sxsw 2016

10 Things We Learned at the Mr. Robot SXSW Panel

Coding on Camera: MR. ROBOT & Authenticity on TV - 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
Photo: Heather Kennedy/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for season one of Mr. Robot.

One year ago this month, Mr. Robot was an unknown basic-cable show about computer hackers previewing at SXSW for the first time in a 300-seat theater, tucked away in a remote corner of Austin Convention Center. It went on to win the Audience Award, and this week its creator Sam Esmail and stars Rami Malek and Christian Slater found themselves doing a public Q&A in a very different kind of room — actually three conference rooms flowed into one with some 2,100 seats, all filled. Many audience members were actual tech people who have become devoted fans of a show that depicts a realistic version of what they do and who they are. The series has become such a phenomenon, particularly with this crowd (SXSW hosts dual conferences on technology and film/television), that USA actually recreated Coney Island, the location of the show’s secret hacker den, in a parking lot. “They let us bring a Ferris wheel in here, so we’re doing something right,” said Malek, who plays Elliot Alderson, the hacker who takes it upon himself to take down the largest corporation in America. Slater added that he and Malek had traveled to Austin together, “which was very weird for people [to see] us standing next to each other in line at the airport.” He’s referring, of course, to the revelation that Mr. Robot is actually Elliot’s delusion.

Here are ten other things we learned listening to Esmail, Malek, and Slater discuss the making of the show and season two, which is currently filming in New York and will premiere later this year.

Esmail created the series because he felt a responsibility to depict nerd culture right.
“I grew up a nerd and a lot of my friends are nerds and some of them are hackers,” said Esmail. But hacking as he saw it depicted on TV shows and in movies, even ones he loves, never got it right. “Hacking is not cheesy ‘ones and zeroes’ flying at you,” he said. Mr. Robot began not with a plot, but with the character of Elliot, drawn from Esmail’s own experiences and those of his friends, “positive and negative — the loneliness, the social anxiety, the drug addiction,” he said.

“We wanted to avoid the classic cliché nerd on TV that is an outcast and is bullied. That’s not true to life,” Esmail went on. Elliot is neither a hermit nor a weakling. “There’s something in between that people are missing,” said Esmail. “Rami and I have talked a lot about the darkness, because part of the reason why Elliot has these anxieties and is on the computer all the time is because he’s lonely … He’s not just lonely because people don’t want to talk to him. If you think about it, Ollie [Ben Rappaport] tries to talk to him and he shuts him down, and Angela [Portia Doubleday] invited him to a birthday party and he doesn’t show up. So there’s something about him and his insecurities. We tried to make it more about that and less about these external influences.”

“I saw a guy that was suffering, struggling to survive in his own skin and be normal,” added Malek, “and he had this tool through a computer, but in a sense it wasn’t doing him any good. He was lacking human connection. I remember shooting a scene in the pilot where I’m staring at Angela’s Facebook account and wishing to have that type of life, and it really got me sad. I feel bad for this guy. We can all relate to having that loneliness and sometimes being distanced by technology and the manicured Facebook pages we create.”

He also wanted to tackle race by not making diversity a thing.
“I’m Egyptian-American. I’m not defined by that, though,” said Esmail. “I remember telling people I wanted to be a filmmaker and I went to NYU, and because of my ethnicity they expected me to write a film about me growing up as an Arab-American and a coming-of-age story about how I was Arab-American, and I had to be like, ‘It informs who I am, but I’m not defined by it. That’s not the only thing about me.’ ” Malek, too, is Egyptian-American, but it’s not a defining character trait. What makes the show so modern is that the characters and guest stars are of all different ethnicities and they’re simply presented as people and what the world looks like. “We don’t necessarily make a big deal about it,” Esmail went on. “I have friends of all different ethnicities and we don’t sit there and talk about race every day, but it informs who we are and how we act sometimes. At the end of the day, we’re just people, and that’s the worldview I look through when I cast or create our characters.”

He is not trying to make a commentary about sexism in tech.
That the show features female hackers such as Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Iranian-American fsociety member Trenton (played by Indian-American actress Sunita Mani) is not by any particular design. “Why are there not more women at Infosec and in tech in general?” said Esmail. “That’s bullshit and I definitely want to see more of that.” But, really, he just loves writing female characters.

