5:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
'Death to 2020': 'Black Mirror' Creators on Making Topical Comedy Amid the Pandemic
"People definitely need a relief," says Annabel Jones, summing up 2020.
Speaking virtually alongside Charlie Brooker, the Black Mirror creators tell The Hollywood Reporter that this year wasn't a good fit for another potentially harrowing season of their Emmy-winning anthology series. Instead, the producing partners and Netflix collaborators decided to tackle the "nonsense and chaos and horribleness" that was 2020 with comedy.
Death to 2020, which released on Netflix Dec. 27, is a different kind of end-of-year special. First conceived in July as the coronavirus pandemic continued to rage around the globe, Brooker and Jones settled on the format that would work best under COVID-19 era production constraints and a tone that would best sum up 2020.
The result is a mockumentary that mixes real-life footage with commentary from fictional talking heads who represent familiar 2020 archetypes. Those such "experts" are played by Samuel L. Jackson (a reporter), Hugh Grant (a history professor), Kumail Nanjiani (a tech CEO), Tracey Ullman (Queen Elizabeth II), Samson Kayo (a scientist), Lisa Kudrow (a conservative spokesperson), Diane Morgan (an average citizen), Leslie Jones (a behavioral psychologist), Cristin Milioti (a soccer mom), and Joe Keery (a gig economy millennial).
The actors filmed their scenes separately and each in one day, with locations split between London and Los Angeles amid a 10-day shoot at the end of November in order to deliver the most topical takes. Laurence Fishburne was the final touch, narrating an ever-evolving script, written by Brooker and a team of scribes. Al Campbell and Alice Mathais directed the cast in the U.K. and U.S., respectively, as Brooker and Jones ran the sets remotely via Zoom.
The 70-minute standalone special — which, to be clear, does not exist in the Black Mirror universe — tackles the global pandemic, the sweeping Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S. election, while also touching on moments like the rise of TikTok, Parasite’s historic Oscars win and #Megxit. Brooker, known in the U.K. for his comedic takes on current affairs as well as his dystopian series, approaches it all with the "slightly detached" and "elite" air often employed by documentaries, a genre that has especially thrived on Netflix.
"The whole format is slightly tweaking the nose of high-end Netflix documentaries, so it sort of made sense to be doing the show in this form and also on Netflix. I don’t know that a special like this would have been commissioned if it wasn’t for the pandemic," says Brooker. Jones adds, "I hope what Death to 2020 does is give people a sort of cathartic exorcism of the year that was 2020."
Below, in a chat with THR, Brooker and Jones detail what it was like to make Death to 2020 in an unprecedented year amid "huge leaps of progress" in production, discuss their approach to Trump's role in the special and all of those Netflix mentions ("The crew were almost in reverence to her like she was the Queen," says Jones of Ullman's The Crown-worthy performance), and muse about how 2020 might change how they tell stories in the near future.
You first pitched this special in July and, from there on out, it became a constantly updating project. At what moment did you two decide that more Black Mirror wasn’t right for 2020, and that you wanted to do a topical year-end comedy special instead?
Charlie Brooker: I don’t know that it was a conversation where we said, “Let’s not do that. Let’s do this.” In Britain, we’ve done a lot of comedy specials — and often topical comedy — which is probably news to a lot of Americans who only know us through Black Mirror. And so this being a big, momentous year, it felt like a good opportunity to do something about the year. Back in July, you are thinking, “What can you actually make at the moment?” Filming 12 people around a table is almost as challenging as filming a car chase, because of all the precautions. So doing something that mocks all of the high-end documentaries that you see on Netflix, and also talking about the year in a comic way, seemed like a good fit.
Annabel Jones: People have said they thought this year felt like an episode of Black Mirror. Obviously, it’s a very unsettling and chaotic year, and I’m not sure that we personally had the appetite to be making a Black Mirror whilst all of this was unfolding. Personally, all of the shows that I have watched have been wholesome, innocent or funny. People definitely need a relief and I hope what Death to 2020 does — and, especially now, with the hope of the vaccine — is give people a sort of cathartic exorcism of the year that was 2020. To look back and recognize the nonsense and chaos and horribleness of it all, but hopefully be able to slightly laugh thinking, “That’s over.”
The documentary format works in the pandemic era of production, given the COVID-19 protocols that you have to consider when filming. You filmed this in about two weeks in November, but I imagine the preparation took months. What was your path to production?
Brooker: In a way, there was never a first draft or a final draft of the script. Unlike a Black Mirror, this was done much more like a topical thing that we’ve done in the past, where there are lots of writers. We’d chat on Zoom and they would send in one-liners and that sort of thing. So the script started getting put together and then fairly early on, we started assembling an edit which was like almost like an animatic. We used still photos of people and my voice pretending to be members of the cast to assemble a very rough version to get a sense of what material you are getting, and then you plan the filming accordingly. It’s more like doing an animation or a CGI cartoon, in terms of scripting.
