Here's how — and why — Mr. Robot pulled off that almost dialogue-free episode
Plus, creator/director Sam Esmail explains why they picked Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" as the episode's unofficial anthem.
“We don’t have to talk.”
In Sunday’s “Method Not Allowed,” Mr. Robot very literally took Darlene’s (Carly Chaikin) declaration to Elliot (Rami Malek) in the opening moments; no other dialogue was uttered until the very end, with Vera (Elliott Villar) sneaking up on Krista (Gloria Reuben) and declaring, “It’s time we talk.” But plenty of action took place in between those two lines. Like any dysfunctional hacking family would, Elliot and Darlene spent their Christmas morning breaking into a server farm. Even without dialogue, the sequence was as intense as could be, eventually leading to Elliot needing to make a run for it through the streets of New York City to allow his sister to sneak out undetected. The chase seems to end with him hit by a car, limping and cornered — until he makes a jump down the side of a bridge, where Darlene is waiting at the bottom to whisk him away.
Elsewhere, Price (Michael Cristofer) dined alone and was sent on a hunt, while Dom (Grace Gummer) got pulled away from her family to clean up the mess left by Elliot and Tyrell (Martin Wallström), before later being assigned by the Dark Army’s Janice (Ashlie Atkinson) to track down Elliot and Darlene. Dom didn’t speak, but she did have her own soundtrack, with Meghan Trainor‘s “All About That Bass” playing a role in her story — twice.
To break down this ambitious episode, EW chatted with creator Sam Esmail, who also served as the writer and director of “Method Not Allowed.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for this one come from?
SAM ESMAIL: We start from a story perspective and we knew that at a certain point Elliott and Darlene were going to have to pull off this elaborate physical hack on a server farm. As we started to go down their story line we realized it was going to be integral for them to stay as quiet and nimble as possible. And then we were playing around with Dom’s story line, and she’s so isolated and alone, and she was actually pretty quiet in episode four and we continued along that same path for episode five. And then I think it was only when we started looking at Price, who is also sort of isolated and going on his own journey by himself, that we realized a theme was emerging. And given the fact that it was also our first episode where we’re officially on Christmas Day, we thought that there was something really melancholy and isolating about each of these story lines, and that’s when we started to realize that this could be an episode where there is essentially no dialogue, except for the two lines at the top and at the end. Usually when we think about creative choices like that they really come from that place of story and character, and we thought that did add an extra layer of melancholy to the dawn of Christmas.
I’ve been describing this episode to a co-worker who hasn’t seen it yet as something that only Mr. Robot could pull off. After doing the big single-take in season 3, does that help give you the confidence that you can continue to be creative and try an episode like this?
Yeah, and, honestly, that confidence is mostly based on the talented team I’ve surrounded myself with. If it weren’t for the writers or the editors or the crew on set or our brilliant actors, then I would be a little more nervous — I was nervous as is, but those are probably more my shortcomings than anyone else’s. I just knew I had this insanely talented team, not to mention the fact that I also knew that my sound design team would step up in a huge way. And so it was really relying on them to pull off this crazy thing. The one thing that I give my team credit for is, when I bring up something like this, it doesn’t make them nervous, it makes them excited, and not because they think it’s going to be easy; they realize the challenges, but because they feel like they can really mine that in a fresh and creative way. And that’s kind of been the heartbeat of our show, the highly-talented people behind it. In that one-take episode from season 3, a lot of that has to do with the choreography and the nimble skill of my cast. They were able to do that episode in a way that kind of blew my mind, because not only were they performing and representing the internal lives of these characters, but they were also involved in this massive choreography and timing where they had to really do this dance with the camera — and pulled that off, while doing everything else in the scene. Here, it was also the fact that they now they had to communicate this story without saying a word; through their body language, through their face, the choreography was driven by them. Every one of us in the production leaned on our cast quite heavily and, of course, they pulled it off in spades.
What ended up being the biggest challenge here?
We don’t do a lot of the setups; I traditionally try and find the most economical way to shoot a scene. And that actually ends up, I think, creatively working to our benefit to a large extent, because that sometimes will lead to a scene that is done in one shot or two shots and then we have to be very precise and very specific about where we want the camera and when. But because we didn’t have dialogue, we realized that not only do we have to abandon that methodology, which is something that we were so used to over three seasons of this show, that we really have to kind of do the opposite. The traditional Mr. Robot episode, we do maybe 20 setups a day, which is pretty low for a television show. But, for this episode, we were doing 50 setups a day, and there were maybe over 100 scenes that we had to shoot, because the story was completely reliant on just visual grammar, and so it required us to just physically shoot more shots and more images to convey something that maybe could have been told in one line of dialogue. That was the biggest challenge because it was so against what we’d typically done.
And you guys typically film out of order, which is possible because you direct all the episodes. But was this one that you did all at once just because of how unique it was?
No, we didn’t have that luxury because we had to shoot a lot of the exteriors before winter, and we were shooting from February through the summer, so we had to save a lot of the interiors for when it got warm out. So we did have to shoot out of order, which obviously added to the complication of all that and trying to keep continuity intact. But again, we have such a crackerjack team, we were able to pull it off — it wasn’t easy, it definitely was challenging.
The score always plays such a huge role on Mr. Robot, but, obviously, it was even more crucial here. What were those conversations like with your sound team?
My sound design team all got a huge head start about this episode, I think before I’d even written that. And that was a conversation that just kept growing as I started writing and as we started filming. Those were enjoyable conversations, because those were conversations that we were going back and forth and it would inform the story and then the story would inform their choices and their decisions. We were always giddy talking about it because of how creative we can get with our choices, and a lot of times [composer] Mac [Quayle] and our design team work in concert together, and so the music is on par with the sound effects and even the notes are in the same key as some of our sound effects. That’s how sort of married they are together, because I always love when you’re just kind of immersed in this visceral experience.
Meghan Trainor essentially speaks more than anyone else in this episode, so how did you land on “All About That Bass” as such an essential song?
[Laughs] Well, the thing that I love about this show is that we don’t pull punches, we really go dark when the story asks for it, and because this episode already had this sort of melancholy tone where people were in isolation, we always try and find ways to add levity — without going too far. And Meghan Trainor, just that song for that moment, was just so specific where we thought it wasn’t too broad where it would stick out in this world and was still endearing and funny enough that it could bring that levity to a dreary Christmas morning for some of our heroes.
It’s been a big few episodes, between Tyrell’s death last week and then this week, so what can you tease that viewers should expect next?
Now that episode 5 is done, the stage is set for Elliot and Darlene to pull off this hack that they’ve been planning this whole season. Now that the table is set, we’re gonna go, and Elliot and Darlene are going to barrel down and go up against the Deus Group.
Mr. Robot airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.
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