The hardest technical aspect of the part for Malek to master was typing.
Esmail’s insistence on authenticity means that, unlike most shows that depict things on computers, Mr. Robot doesn’t use green screens or allow actors to mime what they’re inputting. Everything that flashes across a screen on Mr. Robot is actual, correct code vetted by technical consultants, with the actors actually inputting the keystrokes. “I’m used to just knowing my character and having my lines down and doing some crazy weird shit,” said Malek, “but I’m typing so I have to come in early and look at all the animation and graphics and go through it with all the tech guys.” Esmail said he did it because it always throws him off when he’s watching a show and the actors’ fingers don’t match what they’re typing. “And on top of it, they also put bullshit into the screens that doesn’t make any sense anyway.” He’s so obsessive in fact, that he has to make sure every bit of code in the show is authentic, even if chances are it’ll get cut in the editing room. “My production designer hates me,” said Esmail, “because we create all these screens that in the end we only see a few seconds of.”

Esmail based one of Elliot’s defining quirks on himself.
“I’m going to admit something very personal here: I talk to myself,” Esmail told the crowd.

No matter how bad the timing, this is a production that takes cast and crew birthdays seriously.
Malek told a story about how he’d been worried about Elliot’s big episode-nine revelation, in a cemetery no less — that he is Mr. Robot — since the pilot. “I knew it was a very big moment and I wanted to make sure that was treated with respect,” he said. “It’s a very fragile position to have your mind and heart.” Esmail likes to do rolling takes, meaning the cameras don’t stop but the actors repeat the scene again and again, so Malek was just having his world shattered again and again. “Christian and I decided to play it as earnestly as possible, so every take was as if it was happening for the first time, and a moment like that can be difficult to keep dredging up,” said Malek. Then in the middle of having a mental breakdown surrounded by tombstones and cameras, they had take a breather to celebrate Portia Doubleday’s 27th birthday. “So we had to bring out cake,” said Malek. “It was a little weird.”

The Arab Spring inspired the series.
Esmail had already started developing the series when the democratic uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa began. “I had Elliot’s angst down, and I had the social anxiety,” said Esmail, but he didn’t want the character to be some disaffected loser who goes on a rampage. Then when he went to Egypt to visit his cousins, who were young and using technology to bring about a revolution, he realized: “That to me was the third piece for Elliot: anger as channeled in a positive way, anger to make a difference in your society. Angst can turn negative really quickly, but I don’t think that anger has to be a negative emotion. The Arab Spring was actually quite critical in developing Elliot’s character.”

Season two will be shot like a film.
Esmail, who is directing every episode of season two, said he’s able to multitask more efficiently than other showrunners because he’s running Mr. Robot less like a TV show and more like an extended feature film. That means that all the episodes have been written before shooting starts, rather than on the fly while the show is shooting, and they’ll be shot like films, in that everything that happens in one location, whether it happens in episode one, seven, or nine, will be shot at that location before moving on. (Most TV is shot sequentially.) “I was a bit trepidatious about it,” said Malek. “I shot scenes from the seventh episode my first day.” Slater, a TV veteran, said it’s unlike any show he’s ever shot. “Never before have I had a read-through of the whole season. It was a 12-hour read-through. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

The FBI is consulting on season two.
Esmail is working with tech consultants in Infosec (information security), as well as someone from the FBI Cyber Crime unit, and said multiple season-two plot points have come from stories the FBI has shared directly with show. Esmail’s assistant, too, came from the cybersecurity world and this year was promoted to being a writer.

As for how deep the show will get into cybersecurity, we already know Grace Gummer has a big arc playing an FBI agent tracking fsociety hackers. “Elliot committed a crime in the first season, and we’re going to see ramifications of that in the second season,” said Esmail. “That drives a lot of what the second season is all about,” he added, along with Elliot’s reconciliation with his painful delusions.

Season two will tackle the encryption debate, but it’s not inspired by Apple’s fight with the NSA.
Esmail said he’d already had encryption on the brain when Apple CEO Tim Cook decided not to cooperate with feds in unlocking the iPhone of the San Bernadino shooters. “I think it’s a really important issue that we’re going to really get into in the next ten years, and it’s not something that I think people really understand the nuances of … it really brings up that idea of the rights to privacy, and do we have that or do we not?”

The purpose of getting into those waters is to “have a conversation about it in an approachable way,” rather than have the show come down on one side or the other. Though, personally, Esmail said, he’s with Apple. “Our FBI consultants have a very strong point of view that encryption should allow for a third-party side door thing, which I am totally opposed to,” he went on. “I think we should have encryption … if our show at least contributes to that conversation, I think it’ll help in terms of getting people to join this debate, because it’s an important one.”

Mr. Robot SXSW Panel: 10 Things We Learned