Mr. Robot stars Rami Malek and Christian Slater joined series creator Sam Esmail at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film panel “Coding on Camera: MR. ROBOT and Authenticity on TV.” SXSW, an annual film, technology and music event in Austin, Texas, was the site of the show’s premiere last year. This year, participants in the Golden Globe Award-winning series came back to celebrate and discuss the show’s success.
After the screening of the pilot last year, I was one of the first people to ask a question during the Q&A. Before getting to my film-geek question about character arc, I paid them a compliment. “Before focusing on writing,” I said, “I was a computer programmer for 25 years. The depiction of computer programming you just showed was the most accurate I have ever seen in a film.”
That, it turns out, was exactly what they wanted to hear.
At this year’s panel, they talked about how that authenticity serves to support the show’s goals. There was also some partying.
Partying was justified by the series taking both the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in the Drama category and the Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role for Christian Slater. Malek, Slater and the show also won Critics’ Choice Awards.
USA Network created a special spot to celebrate. A key location in Mr. Robot is a broken-down amusement park. The hackers gather in an abandoned arcade where they do all their programming. USA Network built a replica of the set in downtown Austin, complete with Ferris Wheel, where fans could gather and play.
At the “Fsociety End of the World Party”, the fans gathered on the set were so dedicated that the line for custom Mr. Robot t-shirts (I got one with Carly Chaikin’s character Darlene on it) was longer than the lines for free beer and free food. That’s commitment.
USA Network also sponsored a second panel, “Social Media: The New TV Show Launchpad,” which delved into the marketing plan used to launch the show.
Kevin Sullivan, writer for Entertainment Weekly, hosted the authenticity panel for SXSW. Sullivan asked how the show’s creative team worked to achieve authenticity.
Malek said that they actually made him type code into the computer. “That took forever at first,” he said.
Sullivan asked how the typing was going now.
With as much sarcasm as he could muster, Malek replied, “Oh, it’s going so much better.”
Show creator Esmail said that from his end, authenticity involved having real-world computer security consultants. “We used an FBI cyber-crime unit as a consultant, watched what was happening in the news and did our own research. There was literally an app that someone built that emulated the hack of Tyrell’s phone.” Tyrell is a character on the show played by Martin Wallstrom.
Slater said that initially the tech was difficult for him. “I was behind the eight-ball on tech, but I went out on Google and Wikipedia and learned all the terms,” he said. “By the time I got them down, they had all become out of date or changed.”
Esmail was supportive. “I’m sure he’ll have it down by season five,” he joked.
Sullivan asked Esmail how he went about creating Malek’s character, Elliot.
”Between me and Rami,” Esmail replied, ”we wanted to avoid the classic TV nerd. That’s not real either. Part of the reason Elliot has these anxieties is that he is on the computer all the time. We try to make it about him, not the external influences.”
Malek added, “I always tried to humanize him. I saw a really complicated character that I was drawn to. A guy who was suffering and trying to be normal. I felt sorry for him and he was easy to connect to on many levels.”
Mr. Robot makes extensive use of voiceover. Sullivan asked Esmail when he chose to do that.
“Right away,” Esmail said. “Do I talk to myself? That’s between me and my imaginary friend, but because Elliot didn’t talk to people, we had to use that screenwriting tool. Lots of people tell screenwriters not to use voiceover. Don’t listen to that. Many great films have VO.”
Sullivan asked what it was like day-to-day on the set.
Malek said that he tried to play every take like it was the first one. “That can be difficult,” he added, “because of the effort required for all that emotion.”
Esmail uses a directing style that he feels helps.
“We do a lot of rolling takes, he said. “We just keep going because the moment you call ‘cut’ there are all these people who run on the set to do their jobs, and the mood is lost.”
Esmail confided that Season 2 involves personal electronics and privacy. “I wrote it and then this whole thing with Apple came out.”
Sullivan said that it sounded like Esmail was a fortuneteller.
Malek said, “Yeah, I ask him for lotto numbers every week.”
Sullivan asked why, on Season 2, Esmail was directing every single episode.
“I’m a control freak when it comes to the look of the show,” Esmail explained.
Malek added, “If there is someone who should do it, he’s the one. He sets such a great tone and has vision. No one knows better what’s going to happen so who better to direct? He’s a mad genius, everyone.”
Slater said that he considered the cast to be phenomenally fortunate because all the scripts for Season 2 are written. “We read through the whole thing – a 12-hour read-through – in one day. This was helpful because on a given day we might be shooting scenes from episodes one, seven and nine.”
A questioner from the audience asked Malek if he was learning Python or Java.
Malek replied, “Actually…no. It is enticing and appealing and I’m glad other people can do it.”
Slater added, “My level of tech awareness has really increased. I’m updating passwords now.”
Esmail said that one of the differences in Season 2 is that there would be a new component to the story. “Elliot committed a crime in the first season and so law enforcement will play a bigger role.”
Mr. Robot and Society
Audience questions focused more on the show’s relationship to the real world.
Esmail was asked if his Egytian background and the Arab Spring contributed to the story.
“I’m Egyptian-American,” Esmail said, “but I’m not defined by that. It informs who I am, but that’s not the only thing about me. I have friends of all different ethnicities, but we don’t sit down and talk about race every day.”
Another question involved whether his goal was to make tech more approachable.
Esmail replied, “Yes, approachable but not in a dumbed-down way.”
Another audience member said they were impressed that Fsociety – the group of hackers in the story – was made up of both men and women.
Esmail commented: “I don’t know that I made a conscious decision to do that. I just like female characters. I’m not on a soapbox, but, if it helps, that’s good.”
The next questioner wanted to know what Esmail’s advice was to young writers.
“Read a lot of books and read a lot of screenplays,” he said. “Then after you’ve done all that, then take an acting class. At the end of the day, plot is really about characters and an acting class would really help.”
The last question went to Slater and Malek about the show’s effect on their lives.
Slater said, “It’s been great. People have been extraordinarily enthusiastic. Rami and I traveled here together yesterday which was really weird for people.”
Malek added, “We get a lot of ‘Mr Robot’ yells.”
Esmail concluded with, “I love that all my nerds out there are getting excited about the show. That’s who I grew up with and that means more to me than anything else.”
You can watch Season 1 of Mr. Robot at USA Network online until June 24. The SXSW Mr Robot carnival is below.