Black Mirror. The term refers to the dark, shadowy image you see of yourself while staring at the unlit screen of a television, phone or computer. It’s literally the reflection of oneself in technology.
Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror has already found success in the UK on Channel 4, and now Netflix is about to bring the third season to the US and Canada.
Each episode stands alone in an eclectic collection reminiscent of the best of The Twilight Zone. But rather than the supernatural, each has to do with technology’s far-reaching effects on us. Whether it’s living in an age of being rated by your peers in the darkly hilarious “Nosedive” (which stars Bryce Dallas Howard and was written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur), or traveling back and forth in time to connect with your soulmate as seen in the bittersweet “San Junipero”, some episodes strike a little closer to home than others.
A satirist, comedian and journalist, Charlie Brooker has always had a taste for the darker side of humor. He and the show’s co-creator, Annabel Jones, were recently in Toronto for the city’s annual film festival, and sat down with Creative Screenwriting to discuss the series.
The two of you have worked together on several projects. How did Black Mirror come about?
Charlie Brooker: We’ve worked together for quite a long time, and satirical comedy is my main background. In 2008 we did a zombie show called Dead Set – the premise was that the zombie apocalypse happens during a series of Big Brother in the UK and the housemates are the last people to find out about this.
They’re the only survivors, and are people who have been handpicked to argue by the producers. So it was obviously a comic premise, but we played it ultra-straight and it gets ultra-dark and quite satirical. It did well for us and Channel 4 basically said “what else would you like to do?”
It was the first time we’d done a drama and I was always a fan of weird, speculative, “what if?” stories that you’d get on TV. Things like The Twilight Zone, which aired sort of intermittently in the UK.
The BBC also used to do lots of these one-off, weird, controversial plays…we had the shows Hammer House of Horror and Tales of the Unexpected, which were twist-in-the-tale stories. I felt that you don’t see many of those on TV any more and the emphasis was on these 5-season arcs about, say, a troubled, but alluring, male lead. There weren’t many stories about a concept, you know? So this was designed to do that.
I read a biography of Rod Serling, who did The Twilight Zone and was interested to find out that he had been writing plays and television for quite a long time and was frustrated that he was running up against the world of censorship. He was trying to deal with issues like racism and McCarthyism and so on. He realized that if he made metaphorical stories, then he could say a lot more.
So I thought “if you were doing that now, what would be the issue?” Not the moon landings, not McCarthyism, not psychology…it would be technology. We use technology in our stories to fulfill the function that the supernatural does in a lot of the traditional, spooky, twist-in-the-tale stories – where it’s like a curse or a ghost or charmed object that makes something happen. We can use technology to do that in our stories and give people great powers that they then misuse.
That’s where it all stemmed from.
People are simultaneously addicted to their technology and terrified of it, so this show could be seen in many different lights – horror, comedy, science fiction…How do you see it? Is the show a cautionary tale of sorts?
Charlie: Well, we don’t try to moralize within it, because generally I don’t think we know what the answer is!
It’s like smoking. I used to be a chain smoker and I would wake up and reach for cigarettes first thing in the morning. Now I do the same thing with my phone. And I do think the footage of people doing this is going to look like Mad Men and smoking in a few years’ time. Someday in the future, someone will do a retro series set in the 2010s where everyone’s looking at their phones all of the time.
But it’s interesting that you say there are lots of different ways of looking at it, because that’s how we’ve approached the series. It’s like we’re doing six, almost different genre, films. We’ve got a comedy, we’ve got an outright horror episode, a police procedural, a coming-of-age story, and so on. So hopefully we’re tackling it from different angles.
Annabel Jones: It all starts with the central dilemma, and then you have ideas as to what is the most interesting way to explore that. There’s an episode with a detective and it’s quite complicated at the same time as it’s a really fast, gripping tale. There are quite a few layers to it, and it fit into a detective story.
