Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker: ‘I’m loath to say this is the worst year ever because the next is coming’

An extended interview with one of the brains behind Britain’s best homegrown export

Jacob Stolworthy
Wednesday 11 October 2017 14:45 BST
‘Black Mirror’, co-created by Charlie Brooker, has become an international hit since Netflix bought the series
‘Black Mirror’, co-created by Charlie Brooker, has become an international hit since Netflix bought the series (AFP/Getty)

It’s almost a cliché to say it but, if you haven't yet seen Black Mirror, you should probably stop what you’re doing and go watch it.

A series comprised of standalone parables, each set in a dystopian world terrifyingly not far removed from our own, it was created by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones in 2011 and originally aired three not-so-humble episodes in the UK on Channel 4.

Following its addition to US Netflix last year, the world took notice – chief of all Netflix bosses who acquired the series, injecting it with an inflated budget and episode count (season three clocks in at six episodes).

In line with its release (all six new episodes are available to stream today), we were granted the opportunity to meet with co-creator Brooker where we spoke in detail about spin-off potentials, his inspiration behind the (often disturbing) storylines and – of course – Piggate.

“It's quite daunting,” the 45-year-old tells me humbly when I liken him to esteemed showrunners Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). “I wouldn't put myself on their level at all.”

It's a good job the fans will then, isn't it.

I watched 'Shut Up and Dance' last night…

That’s a cheerful one [laughs]. It’s funny, no one can agree on what is their favourite episode. It’s interesting. People say about that one: "Oh my God, it’s absolutely chilling" and other people go: "It’s about nothing, it’s boring." People react really really differently to the episodes – they’re very adamant over which is the best and worst.

It reminded me of how I felt when I watched [season two episode] 'White Bear'.

That’s interesting. We wanted slightly more variety of tone across this season because we were doing six episodes. The first one I wrote was 'San Junipero' which has more shards of light in it so we were thinking: 'Okay, now we’ve got to do some more grungy horrible stuff,' so we went into 'Shut Up and Dance'. We didn’t want it to always be bleak and depressing like it traditionally had been because it’ll become unbearable if you're doing six in a row.

Was it the increased episode count that inspired the variation in tone then?

Not just that; we knew we were going to be making more episodes so we wanted to mix it up and introduce as much variety as possible. It’s just [working out] how you do that without breaking what the show is. There’s much more variety in this season then there ever has been before.

Black Mirror Official Trailer - Season 3

Which episode did you enjoy writing the most?

There’s one called 'Hated in the Nation', which is a detective story. That’s a very genre thing to do so there are tropes that you can’t get away from; there’s a scene where there’s a body, there's tape and flashing lights and discussion of the crime scene, all of that sort of stuff. And that’s quite fun to do... once [laughs]. I did a spoof cop show called A Touch of Cloth that was in the back of my mind [while writing it] so I was slightly worried. The process of writing them was very different, though. 'Shut Up and Dance' is sort of a kitchen sink horrible thriller and Nosedive is a heightened world; they’re all very different styles.

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Black Mirror is now for people around the world kind of what Breaking Bad was for us in the UK.

Do you think?

In terms of it being on Netflix later than it was in the country that it originated and has gained a cult fanbase – and now pretty much everyone’s talking about it.

It’s very hard for me to gauge who’s talking about it really. Do you know what I mean? Obviously, I’m hearing a lot about it at the moment because I’m promoting it.

I suppose with Netflix, it's not like you're going to see the overnight viewing figures. But you can get a strong sense that because Netflix is now such a large platform, people are going to watch it even if they haven’t before.

Yes, I suppose. We are aware that we’ll get a lot of first-time viewers this time around which is why we agonised for a long time over the order. You can watch them in any order [but] we went with what we thought was probably one of the most accessible episodes ['Nosedive'] first, partly to slightly ease people in. Then I thought afterward: ‘Oh no, I want to change the order again.’ But then it was too late.

What did you want to change it to?

