'Black Mirror's' Interactive Film: How to Navigate 'Bandersnatch'

EMBARGO DO NOT PUBLISH UNTIL 0001 DEC 28 Black Mirror Still 3 Charlie Annabel_Inset - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

How many endings are there to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch?

Once Netflix viewers discover the interactive film — a stand-alone offering of the Black Mirror sci-fi anthology series — and press the play button, they will gradually learn how the choose-your-own-adventure story works. The longer someone “plays,” the better they will understand the world that Charlie Brooker has created and, inevitably, similar questions will arise about how many possible story paths — and endings — there are in Bandersnatch.

“I don’t know how many endings there actually are — I think I’ve forgotten,” Brooker, the creator and writer of the Emmy-winning series, tells The Hollywood Reporter. When his producing partner, Annabel Jones, suggests to THR there are five “definitive” ends, Brooker interrupts: “No. There are more than that.”

If you ask producer Russell McLean, there are 10 to 12 endings because some are less definitive. And director David Slade says there are even “golden eggs” that are so difficult to reach, they may never be unlocked. “There are scenes that some people just will never see and we had to make sure that we were OK with that. We actually shot a scene that we can’t access,” Slade said when the team introduced the episode to a group of reporters, including THR's, at Netflix’s headquarters in Los Gatos, California.

Even Netflix says that while there are five “main” endings, there are multiple variants on each that they are daring viewers to uncover. And Brooker and Jones are clear as to not “prescribe” one ending over the others, especially because they couldn’t agree on what exactly defines one.

“There were quite heated debates about what constitutes an 'ending,'” says Brooker. “There’s a school of thought that says any time it stops and you go back, that’s an ending. In Bandersnatch, there are endings that are really abrupt that are still endings, in my mind.”

Besides, Jones points out: “In a world of parallel realities, maybe there is no ending?”

Discovering the possible endings is certainly a large part of the fun of Bandersnatch, which dropped with little promotion on Dec. 28. Netflix released a trailer for the film — which stars Fionn Whitehead and Will Poulter — the day prior that didn't reveal the interactive element. Once it appeared on the Netflix homepage, a red icon on the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch thumbnail signals something is different, and a tutorial explains how to “play” the experience before it begins. As THR revealed, Bandersnatch launches Netflix into the live-action interactive programming space and has been nearly two years in the making.

Challenging the traditional model of linear TV, Bandersnatch allows viewers to choose how the story unfolds as they watch. Using a complex style of “branching narrative” storytelling, viewers are tasked with selecting from a series of choices — using either a touchscreen or remote, depending on the device — as the episode’s protagonist, Stefan (Whitehead), begins his day. A meta-plot unfolds when viewers discover that Stefan, a programmer, is developing a choose-your-own-adventure computer game in 1984, also titled "Bandersnatch" after the adventure-style novel of the same name given to him as a child.

Netflix developed an in-house storytelling tool, called Branch Manager, so Brooker could bring his interactive story map to life and, as a result, there are millions of variations on the story. “In any given choice point, viewers have two options of what to do. That, by the pure mathematics of permutations, mean there are millions of paths to take,” Carla Engelbrecht, Netflix’s director of product innovation, explains to THR. Because of the ingenuity of Brooker’s nonlinear script, debate rages on among Engelbrecht’s team about how many story options there actually are. But “it doesn’t mean that you can spend the rest of your life exploring Bandersnatch. Generally, what we expect is that folks will spend anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours exploring the world and uncovering the different aspects of it.”

Before Bandersnatch, Netflix had dabbled with simpler interactive programming for several animated kids shows. There was no roadmap for Brooker’s vision, so Netflix worked with him to create one. “While we were coming up with ideas for bits of the story, there would be times where you think, ‘At this point, this or this could happen.’ And it was almost like a whole new wing of your house appeared that you had to then furnish and decorate,” Brooker recalls of the story development process. “Because our ambitions were so warped, Netflix said we had given them a workout in terms of accelerating the way this system can work. We came up with little things like small choices that you think mean nothing at the start that slightly pay off later on, even if it’s just a little Easter egg.”

