As part of their Emmy campaign, Netflix has opened their FYSee (aka FYC, “for your consideration”) space, featuring props, costumes, and cast and creator panels from some of their most popular (and hopefully Emmy nominated) shows. I recently attended the panel for Black Mirror, with creator Charlie Brooker, executive producer Annabel Jones, and actress Mackenzie Davis, star of the much beloved episode “San Junipero.”
Brooker conceived of the show back in 2009/2010, and had always been a fan of shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected. Thematically, he realized the technology was the thing that was upending society the way McCarthyism and other concerns had in The Twilight Zone. So, in Black Mirror, technology takes the place of the supernatural elements that often popped up in those original stories.
The show at times feels prophetic about our world’s interaction with technology, especially in episodes like “Nose Dive,” where a woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, struggles to keep her rating up on an app that all of society uses to judge people. The story idea was conceived about eight years ago, but with a different set up. It was originally planned as an episode where a guy had to try to lower his rating, but became a folk hero in the process, and essentially ended up like Charlie Sheen in his “WINNING” phase, totally outrageous but still beloved by the public. But, Brooker and Jones initially thought it would be too one note and ridiculous, particularly the online rating system they had proposed. Then Uber ratings came on the scene, and a classic episode was born.
But despite all that, Brooker, as it turns out, isn’t as pessimistic and grim about technology as most of the episodes would imply. “I get quite cross when people say the show is anti-technology because I don’t think it is,” he said during the discussion.
“I’m an optimist I think, long term. Like for instance, if you look at social media now, I think it’s like a new limb that we’ve sprouted as a species, and we’re trying to work out how to use it. And, at the moment, we’re clumsily flailing around, knocking everything off the shelves and slapping each other in the face, and it’s causing all sorts of problems. But as we gradually get more used to wielding that power, and it is a power, hopefully we will be better off as a species.” He added, “or we won’t.” Jones chimed in with, “That’s the most positive thing you’ve ever said.”
Brooker admits to being a worrier in general though. “We’re not yet aware of how it affects our psychology,” he said of social media, citing an example where he felt he acted differently with different groups of people in person, compared to a “one size fits all” persona he might put online. “I don’t know what that cognitive dissonance does to us generally as an animal. I think we’re probably only just getting to grips with that kind of thing.”
Due to the fact there were people in the audience who hadn’t yet seen the episode, the panel was sadly light on in-depth details for “San Junipero” to avoid spoilers. But Brooker praised Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performances as a big reason for the episode’s resonance, as well its themes of on grief and love. “It’s a different tone, it’s a very personal story…I do think, hopefully, it’s a very universal story. I was quite worried in writing it that I didn’t know how it would be received because it is a love story between two women, and it’s not something I know very much about. So, I was extremely…delighted to see that people seem to have taken this episode to heart.” Jones added, “It’s quite an optimistic piece in Black Mirror terms.”
Brooker also noted that the reason for “San Junipero’s” setting and characters was a direct response to concerns about the show moving to the streaming service. According to Brooker, “I’d read someone complaining and saying, ‘Oh no, they’re taking Black Mirror to Netflix, it’s going to get all Americanized.’ And I thought, right, okay. Sod to you. Opening scene. California.”
Davis was on board before she even knew what the script would be about because she was a such a big fan of the show. She thought it was an overall redeeming story for technology, and showed people connecting as their authentic selves in this online world. But, unfortunately, as she put it, we’ve turned the real internet into “a cesspool of hatred and venom.”
When asked about her tendency to take roles in tech based projects, such as Halt and Catch Fire or The Martian, she noted that science fiction often has more “cool parts” for women compared to other genres. “You can imagine a world where women are interesting,” she quipped.
Brooker also likened “San Junipero” to the episode “Be Right Back”, featuring Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson. That episode tells the story of a woman creating a synthesized “bot” version of her dead boyfriend. The episode ended up with its own strange connection to real life, essentially pre-dating the story of an actual woman who created an AI digital version of her deceased friend based on his texts and messages. The inspiration for the Black Mirror episode was even stranger itself, and a good indicator of Brooker’s worries and humor coming through. He was up late taking care of his first-born child, scrolling through social media, and thought, “What if all these people are dead? How would I know? How would I know if these were simulations of people?”
And that was his “funny” idea. He told Jones the premise and she replied, “How’s the baby?”
