlier.
Sam: That’s true. That’s true. Yes.
[February interview ends]
John: All right, we’re back. So we’re back here in the present time, or at least this is April as we’re talking through right now. We are both in our home offices. What we do normally on the show at this point is our One Cool Things where we talk about things we want to recommend to our listeners. So, something that was really helpful for me the past couple weeks has been this iPad stand which I used, but I found I’ve had to use a lot more recently.
The one I really like is called AboveTek. And what I like about it is it’s fully articulated. You can rotate it in any direction. We were talking earlier about having to video conference and sort of software for that, but I find the cameras on the iPads are so much better than the cameras on any MacBook that it really is helpful sometimes to just do the video stuff on that. So this is a really good stand for that. Or just any time you’re using your iPad to look at but not to be the main thing you’re touching, I recommend this.
So it’s just a really good inexpensive stand that I probably will get a second one because I’m always hauling it between the office and the house. So, if you’re looking for something even just for FaceTime I’ll recommend this AboveTek iPad Stand.
Sam: Interesting. OK. I’ll have to check that out.
John: Do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Sam: I do. You know, it’s tough. Obviously I think the easy thing would be to recommend movies. And I would recommend movies over TV shows for now because I do think oftentimes it’s easier to binge television shows when we don’t have as much time, because those are shorter episodes. But now that we have a little bit more time, we have that extra half-hour, 45 minutes I would urge people to really – and what I do is finish filmographies, right? Like for whatever reason I had never seen Alien 3 which is David Fincher’s first film. I had seen all of his other movies. Never saw Alien 3. Finally crossed that one off the list.
And now I’m attacking Cronenberg and basically almost done. I’ve never seen Scanners. I’m going to check that out soon.
But the one thing I’d recommend is this app/website called JustWatch.com. It’s really easy to use. You essentially put in whatever title you’re interested in, or filmmaker, and it will come up with those titles and it will tell you what platforms they’re available on. So for the most part a lot of the titles is either on HBO or Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu or whatever and you don’t have to rent or pay extra for it. So it’s actually just a good resource for that.
But they also have a thing called The Watchlist. And so I just started all those movies that just kind of, you know, like for example I’ve never seen Tootsie. I don’t know why. But it’s considered one of the classics. I’ve never seen it. I threw it on my Watchlist. Now it’s going to kind of come up in my queue.
But again I would encourage this sort of director binges to me is like a really fun way to just get into a filmmaker’s vibe and style. And as you watch their movies, whether it’s chronologically or not, you start to just get – especially for filmmakers out there, you start to get a feel for how they sense tone, how they’ve evolved as a storyteller. Sometimes if the writer-directors do the movies that they’ve written work better than the movies that they didn’t. That’s always an interesting thing.
But anyway, regardless, JustWatch.com. You can put it on your phone or you can do it on the web. And it syncs up your Watchlist. And best of all it tells you where they’re available for free so that way you don’t have to spend the money.
John: Excellent. Although I will say spend the money if you want to see the thing, because we get residuals for those things, too.
Sam: That’s true. That’s true.
John: All right. If you are a Premium member stick around after the credits because we have some Q&A that we did at the live show. And so people asked questions. A lot of them are Mr. Robot questions and Sam was very generous to answer the Mr. Robot questions.
Sam: There are spoilers, just FYI, for this whole–
John: Absolutely. So extra spoiler warning for the Q&A part of that. Also, for listeners we have some questions for you. We do the Three Page Challenge often on the show and Megana was asking I wonder what happened to the people who sent in the first three pages of their scripts and we talked about them. Wondering what happened. Some follow up. So, if you are a person who sent in the three pages and we talked about your pages on the air and there’s an update for us, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org and give us that update.
The other thing is we’re trying to do an episode about how writer’s rooms are working during this time where writers can’t get together. And so if you have experience in a virtual writer’s room, we’re going to bring in some showrunners to talk about that. But if you are a staff member in a virtual writer’s room or an assistant in a virtual writer’s room, we’re just trying to figure out best practices and what people are using and what’s working for people. Because this is all new territory.
So, write in because that’s probably going to be our next episode is talking about how writer’s rooms are working in this time.
That’s our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced my Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions, but for short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Sam is…
John: @samesmail. Excellent.