Jones: We wanted to film everyone as late as possible. In an ever-changing year, you want to be topical. So we filmed everyone in the end of November and beginning of December, and left Laurence [Fishburne] to the very end to allow our narrator to feel as contemporary as possible.
So, Laurence Fishburne filmed his narration… yesterday?
Brooker: Pretty much! Not much longer ago than that. We kept joking about how something else was going to happen, and then something else would happen. Immediately when we locked the picture, London goes into Tier 4 and there are all these other sorts of things that are happening.
Jones: It was like déjà vu. It doesn’t feel like a new story.
Brooker: It feels like the same story we’re all stuck in: Groundhog Day.
You have a small window between when you wrapped and when it releases (globally on Dec. 27). What is the anxiety like during that time?
Brooker: You always have that lingering concern that something major could happen in the weeks after you deliver; I know from experience. One year, we did a topical show for the BBC and then the day after we delivered it, some huge story broke. The thing about 2020 is that it’s obviously been an incredibly hectic and grueling year for everyone, but it’s been dominated quite globally by the pandemic, by Black Lives Matter and by the U.S. election, which is a huge international story. This is a global special but we weren’t trying to pack in all of the stories from everywhere around the world. In that respect, we’ve commented on all of these major strands of the year. Unless, of course, tomorrow we discover some sort of alien life form. And, frankly, we’re due some good luck! So, if we do discover an alien life form, I hope it’s Baby Yoda and not the Predator. (Laughs.)
Jones: I think “breaking news” is no longer a thing. It’s just news. Even if there was a big story, people would just be like, "Yeah [shrug]." I think our prime minister Boris Johnson is doing a press conference at the moment and it’s like, “Yeah, he did one the day before. He’s doing one tomorrow.”
Brooker: The daily Emergency Press Conference.
Would you have the capability to edit anything last-minute, if you needed?
Brooker: If I had my way….
Jones: Don’t encourage him!
Because of the pandemic, each actor shot for one day without ever interacting. How different was that aspect of filming, to be so separate physically? And, who played the “director” character, who was the scene partner for all of the actors?
Brooker: We shot in both the U.K. and the U.S., and we Zoomed in for both shoots. You want to keep as few people as possible on the set and there are far more important people than us! So we watched remotely. In the U.K., the director was Al Campbell, who has done a lot of comedies and has worked with us before as a comic character; and in the U.S. it was Alice Mathias, who has previously worked on Documentary Now! and things like that. It was an international production and it’s actually one of the first times we shot in the U.S. for a Netflix production. Previously, when we’ve done Black Mirror, we’ve had Spain, Canada, Iceland or South Africa standing in as the U.S. This was our first time we got to film in L.A., and we weren’t even there!
What was that like to run a set remotely during a pandemic?
Jones: There was a live feed set up to the set, so we were communicating directly with the director the entire time. In that sense, it’s no different than being around video village when you’re sometimes not on set because you don’t want to unsettle the actors.
Brooker: In some ways, it’s better. Because we’d be sitting here and looking at the edit on one computer and then looking at Samuel L. Jackson on Zoom on the laptop. Especially with the time difference, edits could often run well into the night. And it's spooky how quickly you get used to the fact that you are doing the edit via Zoom and a streaming window. When we would make a little change, I would record the new line into my phone and send it straight to the editor who put it straight in. And often I was looking stuff up on Getty Images and grabbing bits of archive and would fling it straight over. Whereas in an edit suite, a technician has to come in and fiddle about for what feels like 25 minutes. So, in some ways, this way was quicker and easier. Also, we’re at home and we get to see more of our families. We would get to eat a meal with our family every night, which you don’t when you’re in the edit.
But obviously, there are a lot of challenges involved. There’s an aspect of human interaction that is lacking. There are all sorts of technical challenges, since you are relying on 18 different systems rather than one — one person’s Internet goes down and the whole things goes. So there are all sort of logistical, technical and probably emotional challenges involved in it, too.
Jones: I remember Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad saying that he used to be in the writers room in L.A. and he’d have a live link up to the filming in Albuquerque. This was about seven years ago? I remember thinking that was so sophisticated and asking, "Why can’t we do that?" And now, you’re in a crisis and you have to do it, and suddenly there are huge leaps of progress.
Quite a cast was assembled for this special. Did you write the characters with the actors in mind, or did you tailor the characters once you lined up the cast? And, what was the process for coming up with the characters' names?
Brooker: (Laughs.) Silly names for characters is something I’ve always enjoyed. It was a chicken-and-the-egg situation in that sometimes there would be someone you would have in mind and start writing for them. And often, when you get them, they would have suggestions for their character. Lisa Kudrow is a good example of someone who had a couple of specific suggestions that then found their way into the script. From a writer’s perspective, it’s always good to look at someone very skillfully performing this character — it makes you feel clever. That’s always the thrill. It’s really them breathing life into this creation and it’s always spooky to see that come to life. We were very fortunate with the cast.
