The many influences and inspirations behind Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is a successful drama-thriller series that took viewers by surprise last summer with its gripping storyline, multiple plot twists, edgy cinematography and memorable characters. For many it was a breath of fresh air in the TV market.
The show’s creator Sam Esmail has talked in numerous interviews about the many inspirations that his series has drawn from, including hit movies and TV shows; different aspects of the show have been inspired by different things, and by making this mixture of different genres and concepts, Esmail has managed to create a unique work that stands on its own as an exemplary piece of television.
With the new season upon us, we look into the many movies and TV shows that Mr. Robot was inspired by and see just how the show benefited from each inspiration.
Please be aware that this article contains spoilers for both season 1 of Mr. Robot and anything else mentioned.
1] Fight Club (1999)
That is probably an obvious one. The dissociative identity disorder that Elliot is revealed to have mirrors a similar condition of the main character of David Fincher’s 1999 film, as well as the novel by Chuck Palahniuk of the same name. Just like Tyler Durden, Mr. Robot is revealed to be a figment of the main character’s mind and influences him to act on taking down the corporate society. Sam Esmail acknowledges the influence of Fight Club on the show by adding a piano cover of “Where Is My Mind?” by Pixies to the ending scene of episode 9 – the episode in which we find out the truth about Mr. Robot. This song was popularised by having been used in the end credits of Fight Club. Subtle.
2] American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is a 2000 film directed by Mary Harron, and based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The main character of this piece is Jason Bateman, a rich New York investment banker who exercises a lavish lifestyle by day but becomes a serial killer by night. Influences of Bateman can be seen in Tyrell Wellick, a Senior Vice President in E Corp who uses unorthodox (to say the least) methods to try and rise up in position. Here is what Sam Esmail had to say about American Psycho:
“When I wanted to tell the story of the corporate world, we wanted to strike a balance between being straightforward and satirical. In my opinion, American Psycho goes over the hill much more than our show does — we want to be audacious but not go too over the top — but it is one of the best films about corporate politics even though it is not, I hope, a realistic representation. I love that movie, and it for sure influenced Mr. Robot.”
3] Taxi Driver (1976)
Scorsese’s 1976 thriller served as an inspiration for the atmospheric depiction of New York, as well as the main character’s voice-over. Sam Esmail had indeed a lot to say about this film:
“Looking back at Taxi Driver or, really, any of the Martin Scorsese films, he really filmed New York City in a way that I saw New York City. It’s gritty, it’s the underworld, and we wanted locations like Coney Island or the Lower East Side that are amazing to look at — they are beautiful in their ugliness. It’s cheaper to shoot in Toronto, so it’s a shame we were the first ones to show that version of NYC in a while, but my edict from the get-go is we shoot NYC. If you remember from the pilot, Elliot is walking by the subway, and this crazy extra started walking towards the camera. Someone mentioned cutting it, but I said, ‘Are you crazy? This is amazing.’ That’s when you know you’re not in Toronto.
“Taxi Driver is one of those films that is groundbreaking in how much you’re inside this character’s head. It uses voice-over in a revolutionary way where the audience is invited as a co-conspirator to the whole story line. You have this intimate relationship with Travis Bickle that you wouldn’t have without the voice-over — the device is such a powerful hook if done well. Elliot is so socially anxious and awkward that the only way to relate to him is to be inside his brain — otherwise it’s going to be hard to really engage with a character like him — and that’s how I came up with the voice-over’s whole imaginary-person component.”
4] Stanley Kubrick’s Films
Kubrick’s masterpieces served as an inspiration for a great many things in Mr. Robot, including cinematography, framing and title card scenes.
“A Clockwork Orange […] immediately stands out, but one of the biggest influences on the show is Stanley Kubrick in general. In terms of Clockwork, the title cards are an inspiration. There are these glasses that I make Darlene [Carly Chaikin] wear that are a little bit of a nod to Lolita. And, actually, it’s not a huge spoiler, but there’ll be a little bit of a nod to Dr. Strangelove in the season finale that people can look out for.
