'Black Mirror' Director on Spinoff Potential of "USS Callister"

Director Toby Haynes goes inside the making of the season four space opera, revealing the 'Star Trek' and hidden 'Star Wars' homages and why there's still more of the story to tell.
Courtesy of Netflix
The cast of "USS Callister"

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season four Black Mirror episode "USS Callister."]

For those who have seen the new season of Black Mirror, the phrase "Hip, hip, hooray!" has likely taken on a new meaning.

The first episode of the Netflix anthology's fourth season (now streaming) opens with a Star Trek: The Original Series-familiar scene that carries with it an underlying feeling of dread that viewers of Charlie Brooker's series have come to recognize. The stand-alone stories featured in the dystopian episodes are often bleak and nihilistic when exploring humanity through techno-paranoia, but "USS Callister" is the first time Black Mirror has flung itself into space, bringing with it a rare comedic flair and an even more elusive happy ending.

In the first few minutes, viewers are transported into the space opera's truest parody of the genre and onto the spaceship USS Callister, which is run by a James T. Kirk-like Captain Daly (played by Jesse Plemons). Daly fearlessly leads his crew into battle, annihilating the threat in their galaxy and celebrating the win with a kiss from each scantily uniformed female crew member while the entire ship offers three cheers of "Hip, hip, hooray!"

It is quickly revealed, however, that the USS Callister and the galaxy it voyages through is Daly's virtual creation, his own twisted homage to his favorite (fictional) retro TV show, Space Fleet. The episode flip-flops from the real world, where Daly is a tech genius and bullied CTO of a virtual gaming company, to the fantasy one, where his ship is comprised of digital clones of employees who have wronged him in reality. He trapped them there by stealing their DNA and creating virtual copies, though they are fully conscious of the outside world.

On the USS Callister, the quietly disaffected boss abuses his power as captain, creating a hellish life for all who are trapped in the game. It isn't until the arrival of fiery new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) that the USS Callister crew begins to stage an uprising, ultimately overthrowing their tyrannical boss under her rebellious lead. Lt. Cole, a coder working under Daly in the real world, steers the ship to safety by exploiting a wormhole in his program. The crew leave their space commander trapped in his own game — the real Daly abandoned in his apartment and plugged into the game with no escape hatch — as they head off into space under their own command to encounter new players (one voiced by Aaron Paul).

The episode, co-written by Brooker and William Bridges, clocks in at 74 minutes, and director Toby Haynes had only 20 days for filming, which took place last January, in a London studio that included a set for the Callister ship, and in the deserts of Spain's Canary Islands. In the chat below with The Hollywood Reporter, Haynes (Doctor Who, Sherlock) goes inside the making of the season four breakout, points out the Star Trek and hidden Star Wars influences and reveals an idea for a TV spinoff: " 'USS Callister' is probably one of the best pilots for a space show ever."

What drew you to the story of the USS Callister and Black Mirror

When I came to read this, I thought initially it was just another science fiction film. I had done an opening to a Doctor Who that was very similar and that was years ago for me, so I didn’t know if this was right. My agent said, “Just keep reading.” Literally about five or six pages in, I thought this was the best thing I'd ever read. When I went to meet the guys, I managed to hold it together for most of the interview until the last five minutes, when I actually begged them to do it. I said, “Please, please give me this job!” I thought they would get some big shot Hollywood director to do it, so when I got the call, that was a nice air-punching moment for me. Then, of course, they tell me what the budget is and how many days I have to shoot it, and I went, “Ok, I can see why you hired me.” (Laughs)

You filmed this last January. What was the shooting schedule like, and how long did you have to get it done?

We shot it in about 20 days. We shot it in the U.K., mostly, and then we did two and a half days of filming on the Canary Islands in Lanzarote, which is where we did all the interplanetary stuff. It was just a special time, but very high pressure. You have to put together this feature-length action-adventure movie, almost, in a few months. We had a few weeks of prep and then shot for 20 days, and then a few weeks in the edit. Each thing that we did, you get that one go at everything. The time scale for the costumes was incredibly short. I remember picking the colors while working in Lanzarote and trying to get them for each character. In a movie, you develop it and develop it: we had about two to three versions and we nailed it. It is also thrilling; I love the speed of working with that kind of decisiveness. I was also working with a design department that has done every single Black Mirror so far: [production designer] Joel Collins’ department is one of the most incredible I’ve ever worked with. They had been working on it before I got there, so the spaceship was very much up and running. Charlie has all the best ideas, and as he says himself, it’s the bones that he has. All the detail that people love, the sort of texture, comes from the collaborators, who are some of the best I’ve ever worked with, from costume and makeup to the design department. You really wouldn’t be able to do this in the speed that we do it without a team that is working that well together. It’s really, really impressive.

The episodes are generally the same in budget, but executive producer Annabel Jones called this episode their biggest feat. Was there anything you asked for that you couldn’t get?