Originally we started with “San Junipero” and then we thought it was too high concept. So it was literally random. I would have used Shuffle mode. It would be great if people go to the episodes and pick the one they want to watch first because you can do that. It is a box of chocolates in that respect.

What’s your advice on how many episodes people should watch in one go. Because some might binge it all in one day which is...

...perjurious to your mental health?

Exactly – and also, it's a good show to eke out, right?

It’s up to the individual really. We’re not naturally a binge-watch show because we have a beginning, a middle and an end – it’s like you’ve had a full meal – whereas generally, the binge-watch model is to go: "Ooh, something’s about to happen." Even if it’s like: “She’s going to open the biscuit tin! What’s inside the biscuit tin? Ooh, and the end credits are playing and there’s a bit of mournful music now. I’ll stay where I am and find out what’s in that biscuit tin.” We don’t do that trick of keeping you tantalised at the end of every episode so it’s up to the individual. We were gonna start with 'Hated in the Nation' at one point – that’s 90 minutes long; [adopts voice] the research shows that you really shouldn’t open with a 90-minute episode.

Kelly MacDonald in feature-length episode ‘Hated in the Nation’
Kelly MacDonald in feature-length episode ‘Hated in the Nation’

Did the Netflix bigwigs tell you that?

They did make a very good point: if you watch a 90-minute episode, you’re less likely to watch the next immediately afterward and what they want is for newcomers to the show to understand that each one is different. Because not everyone would know that. When the first ones went up on US Netflix, some people watched 'The National Anthem' and, when they came to episode two, they were like: "Oh my God, what’s going to happen next? Now what’s he going to have to fuck?" They weren’t expecting it to be a different story.

This being an anthology series, do you think you’ll ever revisit past worlds, characters and storylines?

We nearly have. I’ve got an idea for a sequel to 'White Bear'. I wrote that script really quickly and it was totally different; well, the story they tell her before they reveal to her what’s really going on was totally different. It was more a zombie apocalypse type thing about a journalist and this signal bouncing about the globe. But while we were scouting for locations – that’s how late in the day it was – they went: "Well, we can’t afford the script you’ve written but we’re based on an RAF base. Here’s what we can fill – what do you think of it?" I was looking around and there was a housing estate, a petrol station and a big fence around the whole thing. I was like: "Hmm, a big fence. Hang on a minute, what if – oh-oh-oh!" and went off and wrote that in two days – and it was a much better story. Quite often things like that happen when you suddenly have a breakthrough and go: "That’s what it is."

Lenora Crichlow in season-two episode ‘White Bear’
Lenora Crichlow in season-two episode ‘White Bear’

So there was an extra step in 'White Bear' that we didn’t get a chance to do because it was too complicated – it had her finding messages that she’d left herself on previous run-throughs because the wiping thing was starting to not function. So I sometimes think we could do that. It’d probably be a heck of a job to go back and recreate the entire fucking park because it’s gone now. It might work better as a graphic novel or something like that. There was a whole extra idea for 'Be Right Back' too, where we’d see other people who’d been brought back from their social media profiles. In this season, there’s a detective episode and I've sort of figured some characters from that could recur.

Would you do what American Horror Story does and bring back old cast members as new characters?

We have one of our first ever recurring actors in this season – Hannah John-Kamen – who showed up in 'Fifteen Million Merits'. She plays a singer who you ever only see onscreen. This time around, she shows up in 'Playtest'. We did have a little in-joke where the song she was singing in 'Fifteen Million Merits' was playing on the radio but we couldn’t get a licensing thing, it was a nightmare. There are actors we’ve tried to have back that weren’t available. I don’t think there’s anyone that we wouldn’t have back. I mean, The Twilight Zone had William Shatner every other week.

Get Shatner!

[Grins] That would be amazing. In all sorts of ways.

So you've had a fourth season confirmed.

Halfway through the writing of that already...

…and do you reckon there’s going to be more?

Beyond that? I don’t know.

Would you like there to be more?

