behind the scenes

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Is Hard to Watch, But It Was Almost Impossible to Make

Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Photo: Netflix

It’s not easy to watch Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. The interactive episode of Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series forces you to make all sorts of terrible decisions in what amounts to psychological torture for its main character, an aspiring computer programmer named Stefan. The more Stefan suffers, the longer you keep playing: You can force him to stop taking pills prescribed by his therapist, you can make him “throw tea” over his computer and destroy weeks of work, and in an especially chilling story line, you can even compel him to kill and dismember his father. But as hard as that all might be to choose, according to the people who created it, it was even harder to make.

Bandersnatch forced the Black Mirror team — including executive producer Annabel Jones, creator and writer Charlie Brooker, director David Slade, and actors Will Poulter and Fionn Whitehead — to rethink many of the givens of filming a TV episode. They had to find a way to write a script that contains myriad variations big and small, and then communicate each of those variations to the cast and crew. They had to shoot wildly different outcomes while maintaining character continuity and preserving an engaging plot. And, of course, they had to make sure the episode didn’t feel too complicated to actually watch. “If we’d have known how difficult it was going to be,” Jones told Vulture, “we might not have done it.”

In the beginning, Brooker and Jones started out mapping the many Bandersnatch plots on Post-it notes, then moved on to a whiteboard, and eventually realized they needed to use a programming tool called Twine, which is often used to design video games with multiple story branches. The actors then received paper copies of the script — according to Whitehead, who played Stefan, they were “the size of a breeze block” — as well as electronic copies they could navigate in Twine. On the first day of shooting, the Bandersnatch producers tried to make things simpler by putting a gigantic flowchart on set, so the actors could better understand what was happening in each scene. But it ended up overcomplicating things instead. “In the end, the actors very kindly said, Let’s just do this scene and we’ll get on,” Jones recalled. So, the flowchart was thrown out.

The task fell to the production staff, led by director David Slade, to make sure the external timeline remained consistent. “The art department, and props, and everyone involved was really on the ball in making sure that the version of the scene matched up with the choices [the audience] made,” said Whitehead. With that managed, the actors focused on the constants. “One of the key things is that the character doesn’t change, but the situations that the character is in do,” Whitehead explained. “It was more reacting to the different scenarios and versions of scenes.” But Poulter, who plays the mysterious game designer Colin, said that’s easier said than done: “I find it hard enough managing one character arc and emotional continuity when you shoot out of sequence. But when you’re doing it across multiple timelines and various different realities, it’s really tough.”

Because of the way the audience’s choices affect what plays out in front of them, both Whitehead and Poulter compared the style of acting necessary for Bandersnatch to doing theater, where actors play off the energy from the audience while onstage, and where it’s more common to break the fourth wall. Bandersnatch winks at the audience in a few obvious ways — at one point, Stefan discovers that he’s being watched on Netflix — but in a larger sense, both he and Colin are defined by the way they react to the idea that someone else is in control. While Colin embraces the madness, Stefan often resists the choices the viewer makes. “Colin’s self-confidence is what anchors him, where it’s the opposite for Stefan,” Whitehead said. “His lack of assurance and scrabbling nature is what drives him further into the ground in the end.”

Actually depicting that control, however, was a problem of its own. To avoid stopping the action every time the viewer faced a decision, Brooker and Jones worked with Netflix to develop technology that would allow the episode to seamlessly stream through so-called “choice points.” Originally, the creators considered looping GIFs of the possible actions at each moment — “It was apparent immediately that it made no fucking sense whatsoever,” Brooker recalled — before deciding on a system where the lighting, sound design, and aspect ratio change as the viewer chooses between two options provided in subtitles. “As a viewer, it hopefully makes you feel slightly under pressure,” Brooker said.

