‘Mr. Robot’: Sam Esmail on Experimental Episodes and the Self-Doubt That Came With Them

     November 16, 2017

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From creator Sam Esmail, who also directs every episode of the series, the USA Network series Mr. Robot is an artistic achievement in storytelling that is masterful, challenging and thought-provoking. Now in its third season, the story is exploring the disintegration between Elliot (brilliantly played by Rami Malek) and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), and what each character’s motivations truly are.

At a recent press junket, executive producer/writer/director Sam Esmail talked about his own doubts that they’d be able to pull of Episode 305, how those experimental episodes come about, why now was the time for a Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) stand-alone, whether Elliot and Mr. Robot will ever be able to co-exist, how Elliot movies forward with Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) after recent reveals, what his incredibly talented cast is capable of, and the advantage of not being a relationship drama. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.

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Image via USA Network

Collider: First of all, congratulations on making what I think is truly an artistic masterpiece of storytelling! Did you ever think that you wouldn’t pull off the one-shot feel that you wanted to achieve with Episode 305? Was there ever a moment of doubt?

SAM ESMAIL: Oh, yeah, 100%! The first day that we did it, it was the scene when Elliot walked off the elevator and sat down in his cubicle and talked to Samar. It was a simple scene with two people talking. It was a pretty straightforward scene, in that regard. We had that scheduled for three or four hours that morning, but it literally blew up the whole day. Our camera operator literally collapsed on the 27th take. I remember we broke for lunch, at one point, and we just all looked at each other like, “Should we give up?! Is this it?! We can’t keep doing this!” But then, we rallied in the back half of the day. The thing about my crew is that they’re just amazing. They don’t get scared by a challenge. They just get energized and step up to it. We rallied. We came back and just decided to keep going. But yeah, I had doubts even in the editing. For me, it wasn’t about it having to be one take. I never let the technical stuff get in the way of the storytelling. I knew that even in post, if the episode wasn’t really resonating, I would explore using edits. The thing that really told me that it was working was that the first few people that saw the cut said that they didn’t even realize they were in a one-take episode. I didn’t want it to be about that. I wanted it to be this real-time stream of conscious experience that you have with Elliot, and then Angela.

It seems like you’d be lucky to get to do one experimental thing on a TV series, but you’ve done them throughout the seasons. Where do you go from here?

ESMAIL: We never look at it that way. We never look at it from the outside in. I never say, “All right, guys, what weird thing are we gonna do this season?,” or “What weird thing are we gonna do in this episode?” We just follow the path of Elliot and his journey, and when an episode like that comes up, we think about how to best represent that episode. From a filmmaking perspective, we want to figure out what we can do from a storytelling perspective to go back into that subjective experience from Elliot. That’s when we can get really creative and really bold, and make some interesting choices.

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Image via USA Network

You also had a Tyrell Wellick stand-alone episode this season.

ESMAIL: Yeah, which is probably my favorite episode.

Why did you decide to do that episode this season?

ESMAIL: I felt very strongly that we had to pay of the Tyrell side of his story from Season 2. At the beginning of this season, when we were breaking it, we explored whether to do it in scenes, sporadically throughout the season. I felt like because a Tyrell-centered story was so different tonally, it deserved its own episode. I also thought that it was so compelling to delve into the relationship between Tyrell and Irving. There was a good story there to be told, so that’s when we decided to turn it into its own episode. And it was one of our most straightforward episodes ‘cause it just told the story and there were no frills about it. It was liberating, in that way.

Is there a world where Elliot and Mr. Robot can co-exist with each other, or will one inevitably take over the other?

ESMAIL: Well, that’s the story of the show. We’re in a bad place right now, with the two of them. They’re literally non-existent to one another. That’s what the show is about, that central conflict between the two. Will they learn to live with each other, and at that point, is that even the solution, or is there something past that, that they have to get to? That will be what the next couple of seasons will be about.

With two such strong personalities, it seems as though there’s no way that that can end well.

ESMAIL: I don’t want to give spoilers, but I hope for Elliot’s sake that there will be a better solution.

Television