- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
With one single shot, Elliot Alderson’s (Rami Malek) entire world came crashing down around him.
OK, technically there was more than a single shot at play during the latest episode of Mr. Robot, but the fifth episode of season three was presented in one continuous take all the same. Easily the most technically ambitious episode of the entire series, the latest Mr. Robot focused on both Elliot and his frenemy Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) racing through E Corp. headquarters as everything around them devolves into chaos in the face of Stage Two, the explosive Dark Army plot that could very well serve as the final nail in modern civilization’s coffin — a race against the clock depicted in a single, commercial-free shot.
Given the stakes, and given the unique and pulse-pounding way in which the story was conveyed, there’s no better time than now to check back in with writer-producer Kor Adana for another round of our weekly Mr. Robot column. Adana, it should be noted, co-wrote this week’s episode alongside fellow Robot writer Randolph Leon. Here’s his deep dive take on how the episode came together, how Elliot and Angela’s stories are forever changed by the events, and much more.
An entire episode, presented in a single continuous shot. Insanity. How proud are you of this one?
This is the proudest moment of my career so far. When [creator Sam Esmail] first assigned the script to us, I was a little hesitant. I remember thinking, “Can we really pull this off?” After the script was written, it was well received by the room, studio and network. I remember thinking, “Well, we still have to shoot this thing.” Even when we were prepping for it and filming it, that original thought kept creeping up: “Can we really pull this off?” I felt a sense of relief and newfound excitement when I saw a rough assembly of the cut. At that point, my mindset shifted to, “Holy shit. We’re really gonna pull this off.” I’m so proud of our cast and crew who worked their asses off to execute such an ambitious episode of television.
From very early on, Mr. Robot has featured many memorable single take sequences, even earlier this season. Was an entire episode presented in a single take the natural evolution?
Here’s a bit of trivia about the Mr. Robot writers room. At one point, there was a list of sayings that we kept up on the whiteboard. It started with us memorializing some of the funny quotes that were uttered in the room, but it eventually evolved into a list of rules, which I dubbed “Sam’s Rules To Live By.” I can’t tell you all of them, but rule number two is: “Always take it to the limit. When you’re there, go one more.” So, with that little window into our thought process, the previous oners (single take sequences) that we did were examples of us slowly taking it to the limit. This episode is us “going one more.”
(Rule number two is not to be confused with rule number five, which states: “Don’t get ridiculous with the limits. Dial it back a little.”)
How did the idea for episode five to exist in one single extended sequence first come up? What’s the origin story?
During the early days of the writers room, when we were still trying to figure out what this season was, we were talking about [some of the] earlier sequences — the sitcom and Adderall sequences from episode two, for example. We were having one of those days where we were all bored with every idea that was pitched. We realized that we had nothing fun or exciting that measured up to one of those aforementioned sequences. Sam agreed that we didn’t have anything that pushed the boundaries, so we devoted the rest of the day to talking about it. One of our writers, Adam Penn, threw out the idea of doing an entire episode as a oner, Birdman style. Sam immediately took to it. We all did. The consensus was, “All right, let’s do it.”
When did it become clear this episode would have to air without commercial interruption? Were there fears of pushback from USA? What were those conversations like?
When USA first read the script, I’m pretty sure that they proposed the idea of airing it without commercials. Of course, we really wanted that outcome while we were breaking the story and writing, but like you, we were expecting some serious pushback from the network. It didn’t happen, though. I think our execs mentioned the possibility of airing this without commercials on our first notes call for the script. They were going to look into how feasible that idea was, because everyone was excited about doing this right.
Why do you think the single take and Mr. Robot work well with each other? What is it about the way this show is created, the stories it’s telling, and the one-shot as a vehicle for ingesting that information that makes a suitable match for you?
This show has always been about perspective and point of view. Mainly, Elliot’s perspective and point of view. Whether it be through voiceover, framing, blocking, sound/music choices, editing or long takes … it always comes back to us trying to make you feel what our characters are feeling. The single take works perfectly for this episode because of the stakes. We’re with Elliot as he “comes to” in the elevator. We’re with him as he discovers that Stage Two is going today. We’re with him as he tries to stop it from happening. We wanted every single scene to build on the previous scene to amp up the tension with each minute. We wanted the tension in this episode to snowball and crescendo without ever letting up.
How does writing an episode that takes place entirely within one continuous shot differ from writing a standard episode of the series?
A technique that we often utilize in our scripts is intercutting action and leaving each scene with some kind of small hook or cliffhanger. If you look at an episode like “eps2.8_h1dden_pr0cess.axx” from last season, you’ll see how we built rising tension by intercutting three different storylines together. Something is about to happen with Dom (Grace Gummer), then we cut to Elliot. Something is about to happen with Elliot, then we cut to Darlene (Carly Chaikin). Last night’s episode was a different animal because there was nothing to cut to. We had to increase the stakes within a series of set-pieces that organically led to each other in real time, all without ever leaving Elliot for the first half and Angela for the second half. It forced us to break down every little thing Elliot would need to deal with in order to get to the HSMs. Every little roadblock became an opportunity for building tension.
Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday are tasked with some incredibly challenging work as actors in this episode. What do you remember about how they reacted on first learning about the concept?
