Tag Archives: Annabel Jones

The future is now

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has become rather adept at predicting future technologies and scientific advancements. With season four coming to Netflix, he and coproducer Annabel Jones reveal the writing and development process behind the anthology series.

The future can often look like a bleak and rather scary place in Netflix’s Black Mirror. That’s why when those in the scientific know tell the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, that he’s unconsciously stumbled upon something they were working on, it terrifies him.

“We don’t really talk to scientists, even though we keep thinking that we should go on some fact-finding mission to Silicon Valley,” says Brooker, who writes and coproduces the hit anthology series.

Charlie Brooker

“So when people whose job is to worry about the future say to me, ‘Yes, you were right about that,’ my only thought is, ‘Oh shit!’”

Yet Brooker has an uncanny knack of getting things right. “I am often surprised when something I’ve written about turns out to be true,” he adds. “Last season, I had one story called Hated in the Nation, which had little bee drones in it. They were terrifying, and it turns out they are real – I didn’t realise until after the show went out.”

The Waldo Moment, which debuted in 2013, foreshadowed both the rise of Donald Trump and Apple’s iPhone X, which allows people to become avatars on their phones.

“Sometimes when we’re doing a story, it resonates with something that’s going on in the real world, but that’s often a coincidence, or it’s accidental, or it’s just because that stuff was in the ether. The Waldo Moment is a good example, where actually it was about Boris Johnson on panel shows but then down the line it became more of a global thing than we probably realised at the time.”

But Brooker is clearly doing something right, and it’s not just his predictions. After starting as a cult hit on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix for season three last year, Black Mirror won two Emmys in September and has rapidly become event television. Its range of often dystopian, sometimes beautiful and always challenging stories means the fourth season, due to land on Netflix this month, is eagerly awaited around the world.

So where does Brooker, a former television reviewer for The Guardian who started his working life writing about games for PC Zone magazine, get his twisted ideas? Instead of reading science periodicals and going fact-finding in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Roundabout, Brooker and his long-time coproducer Annabel Jones (their House of Tomorrow production company is part of the Endemol Shine Group) talk about their everyday fears and then think of ways adding technology to them to make things even scarier.

Arkangel arose from a discussion of fears around parenting

“Often it starts with just a general discussion about something like parenting and then one of us will come up with a ‘what if’ idea and we’ll ping-pong it back and forth,” Brooker explains. “I’ll be trying to think of the worst possible outcome and Annabel will challenge me by saying, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen because…’ and I will say, ‘No, but it would.’ It is at the point where I realise I can’t shut up and Annabel is saying, ‘That sounds horrible,’ that we really think, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”

And then comes the hard work. “Writing can take two or three days, or sometimes a month, and then I hand it over to Annabel, she makes a load of critical marks and find myself getting defensive on every level,” he admits. “Sometimes I end up ripping it up and starting again – that has happened several times – or I just park an idea and start on another.”

If a script does pass the Jones test, there is almost inevitably some kind of rewrite when the director or even the cast come aboard.

The scary parenting idea turned into season four’s Arkangel, which explores what might happen if you could watch your child 24/7 with a sophisticated surveillance tool. The episode was directed by Jodie Foster, who immediately loved the story.

Crocodile stars Andrea Riseborough in a story set in Iceland

“Jodie had lots of thoughts and suggestions so I went back to redraft it,” says Brooker. “We were so flattered to have her on board and, of course, she is someone who understands privacy, who understands being in the spotlight and how you can control your profile in the world.

“Because she was, of course, a child actor she knows how to work with them and it was a pleasure to see her on set working and getting these great performances from the young actors.”

Meanwhile, when movie actor Andrea Riseborough was sent the script for Crocodile, a story set in Iceland in a near future when memories are no longer private, she immediately asked to play a different role, which meant Brooker had to rewrite the script with the lead character as a woman, not a man.

“Basically, the more people there are who get involved, the more flesh is added to the bones,” says Brooker. “Luckily, I find now that when I get to the end I can’t remember what it looked like originally. The finished product has always got so many things I would not have thought of.”

Metalhead stars Maxine Peake and is shot entirely in black and white

When it moved to Netflix, Black Mirror shifted from a three-episode season to six episodes, giving Brooker and Jones the space to push the boundaries ever more, with the duo determined that each story should have a very different feel.

