Warning: This interview contains spoilers for ‘Black Mirror’: Bandersnatch’.
Since its debut at the end of last month, ‘Bandersnatch’ has become the game-changing TV episode that pretty much every Netflix user has had an opinion on.
Part feature-length ‘Black Mirror’ episode, part “choose your own adventure” experiment, part nostalgia trip and part exploration of free will, ‘Bandersnatch’ has already sparked a lot of conversation online, with some people completely enthralled by it, while others wish there’d been a few more positive choices to be made.
When HuffPost UK caught up with ‘Black Mirror’ co-creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, they shared their thoughts on these criticisms, talked us through the production process and looked ahead to the show’s upcoming fifth series (though they were less eager to talk about Miley Cyrus).
First of all, I’ve read that making ‘Bandersnatch’ was a complicated process, how different is the finished product to what you envisaged?
AJ: It’s better!
CB: Ooh. Do you think?
AJ: Yeah. In terms of the interface and the interaction and the elegance of the choice points and how unobtrusive they are, and how sometimes you’re not even aware that they’re coming up.
The key thing that we wanted was for it not to affect the flow of the film, for there not to be any jarring moments where the action stops and you stop caring – where it stops being a film, essentially. So I’m really pleased we managed to achieve that.
CB: Definitely, because from the very outset, that was one of the big things we wanted. I used to be a video games reviewer, and so I remember in the 90s when CD-ROMs came along, and everyone was like, ‘this is the future, interactive movies, here they are!’, and they were, you know, entertaining, but often not as good as the regular versions.
And it was because they were a bit clunky, there was a bit of a pause between scenes and segments. I sort of figured that was always going to be part of it, there’s always going to be a bit of a gap and a bit of a wait, actually that’s been almost completely eliminated [in ‘Bandersnatch’], and it’s fairly seamless.
It’s funny really, we did so much thinking about how much the interface would work, we wanted it to be as simple as possible, but we actually started out wanting it to be completely non-verbal, and that was to do with design, and we didn’t want to have to translate everything. We were going to do little visual cues, but we did a little test and that was fucking baffling, so then we ended up with what was a very simple letterbox format and a little timer. So the finished product was much smoother than I thought it could be.
Are you both pleased with the reaction so far?
CB: Yeah I think so, generally.
AJ: It’s just so satisfying that so many people have engaged with it. It’s very difficult because obviously it’s interactive, and you don’t know the order in which people have played or watched it, but it’s quite daunting letting it go out there and letting people have their own experiences.
You are quite vulnerable, because as filmmakers you dictate the story, and here we are going, ‘experience, go and have an experience’. So that’s obviously terrifying, but I think the fact that people have been so interested and wanted to try it out, that’s all you can hope for.
CB: It’s been interesting that you get different reactions from different people, partly based on what they’re expecting, or what they want. So some people go, ‘oh, I’m shit at this’, and you sort of go, ‘no no, it’s alright, we’ve built in that you’re going to fail’. We’re trying to make you fail a couple of times so that you have to go around and do things again, and that’s sort of baked into the story.
There’s also some people that are like ‘I don’t wanna make decisions’, ‘I don’t want to do any of it’... well fuck off, then. Do something else! And then there’s some people who think ‘oh, it’s too simple as a game’ or ‘games have done this before’ – well this isn’t on a gaming platform, it’s on Netflix. I’m well aware of what a computer game is, thanks.
And equally, some people just want to be told one story, but this is designed where you’re going to experience more than one ending to get a sense of the whole. We don’t expect you to do all of them, it’s just the more you do, hopefully the more fun an experience you’ll have.
AJ: Yeah, and the more sense of Stefan as a whole, and his world, you’ll have.
CB: But generally speaking, it’s been the reaction that you would want. More people have done all of it than I would have possibly thought, because I thought most people would do about 20%. That’s what I kept saying [in grumpy voice] ‘people aren’t even going to see most of this’. I said it in that voice, as well.
Some people have said they’re a little disappointed there wasn’t an option to have Stefan succeed in life, what do you both think of that?
CB: Have they seen ‘Black Mirror’? True… but in a way, because we set up the guy that shows up and gives your game a review, that’s partly there so as soon as you see him give the game one star out of five, you know there’s going to be an ending where you can get five stars out of five. You know that.
But we didn’t want to do an ending where you get that and he’s happy, because that would be the most fucking boring ending there is… in a way, that’s a traditional game. If you watched a film like that you might think it’s a little saccharine by the end.
AJ: But also, that’s not what’s consuming him. He’s mourning a mother, and feeling the guilt that he can’t quite understand because of a decision he made as a child. And so, a lot of this world is about that guilt and the anxiety and him trying to change the past.
So, the game is one thing that he’s trying to create, but what is he trying to do through that game? He’s trying to reconnect with this book that his mother left him, and he’s trying to make amends for a past that he’ll never be able to change. So, the game is there, but emotionally what that game is doing is very different.
