Sam Esmail, creator of the hacker series ‘Mr. Robot’, talks about the hacktivist and cult origins of his show.
Image: Peter Kramer/USA Network
What if Bruce Wayne were a Silicon Valley stooge by day and a crusading hacktivist by night? And what if Mr. Wayne didn't need hardware and muscle at all, but a computer, wifi and the passion to change the world one keystroke at a time?
That is the central conceit of USA Network's new show Mr. Robot, in which cybersecurity engineer Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) finds himself recruited into a mysterious anti-corporate hacktivist outfit called fsociety, led by the equally enigmatic Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Written and directed by Sam Esmail, who also wrote and directed Comet, the series follows the antisocial, morphine-addicted cyber vigilante Elliot as he's tasked with taking down one of the biggest Silicon Valley firms in the world, E-Corp, a business that he should be protecting for his cybersecurity firm Allsafe.
Esmail recently spoke to Motherboard about the show's hacktivist and hacker influences. He also explained how cult leaders and Christian Slater's role in Pump Up The Volume impacted the show's narrative.
MOTHERBOARD: When did you first become aware of hackers who had a political or economic ethos? Was there a particular hacker or hacking group that piqued your interest?
Esmail: Anonymous was by and large the first true organized hacker group I read about. Of course you would hear about groups prior to that, but Anonymous was the first group that energized me, that compelled me to learn and study them.
But I would say LulzSec piqued my interest in a very different way, in that they felt like an organized, centralized group. When they were eventually arrested by the FBI, it brought this entirely different criminal dimension to hacking. All of a sudden, it felt like the stakes across the world were raised. Hackers could be very, very dangerous. No, really. I remember thinking this could be the new form of organized crime. The new mafia.
Did you research any early hackers and hacking groups? I'm thinking specifically here of Cult of the Dead Cow and Cypherpunk, the latter of which incubated Julian Assange, for instance. If not, whom did you come across in your research?
I must have Wikipedia'd every hacker group that I could read about, including Cult of the Dead Cow and Cypherpunks. In fact, if you look closely at the names of our games in the fsociety arcade, we threw a shout out to a lot of these groups. I also watched a lot of documentaries—and not just about hackers, but anyone in technology. It was more important to me to see, feel and hear the people that live in this culture than it was to just fixate on hackers specifically.
What was one of the more influential documentaries you watched?
One of the more inspirational documentaries I watched was called TPB AFK, about the Pirate Bay founders. I'm not sure you can classify them as "hackers" in the conventional sense, but they were such fascinating techies with a real passion for what they believed in and an anti-establishment, revolutionary spirit that I wanted to instill in Elliot.
I also love the intellectual ego of these guys. I remember what one of the guys said in regards to the government trying to shut them down: "What are they going to do? They've failed taking the site down once. They're welcome to come and fail again." There's something awesomely renegade about that.
Was LulzSec hacker Jeremy Hammond an inspiration for Mr. Robot at all? He was not only a hacktivist, but a straight up activist. Never worked for a Silicon Valley corporation but certainly could have given his talent.
I would say that the Mr. Robot character was more inspired by cult leaders—David Koresh [leader of the Branch Davidians, who died in an FBI raid] being a popular one that Christian and I would discuss. The popular hacker leaders never felt right when it came to Mr. Robot and how his dynamic with Elliot would unfold. His character needed to be more about emotional manipulation versus intellectual.
How did you approach giving Mr. Robot and fsociety political and economic complexity? As someone who has covered hacking, the media and politicians relentlessly attempt to marginalize these figures and groups by casting them as the equivalent of terrorists.
The one thing in common with a lot of hacking groups is anger. Anger at the status quo, of the ones in power who they deem abusive. They also have a lot of confidence and can level entire companies with pure intellectual skill. That takes a lot of bravado and ego.
I think the combination of anger and ego can turn into some explosive drama. I had to find a way to make that compelling as opposed to grating, and that's a delicate dance. No one wants to be yelled at by a bunch of angry narcissists. But I found that when I kept it human, anger doesn't necessarily come off as a negative emotion. In fact, it's a very necessary one sometimes to bring about justice. By taking that approach, it made following these morally questionable actions not only tolerable but human and compelling.
