Charlie Brooker on the new episodes, including that amazing 'San Junipero' ending
If you’ve finished watching some or all of Black Mirror season 3, this is the post for you: Showrunner Charlie Brooker answered some of our burning questions about the six new episodes. Still bingeing? Read our recaps of the entire third season here.
UPDATE 2018: Here’s our Charlie Brooker interview for all six episodes of Black Mirror Season 4
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is like the Black Mirror version of the classic “can you spend a night in the haunted house” trope.
CHARLIE BROOKER: Yes, that was exactly the starting point. I wanted to do a video game episode and a haunted house story. I don’t know that we should have put it second [on the Netflix playlist order] because it’s not a message episode, it’s just a romp. It’s like good fun.
I love that you were ahead of us at every turn. I kept thinking that I know what’s going happen next, or that something didn’t make sense, and you had the main character then articulate exactly what I was thinking — and the effect of that was almost like the show was in my head reading my thoughts, just like the device in the show, which made it all the more weird.
It’s great to hear you say that. It becomes a weird meta story. Dan Trachtenberg was the director and there’s a moment where [the protagonist] is going, “He’s going to be right behind this door isn’t he?” That came form Dan. He was adamant that we should be one step ahead of what the viewer will be suspecting at any given point.
The ending also has a double twist.
When I read the first treatment, there was the first twist but not the second. The second came from conversations with Dan. We were like, “Hold on, what if we add in another thing? What if we add a phone call at the end?” I was partly amusing myself, because there’s a funny criticism of Black Mirror from Mallory Ortberg who wrote, “Next on Black Mirror: What if phones, but too much?” And I thought: “Right, that’s what I’m going to do. Let’s do that episode!”
There’s no real ethical or social lesson in this one, except perhaps “don’t forget to call your mother.” It’s just a nice person that has horrible stuff happen to them and then they die horribly.
In my head its like a classic Twilight Zone punch line ending, like “To Serve Man.” So hopefully people see the humor in that.
But the episode is so effective, and it’s such a dark joke, that I don’t think they’ll be laughing in that moment. That also means you did it right.
Yes, when we did it we were thinking that ending was too jokey. But when we saw the first cut, you really feel for him and it’s so harrowing and horrifying.
“Shut Up and Dance”
What’s great, and horrifying, about this is there’s no sci-fi element here. This could, in theory, happen right now.
Yeah, that was a very conscious thing. Let’s do one that absolutely could happen. “The National Anthem” and “The Waldo Moment” didn’t have any sci-fi moments either. It’s good to touch base with the real world now and then.
How does the twist that the protagonist was looking at child porn change the story’s impact? Should we feel better?
It’s ambiguous, isn’t it? Your empathy for him drains away. You look at him fresh. And it’s not to condone what the hackers have done. They’ve been toying with people like a cat toys with its prey. But it puts a new spin on the logic of what they’re doing. It complicates things more than a little. This story went through different iterations and it didn’t always have that twist in it. There was a version where it was all happening for no reason. There was a version of it where those roles were swapped around and [Jerome Flynn’s character] was the one with the extremely dark secret. And it just came out like, “What if we do this?” It was such a horrible reveal it was irresistible, and it helped explain why he was going along with everything. Because you might watch going, “But why are you going along with all of this?”
RELATED: Breaking Down Season 3 of Black Mirror
“Men Against Fire”
You said before you were inspired by the use of drones for this episode, and I felt like I understood why — using drones is a way of reducing warfare to a video game-like abstraction. That’s the same idea here, that you always have to make the enemy inhuman to be an effective warrior…
Yes, and that’s what happens in military conditioning. You have to be conditioned to pull the trigger, except for the 2 percent of the population who’s a psychopath who would do it. Most people don’t actually want to shoot people. It takes a lot to override that instinct. You know those [Snapchat] filters where you hold it up to your face and it makes you look like a cartoon rabbit? In a way it’s the chilling military application of that. It turns the enemy into The Other, a bogeyman, a monster. I read a book On Killing — a bit of cheerful holiday reading — on the psychological impact of war, and how soldiers are conditioned to kill, which goes against human nature — which in a way should be reassuring. The stuff Michael Kelly is saying, how few soldiers want to pull the trigger, is true. I was reading about how people who dropped firebombs on Dresden didn’t particularly suffer psychological consequences even though they knew they were burning people to death. Whereas if you have to slide a bayonet into somebody’s ribs that stays with you forever.
