How Did ‘Mr. Robot’ Pull Off That Audacious Single-Take Episode?

Senior Television Writer
11.08.17 10 Comments

USA

It took me several minutes into tonight’s Mr. Robot before it occurred to me that there hadn’t been a single visible edit.

This was a very promising sign at the start of one of the most purely entertaining Mr. Robot installments ever.

Scenes presented as a long, continuous take — a “oner,” in industry parlance — were once so difficult to accomplish that they were only done for very special occasions, usually by master directors: the famous opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, or Henry taking Karen into the back of the Copacabana in Goodfellas, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which was an entire movie presented as a oner, even though each take was only as long as the amount of film the camera could hold.

Advances in both camera and visual effects technology have been so huge, and so fast, that oners have begun to feel both common — on TV alone, True Detective, The Knick, Quarry, Better Call Saul, and even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have all done memorable oners over the last few years, plus we’ve had plenty of all-oner films like Birdman — and at risk of seeming, as Mr. Robot creator and chief director Sam Esmail puts it, “gimmicky,” where the showmanship takes precedence over the story.

With “Runtime Error” — which joined The X-Files‘ “Triangle” as the rare TV episode to be presented entirely as a oner — Esmail found a way for the gimmick to enhance the story, rather than overwhelm it. It’s logistically audacious, following Elliot and then Angela up and down multiple levels of Evil Corp’s high-rise headquarters, out into the street and then back in during a chaotic riot, yet at the same time feels incredibly compact because of the caper movie-style premise of it: Elliot wakes up from a long stint as Mr. Robot to discover that 1) Mr. Robot and Tyrell are about to blow up the building he’s been trying to protect all season, which he can only stop if he has access to Evil Corp’s internal computers, and 2) He is about to be fired and kicked out of the building. We are with Elliot for every second of the story until things pass off to Angela, who’s on Mr. Robot’s team and terrified of the violence happening all around her, and while there are a few visual flourishes that call attention to themselves, for the most part the lack of visible edits only makes the story more exciting and intense. (It also makes it — in a rarity for a show this dour by design — more fun.)

Earlier this week, I got on the phone with Esmail to discuss how an episode conceived only as taking place in real time instead became a oner, the many production challenges involved — including a disastrous first day of shooting that nearly forced him to abandon the conceit — where you can look for some of the edits (particularly since the interior and exterior of the building are in different places), how he convinced USA to air the episode without commercials, and how he and his team pulled off some of the more challenging shots:

How did you decide you wanted to present the episode this way?

The conversation initially started with telling a story in real time. From a story perspective, I wanted to experience Elliot the minutes after a switching [from Mr. Robot] occurred. Does he remember everything right away? Is it foggy? Initially, it was just really wanting to be in the minute to minute with Elliot as he’s disoriented and trying to find his footing. And then adding the pressure of this attack on his shoulders while he’s in the midst of this fogginess. The real time doesn’t have to dictate a long take, because one of the movies I referenced early on was Nick of Time with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken. It’s actually one of my favorite movies — very underrated. That was obviously edited, not a long take. And then in talking to my cinematographer, we looked at all the scenes and we decided that there was something more visceral about staying in this long take and being with Elliot, walking with Elliot. Because we have the stream of consciousness through his voiceover, it felt to match that best to film him as if we’re just following him around in one take.

Then once the episode shifts POV to Angela, we were going to do our first edit there. And then we decided to opt to keep the take going. We discovered that with Angela, if we just shifted the camerawork from Steadicam that would reflect the floating feel that reflects Elliot’s fogginess, once we got with Angela, we’d go to handheld, and it would reflect Angela’s more kinetic storyline of trying to break into the room and get into this air-gapped computer. When we figured out that, we realized we didn’t really need an edit point to shift POV, that it would, in fact, be more interesting to keep the long take going and shift the camera style and camera movement. That’s how it evolved from this conversation about real-time storytelling to how we filmed it.

Have you generally been a fan in the past of movies or TV shows that were presented as one long take?

I remembered loving Rope, but loving it for the camerawork. And I do love a long take because of the visceral experience. The Copacabana shot from Goodfellas being an example of one, or Boogie Nights — a lot of P.T. Anderson’s shots have this sweep-you-off-your-feet energy when he engages you in this long take. But it really is dictated by the story. Sometimes, it can come off as very gimmicky. With the advent of digital technology, where you don’t have to do breaks for film reels, a lot of people want to do a whole film as a oner. It started to be more about the gimmick than about how it viscerally gets you into the story. I was obviously in awe of when the masters did it right, and a little bit more turned off by the people who turned it into a gimmick.

I will say that I did not know that this had happened, so I had to go back and watch it: The X-Files did one. I only went back and watched it after I filmed this episode. I thought it worked great. I loved it. I thought it was great, especially when they’re in two different timelines, and two Gillian Andersons are walking down the same hallway. In an example like that, that to me was riveting and amazing. But I felt like it was right for the story, but I wasn’t all about the gimmick of pulling it off for a TV show, or anything like that.

In both pre-production and actual production, was this a lengthier process than for an average episode of the show?

It was a crapshoot. We were blockshooting [filming multiple episodes at once], so we didn’t shoot 305 all sequentially. It was sporadic around the first block. But the days we were shooting a scene from 305, we knew we were all going to go home early and be with our loved ones for dinner, or be there till six in the morning. It all depended on, “Did the take come off well?” Sometimes it took four takes, and sometimes it took 27 takes. That was the max that we hit one day. But even with those shitty odds, where you have no idea what to expect that day, we were all super excited, from the cast to the crew. We were always up for the challenge. There was just something electric about doing it. It united everybody. My production designer had to be on set, my costume designer. The camera operator and our cast had to really get into our choreography. Generally, in filmmaking, everybody’s off doing their own things, and then you shoot a scene three, ten seconds at a time. Here, it was like putting on a play every day. It was great.

You can hide edits more easily these days. What was the longest continuous physical take?

The longest take was the second scene: Elliot walking from the elevator bank on his floor, sitting down at his desk and then having that conversation with Samar. And that lasted all the way until he first logs in with his computer. And that was the first scene that we shot. I believe our camera operator collapsed at one point, and we had to break for lunch. That got up to 24 or 25 takes. We had not done this before, no one really knew what to expect. We were supposed to shoot that in three hours, and it ended up taking most of the whole day. It threw our whole schedule out of whack.

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