For Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot Was Just the Start of Exploring the Perils of Technology

The creator is turning his lifelong fascination with, and fear of, tech into riveting television

Sam Esmail spoke with Adweek about ending Mr. Robot, his plans for Battlestar Galactica and why he finds technology 'horrifying.' - Credit by Christie Hemm Klok for Adweek
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Key insights:

The critically adored drama Mr. Robot wasn’t a science-fiction show—despite its title—yet it was one of the best series ever to tackle technology and its terrifying central role in our lives. And now that the USA Network series wrapped its four-season run last December, creator Sam Esmail is ready to tackle the topic again.

Esmail’s next big project is a reimagining (he hates to call it a “reboot”) of Battlestar Galactica—which was first a ’70s series and then, ahem, rebooted as a much-loved Syfy series in 2004—for Peacock, NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service. (He’s also working on several nontech-themed projects via his overall deal with NBCUniversal’s UCP, including the USA anthology series Briarpatch and Season 2 of Amazon’s Homecoming.)

Christie Hemm Klok for Adweek

Esmail spoke with Adweek about ending Mr. Robot (and whether it’s truly over), that time he tried to take on AOL with his own internet startup, his plans for Battlestar Galactica and why he finds technology simultaneously fascinating and “horrifying.”

Adweek: Are you going through withdrawal now that Mr. Robot is over?
Sam Esmail: I’m going through extreme relaxation.

Now that you’ve had a little bit of distance from it, what are your thoughts on wrapping it up?
Making the show was near and dear to my heart, but it was quite exhausting. It was like running a marathon, but sprinting the entire time. I was surrounded by talented writers and crew members, and the cast was unbelievable, but I’m glad we were able to finish the story the way we intended it. I’m glad for my sanity that I could take a breather and relax for a couple of months.

You had said you’d known almost from the beginning how the show was going to end. Did those final episodes match up with what you had planned all along?
Lucky enough, we were able to build toward that original ending I had in mind. I give a lot of that credit to the writers room that we had over those four seasons. They helped me ground the world and explore the characters in interesting ways without losing sight of the endgame to the story. We were pretty disciplined about not straying too far off the path.

Even when we went into this fourth season, there was that temptation to just keep going and invent tangential storylines to add another season’s worth of episodes, because we really did love the world and we loved working with each other. But we knew that we had our endgame in mind from the beginning, and we thought the respect that we had for the story was much greater than any temptation to hang out in this world any more than the story allowed for us. So we stuck to what we originally planned.

 

So it was completely a story decision to end the show, and not a case of Rami Malek’s career taking off or you wanting to focus on your other projects?
In fact, it was quite the opposite. I think everybody, including Rami, would have wanted to keep going. It was ultimately my call where, for all the reasons I just gave, it was time to close the curtain on the Mr. Robot chapter. I’ve loved a lot of television shows in my life where I’ve seen them go on for longer than they should, and that’s something we never wanted for this show. It was a hard decision, but we felt it was the right one.

In this new TV world, nothing is really ever done, and shows are constantly getting rebooted or revived. Could you see yourself revisiting the Mr. Robot characters again at some point down the road?
No, the story of Elliot and Mr. Robot is completed. That’s one of the reasons why we ended it when we ended it, because we did not want to come up with excuses to keep the story going. I can definitively tell you that the Elliot Alderson/Mr. Robot journey is over.

How are you approaching this new iteration of Battlestar Galactica?
We’re still in the early stages, so there’s not much I can go into, but it’s a project that’s near and dear to my heart. When I found out that this was even a consideration, I reached out to Ron Moore [who oversaw the acclaimed ’00s Syfy reboot] right away because I’m such a huge fan of his show and I, a) wanted to get permission and b) wanted to understand what wasn’t going to be allowed [in my version]. We had a very lovely conversation. He was very encouraging, and we were both on the same page that this was not going to be a rehash of what he had already done so masterfully. I was going to explore a new story, a new mythology, and that’s where I’m at right now. I’m still figuring that out. With a project like this, and a title like this and with what Ron Moore did, which was so timely and relevant to when it came out, there’s a lot of things to consider. I never wanted to even go down the path of Battlestar unless there was something very relevant and vital to what we want to say about the world today. We’re still formulating what that is.

So same world, but different characters and different stories?
Yes.

Will there still be Cylons in this iteration?
Yes!

How will technology be a part of this new version of Battlestar?
That’s the trick, with what has changed from the early 2000s to now that might make opening up the world of Battlestar relevant in a different context. We’re talking about technology and the way it’s grown in the past 20 years, but also AI and the effects it’s had on our society—and the effects that it may have in the near future. That, to me, is probably the biggest imprint on our conversations about how we want to re-approach Battlestar.

