Modern Living

Charlie Brooker: On designing dystopia

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan - The Philippine Star
Charlie Brooker: On designing dystopia
Series creator Charlie Brooker: “I think Black Mirror Season Five might reflect the political climate a bit more, because it turns out that lunacy is the new norm. We just needed the dust to settle first.”

Go sit by the fireplace. Wait for a signal. 

Hmm… that line does not look out of place in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe with its robot dogs, pain addicts, consciousness cookies and troll-face text messages. No alarms and no surprises, though.

I am here at the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California, and I am about to interview series creator Charlie Brooker and showrunner Annabel Jones. (Well, once the journalist from elsewhere wraps up her session). It has been raining. Outside is predominantly gray.  I hear bits of wood crackle with fire. A door opens.  

“How long have you been working on Black Mirror as of today?” asked producer Andy Weil during the fireside chat that morning at Netflix’s Kabuki Theater.  

“What, in hours?” quipped Charlie.

“No, no,” Andy said with a laugh, “how many years has it been?”

“It feels like 40 years,” answered Annabel, “but really, only 10.”

“Annabel Jones is not my harshest critic; my harshest critic would be me — in my head,” says Charlie. “But I have to try to impress Annabel when coming up with Black Mirror ideas, and she is not an easy person to impress. If there is a problem with it, she will identify it right away.” Annabel talks about having a shared sensibility with Charlie: “The objective is to tell a compelling story. If it’s not saying something new, or shining a light on something that has not been dramatized, why bother?” Charlie stresses, “Annabel is, in effect, co-authoring the stories. We spookily see the things the same way.” Photos courtesy of Netflix

And what a strange trip it has been. 

The anthology series began in 2010 when the general view of technology was still a rosy one. “Now it’s all gone sour,” says Brooker. He and Annabel are inside one of the Netflix HQ rooms. I have 15 minutes to get inside their heads and talk about dystopia, techno-paranoia, and a few of our favorite things. “It’s all gone a bit Black Mirror,” Charlie continues. “Which is bad for human civilization, but good publicity for our little TV show. I’ve already experienced what it’s like when Black Mirror stories slowly manifest themselves in the real world.”

Annabel shares, “Whenever someone said we seemed to be able to predict the future, we’d say, ‘Well, except for The National Anthem (where the prime minister has to have sex with a pig).’ And then that was stolen from us.”

After reading an article about how The National Anthem was the least realistic of all the Black Mirror stories, Charlie was jolted by rumors that circulated about how then Prime Minister David Cameron, allegedly, put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth back in college. 

“It was too weird of a coincidence,” says Charlie. “I genuinely felt like the world was a simulation for a few minutes, that reality is an illusion designed to confuse me.”

So say most of the characters in the Netflix series, which is about to drop its fifth season this year (its third for the network), after giving fans a choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror film titled Bandersnatch last Dec. 28. Heck, it would not break the Internet the way a flashing of Kim Kardashian’s tush always does, but a lot of buzz was generated by Bandersnatch — from fan theory hatchings and Easter egg hunts, to the mapping out of walkthroughs and “cheats” (just like in Tomb Raider and Resident Evil video games) on how to navigate the storylines to get to a specific outcome(s) out of the five main endings with multiple permutations. (One guy even postulated in the Black Mirror Discussion Group on Facebook that there would be “a huge increase in mass killings by viewers who killed their first human when they watched Bandersnatch.” He added, “Lawyers will call this effect the Bandersnatch Defense.” Insert derp here.) 

Welcome to the machine: The black bus that will take journalists from all over the world to a visit to the Netflix HQ in Los Gatos, California, and into the freaky, forking paths of Bandersnatch.

The film was masterfully written (Mr. Brooker) and directed (David Slade); it is historic and groundbreaking (watch out as Netflix presents more interactive material in the future); and it may very well be a blueprint, a portent of the possibilities in store for television in general. (If Bird Box were interactive, would you even let that loony Gary into the house?)

A bit of madness is what we need, indeed.

The path to Bandersnatch has been both thorny and triumphant for Brooker and Jones. Black Mirror was a breakthrough drama series in its first two seasons, plus one Christmas special for UK’s Channel 4, as “modern parables crafted around the theme of social media, technology and artificial intelligence advances” — a meta cocktail of The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected, 1984, Stephen King stories, Brave New World, Brazil, as well as British public information films.

Trippy headf*ckers abound. The porno pig episode started the ball rolling. The Entire History of You introduces us to the Grain (a device that allows the user to store and replay his or her audiovisual experiences). There is the twisted theme-park revelation in White Bear. The Waldo Moment seems not-so cartoony and less of a caricature nowadays — if you happen to be following the loony-tune tweets, speeches and grand pronouncements of the great comb-over leader across the Atlantic. 

Not a lot of people are aware of this, but the crowd-pleasing White Christmas special had a press screening during a time when Brooker and Jones were feeling un-championed by Channel 4. The network was surprisingly lukewarm in its support for the breakthrough show. Black Mirror’s third season premiered on Netflix in 2016, and its scope got wider, locales became diverse (from humdrum Hounslow to chirpy California), and breadth, more ambitious. Its episodes were instant classics as well: Nosedive... Playtest... San Junipero even won for Brooker an Emmy (for Outstanding Writing) in 2017 — even if Annabel jokingly assured Charlie he had absolutely no chance of winning. 