Sam: Pretty straightforward.
John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. We’ll put in a trailer for Angelyne so you can see what Sam has been working on. Looking forward to that. You can also find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Sam, thank you for coming back and doing this little wraparound on the show. It was great talking to you that first time. It’s great talking to you again.
Sam: Awesome. Thanks man.
John: Cool. Thanks.
John: Let’s turn it out to our audience and see what kind of questions the audience might have. So we have two microphones out there. So you can line up at either microphone and we will just ping pong back and forth between your microphones.
Male Audience Member: So with Mr. Robot you made a really engaging, entertaining show, as is your goal. It’s also really thematically consistent. And you’ve done that through four seasons with a team of writers and producers and art design. How do you convey those themes to those people and get that across on screen?
Sam: This I did write down. So, there were three things for Mr. Robot and it’s personal, so I’m not going to share it. But that I wrote down in my phone.
John: This is a show about these three things?
Sam: Yeah. But there were three things that I just said to myself. And whenever I got asked a question, and it didn’t matter if it was the color of this purse that Darlene was going to wear, or what the set should look like, I would remember those three things. It’s still in my notepad. I wrote that down like seven years ago. Anyway, so I remembered those three things and I would just always make sure and went up against that.
Sometimes I got lazy. I’m not going to say I was perfect. So colors of carpets probably slipped by me. But you’ve got to – look, at the beginning of anything you do, whether you’re writing or directing or whatever it is, you got to have something to say. It is not a product. I don’t care what anybody tells you. Let other people call it product or call it content or whatever the fuck they want to call it. You are not selling something. You are saying something. Write down what you are saying and make sure that with every decision you’re saying that.
Male Audience Member: Thank you.
Male Audience Member: Hey, so I’m actually transitioning and I wanted to remark upon how much I love White Rose as a character and how I feel how fresh it is for a character to be informed by their transition but not completely encompassed by it. So I was curious for you in a sort of chicken/egg scenario whether you thought about her being transgender first or whether that ended up coming in your conceptualization of that character?
Sam: No. That was her journey was identity. And honestly everyone’s journey in Mr. Robot was about identity. And she really needed to be sort of Elliot’s sort of polar. And, you know, for White Rose, I mean, no other character outside of Elliot spoke to the theme of what I wanted to say. And that has something to do with one of the words I wrote.
But this idea of someone in a crisis of identity and then knowing deep down who that person is and with every inch and second and moment of their life moving towards it despite what everyone around her is saying. That’s Elliot’s journey. No, no, that was very much from the beginning how I conceived of White Rose.
Male Audience Member: Thank you so much.
Male Audience Member: Hi, I have a couple things to say. I really enjoyed what you said about the parentheticals. I found that very fascinating how just that small little detail can totally just change the whole scene.
Sam: By the way, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but really quickly do it. Just do it for fun. I mean, honestly it will open up – just in whatever scripts you have right now, just go the opposite of the emotion you think that person should have in that scene. And see what happens. It can get really exciting results. Do you ever do that John?
John: Oh yeah. Yeah. Very inspiring.
Sam: He knows more than me, so.
Male Audience Member: It really reminded me about one scene in Mr. Robot when Jonah is going into her closet and it kind of alludes to American Psycho and even like Kingpin and Daredevil when they’re selecting their wardrobe and usually there’s this orchestral music that’s always beautiful. But you decided to play this really heavy rock music. And I was just kind of like wondering when do you decide to use juxtaposition like that? I thought that was insanely brilliant.
Sam: Oh, I wish I could say I invented that. But, you know, look at the masters. Look at Scorsese. Look at Tarantino during the ear cutting off scene, what’s the song?
John: Stuck in the Middle with You.
Sam: Stuck in the Middle with You. It couldn’t be a happier, go-luckier song. And he’s doing this awful, brutal thing. The contrast. And it’s also alchemy. I see my friend here, Sean Schuyler, who sits in the edit bay with me and picks out music with me. He’s fucking brilliant at it. And that’s what you do. You find – you don’t want to restate what you’ve already stated, which is what I think when music is poorly used is what I think is happening. You’re just sort of underlining what the audience is already experiencing.
