When I speak to Sam Esmail, he’s about to wrap filming on season one of Mr Robot, his breakout hacker drama, which has been going down a storm in the US since it premiered in June. Along with second season renewal, due to its success Esmail has been signed up for a major deal with Universal Cable Productions (part of NBCUniversal). But while we may have to wait a while for Mr Robot to reach our shores, his debut feature, Comet, has recently been released in the UK.
Starring Justin Long and Emmy Rossum, who is also Esmail’s girlfriend, Comet is an ambitious love story told via a deconstructed five-act form. The action jumps back and forth through time and the key moments of an on-off relationship between Dell, a super-bright pharma genius, and Kimberly who meet during a meteor shower at Hollywood’s Forever Cemetery.
Esmail explains that his ambition was always to direct, but that in Hollywood without money it’s difficult to get a break. "The cheapest thing for me to do was to write something." So he sat down and penned what was initially a more conventional tale: "I’d written Comet linearly, in five long scenes, so it felt more like a play than a film." But then he went through a break up of his own, "… and that kind of inspired the whole non-linear form of it. I started remembering different parts of the relationship. The good times and the bad and all the things in the middle, the what-ifs… So all these things kind of hit me."
What’s most striking about the film is that via the strong lead performances and structural games the story engages with love’s timelessness, its present tense running in our minds, in a unique way.
"Conventional wisdom is that no one wants to watch a break-up movie because it’s not entertaining enough. Heartbreak is much more universal than happily ever after. The question was, could we make something cinematically authentic out of something that is way more universal?"
Initially Esmail comes across as very practical; he seems unwilling to wax lyrical about the creative process and talks a lot about money. Referring to Dustin Hoffman’s comment that films are the worst they’ve ever been and TV’s where it’s at, Esmail explains "Honestly I think we would have got less money to do a feature film than we did just to do the pilot of Mr Robot."
Yet his writing shows him to be far from the cynical Hollywood guy. He’s interested in the metaphysical spaces where we exist and the problems we have anchoring those spaces to a communal sense of reality. Thus we go from the "parallel universe" of Dell and Kimberly’s love story to Mr Robot’s fascination with the non-physical space of the web as a reflection of our inner lives.
Rami Malek as Elliot Anderson in Mr Robot.
Both feature a young male protagonist who is super-geeky, hyper-intelligent, yet has difficulty communicating on an emotional level. When I ask Esmail why he’s so drawn to this character he laughs,
"There’s a definite reason for that and that is I definitely have that flaw. My characters tend to always be thinly veiled versions of me. The whole lack of connecting with people […] I can write that really well. I really understand it and find it compelling. And in the context of our modern day luckily enough for me it kind of fits thematically with what’s going on in society, especially when you think about it in terms of technology."
In Mr Robot we meet Elliot (played just right by Rami Malek), a young man working for a cyber security company who struggles with mental health issues and a drug habit. Whilst barely functioning socially he’s very good at reading people both in person and via the data traces they leave online, because that’s what he is too – a hacker.
In the opening scenes we see him playing God: outing a dark web user and sorting out a bad apple from the life of his therapist (whom, amusingly, he analyzes a lot better than she does him). His behaviour is a microcosm of the show’s big question: can it be good to have this much control over people’s inner lives via technology? When his skills are noted by the enigmatic figure of Mr Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot is drawn into a group of vigilante hackers seeking to undermine corporate America.
When I observe that Elliot is caught between working for “the man” and fighting him Esmail remarks, "There’s an inherent hypocrisy to Elliot that I find very fascinating. He wants to change the system by hating it – he’s so angry, but anger isn’t necessarily a negative emotion. […]There’s that hypocrisy in all of us."
Esmail is "obsessed with technology" and currently "totally geeking out" over Android 5.1. But he did need to get the experts in for Mr Robot. Its levels of accuracy and realism regarding the fine art of hacking and coding have been widely praised by the techie community.
Perhaps it’s Esmail’s awkward, geeky side combined with his interest in the emotion behind modern loneliness this makes him the perfect man to create a drama that speaks to what is going on right now. Because it’s not just the “weird” techie guy who feels isolated: it’s all of us.
When I ask him if he thinks the way we use the web makes us more robotic or more darkly human, after some discussion he decides on the latter. Our tech lives enable us to connect and yet work against us as an isolating force, they allow us to hide but leave an imprint of our activities we can’t delete. It’s both democratic and darkly controlling, and as Esmail has recognised, we’re all part of that story.