As the debate rages about whether a film released on a streaming platform can ever be considered cinema, Netflix this year proved that there was even more to its tech than any traditional TV and film definitions could encompass. When the team behind Black Mirror surprised with “Bandersnatch”—an interactive choose-your-own-adventure tale—the paradigms shifted again. That’s credit to writer and creator Charlie Brooker, and producer Annabel Jones, who rose to the challenge Netflix set them. The streamer had done a limited amount of interactive programming for children and pitched the tech to the Black Mirror team to see if they’d be interested. But as the idea came together for Brooker, it demanded that the tech be expanded into a much more complex beast. It was, Brooker says now, like doing multiple episodes of the show instead of just one.
When you released Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” episode, it marked the arrival into the mainstream of a technology Netflix had applied to children’s programming: an interactive sort of choose-your-own-adventure tale. It was also, simultaneously, a critical twist on the notion of viewer control. What intrigued you about doing this?
Charlie Brooker: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, in that it’s simultaneously kind of new and old. Interactive movies have been around since Dragon’s Lair, which was an arcade game from 1983 that was released on LaserDisc. And there were a lot of CD-ROM movies and things like that in the ’90s; attempts at doing interactive movies.
I think what was different here is that this was foremost a movie, but it was also on a platform that isn’t a gaming platform, and it’s more movie than game. I’ve played a lot of videogames but I’ve never written one, and so there were aspects of creating it that were game-like, but we approached it as though we were writing a film. It was this weird hybrid experience where we had to make up a lot of the rules about how it was working behind the scenes as we went along.
Annabel Jones: When Netflix initially told us they had the capability to do this, and they asked us if we’d be interested in making an interactive film, we said no. We were determined, it was not for us. It might have felt gimmicky, so it wasn’t something we were interested in.
Then, annoyingly, Charlie came up with an idea that could only work if we had that interactive layer, and so suddenly it felt as though we could have our cake and eat it too. We embraced the interactivity, but we also show the viewer that the whole thing can only exist with them interacting, and then becoming conflicted. Everything fed off everything else. So we were fortunate to find an idea that was enrichened by the technology, rather than feeling like an add-on.
Brooker: You say ‘fortunate’, more like cursed. We were cursed to make it.
Jones: Well, yes. I like the idea of us being Disruptors, because this bloody thing was the most disruptive drama that we’ve ever done.
How did you work it all out?
Brooker: It was very complicated from the outset. You can’t even write the outline in a standard way. I was using Twine, which is this interactive fiction programming language that’s a bit like HTML. Luckily, I’m quite geeky. I’m quite dweeby. Maybe writers tend to be, sometimes, but this was uber-geeky even for me. Once we had the flow of the story, I kept adding bits to it, but that would mean adding whole sections, and you couldn’t easily just add a single scene.
It started out as a fairly lonely process, and then the misery and confusion about it slowly started spreading out to affect every single department. The logistical nightmare never ended.
Were you really surprised it would be like that?
Brooker: I think I can speak for both of us when I say we knew it would be challenging. I think what we kept doing was revising up our guesstimate of how challenging it was. Early on, we were going, “I guess this is a bit like doing two episodes at once.” By the end, we realized it was more like doing an entire season in one go. There are five-and-a-half hours of footage on there. It’s a huge undertaking.
But much as it was painful, it was also not as painful as it could have been because the Netflix tech team were incredible at finessing things as we went along. They were creating the tools we were using and kept coming back with improvements. They asked us to push the technology, or to come up with ideas they didn’t think they could quite pull off, and they would work out how to do them. We’d say, “Can we do this?” And they’d never say, “No.” They’d go, “Well, we can’t currently, but we’ll work out if we can find a means of doing that.” Nine times out of 10, they would work out a solution.
Jones: I think the other complication was that, editorially, we set out to try and create something that had a cohesion to it. The character had to be consistent and the endings all had to have a degree of truth to them that would support your understanding of the rest of the film.
If you set that limitation it makes your life hell because discarding it gives you lots of room for choice points with dramatic and diverse turning points. But you’ll end up with a character who isn’t consistent, and the endings will feel meaningless.
Brooker: I think it’s partly why, in the story, Stefan becomes aware that forces are acting upon him and making him do things, because that makes him a separate character from the instruction you’re giving him. Most videogame characters the player controls are, by their very nature, as unpredictable as the players. You could be playing Red Dead Redemption and following the story, or you could spend the entire game kicking pigs to death. What sort of main character is that? So conceptually, I think that aided us.