This season sees everything from a satirical Star Trek-style space story in the ambitious feature-length USS Callister (pictured top), starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Miloti, to a short domestic black-and-white tale called Metalhead, starring Maxine Peake, which is just 38 minutes long.

“We feel that we can really explore and push the perception of what the story is without breaking it up,” says Jones, who has worked with her Black Mirror collaborator for nearly two decades. “On Netflix, not only can we experiment with the size and tone of a story but even with the duration. Working like this gives us so much more freedom to tell different stories.”

Since the success of Black Mirror, anthologies have become fashionable once again, as seen recently in another transatlantic collaboration, Electric Dreams, comprising adaptations of short stories by science fiction writer Philip K Dick for Channel 4 and Amazon.

Hang the DJ  focuses on dating in the digital age

However, Brooker says he deliberately avoids watching any competitors. “I think I would probably suffer crippling professional jealousy,” he reveals. “I tend to avoid things that I think might be in the same ballpark if I can, just because I don’t want to be shown up.

“People did tell me to watch [HBO drama] Westworld and [Spike Jonze movie] Her because they were similar to Black Mirror, but I’ve deliberately avoided them. I also don’t want to be influenced by them – they might put me off.

“But it’s flattering there are more anthology shows around. It’s not a format I’ve invented by any means; I nicked it from The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty much the oldest format in television history, but I think the advent of streaming platforms has brought it back into fashion. You no longer have to worry about an audience coming back week on week; it’s all just there in the magic streaming cupboard.”

For someone who conjures such chilling stories about the future, Brooker remains remarkably sanguine about the rise of technology and its impact on humans. He believes we just need to learn how to deal with it.

“You can’t put progress back in a box, that’s the problem – it won’t fit,” he says. “If you’ve ever tried putting an iPad back in a box, you can’t even do that! It’s weird, there’s a bewildering number of technological things we’re having to grapple with at the moment and we have to work out what the social rules are, basically. The closest analogy I can think of is the motor car, which obviously revolutionised transport and was a good thing but it took us a while to learn the rules; to have road signs, to work out road markings.

“We must have had a lot of accidents before we worked out a system of keeping everybody safe. It feels like there’s a hundred different motor cars being invented every week at the moment, that’s the difference, so we’ve got our work cut out. But what are we going to do, go back to xylophones and eating mud? No!”

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The new Black

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has found a new home on Netflix. Can viewers expect more of the same from the dark anthology, or does the new platform mean it’s all change?

The fact that the first face you see in the opening episode belongs to Hollywood’s own Bryce Dallas Howard (pictured above) perhaps tells you all you need to know about the return of Black Mirror.

Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker

Having aired for two three-episode seasons and a Christmas special on the UK’s Channel 4, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series is now exclusive to Netflix, with a bumper run of six episodes landing on the US-based streamer today.

The move to Netflix means a bigger budget for Brooker and co to play with, and this is visible from the off.

As well as Jurassic World star Howard, debut episode Nosedive, seen by DQ, also features fellow Hollywood actor Alice Eve (Star Trek: Into Darkness) and UK heartthrob-of-the-moment James Norton (Happy Valley, War & Peace), while familiar faces in other episodes include Game of Thrones duo Jerome Flynn and Faye Marsay.

But for the team behind Black Mirror, the biggest difference has been the increased freedom offered by the show’s new home.

“Anthology shows like this have been waiting for a platform like Netflix to come along,” says creator and exec producer Brooker. “We don’t have cliffhangers; we don’t have recurring cast members or characters. Shows that reinvent themselves every week have struggled in the ratings.

“On Netflix we can put the whole thing up and it’s kind of like a short story collection. We have effectively got a bigger canvas and we’re not constrained by ad breaks or running times. One of our episodes, Hated in the Nation, is kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir. It’s 90 minutes – it’s like a movie! We could do two-hour episodes or two-minute episodes.”

Fellow exec producer Annabel Jones echoes Brooker’s sentiment. “Netflix loved the show and stepped in to commission six films. That allowed us to play out on a bigger campus, take more risks and explore more worlds without destabilising the Black Mirror sensibility. It’s great, and we’ve got another season coming up too,” she says, referring to the six further episodes due on Netflix next year.