There is an Eyes Wide Shut feel to the FSociety members wearing the masks. When I flew back and forth shooting the show, The Shining happened to be on the plane. I love that film, and I noticed Kubrick frames his characters with a lot of head room, which lends itself to an unsettling emotional reaction. Whatever Kubrick deliberately decided to do for that film, we chose something similar for the show. Another huge Kubrick influence is how he used wide angles. I have an affinity for wide angles — when I directed episode two, the show opens basically with this massive wide shot, which is very unusual for a television show, and Elliot standing dead center in the middle of this doorway. You can’t tell that story with a lens that isn’t as powerful. Kubrick also loved his wide-angle lens, and there is a certain tone when you keep using it. It is eerie and detached, but at the same time it is compelling and makes you look at the frame more. It’s not for every scene, but it’s definitely something we include more on our show than a typical show.”
5] The Matrix (1999)
Esmail has cited this neo-noir science fiction film to be an influence on the way the story is told without the audience knowing that Elliot is Mr. Robot until much later into the work:
“Ultimately, the journey that we’re on is Elliot’s journey. What I honestly wanted to do was really start to explore — which is what the series is about, it had been out there that I always intended it as a feature film — so the whole reveal of Mr. Robot as Elliot was my 30-minute mark. I kind of liken it to “The Matrix,” where you find out what the Matrix is about 30 minutes into the movie, and the movie explores that concept. It’s about that. What I wanted to do was, what happens to a guy when he literally discovers that he has this Dissociative Identity Disorder, where he’s losing time, where he can’t account for some of his behaviors and memories. And that he’s hallucinating things. What does he do? What does that look like? Especially when massive consequences off of his actions when he’s lost that time is off in play in the world. That, to me, the missing time and where is Tyrell is setting us up for the next stage and bringing us into the questions and journey.”
6] Blade Runner (1982)
Esmail was influenced by this cult science fiction film in the way it portrays the character development of Hauer – a replicant, who is the main antagonist for most of the movie, but does not choose to kill the main character in the end. Esmail drew the inspiration for Tyrell from this character, and even though Tyrell Wellick still seems to be a rather wildcard character, we can assume that he might turn out to be a “villain-gone-good” character and perhaps even make an alliance with Elliot. This is what Esmail himself said about Blade Runner:
“Blade Runner’s morality influenced the storytelling of our show. It is so fascinating. The ending scene is so beautiful between Rutger Hauer and Harrison Ford. Even though Hauer is the villain, you don’t hate him at the end. And Ford could have gotten killed — and now I am totally spoiling the movie for anyone who is reading this, so you have to put up the spoiler alert — but he doesn’t kill him! It’s so beautiful, and there is not really a good-guy-bad-guy scenario. There is just this grey area that is so ambiguous, and it is the same with Tyrell. Even if you hate him, you still love watching him.”
7] Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
This might seem like a stretch, but Esmail says that this cult show about meth-cooking chemistry teacher inspired Mr. Robot in the way its story is told – it is one cohesive storyline with a clear beginning and end, and that is Esmail intends to do with Mr. Robot.
“What was revolutionary about Breaking Bad, and I don’t know what other shows have done this, but it was committed to telling one story. ‘Here, we are going to tell one story from beginning to end, and it’s really going to have this cohesive thread, and we are not going to deviate from it.’ Sometimes he’ll be cooking meth, and then for stretches he’ll have nothing to do with meth. That was inspiring because Mr. Robot initially started as a feature film with one story — the ending of season one is the end of my act one, or about the 30-minute mark, and then the real story begins in season two — and I had an ending in mind. When I made the decision to turn it into a television show, I just remembered, Well, Breaking Bad did it, they went from beginning to end and they stuck to this journey! That’s what I wanted to do with Mr. Robot.”
Image credits: USA Network Media / 20th Century Fox / Universal Studios / Columbia Pictures Corporation / Warner Bros. Entertainment / AMC