More time to shoot it! (Laughs) I think I wanted about three more days of shoot that I didn’t get. We had a script that was running at 73 pages when I first read it. I thought that was a bit long for an hour and wondered if Charlie was going to cut it down. Then he added 15 more pages. It was 97 pages or something like that when we went into shooting, and we didn’t extend the shoot. The schedule stayed the same as if it were for 73 pages. It was really high pressure to get through the high page count. On the spaceship, we were doing 15-page days. But we had this amazing cast. We had to really speed through the casting process, but we found an incredible cast. I knew they always wanted Jesse Plemons for the role of Daly and had rearranged the shoot so it worked for Jesse, and then cast around him.

What impressed you with Plemons while he was playing this tyrant in the fantasy world, and then a completely different version in the real world?

He is such an incredible actor. It was such a pleasure to work with him. He’s Texan, he has this kind of cool, easygoing demeanor. He just does it. He doesn’t worry, and that kind of influenced the whole cast. And to see Jesse, who is one of the nicest actors I’ve ever worked with, play such a tyrant — he at times really struggled with being that harsh. But then at other times he would say things and I would be like, “Where did that come from? You scared me there.” (Laughs) He would say, “Well, that’s what Daly would do.” Jesse also offered up the idea to shave his head. We had to make all this very quickly, and you are sometimes reticent to do anything too radical, because you don’t want to make a mistake and blow it. They were a little nervous about him shaving his head, because you can’t unshave it. But, when do you get an actor of his stature to offer to shave a bald patch into his head? This is a gift — you need to accept it and go with it. That’s the integrity of Jesse and his kind of art, that he’s willing to do that. He changed his whole look, and it changed him. We shot the thing in two parts, and I think when we got to real-world Daly, he was, in a way, easier to talk to and easier to bond with than when he was being Captain Daly. Captain Daly is kind of this terrifying asshole who is all-powerful. Real-world Daly is downtrodden, and in a bad way. You wanted to give him a hug, even though he’s pretty twisted. [Jesse's] just a great, great actor. I miss these guys. It’s been over a year. I’m so in awe of that cast. 

They spoke about how they bonded as a cast during filming. Did you feel that with their performances?

I think they bonded very quickly. We hired the right people. From the supporting cast to the main, they all play more than one role. It’s very rare to get a bunch of characteristics like that, so everyone felt a bit lucky. I felt lucky that we had a spaceship and that we had this cast. I had this idea in my head that they would have to look iconic in their faces, and I felt really pleased with the spread of the guys that we found. Cristin Milioti is one of the most incredible talents I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I like to shoot in order; I like to watch how the actors are performing, and that informs how I’m going to film it. But on the first day we had cast sickness, so we had to do all the third-act stuff in the first two weeks. The first week of the shoot, we turned the shoot on its head, and Cristin had to do all her heavy-lifting stuff, but she just came in and nailed it every day. Everyone had to do it in about two or three takes, because that was all they had. When Jimmi Simpson is doing that amazing speech about his son being thrown out the air lock, he got one take at that. It was a 17-minute take, but he nailed it. You could be doing that over and over again for a whole afternoon. It really brings out the best in people, I think, when you’re under that kind of pressure. But we were dealing with this fantastic source material. The conceptualizing was second to none. The character development. Everything elevated off the page so well; it just flowed as we filmed.

What were some of the challenges about making it clear to viewers when they were in the real world and when they were in the game?

One of the stylistic things I tried to do with the show as you go through was with the camera: when you are in Star Trek mode, it’s very locked-off; in the real world, it’s very handheld. Building a shot logic like that really helps you to navigate where you are in the story. Then as we get into the story, the handheld comes into the Star Trek mode. On the planet when Daly gets the call for his pizza, it starts off on a tripod and then when he pauses the game, the shot is unlocked and then is handheld, and that moment is the collision of the two worlds in one shot.

This is Black Mirror’s first space story. How big of a Star Trek fan are you, and how did you strike that balance of putting in enough Easter eggs but also keeping this a Black Mirror original?

I’m probably a bigger Star Trek fan than Charlie is. As a kid, I was a super-geek for all things sci-fi on TV, particularly Doctor Who. I knew the original ‘60s Star Trek show very well. I was such a fan that I’m kind of reverential about it, so I was happy to play fast and loose with this version. I knew stuff that Charlie didn’t know, which is why we put Michaela Coel in a red outfit. Michaela had to be in a red outfit because she’s the first of the crew to get killed. On Star Trek, the guy in red always gets nailed. [Daly is also wearing red on the ship.] I knew those layers of detail, so I made sure those were elements in there. I’m not even sure I ever communicated that to Charlie, but it was just something that had to be. He’s so smart in detail and on the integrity of the concept. That’s what was impressive. Charlie and Annabel are very particular, but you really start to speak their language after a while, and it’s such a pleasure to work with them. Every meeting you have with them, you always spend the whole time laughing. It was one of the most stressful projects but also one of the most fun. I hope it happens again; it was a magic moment.

Of all the episodes this season, this one ends up being the most timely. Brooker wrote it before the U.S. election, and you filmed it in January. He and the cast have spoken about how the real world seeped in, given the power theme and takedown. How did that influence filming?

