Martin Carr chats with Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones about Bandersnatch…
Over the course of twenty minutes tucked away in an exclusive London location writer, producer and creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones waxed lyrical on their latest Black Mirror creation Bandersnatch. Covering topics which included its critical reception, multiple story threads and whispers of a shared universe. They proved engaging, self-deprecating and candidly open about anything under discussion. Enjoy, but be warned there are spoilers.
Is this the future of television?
CB: I don’t know about the future but it is the latest iteration of something which has been around for several decades, like Dragon’s Lair, Knight Trap and all sorts of full motion video games that have been. But it does feel like a point in technological history where this exists in a seamless way, on a platform that’s not a gaming platform. So to me that does feel quite revolutionary.
AJ: I think the access point is so different. You’re on a global streaming platform and you’re there watching television and watching movies, then suddenly something else comes along and it looks and feels and has the smell of a film and you engage. Then before you know it you are drawn in and so suddenly you’ve become mainstream, rather than mainstream in a video game world, so there is now a cross over. Which as you were saying is seamless and that is a game changer.
CB: I don’t think its ever going to supplant normal storytelling though.
AJ: But watching it at home and you making those decisions, you getting drawn into the characters so much more, investing and having that personal engagement, is surely much more powerful. So when we have the reveal that Stefan realises for the first time he is being controlled and we know we’re controlling him, there’s this little bit of a pull where you sort think ‘oh I’m complicit now’ and he knows that I know and here I am. Then with the Netflix reveal as well which is one of the various endings you realise you are also a whole puppet in the platform. So in the sense that the interactivity, especially in this film, is adding things thematically, I think we have hit upon an idea which is very unique which engages with interactivity but also challenges it and questions it.
Were there things conceptually that you wanted to do that the technology limited in some way?
CB: Not really, but sometimes I would go ‘you know what, this would be easier if this was a PlayStation, because if it was a PlayStation you could just go I’m going to make him wear a hat’ and he’d suddenly have a hat for the rest of the film. But to their credit every time we asked the Netflix tech people were really good and one of things they wanted to do was for us to test the limits of what they could do. So quite often we would go to them and say we’ve got an idea for this or is that possible and they would never say no, they’d say well maybe let’s try and find out. Then nine times out of ten they would work out a way it could happen. There was a bit at one point where I had mapped a thing where I wanted you to be able to go round (Stefan’s) house, but there was one thing I really wanted which we didn’t have time to do. There was a scene where he watches a VHS tape and I wanted it so you also had the choice to literally pick out a film and watch it all the way through.
Which one would it have been?
CB: Well the cheapest one we could clear or an episode of Black Mirror, because that was something I had seen done in a game. Some years ago I was playing some first person game and in the middle of that there was To Kill a Mockingbird playing and you could watch the whole thing. I think it was called The Darkness.
AJ: But when we were doing this Netflix also had people building the technology to support it, so we had two separate teams supporting each other.
CB: Plus there was a bespoke tool we could use for the edit, because as you can imagine in the edit we had two hundred and fifty separate segments. There are some segments where it jumps to certain sections depending on the time code and completes different bits which is sort of how it works. There are chunks of that time line which are impossible to get to, fact, because I saw someone had managed to find one and put it on YouTube and they must have found it by accident, because there were bits when were literally in the sound mix, where we were mixing something and we were debating the sound of a telephone, and Rus (McLean) our producer said ‘hang on it’s no longer possible to get to this bit’.
Are there are other endings the internet hasn’t found out about yet?
CB: Well there is one scene they can’t get to. There are some bits which are very rare. One of my favourite bits is a jokey little scene we put in, because as Netflix are tracking how many times you have actually seen it, there is a bit where Colin (Will Poulter) goes ‘skip to the next bit’ and Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) goes ‘what?’ and Colin goes ‘I’ll skip it for you fucking hell’ and it just cuts to the next scene, which is something some people have seen. And there is a bonus dream where Jerome F Davies (Jeff Minter) turns up which very few people have seen.
CB: You know like XBox achievements, I wanted it to give you achievements at the end. So every time you got an ending I wanted it to give you a little medal and congratulations where it said something like ‘well done you have achieved the balcony ending’ so people could go and share them. Which it had the capacity to but it was felt that would over complicate things for general viewers.
You said recently that the new season of Black Mirror would be less dystopian and less dark is that a conscious change?
CB: We were doing quite a lot concurrently with the fifth season because originally we weren’t sure if Bandersnatch was going to be one instalment of the fifth season, but then it made more sense for it to have its own stand alone thing as it expanded and got more ambitious. I think generally that was a comment where I was saying overall I didn’t want all the stories to be depressing and bleak or dystopian. Mainly because that just gets very predictable and the world is a bit like that at the moment, therefore how much stomach do I have for writing that and also to keep things fresh. I think as per usual in the fifth season you will see a mix.
AJ: I don’t think you said that specifically about Black Mirror.
CB: No I think I said it generally.
The New York Times quoted you.
CB: Did they, well I must have said there’s a mix of styles, then I broke into Happy Talk.
Sometimes other episodes of Black Mirror reference one another do you consider this a shared universe?
CB: That’s quite Colin Ritman that question.
AJ: I think there are times where we have delved into various themes before for example when we were doing the original flow chart for Bandersnatch and we realised the design is the same one we used in White Bear. Then you have your own Stefan moment where you go ‘oh my God!‘, we are all in the same universe and you feel like all these stories are feeding each other. So sometimes it’s a happy coincidence and sometimes its deliberate like with Tuckersoft in 1980’s Britain or 2000 and whatever with Sun Junipero, so I think it makes it feel like there is a shared sensibility.
CB: It’s what we haven’t done. We haven’t sat down and gone right this is the Black Mirror universe and these are the rules and we do as Annabel was saying with Tuckersoft in Bandersnatch turn that into TCKR which is the company you see referenced in San Junipero. We don’t have hard and fast rules about what must happen. We sometimes re-use technology for like the temple discs we had in USS Callister which people put on to enter the VR world are the same basically as the ones in San Junipero. That’s partly because we’ve designed it so why do it again and it gives a bit of extra back story. But there are no definite rules which say this is the timeline and in the year dot the metal head dogs are going around and the good thing is in Bandersnatch we actually open up the notion of multiple universes. We show one where Stefan is an actor and there is one where he dies in the psychiatrist’s chair, so we can now argue that Black Mirror exists in multiple universes which share similar strands of DNA.
Is that why it has become more self-referential?
CB: Sometimes it’s a bit of a gag, like when there are news channels and we put things in there to amuse ourselves. Like Michael Callow the PM from the first episode The National Anthem winning Celebrity Bake-Off on the news ticker. Then sometimes it just adds a little backstory. I don’t think we are building to a giant reveal where we cut to somebody who is controlling everything. It would be Colin Ritman.
AJ: Colin hasn’t told us yet.
Since the story is about controlling and control. What is your relationship with control?
AJ: A very tight one.
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