Jones: As British [creators] and American actors talking about American stories, you want to make sure the point of view is authentic.
You had these American archetypes, like encapsulating “Karens” everywhere with Cristin Milioti's character.
Brooker: She smartly said that what she wanted to conjure up was the demonic nature of this character.
And then The Crown and the drama around it was one of a few Netflix mentions. How do the executives react to Netflix's inclusion — is anything off-limits?
Brooker: We got 1,000 pounds every time we mention a Netflix production! (Laughs.) They give notes. But it’s more creative notes, like to tighten a bit, for example. We wanted to include little mentions like Tiger King, because it felt like it was part of common experience this year. And, it was a little bit cheeky. I think the Queen is part of the Netflix cinematic universe. Obviously, this is not The Crown. But I like to think that, much like Doctor Who, she can appear with different actors playing the same role. (Laughs.) Tracey Ullman makes an amazing Queen. If they want to do an additional season of The Crown, they should definitely be casting Tracey Ullman if they get to Season… Now.
Jones: Tracey is just so good at impressions. She’s not just a brilliant comedy actress; she really gets nuance and getting the intonation right, and the mannerisms. She walked onto set and from what we could see [virtually], the crew were almost in reverence to her like she was the Queen by the way she was handling herself. But what’s interesting about Netflix is that they have also been a story of the year. Without, sadly, any cinematic releases, suddenly Netflix is what everyone is going to. Charlie, you often say that when you picture the apocalypse the cliché is that you see people running through the streets and fighting for water, and really, the reality is everyone at home watching Netflix!
Brooker: We did have a line that we had to drop for time, which was Samuel L. Jackson saying that he pictured scouring the wasteland for food in the apocalypse, not scouring Netflix for shit to watch. And that the only maniac he encountered was Joe Exotic. The whole format is slightly tweaking the nose of high-end Netflix documentaries, so it sort of made sense to be doing the show in this form and also on Netflix. I don’t know that a special like this would have been commissioned if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I think they would probably go for a more traditional studio variety show, and this has more in common with stuff we’ve done in the past.
One of the more interesting things is the outside view on America, and you mentioned that the U.S. election was a top global story of the year. How did you settle on how you wanted to handle Trump and the message you wanted to send?
Brooker: It’s a good question and I don’t really know how to answer it because, in a way, he is just one of the characters of the year. We have the bit where Diane Morgan's character — who is one the five most average people in the world and who is a British citizen — is watching America as though it’s a crazy TV drama. I know there’s been a lot of talk recently about how it’s impossible to satirize Trump and in a way, you don’t have to with this. We just show what he’s said and done. I don’t know that we spend that much time commenting on him, so much as taking the mickey out of characters around him and having our characters talking about him. I don’t have much time for sitting around and unrelentingly banging the drum. I think if you get too didactic, it turns the audience off. For me, personally, it feels like a lecture. So we try to make sure there are lots of goofy jokes in there as well — though, there are points of view that come across loud and clear, I’m sure.
Jones: Since it’s meant to be a telling of the year — a roundup of all of the things that have happened in this crazy, chaotic year — you don’t want to drill in too much and do a television essay on one particular character.
Brooker: Because we are aping a documentary format and documentaries tend to adopt an elite air, a slightly detached mutual air, it gives you a constant sort of joke shelf that you can sit on, where you can describe absurd things in hopefully slightly amusing manner, but by using language that is like a slightly wonky documentary.
Recent Black Mirror episodes have been injected with more optimism. Since society ended up faring better in the pandemic than you would have imagined, Charlie, in what ways do you two imagine 2020 will impact the stories you want to tell moving forward with that series or other projects to come?
Jones: I think it’s back to that point of wanting to do something that’s funny; wanting a light relief. And I hope this is that. I don’t know if anyone really would have had the appetite to watch a harrowing Black Mirror, not that they are always harrowing. And I think that’s reflected in a lot of viewers’ tastes at the moment.
Brooker: To be fair, it’s also something we’ve always done. When we did the first series of Black Mirror, at the same time we also did a show called Touch of Cloth, which was like Naked Gun-Airplane kind of spoof of U.K cop shows. So we’ve often alternated between making Black Mirror and making comedy shows. But more broadly speaking, I think it’s too early to say how the year we’ve all gone through is going to affect storytelling as a whole and overall. Because often times in the past when terrible things have happened, you do get a resurgence of horror movies and things like that where it’s a way of processing things. But I do agree with Annabel that there’s probably a hunger for escapism. Not mind-numbing escapism. But there will probably be a demand for smart, funny escapist material. And hopeful stories, generally. As long as they aren’t patronizing.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Death to 2020 is now streaming on Netflix.