How Mr. Robot’s creator took the reins of season two
By Sean T. Collins
"I feel like he’s, like, not a human being." — Carly Chaikin
"I’m not quite sure if he’s real." — Portia Doubleday
It’s a strange coincidence, hearing two different cast members of Mr. Robot describe Sam Esmail in these near-identically enigmatic terms. As the show’s creator, showrunner, and — as of season two, debuting in two weeks — director of its every episode, he exercises a degree of control over the series that’s almost wholly unprecedented in television. That degree of engagement calls for a superhuman level of commitment. And it’s also a vote of confidence from USA Network, which utilized the show’s massive critical buzz to cut itself loose from its light "blue skies" reputation and enter the prestige-drama big leagues.
Mr. Robot’s content only makes it riskier. A twist-filled tale of conflict between corporate cybersecurity and a hacker underground led by a mentally ill morphine addict, the show uses bold, almost alienating shot compositions and edge-of-sanity performances to plumb the depths of depression, isolation, and rage generated by omnipresent technology and late-capitalist inequality. It’s not afraid to name names, either, whether taking shots at beloved geek-culture properties like The Hunger Games and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or calling out secular saint Steve Jobs for sweatshop labor in its very first episode. ("I think there’s a couple of things we’ve gotten in trouble for," Doubleday says of the Jobs swipe.)
That’s why when actors Chaikin and Doubleday describe Esmail, they sound like members of the show’s underground hacker army "fsociety" talking about their charismatic leader, Mr. Robot himself. They openly marvel at his complete command of both the series’ large-scale logistics and the story’s intimate emotional details: "It just doesn’t compute with me how he’s able to navigate directing, knowing what shots he wants, and then he goes into the editing room — I mean, he’s never not working," says Doubleday. "He knows what’s going to be right. He knows everything."
Like his fictional counterpart, Esmail is in charge of a vast operation designed to challenge the dominant system of how capital and creativity interact. That "Mr. Robot" is a superhuman figment of the main character Elliot Alderson’s imagination — the aggressive, anarchic side of himself he uses to rally the troops and strike a blow against corporate hegemony — doesn’t really matter. The results are real enough. And both onscreen and off, the sense of dislocation and frustration that fuel both masterminds’ respective quests are real as well.
On the overcast May morning when I meet Esmail at a Bed-Stuy basketball court where Mr. Robot is shooting, he seems very real indeed. At 6’ 4", Esmail stands a head higher than star Rami Malek or cinematographer Tod Campbell. Until the basketball-playing extras show up, he’s the tallest person in the playground — his black-rimmed glasses and air of stubbly, slightly artsy dishevelment make him look like an overgrown film student. He wears a Canada Goose coat far bulkier than anything else being sported on the temperate late-spring morning, which adds to his imposing figure as he buzzes around the location. "He’s a presence," says a network rep watching him work in the same awestruck tone I’d heard from the cast.
When he speaks loudly, his voice turns into a booming baritone. "LET’S DO THAT ONE MORE TIME," he bellows from the director’s chair halfway across the playground, as Malek, Christian Slater, and newcomer Craig Robinson — plus a canine co-star who’s proving somewhat difficult to wrangle — run their lines. "GREAT!" Esmail says after the take is completed, before he grins and adds "I’M TALKING TO THE DOG."
"He’ll definitely yell at us all the time," Doubleday tells me. "You’ll hear a resounding ‘CARLY!’ or ‘PORTIA!’ or ‘NO, RAMI!’" But the actor insists he’s neither a dictator nor a disciplinarian. "He just knows us so well," says Doubleday. "He’s said so many times, ‘You guys know these characters better than I do. I don’t know if you’ll have a better idea than me, so bring it to the table and we’ll see if it works.’ If he likes it, it sticks. If he doesn’t, then I trust that it wasn’t right for the moment, because he’s seeing the entire world."
As cast and crew prep for another run, Esmail’s voice rings off the court: "DON’T DO THAT." "I like to get yelled at," Malek jokes in response, his famously large eyes lighting up with the smile that returns whenever he breaks character. "He likes to yell," chimes in co-executive producer Joe Iberti, watching behind the monitors and smiling along with Malek. If his tongue were any further in his cheek, Iberti wouldn’t be able to finish his craft-service breakfast.
