The season three episode, “San Junipero,” became an instant cultural phenomenon and nabbed creator Charlie Brooker two Emmy nominations for standing out among an otherwise tantalizingly bleak universe of techno-paranoia. The 1987 California-set episode — with its neon palette, nostalgic soundtrack and oceanside optimism — came at the perfect time and in the wake of both the U.S. presidential election and Brexit. Brooker, who along with executive producer Annabel Jones, brought his BBC dystopian series to Netflix with the six-episode third season in late October 2016.
“It was the first episode I wrote for season three and it was a conscious effort to blow up what I thought a Black Mirror episode was,” Brooker told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent sit-down with Jones. The pair stressed that if nothing else, their intent is always to deliver the unpredictable.
Throughout its three-season run, Black Mirror has delivered twist after shock ending, with much to say about society layered between. The series launched with a commentary on social media that saw a U.K prime minister having sex with a pig on live television. The episode, “The National Anthem,” is now fondly known as #piggate among the Black Mirror audience. Brooker writes every script and among the 13 episodes, many of his seemingly far-fetched ideas — from apps to VR to personal tracking technologies — have later made headlines for being in development. Most notably, however, he foreshadowed the rise of President Trump with 2013’s “The Waldo Moment,” which saw an outsider who voices a cartoon bear winning an election by utilizing anti-establishment rhetoric.
The highly anticipated fourth season, which doesn’t yet have a premiere date but is set to launch on Netflix later this year, recently released its cryptic episode titles, cast and directors. Among the group, Jodie Foster will direct an episode starring Rosemarie Dewitt and Fargo stars Jesse Plemons and Cristin Milioti, along with Westworld‘s Jimmi Simpson, join the roster. Past cycles have starred Jon Hamm, Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Kelly, Wyatt Russell, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, to name a few.
In the conversational chat below, Brooker and Jones take THR through the method of their madness when it came to plotting the new season (which finished shooting its six episodes ahead of summer), weigh in on the call for a “San Junipero” sequel and whether or not it inspired them to infuse more optimism in season four, and reveal if all those Black Mirror Easter eggs hold any weight. The duo also calls the upcoming season their most ambitious yet, tackling new worlds, tones, themes and episode lengths to create “timeless” stories — whether they end up predicting the end of days or not.
“San Junipero” ranks as both a critical and fan hit. I spoke with the episode’s director, Owen Harris, and we mused about ways San Junipero could be revisited in the future. Have you thought about a sequel or any crossovers?
Charlie Brooker: We’ve thought about it. There were aspects of the story that I took out. For instance, I’d originally written a scene where Gugu’s character, Kelly, is in a kindergarten and there are children there and when you realize what’s going on, it’s that these are deceased children. It was too sad and too poignant of a note to hit in that story, but I kept thinking about how that felt like a whole world in and of itself. I think we almost might do it in a completely different form if we were doing a straight sequel, if that makes sense. Maybe not even as a normal episode.
Like a standalone episode?
Brooker: Like a thing. An experience.
Annabel Jones: Like, for real.
Brooker: That’s exactly what I was going to say. We should do it for real. (Laughs.) We do like to drop Easter eggs every so often in other episodes, so we may be referring to San Junipero again. It’s difficult because I don’t think we’d revisit those characters. That felt like such a story and we wouldn’t want to open it up again.
The episode had a surprisingly happy ending, the first ever for a Black Mirror episode. Why?
Jones: There were a few bumps along the way, and a few question marks and sacrifices. [Kelly] is not whole-heartedly saying, “This is everything I want for the future.”
Brooker: It’s not Rainbow Island. It’s not perfect. It’s been very gratifying how people have taken that episode to heart, though.
The season and that episode came out shortly after the U.S. election and not long after Brexit. Do you think the optimism of the story contrasting with reality is what made it such a fast favorite? There were T-shirts and San Junipero Easter eggs in other TV shows.
Brooker: We saw a reference in The CW’s Riverdale, where a character gets on a bus to go to San Junipero. And there was a reference in a Saturday Night Live sketch. That sort of thing is quite daunting and quite eerie.
Jones: One of the things about being a Netflix show is that you’re not quite sure of the cultural impact of things, or when it will pick up momentum.
Brooker: We had started seeing fan art, all things that we love. And there was a guy who was doing comic book covers who we actually roped into do some stuff on the next season. It’s been interesting. When writing that episode, I was quite nervous because it had a different tone. Because I saw people moaning that the show was going to Netflix and was going to get all Americanized, I said, “Okay. Set it in California.” We also set ourselves the challenge of doing a period episode and I was nervous because it was ultimately a love story between two women — and I’m sitting there in London, a 40-something guy thinking, “Can I pull this off? I don’t know!” So I was relieved to have gotten away with it and then gratified that people took it to heart and that it resonated.
Jones: It was also an opportunity to show that we, and the show, are not anti-technology. Sometimes people think that the show is completely waving its fist at it. Actually, we all love technology and that’s why we’re making a show about it. We’re just sort of exploring some exaggerated stories .
