USA’s Mr. Robot began as creator Sam Esmail’s second feature film, but his desire to flesh out his characters more fully brought it to the small screen. “The Sopranos kicked off this so-called golden age of television,” he says, “Now television is even bigger, and it’s more about being cinematic, which helps our show.”
It’s difficult for Esmail to pin down which films and TV shows have influenced the hacker drama, which has been praised in part for its cinematic feel. “It’s tough because there is tons of work, from a filmmaking point of view, that I borrow from,” he says. But when Vulture asked him, he graciously produced nine projects from Taxi Driver to Girls that have influenced Mr. Robot, and highlighted several scenes in which he tipped his hat to his filmmaking compatriots.
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Influences: Voice-over and cinematography
“Looking back at Taxi Driver or, really, any of the Martin Scorsese films, he really filmed New York City in a way that I saw New York City. It’s gritty, it’s the underworld, and we wanted locations like Coney Island or the Lower East Side that are amazing to look at — they are beautiful in their ugliness. It’s cheaper to shoot in Toronto, so it’s a shame we were the first ones to show that version of NYC in a while, but my edict from the get-go is we shoot NYC. If you remember from the pilot, Elliot is walking by the subway, and this crazy extra started walking towards the camera. Someone mentioned cutting it, but I said, ‘Are you crazy? This is amazing.’ That’s when you know you’re not in Toronto.
“Taxi Driver is one of those films that is groundbreaking in how much you’re inside this character’s head. It uses voice-over in a revolutionary way where the audience is invited as a co-conspirator to the whole story line. You have this intimate relationship with Travis Bickle that you wouldn’t have without the voice-over — the device is such a powerful hook if done well. Elliot is so socially anxious and awkward that the only way to relate to him is to be inside his brain — otherwise it’s going to be hard to really engage with a character like him — and that’s how I came up with the voice-over’s whole imaginary-person component.”
American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
“When I wanted to tell the story of the corporate world, we wanted to strike a balance between being straightforward and satirical. In my opinion, American Psycho goes over the hill much more than our show does — we want to be audacious but not go too over the top — but it is one of the best films about corporate politics even though it is not, I hope, a realistic representation. I love that movie, and it for sure influenced Mr. Robot.”
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
Influences: Tone and camera movement
“Fight Club is great in its spirit of anti-Establishment. When you do a show about hackers and the surrounding culture, it would be remiss for me not to be inspired by a film that is the king of that subject matter. In spirit, we want the same feeling that Fight Club gave people. There is something audacious and exciting and entertaining about that film even though it is extremely political at the same time. And it also showed all the flaws as well as the pluses about everything with our consumer society. I can’t deny those elements are influences on the show.
“Fincher has this energy, this kinetic movement to all his shots, even when the camera isn’t moving. It’s in how he chooses to frame people, It’s in the cutting, and then the camera movement — because you don’t use them all the time, they pop out a lot more. That to me is the brilliance of Fincher.”
Ed. note: This lack of constant camera movement is evident in following scene (with spoilers!) from the final few minutes of last night’s sixth episode of Mr. Robot:
Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre
Influences: Tone, cinematography, plot details, framing scenes
“A Clockwork Orange, along with Taxi Driver, immediately stands out, but one of the biggest influences on the show is Stanley Kubrick in general. In terms of Clockwork, the title cards are an inspiration. There are these glasses that I make Darlene [Carly Chaikin] wear that are a little bit of a nod to Lolita. And, actually, it’s not a huge spoiler, but there’ll be a little bit of a nod to Dr. Strangelove in the season finale that people can look out for.
“There is an Eyes Wide Shut feel to the FSociety members wearing the masks. When I flew back and forth shooting the show, The Shining happened to be on the plane. I love that film, and I noticed Kubrick frames his characters with a lot of head room, which lends itself to an unsettling emotional reaction. Whatever Kubrick deliberately decided to do for that film, we chose something similar for the show. Another huge Kubrick influence is how he used wide angles. I have an affinity for wide angles — when I directed episode two, the show opens basically with this massive wide shot, which is very unusual for a television show, and Elliot standing dead center in the middle of this doorway. You can’t tell that story with a lens that isn’t as powerful. Kubrick also loved his wide-angle lens, and there is a certain tone when you keep using it. It is eerie and detached, but at the same time it is compelling and makes you look at the frame more. It’s not for every scene, but it’s definitely something we include more on our show than a typical show. I don’t know if we have done 2001 yet, but at some point I’ll borrow from it. Elliot will go into space.”
Influences: Narration and real-life depiction
“Episode four, which includes the drug hallucinations and Elliot’s detox, borrows a lot from Aronofsky. Pi was one of my favorite films growing up because I thought it employed paranoia and voice-over, and also because it used this unreliable narrator in a very fascinating way. And while I think, stylistically, we do a lot of things differently in the filmmaking, if you look at Aronofsky’s later works, like Requiem for a Dream, we were definitely inspired by what he did.”
Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983)
“The ending of episode five has always been a battle internally. You could have ended on the cliff-hanger with the Vera call to Elliot, but I really wanted Angela [and the fork in the road] to work, and these two story lines are being set up for the rest of the season. They are going to intersect in an interesting way. I knew the most powerful ending would win, but with “Tangerine Dream,” the song just drove the whole sequence from the arcade to Angela’s discovery of her father’s overpaid bills to that beautiful voice-over that [supervising producer/writer] Dave Iserson wrote about changing the world and how long it takes — it just fit so nicely all the way to the end. Obviously I was aware of Risky Business, and its score makes the movie amazing. It takes these simple moments and makes them feel as grand as they should, and are.”
Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan)
Influences: Story arc
“What was revolutionary about Breaking Bad, and I don’t know what other shows have done this, but it was committed to telling one story. ‘Here, we are going to tell one story from beginning to end, and it’s really going to have this cohesive thread, and we are not going to deviate from it.’ Sometimes he’ll be cooking meth, and then for stretches he’ll have nothing to do with meth. That was inspiring because Mr. Robot initially started as a feature film with one story — the ending of season one is the end of my act one, or about the 30-minute mark, and then the real story begins in season two — and I had an ending in mind. When I made the decision to turn it into a television show, I just remembered, Well, Breaking Bad did it, they went from beginning to end and they stuck to this journey! That’s what I wanted to do with Mr. Robot.
Girls (Lena Dunham)
“Tim [Ives] was our DP on the pilot, and since then Tod Campbell has been the DP on the series. One of the reasons we wanted Tim is because of how he filmed New York City for Girls. The palette we wanted, Tim did that so well on Girls, but then he gave use such a new style and form in our show. And then Tod came in, and we had this cool, amazing element with our framing, and we’ve gone even further in the series with that.”
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Influences: Character development
“Blade Runner’s morality influenced the storytelling of our show. It is so fascinating. The ending scene is so beautiful between Rutger Hauer and Harrison Ford. Even though Hauer is the villain, you don’t hate him at the end. And Ford could have gotten killed — and now I am totally spoiling the movie for anyone who is reading this, so you have to put up the spoiler alert — but he doesn’t kill him! It’s so beautiful, and there is not really a good-guy-bad-guy scenario. There is just this grey area that is so ambiguous, and it is the same with Tyrell. Even if you hate him, you still love watching him.”