For all his volume on set, Esmail is "extraordinarily mild-mannered," Slater tells me over the phone later. "I felt safe with him from day one." Again, the cast speaks with one voice about this: "He always has a smile on his face, always available where you need him to be, always ready to talk if you need to," Chaikin says. "If I was in his position, I’d probably be pulling out my hair and sobbing every second."
When I asked Esmail about the challenge of directing all twelve episodes of a season himself, he’s quick to demur. "[Steven] Soderbergh directed, in an amazing way, two seasons of The Knick. Obviously Cary [Fukunaga] did it, and was brilliant, with the first season of True Detective." When I point out that neither director served as showrunner or writer on those shows — the aspect that make his role this season so unique — it’s as if he forgot he’d even done so himself. "I always thought the writing process for movies and TV shows was just a blueprint. The making of it was the thing. It’s exhausting, but in the best way possible. Even though there’s a lot of hours spent being very hyper-focused on details."
Considering the difficulties inherent in directing what is essentially a 12-hour movie, this hyperfocus serves Esmail well. On that Brooklyn basketball court alone, he shot scenes from episodes one, two, three, four, seven, and nine before the week was even half-over — a process called "block shooting," in which material is shot out of order to consolidate the time spent at any given location and minimize the cost and hassle of bouncing back and forth from one set to another.
It’s an efficient technique, but far from flawless, making it difficult to accommodate last-minute changes. It can also wreak havoc with the performers’ ability to keep track of where they are in the story. "Half the time I’m like, ‘Wait, what episode are we doing? What just happened? Where did I come from?’" Chaikin says. "There are times that you’ll film a scene from episode seven, then you go and do one from episode three, and one scene is born from the other so you wish you’d done it earlier. Luckily, Sam knows everything so well, and tells us exactly what’s going on."
Esmail’s savant-like familiarity with the material comes up again and again. "The fact that he’s there 100 percent of the time and has the full overview of everything we’re doing, where we just came from, where we’re going, has been extraordinarily helpful," Slater says. Doubleday adds: "As busy as he is, you can call him the night before and be like, ‘I don’t understand this! Why is this happening?’ and have him break it down rapidly. Having that [access] is incredible. I feel like I can take more risks, because I trust him implicitly."
The director is both happy and nervous to hear how his actors praise his ability to see the whole picture. "I sure hope I do — I don’t know who else would!" he says, laughing. "I’m kind of the guy that’s always been there, from the beginning. Every idea that [we] came up with for the season, for the story, for the show, for the characters: I’ve always been around. Part of the decision to direct every episode this season was to streamline that process and help the whole project become a lot more cohesive. The more compact we get, the less people have to get involved in order to get those ideas across, the better."
And since Esmail handed in scripts for the entire season before the cameras started rolling, those ideas were downloaded by cast and crew in a massive artistic data dump. "We had a five-hour table read [for the first episodes] and an eight-hour table read for the last," Chaikin says. Having Esmail there for all of it eased much of season’s logistical nightmare, she says. "Those were cold reads, none of us had ever read them before, so we got to binge-watch — or binge-read — the show together. In between episodes, we’d be like, ‘Oh my god, what happens next?’"
What happens next — that is, after fsociety successfully manages to bring down ECorp in the first season’s finale — is, frankly, pretty bleak. The initial episodes of Season 2 finds the core cast of Malek, Chaikin, Doubleday, and Slater pushing their characters to their darkerst places yet The somber mood is palpable on set, too, in the way Malek and Robinson rarely raise their voices above a murmur, while Slater communicates only in clipped, jittery declarations of anger and impatience. A character lights tiny fires in the background; they burn briefly and sputter out listlessly. Even the dog seems sick. When combined with Campbell and Esmail’s trademark off-center cinematography — in which individual characters are literally cornered in the frame, with vast swathes of empty screen weighing down on them — the effect is as heavy as anything on TV.
In any case, fans of the show will be reassured that it hasn’t let up its apocalyptic tone. The first season’s preternatural prescience about cybersecurity breaches was half its appeal, with the Sony and Ashley Madison hacks happening so close to its airdate that they felt like network tie-in stunts. "I’ve heard him discuss the Wal-Mart hacks, the Target hacks, the Arab Spring," Slater says of Esmail’s fascination with internet-enhanced breakdowns. "He was paying attention more closely to things that had been percolating, growing. The world has actually started to catch up."
