'Black Mirror' Director on Tackling the "Spectrum of Sexuality" in "San Junipero" Follow-Up

Owen Harris, who also helmed "Be Right Back," speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the takeaways from the VR romance — including that viral "polar bear" line.
Courtesy of Netflix; Getty Images
"Striking Vipers"; inset: director Owen Harris

[This story contains spoilers from Netflix's Black Mirror season five episode, "Striking Vipers."]

One of the new Black Mirror episodes has sparked conversations about topics that range from sexuality and masculinity to monogamy and infidelity. For three-time director Owen Harris, there was one line — among all those areas ripe for debate — that lured him to return to Charlie Brooker's Netflix series.

In the season five episode "Striking Vipers," two male friends (played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) discover an unexpected spark when playing the new VR version of their favorite fighting game. They engage in a sexual and emotional relationship as their respective male-female avatars and when Danny (Mackie) tries to stop playing, Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) tells him he hasn't been able to match their sexual experience with any other avatar. "I even fucked Tundra the polar bear character. I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn't get you out of my mind," Karl says while Danny's wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie), is out of earshot.

The line went viral after the new season released on June 5 and Harris, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, says that meme-worthy moment also sealed the deal when it came to directing the episode. "Even if the subject is dark, you always have to be aware that there is something lighter at play and that’s always what I enjoy about the Black Mirrors I make," says Harris, who has also directed season two critical favorite "Be Right Back" and the Emmy-winning "San Junipero" from season three. "When I got to that line [in the script], I felt like I could tell a lovely relationship story, but I knew there was also a dark humor playing around."

The season, which has three episodes that serve as companion stories to the Black Mirror standalone interactive film Bandersnatch that released late last year, has been met with mixed reviews. "Striking Vipers" has been well-received among the new offerings, while also raising debate and think pieces about the themes it explores, including black masculinity, queer desire and VR sex.

Harris is aware that, five seasons in, pleasing the entire Black Mirror audience can be a challenge. "In terms of being able to keep doing something and keep the element of surprise, my intention was to try and do it in a way that keeps it a separate piece," he says of following up the "San Junipero" hype. Below, he shares his takes on the questions raised about the "spectrum of sexuality" and the ambiguous ending ("It’s about two relationships — this bromance and this marriage") — and he also explains why revisiting that beloved Kelly and Yorkie love story would be a risky idea.

You are now a rare three-time Black Mirror director. How did Charlie Brooker pitch you “Striking Vipers”?

“Do you want to do another one?” (Laughs). [Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones] sent me the script and there was lots that I loved about it. One of the lines that keeps cropping up on Twitter feeds is the line that swayed me. There’s always a line in the script where you’re enjoying it and thinking, "Which way is it going to go?" And it was the polar bear line. There’s always a moment where Charlie shows enough of his hand that I understand where it’s going and, in that one line, I sort of got where I needed to picture the whole thing, in a funny way. When you’re reading a script, you're figuring it out tonally. You’re thinking, "How does this fit with what I enjoy doing?" And, "How I could bring something to the party?" You’re looking for a clue to what Charlie is trying to get out of this and when I got to that line, I understood the underlying humor. Ultimately, there is a sense of humor at work, because that is Charlie Brooker. 

The "polar bear" line became a quick meme on Twitter. What does that line mean to you in this story, that anything is possible in this VR world?

That anything is possible but also, you never have the time in one Black Mirror episode to fully tackle every scene that Charlie so cleverly packages within them. Like "San Junipero," there is a drama within all of them. But what makes them Black Mirrors and gives them that lightness of touch is that there is a certain playfulness to them. Even the darker stuff, you’re aware of a certain amount of play.

How would you describe "Striking Vipers" in your own words. What is this story about?

The original story was set in the UK. One of the things that I thought was an interesting playground that I hadn’t seen subverted too much was the bromance. The bromance relationship drama was one angle to it. And I thought, "How do we get the most out of that?" That’s where the notion came to set this in America and, with the tone of it and everything else, we felt we could get more out of the bromance. But it’s basically a relationship piece about two relationships — this bromance and this marriage. One of our protagonists gets pulled in two different directions. It’s the classic thing where a guy had a very close friendship and it intercedes with his marriage, but when he checks into Striking Vipers X, it takes on a whole new dimension. The second thing that really appealed to me was what it was saying about marriage. This idea of future relationships, the way that dating has gone with all these apps where it isn’t just about meeting someone and how now there are a ton of accessories to how you fall in love. Is that the way that we’re going to start approaching marriage? Is marriage just this big conventional concept of monogamy and are people going to want to accessorize marriage to sustain it?

