March 7 was the first day of production on season two of USA’s “Mr. Robot,” and star Christian Slater had a question for his showrunner, Sam Esmail. “I wasn’t sure where we were in the story,” recounts Slater, who plays the titular character.
Slater found Esmail behind the monitor, as the director of the episode. “It was so perfect that Sam was there to be the oracle, to guide us along and keep us on track,” says the actor.
In fact, that’s where Esmail will be positioned all season. In addition to serving as creator and head writer for the Golden Globe-winning drama, the 38-year-old creative has taken on the additional challenge of helming all 10 episodes for the show’s sophomore season.
“I am so very specific in how I want to shoot the show and the visual grammar of how I want to tell the story,” explains Esmail. “It’s nothing against our directors in the first season, because they were all great to work with. For me, it feels like it would be easier to manage day to day. I’m on the set every day anyway, and I just think it would make the whole show be more efficient.”
The lone showrunner-director plan is a bit unusual, to be sure — but there’s been nothing formulaic about the hacker drama’s success. “Mr. Robot” exploded onto the TV scene at last year’s SXSW, winning the festival’s audience award, and went on to collect prizes from the Golden Globes and the American Film Institute, as well as near unanimous critical praise. Its ratings established it as the No. 3-watched scripted basic cable drama of the year, behind “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul.” Not bad for a complex, intricately plotted show from a first-time showrunner on a cable network trying to escape its image as the purveyor of cheery “blue skies” content amid a cable landscape otherwise populated entirely by dark, edgy fare.
|Chris Buck for Variety|
“It’s arguably the best piece of television I’ve ever worked on,” says Jeff Wachtel, chief content officer for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment and president of Universal Cable Prods., who’s been developing TV series for 25 years.
For his reward, Esmail gets to do it all over again — with more on his plate.
There aren’t many examples of showrunners who’ve taken on what Esmail aims to accomplish. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”; Steven Soderbergh has helmed all of Cinemax’s “The Knick.” But neither wore the showrunner hat as well. It’s a more familiar model overseas: Hugo Blick wrote and directed all eight episodes of last year’s BBC’s “Honorable Woman.” But that’s a limited series — not a recurring drama.
Esmail comes from the world of independent film (his first project was 2014’s “Comet”), and he’s approaching “Robot” with that mindset. In fact, he conceived the work as a feature — it was only when he set out to write it that he realized it needed the breathing room of a TV series.
Episodic television-making, he argues, is highly inefficient. If he’s filming at a given location for four different episodes with multiple directors, he’d have to keep going back. But if he’s the sole director, he can accomplish what he needs in just one visit to the location.
“I’m not here to say that I want to change the TV industry,” Esmail says. “For shows that are hyper-serialized, it just seems to make more sense to follow a feature film model than follow a television model, which was set up more for a procedural type of show.”
So for the second season, he proposed to his bosses at USA and UCP, the studio that produces “Mr. Robot,” to let him do just that, and produce the show like a feature.
Executives at the network and studio admit they were taken aback by his request. “Of course, it was very scary,” concedes USA’s Alex Sepiol, senior VP of original scripted programming, who developed the show. “It was definitely risky and ambitious to arrange the schedule. But it seemed like the process that was going to best support him, so after much discussion, we agreed to do it.”
|“For shows that are hyper-serialized, it just seems to make more sense to follow a feature film model than follow a television model, which was set up more for a procedural type of show.”|
Their caveat: He’d have to have all the episodes written before cameras rolled, a true rarity on any series.
The result is an incredibly tight, intricately planned production schedule. Esmail will direct during the week, block-shooting the episodes in three- and four-episode chunks, and edit on weekends. There are two hiatuses built in for a bit of breathing room, but he has to deliver finished episodes soon after they wrap in time for a summer premiere. Efficient though it may be in a storytelling sense, Esmail’s shoot-it-all model puts the pressure squarely on him. “Sam’s an incredibly ambitious guy,” says Sepiol. “If anybody can pull it off, it’ll be him.”
This isn’t the first time Esmail has made an aggressive request of his bosses. Back in the first season, recounts Wachtel, Esmail asked to direct the second episode. Wachtel told him he was crazy. “With all our experience, we said, ‘You have no idea the stuff that’s going to be coming at you as a first-time showrunner. Everybody’s going to need you; nothing’s going to be happening until you sign off on it.’ ” But Esmail argued his case forcefully. He produced eight shooting drafts (the studio had asked for six). They gave him the green light.
“His extraordinary work ethic has made this possible,” says Wachtel. “I think he’s got what you need in that position, which is a real arrogance of vision but the skill set to bring others into the mix so that they can execute to the best of their ability.”
