In the era of “peak TV,” few shows have stood out and connected with audiences like MR. ROBOT (USA Network). Rami Malek and Christian Slater have electrified the screen, leaving viewers in constant suspense.
The show’s creator, Sam Esmail, is credited with putting together a writing staff capable of crafting a show that demands viewer’s trust, no matter how many times characters proves themselves untrustworthy – sort of like the banking system MR. ROBOT aims to take down.
We spoke with Writer and Executive Producer Kyle Bradstreet about the Writers Guild Award-winning MR. ROBOT, how he got his start as a writer and what it’s like in the writing room.
How did you get your start as a television writer and how did you get involved with MR. ROBOT?
I was fortunate to befriend and then be mentored by veteran television writer / producer Tom Fontana. I first worked as his assistant while I was churning out off-off Broadway plays, then Tom gave me a shot at writing on his NBC series THE PHILANTHROPIST. I spent the following years working with him on BORGIA (Netflix), COPPER (BBC America) and various projects in development.
In January of 2015, I had the opportunity to read the pilot episode of MR. ROBOT. At the same time, creator Sam Esmail and executive producer Chad Hamilton were reading a play I had written that shared a similar theme and tone. We had a Skype meeting followed by a phone call. Three days later, I was on a flight to Los Angeles to begin writing season one. Quite the whirlwind.
Can you tell me how the MR. ROBOT writing room operates?
As a room, we spend several weeks breaking the season as a whole. Where are our characters coming from and where are they headed? What are the major beats and moments we want to hit? Once we flesh out a sketch of the season, we dive into each episode — breaking its story act by act. When we’ve built an outline for the episode, the writer goes off to write the script while the rest of the staff moves on to the next episode.
We have all ten scripts written and production ready (some already in revisions) before we begin principal photography. In the final weeks of the writers room, we carefully comb through each episode — tracking each character’s arc, various subplots and themes — to make sure they are as strong and tight as can be.
How has the room changed since the first season to the third season, which just convened?
With two seasons behind us, we know where we want to take the story, who our characters are, how they’d act and react to certain events. As a collective group of writers, we’ve developed a shorthand — we’re able to pitch and riff off one another’s ideas with speed and clarity. Overall, I’d say the room is a solid mix of storytelling, laughing, coffee and chaos.
What’s your writing process for the scripts your write or co-write? Do you have a formula for putting together an episode? Do you work from a show bible? Where do you do your actual writing? Do you have a set time for writing? Do you listen to music, need silence, work in a cafe, etc?
When I’m on script for MR. ROBOT, I stick to my regular early morning writing schedule, then I’ll spend the second half of the day in the writers room. That night, I’ll go back to the script again.
As far as a formula, I prefer to write my episodes by character instead of in linear order from the outline. So, I’ll tackle the Elliot (Rami Malek) storyline first, write all of his scenes, and then move on to another character. Once I’ve completed all the scenes, I’ll piece the episode together like a puzzle.
In order to write, I always need two things: espresso and music. I constantly find my writing inspired by music. I’ll hear one lyric that blows me away, and that will be the stimulus for a line of dialogue or even an entire scene.
What kind of boundaries do you set for a character like Elliot, who is an untrustworthy narrator who has trouble distinguishing between who is real and who is a projection from his mental health issues?
We want to push Elliot as far as possible – physically, emotionally, spiritually. But our goal is to never lie to the audience. For example, there’s a reveal in episode six of season two (eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme). But from the first moments of the season, production design, dialogue, Elliot’s actions and reactions all offer a glimpse of the truth behind his unreliable narration. We never hid behind what was to be revealed. Some viewers picked up on it immediately, others didn’t until we gave a full explanation. We hope the experience was enjoyable either way.
What kind of research have you done on hacking/dark net sorry, what is dark net? and mental health issues to feel comfortable writing about these topics? Do you feel a responsibility to be as authentic as possible on the topics you write about or are you comfortable taking artistic liberties?
I’ve read numerous books and am always finding articles that are applicable to both the hacking and mental health issues found in MR. ROBOT. We circulate material in the room when we find something interesting that we might be able to incorporate into a storyline.
Sam has a tech / hacking / coding background, and we have a writer / producer / tech extraordinaire, Kor Adana, who was a cyber security engineer before he moved into television. Between them and our consultants, we strive to make the series as authentic as possible. We’d rather show the true steps of a hack and exhibit an honest depiction of Elliot’s identity disorder – and use those truths to help tell our story – rather than take creative liberties and force something that would ring false.
What’s a scene from MR ROBOT that you felt translated well from the concept to the page to the screen?
There’s an amazing sequence in part one of the season two finale – eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z – in which Angela (Portia Doubleday) is brought to a surreal location to meet Whiterose (B.D. Wong). From the pitch to the first time I read those scenes to the table read to the shoot and to what made the final cut, there were few changes made. I could almost see the scene when we initially talked about it in the room, and what aired was as haunting and intense as I’d imagined.
What role do you think writers can play on set or during pre-production?
I’m of the mindset that a writer / producer should always be on set and involved in prepping the episodes. No one knows the series better — the overall story arc, the reason for a specific line of dialogue, the necessity for specific props or set dressing. On set and in pre-production, I find an open dialogue with actors and crew to be immensely helpful in making the series come to life and keeping the vision of the show consistent.
Kyle Bradstreet does not have any social media accounts. You can follow MR. ROBOT on Twitter at @whoismrrobot.