Joey Moser talks with Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker and producer Annabel Jones about the shifting dark tone in Netflix’s tech horror odyssey.
There isn’t a show on television like Black Mirror, and the anthology series has one of the most specifically devoted fandoms out there. A key to the show’s success lies in how each episode is a standalone film with its own themes, and everyone has very strong opinions about each installment. Season 3’s beloved San Junipero is the reigning champion in the TV Movie category, and the show might repeat a win this season.
The connection between creator Charlie Brooker and his producing partner, Annabel Jones, is a charming and breezy one. It may come as a surprise to many fans of the show, but Brooker and Jones told me that a lot of their ideas from the show come from a comedic and earnest place. The world is a dangerous and scary place these days, but this team isn’t all doom and gloom. We talk about the toxic masculinity of USS Callister as well as touch upon the inspiration for the tone of this diverse and impeccably produced season.
What do you think it scarier: the entire Black Mirror canon or the fact that we all might have to deal with Donald Trump for another 2 years?
Charlie: Both. Well, certainly reality seems to be our biggest rivals at the moment. Probably the latter, because the world is real as far as I’m aware. Therefore, it’s worse.
After the success of season 3, especially with the move to Netflix and the Emmy win for San Junipero, were you nervous about presenting the fourth season to audiences?
Charlie: We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t. You certainly wouldn’t be a self-deprecating Brit. You never know how things will be received. Because the show reinvents itself with every episode, we know it’s often divisive. People like and dislike different stories, so you never know how it’s going to go down. There was a degree of excited trepidation.
Annabel: The way the show reinvents itself is by taking on different genres and different mood pieces. You’re going into totally unknown territory. For instance, USS Callister was this massive (for us massive) space opera, that’s a big risk. There’s a lot of things at play. One, we need to make sure we keep the Black Mirror DNA. Two, we’re paying homage to a sci-fi classic. And three, you want to make sure you’ve done it justice in terms of scale, ambition and visuals. While it does make us a nervous, what a privilege to do.
When the images first came out, I think people thought, “Black Mirror is taking on Star Trek” or at least something akin to that. So we could tell that it was going to be a big episode already. Did you want to showcase that ambition purposefully with the first episode?
Charlie: One of the driving things behind Callister is that when you watch the first few minutes, you’re completely taken aback that we’re doing something in this genre. It’s very much, in my head, it’s a crowd-pleaser in many ways. We have the luxury of tackling different styles. If I had any nervousness, at the script level, I’d think that this was very mainstream for Black Mirror. We joked that it was like an adult Toy Story like when Andy leaves the room and the toys all start talking. Consciously, I knew we were doing something a bit more comic edge than other episodes we’ve done. There’s a popcorn element.
Annabel: At the same time, there are lots of contemporary themes running through it subtly. You don’t realize until the end what you’ve just witness. There’s toxic masculinity in the workplace and how women respond to that. All of that is there for you to reflect upon. I think it earns it’s place in the Black Mirror canon.
I remembered from my first viewing how fun the episode was. Re-watching it, those themes of male privilege and how men impose themselves on women came screaming through to me.
Annabel: I think what the film gracefully does is that it backgrounds it so much. You don’t quite realize what’s happened until afterwards. At the start, we have this protagonist, played so wonderfully by Jesse Plemons, that you feel for because he’s being ridiculed by the juniors in his office. You have a lot of sympathy for him. When you realize the tools he has and how he uses his power, your sympathy for Nanette allows her to become the protagonist. It’s only afterwards where you understand where a form of bullying can come from. It’s not always overt. It’s not always in the foreground.
You mention Cristin Milioti’s character, and I love the comic energy she brings to Callister. All of the episodes have a female protagonist—Hang the DJ is obviously a love story between a man and woman. Was that a conscious decision, or is that just a coincidence?
Charlie: Yes and no. With Crocodile the lead was originally male. We had sent the script to Andrea Riseborough for her to play one of the other parts, and she came back to us and said she’d like to play the main character. And we thought that that made sense. There were very few changes that we had to make. Callister felt logical with how the story came out. Beyond that, Arkangel, I think it was dictated more by the story. There was probably a point earlier when we were doing season 2 where we realized all the protagonists in the first season were male. We deliberately changed that then. But that was in the depths of time.
Is there an actor you’re dying to get on Black Mirror?
Annabel: In terms of actors, we’ve been so lucky to work with so many wonderful people. To work with Jesse and Cristin, and in earlier seasons with Daniel Kaluuya, Domhnall Gleeson, and Rory Kinnear, we’ve been very lucky.
Charlie: We’ve been very fortunate to work with people who are relatively early in their career. This season we had Letitia Wright in Black Museum. When Letitia did a reading for us on a webcam, she was fantastic. There was a guy reading her lines who was off camera, and we could recognize that voice but couldn’t place it. And we realized it was Daniel Kaluuya, and they were both on the set of Black Panther. We seem to get a lot of people who go on to do so many amazing things. That’s a testament to Jina Jay, our casting director. She has an amazing eye. I think you don’t want to get somebody who is going to distract you from the story. We don’t want to do stunt casting ever.
Annabel: And working with Netflix, there’s no pressure to have a really high-profile actor. It’s really about who fits the story best. That’s quite liberating. Also, we do one-off films. You don’t have to carry the weight of a series and there’s no financial risk that comes with that. Being an anthology makes it easier.
Do you ever worry about the reaction to people saying “the show is really dark.” It feels like people are always commenting on how “the world is becoming dark like Black Mirror” and people focus on that word: dark.