What you want to do is you want to create a new experience. That’s what you kind of want to try and do with every moment of everything you do, right? And so the best way is taking a good song and contrasting with what is happening on screen, but not just for superficial reasons. Not just because you think it’s cool. But because it feels right and it reimagines the moment or the scene in a really new and exciting way. So yeah.
Male Audience Member: Hi. First things first. I’m the one who woo’d when you said NYU. But I was wondering what do you do when you have a script or at least an act that you know is too long, but it has everything that you want in it? And also how do you know when you’re done with a script?
Sam: Jesus. You are asking the wrong person, my friend. I turned a movie into a four-season television show. Well, look, I’ll answer the first question. How do you know if a scene is too long? You know, again, reference a master. Try and read it out loud to a friend. And then be honest with yourself. Do I really need all this dialogue to get to that point? And the answer might be yes. And then if it’s yes, you’re good, and you move on. But I think there’s a lot of preciousness when it’s just you and the monitor. When you start including other people, and when you start – even sometimes I’ll let a person read it. if I’m just sitting there watching them read it and they’re flipping the pages, I’m like oh fuck, this scene is way too fucking long. They should be moving on. I can see them yawn.
Like I start to get the [osmosis]. So I just honestly try and just be as honest with myself as possible. But honestly reading it out loud tells you right. When you write do ever just do a pass where you just read it, even just to yourself, not to a friend? Do you ever just read the dialogue out loud?
Male Audience Member: It’s something I’ve started to do because my acting friends tell me to do it.
Sam: It’s a good exercise. Because then you’ll be like, oof, you will start to feel some lines are cringey. Or some lines that are there just to be showy. And you just start cutting it.
Male Audience Member: Cool. Thank you.
Female Audience Member: Hi Sam. Thanks for being here with us.
Female Audience Member: Hi. I really liked some of the things you shared about earlier in your career when you said, you know, you could have started writing sooner and you kind of just didn’t because you were intimidated or you were scared. And I liked when you shared about you just quit your day job and took the plunge. I’m thinking about doing something very similar. I’m a professional copywriter, but it doesn’t really – it’s tangential to what I want to do, but it’s not what I actually what to do. So I guess I wanted to ask you what would your advice be for escaping my Alderson Loop of just being stuck in my job. And how do I–?
Sam: Do you have money in the bank?
Female Audience Member: I have a little bit of money in the bank. Yes, I do.
Sam: God. I can’t…hmm.
Female Audience Member: You can tell me to quit. Just do it. [laughs]
John: I think you want permission to quit. So, tell me if this was your experience. When I quit my assistant job, so I was working as an assistant for these producers and I was happy to quit working as an assistant to these producers because even back then being an assistant was not a fantastic job. And I made myself of a spreadsheet of like this is how much money I have. This is what my monthly costs are. I can afford six months of this. And I quit for six months. It was good motivation to be getting stuff done inn those six months because I could see it all dwindling away.
Sam: That’s kind of what I did. I mean, I kind of figured out how much I could last on ramen and whatever. And then I had credit cards. Credit cards help. Especially like Discover.
John: Discover is great.
Sam: Yeah. Because they just give it to you. But all this to say I don’t know how great any of this advice is. Let me ask you one question. Do you have something that you really want to write right now?
Female Audience Member: I have several ideas, but not like one singular thing.
John: So I will say some of my most productive writing time though was when I had a mindless job. So like copywriting might be a really tough job because you’re using your writing time all the time. But if you had a job like at Starbucks, then you’re not using that writing brain. And so you might come back from that shift with the ability saved up – with brain space left to write.
So when I was doing a terrible clerk job actually I got a lot written because I wasn’t using my brain all day.
Sam: So yes. So you should quit and go to Starbucks.
Female Audience Member: [laughs] Cool.
Sam: This is the–
John: This is the advice we gave you here tonight.
Sam: This is the lesson you’ve learned.
John: So let us know how it turns out.
Male Audience Member: Hi guys. Thank you Mr. August. Thank you Mr. Esmail for coming out and talking to us and educating us. So one thing that really struck me about Mr. Robot is the level of technical – not only the level of technical detail vis-à-vis hacking and computers and all that you went into, but you were able to spin it with such literary panache and just really dressed it up, which is fantastic writing. And I was just wondering if there’s anything you kind of say about that when you’re really on the blank page is really just spinning that magic. Is there any insight you got–?
