Q&A with Sam Esmail, Creator of Mr. Robot

Good filmmakers show us the world from a different angle. Great filmmakers change the way we see the world. Alum Sam Esmail (UGFTV, 1998) belongs to the latter. His new television show Mr. Robot is so unique it redefines a medium. Written and directed by Esmail, the story cuts deep into the experience of alienation, greed, and morality through the eyes of computer hacker Elliot. The show has earned several awards and nominations, including the Emmy noms for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.

Esmail’s visit to Tisch is a homecoming more than an info session. His admiration for the Film & TV program lies in its encouragement of “experimentation.” Being handed a 16mm camera and told to create stories was incredibly liberating for Esmail. In the Sight & Sound Filmmaking class, through its practice to create five films over the course of the semester, he decided he wanted to tell a larger story. The result was an “interconnected story”: four films that seemed to be independent of each other until the fifth film that revealed they all worked together.

As well as a filmmaker at NYU, Esmail saw himself as a hacker and a geek. He was experienced in computer coding and was very disappointed in the portrayal of technology in film and television.

As most creative careers, life after graduation was full of twists and turns. He found day jobs editing pornography and reality television (“Basically the same thing,” he explained), but wanted to work as a director on feature films. After trying to find like-minded writers and collaborators to no avail, Esmail decided to write his own work. He never focused on writing at NYU, so he enrolled in the AFI graduate program to hone his craft.

Mr. Robot started as a script for a feature. With everything outlined, he knew everything that had to happen in this story, but grew a little concerned when he had written 130 pages and still hadn’t gotten through the first act of the film. That’s when he started getting inspired by the series True Detective and the concept of cinematic episodic storytelling. Esmail turned his film into an episodic series, though had never read a television pilot, let alone written one.

Though he received many offers, USA Network gave Esmail the best opportunity to present his vision of the story. His creative control of the piece is apparent, from the dynamic compositions to the unique use of voice over. This freedom also comes with the stress of responsibility. He never knows if he’s making a “good” decision. Instead, Esmail says, “make it important.” Scenes are interesting because they’re critical to the story.

His advice to film students is important to finding your own voice: “Do not chase what they want.” Write because you’re passionate about the content, not because it’s marketable. Then, “write a lot. Shoot a lot. Get mistakes out of the way.” Passion should be complemented with an understanding of craft. Craft only comes with practice. It’s comforting to know when you have something important to share with the world, the world will want to see it. Today is the time to find your voice and share it.