Charlie: When we were preparing to work on this season, I was looking at the news and realizing I didn’t know what state the world was going to be in when these episodes premiered. There was a conscious decision to have light and shade throughout the season. Generally speaking, there’s often a lot of dark comedy going on in the show. The end of Crocodile is something that I find very, very, ultra jet black joke. Sometimes people don’t appreciate that. We don’t try to do things for the sake of it unless it’s supposed to be funny.
Annabel: Often the stories aren’t bleak. If you look at Hang the DJ—that’s a love story in a very contemporary world. The observations within that are hopefully quite interesting and funny so you can enjoy that element. Maybe it’s because it makes people think a bit, people assume they are all dark and bleak.
Charlie: To be fair, we’ve done really bleak episodes.
Annabel: If you look at season 3 with Nosedive, aesthetically it’s bubblegum and Truman Show-esque vision of the world. People find that quite haunting because of the comment of the role of social media in their lives. So often the stories tend to start off with a gently sarcastic viewpoint—
Charlie: And then spiral into utter despair.
Did you see that story about how people are rating their interactions in China? Someone sent me a news story about that recently.
Annabel: We should sue them! You’re right!
Charlie: I’ve noticed all of social media has become a Black Mirror early warning system where people immediately send me these links. They send it over straight away. Of course, there’s so many things now that it’s terrifying. I did see that. We don’t want our show to be viewed as a how-to manual.
Annabel: Or a documentary.
Charlie: That’s the last thing we need.
You brought up Hang the DJ and how that’s lighter in tone, and another episode this season that’s totally different is Metalhead. Did you just want to do something totally different with that one? It’s very minimalist and it features a more guerrilla style of filmmaking.
Charlie: Yeah. One of our inspirations for that was Duel, the Spielberg TV movie. Also, All is Lost with Robert Redford. We wanted to do something that was more of an experience than a story in a way. We wanted something very stripped back and stark and pretty unrelenting. The script for that was very short, because there was almost no dialogue. At one point, there was going to be no dialogue, but that proved to be a step too far. And then David Slade came on board, and he wanted to do it in black and white—which made sense given the starkness and primal nature of the story. We felt we hadn’t seen special effects of that nature in a black and white context. It’s a very divisive episode, because you ever go with what that experience is going to be. I think sometimes people are looking for something that isn’t intended to be there. There isn’t a big storyline or a big twist happening with Metalhead. It’s about the experience.
Sometimes I do think people look for stuff that isn’t there or they are analyzing things too much. But the great thing about Black Mirror is that you can come back to it quite easily since they are standalone movies.
Charlie: Yes, because sometimes people might be thrown off by the simplicity sometimes. Episodes do feel very different on a second viewing. Black Museum is a good example of that where once you know what Letitia is up to, it’s very different.
Charlie: Callister is like that. And even Hang the DJ. It’s tricky for us because we know what the reality is, so we sort of have to forget?
Annabel: Or remember that we’re producers and we know what we’re doing?
Charlie: Within reason. Sure we can use common sense!
You bring up Black Museum, which is a great way to end the season. Were you ever tempted to take the stories within that episode and make them their own thing?
Charlie: At one point, some of them were ideas that I was thinking of individual stories. The middle story— where the guy gets his ex-partner uploaded into a dormant part of his head—is an idea that I had knocking around for a while. We were trying to figure out if there was a full episode, and we ultimately thought no. The same goes for the man who is on death row and he’s getting electrocuted. That was an idea since season 2. I wanted to do a kind of ghost story. I like to think of it of what like The Beatles did with “Abbey Road.” Yes, I’m now comparing Black Mirror to The Beatles! It felt that we had there were threads running between these three separate stories. You can have a nice little mini movie and these stories can build on each other. It’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too. You can get a big payoff at the end.
Is there a particular episode that you really responded to either in the development of it or watching it after it premiered?
Annabel: Not one I can single out. This is going to sound rather self-indulgent, but there’s quite a few ideas that we don’t pursue because it doesn’t speak to us or doesn’t feel like it’s bringing something to the Black Mirror experience. We believe in them from inception, and you’re only so delighted when they turn out so well. All of them speak to me.
The one that really stuck out to me was Arkangel. In America, I feel like you can’t be a parent without having 800 people pile up on you on how you’re doing as a parent. Also, I just worship at the alter of Rosemarie DeWitt.
Charlie: It’s a bit of a nightmare. I always say that kids ruin your life in the best way possible. You drop down in hierarchy and it’s the balance of protecting and meddling. Jodie Foster did a great job directing that episode too.
Annabel: I’m glad you responded to that because you try to make things as complex as you can. Most situations are like that. You don’t want to make it with just an overbearing mother and a wayward child. It comes often from a place of protection and how you exercise that responsibly. It’s very difficult to parent when you refuse to be godlike, and the world is dangerous. I could relate to Rosemarie.
Have you guys seen the The Joel McHale Show?
Charlie: The show on Netflix, right? Because I know he had The Soup I used to do a show in the UK that wasn’t a million miles from that. I had separate career as sort of a—what would you describe it as? A televised prick?
Annabel: A Saturday night entertainment game show host?
Charlie: I know he does sarcastic takedowns. I understand he does Black Mirror?
He does this tiny recurring bit called Mini Black Mirror. The first one he did involved a bickering married couple that you come to find each live in those roaming vacuum cleaners in an office building. And one of them gets thrown away, so it’s lost forever. Is getting spoofed like that the ultimate form of flattery?
Charlie: Yeah! Most of our ideas come from a comic conversation that we’ve been having, so it’s gratifying. That sounds like we could run a good 90 minutes out of that.
Annabel: Maybe we should be thinking of him for season 5?
Charlie: Should we give him a ring?
I think you should.
Season 4 of Black Mirror is available now on Netflix.