One of the most important things to me when we started, and the one thing that amazed me when I saw the final version, was that it was seamless. You could play it on your TV and you couldn’t see the join between the branches. That felt like some kind of magic trick. When we went into it, that wasn’t going to be the case. There would have been in a gap as the next section buffered, and we spent a long time working out how to keep the story flowing along.
There’s a debate raging at the Cannes Film Festival, and within the motion picture Academy, about what constitutes film and what constitutes television in the era of streaming. “Bandersnatch” seems to belong to something else entirely. What’s your take on the way this technology is changing how we perceive the delineation of media?
Brooker: I would say that everything is becoming a story platform, really. We classify “Bandersnatch” as a film—an interactive film—first and foremost. But you could easily classify it a game, or a TV episode. I think the boundaries are blurring, and I don’t know where you draw the line between these different things. Ultimately, we have to start recognizing the fact that these are stories first and foremost, rather than bespoke media. There’s very little difference between movies, TV and games, and it’s all starting to merge into one. Bingeing a series on Netflix is very different from consuming it week by week on television, which is very different to watching it in a movie theater, or playing it as a piece of interactive fiction. The story is what remains, but the boundaries are becoming arbitrary.
Jones: I think there’s enough room for everyone to own their own values. We made “Bandersnatch” for Netflix because it’s the only streaming platform with this technical ability, but we wouldn’t have made it as a videogame. That’s a very different beast. It’s not a challenge to videogames, just as Netflix movies aren’t a challenge to the theatrical film market. I think there’s room for everyone.
In the birth of every art form, there is a period of transition in which the rules of older art forms are applied. Cinema borrowed from theatre and magic in its early days. Video games borrowed from cinema. It took a while for them each to find their own language. Do you think Netflix, and streaming in general, may, in fact, be a new language that requires definition?
Jones: I think that makes sense.
Brooker: It’s a good assessment of it; it’s its own medium. I think that’s why you’re seeing more and more things that are hard to categorize. Streaming really is its own beast. I don’t think, for example, that “Bandersnatch” is a sign everything is going to be interactive in the future. But it’s there. There’s room for all these different approaches to coexist.
Even within Black Mirror, each episode feels completely different.
Jones: Yes, each episode is made by different teams in different locations, and some are under an hour and more like a TV show, and others are bigger and more blockbuster-ish, and they could probably exist in a movie theater. Netflix does a good job of being able to present ideas that are maybe a nice conceit or concept but that wouldn’t necessarily be made for theatrical distribution. That’s how everything finds its own niche, and it all delivers on different things at different times.
What do you think the future of interactive on Netflix looks like?
Jones: I think, for Netflix, it’s another tool in the storytelling box. They’ll look for the right projects to apply it; I don’t think there’s going to be a huge rush towards commissioning everything that has an interactive element. I think they’ll try some things, and some will work and others won’t.
Brooker: While we were making “Bandersnatch”, we were saying we’d never put ourselves through this again. And then, I think, by the end you forget how harrowing it was. So there have been some ideas that have bubbled up, and I’d never say never to returning. But there’s no point in doing it for the sake of it, because not every story will suit this format, in the same way that not every story would suit the format of a musical or a horror movie.
I’m trying to remember. There hasn’t been a musical episode of Black Mirror, has there?
Brooker: No, but I’m delighted to know that you nearly think we might have done one [laughs]. There’s room for everything. Sometimes that’s how we come up with ideas—we sort of go, “What would be the Black Mirror version of a musical episode?” And that prompts a conversation that sometimes ends up with something very different. On occasion, the only thing that’s annoying is we’ll go, “What’s the Black Mirror equivalent of a Western?” And then we’ll go, “Oh, shit. Westworld exists, doesn’t it?”
I can’t think of a Black Mirror equivalent of a musical. Just saying. I won’t ask for a cut.
Brooker: Oh, we have had conversations about what a musical version of Black Mirror might look like. That has been a part of our conversations.
Jones: Before you sue us…
Brooker: Yes, before you sue us [laughs]. We’re just getting that in there quickly. We have had those conversations. And anything else you might suggest, we have talked about that too.
Who knows? The musical version of Black Mirror might already be in the next season. How do you know that’s not one of the episodes we’ve got coming up?