Tech has been intertwined with your life from the very beginning. As a kid, you came up with ideas for software but didn’t have the patience to actually write that code out. What were your best ideas from back then?
Well, I had a failed internet startup, which I thought was a brilliant idea back then! In the late ’90s, if you recall, AOL was the company. It was bigger than Apple and it was definitely the company to beat—in the internet space, at least. And I thought the key to AOL’s success was that dialer. Back in the dial-up days, I remember it being so easy to use: You just launched the AOL software, you clicked log in and it dialed in and it told you your email. It had your buddy list and you had your web browser within there, and it was all kind of all in one.

So I decided, I’m going to develop that software and license it to the other ISPs that were competing with AOL at the time, which were EarthLink and MindSpring, even AT&T. [Laughs] Of course, I didn’t realize that by the early 2000s, broadband would essentially make dial-up a null-and-void, moot point. My idea went away—and, of course, AOL sort of went away, too.

If that era hadn’t gone bust, do you think you would have stayed in the tech space and never made your way to Hollywood?
I don’t remember who said this, but I never wanted to make movies for money. I wanted to make money so I could make movies. I always remembered that even if I had this internet idea or this tech idea or coded something I could sell, it was always so that I could actually make movies for a living. Because I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 8. Movies just happened to be a very expensive paintbrush, and you need money—at least at the time you did; maybe nowadays it’s gotten a little cheaper. It was always going to be a daunting task to break into the industry. So for me, the goal of anything I was doing in my 20s with tech was always just to finance my future endeavors in the film industry.

A lot of your projects, including Battlestar, have involved what enthralls you—and also maybe what scares you—about tech. How has that become such a major part of your work so far?
I’ve tried to psychoanalyze myself. There’s always been this fascination with tech that I’ve had since I was 5 or 6 and I got my hands on my first Commodore. I’ve always been fascinated by the power it has. Maybe in the beginning it was just viewed as this tool that a person can use, but as we started to get into the years of the internet—well, the public internet through schools—I started to realize that anything that powerful, especially a tool like that, in the hands of so many people, could be quite dangerous. For whatever reason, it was always presented in this comical way. I remember when I saw [the 1983 Matthew Broderick film] WarGames as a little kid, thinking, That’s horrifying! I know the movie was successful and everybody loved it, but they didn’t take it seriously. People thought that was fantasy.

Later, when Terminator came out, there were evil robots, and that’s what AI turned into. But to me, the horrifying thing is they’re not going to need killer robots with guns to annihilate us. The horrifying part is way more insidious than that. What intrigued me was that as technology exponentially grew, it became more and more of a blind spot. I still think it’s more of a blind spot than people let on.

You’re also working on several other projects through your Esmail Corp production company, which has the first website I’ve encountered where you have to scroll up, and not scroll down, to explore more of the site.
I’m never easy when it comes to anything that we do at the company. I think anybody who works at Esmail Corp can probably attest to that. Like you said, the thought of putting up a website is pretty straightforward: You put up your projects, you put up the press. For me, I always took it as a storytelling opportunity. We’re supposed to be a production company that specializes in how we’re going to tell stories, no matter what the platform is. So even if the platform is a web page and we are just telling the story of our company, what is the most creative and inspiring way to do that? I’ve got to give credit mostly to our website designer, Devona, who essentially came up with this idea. I gave them some direction, but they took it and ran with it.

At the end of [Mr.] Robot, they had pitched: What happens at the end of Robot? What happens with the building of the entire website? We have a tall skyscraper that was modeled after E Corp [the evil conglomerate featured in the series]. Now that the show is over, what happens if that building crashes and burns? And over time, as we get closer to the Briarpatch premiere, [what if] the hotel from Briarpatch builds back up again? We tell the stories in a vertical way where if you keep going up through the sky and up to space, you end up right back into hell—which is back at the bottom, back at the [start of] the website. I thought that was a really creative way to display a production company.

You’re doing a scripted podcast for UCP Audio. Beyond that and the other TV projects, are there other areas you want to branch into with Esmail Corp?
Essentially, any platform where we can tell stories in an interesting way, we are exploring. Look at Mr. Robot. After the first season, someone came to us about potentially doing a VR film for the show. Whenever these marketing opportunities came up for the show we were excited, but at the same time, we didn’t want to use them as simply marketing opportunities. We thought that could be another way to tell a story within that world, which we couldn’t tell in the television show. So we did the VR film and then we also did this book that was Elliot’s book from Season 2, his journal while he was in prison.

We’re very excited about the podcasts, but with new media, I can’t even sit here and predict what other platforms and formats are coming out, and playing with time and interactive media and how all those things will come out. It will all depend on the story you’re trying to tell, and that again should be first and foremost. We’re just going in every arena possible.

This story first appeared in the March 16, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: March 15, 2020 https://stage.adweek.com/tv-video/for-sam-esmail-mr-robot-was-just-the-start-of-exploring-the-perils-of-technology/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT
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