What was with the freaky clone foursome sex dream?
There’s quite a lot that’s ambiguous in this episode. That’s a reward. The soldiers get rewarded for kills with more explicit dreams. She says to him, “You’re lucky, you killed two, did you get a good night’s sleep?” — she said knowingly. Then he starts to go crazy at one point when the virus they’ve planted in him starts counteracting his system.
“Hated in the Nation”
People have a frightening tendency to mercilessly pile on with online outrage when somebody does something unpopular — I assume that’s where this idea started?
Pretty much. It was something I observed, and it’s easy to caught up in yourself. There are times I’ve joined in the pile-on, it’s thrilling in some way. And I’d read Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which, if you haven’t read, is brilliant. That’s where that stemmed from.
Nitpicky question: Is there really a part of your brain that if you drill into it you experience excruciating pain? I thought the brain had no pain receptors.
That’s artistic license. I suspect there is. I tend not to research things like that in case I find out it’s not possible! That’s what I would call a movie moment. There must be a part of your brain that processes pain so it stands to reason that if something interfered with it it could hurt like hell. Whether true or not, I don’t know.
There’s this moment near the end when you realize all the online trolls and haters are going to be killed and as a viewer you kinda go, “Ah well…”
What? You mean you just thought, “good riddance”?!
I wasn’t as upset by it as I think I was supposed to be.
Oh, I see. That tells us you are an inordinately unempathetic individual.
I feel huge empathy for people being bullied, just much less for those who are bullies.
I suppose they brought it on themselves, but not in a way they could have reasonably foreseen. So it’s an unreasonable punishment.
There’s a certain cynicism here, that the type of person you have to be to be universally liked is inherently a shallow, selfish person. But I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.
In the story it works well, it’s like a cross between Pleasantville and The Truman Show. It’s a falsely bland world that they’re putting together and projecting this optimism and friendliness. Whereas what’s going on in the real world in the moment is there’s this increased polarization that social networks reward you for [staying within your beliefs]. We did a story in the second season, “Be Right Back,” where Domhnall Gleeson comes back from the grave as a clone based on his social media profile. And in that story, he’s bland. But if you based somebody on their social media profile in the real world, they might come back as a snarling monster! Or somebody who’s just constantly angry. So it probably doesn’t reflect the real world in that respect.
Presumably Bryce Dallas Howard’s character and her new friend are social pariahs though now, right?
But she is free! There she is in jail, but she’s finally free. Again, this is one with some hope. We throw you off a bit there.
[Rerrrt! Rerrrt! Interview hack alert! The co-writers of “Nosedive,” Mike Schur and Rashida Jones — yup, of Parks and Recreation fame — are breaking in to answer some additional questions about this episode]
MIKE SCHUR: [The premise was Brooker’s] idea completely. He sent us a three-page outline, the whole story was there, following a long continuous crumble of somebody who isn’t just living under this ratings system, but has completely bought into it, and it becomes her undoing. He wanted it to be comedic, darkly — “darkly” is always a description of any Black Mirror episode. Because he figured out the basic nuts and bolts of the story then we had a conversation where he pitched ideas. The fun part for us was just getting engaged with his brain. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before.
There was a moment while watching this near-future story, when she was in the taxi and I realized, “Oh wait, we already do this with Uber, this is now in at least one way.”
RASHIDA JONES: That’s the resonance of Black Mirror in general, it pushes you into the near future. But the truth is the seed of all the stories is that it kind of already exists and it’s just pushing it into a future manifestation. Since the episode, I find myself thinking of how I would rate people after interactions and how they would rate me.
SCHUR: I don’t even think of it as near future so much as a parallel reality. What I find disturbing about Black Mirror is that other than the fringes of how the technology works, everything else in the show looks so normal. Before doing this I re-watched “The Entire History of You,” which might be my favorite one, and it’s just like our world — it’s just a slightly heightened version. The other moment that feels so familiar in our episode is when she’s been docked a full point after having a tantrum at the airport and she goes to rent a car and looks over and there’s an express VIP line where you can only get in if you’re a 4.5 or higher — and it’s like, yeah, we do that too. It’s not based on a rating system, but it’s based other ways of society stratifying. Everything is what happens now it’s just that the device is different.
