BY JOSH WIGLER
Creator Sam Esmail and stars Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday speak with THR about Wednesday's very special episode.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season three, episode five of USA Network's Mr. Robot, "eps3.4_runtime-error.r00."]
In the sixth episode of season two, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail briefly painted his bleak universe in an atypically bright light — a color one might describe as "TGIF Blue," given that the first portion of the hour existed in a surreal sitcom landscape. It was a sign that Esmail, who directed every episode of season two and has continued in that role for season three, was more than happy to break the barrier between the Mr. Robot characters and audience, by truly shattering the fourth wall.
"The filmmaking is a large part of the conversation whenever we discuss story," Esmail tells The Hollywood Reporter on the subject. "The story is represented through that form, and the story tells us when we need to break the rules and go in a different direction. We always follow that. We always try to be as creative as possible. It's not enough to tell the story. It's how we tell the story."
And how, indeed. More than 10 episodes have passed since ALF hit-and-ran his way through Mr. Robot, and that absurd moment is already firmly in the rearview mirror when it comes to the USA Network thriller taking big filmmaking swings. Look no further than the fifth episode of season three, "eps3.4_runtime-error.r00," as an example, presented entirely as one long, continuous take.
The episode, co-written by Kor Adana and Randolph Leon, begins with Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) in an elevator at the start of the work week. An otherwise mundane Monday becomes a breakneck race against the clock as Elliot, completely unaware of the past weekend he spent under the spell of the Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) side of his personality, rushes throughout the E Corp office trying to evade authorities intent on removing him from the building.
"This is an example of breaking form in order to get to the core of a character's inner truth — in this case, Elliot," Esmail says. "The genesis started when Elliot switches [places with Mr. Robot]. Does he remember right away? We all had that conversation in the writers room where we realized, it would be weird if he remembered everything right away. It's not like an Incredible Hulk situation — and even that, you're at least disoriented for a minute or two. You're not quite there yet, and you're also not quite ready. You're not quite snapping awake. In the room, we all felt it would very interesting that we would be with Elliot in real time as he's putting things together about what he remembers, why he is wherever he is and what happened to him. That became very exciting."
That original idea, following Elliot's transformation "in real time," springs naturally from previous instances of Mr. Robot executing extended one-shot sequences, dating at least as far back as a scene in the first season's hallucinatory fourth episode. But the idea kicks into higher gear here in season three's fifth episode, as the action tracks not only Elliot, but his best friend (and, potentially, his cruelest enemy) Angela (Portia Doubleday) as well. Once Elliot's side of the story ends, the camera follows a group of violent protestors back inside E Corp, rushing up to meet Angela, following her journey for the remainder of the episode.
"We realized, 'Wait a minute ... what if we just keep the whole episode in real time, and not only do we go through the realizations of Elliot, but we also go through what Angela has to do to counter all of Elliot's actions?'" Esmail recalls. "That's the genesis of the whole episode, and why we felt it was an instance of the form matching what we wanted to say about the character and their journey — in this case not just Elliot, but also Angela."
From series lead Rami Malek's perspective, it was certainly a novel idea … but was it a practical idea? The actor admits, "On paper, it was a really magical thing to read for the first time, but it seemed like it was very distant in its ability to be achieved. At first, I didn't know that it would last!"
Eventually, Malek started to believe in the viability of the episode: "As we started doing longer takes throughout the first four episodes, I thought it was something we could really aspire to do, and something that wouldn't be as challenging as I first expected it to be."
For her part, Portia Doubleday — the other actor charged with the heavy lifting of the episode — attests to the difficulty of crafting "eps3.4_runtime-error.r00" all in a single take: "I have to apologize to our camera operator, Aaron [Medick]. The poor thing was holding this camera for 12 to 16 hours a day. There were many times where Rami and I would talk about how we have to give Aaron a break here!"
"You have to rely on each other," she continues. "There were some moments where I would feel so bad because I was an inch out of frame, or a camera movement was off because maybe in that moment I made a different choice by accident. It's a collective effort, and everyone has to rely on each other."
"It's everyone depending on each other, between cast, crew and our director and writer Sam — to just be patient with one another and be on our game," Malek agrees. "You have to be as focused as possible. It's the most exciting and enriching feeling when you can walk away knowing that collectively, you did something that everyone in one moment can look back on and say: 'Wow, that's an accomplishment and a feat we never knew we could achieve — but we did it.' You can play it back almost immediately and watch what would take an editor quite a while to assemble, all in one long take."
While accomplishing the mission was certainly a group effort, Doubleday gives special credit to Esmail for actualizing the vision. "One of the weirdest qualities about Sam Esmail is his level of calm," she says. "It's so important. Sam really trusts himself and the people around him, and it's very important to have a captain like that. When it's like that, nothing is insurmountable. It's never about: 'Are we going to be able to pull this off?' It's always about, 'Of course we're going to be able to pull this off. How are we going to be able to pull it off in the best way?' Coming to work every day and having that be the temperature of the environment elevates you and what you want to accomplish."