Clickbait creator reveals Netflix thriller is based on real cybercrime cases
"We became fascinated with the idea of the new categories of crime that have sprung up since the internet has taken over our lives," Tony Ayres says.
In the murder-mystery thriller Clickbait, there's something even more sinister and dangerous out there than criminals: the internet.
Netflix's new limited series is here to highlight how the internet has not only taken over our lives, but also taken over the ways in which people hurt each other. Created by Tony Ayres and Christian White, Clickbait stars Adrian Grenier as Nick Brewer, a man who suddenly goes missing and reappears online in a video showing him beaten and seemingly held against his will, holding up a sign that reads: "I abuse women. At 5 million views, I die." Is Nick a kidnapping victim who is being framed to look like an abuser, or is he a criminal making a confession? The eight-episode series follows Nick's sister (Zoe Kazan) and wife (Betty Gabriel) as they rush to find and save him, all the while reeling from the revelation in the video as they uncover a side of Nick they didn't know existed.
Ayres has always loved a good murder mystery, but he was excited to tell one through revolving points of view, so each episode of Clickbait follows a different character as they try to solve Nick's disappearance. What Ayres was most interested in, though, is telling a story about cybercrime. "In trying to work out what this show is about, we became fascinated with the idea of the new categories of crime that have sprung up since the internet has taken over our lives," Ayres tells EW.
In the show's early development days, White "went away and did this phenomenal research document where he scoured the world for these kinds of crimes, when the virtual leaks into the actual and has a deep impact on human beings," Ayres says. And through that research, they "decided to make our show based on a number of real crimes that had actually happened."
While Ayres is remaining tight-lipped about the specifics of the mystery, he does tease that what he's most proud of is how "we really wanted to do a mystery without having to resort to psychopathy as the ultimate answer."
"Most of the time these thrillers or murder mysteries are resolved by some version of sociopathy or psychopathy," he says. "I was really interested in the idea that the internet is this Pandora's box that can lead us into all kinds of trouble — trouble that we don't even understand. Especially if you go into it innocently, because it gives you access to that lizard part of your brain which works on impulse and it makes you feel as though you're anonymous. At the same time, it's one of the most public recorded verifiable mediums that we have. People exist within this paradox, and I think the paradox in itself has a fracturing effect on our personality."
Before the scripts were written, Ayres he knew all the major points of how the crime and mystery would unfold. "It was there from the very beginning; we knew exactly who did it and the path," he says. "I remember the second day of the [writers'] room, we were talking about these crimes that we were really fascinated by. And then I just had this moment where I thought, 'If we do this, this, this, this, and this, that's how it's going to play out.' And that's pretty much what it was. My brain is quite mathematical, so it was like putting a Rubik's Cube together."
But don't expect to predict the ending, because they threw in lots of twists and turns. "Audiences are so sophisticated, and we really want to spring some surprises on people to keep them hooked and engaged," Ayres says. "I was really fascinated when we were doing the original research, there were so many incredible stories, and then digging deeper into it, it's such a complicated, complex psychology."
There was one case that really grabbed Ayres' attention but he didn't end up using in the show "because it was just too dark. It was this German guy who was a suicide whisperer, who basically convinced all these people to kill themselves on camera in front of him." Ayres does, however, say the case ended up inspiring a new thread in the season.
Since all eight episodes of Clickbait are dropping at once, Ayres thinks watching two episodes at a time for a binge is the best way to watch so that "people could have conversations about the nature of identity in the virtual age."
"The main thing we wanted was to engage people with a roller coaster ride that also had some kind of emotional effect," he adds. "One of the virtues of that format is that you really get into the lives of the particular characters that each episode is about. Ideally, what we really want is for people to stop and think about the nature of their interactions."
Clickbait premieres Aug. 25 on Netflix.