But Jones pointed out, “It’s a story about grief, it’s a story about bereavement. And about, a real human, story…So often, whilst Black Mirror is about technology, so often the technology is quite backgrounded and we don’t try to make too much of an issue of it. And it’s more about contemporary stories.”
The creators described the show’s creative process as “shambolic,” and you can see the interesting balance between their personalities coming together to create the stories. Brooker said, “We don’t look at the news…or the tech pages.” It always starts with a “what if” scenario. He actually has a comedy background, which accounts for some of the humor, dark as it may be, in the show’s tone. “So, often I’m coming out with ideas that amuse me, and then we’ll discuss the logical ramifications. And if we can get to a point that you’re so horrified by what I’m saying that you’re wanting me to shut up, and I’m finding it funny, that’s when we know we’re in the right ballpark,” he said, indicating his and Jones working dynamic. “Yeah, that’s the healthy relationship we have,” she said with a laugh.
When asked for tips for writers, Brooker said to just try to keep going. He admits to being a nocturnal writer, and writes standing up once he has the idea sorted out. “I just sit there and try and picture the movie playing in my head, and describe it,” he said. Sounds simple enough.
“I always gravitate towards stories…I can relate to personally,” he said, which Jones jokingly questioned, particularly when it came to the “pig episode.” (It’s called “The National Anthem,” and is best understood if seen.) “Some of the time,” he said, self-correcting. “So, I gravitate towards stories where you put yourself in the shoes of the main character and you’re worried on their behalf. And those are the easiest ones to write, where it’s a fairly simple and stark dilemma that you’ve put the character in. And then you’re just fretting on their behalf while you’re typing.” He paused and added, “I’ve made the job sound awful!”
Jones went back to the importance of humanity when it comes to telling their tales of technology gone wrong. “If there’s not a human story there, if there’s not a character you want to follow, then the ideas, don’t have any anchor, they don’t have a root, they’re meaningless.”
When it comes to the new season, the creators had to remain vague. “It’s quite ambitious, I think, in the next season, lots of crazy fun ideas,” Jones said. Brooker added it would be a mix of tones as well. “We always say it’s like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s dark chocolate.”
One concrete answer is that Jodie Foster will be directing an episode, which was a total thrill for the producers. Broker joked that he could barely keep from screaming “She was in Silence of the Lambs!” at her. Jones teased him that he may not have been as successful with keeping it together as he thought.
The panel was also questioned on why they decided to into their chose professions, with interesting results. Jones said of her work on the show, “It is a privilege to make so many different films, with such creative freedom. And the ability to take on quite eccentric and sometimes preposterous ideas, and people have faith in you do deliver them.”
“I am unemployable in any other sphere,” Brooker cracked.
Davis said simply she likes to feel feelings when it comes to her acting work. She joked she had a more “pretentious” answer, but it was truly heartfelt. “It’s really important to imagine yourself as other people. It’s really, really important to read, and it’s really important to watch movies where you sympathize with someone who isn’t like you. I think if you don’t have that outlet, you become a monster.” I’ll let you guess who she was referring to (hint: It involves the leader of the free world).
Speaking of slyly referring to politics, the panel wrapped with a discussion of how current events are affecting the show. Brooker hinted there were some specific things that crept in, but wouldn’t elaborate.
He did say, “I’ve been thinking about what kind of mood people will be in when they sit down to watch the next season…. It’s hard to predict…Do you want to some respite from the news and the worrisome, exciting, interesting roller coaster we’re on? Or do you want to be immersed in it again? Do you want something that’s cathartic or escapist? We’re probably going to be providing a balance of the two.” He also noted that even if he’s not writing to a specific point in the news, he is often thinking about it subconsciously, and it comes out in ways you don’t expect.
The panel concluded on an optimistic note from Brooker, regarding the current state of the world.
“I have to believe, at the moment, that the pendulum will start to swing the other way. And that generally, there will be a coalition of the sane. Because people have kind of had enough of the shit. And so, I kind of hope that we will generally come together. How that will happen, I have no idea. But it seems like for better or worse, everyone is very engaged with the way the world is at the moment and the things that are going on. So, I hope…I think things can’t get much worse, so therefore, I suspect…I can’t believe I’m turning optimistic, I think they’ll get better. I hope they’ll get better.”
New episodes of Black Mirror are set to premiere on Netflix this fall.
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