The thread in your Black Mirror episodes is the romance genre. When you look back at “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back,” how does “Striking Vipers” compare?

I suppose that with the romance, they’ve all been slightly twisted. Because in [“Be Right Back”], it’s her (Hayley Atwell) trying to fall back in love with her partner (Domhnall Gleeson) that she misses and loves. There’s a darkness. You get the romance in the beginning and you fall in love with this couple because of the way that they behave with each other that makes you pull for them as it goes on. "San Junipero" is different because you spend the whole episode hoping they’re going to get together, and then as the episode goes you understand Kelly's (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) reluctance to be with Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) in San Junipero because of what she might be giving up. So again, it’s a romance that’s twisted slightly.

And in "Striking Vipers," it’s this romance that’s starting to develop between two best friends, but even then, we’re never entirely sure about what components of what it is that’s doing it for them is the component that’s making this romantic. You’ve got Danny (Mackie) playing a male character in a game who ends up falling in love with a female character that has been embodied by his male friend. What part of all those bits have added up to make that a love story? And it’s the same with Karl (Abdul-Mateen II), by being in a woman’s body that allows him to fall in love with a guy, who is Danny. It’s very complex. The romance for me, the one I care about, is actually Danny and his wife [Theo, played by Nicole Beharie] and this idea about what it’s going to take to put these people back on the same track again — two people who love each other but whose marriage is flickering and dwindling a bit. Their desires and all of that. That’s probably why I’ve ended up doing these romantic ones, they’re all about this idea of people wanting to be together or trying to stay in love.

Brooker said he came up with the idea because of the homoerotic nature of fighting games and said he still doesn’t know where he lands on whether or not the two men are having a same-sex relationship. What is your interpretation: Is this a queer romance or is it exploring identity and fluidity, within a romance?

Probably closer to the second. That’s the conversation that’s come out of this. For example, people are saying, “Karl was gay, right?” And I don’t know whether that’s so certain. That’s being as black and white with the spectrum of sexuality as this notion of straight and gay. There’s a whole spectrum. It’s far broader and more complex. We’re not reinventing the wheel by saying that, but that’s what it is. It’s more about someone exploring that whole color wheel of what gets you going and what makes you tick. Not just sexually, but also emotionally. Karl finds something in that character that brings him to life. It’s about what shape people form themselves into to actually feel things. Maybe lots of people feel like they have to fit into a box to conform, in terms of their sexuality, and they never quite do. 

Black Mirror fans expect twists, which I imagine makes it a challenge to subvert expectations this many seasons in. Did you feel pressure to follow-up “Be Right Back” and especially “San Junipero”?

I think it is in the back of your mind. Especially when they ask you to do another one. You’re thinking, "What makes this different?" But in the end, you have to go in and enjoy making it as a piece. And I enjoyed bringing this story to life. With any series, especially one that is constantly trying to open up new perspectives on things, it gets increasingly tricky to find new ways into that. Some of the technology here was similar to "San Junipero," but the scenes it opened up were quite different. It was existing in a separate reality that allows people to take on magnified versions of their personality. In the end, you’ve got to draw a line under each thing you do and start each one fresh. With Black Mirror, you’re now sitting there waiting for the surprise. Your antenna is right up. People might watch them in that way, they certainly have in the past, where they’re waiting for those little breadcrumbs to see if they can get there first.

Is the response what you hoped? What have you heard anecdotally?

I’m happy with what I’ve seen. With the internet, you’d be naïve to think that you’re ever going to get 100 percent approval and be able to go to sleep at night thinking, "I’ve just done this piece that everyone thinks is amazing." Maybe it’s a subject people don’t like or engage with. Maybe it’s the fact that, with Black Mirror in the fifth season, people have different expectations. You’re always going to find that. But there is lovely feedback about it. I’m really proud of it as a piece. We shot it in São Paulo. I loved working with Anthony, Nicole and Yahya, and Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin [who play the avatars Roxette and Lance, respectively]. It was fun. It was exciting. It was difficult. So from the moment I’ve finished it, and in the same as all Black Mirrors, I’ve been really proud. I've been proud of all of them as pieces. How they fit among the Black Mirror episodes, there’s not much I can do about that. I need to do the best I can and I really love making them.

Think pieces have debated the topics raised — about infidelity, gender identity, fluidity, masculinity, black masculinity. What was the biggest challenge in getting this story right?