Hated in the Nation – 'kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir'
Hated in the Nation – ‘kind of a Black Mirror Scandi noir’

In addition to the acting talent, there’s also a more Hollywood feel behind the camera following the Netflix move. One episode, Brooker reveals, was scored by celebrated feature film composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon), while episodes two and three were directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) respectively.

Helming Nosedive was Joe Wright (Pan), who was already a fan of Black Mirror’s aesthetic before coming on board. “Be Right Back [season two] was one of the most exquisitely shot episodes, and so was Entire History of You [season one],” he says. “They’ve all been very cinematic; they’ve all been beautiful.”

Brooker admits to giving little visual direction in his scripts, and is full of praise for the ability of directors such as Wright to bring his words to life. “Often what happens is we’ve got a script, but what’s not in the script is the whole visual layer. That wasn’t really described at all in the Nosedive script,” he says.

“Joe gave it a level of artistry that is frankly embarrassing. When I first saw the rushes, I thought, ‘This is either going to work or this is mental.’ As soon as I saw it all come together, I was flabbergasted. It was the best possible outcome.”

Annabel Jones
Annabel Jones

Black Mirror’s move to its new home didn’t come without ruffling a few feathers, however. In August, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt criticised producer Endemol Shine Group and the show’s creators for a perceived lack of loyalty to her network.

But Brooker fails to see what all the fuss is about. “It’s quite interesting, let’s put it that way,” he says of the suggestion of bad blood after the deal. “Somebody didn’t come out and wave a cheque and we ran away from Channel 4 towards it. It’s been interesting watching that play out. We still talk to Channel 4 – we’re still friends!”

Leaving the Netflix move and its implications aside, does the new Black Mirror stay true to the show that built a cult following with its nightmarish visions centred on Western society’s ever-increasing reliance upon and obsession with technology?

While the short answer seems to be yes, with Black Mirror continuing to focus on the same themes, Brooker highlights a deliberate move towards “more variety of tone” in the new season.

“Because we’re doing six stories this time round, we wanted to not always fling you into a pit of despair. Sometimes we kick a few hope biscuits at you on your way down,” he says. “Having said that, there are stories in which we do fling you into a pit of despair and then piss on you – because people seem to like that.”

Indeed, while maintaining Black Mirror’s trademark frighteningly believable vision of a world gone a little bit madder, Nosedive stands apart from older episodes thanks to its heavy dose of comedy.

Brooker adds: “This season we were almost imagining we were creating different-genre mini-movies. Nosedive is a kind of poignant satire. We’ve also got a detective movie, an outright horror movie, one is a romance… they’re so different.”

While anthology shows that reset with new stories and characters each season have become increasingly popular in recent years (True Detective, American Horror Story), anthologies like Black Mirror, which does this every episode, are much less common.

One of the most famous examples of such a series is The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1959 and is cited by Brooker as a major inspiration for Black Mirror.

Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis stars in the episode San Junipero
Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis (right) stars in the episode San Junipero

“I’d always loved shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and all the weird and wonderful one-off plays that the BBC used to put on,” he explains.
“It felt like those kind of ‘what the fuck?’ stories didn’t have a place on television anymore.

“Primarily, the intention was to create a show that gave you that frisson you get when you watch something like The Wicker Man, a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone, or [BBC’s 1984 nuclear winter drama] Threads – anything that provokes a strong reaction in people.”

Brooker’s earlier TV writing credits were for comedies such as Brass Eye, The 11 O’Clock Show and Nathan Barley, which he co-created. And perhaps surprisingly, he believes writing dystopian drama requires a similar skillset. “It’s kind of therapeutic – it uses the same kind of muscle as in comedy writing,” he explains. “A lot of our stories are about the worst-case scenario unfolding, which is the same as in something like Fawlty Towers. We know we’ve got a good idea if I’m laughing and Annabel’s going, ‘That’s horrible.’”

So, as someone who is now best known for cautionary tales about the rise of technology, does Brooker truly fear for our future?

“I’m quite optimistic about technology, actually, which you wouldn’t get from the show,” he says. “I like video games. I’m an early adopter of stupid electric toothbrushes and that sort of nonsense.”

If not all-powerful tech, perhaps something else will herald the end of days? Brooker concludes: “If you’d told me at the start of the year that, by October, half our cultural icons would be dead, we’d have voted to leave the EU, Donald Trump would be hovering near the White House – oh, and The Great British Bake Off won’t even be on BBC1 anymore, I’d be digging a fucking bunker!”

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