On top of the “millions” of choice possibilities, McLean, who has worked on the visual effects for the last two seasons of Black Mirror, says there are “thousands” of ways Bandersnatch can play out to an ending. “There are different routes through to what you could call endings, and on the actual map, there are about 250 segments of video,” he tells THR. Those video bits were the result of the same scene being filmed multiple times to capture the evolving perspectives. “We had to learn a new way of filmmaking, editorially and production-wise,” says Jones of the “state tracking” impact on their branching narrative. That new technology lets Bandersnatch remember choices that viewers make so they can personally influence a story. Specific choices take viewers down a different path and certain endings will be unlocked, depending on the decisions made earlier. “It’s a whole new approach that challenged every department,” Jones says of tracking the continuity.

“Built into Bandersnatch is the notion that you will experience scenes more than once,” adds Brooker of the narrative loops that viewers will experience if they make certain decisions, or repeat the same choice. “There are things that alter the scene the second time around, and you get compressed versions of things you’ve already seen. There are characters who are there or who aren’t there, depending on things that have happened. That part of things is very complex.”

At one point in the story, Stefan is at his house when he gets a visitor at the door. There are three options as to who that visitor could be, depending on which path viewers picked for Stefan at a key point earlier on. A big split in the story involves the option to “Follow Colin,” which references famed game developer Colin Ritman (Poulter). If viewers didn’t pick that option initially, they will likely be able to revisit that story path as long as they keep playing and ignore the “End Credits” prompts. Once viewers get to an ending, two continuing story paths appear, and some will include past options that were ignored. “We’re guiding users to pick the moments that are crucial for their storytelling,” Engelbrecht explains.

“We don’t really want people to exit and start playing again,” says Jones of how to play, since the state tracking lets the character learn as he goes through the different branches. “Every time you get to an end, you can exit and restart from the beginning, or you can keep going and then we’ll give you shortcuts to bits that we know you haven’t done yet,” Brooker adds. “Eventually, there is a point that you will arrive at just credits. But that means you’ve seen almost everything.” (One ending is also intercut with credits because Netflix determined that it would be the most common ending reached.)

Despite all the options, there are no right or wrong choices. And there is no right or wrong ending. “There’s no correct path,” Brooker assures, though he adds that it’s “entirely possible” to not arrive at all of them. “It should be more so felt as an experience,” Jones explains. “Depending on which route you take, you may feel like you have come to a natural point where you feel sated. There are a number of distinct what we call ‘endings’ but you may not feel that is an ending. They all build and payoff. There are many ways that you can watch the film, but it should all build to one interactive experience.”

To further drive that point home, the team confirms that there are no plans to release a linear version. “The whole thing is the director’s cut, in that sense, because we have cut it,” says Jones. A linear version would have implied there is a “right” version, and even Slade and Brooker would have different versions if they were to each do their own personal cuts. Brooker did select the “default” story that unfolds if a viewer lets the timer run out without making choices for themselves, but it’s not an ideal experience; he purposefully left out scenes and endings. For the director, Slade says giving up control over the story was the hardest part. “It ends once you’re finished. There is no specific way. I’ll just tell you my favorite scenes. Charlie will just tell you the most logical way to go through it. It won’t be the best. Or the way. There is no way,” Slade says.

That type of immersive storytelling, after all, is baked into the entire experience. When landing on Bandersnatch, Brooker and Jones said they only agreed to do it because they came up with an idea that would work because it was interactive. The scene that best illustrates their vision is when viewers come upon the part of the story where they can send a message to Stefan through his computer. It’s the moment when the audience will realize how much control they actually have. “That was the thing that made us realize this worked as a story, because that moment would only work in an interactive. That drove the whole bus,” says Brooker.