Yeah, I hope so. As long as there’s still ideas, yeah, I don’t see why not.

You know how Woody Allen apparently has a drawer of ideas where he picks one out every now and then – do you have a drawer of ideas?

No, I tend to have an idea that rattles around for ages and I don’t know what to do with it. With 'Playtest' I had an idea about a whack-a-mole game that you can’t switch off where the moles kept popping up forever. I thought: ‘Well, that's a ten-minute story – now what do I do?’ and then the other stuff came in later. But no. I wish there was a drawer but there isn’t.

Wyatt Russell in season-three episode ‘Playtest’
Wyatt Russell in season-three episode ‘Playtest’ (Netflix)

Does Black Mirror have to be set in a world similar to ours for it to have the desired effect? Do you think there could be an episode set in medieval times or something similar?

Weirdly, we are… [long pause] We’re doing an episode that’s different. I can’t say anything about it, but we’re doing one that’s in a setting we’ve never done before. But I have been thinking about how we would do medieval times and things like that.

Like a space episode or something?

[glances at me suspiciously] Yeah, there's still settings we haven’t done that are in the pipeline.

Do you have a roster of directors and actors who’ve approached you to be on the show?

We’ve had people who’ve approached us that we really want to work with that schedule-wise we haven’t been able to get things to work, so that's frustrating. But we’re very fortunate. Do you know Jodie Foster’s directing one for season four? So that's quite good.

Black Mirror - Nosedive trailer

Because of the nature of the show, it’s a pretty good gig for a director because it is like making a short film. ['Nosedive'] director Joe [Wright]'s been quite candid about this; he’d been feeling quite bruised after doing Pan and [Black Mirror] was a good thing for him to get his teeth into which wasn’t the full five-year commitment of a movie. He had a lot more say and power than he would if it was one episode of a series that was the same every week because these are basically little films. That goes across the board with composers and casting. In some ways, that makes it a challenge because you’ve got to build the whole world from scratch each time but on the other hand you get to work with new people who come with their own ideas and influences.

What episode do you get asked about the most?

It really varies. At the moment, I’m getting asked a lot about 'The Waldo Moment' which I felt I didn’t quite get right at the time and thought maybe should have been a separate mini-series than a Black Mirror. Now it feels quite prescient because of [Donald] Trump. 'White Bear', people ask me about, and 'Be Right Back'. When things in the news start to parallel things in episodes, people ask me about that.

It must be cool when you turn on the news and think, ‘I kind of predicted that’.

No, I’m terrified. Piggate – that was a fucking weird one. I genuinely thought I was living in a weird simulation – it was too big a coincidence; I must have known! That really unsettled me. It was very much a destabilising moment.

How do you and Annabel come up with episode ideas?

I wish I knew; the ideas just pop up. Sometimes, we’ve had the odd writers meeting where we sit there and just chew the fat. Nine times out of 10, if you sit there to try and come up with a story about Brexit or the Samsung Galaxy phone that blows your hand off, an idea that isn’t to do with the thing we were meant to be discussing just pops up and comes out fully formed. Earlier today I was in a cab and the driver did something – I don’t want to say what it is – where I thought: ‘Yeah, that’s a thing isn’t it.’ It’s often an observation or it’s something somebody says. It’s usually just a sort of: "Hey, I’ll tell you what would be mental: if you could inject a video game augmented reality system into your fucking eyes."

Which is great because then you get 'Playtest'.

Yeah. That’s quite a rompy episode. It’s not about anything particularly. I just wanted to do a haunted house movie.

Black Mirror - Playtest trailer

With Black Mirror’s global recognition, your name – as well as Annabel's – are going to be mentioned alongside other showrunners including Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers). Is that something you think about?

That’s quite daunting. I’ve met Vince Gilligan and [The Wire creator] David Simon and I wouldn’t put myself on their level at all. I’m quite the control freak so I tend to write most of the episodes and I’m across all the details. Doing five seasons of Breaking Bad must have been mental – and he directed some of those. I’m in awe of that level of ability.