Charlie: It started as a what-if story about online anger. There was a weird idea we’d had and wanted to see how we could play it out. We thought of a police procedural, which we had never done before. And it lent itself to quite a techno-noir pace.
Annabel: I think when you’re doing six in a run, apart from a general sensibility there’s no sort of creative arc that you need to fulfill. The freedom allows you to do anything, so you want there to be lots of surprises and for it to feel like you’re bringing something different with each episode.
Charlie: There’s a wider variety of tone across these six than we’ve had before – because we didn’t want it to get predictable. So we’ve varied it more and there’s both light and dark. There’s a lot of dark! But some light too.
Annabel: I hope that all of the ideas are interesting and engaging and entertaining. But sometimes it’s played out through a very tender love story and sometimes it’s played out through a very gritty, urban, brutal incident.
We seem to be in an era of binge-watching. Are there challenges that come with writing an anthology series?
Charlie: I don’t know how much we’re a binge-friendly show. I mean, I binge with the best of them! But very often it’s about ending each story by leaving you with a cliffhanger and a tease. We can’t do that obviously because we basically say “The End!” at the close of each one.
With the existing seasons that are out there, some people breeze through them really quickly and others sit and wait and recover! We’ve also got varied run times, because it’s on Netflix. So the detective one, for example, is a 90-minute story, while others are in the 50-60-minute range.
Annabel: But the benefit of being on Netflix is that viewers can absorb them and digest them and come to them when they want in the time that they want.
Charlie: It’s such an idiosyncratic show. There are lots of different flavors. Some of them are more contemplative, others are really fast-paced, nightmares unfolding very quickly. Basically what I’m saying is that it’s random!
As the series creator, what do you look for in your writers in particular? What makes them “good in the room”?
Charlie: We don’t have a room! Basically, we originate all of the ideas.
One of the episodes this season is called “Nosedive”. We came up with it and it was originally quite a different idea, more like a Brewster’s Millions sort of thing. It was a few years ago and had been rattling around with me…it was a movie idea at one point, I think.
And then one day I was using Uber and thought “it’s that”. We decided it was a comic idea and started working out the story. We knew Rashida Jones was a fan of the show, so we reached out to her. She put us in touch with Mike Schur and we all started talking over the phone. It morphed and then we took it from there.
We do discuss ideas in-house, but usually I’m writing them at night with regular Playstation breaks!
Tell me about your writing processes.
Annabel: There are some basic principles we adhere to, making the worlds feel very grounded. So that once you have one initial leap of faith, once you’ve accepted something, we try to make everything else feel very credible and authentic. Because if you don’t have that authenticity, then I don’t think you engage with the protagonist and you don’t really care.
Charlie: We probably don’t follow all sorts of screenwriting rules that we’re meant to follow! I don’t even really know what they are.
Annabel: If you could let us know, that would be great.
Charlie: It’s weird. I wrote the episode “San Junipero” really quickly, in kind of a fugue state. It just came out. There were others that were much more complex and densely plotted – they took ages to work out and were very different.
When we were doing the first season of Black Mirror in the UK, we were simultaneously doing a spoof cop show which had a Naked Gun-type humor. It’s a totally different muscle that you’re operating there, and I think that’s probably quite handy. We’re used to operating slightly different screenwriting levers, basically. There are different techniques for each story.
I always feel slightly nervous that I don’t know some of the technical elements of screenwriting. People will literally say “what’s happening at the end of the second act?” and I’ll say “ummmm…what’s the second act?” You realize afterwards that you’ve probably adhered to all sorts of rules.
You mentioned your background in comedy. What do you enjoy about writing satire in the type of political society we’re in?
Charlie: It’s an interesting time! I don’t know where I stand on that whole debate, that whole sort of online outrage. I think it’s certainly an interesting time and there are a lot of debates going on! And again, one of our episodes slightly deals with anger that people are expressing online.