It presents an intriguing question: Do you play the social media game, at least to some degree, to take advantage of all the societal perks, or do you opt out entirely and be scorned, yet free?
JONES: Maybe five years ago the viability of opting out was high; you can say you’re just not a social media person. Now it feels like there’s less of a choice. You can not be a part of that world and it gets you immediately a lower rating if you’re not engaging in that dynamic. You have to have some relationship with social media.
SCHUR: I’m not on Facebook, and I’m sure there are certain ways in which my life is better and worse. In this story, you don’t have a choice, it’s a compulsion as opposed to an option. And it’s an easy leap because many people feel compelled to do it now, because they’re either addicted to it or they think they’re going to miss out on something. If you give people truth serum, I think a lot of people would say they don’t feel like they have a choice now.
[And now back to Brooker]
You solved the riddle of how to do a Black Mirror period piece by having it be set in a virtual reality; it’s sort of like a mix between Ready Player One and Ray Bradbury’s “The Fox and the Forest”…
BROOKER: I haven’t read either of them. I know Hannah John-Kamen, who’s in “Playtest,” is in the movie version of Ready Player One. But no. Somebody mentioned it to me after [we shot the episode], and I looked very worried.
Oh no, don’t be. The episode is quite original, those are just the a couple loose references that came to mind.
Phew. It had stemmed from thinking how to do a period episode. Also I’ve been reading about nostalgia therapy for old people. So it was those two together. One was a thought experiment and the other was stuff I’d been reading about. I do try to avoid reading stuff that’s close to what we do, because if I read it then we can’t do it — if you see what I mean.
Did you do research on what the prediction is for if and when whether such technology might eventually be possible?
I tend to sort of make it up and then I’m inevitably asked during the production, “What year is this set?” and I’ll be very vague. I haven’t looked into when that technology might be available. But the other night, I tried out the Playstation VR headset and I thought, you can cut my guesstimate on when this might be available by 10 years — it was immediately incredibly immersive to a degree that shocked me. I daresay it will be sooner than we think.
You could have done this same story with any kind of couple. What made two women the best choice?
It was a heterosexual couple when I first put the story down. And then I thought, “Well, what if it wasn’t?” And I think it gives it an extra resonance because they couldn’t have legally got married in 1987, so we’re gifting them that in this world, in this story of second chances. And that added an extra layer to the whole subtext about reliving your life and exploring things you didn’t have a chance to do.
That deliberate-looking shot of the plane flying in the background at the beach near the the end — does that mean you can travel to other places and not just stay in ’80s dance club heaven?
You know what? I never thought of that! The idea is there’s almost different channels for decades you can select to enter in the same environment. So going to another place would be like in Grand Theft Auto going from Los Santos in GTA V to San Andreas. But I dare say there would be a nostalgic version of Britain and Spain and New York. So now, I’ve talked myself around to say: Yes, that’s what that plane is there to do!
I know you were debating last time we spoke over what order to arrange the episodes on Netflix. I was thinking this episode is the best to end on.
Don’t think I haven’t agonized over the order. I’m convinced we have it wrong at the moment, but it’s too late to change it. But there’s a logistical reason “Hated in the Nation” is last and that’s because it’s 90 minutes. Netflix’s research shows that you should put your longest episode last, ideally.
I actually watched this episode twice and liked it more the second time. I watched the credits sequence maybe four times. While I wouldn’t call this the best Black Mirror episode, I think this is the best ending you’ve ever done. Can you talk about the credits? The Belinda Carlisle song adds so much, not just to the ending but to everything you’ve seen before it.
I know, and I’m praying people don’t just stop the episode as soon as they see the first credit, because it unlocks [the rest of the story]. I started writing the script and I put together a Spotify playlist of music from 1987. I go running every so often and that song came on while I was jogging I was like, “Well, that’s gotta go in.” And that basically gave me the ending scene. So one of the first things we did is check if we could clear this song [for use in the episode] and I would have been absolutely distraught if we couldn’t have done it. It’s something we’ve done in previous episodes, where we have story continuing to unfold throughout the end credits, but it’s the only time we do it in this season. It feels like an nice way of adding an extra coda. It’s also a wry joke in a way, that heaven is literally a place on earth, as we reveal the absolute cold reality of what’s going on. Hopefully it leaves people with a smile on their face, which is an alien experience after watching Black Mirror.