How easy is it to get a TV show made today?

I’ve been very lucky. There are more opportunities now because there’s loads of platforms and channels; everyone’s making them – if you’d been told Amazon would be doing TV shows a few years ago, you’d have gone "What?" Tesco will probably be making fucking TV shows soon. There’s an HBO anthology show called High Maintenance which started on Vimeo and a Netflix comedy called Haters Back Off which is based on a YouTube channel – that would be a very practical way of kicking something off. I've done it in a roundabout weird way whereas most writers write on other shows like Casualty or Holby City or Doctor Who. Now that would be a really good gig! I was approached for Doctor Who and I just didn’t have time. It was really annoying. I was really busy and they haven’t asked me again since. It was a bit like the Home Office asking you to do something.

The advantage of now is the equipment and technology is such you could make at least a reasonable facsimile of what you want to do which is a way of expressing it in the purest way. Later on, you’re going to have to compromise all sorts of things until you get to a verified lucky position where you can kind of do what you want. So if you can do something that’s idiosyncratic enough so that it takes off, that’s probably the best way of doing it. I don’t know if that’s the worst advice ever. The only way to get something to work is to keep plugging away, I suppose. I had no career path. I’ve done all sorts of different things. I’ve bounced from one thing to the other; I was a cartoonist, a video game reviewer – I never had any clue what I was doing and have always been quite lucky. Like: "Oh, I’m in this carriage now – what's going on in here?"

Well, you can see how that variation has lent itself to Black Mirror storylines.

I’ve got no attention span. That’s the reason why it’s one-off stories – because I don’t have the patience to come up with a five-season arc for something. I did spend about a year developing a show that was Black Mirror-esque that had an ongoing storyline. It was at the time when American networks were like: "We like Black Mirror but we don't do anthology shows." This was before they changed their mind when it actually went on Netflix and started doing well. But trying to think of a three-season arc storyline did my head in. It was brain-melting.

Do you have any other TV shows in the pipeline?

There’s always things I want to do. I wanna do some more goofy comedy stuff; I really enjoyed doing A Touch of Cloth. Something like that might be good.

Do you think Netflix will be open to more seasonal Black Mirror specials?

I wouldn’t mind doing a Halloween one. I’ve been thinking about that. One of the reasons we shot 'Playtest' up in the running order [it's number two] is because we knew Halloween was coming and we thought it was perfect for that. And the PlayStation VR was being launched. But yeah, I want to do a Treehouse of Horror; the Christmas special ['White Christmas' starring Jon Hamm] is kind of that. So I’m toying with the idea of doing another one with several interweaving stories.

You have a hell of a lot of material for the Screenwipe end of year special.

We’d normally have our first winter’s meeting for the end of year show in October; this year we had it in July which gives you an idea of the many horrible things that have happened. Even the fun stories have a horrible thing attached to them, so we’re working out what to do. You know, there have been several stories that have dominated the year – like Brexit, Trump – and, of course, every cultural icon you’ve ever liked dying. There are no laughs in that. We’re still debating how we’re going to cover it. That’s one of my next tasks. It’s always a fucking headache. I’ve thought, ‘worst year ever’ for the last four years so I'm loathe to say this year’s the worst year ever because 2017’s coming.

You’re a keen gamer – what are your views on No Man’s Sky?

What happened with that was that people’s expectations outstripped what they were given. It was partly because there was a small team – and I actually feel really quite sorry for them – that made it who maybe didn't have the experience to know that they were talking about it excitedly while they were developing it. It is technically an amazing achievement. It was just funny that you bring out this infinite universe full of boundless variety and people start going: "I’m bored of that, boring, it’s boring." They had a point; it got samey too quickly, there wasn’t enough of a narrative and they probably charged too much money. But if it had been half that price and had dropped as a surprise, it’d be the fucking toast of the town.

‘Black Mirror’ season 1-3 is available to watch on Netflix now

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