Brooker: I do think it’s interesting that when someone does a show about the supernatural, no one is asking, “Why do you hate the dead so much? What have you got against ghosts?”
Did the reception of the happy ending influence you when it came to plotting the next season?
Brooker: Yes and no. Certainly, I would say that because it was a departure in tone — the fact that it had an upbeat ending was a way of me resetting what I thought the scripts were — and the fact that that worked definitely had some bearing on where my head is at, script-wise. Looking at the world, it’s hard to know quite how to react because the situation keeps changing every 15 minutes and you don’t know what mindset people are going to be in come when we release the season. So it’s had some bearing. We decide the order of episodes after we finish shooting. When something like that lands really well — and people love or hate all the episodes — but since that one resonated so much, you don’t want to hit the same bell again, even though it’s tempting. We have to be unpredictable with the show. We’re kind of back to doing more different things, again.
Jones: The more episodes that we do, the more we challenge our perception of the show as well and what we’re likely to do. I think that was an, as you say, experiment in whether we can keep that sensibility and have an upbeat ending, so it sort of increases the scope.
Brooker: That was the thing. It’s making sure that every story is idiosyncratic and has its own flavor, but that it still feels like it’s got some Black Mirror DNA, somewhere. That is quite a challenge sometimes and can make it a bit tricky. But that’s part of the fun of the show, is that we blow up the world, basically, at the end of each one.
You have spoken about predicting the rise of Trump but when you wrote this season, Trump had risen. Did that making writing this season different going back to it?
Brooker: That’s a good question. In the U.K. I host a comedy show, Wipe, and I do an annual one where I sum up the year. Because 2016 was so horrible, at one point I rang Annabel up and said, “I’m not going to do it.” For my own mental well-being. Then she reminded me that contractually, I had to.
Jones: Yes, I was a very sympathetic shoulder to cry on: You have to do it, so there!
Brooker: After doing it, the immediate after of having to immerse myself and think about it, I was genuinely depressed for a while. Then I thought, “Oh no, that was character building and I think it was useful.” If it made one more person feel a little sane, then that was worthwhile. It’s slightly different with fiction. When returning to writing, I didn’t know if I wanted to completely immerse myself in nihilistic sequels at the moment when I can get that on the news! So there’s a degree of defiance that creeps in.
Jones: That’s reflective of the human spirit as a whole. People are slightly more politicized at the moment and it’s bringing people more into the political fold more than ever before, so there are always positive stirrings.
Brooker: There’s a determination that is empowering. Things that speak to the precise moment? It’s tricky to know what those are until the dust has settled a little. What we don’t tend to do when coming up with the stories is look at the news or the tech pages. We don’t do that and ask, “What’s our take on this?” That’s all stuff that’s percolating around our heads anyway and I guess it comes out in the scripts. There are probably a few explicit references to a few things, but it’s always going to be oblique.
Jones: Most of the stories are small, personal stories and they’re not overtly political. Or they’re not overtly commenting on corporations or government. It tends to be more about the individual so in that sense, there’s a timeless quality to them.
Many of your episodes have made headlines after the fact. “Hated in the Nation” centered around bee terrorism and there were stories about how that could become a reality shortly after you released the season.
Brooker: After San Junipero, there was a story about a hospice in the U.K. that’s using VR nostalgia therapy for their patients.
Does that challenge you even more when thinking up the next season? Or is the fun of it seeing how close this fantasy world merges with reality?
Brooker: We probably push it even further. I remember when we started doing season three, which was the first Netflix season, I said to myself that people always think we’re predicting the future and that we weren’t this time around. I felt that it was so far-fetched. But then, like you say, robot bees become a thing. So I keep thinking that this next season is pushed even further and there’s no way. But you can bet within five minutes Elon Musk is going to pop up with something. We should basically be in product or app design and should be patenting these things.
Jones: We should have a Black Mirror department that we can head up.
Brooker: Where we just 3D print these things so they pop up and land in your lap at the end of each story. (Laughs.)
There is an avid Reddit subculture that exists around finding and deciphering your Easter eggs.
Brooker: Oh, they’ll love the next season then!
Are you increasing the Easter eggs moving forward?
Brooker: I think it’s fair to say that there is one episode where we’ve just opened up an Easter egg hose and fired away.
Is that just a fun nod to the fans, or are you really connecting all these episodes into one Black Mirror universe? And if so, is there an end game to that?
Brooker: My answer to that has changed, actually. It always used to be that it’s just a bit of fun. But then sometimes we’ve done some things where we did explicitly refer to other episodes. I think the rule is that when a character says something that explicitly refers to something else, it’s canonical. Also, they follow the same dream universe. That’s the other thing that I tend to say. There’s a line in “Hated in the Nation” where someone refers to a crime that happened in “White Bear.”
The Twitter feed in “Hated in the Nation” also referred to the prime minister who had sex with a pig in the series premiere.
Brooker: We love doing that. I love all the product design and UI side of it. We’ll sit there and dissect type face. It’s always about stripping it down. But we write Easter eggs to put in there specifically and sometimes there’s gags for people who press pause.
