At the end of last year, the world was stunned when Netflix unveiled a standalone Black Mirror film that enabled viewers to interactively dictate the actions of its lead character.
Titled Bandersnatch, it was creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ most ambitious and technically challenging project yet for the anthology series – not just for them, in fact, but also for Netflix. Indeed, around 250 segments were produced for the film, with the cast – including Fionn Whitehead and Will Poulter – knowing that much of what they were working on wasn’t designed to be seen by everyone (Whitehead confirmed to me they filmed around “five hours” worth of material; the average viewer would see just 90 minutes).
The Independent sat down with Brooker and Jones, who explained the reason behind their initial scepticism over the choose-your-own-adventure format, why one of its big twists was almost scrapped and how an old episode very nearly had its own interactive segment that united many old Black Mirror characters.
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Doing a choose-your-own-adventure took some convincing
Charlie Brooker: Netflix had shown us some of their interactive stuff and asked if we’d be interested in doing an interactive episode. We went, ‘Oh yes, that’s very interesting, thanks for that really great meeting, that’s brilliant, we’ll go away and think about that” and we walked outside and went: ‘No, f*** off. No way.”
Annabel Jones: I think even in the meeting, we were sitting next to them going, “Hmmm, it’s like watching a powerpoint presentation.” I shouldn’t say that, because they’re all very nice.
CB: We thought it was gimmicky and also wondered what the story would be.
AJ: But also technically, they didn’t have the ability then to build the scale that we’d imagined. It was very much “watch that and start again”. You kept coming back to the same starting point.
CB: Yeah, there was always a little loading pause. It wasn’t long, but it was a little gap. It was enough to make you go, “Hmm.” So, we said we’d think about it. Then a few weeks later, we were at Twickenham – where we were based at the time – just chatting about story ideas, and we were sort of spit-balling, to use a c***t’s phrase. We decided we wanted to do an episode set in the past, something to do with retro games. Then we were thinking, is there a story about somebody in the future talking to somebody in the past, because it’s urgent that this game gets created in the style of the Terminator? You know, it’ll save the world. Then we suddenly went: “Hang on, but then what if the person talking to that person is you the viewer, oh yes – using the choose-your-own-adventure tech, and then they become aware that that’s who you are. Because if you say to somebody in the past, I’m watching you on Netflix, that sounds mental.”
AJ: When you’ve gone, “Okay, this is interesting,” then you know from that point you’ve sort of got the film and it’s just all about the detail that follows.
CB: It’s when you get all excited about it and suddenly things click into place that you see what it could be.
The Netflix twist was initially scrapped
CB: We had a conversation where we went, “I like the idea of literally telling him that it’s Netflix,” but then thought it was so silly it would have to just be a comedy. Then, at some point, the penny dropped and we thought we could do both because you want it to feel very different depending on what choice you make. So we made a very self-aware, weird metaphorical wall-breaking weird surreal comedy branch of it, which was originally much more hidden away, actually; it was only going to be only on the second time around.
AJ: With the Netflix twist, the viewer is complicit at this point. The protagonist is aware of the viewer and the viewer’s aware of themselves. And they’re aware of Netflix presenting them with these options, so everyone is playing a role and everyone is complicit. If you feel that complicity, how do you push it and challenge it? You make them murder someone.
They didn’t expect people to discover hidden things so quickly
CB: One thing we slightly underestimated was the number of people going back and seeing more of it than we thought they would. We figured that people would probably see a bit of it and then leave.
AJ: I always hoped that people would keep watching because, if you care about the character you want that sort of resolution. You want to know and guide them through and help them.
CB: There’s an Easter Egg in it where, if you get all the main endings, it then plays credits where there’s a spectrum game that you can download and play. That’s something that we thought people might find out after a couple of months and it was discovered the afternoon it came out.
AJ: Did you see the video on YouTube of the guy that found it first? He made a little video about it!
They intentionally distracted you from the weirder moments
CB: If you go down the Netflix path, you should try something else instead of the judo-chopping when it brings up the fighting scene because that sounds deceptively fun. Try jumping out the window instead. It’s quite bananas.
AJ: Why are we always encouraging people to jump out of windows?
He scrapped a bold Bandersnatch idea because it was too nerdy
CB: I wanted us to do something that was technically possible, but that everyone else said was too nerdy. I wanted to have achievements so that every time you got a different ending, you would get a little thing that would say, “Well done – you found the train ending” or whatever, and it would give you a little badge. I guess I’ll reluctantly say that everyone correctly said that was going to be a bit off-putting to people who just don’t play games and encounter that sort of thing
AJ: It’s just another thing between you and your main character and you don’t want him to feel like he’s an avatar.
CB: But you’d have got the little badges, though.
“Playtest” was almost an interactive episode that would have enabled viewers to unlock nightmare mode
CB: At one point, there was a bit where it was going to explain to him that he was in Black Mirror, but weirdly that was an idea we’d had a while ago. I remember pitching this to Netflix for “Playtest” back in series three, which was one of the reasons they called us in about the interactive stuff. I’d said, “You know what would be great?” and even wrote it. Basically, if you went back to watch the episode a second time, it would have unlocked nightmare mode. In the scene where Cooper, the character played by Wyatt Russell, is going mad in the house, there was originally a bit where he literally discovers he’s a character in an episode of Black Mirror, and he’s told what it is and he’s shown characters from other episodes who are there in the house with him. I literally wrote those scenes and then was like: “F***, that’s gonna be impossible. Let’s not do that.”
He wrote a scene that brought back lots of old Black Mirror characters
CB: So in that scrapped “Playtest” scene, there was a bit where he went in and he saw Victoria Spillane from “White Bear”, and he found himself in one of the rooms from “Fifteen Million Merits”. The other reason we didn’t do it is we thought it was a bit indulgent. It would be a fun thing to do as a promo or something like that, but it was a bit too much, especially in your first series. It would be a bit w***y.
He can see Bandersnatch character Colin Ritman returning in many episodes
CB: I love Colin Ritman [Will Poulter], almost as much as Stefan [Fionn Whitehead]. I can see him coming back in all episodes. He’s clearly the God of the Black Mirror multiverse. He exists beyond time and space. I love the fact that quite early on, [Bandersnatch] director David Slade – Bandersnatch director – was like, “Okay, I’ll trust your judgement on that”. David put a lot of trust in us and had faith in how the network of story parts would work. He was thinking more, as he should do, about the mood and the tone and the individual narrative bits, but quite early on we told him Colin is a transdimensional thing and he was just like “Okay, alright” and just accepted it. On one level, Colin is just a guy ranting, off his head, in a flat. I like the fact he drops acid and shouts a load of mad stuff which happens to be true within the world of Bandersnatch.
“White Bear” was referenced in Bandersnatch due to a crazy coincidence
CB: The White Bear symbol being used as a choice in Bandersnatch came about because, when we were discussing it, at one point we started drawing a flow chart on the wall and it came out as a symbol from White Bear! It suddenly made sense.
His one wish for every single old Black Mirror episode
CB: I would like to go back and give each episode their own individual covers. It’d be cool to go back and slip new things into old episodes. We did notice they’d been remastered in HDR, but that’s not quite the same thing. We’ll go back and make it so that Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) doesn’t f*** the pig. It’ll be a story of national triumph.
Five words to sum up the forthcoming fifth series
CB: [counts on fingers] Coming out later this year.
CB: Unusual, different and…
AJ: Another word that means all of those. Fun.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to stream on Netflix. The fifth series will begin later this year.