SXSWorld November 2015


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1 8 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M dward Snowden and Matthew Weiner are big fans. More than three million people watched its pilot on digital platforms before the June broadcast. Within four months, the entire first season had generated more than 12 million views on VOD alone. Way back in March, however, Mr. Robot was just a myste- rious new show about hackers. That was when the USA Network show world premiered during the SXSW Film Festival as part of the Episodic section, where it eventually won the Audience Award. "We were shocked and thrilled," says Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, currently at work on the second season. "It was awesome." In retrospect, the immediate endorsement makes a lot of sense, since Mr. Robot speaks to topical concerns surrounding the abuse of technology with a premise baked in suspense. The show features Rami Malek as tech-sav v y introvert Elliot, who works at a New York cybersecurity firm. Meanwhile, he gets steadily invested in the antics of a scrappy hacker group that congregates in Coney Island, where he's taken under the wing of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), an endlessly scheming character whose own origin story is a late-season surprise. The jittery rhythms and subjective storytelling—most of the time, we're trapped in the drug-addled Elliot's mind—plays like a cyber- punk update to David Fincher's Fight Club. That's intentional. "I watched Fight Club about 20 thousand times," says Malek about his preparation. "Getting into Elliot's mindset is my favorite thing to do." By the end of the first season, Mr. Robot has deepened Elliot's own aspirations as a hacker intent on targeting powerful corporate enti- ties while throwing his entire world into chaos, but many of those ingredients are set in motion with the very first episode. The sense of intrigue surrounding Evil Corp—the company that hires Elliot even as he secretly plays a role in plans to destroy it—points to a net- work of conflicting interests that would continue to play out in later episodes. Sensing that potential, the USA Network made the pilot available across multiple VOD platforms just weeks after SXSW, and greenlit a second season long before the start of the first. "I knew it would have a cult following, but I didn't think it would be as big as this," says Malek. For Esmail, however, the fully realized world of Mr. Robot reflects the self-contained narrative he initially set out to write. When he started, Esmail intended to turn Mr. Robot into a fea- ture-length film. Having already directed the sci-fi romance Comet, starring Justin Long, Esmail intended Mr. Robot as his follow-up. However, he realized the story needed more room to grow. "I real- ized it was too long-winded for a film," he said. "I've always had a clear vision for the series, and we're working toward that same finale and end game." The first season, he added, is "really just the first act of my movie." Part of the appeal of Mr. Robot has been enhanced by its connec- tion to real-life circumstances. "I was surprised and excited about it," says Slater. "The subject of hacking has certainly become more and more of a relevant subject in our society—great for the show, but a little scary to be living in a world where these things are happening." For Malek, getting inside Elliot's headspace has enhanced his own paranoia about using technology. "It's honestly making me a bit more guarded about what I share with everyone on the various devices in my life," he says. "The upside is that it's made me more of a people person." But even if the fears strike a familiar note, it's not so easy to parse every twist in Mr. Robot. While Elliot has the power to figure out per- sonal details from everyone around him with a few keystrokes, he's not so clear on his own background, which sets the stage for a series of revelations. "It was tough," says Malek. "I had to stay tight-lipped on essen- tially everything for the whole series, which is easier said than done." For Slater, on the other hand, knowing the direction of the series made him more confident about the role. "I felt fully prepared and excited for Sam's out-of-the-box thinking," he says. Esmail says that he assumed viewers would figure out many of the twists in Mr. Robot before they arrived. In an era of digital scrutiny and online conspiracy theories, it is not so easy to surprise people: "I wanted us to be with Elliot as he processes this huge realization." Still, a few moments caught even devout audiences by surprise. "There's an element to the show where characters can't be underes- timated," Esmail says. "As long as we continue to dive deep into their psychology, I think there will always be intriguing surprises." Plus, according to Esmail, the saga has just begun. "There is still a great deal of story left to tell about Elliot's journey," he says. "We're going to stay true to that until we reach its conclusion." T Sam Esmail, Rami Malek and Christian Slater will take part in the "Coding on Camera: MR. ROBOT & Authenticity on TV" panel, which will be part of the Convergence: Future of Entertainment programming at SXSW 2016. Mr. Robot: Episodic Favorite Finding Loyal Audience by Eric Kohn Re m i M a l ick( L) a n d Ch ri s t i a n Sla te r a n s we r q u es t io n s a t t h e M r. Rob ot Wo rld Pre m ie re d urin g SX S W Fil m 20 1 5 E T R AV I S P. B A L L

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