The Cast of Mr. Robot Discusses What Makes It So Authentic
Warning: Contains Season One Spoilers!
This time last year, USA Network’s Mr. Robot was only just beginning its run of being one of 2015’s most talked-about TV series, having screened the pilot episode at the SXSW Festival in Austin, and then at Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Now, a whole calendar year and pile of awards later, the popular drama returned to TFF in partnership with DEF CON, a hacking conference which set up shop for three days in TriBeCa, hosting a panel with the cast of Mr. Robot Sunday afternoon.
Moderated by DEF CON’s founder Jeff Moss (aka The Dark Tangent), “Life in a Post-Mr. Robot World” featured stars Rami Malek (Elliot), Carly Chaikin (Darlene), and Christian Slater (Mr. Robot), along with the show’s tech consultant/writer Kor Adana. The panel fielded questions from Moss, the audience, and social media, mostly addressing what makes the series such an authentic portrayal of computer hackers. Here’s what we learned.
Only realistic hacks make it into the show.
“When I first read the pilot, I was like, ‘This is the perfect show for me,” remembered Adana, who came to Mr. Robot during its first season as a tech consultant, admitting that he wasn’t sure how far the series’ reach would be beyond those who were specifically interested in computer hacking.
For Adana, who was promoted to a staff writer in season two, everything hack-related has to pass the sniff test of a real hacker.
“I would say that I put as much work into the authenticity as I do into the dialogue and the writing [of] the scripts,” he explained. For each hack idea, he has to consider whether it’s realistic enough, if it’s been done before, and how to authentically execute it on the show.
The hacks you see onscreen are usually happening in real time.
Slater, whose self-deprecation about his ignorance of technology was the source of great humor during the panel, wanted everyone to know that the onscreen hacks in Mr. Robot are scrolling in front of the actors in real time -- there’s no green screen to add effects after the fact.
In order to do this, Adana works with other tech consultants to send video samples and screenshots of actual hacks with detailed notes to the show's Flash animator Adam Brustein.
Then, Brustein creates a video which plays during the shooting of a scene. What the actors are reacting to is actually scrolling before their eyes. And if something’s not quite right, they redo the hacking animation and shoot the scene again. Hardly any of the hacking is tweaked in post-production, which makes these scenes feel even more authentic to the viewer.
Mr. Robot is the only show that portrays failed hacks.
Ever notice how easily hackers seem to break through in movies and TV? That’s one thing that’s definitely different about Mr. Robot. In fact, Malek told the audience that he has received more than one pep talk from show creator Sam Esmail, reminding him that Elliot is ‘not Jack Bauer’ from 24.
“I think we’re the first show that actually shows a hacker failing multiple times before they finally get it,” Adana told the audience -- some of whom were hackers themselves. The writer cited season one, when Elliot tried to hack the prison multiple times before succeeding. “We show different steps of trial and error,” Adana said, admitting that sometimes the show has to fudge timing for dramatic purposes.
“[in episode six] we jump from him bringing up a command line interface and then seconds later, he’s into a PLC, running a Ruby script.”
Being technically accurate is just one aspect of Mr. Robot’s realism.
According to Chaikin, the show’s accurate portrayal of hacking merely rolls up into Esmail’s overarching commitment to authenticity -- not just with technology, but with characters, story, and setting.
“I think, for me, the most important thing about the show is being honest and authentic,” Chaikin explained. “Hacking a computer and all the technological stuff is a part of it, but that falls under the category of ‘The Truth.’”
Slater added that the show’s depth of humanity is the kernel of its realism. “One thing that Sam said from day one is that this is definitely a show about technical things,” Slater recalled, “but it really is driven by the characters, the story development, and the interaction between everybody.”
Portrayals of real-world events are often coincidences (but still creepy).
If the tech component doesn’t make the series feel true enough, Mr. Robot also eerily echoes real-life events -- sometimes before they happen. The allusion to the website Ashley Madison in the pilot was written by Esmail months before the story of it being hacked exploded in the news. And actually, he originally cut the line about it in the final episode -- only to add it back in at the last minute. (Malek confessed that he thought Ashley Madison was someone’s name until it came up in real life around the time of episiode 10).
Fans will also remember that the season finale, which portrayed a graphic shooting, was postponed out of respect for the victims of a real-world shooting that occurred on the same day.
“Sam called me to tell me why the finale was being pushed,” Chiakin remembered, “and I said, ‘Can’t you write an episode about world peace, where every single thing is fixed and nothing bad happens?’”
For more insights into Mr. Robot, including season one Easter eggs and production notes, watch enhanced episodes with behind-the-scenes secrets!
Mr. Robot at Tribeca Film Festival 2016