Afterwards, holding the trophy and walking around Los Angeles, Charlie would feel like “a medieval soldier returning to the village clutching the severed head of one of their mortal enemies.” 

Into the void: Posters of Netflix-era Black Mirrorfilms, including the latest mind-bender — Bandersnatch.

Season 4 gave viewers six more films. Black Museum was much, much loved with its portmanteau treatment, Dionne Warwick singalong, “Dead Wife in the Head” tale, and Easter eggs galore. (If White Christmas was Dead of Night, Black Museum was Tales from the Crypt.) Which brings us to the beast, that bastard called Bandersnatch. 

How many endings are there, really?

“(For Bandersnatch), I think it’s difficult to define what an ending is,” answers Annabel.

“Every time you hear Frankie Goes to Hollywood, you’ve sort of had an ‘ending,’” adds Charlie. “There is a Groundhog Day aspect where it keeps cycling around. Deliberately so. We’ve had so many interesting conversations internally about good endings, bad endings, even five-star endings.” 

The original conceit of the film was about somebody writing an adventure game and the Netflix viewer — in effect — is controlling the character. “That was the central hook that made me laugh,” explains Charlie, who began his career in London as a writer for topical comedy. “That is usually my sort of litmus test for something I want to write: it must be inherently funny. And then think of ways to make it not funny (laughs). Beyond that, you realize, ‘Oh, actually there’s a bit of commentary here on storytelling, about interactivity in general, free will and control.”   

Through The Looking Glass, Darkly

How do Charlie and Annabel feel about Inside No. 9 (created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) name-checking Black Mirror in its equally groundbreaking Halloween special last October? (Early last year, Brooker admitted in an interview his admiration for the BBC Two show.)

Book of dreams: Inside Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones with Jason Arnopp.

“I was really flattered,” Charlie answers. “I’m a fan of Inside No. 9 because A) it is an anthology — and we anthologies have to stick together (laughs); and B) it’s a very funny and smart show. It’s always surprising. (Shearsmith and Pemberton) are very experimental. That would be a really good crossover — Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror.”

Brooker and Jones have mentioned before how delivering a good Black Mirror season is like climbing further up the side of a building and how the sense of ominous terror keeps growing. If delivering Bandersnatch is equal to having reached, let’s say, the 20th floor, how would Brooker and Jones hope to top that? What would be their next move?

The two exclaim in unison: “Jump off! (laughs)” 

Annabel expounds, “It is very interesting doing an interactive film. You don’t know how people are going to receive it. Everyone’s experience is different and unique. I hope they find it entertaining. That’s something that Black Mirror always tries to do: to bring something different and unique to the series, to bring something new to each story. Across a Black Mirror season, we try to have a range of tones and genres — to keep it fresh and unpredictable. We’ve distilled a lot of that and put that into this interactive film, so you could go down a certain path and be slightly tonally surprised by what you’ve experienced, but still know you’re in the Black Mirror universe.”

Do they have Waiting for Godot moments where Brooker and Jones get stuck and sort of need a third person to break the stalemate? And who is that third person?

Annabel quips, “It’s Netflix (laughs). Wait... So Godot is Death, and he doesn’t ever show up. And where are the two tramps?”

“But Death will get us all in the end,” says Charlie. “Keep it light!” 

He clarifies how — although he and Annabel butt heads when it comes to creative dilemmas (Charlie once called her “a brick wall of condemnation” in jest) — they always come to a “sort of agreement,” most of the time. “We were almost philosophically approaching Bandersnatch differently at one point, because there was a whole set of things we were wrestling with. It’s a learning experience.”    

Did they ever imagine their television show — which started out as small, parochial, and with very British stories — would become this global phenomenon, a hit even in countries such as the Philippines? 

“No, because we’re always working,” answers Annabel. 

“We don’t travel much outside of our bubble,” adds Charlie.

She expounds, “We’re always head-down in production hell. In the first season, the show was still finding its voice. By the second and third season, it knew what it was. Of course, (we should have realized the stories are) going to travel because everyone is in the march of technology.”

(“Who would have thought that other countries have technology?” deadpans Annabel. “Or pigs,” quips Charlie.)

He admits they could not have predicted the impact that Black Mirror would have on a worldwide TV audience. “That’s bananas. I get a bit of vertigo now just thinking about it. He continues about there being an infinite number of shows on the telly. “And there is only so much you can hold in your head, so it’s quite remarkable that people in the Philippines love our show. That in itself is quite dizzying.” 

After the Bandersnatch press preview, the two will continue working on the fifth season, with one of the episodes reportedly being shot in South Africa featuring a certain pop star who may or may not be Miley Cyrus.

“It’s worrying to make six films in a season,” explains Annabel. “It takes a certain level of detail and commitment — and being there at every single stage all the way through.”

Will Annabel Jones ever write a book called How Black Mirror Ruined My Life?

They both laugh. 

Annabel says, “I like what you did there.” 

“That is the title of your diary, isn’t it?” remarks Charlie with a laugh.

She adds, “Try to pick up a book called Inside Black Mirror (published by Crown Archetype) — all the pain is there (laughs).”

He tells her, “But they are First World problems; they are good problems to have. Each Black Mirror story requires hard, hard work, but it’s not really a job, isn’t it?” 

“It is a proper job,” interjects Annabel.

“It is, but it’s also not,” Charlie concludes.

* * *

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is currently streaming on Netflix.



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