Netflix Takes a Crack at Interactive Comedy With 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Special

NEW RED-THR - Carla Engelbrecht, Andrew Weil - Illustration by Joe McKendry- H 2020
Illustration by Joe McKendry

Carla Engelbrecht and Andy Weil, among THR's Top Hollywood Innovators, bring 'Bandersnatch' technology to a risky new genre.

Even before the 2018 debut of Netflix's first big interactive programming swing, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the architects behind it knew they would need to find a way to top the hit project and thus prove that the format wasn't just a one-off gimmick. "What can we do that's just as impactful, but feels different?" Carla Engelbrecht, director of product innovation, remembers asking Andy Weil, vp of original series, over breakfast at Netflix's 13th-floor cafe a few months before the Charlie Brooker film was released, generating significant buzz and garnering two Emmys. The answer soon became clear: an interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special, now set to debut May 12.

But this was not a simple case of transferring Netflix's choose-your-own-adventure storytelling from polarizing horror to comedy. Creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have a rat-a-tat joke style that posed a challenge. "You can't fire six jokes at an audience when they have to decide what their choice is," Weil says. To work out the pacing, they ran through the script with the special's director, Claire Scanlon, the writing staff and a group of nonactors. With that workflow, they found ways to bring choice-making into the jokes themselves. "That was the big difference," Engelbrecht says of what separates Kimmy Schmidt from its predecessor. 

For Netflix's interactive content, they use tech developed during production on Bandersnatch called Branch Manager, a program that integrates with Final Draft's screenwriting software. It also supports video footage so that cuts can be viewed in the program itself. Engelbrecht describes it as a "previsualization tool" where writers can create a map of the story, which incorporates the logic of the plot. 

Engelbrecht says they focused on making the tool — available during the entire Kimmy Schmidt project, subtitled Kimmy vs. the Reverend — accessible to filmmakers: "The last thing we want is for someone to not want to [use] it because the software is terrifying." Instead, the opposite is happening. A writer recently joked with Weil that he'd like to use the software to break stories on his non-interactive TV show. 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.