While filming each choice point, Whitehead had to make both options seem plausible for the character, unless there was a reason to push the viewer in one direction. Like in an early scene where you’re asked to decide if Stefan should design his dream game with Colin, or go home to face the monumental task alone. “Stefan would want to make it in the office. The decision to make it at home, which is the decision that takes you further in the game of Bandersnatch, is an alien one to Stefan,” he said, though that approach didn’t apply to more neutral decisions such as which breakfast cereal to eat or which music cassette to play. “Thinking about it from Stefan’s perspective, a lot of [other choices] would have been a real deliberation. It was just trying to be in the moment and think about which choice to make.”

To get deeper into Bandersnatch, you often have to choose decisions that hurt Stefan, which is a key part of how Brooker and Jones wanted to teach the audience to play the episode. One choice point gives you the option, for instance, to make Stefan flush his pills down the toilet — if you do, you continue; if you don’t, it skips to an ending where a video-game critic announces that Stefan’s game earned a middling two and a half stars out of five. The critic’s reviews act as a road map of sorts: The worse Stefan’s actions, the better the star rating. The only way to get five stars involves forcing Stefan to stop taking his medication and then murder his father. “From a gaming perspective, there’s a tendency to feel like, Oh, it must be possible to get a five-star review and for everything to be okay,” Brooker said. “We haven’t done that because it didn’t seem dramatically interesting.”

While that five-star ending seems to imply a link between mental illness, violence, and creativity, Brooker sees it differently. “I don’t believe you have to suffer for your art,” he said, characterizing the critic’s review as Bandersnatch’s commentary on the story the viewer created with their own choices. “The less friction there is in Stefan’s life, the more boring the story for an onlooker becomes.”

Brooker added that Stefan’s game might actually be a force of evil, and that Bandersnatch suggests that it “wanted to destroy this life in order to exist” — a sentiment that shaped Whitehead’s understanding of the character’s mental instability in every version of the story. “It’s the question that comes up, which is, Do you need to have a hint of insanity in order to be creative?” the actor said. “I would flip the question on it’s head and say, Which feeds which? Do you have to have a little insanity in order to be creative or can a creative job be maddening sometimes?”

In the process of writing and shooting Bandersnatch, the cast and crew ending up shooting more plot variations and endings than made it into the final edit. Some differed in small ways: When Stefan kills his dad in the kitchen, Brooker initially wanted his blood to splatter across the viewer’s choice of breakfast cereal, but the suits behind Frosties and Sugar Puffs wouldn’t approve the idea. Others were more significant: Originally, you couldn’t tell Stefan you were watching him on Netflix until you unlocked the scene by playing through Bandersnatch at least once. And early in the development of another story branch — the one where Stefan kills his father, panics, and then tries to call his therapist — you needed to memorize a series of numbers scattered throughout the episode, which all together were his therapist’s phone number. “There was a point where that was baked into the story, like you had to solve that riddle to get anywhere,” Brooker said, “And it was just too complicated.” In the final version, the numbers instead appear via flashback moments before Stefan picks up the phone.

A lot of what ended up on the cutting room floor was also deemed too violent for the already grim episode, according to Poulter, though other scenes were simply axed in the interest in cutting down the material. Whitehead recalled one choice where Colin turns up at Stefan’s house to help him finish the game, after Stefan has killed his father. In the final version, it’s only possible to kill Colin or leave him, though there was originally another option. “We filmed a choice point at that moment and it was to make Stefan either stab Colin or drop the knife,” he said. “If you chose to drop the knife, you would also see Stefan having a nice little [nervous] breakdown and falling into Colin’s arms.”

In the final cut of Bandersnatch, each major ending is even more bleak than that nixed breakdown. Whitehead’s favorite is the meta branch, where Stefan learns that an unseen audience is watching him on Netflix. The story then spirals out until he tries to jump out of a window and discovers he’s actually on a film set. “I just thought it was hilarious and so unbelievably meta,” he said. Poulter, meanwhile, still hasn’t played all the pathways through, but he’s in no rush to uncover every potential outcome. “The longer the ride lasts, the better,” he said. “The best endings are those that come after a really long, thorough search down all the different rabbit warrens.”

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Was Almost Impossible to Make