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Sam Esmail’s life has changed dramatically since his first TV series, Mr. Robot, launched last June on USA Network. On the day of the show’s official linear launch, the NBCUniversal cable network renewed the hacker drama for a second season. That same day, Universal Cable Productions signed Esmail to an overall deal. Six months later, Esmail picked up a Golden Globe Award and a Critics’ Choice Award for best drama series, not to mention a Writers Guild Award for best new series, a Peabody Award and an AFI recognition for the series as one of the top programs of 2015.
Now, more than a year since its premiere, Mr. Robot returns for its second season with a special two-part opener followed by its own aftershow, Hacking Robot.
Ahead of the highly anticipated return, Esmail spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the impact of all that extra attention going into season two, his decision to direct all 12 season-two episodes and how much longer the show will run.
How is your preparation and writing process changed from season one to season two?
The writing process really hasn’t been different. … The only thing that’s been different is the attention that the show’s getting. First season, no one cared and that was nice. We were isolated and in solitude and we could just put our heads down and write. This season, we’ve got all this attention, great attention. But the weird thing is somehow we’re able to ignore it all and still put our heads down and write. I go out of my way to make sure that that happens because we don’t want to be, going into the second season, we don’t want to compare it to the first season at all. The strange thing is because this started out as a feature, it would be like comparison the second 30 minutes of the movie to the first 30 minutes of the movie. We’re not trying to go into the second season saying, “OK, it’s got to be the bigger thing and the badder thing and who’s our villain this year?” We’re on this path, we’re continuing the story that we started in the first season and to the credit of my writers, they’re able to somehow cancel out all the noise and put their heads down and focus on the story.
Going into season two, how have your conversations with the actors evolved? How do you draw the line between what to tell them ahead of time and what not?
I tell them everything. They know everything about the second season. What I do is we sit in the writer’s room for the first month and talk about the second season in general: where we’re we going and where the key moments are. Before we get into the episodes, before we get into the nitty gritty, I pitch it to the network and the studio to see how they feel, any thoughts or notes, or what their feedback is in general and then I pitch it to my cast because I consider them co-creators in these characters. They have to live with this person, they have to breathe this person and for me to ignore their input would be ridiculous. Then, once I get everybody’s blessing and everybody’s feedback, then we go into breaking down every episode.
How do you deal with that noise? You had these great twists in the first season and you were able to keep them under wraps, but now what extra precautions are you taking with scripts?
I actually wanted to, weirdly, take them in the first season, but everybody was, like, I’m just being too overly sensitive. In general, because I know about hacking, I take security very seriously. But I think this season with the attention I’ve now convinced all the IT people to know, yeah, we should be more secure. We’ve added more protocols in terms of how we’re disseminating the scripts and outlines and all that.
What is the biggest advantage of the critical acclaim and the awards that have bestowed upon the show?
I don’t know, because I’ve never been on another TV show before, but from what I hear, there’s a constant concern of ratings and getting renewal and getting the next season pickup. I don’t think we worry about that as much because of everything that’s gone on. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get great ratings. I hope we get a third season; we haven’t been told we’ve gotten a third season yet, but I think our confidence is a little high on that, at least. We’re going into the second season feeling like we’re going to be able to finish this series at some point the way we want to.
Speaking of ratings, what kind of talks did you have with the network to try to lure new viewers before season two?
I’m not great at marketing and I don’t pretend to be. They have a great marketing staff, so I let them handle that. But obviously, I would have to assume that the Globes and all the other attention … I have to imagine that that’s going to be a help.
Do you feel you can push the boundaries more with the network because of the acclaim the show has received?
I don’t look at it that way. I’m never trying to break the rules for the sake of breaking rules. It’s not an us-versus-them mentality because I don’t feel that way about USA; I think they’re actually really supportive of us. I think they are as confident as we are that maybe we can take risks because it’s really paid off. There were a lot of risks that we took in the first season that did well for us and I think now we have that confidence that we can continue taking risks and not play it safe. I think there is sometimes an instinct, when things go so well and you’re winning awards, that now you just have to do what you did the first season and stay in that lane and I actually think USA, smartly, agrees with me that, no, we are going to keep continuing the journey, and as long as it’s organic to Elliot and the world that we’ve created in the first season, we can keep taking even more risks.
When and how did you come to the decision to direct all of season two? Because you’re also writing on the show, that timeline has to be just right to allow you to do both.
I knew that kind of when we wrapped the first season. The biggest struggle for me was the visual style of the show is very singular and very distinct, and it was hard for me to articulate that to our guest directors. It’s not their faults, they were actually amazing and did amazing work on the show but I was on set everyday and I think, for me, it would just be more efficient if I took over the reins. There’s this weird thing in TV, because you have multiple directors, you can’t cross-board, so you can’t shoot things out of order because you have to bring in that director of that episode. From a production standpoint, it actually makes things easier on us going into the second season.
You’ve had this story in your head from the beginning since it was originally a movie. But after watching the first season unfold, were there any adjustments you made as far as “I want to play towards that relationship more because it really popped onscreen” or anything else that you learned from the first season that you applied to the second season?
I think that’s dangerous. I know, and actually I get the advice a lot that, if you see a relationship pop or you see a character pop then you start writing towards that, then I wouldn’t have killed Shayla in the first season because everyone loved her and Frankie [Shaw] did an amazing job. But I felt, no, we have to be honest to where the story goes and to what our endgame is with Elliot. To then modify that because we’re seeing that the audience loves a point or doesn’t love a point, I just think that’s when you get into murky territory. I don’t ever want to compromise the story because of that.
What conversations have you had with USA and UCP about the longevity of the show?
I’ve been very open from the get-go, just even in selling the pilot, that I don’t see it going more than four, maybe five, max five [seasons]. They jokingly sometimes slip in, “Oh, when we go into season seven, or eight, or nine.” And then of course, I laugh and I’m like, no, that’s not going to happen. I feel like, again, because they’ve been so supportive on everything else that they wouldn’t budge on this. They know that we should end this in the right way and not just drag it out for the sake of everything else. I think they’re very respectful and supportive.
What feedback have you received from the hacker community since the show premiered? What have those been conversations been like?
Well, hackers are very — I love them and respect them and I grew up with a lot of them — but they’re very shy to talk to and they don’t, especially when now you’re doing a show, they’re not going to want to publicly … I don’t know if they like being on the record. Let’s just put it that way. (Laughs.) I haven’t talked to them as much as I would like to. For example, I heard in an interview that Edward Snowden is a fan of the show. I would love nothing more than to talk to Edward Snowden — what a fascinating person — but he’s probably not going to talk to me unfortunately. He’s got his own reasons why he needs to not be on the record. I wish it was more, but it really doesn’t happen.
Mr. Robot’s second season premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA.
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