I think really the ideas come about because we’ll be discussing something and then I’ll stumble across another thing that makes me laugh. A sort of “what-if” that I find funny. But Annabel would say “Oh my god, that would be horrible” and that just eggs me on: “If you think that’s horrible, wait until you get a load of this!”
Annabel: He’s desperate to see if he can make me cry.
Charlie: But then you’ve got a story engine, and you often realize that it’s quite interesting thematically.
The episode “National Anthem” with the prime minister and the pig is a very good example of that. That was an idea that had been knocking around for a very long time. I just thought I’d love to do a parody episode of 24. Play it straight, but with this absurd premise. That was the thinking behind it.
And then in thinking about it more, I said “Well actually it is quite interesting, isn’t it? And if that actually happened, what else would?” It suddenly started to feel thematically rich and not just this grabby, outrageous hook.
So I think that the satirical elements tend to come in like limpets that stick onto the hull of the story idea!
Annabel: The episodes all evolve differently. “Nosedive” was very much satirical from the off. But I think it’s interesting that Charlie’s starting point is always a very sort of entertaining idea. It’s either a mechanism or a story hook or something that he thinks is funny or interesting or entertaining.
Charlie: It’s always a matter of “Oh my god, if that happened…”
Annabel: And then he builds around it. Because you do want these films to be entertaining. If the audience takes away something from it, that’s great. But the intent is not to preach. It’s always “let’s try to make something chewy…something for people to chew on, that’s going to engage and thrill and scare and titillate”.
Do you have any advice you could offer our readers?
Charlie: Yes, I do! Well, first I can say I use Scrivener. I love it. It’s really good for helping you organize all of your ideas and index cards and then you can export your stuff to Final Draft afterwards. Scrivener is brilliant.
But, weirdly, here’s the thing that I have found most transformative: I realized that the one thing that seemed to up my productivity more than anything else was when my wife had a baby and I was looking after it, and it meant that I had to do “night shift”…I’d have a pocket of two and a half hours before the baby would wake up again. I got so much writing done in that time!
I wrote the episode “Be Right Back” so quickly, because all I could think was “oh my god, the baby’s going to wake up”. It basically meant I didn’t procrastinate!
Also, once I know what the story is and where I’m going with it, I’ll write standing up. And not even with a fancy standing desk. I just bought a cheap little laptop stand from Amazon. I’ll do all of the planning sitting down and then will write standing up. Because it’s slightly uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as you’d think. And it means you don’t end up thinking you’re working while you’re actually just Googling or on Wikipedia. You can’t! You just focus on the task at hand.
Then I sometimes literally set timers, where I write in 20-minute bursts.
I think these sorts of really practical things are more useful than anything else. I kind of feel like, in a way, all of the screenwriting technique books are telling me something I intrinsically know. It’s really interesting to have it spelt out. But it’s like telling me why a song is catchy, do you know what I mean? I find that the best thing is always just to fucking do it. Even if it’s shit.
The other trick is to try and not worry about how shit the first draft is. Because it’s always dog shit. But just keep, keep, keep writing.
I remember when I was writing Dead Set: there was one day I was literally writing it in my underwear in tears. I think it was my birthday! And I rang Annabel crying and saying “it’s shit!” But you just have to keep going. You can go back and fix it later – just keep pressing on. Even if the characters are just blabbing at each other, it’s better than saying nothing.
The best book on writing is the Stephen King book On Writing. It’s brilliant, actually. It’s full of just really practical hints and tips.
So that would be it – stay up at nights and work for 20 minutes. There’s a thing called the Pomodoro Technique, which sounds fancy but is just to do with writing in bursts of 20-25 minutes, then having a 15-minute break, and then going back. Which helps. Otherwise you can easily get into a little trance and start checking your email and you’re not actually working at all.
Speaking of technology…
Yes! We know one person who puts his phone in a Kitchen Safe (a time-lock container) so that he cannot be distracted. He credits that with having helped him write novels. You have to knock it out of your hand.
So any advice I give is always baldly practical like that.