Sam: Well, I think, you know the weird thing, and this goes to the point of like when I remember when I saw Hackers and just every movie, at least a lot of the movies that I saw about hacking, they tried to make weird graphics and dumb visual effects, the flies through the screen, to dramatize hacking. And to me it was just like why is that drama to throw CGI in your face. That makes no fucking sense.
Drama is what the person is going through. Emotionally what they want. It’s all the same things that you would do in a scene between two people. And I looked at those scenes the same way. Elliot really wanted this and he was going after it with tenacity, or sometimes he was super tired and he was forcing himself to go at it. And then he would fail sometimes. Or he would succeed. These are words that you can apply to anything.
So you have to look at every scene like that. You’re telling a story about a person that wants something and he either fails or succeeds at it. And he feels something about that. And I think that’s – because I got a lot of pushback when I first wrote it that no one is going to watch a person on a keyboard. What I think people didn’t realize is but people want to watch people go through an emotional experience. And that can happen with anything.
So, yeah, I wrote those scenes like the way I write any other scene.
Male Audience Member: Cool. Thank you.
Male Audience Member: Hi. Thank you Sam for being here. Birthday gift for me today.
Sam: Happy Birthday.
John: Happy Birthday.
Male Audience Member: So, I have a two-parter question. So, for the music of Mr. Robot, Briar Patch, Homecoming, so for Mac Quayle’s score, I heard you say in interviews that you would send the footage over to him and then he’ll just start going at it. But for the license soundtrack, like for example M83’s Gone in Season 1 and then Intro in Season 3 and then Outro at the tail-end of the series, how would you differentiate when to use Mac’s score and then use the license soundtrack?
Sam: This is a little bit like the song speaks to me. I mean, I listen to a lot – I don’t know how you guys do it. And it’s different for everyone. I listen to a lot of music when I write. But then when we watch the scene- by the way, Sean was the one that suggested M83 in Season 3. I think I did Season 4. But whatever. That’s probably debatable. Oh Justin. Justin, the editor.
But it’s ultimately something that speaks to us. It’s something that we – me, Sean, the editors, we’re constantly playing music as we’re figuring out scenes. As I’m just day-dreaming. Even going to set I listen to the song that I think I might use in this scene.
Music to me it’s like an injection of tone. You know? I think movies can be sort of a little more kind of elusive to convey tone. That’s why when it’s done so well it’s fucking. I mean, Wes Anderson, right? You know when you’re watching a Wes Anderson. That’s like a song to me. And he obviously uses music really well.
So to me it’s like if I know a song so speaks to the tone of this scene, then I just go ahead and license the music. But oftentimes because Mac is so brilliant and amazing, I mean, he was so part of the DNA from the beginning that he’s create cues. I remember he created a music cue for the recap of one of the episodes. It was for the recap. And I listened to it and I’m like this is fucking awesome. And I took it and told him this is going in the episode. And it was like the big Fuck Me speech in the Season 3 premiere.
So, it’s always like a kind of improvised. Because music is all emotion. And it’s a trial and error, see how it feels. So I don’t think there’s a binary decision. I think it’s just a feeling that you have in the moment.
John: Back over here.
Male Audience Member: So, in the transition from movie to TV series, besides Elliot’s DID which you touched on already, what were some of the characters and plot threads you were most excited to expand on that you got to do in the series that really made you decide I’m going to stick with this.
Sam: It was two characters. It was actually really one. It started with Darlene. I feel in love with Darlene. I mean, I stopped writing around the shower – like when I went off and did Comet, I think it was in Episode 2 when Elliot catches Darlene in his shower. If you remember that. And then I was like, OK, how do I cut this down. But honestly Tyrell. I fucking love Tyrell. I loved writing him. He was one of my favorite characters. And I would have had to completely cut him out of the movie to even have any shot of making maybe a three-hour movie.
And I didn’t want to do that. I was like, no, I like this guy. And I came up with Joanna and I liked his relationship with Joanna. And I was just like – and that’s one of the big motivations for me to turn it into a series.
Male Audience Member: Thanks.
John: Back over here.
Male Audience Member: The voiceover in your show is like it’s done something nothing has ever done. And a lot of that is because of the DID. But it also has so many levels and especially the very end, obviously, the reveal. All of that – was that all sort of in that original idea? Or did that start to unfold as the show grew?