There was so much in the air. I have American friends, and I had been to Thanksgiving while I was prepping it; they just had their head in their hands. We were reeling from Brexit. It was an interesting time. We’re going through a lot of big changes and surprising shifts in the direction our countries, so there was a kind of kinship with the American cast. Even though it was written months before, some of the feelings in there are very real. What’s really interesting is how the whole abuse of power, with the sexual harassment thing that’s just come up since earlier this year, is really profound and kind of ground-shaking, and it holds some relevance there too. Because it is creepy what Daly is doing and it is an abuse of his position, but whenever you're looking at the abuse of power it’s funny how one thing leads to another. If the [Harvey] Weinstein thing had happened, would Trump have gotten elected president? I don’t know. These shock waves in the news have left an imprint.

Brooker and Jones thought the world could use some cheering up when they made this season. That was long before the sexual harassment reckoning, which this episode speaks to by having a woman overthrow a tyrant. How relevant is this story right now?

It’s really refreshing and wonderful. It just wouldn’t have felt fresh if that wasn’t the case. That’s what I felt when I first read the script. All my expectations when reading those first pages were turned on their head by the end. Anything where I thought I had seen it before was turned on its head, and that was the strength of the writing. And then the fact that you get Cristin, who I think is an incredibly powerful actress, who is an intellectual force; it was just so thrilling to see her embody that so thoroughly.

Plemons researched Star Trek and its star William Shatner pretty heavily, watching old episodes and videos. How do you think he will like the Daly character?

It comes from a place of love. Clearly, Daly is such a fan that he is mimicking the way that his hero speaks. It was also a very fine balance about how Shatner-y we were going to get. We brought in a voice coach. We worked it very carefully. Jesse would say, “You let me know if you want to turn the dial up on Shatner.” We did it one or two times where he went full Shatner, like when he says “Fire” in the opening. That’s straight out of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I love those movies. I’m quoting my heroes. So it comes from a place of love. We’re not punching down, we’re punching up.

The best part about these episodes is the twist. What should viewers look out for the second time around, when they revisit it after knowing the premise? 

I’ve seen it so many times that the details are all there for me. I think the performances are really far out, and when you’re watching the characters who aren’t necessarily the leads, they’re hilarious even when in the background. I love a cast that is that consistently on it. I can watch those performances over and over. There are also three Star Wars references. I don’t know when I’m going to do sci-fi again, so I try to put everything in there. One of the references is when Cristin wakes up in the medical bay, the way the lights came on was a reference to Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One trailer — the shot that never made the movie, when Felicity [Jones] is standing up and the lights come on in sequence. That was an eight-page scene that we had to shoot in a day. Then, the tube that Jimmi goes into when he reactivates the engines of the spaceship, I wanted that to look like the tubes of the Bepsin in Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back, the tubes that Luke Skywalker falls down inspired that. And there's one line when Daly has just turned Michaela into an alien where he says, “Take that thing to the bridge.” That’s the same line they say about Chewbacca when they are on the Death Star in A New Hope. So there are the three Star Wars references, along with the endless Star Trek ones.

Last season, "San Junipero" became a cultural phenomenon, and Brooker has already predicted "USS Callister" would have that similar impact. How does that feel?

I still haven’t watched "San Junipero" all the way through because it’s too good. I couldn’t watch it because it scared me about doing this project! I just hope people don’t switch off halfway through this. I want to make sure it’s gripping enough that people watch it all the way through and enjoy it, and punch the air when that music comes in at the end. One of the greatest things about this episode is down to the orchestrated score. Everything we did was on a movie scale, with no money and the shortest time span. It’s people knowing their craft so well that we’re able to get it done, and I was there for the recording when we had the orchestra. It was one of the best possible moments, when they recorded the music for the end credits. I challenged him and said, "If people aren’t punching the air when this music comes in, I want my money back." 

Brooker always predicts technologies. How far away are we from this episode happening?

I had a go on the VR for Resident Evil, and I had to get out of it as quickly as possible. I was walking through this space and just the mood, I was terrified: zombies start jumping out at you and start eating you. I’ve never been so scared of a form of media like that since I was a kid. It’s really affecting. I think we’re so close. Whether we can put it on our temple, I don’t know about that. But PS2, they’re almost there.

Do you think there is a world where there is a sequel or Black Mirror crossover potential with "USS Callister"?

I was talking with Louise Sutton, who produced this and "Metalhead," and she cooked up a brilliant idea of spinning it off into a TV series. I’d love to do a TV series of "USS Callister" — it’s probably one of the best pilots for a space show ever. And I made it! So I’m keen to see it as a TV series. I think Charlie might revisit it as a Black Mirror. Whether I’m the one to do it, I don’t know. Being a fan of the show as much as I am, and being a part of making it, I’d love to work with that crew and cast again. It’s a gift for a director.

Milioti has already said she would jump at the chance to spin this off into a series. Would you have to find a way to keep Plemons' Daly around?

That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? That’s what this idea is. There is this brilliant idea that he is still alive, and his attempted murder gets pinned on someone. Whose fingerprints do they find in the apartment? There’s so much you could do. Fingers crossed, you never know.

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