BY MERRILL BARR
Tonight marks the debut of USA’s new drama, Mr. Robot. But what led to the creation of this insane drama? We took a moment to get the details from creator Sam Esmail, as well as all the challenges he faced when turning the show from a feature film script into a cable series pilot.
Forbes: The pilot’s fantastic, and I’m really curious about what the original conception of the series was. I know you were originally thinking of it as a movie and then it turned into a pilot. What was that process?
Sam Esmail: It was weird because I didn’t really change anything when I turned it into a TV show. When I saw it as a movie I knew where I was going. I knew the ending. It was either I had just gotten too longwinded or the story just asked for more characters or more storylines to develop. When I got to Page 90 and I was still halfway through Act 1 that’s when I decided, “OK. This can be a television show.”
But when I went into the television arena I didn’t really change much. We’re making the show as if we were making a feature. Every episode is kind of a short film. I’m still driving towards that same ending that I originally envisioned when I started writing the feature.
So I’d like to say that adapting it to television was kind of painless because I didn’t really adapt it to television. I kinda just kept the same spirit that I was going to do when I wrote it as a feature.
When you say you’re working towards that ending, does that mean you have the ending of the series planned out or is that just like the ending of Season 1? When you say ending, what does that mean?
I have the ending of the series planned out and am definitely going towards that. it’s a strange feeling because every show runner I’ve talked to, and everybody in television is like ,”That’s the worst idea. You gotta keep it open.” But I was just too very specific with this story. I think the ending is still cool. I don’t see why it can’t be done as a television series. We’re marching forward. I think it’s cool.
In fact, the ending of Season 1 is really what would have been the ending of Act 1 of my feature, which it’s going to be interesting to see how people react to the end of Season 1. It was just my setup. It was just my initial setup. So we’ll see how that experience translates into the television world when it’s after 10 hours as opposed to 30 minutes. But I think it’s kinda cool and exciting.
Along those lines: these characters are so defined, particularly Elliot and particularly Mr. Robot in that pilot episode. Was it a long casting process when you were trying to find the right people to play them?
I’ll tell you this much, the pilot, as you saw, is very heavy Elliot. There’s tremendous range in terms of the one scene where he’s crying, and then there’s one scene where he’s throwing his arms up into the air. And there’s one scene where he can’t talk to people, and then there’s one scene where he’s dominating someone after hacking him. So there are a lot of colors and a lot of complexities.
I just remember thinking that if I didn’t cast this part… if I don’t cast this part with someone phenomenal… even if it was just good I think the show would have been terrible. I really remember, as we were auditioning, I was getting a little worried there because again, we were seeing really good actors. It wasn’t as if they did a poor job or they planned poorly or anything like that. It was just they didn’t have that thing, that right combination, the right person that could paint all these different colors.
And then you start internalizing. Then you start thinking, “Did I write something terrible? Because none of these guys who I respect and who are great are really giving it that thing that I need.” And then Rami came in and blew me away.
Funny story: Rami came in, did not know his lines and still blew me away. He came in then a second time, still didn’t know all his lines and still blew me away. Thankfully, he got all the lines down for the test. But I just knew, even with him not being completely off-book, he was brilliant for this part. For this character, he just shined.
And, by the way, I was a huge fan of his before. I’m just lucky to have him, because he not only met my expectations in terms of how I saw the character, he just exceeded it and brought all this humanity to Elliot. So I got extremely lucky. But it was a long process. It was not simple.
You say the pilot is Elliot heavy. It’s Elliot dominated. He’s in every single scene. Is it going to stay that way or are we going to start venturing outside of Elliot’s perspective at all?
We start venturing outside of Elliot’s perspective. That’s what made me realize this may be a television show, because when I started writing the feature, I started jumping perspectives because there was something I was missing by being too myopic. Elliot has such a strong point of view that I thought I would do the larger story disservice if I had just stayed in that point of view. So I expanded it and started going into these other characters. That’s when I was like, “OK. This isn’t a feature. Let me cut it off and turn this into a pilot.” It just so happens that where I cut off, we were completely in Elliot’s head, which I think is the smarter move because Elliot is definitely the main character no matter what. But we definitely jump perspectives as the show goes on.
Where’s the end of the pilot in relation to the original feature idea? You say the end of Season 1 is the end of the first act. The end of the pilot is what feels like would be the end of a first act.
I know, right? [laughs] I gotta tell you, man, I think the ending of the pilot is the inciting incident, I guess is technically what a writer would say. But even then you’ll probably see more. I mean, episode 7 is more the inciting incident. This is why it’s totally proportionally ridiculous when I try to think about it now. I mean I don’t know what I was thinking.
Honestly, this pilot is really just the setup. If you are talking classic screenwriting terminology, that’s kinda like the 1-10 arena were you’re just setting up all the characters before you really kick things off. And even though things do happen in the pilot, I thought all that was just really setup: meeting Christian and the hack, and the Mr. Robot character, and Elliot meeting him, and Tyrell Wellick, and setting up Angela. I mean that all felt like setup to me.
But when people read the pilot, they really got involved with the plot. That’s when I felt like, “Oh, man. This is a different beast from a feature.”
By the way, I didn’t even have time in the pilot to set up all the characters. You barely see Darlene, which that went more into the 90-page version, 100-page version. None of the FSociety hackers. So I’m still setting characters up. I just wanted to throw that in there.
With a story like this you think of a show like Breaking Bad, which was such a hard sell back in 2008/2007 when they sold it to AMC. With a show like this, was it a hard sell for the studio when you were trying to pitch it around?
The hardest thing that people couldn’t wrap their heads around… I guess there were two things. One was the VO. Rightfully so, by the way, because, again, if you don’t have that right actor in that part, it could be a painful experience to sit with this guy and just hear all this VO. It’s just such a crapshoot. And I think that scared a lot of people.
I think the other thing was… and this is the part that excites me, but I think this is the part that perhaps make network executives nervous, is how much are we going to root for a guy who is this troubled, who is addicted to morphine, who can’t talk to people, who thinks this poorly of the world around him…
I mean that sounds like the guy you would totally root for.
Well that’s what I say! He’s the kind of guy I get excited by…
He’s not a bad person to the people around him, he’s just troubled. That’s not the same thing.
Exactly. Look, I don’t want to watch a show or a movie about the guy who doesn’t have any problems, who is sort of a goodie two shoes and just does everything morally right, because that’s not the person I relate to. That’s not who I am. That’s not what anyone is. Everyone has got good and bad in them, and maybe Elliot has got more demons than most, but he’s also got more passion than most. There’s a duality there that’s just totally fascinating and interesting.
Ultimately, though, I will say I think Breaking Bad did help that because you had a very morally questionable main character in there and, you know what? People found it compelling. Hopefully this trend just keeps going. Maybe that helped us.
Mr. Robot premieres tonight at 10/9c on USA.