What about your social media strategy? On the day of the U.S. election, your account was trending for tweeting: No, this isn’t a Black Mirror episode. Are you involved in that strategy and linking it with the personality of the show?
Jones: Netflix handles that and we trust their judgment. It does fit with our show. We were sort of conscious on what that day meant to America and we wouldn’t want to think that Black Mirror was promoting itself off the back of it. They were sensitive and responding to other tweets, so they put something out. I think it’s important to be responsive rather than being opportunistic.
Brooker: They were probably typing it with shaking hands, like everyone was while sort of feeling a bit dizzy and unreal. I think they do a really good job with the social feed, as well as the video that mashed up Orange Is the New Black with the “San Junipero” episode. They came to us and we shipped the neon sign over. We should do more mashups with other shows, that would send the Easter egg people into overdrive.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did a crossover with Orange Is the New Black in their last season. Is crossing over within the Netflix universe something that interests you?
Brooker: Well, we’ve had [Kimmy Schmidt star] Jon Hamm!
Jones: I don’t know. I think it’s fun to do in the guise of a trail or a one-off.
Brooker: An interesting mental challenge would be to think about how to work that into a Black Mirror story where it’d be a way of breaking the fourth wall. We’d probably do it where someone finds themselves trapped in House of Cards or something, where they know it’s a fictional show they are trapped in. That’s probably the way we would do it. Talk about having difficulty about stripping reality.
The last season of House of Cards spurred similar questions to your last season, about how the shows predicted reality. Getting you two sets of showrunners together would make for an interesting dinner conversation…
Jones: It would be the bleakest evening ever.
With season four, how did you go about picking your directors and actors and are you getting pitched at this point, have you had to turn people down?
Jones: Oh, we wouldn’t turn anyone down.
Brooker: Well, we would turn down random strangers.
Jones: With the directors, it’s quite different to plan with an anthology show. Charlie is writing all of the scripts and comes up with all of the ideas, so when we start the season, we don’t have our six scripts on the table. We’re often a little last minute, shall we say? So he brings the scripts and tells bits and pieces and then we figure out the director. We respond to the script and find the best director for that episode who responds to the material. There’s lots of ways of interpreting the worlds, so you just want to make sure someone is feeding off the same things that inspired you in that script. Then actors will work with our wonderful casting director in the U.K., Jina Jay.
Brooker: When we did “San Junipero,” Owen Harris had directed a previous episode for us, “Be Right Back,” the other tender episode of the series. So that’s why we thought he’d be a good fit. And he loves ‘80s movies and music. The musical debates we would have on that show. The only song we couldn’t clear on that playlist was a Prince track. You have to clear the songs for 15 years or so because of Netflix and I remember at some point “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths plays as a little joke for about five seconds before she switches it off and it was an outrageous amount of money! It was like shoveling bank notes into a fire.
Jones: It was indulgent but at the same time, it was so important that we set up that era so it felt different. We felt like we had to do this properly.
Brooker: That was one of the things that was a happy accident. I picked 1987 fairly arbitrarily. In the original draft of the script when Yorkie [Davis] was walking in, there were very specific movie posters that she would see that I specified in the script and I was obsessed with the fact that it would be specific weeks of 1987 on the news. So I was looking at the charts and while I was doing that I made a Spotify 1987 playlist and that Belinda Carlisle track, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” came up while I was running. I thought, “This is the perfect song to the whole thing!” Then I got panicky in case we couldn’t clear it. I didn’t know what I would have done.
What can you tease about the genres and stories of season four?
Booker: Well we can’t say anything.
Jones: Yes, we can’t. But I would say it’s some of our most ambitious films in the next season. Very exciting. We do take on new genres and some new tones.
Brooker: We’re trying not to repeat ourselves, basically. So it’s different in that we’re tackling worlds, tones, themes and looks we haven’t done before. Durations we haven’t done before. Jodie Foster’s episode has the feeling of an indie movie, I can say that without saying literally anything else.
If you got another season, is the six episode model something you plan to stick to?
Brooker: It’s a good number.
Jones: It puts us just on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, so it’s working! I think even a number seven would just do us in.
Brooker: There’s always a point in the middle of the production where we’ll have four or five of them live at any given point and I’ll be writing a script for the next one while doing rewrites on the previous one. There’s a point in which you go, “I can’t keep all these six stories in my head.”
Jones: But we do.
Brooker: But if it was seven, would our brains pop?
So if Netflix came to you and said they want a 12-episode season, it would be a hard no?
Brooker: I think because I tend to be so obsessive about the script and what can work and not, and that’s one of the things that keeps the tone of the show, even though the variety is quite marked, it probably makes it feel all like one piece. Most of it has come out of here.
You also had a mini-movie with “Hated in the Nation.” Will you continue to push the lengths in season four?
Brooker: It was 75 minutes. We may beat that this season. And we also may massively undercut that. We could keep one on an infinite loop! You could do that on Netflix — make one a Groundhog Day that literally never stops. And disable the “back” button for viewers. That’s something to think about. We did talk to some of the tech people about things we could do. When we were doing “Playtest,” the video game episode, I wanted to do it in nightmare mode where after you watched it once, if you watched it again it was different.