Sam: The VO specifically or the DID reveal?
Male Audience Member: Well, the idea of what the VO is and how that plays out throughout the whole four years.
Sam: “Hello friend” was always the first line of the script.
Male Audience Member: But that said what the ending was going to be in your head?
Sam: The ending was figured out before I wrote “Hello friend.” I knew what the last line was going to be when I started writing the script.
John: A process question. For all of his voiceover, at what point was the actor recording his voiceover? Was it as you were filming each episode or was it independent of all that stuff? Because it feels like as you’re editing episodes you need to have that voiceover just to get a sense of feel for where things are.
Sam: No, we had some rough temp VO in there.
John: Little editor voiceover there.
Sam: Yeah, because it was too important. And Rami and I wanted to do it – Rami couldn’t just go – eventually he did, because he had it down. But that first season he and I needed to really be in a room and just go through it together. Because it’s so important. It was a character onto itself.
John: Back over here.
Male Audience Member: I was hoping you could expand a little bit upon that time when you quit your job in reality, not necessarily so much as how did you support yourself financially, but how did you make the most out of that time? And how did you structure that all of a sudden you had all this free time?
Sam: You mean after I quit you mean?
Male Audience Member: Yeah.
Sam: Well, OK, I’m kind of curious what you do. But, OK, so while I was working I would come home. I’m a night owl. I like to write at night. So I would come home. I actually did a little bit like what John did. I sort of day dreamed during the day and I kind of wrote little things on my phone. And then I’d go home and I’d write until 2am. And then I’d write on weekends and tried to piece together – those first two features were written on weekends, vacations, any spare time outside of the office.
Now, what I do – and I know this is like, this is like against every rule of writing from what I understand, because apparently you’re the most creative in the morning. But not this person. I cannot write in the morning. I’ve tried. Do you write in the morning?
John: I can write in the morning. But I think naturally I probably am a night owl. So I was writing all those times at night. But once you have a kid, your night just goes away.
Sam: Oh. Right.
Sam: I don’t know what I’m going to do.
John: So you are still writing at night?
Sam: So now what I do is I wake up. This is my – when I write this is my day. I wake up in the morning. I get angry at the news for two or three hours. I usually try and go to a diner, because I love diners. And I listen to a great podcast. Sometimes Scriptnotes. Really helps.
And I think about what I want to write that day. So mornings for me are thinking. Thinking is like most of it, right? When you’re writing how much is that actual typing? To me, it’s a small percentage. Most of it is what am I going to write? What is the scene? What’s my way in? Who are these people? Is that – like have I seen that person a million times? Is there anything interesting? You know, the great thing, and I’m going to say this about diversity. Diversity to me, and being Egyptian I maybe have a closer relationship to this than other people, but to me diversity is an opportunity to really think about characters in a very different way.
I feel like sometimes write it like it’s a homework assignment. Like we got to avoid cancel culture and like fucking stack race and gender and orientation in there. No. It’s a fucking exciting opportunity to come up with really interesting people that have never been in films and television shows. And they can give you all new stories and take your stories in all new exciting directions that the scene wouldn’t have ever had without that.
So, to me I do all of that. You know, I get angry at the news. And then I go to lunch. And I do all of that. And I think about the people and I think about the people in my scene. I like those people. I want to like them, even the villains. I want to like them. Be a fan of them. And then you’re armed with all that. You go in in the afternoon and I write. Take a dinner break. And then I write some more until–
John: So you can manage a couple hours of actual writing a day? Because if I get–
Sam: With a lot of breaks.
John: OK. If I get three hours of writing in a day that’s a lot for me.
Sam: Well, when you say writing you mean like typing?
John: Typing at a keyboard.
Sam: Yeah. That’s probably right.
John: Great. Sam Esmail, thank you very much for this conversation.
Sam: Thank you. Guys, this was so much fun.
John: You’re welcome. This was great. Thank you for being a great audience. Thank you to [Enid], to the Writers Guild Foundation for this. Thank you the Writers Guild Theater. And have a good night.
- Angelyne Trailer
- Watch Homecoming
- Mr. Robot
- Three Page Challenge participants — please share your updates and stories! We’d love to hear what happened to your story or career after the segment.
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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