Trying to ignore as many of them as possible and not allowing them to lead the story. You let the story tell itself. The story was originally set in suburban England, so it would have been suburban English guys. I don’t think we would have changed a single word of the plot or dialogue to do that, but then you play it out and it’s going to give it different inflections. And that’s what I love about these Black Mirrors because it will create debate. As a viewer, you lean into it and start to put your own perspective on that story, and they’re always broad enough for people to latch onto them and see how their own lives are reflected. Masculinity, fluidity — all of those topics that we knew were in the scenes then become inflated because of the setting of our story and the cast. When we were filming it, I didn’t give any of those elements up consciously, I just let them play.

Were there talks about spending more time in the game world? I feel like you could do a Roxette and Lance spinoff.

(Laughs.) Yeah! We did [talk about spending more time there]. Everything ends up getting cuts, so there are beats in the game world that we didn’t use. It was about finding that balance and in the end, for this story, you have to balance it in the real world. Certainly for me, it’s the real characters it has to land with. But I thought the game world was so lovely, and Ludi and Pom were brilliant. You could really go have fun in that world. But when you have 50 minutes that you want to chisel this into, you have to make decisions about the way you find the balance.

The ending is left somewhat ambiguous about if it’s a happy one. Charlie Brooker called it "pragmatic." After trailblazing “the Black Mirror happy ending” with "San Junipero," what did you want to accomplish with the way this one closes?

We looked at a bunch of different endings and this was the one that we settled on. It was always written to end with ambiguity. It’s quite clear about the decision that they’ve made, but the ambiguity is about how everyone is going to feel about the decision. Like as a viewer, are you going to be pleased that we reached this conclusion? It was the same as "Be Right Back"; we had a multitude of endings and it was also about how satisfying the viewer finds your solution to this puzzle. I think that’s a good description for this one — pragmatic. You could have taken it in quite a number of different directions, but this ending probably asks no less and no more questions than any other routes. We had extra elements that we tried with the ending that pushed in slightly one direction, in terms of how successful this solution is for the marriage. Things like that, we played around with. But in the end we thought, "Let’s not reveal any of that." This is their next step as a threesome. They’ll take this next step further as an agreement to do this and the rest is up to the viewer.

So you toyed around with showing more of Danny and Theo's future?

Yeah. I had a little beat of something where you got a sense of what this might actually be like. More similar to "Be Right Back" than "San Junipero," where it’s untrodden; you’re always making the best of something. That was not the perfect ending that she ended up with in "Be Right Back," but she needed to end up somewhere; she had a child. And it’s the same with this. Danny has a marriage and loves his wife; they have a child. So they’re going to make the best of something that’s come into their lives. That’s how I view "Striking Vipers." Although you are left with this ending shot that is quite romantic [with Roxette and Lance]. Even with "San Junipero," with these endings, at some point someone had to make a leap that may have been an uncomfortable leap to get there.

It seems that even if this is working for their marriage now, it might not work forever.

Sure. And Danny is going to pay the price, if that’s what he really wants forever. Theo is saying, "Fine, but that’s going to come at a cost. A deal is going to have to be made and you’re going to have to accept something that isn’t in another realm. It’s going to be real." A sacrifice is being made. They are challenging themselves to see whether this is actually going to save their marriage and I do like the idea that they are going to take that challenge. At this point, she either says goodbye or, "Let’s be honest because I have these feelings, too, and, is there another way of doing this?"

How close is real technology to people using VR porn as therapy for marriage?

We’re quite close with VR and I think people probably already do. How successful that is, I don’t know. Is it something fun? Or is it something you can sustain? How do you maintain the electricity and does it actually do something? Because part of the problem is sometimes boredom, so how do you keep that alive? It’s not that "Striking Vipers" comes up with a solution, but I think it’s quite brave for asking the question.

"San Junipero" has been referenced in Bandersnatch; the TCKR tech in "Striking Vipers" is another Easter egg to the world you created within this universe. Brooker ruled out a direct sequel but have you talked about any ways to revisit or expand San Junipero? When you and I spoke, you suggested a Quagmire spinoff

Not directly, more like a playful thing. It is interesting to think about revisiting something. I think I know where I stand about it, but I don’t know. When they called me about this one, there was something in the way that Annabel pitched it before I read it that I thought, “Oh my God, we’re going to go back to San Junipero.” But we didn’t. And I think it works because you’ve told that story. If you’re going to go and tell a Quagmire story, maybe you use "San Junipero" as inspiration. But you go somewhere else with it.

Quagmire would certainly be a much darker story.

Exactly.

The fifth season of Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix. Head here for more of THR's coverage.