Last year an unknown TV show from the USA Network called Mr. Robot took the Austin film, music and interactive festival known as South By Southwest (SXSW) by storm, winning the extravaganza's coveted Audience Award for an episodic show. This year, "Mr. Robot" is back at SXSW which a much bigger presence – quite literally.
First a little spoiler-free (for the most part) background in case you haven't managed to see the series yet, which is now available to Amazon Prime subscribers through an exclusive video-on-demand deal with USA.
Mr. Robot focuses on character Eliot Alderson, a cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night who aims to take down the world's biggest financial conglomerate, Evil Corp. Alderson is insular, lonely and has issues with anxiety, communicating – and with morphine. Alderson eventually finds himself in league with a hacker group called fsociety who wear Monopoly-man style masks when they hack into TV networks explaining how they're planning to free society by taking down Evil Corp.
The headquarters of the hackers are in an abandoned arcade near a Ferris wheel at New York's Coney Island amusement park, and that's what's been recreated here on the streets of Austin. A 100-foot Ferris wheel and mini arcade have kept attendees buzzing since the Interactive part of the fest opened on March 11.
Just as impressive as the Ferris wheel was the fact that the two stars of the show, Christian Slater and Rami Malek, along with show creator and writer Sam Esmail, returned to SXSW this year to hold a panel discussing, among other things, the authenticity that is the bedrock upon which Mr. Robot is built.
The trio, who took the SXSW stage on Sunday, talked about how all of the code you see on the screen in the show is authentic code, created through collaboration with programming consultants and advice from the FBI's cyber-crime unit. That means Malek, who plays an intense yet withdrawn Alderson, had to learn to do a lot of serious typing for his role.
"I'm used to knowing my characters and having my lines down and doing some crazy weird shit," Malek said. "You have to come in early and look at the graphics and go over things with the tech guys," he added, referring to the amount of time it takes to nail the authenticity Esmail strives for. He said it took a while to get all that coding down, but it eventually came, thanks to hours and hours of homework. Now he's moved on to a different kind of homework for season two, which he said is the part of making Mr. Robot he loves the most, although he didn't say what that homework is.
For Malek's co-star, Christian Slater, the tech side of the show didn't come easily either. "I was behind the eight ball on the tech side of things," he said. "I wanted to come in and impress Sam in the beginning. I went immediately to Google search and Wikipedia and looked up these terms and tried to understand everything I could."
"As soon as I got here on the first day, all those terms were already outdated," he added with a laugh.
Esmail spent much of the talk speaking about how authenticity and cliche-avoidance are two of his guiding principles in shaping the show. "You've seen the classic cliche nerd – outcast and bullied – and that's not true to life," he said. "There's something between there that people were missing. Rami and I spent a lot of time talking about the darkness inside Eliot."
"We go heavy on the tech details and then in the editing room we taper it down," Esmail added. "We create these screens that at the end of the day we only see a few seconds of but when you do the groundwork, when you get detailed, it just starts to feel credible."
Season two of Mr. Robot airs on the USA Network some time this (northern) summer. All ten episodes will be directed by Esmail himself.