The Black Mirror creator discusses his interactive film where viewers control the story and drops some hints about the fifth series…
Netflix has produced some breathtaking television since arriving on the scene less than a decade ago, yet the recent one-off episode of Black Mirror could prove to be the biggest game changer of them all. Released with minimal warning or fanfare between Christmas and New Year, Bandersnatch is a film where viewers get the chance to control the lead character’s destiny.
Set in 1984, the tale begins with young computer programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) beginning to question his own sanity as he adapts a sprawling fantasy novel into a video game.
Throughout the film, viewers are presented with binary choices, which send Stefan down different paths and deliver an array of alternate endings. The film’s default running time is 90 minutes, yet to cover all the possible plot eventualities, the cast and crew had to produce more than five hours of footage.
Fionn and his co-stars Will Poulter (The Revenant), Asim Choudhry (People Just Do Nothing) and Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty), had to embrace characters who had no set destinations and very vague arcs, so it’s no surprise to hear Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones say Bandersnatch was their toughest challenge yet..
How did this project start?
Annabel – “We were in Netflix’s shiny offices in LA and they said they had a new capability for interactive storytelling they were exploring. They’d used it for kids programmes but wanted to do an adult version and thought Black Mirror would be the perfect place to try it. We said we’d think about it, but we said ‘no way’ to each other when we walked out because we thought it would feel like a gimmick. Like something you were forcing on to a story.”
Charlie – “Then a few weeks later I came up with an idea that could only be told with that interactive layer. There was joy at the idea and dread at having to do it. There’s only one thing worse than not having an idea and that’s having an idea and having to do it. If we could go back in time I’m not sure if we’d do it again, because it was so difficult. The key part of the tale is when the lead character realises they’re being controlled so the viewer becomes a complicit character in the film, that was a good twist.”
What challenges do you face?
Charlie – “All of it! We got a whiteboard and decided to map out the story with a flow chart. Pretty soon we realised we’d need a bigger whiteboard, so we started using a flow chart app, but then we needed something that remembered what had come before, so I had to learn to use Twine, which is like html software for interactive storytelling. I basically had to learn code – which was an absolute nightmare – and this was before the script had even been written! In the end we had to bring in coders to support us because it was so tough.”
Annabel – “At the same time, we were working with Netflix’s creative support team in Los Gatos and they’re telling us what they can deliver and what they can achieve with their software. The idea that its not a linear story was so new, they weren’t expecting the coding we came up with and we were setting them challenges, which excited them I think. But we didn’t know until the very end if it would deliver and if the platform would support it. The last thing you want is to launch this globally and for it not to work. That’s embarrassing for everyone.”
Charlie – “To start with there were technical constraints where there had to be a certain amount of video playing to cache in the next bits. So we could only have a choice every 90 seconds, but that kept shrinking as they refined things. Originally there had to be little gaps, but now its pretty much seamless, depending on what you’re watching it on.”
It must have been difficult for the cast once filming started…
Annabel – “It was a big challenge for the actors and they all took a risk by getting involved. But they were brilliant and made it work better than we could have hoped. The most important thing was for the viewer to never be pushed out of the film. We knew it had to keep rolling while viewers made a choice, otherwise we’d lose that engagement and you’d see the artifice. To make those links seamless took hundreds of hours of work from some very clever people, but it was worth it. We wanted the characters to keep evolving as viewers made choices.”
Charlie – “This idea has existed in the world of gaming for decades, but this is the first time it’s been done like this and introduced to an audience, many of whom won’t be gamers…”
How long can you see yourselves doing Black Mirror for?
Charlie – “The series is an umbrella under which we can put lots of different things. The episodes are all very different, so as long as we can keep pushing it then I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to keep going. That doesn’t mean we won’t be doing other things at the same time.”
Annabel – “Each season we realise we can take on lots of different things in Black Mirror, which keeps it fresh. It’s also nice to do stand alone ones that aren’t in series… so look forward to the Black Mirror the ballet starring Charlie!”
Charlie – “Are you body shaming me?!”
Annabel – “I just meant you have nice legs!”
Is there any news on series five? Is it coming soon?
Charlie – “It will definitely be coming this year, but we can’t say when or Netflix will shoot us! We were already doing bits of it when we started Bandersnatch and while we were doing it. It’s not like we paused the fifth season to do it, in fact we’d already shot one before we did it. There are a couple of Easter eggs for the fifth season in Bandersnatch though, which no one will know anything about yet, so I may as well have said nothing!”