How did you pull this off as a storyteller?
I [knew] I had to be just as fearless and egotistical as these characters. We had to completely embrace their dogmatic world. We name names, we get political—our storyline is about economics for fuck's sake!
Usually, shows tend to hide behind fake brands, stay neutral on politics, pick easier consumable stakes for fear of over-complicating or polarizing an audience. And perhaps we have polarized our audience, I don't know. But I would revert back to my previous answer which was we always tried to find the human element in all of our character's choices. This could never be about plot, it always had to be about people.
So many fans of the show have come up to me admitting they have no fucking clue what's going on but they love the show. I think that's a testament to how real the characters feel, which in large part is credited to our tremendous cast. But to me, it was never a debate to make the show in any other way—this was just a necessary risk in telling this story right. Why bother telling it if we were going to be scared of that? Otherwise, I should scrap it and write an infosec sitcom (which I still might do!).
And your thoughts on some hackivists being labeled "terrorists"?
The word "terrorism" gets tossed around a lot when there's a threat people don't quite understand. It's not unusual, as it's a great way to oversimplify one's fears and reduce anxiety. But the label is about as useful as calling them "the bad guys".
I think casting Christian Slater as Mr. Robot was a stroke of brilliance. He can bring nuance to a role; and, of course, I'm thinking here of his zeal in Pump Up The Volume as a mysterious pirate radio host. What did you guys discuss when mapping out his role?
I threw out a lot of references to his own work in Heathers and Pump Up The Volume—both characters I loved growing up. In our show, Mr. Robot has motivations that are constantly being hidden from the audience. That is always a risky proposition for an actor, because it's hard for an audience to engage with a character when you don't know what they're really about. That usually requires a specific kind of charm to pull off—or, in my opinion, that usually requires a Christian Slater.
I remember wondering if people were going to be thrown off by the fact that it's Christian Slater sitting there in the subway talking to Elliot. And then I remember thinking, "That's exactly what I want." He has that type of allure, not just because of his star quality, but in his energy. He can't help but be magnetic. I think the rule of thumb is we tend to write big with the knowledge that Christian would play against it. That balance kept us in this interesting space that you asked about: Mr. Robot as a human being and ideological symbol.
As for Elliot, why did you decide to make him antisocial and morphine-addicted? The latter I can dig, because we all have our addictions. But the antisocial personality seems to fit with how the media and politicians portray hackers. Did that worry you at all?
I've always imagined Elliot as being severely antisocial as that represents my reality and that of the people I grew up with in this culture. The irony of a character that can't connect with people in the real world while knowing the intimate details of everyone around him was something I thought would be interesting to explore. But these character traits (including the morphine addiction) came from a desire to reflect my real experiences and nothing more. The fact that it may or may not align with a stereotype was something I didn't let sway me one way or the other. I think if you always write a character from a place of authenticity, you'll always transcend tropes even if that is the popular perception.
What are your thoughts about hacktivists? And do you think in the future they—inspired by WikiLeaks, Cypherpunks, Hammond, Anonymous and others—will upend the political and economic order?
Activism, in general, is almost necessary when you want to bring about justice or change in society. The added complication that hacktivism can throw into the equation is that it may (and often does) require illegal activities, which can quickly turn this all into a murky ethical debate.
However, wars like the American Revolution would have never happened if it weren't for the specific decision to break what they deemed unfair laws. And let's face it, sometimes that is the only path to justice. Even Snowden's actions—whether you disagree with him or not—led to some startling and relevant revelations about our government's surveillance programs that otherwise may not have happened had he not broken the law.
So, historically, these complicated, extreme measures are often at the heart of any dramatic change to political and economic order. That's my long-winded way of saying my thoughts on hacktivism is that it's ethically complicated, but sometimes necessary for justice to prevail. Can it lead to a massive change in society? It already has, and will most certainly continue to do so because all it really requires at the end of the day is a computer, wifi and one passionate person with a drive to make a difference in the world.