CB: Yeah, that’s true. And, there is a bittersweet ending, there’s the ending on the train – we don’t know how many endings we’d class as what, some of them are “main endings”, although we don’t explicitly say that – but there’s an ending on the train, and you don’t have to kill your dad to get there, it’s kind of bittersweet and quite sad and emotional.
That’s the happiest ending, although it does involve a trainwreck, and he’s dead in a psychiatrist’s chair. But other than that it couldn’t be happier!
Other people have said that with a lot of ‘Black Mirror’ episodes it’s very clear what the message is, and what you’re trying to say…
CB: I think those people are wrong! I suppose, sometimes it is. ‘San Junipero’ you’d say, love is transcendent or… I don’t know. But we generally don’t try and put ‘a message’ in. Anyway, I’ve interrupted.
...I was just going to ask, what were you trying to say, or what did you want people to take away from ‘Bandersnatch’?
CB: I suppose, we do try not to go “this is what the message of this story is”, and within this it’s so disparate, deliberately so, that’s almost the point. So it’s a bit ‘Spiderman: Into The Spider-verse’, there’s branches where he discovers he’s an actor in a Netflix show, you can’t have that and put in an emotive story where he dies as a young boy on a train and have one coherent message between the two.
In a way, it’s all to do with the different coherent… I don’t want to sound wanky, it’s not that we sat down and said “let’s write a meditation on storytelling as a thing, shall we? OK…”, that’d be… awful. But it does sort of become that, in that it becomes different ways of telling a story with that as the basic set-up. Some of them are comic, some of them it’s a horror story, some of them it’s a weird fourth wall-breaking meta-fiction…
AJ: …But all holding on to that central conceit…
CB: ...that he’s a guy who becomes aware that he’s being controlled by a thing, which is you, the viewer at home. That’s the central conceit. So there’s not really a message there, there’s lots of, I hope, fun to be had, and there’s bits that are emotive and there’s bits that are sort of interesting, there’s bits that are tongue-in-cheek, there’s bits that are disturbing. So, it’s about the journey, rather than the destination. That sounds like the c**tiest thing I’ve ever said.
Have you had any feedback from Netflix on what are the most popular endings or the choices that people are making?
CB: Not yet! Not officially. But I’ve been more surprised by people saying they’ve done all of it, or they think they’ve done all of it, than I anticipated.
AJ: I think that’s a sign, hopefully, that people have enjoyed it, and want to see what other delights are in there.
CB: Or they can’t believe how much they hate it. And they almost never want it to end.
AJ: Because they want more things to hate. How bad can this be?
CB: But it’s not like Netflix have emailed us a PDF report…
AJ: Why haven’t they?
CB: But it would be interesting to know which endings are most popular. It’d be good if we could go back and add one.
CB: No, I’m joking. There are a couple of bits we cut out, very small bits… we could conceivably go back and add them in for ‘Bandersnatch 2.0’... the Mega-Drive years.
AJ: Shall we not?
Well, Fionn Whitbread has said he was surprised that one choice point involving a potential stabbing was cut, was there anything else that you were disappointed couldn’t make it in?
CB: Yeah, we changed the order of something, and if you chop up the body, sometimes Colin or Tucker would come over and discover you covered in blood. And then you had the choice to confront them then and there on the doorstep. Whereas now they only come round if you buried dad in the garden. Which was a nightmare, because we shot these whole scenes where Fionn was covered in blood, and ultimately didn’t use them.
The one thing that I really wanted to put in, that I really wanted but we didn’t have time to do, was, there’s a bit where Stefan gets a VHS tape and watches a documentary. And I wanted, early on, to do a bit where you got the choice of two video tapes, and one is essential for the story, and the other is just, like, a film that he’s taped off the telly, and you can watch the whole thing. Literally just putting on, and you could watch a whole film, from beginning to end, but at any time you could press a button to stop it. Which we could have done, it would have been great.
AJ: No. No.
On the subject of series 5, I read that you were hoping to inject some more optimism and in future episodes…
AJ: Where have people read this, what have you been saying?
CB: I think it was in the New York Times piece [it was].
AJ: What’s wrong with you?
CB: I think it was a question overall, and he said something like, ‘the whole thing is very bleak and dark’, and I said, ‘but we have hopeful stuff!’.
AJ: Don’t go getting happy…!
CB: Well, have you seen ‘Bandersnatch’? That’s not really hopeful.
No, it’s not...
AJ: Awww, thank you!
CB: I think it’s fair to say we always want as much variety as possible. Some of our most popular episodes, have actually been the optimistic ones, it’s just that if we were only doing optimistic ones, it’d be silly.
AJ: Just because people are so grateful – they’re like, ‘thank fuck, there’s an optimistic one, let’s love this one’.
CB: All that really means is we’ll carry on doing a mix of bleak ones, and optimistic ones, if you took out one or the other, that’d be weird.
And finally, with the past few series of ‘Black Mirror’, you’ve been able to keep everything under wraps, the plot, the cast… so were you a little bit pissed off when Miley Cyrus started blabbing about being in a new episode?
CB: Miley Cyrus? Hasn’t she just got married...?
AJ: Never heard of her.
‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ is now streaming on Netflix.