Esmail admits he’s learned to lean on those around him to help execute his vision, including his writers’ room; his director of photography, Tod Campbell; and his producing partner and manager at Anonymous Content, Chad Hamilton. “I feel I don’t have to be as intense as I was last season,” he says.
USA president Chris McCumber has no doubts that Esmail will deliver the goods. “Sam is an auteur,” he proclaims. “You place your trust in someone when they produce results.”
“Mr. Robot’s” production has moved from Silvercup Studios in Queens to Broadway Stages in Brooklyn this season, but the surrounding Greenpoint neighborhood would seem to suit the show’s protagonist, Elliot Alderson (played by Rami Malek). There’s little sign of corporate America or the 1% — the show’s ostensible antagonists — in the neighborhood of apartment duplexes and tiny row houses, aged-looking bars, tattoo parlors and health food stores with bundles of dried sage burning just outside the door. It somehow seems appropriate to the series that there’s a Cafe Grumpy right across the street from the studio.
Behind the studio’s heavy metal doors, the brick walls and well-worn wooden floors lend an art-studio vibe to the production offices. A good natured short-haired dog named Willow — who belongs to Vanessa in accounting — wanders freely through the space, generating smiles and pats on the head.
But it’s all business when it comes to enabling Esmail’s tight schedule. “Shooting in this way, it would be a colossal failure if we weren’t all prepared,” says Malek. Everyone had to be on board for extreme advance prep, actors included.
Instead of doing week-by-week table reads, the stars had a marathon six-episode read in one setting that lasted more than six hours. A second session covered the final four scripts.
|“If you have someone who writes as visually as he does and talks to the actors as well as he can, it complements all of our work,” says Rami Malek, left, with Christian Slater, of Sam Esmail. Courtesy of USA Network|
“I’ve been blown away by the writers’ and Sam Esmail’s ability to prepare,” says Slater, who was so in awe of the phone-book-sized script that he tweeted a photo of it.
Before cameras rolled, Esmail called each of the actors and talked them through the arc of their characters for the entire season. “He’s been great about getting us all on the same page,” Slater says. “It’s a very mysterious show. I think it would be that much more difficult if the actors were in the dark as well.”
Esmail says he can’t imagine working any other way. “I consider the cast — each of them — as co-creators of that character, because they have to live it, they have to breathe it … they have to dream it. It’s foolish for me to keep anything from them.”
The cross-storyboarding is intense: The production is working on scenes of everything from episode one to episode nine right now. Fortunately, Elliot’s standard wardrobe of black hoodie and jeans makes it a little easier for his character, continuity-wise.
Malek prefers to have Esmail behind the camera, he says. “It gives me a lot of latitude in the choices I make. I love to do drastic things at times. In the hands of someone who doesn’t know the character as well as he does, I might feel less inclined to take those chances. He can rein me in if he needs to, or push me even further.”
What’s also key for Esmail is capturing a distinctive look for the series; he talks extensively about coverage — or, frankly, the lack thereof.
While most TV shows will do various shots of a given actor, Esmail strives to offer a different visual perspective. “I don’t cover my scenes,” he says flatly. “We approach it visually. Sometimes we go out of our way to do awkward blocking, so that we can tell whatever the emotional heartbeat is of that scene in the most interesting way possible.”
Esmail acknowledges the pressure is on for season two.
“The first season’s critical acclaim and the response gave us a lot of confidence, but it’s almost like the pressure kind of cancels it out,” he says. “I’m back to square one, which is exactly where I think we should be in terms of approaching the story for the second season.”
He’s keenly aware that keeping up the narrative tension will be a challenge. The first season hinged on a big reveal — or two — but now audiences may be trained to expect them. “I’m honestly not tricking anyone,” he says. “I don’t want to trick anyone. I want people to feel the reveals and have the reveals impact them in a way.”
New cast members — Grace Gummer, Craig Robinson, Joey Badass — will expand Elliot’s world, as the show deals with the consequences of the events of the big hack that took place in the finale. We’ll also learn more about Portia Doubleday’s and Carly Chaikin’s characters.
But from the day he first pitched the pilot, Esmail had a detailed bible and an end date in mind, with no more than five seasons. “USA is very supportive of the fact that I know how to end it, and we’re going to end it when it’s right,” he says.
But for now, he’s happy exactly where he is, doing exactly what he wants.
Slater recounts watching Esmail on set as Badass was filming. “It was so nice to see Sam looking at the monitor,” he says. “He had the biggest grin on his face. He was just joyful.”
Cynthia Littleton and Laura Prudom contributed to this story.