Eventually, that control will manifest into complicity when viewers are forced to make decisions that veer into darker and morally challenging territory. A choice involving a family member of Stefan’s is one that Engelbrecht said 90 percent of people won’t want to do, but will pick anyway. Those sort of viewer dilemmas speak directly to the themes of Bandersnatch. “In terms of controlling your destiny, if you haven’t made certain decisions, then various endings won’t be opened up to you. It’s all thematically cohesive in that sense,” says Jones. “All of the ‘endings’ hopefully all build to one world in which Stefan has fallen into, and all of them make sense and are possible alternative parallel universes for him.”

Making sure that all of the endings feel like they could live in Stefan’s world was a key element for the Black Mirror pair. “What we didn’t want to do is create something so arbitrary with multiple endings that feel meaningless, because I don’t feel like there’s a truth if there are so many endings that are all disjointed,” Jones explains. “There’s no correct route, but all endings should feel that they belong to the whole world and that you are experiencing one young man’s mental breakdown, grasp on reality, or parallel reality path.”

In fact, “quite a few of the endings can coexist,” she says. Though the order in which viewers happen upon them will vary, each ending adds a new layer onto Stefan’s journey or enriches the piece as a whole. One ending is happy (in a Black Mirror way), others are violent or sad, and the one with the intercut credits captures Brooker’s trademark dark humor. Slade classifies the entire piece as horror, but Brooker says that there are elements of horror, comedy and drama, as well as being a psychological portrait. “Normally, if you’re watching a linear story, you put yourself in the main character’s shoes and forget that you exist," says Brooker. "In Bandersnatch, you can’t forget that you exist because you are constantly being reminded that there’s a device in your hand, like a remote control, or that you are tapping things. But the tricky thing was keeping it so you would feel responsible for what is happening to him."

Slade, who also directed the season four episode "Metalhead," complicates things further by elevating the role that Stefan’s mind could be playing on the viewer. “We give a lot of time to his subconscious. A lot of those things that are happening are dreams. They may not really be happening. They may have happened. They may be based on memories; they may not be. The films that are the most interesting to me personally are ones where your subconscious has more control than your conscious mind,” says the director. McLean adds, “That’s the clever thing that Charlie’s done with this in the theme — what is free will? What is control? Who is in control? It’s all there to be looked at and figured out.”

That question surrounding who is in control continues to manifest as viewers get deeper into the story. “We wanted this to feel like a film and that you have that emotional engagement with the character, rather than lots of incidents happening to the character where you don’t understand his emotional journey," says Jones of the discovery process. "I hope that with the way we’ve structured it, everything feels authentically added. Regardless of whatever route you take, it should feel that there has been a richness of emotion and experience that you would have enjoyed.”

Jones actually rejects the idea of thinking about Bandersnatch in terms of its endings. Suggesting that it might be a case of semantics, it seems that the Black Mirror duo might even be attempting to redefine what it means to come to a conclusion in a story. “They are all a world in which he would find himself,” she says of the endings. “Some of them are slightly more Black Mirror dark, more comedic experiences, and some of them are more horrible, paranoid experiences. But they all can work in Stefan’s mind. In a way, it’s like taking a whole Black Mirror season with the different genres and experiences, and putting them into one film for Stefan to experience. It should feel like they are all earned."

Bandersnatch took an “enormous” amount of creative time and, as a result, the forthcoming fifth season of Black Mirror has been shifted back, Jones confirmed. (Netflix has yet to release a launch date or episode count, but has the season set for a 2019 arrival.) But the opportunity to create the new and cohesive Bandersnatch world was worth the season five delay to the pair. With the interactive event, Netflix is targeting the tech-savvy Black Mirror audience — one that has broadened thanks to back-to-back Emmy wins for the “San Junipero” and “USS Callister” episodes — but is also hoping to lure a wider audience, many of whom will be spending the holiday weekend surfing the streamer’s homepage for something new to watch.

“This is a huge, interesting new opportunity for Netflix that we’re a part of,” says Jones. “One of the benefits about being on Netflix is that rather than being a sci-fi show from the U.K., you are Netflix’s new show. And people will inadvertently come and find you."