"Watching a group of young people rebel against the one percent — these are not new ideas," says Doubleday. "They’re things that as a society we’re all thinking but don’t know how to tackle. He’s just relating to what so many of us are wondering, but don’t say, and don’t have a platform to."
It’s true that Esmail himself has some experience as a hacker; as a college student at NYU he got in trouble for pranking his girlfriend’s college’s email server. But to hear him tell it, that’s informed the show primarily as an aesthetic matter. "We were never going to do cheesy graphics flying at you in the screen," he says. "That, for me, is the biggest no-brainer. We were actually going to use the real screens that hackers would use to execute a certain hack. Anything that didn’t feel real, anything that felt ‘TV’ or ‘movie,’ we would collectively cringe."
Getting the tech right is one thing, but recently Esmail has come to suspect that his show is about something both more personal and more universal. "It struck me when I was [editing] episodes two and three that there’s one thing very different about our show compared to other television shows: We don’t have a lot of relationship drama," he says. "There’s not a lot of falling in love and breaking up and meeting and relating to one another. A lot of the characters are lonely. They have no spouse or significant other — they’re just on their own. The only relationships we have are bad ones. A lot of the drama is people in their rooms by themselves, either staring at a screen or communicating with someone through a screen. Maybe it is that we’re reflecting today’s anxieties, but I would go even deeper and say we’re exploring what loneliness looks like today."
You can see that loneliness in more than just the narrative. The show’s signature framing, "short-sighting" characters against the edge of the screen, reflects how we ourselves look with our faces glued to our iPhones or staring through the ether to someone on the opposite side of a Google chat. "The whole reason why I feel that composition works — it’s purely instinctual — is because the movies and TV shows I’d watch that do that would give me this unsettling feeling, like these people are disconnected. I wanted to show this disconnect. The widespread disconnect between people…obviously, that’s one of our biggest themes."
But it’s hard to find a less lonely, more interconnected place than a TV set, which thrives on long term working relationships and trust that spans years. As the center of an enterprise as complex as Mr. Robot Season Two, Esmail seems an unlikely authority on isolation. His actors praise his kindness, friendliness, and accessibility for their every inquiry. His network has entrusted him with nearly every task involved with the show’s construction, from the writer’s room to the editing room. TV giants like Matthew Weiner have praised his achievements. He’s engaged to Shameless star Emmy Rossum. "What loneliness looks like today?" With all due respect, how would he know?
"I’ll be honest with you," he says, his analytic tone momentarily shifting inward. "I’ve lived a very isolated life. I have tremendous social anxiety. I did not love going out to parties or even get-togethers, really — I went to the movies, which if you think about it is an isolating experience anyway — and this was because I had anxiety about interacting with people. But what I’ve realized is even when I would talk to friends, they were a little bit the same way. It became easier just to text, because it’s less anxious. You’re not as nervous. You’re more removed. This is a direct result of technology, and because I’m such a tech nerd, I remember sensing it not just in myself but in everybody I’d interact with in my personal life. It’s unprecedented.
"And what drove me—" He pauses. "I wouldn’t say it drove me mad, but what I found curious is when I would watch TV shows or movies, they would do that thing where the guy goes to the girl’s house. No!" Traces of that on-set boom creep into his voice. "They wouldn’t even call that person anymore! Or go to the person’s job? No one does that! No one just goes to someone’s office! And because drama always lives on the one-on-one interaction, writers and filmmakers just ignored that. Filming Mr. Robot, I took the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, what would actually happen? In the context of today, how would people actually interact, without having them face each other?’ My personal life, my frustration with what I was watching, feeling like it wasn’t authentically representing how I was interacting with people, was what motivated me."
As the scene between Malek, Robinson, and Slater winds down, Esmail unfolds himself from the director’s chair and takes to the basketball court, huddling with the camera crew about the next set-up. Security for the next scene is tight — on this secrecy-obsessed show, it always is — and nonessential personnel are ushered off the location. As I leave, I watch Esmail cheerfully interact with dozens of people, in person, in real time — something neither he, during the worst of his social anxiety, nor Elliot, his fictional alter ego, would be capable of doing. But once it’s time to run the scene, he goes back to the camera, or plants himself in front of the monitors, watching his world through a screen.
Design by James Bareham
Edited by Emily Yoshida