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Six months ago, the real-life drama surrounding the Sony hack kept Hollywood and most of the country on the edge of their seat. Now, USA is hoping that the fictional events of its new hacker drama Mr. Robot will do the same.
“If this wasn’t in the news, if this wasn’t in the culture, people might watch a guy behind a keyboard and not buy it: ‘oh, well, what are they going to do? This is all just Hollywood stuff,’ ” creator Sam Esmail tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Now I think it’s very believable.”
Premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m., the series centers on an antisocial security technician (Rami Malek) who is recruited to join an underground hacker group intent on destroying the very corporation he’s paid to protect.
It’s a brave new world not just for USA, but also for indie filmmaker Esmail (Comet), who comes to TV for the first time. THR spoke with him about antiheroes, learning to let go (a little) and what made him wary of email long before the Sony hack.
What episode are you working on right now in the writer’s room?
We’ve broken the whole season. When I wrote the initial script, it was supposed to be a feature. I was maybe on page 90 and I thought, “I’m not even through the first act,” so I thought, “I’ll turn this into a show then.” I knew what the first season was going to be about, so going into it — even before we made the pilot — I knew what the season finale was.
How was it adjusting the project for TV? Was there ever a concern about having to fill in a lot more story if it was going to a 22-episode first season?
I never pitched it like that. … In fact, even if some [networks] offered 13 episodes, I was saying, “No, it has to be 10 [episodes] and maybe four or five seasons max,” because there is an ending and we are building towards that ending and I don’t want to deviate from that. I never had that fear because the first season wound up actually becoming what my first act of the feature was going to be.
Were there certain aspects you were able to expand on in the first season because you moved from film to TV? Were there noticeable shifts?
I never really got to explore the other hackers. That was part of the reason I did turn it into a television show — because I’m so fascinated by hacker culture, which I don’t think is represented accurately in a lot of movies and television shows. These people are interesting and fascinating and compelling. There’s a whole world here I’m just totally ignoring while I’m writing this one story about this one hacker.
Aside from the fact that hacking is such a hot topic, why do you think it’s important to shed a light on this group?
One of the things that inspired me to write the show was the Arab Spring. I’m Egyptian, so I went to Egypt right after all that happened and what I thought was so cool is you had these young kids who were angry at what the country was, angry at society, and their biggest leverage was that they were young and angry. They leveraged social media and technology, which the older controlling generation didn’t know how to use, and they really brought about change and they really challenged that anger in a productive way and brought about really positive change. Personally, I think that is imbued in the hacker culture in a way that I don’t think is as passionate in other cultures. It can be negative, obviously, but there’s a real positive thing there that I really want to shine a light on.
It’s a relatable thing. People do get angry. They do want change but they maybe feel frustrated that they can’t, and here are these young kids who don’t know how to talk to people, but can sit behind a keyboard and really affect something.
What did you think of USA going into the pitch?
I tend to go for edgier stuff. But when we started taking Mr. Robot around, they got it the most. When a lot of networks put on edgier shows, it’s still slow, but there’s a part of me that feels being entertained is just as important part of anything of television or film. I wanted both. I wanted an interesting dramatic story that was also thrilling — and that’s what they got more than anyone else.
What have the notes been like?
I could sense that there were nerves around certain issues that are in the show, but once I argued my position, we had a good collaboration. I think I had to address a couple things, like bring down the voiceover, but they ended up loving the VO and we put it all back in anyway.
The series was picked up in December and the writer’s room started in January. This is your first series so how has the acclimation been?
Its hard because I’ve only written and directed everything I’ve done so I’m very controlling in that way, and I want to make sure it’s up to par and what I want. I have a very specific vision. So the challenging part was always letting that go to a certain extent and trusting in people, but the good thing is that I hired a lot of great people so I surround myself with people that are better and smarter than I am. It’s actually been a great learning experience. And you know what? The show’s gotten better because of it, because I’ve loosened up on the control.
Was there one aspect of this process that was the biggest challenge for you?
What I hate is that we’re airing while we’re shooting. I would love to write ’em all and then go shoot ’em all like a movie and then air it — kind of like the Netflix model. Unfortunately, you have to work as you go. But that’s more of my feature film background infiltrating. This is the way television works and I’m trying to embrace it. There is something about being spontaneous — you have to move, the train is leaving, you’re just going to have to figure it out and you have to go, bringing that kind of energy into the show — that could be a really cool thing.
The word “antihero” is thrown around a lot in TV. What do you think of it and how it applies to Mr. Robot?
It’s weird because all of a sudden antiheroes are flawed characters. Aren’t all people flawed? I find it odd. The weird thing is that everyone gets so impressed. When you don’t have a main character that’s flawed, I don’t know how you relate to that person. Maybe it’s a testament to what shows used to be and this preconceived notion that you had to have a likable guy who appealed to everybody. There’s a sense of phoniness about that. It’s almost as if you’re an observer and you can’t empathize with a person. We obviously take a lot of risks with Elliot, but the important part is to make him compelling. I could watch There Will Be Blood all day long, and Daniel Plainview is a terrible person — but he’s still compelling to watch. That’s what makes me want to engage and see what happens next.
In the pilot, Elliot rants about Facebook, yet you have a Twitter. How do you draw that line and how much do you communicate over the Internet?
I have an account on everything just because I’m paranoid that someone will try to make an account of me. I want to control my life, but then I basically make it completely private and don’t really post anything. I don’t mind Twitter. I think it’s a lot of nonsense but at least to me, Twitter is just more of a public forum to have conversation. Facebook I think is incredibly dangerous because this is a corporation that basically owns your relationships. The way families talk to one another and friends talk to one another is completely owned and monetized by this corporation. They have the potential to do so many wrong things, and people are just handing that power to them. It’s incredibly sad.
Do you get nervous with email?
Absolutely, but I was always like that. I just never email [my] opinions. I always try and keep to simple facts and if I need to get into something, it’s always on the phone and even that I’m getting paranoid about. So when I read these e-mails from the Sony leak, I was like, “What the hell?” I mean forget hacking. If I send you an email talking shit about somebody else, you can easily just hit the forward button. That’s the part of me where I want to control my messaging as much as possible.
What do you think made you like that? Can you point to a specific instance?
This always gets motivated by girls. When I was in college, I had a girlfriend and she went to a small liberal arts college and I went to NYU. We were like off and on, and I was trying to impress her. I was anti-conformist and all this and she went to this liberal arts college that was kind of a little conform-y, not really, but in my angry, young way I was like, “Screw them!” I saw that they had a mailing list that they would blast out with all these weird messages — again probably normal, but in my mind they were controlling messages to the whole campus — so I spoofed my email from the college and blasted it out to the whole campus like, “Don’t listen to this! They’re evil! Down with the whatever” … I got caught because I was working in the computer lab and they traced the IP address back to me. I got on academic probation because of it. I was so stupid, and I was trying to be outspoken. I was trying to basically impress my then-girlfriend but at the same time, I wasn’t being careful enough and so I remember thinking from that moment on, I was on extreme lockdown. I never let myself do that again.
Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA.
Michael O’Connell contributed to this report.