I remember both of them being really excited about this one. Rami and I had some cursory conversations about Elliot’s mindset and how he’s kind of in a daze in the opening, but we ended up filming all of Elliot’s E Corp. office scenes during the first week of shooting. It was a relief to get that chunk of the episode out of the way. Since the Angela scenes were later in the production schedule, I had more conversations with Portia leading up to the filming of her scenes. She was thrilled with the script and eager to film those moments. Both Rami and Portia were absolutely amazing in this episode.
What was the process for running through this episode — rehearsing and filming it? Was creating this episode almost more like staging a play than a television show?
Definitely. There was so much orchestration with many different departments and crew members who had to be in sync with each other. Sam, [director of photography] Tod Campbell and [first assistant director] Justin Ritson were instrumental in shot-listing this episode, deciding on camera movements, and figuring out how we would get in and out of our shots. Whether it be timing camera moves, focus pulls, directing background actors, executing screen animations or dealing with props, all these little parts had to align perfectly. I have to give a special shout out to our incredible camera/grip departments (Joseph Belschner, Michael “Godfather” Garofalo, Patrick Bracey and Richard Guinness). Aaron Medick was the camera operator who had to carry that heavy Steadicam rig for the majority of this episode, which includes the ungodly amount of takes we ended up doing.
In terms of computer screen animations, there was a lot of content we had to create. [Flash animator] Adam Brustein, [tech consultant] Ryan Kazanciyan and I worked for months to get ready for this episode. The screen animations were so complicated that whenever you see Rami sitting down at a computer, I’m actually hiding behind a nearby desk or cubicle, remotely driving the animation and telling him what I’m doing so he can react.
There must have been a few stopping points. Are there any you’re willing to identify? Are there more or less than we might think?
There are a few, but where’s the fun in me telling you where they are? Stop trying to kill the fun, Josh! I do want to talk about the work that went into the picture stitching, though. Initially, Rosanne Tan (the magnificent editor of this episode) had to make sure to seamlessly blend the shots together in the Avid. Thankfully, her assistant editor, Zachary Dehm, is very skilled with VFX. The two of them spent a lot of time planning and trying different methods. There were shots that were harder to make work in the Avid, so then Zachary would try it in After Effects. When Sam wanted to use a different take or a different performance, Rosanne and Zachary would look for areas to hide a cut. After all the temp VFX work was done, our VFX house would take over and do their magic.
Let’s dig into the episode proper, which begins on an elevator. How did you arrive at this confined space as the starting point for the hour?
I know we wanted to start the story with the “ding” of an elevator. The original outline of the script had us beginning and ending with Elliot and Angela on the elevator, which was some fun symmetry, but we ended up revising the ending. There was also this notion of Elliot coming to … as if he’s waking from a dream. He was in Mr. Robot mode for the weekend and he doesn’t transition back into Elliot until this beat on the elevator. We wanted to explore the mental fuzziness that the transformations create for Elliot. Does he remember everything that happened in that secret warehouse? Does he remember seeing Angela and Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom) together? It’s like those initial, fleeting moments of waking up from a deep sleep, trying really hard to remember your dream.
A man next to Elliot speaks in German. Can you translate what he’s saying?
These were originally scripted as German proverbs. In an early draft, the guy was screaming this shit on a crowded elevator (which we found hilarious). The idea here is that this German businessman is trying to psych himself up for an important meeting at E Corp., but he’s not being respectful of elevator decorum or boundaries. It creates this odd mood and tone that perfectly fits the disoriented state we find Elliot in. The meaning and the contradictions in these proverbs are thematically relevant to this introductory scene and the episode as a whole, especially since he’s looking at Elliot when he says them. “Aller Anfang ist schwer” translates to “All beginnings are hard.” “Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst” translates to “Starting is easy, persistence is an art.”
What’s the song we’re hearing at the top of the episode, which we hear again a few times later on as well? What’s its significance to you?
Sam had the initial idea of using opera by Philip Glass and score by Mac Quayle to fill out this episode. Our music supervisor, Manish Raval, and his music team (Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Leahy) sent three album ideas/suggestions from three different artists. Einstein on a Beach, by the Philip Glass Ensemble, happened to be one of them.
Then it was Rosanne Tan’s job to explore and find the right track(s) for the right moments. The EOAB album was two hours and 45 mins long, so it was quite the challenge. Rosanne kept playing the album on loop in the background in her cutting room and in her car when she drove home. After learning that album inside out, she found a common theme that worked out really well for the episode. “Knee Play 1” is introduced/teased at the top when Elliot is in the elevator with Angela. It’s a great piece to complement Elliot’s confusion in that moment. Then a little later in the episode, when the rioters are coming out of the elevator on the 41st floor, it was the perfect time to revisit Philip Glass. Except this time, “Knee Play 3” was used (a more amped up version than what you heard earlier). To come full circle, the Philip Glass piece at the end was “Act IV, Scene 2 – Bed,” which slowed things down nicely, while still being mysterious the same time, as we stay with Angela till the end of the episode.
To me, the “1, 2, 3, 4 …” counting motif used in the music relates to our time conceit in an interesting way. Time is such an important aspect of the show. Whiterose is obsessed with it. Elliot, Darlene and Angela are running out of it (especially in this story). That’s a part of the reason why we named the episode “runtime error.” The title works on a literal, technical and metaphorical level. I love how we start the episode with the more subdued version of “Knee Play” and then amp things up with “Knee Play 3” as the riot begins and there’s a clear time crunch for both Elliot and Angela to get to the HSMs.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day