The third season of Mr. Robot so far has been a thrilling mix of the first and second in terms of tone and filmmaking. The episodes have had the propulsive plotting of the first season, with the exquisitely inventive direction of the second.
But the fifth episode, shot to simulate the sacking of Evil Corp HQ in real time, was something else entirely. Using a style that simulates a single long take, creator and director Sam Esmail and his crew made a breathless experience unlike anything on TV in recent years.
When discussing the episode’s style, Esmail steers the topic away from film fandom’s fascination with the oner (or a long take). “I’m trying to demystify that aspect of it as much as possible,” he said. “To me, it’s really about how the format of this sort of seamless real-time filming of Elliot and Angela is so ingrained with what their journey is and what they’re going through in the episode.”
Over the course of season 3’s first four episodes, the psychological cold war between Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) boiled over into an all-out brawl for control. With the bespectacled worse half planning a terrorist attack with the Dark Army, Elliot has been working overtime (at Evil Corp, no less) to stop him.
When Esmail and the writers were planning the fifth episode, they hit on the idea of an hour playing out in real time. “We wanted to experience those first few minutes of switching from personality to personality,” Esmail says. “And we wanted to find the most dramatic way to reflect that experience.”
The solution was a one-take episode. Well, not an actual oner. The script called for the action to move outside and back into a skyscraper as a riot breaks out. With the scripted action split between sets in Brooklyn and locations in Manhattan, a true one-take hour was impossible, but challenging Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil for the best long take ever wasn’t Esmail’s intention. “The conversation of oners could easily fall into gimmickry and showmanship,” Esmail says. “For me, tone was the priority.”
With the help of a stabilizing arm called a Trinity, cinematographer Tod Campbell and camera operator Aaron Medick pulled off the floating shots in and out of Evil Corp, following Elliot and then Angela (Portia Doubleday).
For the actors, the episode format meant nailing their marks and timed cues. Doubleday recalls having to sometimes match 15 separate cues within a take, with certain shots going for upwards of 27 takes.
But for all of the tedious intricacy during filming, there were a few upsides. “Because there’s not a break, it’s kind of like theater,” Doubleday says. “You get to utilize your adrenaline and energy.” Not to mention, postproduction was a cinch. “It was probably the fastest edit of a Mr. Robot episode in history,” Esmail says, laughing.