Mas­ter Class


Fast Company - - Contents - BY KC IFEANYI

The Mr. Robot cre­ator, di­rec­tor, and showrun­ner on turn­ing the hit pod­cast se­ries Home­com­ing into a TV show.

“I’m con­trol­ling over any­thing I cre­ate,”

says Sam Esmail. “I’m very pre­cious about it.” The writer, di­rec­tor, and showrun­ner is used to con­struct­ing worlds purely of his own de­sign, most suc­cess­fully with his Golden Globe– and Pe­abody Award– win­ning USA Net­work se­ries, Mr. Robot, a dizzy­ing de­scent into the mind of a bril­liant, para­noid hacker. Esmail’s lat­est project—the 10-episode Home­com­ing—is a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller that lands on Ama­zon in early Novem­ber and stars Ju­lia Roberts in her tele­vi­sion de­but. It also marks the first time he has di­rected some­one else’s ma­te­rial, and a pod­cast no less. Trans­lat­ing an au­dio­driven nar­ra­tive for the screen in­spired Esmail to loosen his no­to­ri­ously tight grip on creative con­trol, while main­tain­ing a firm grasp of his own vi­sion. Here’s how he found the right bal­ance.


Be­fore agree­ing to take on any project, Esmail asks him­self whether the story is en­ter­tain­ing and chal­lenges his point of view. “The ex­pe­ri­ence you’re go­ing to take the au­di­ence on is as im­por­tant as the story you’re try­ing to tell,” he says. “And that ex­pe­ri­ence needs to ex­cite me so much that I am des­per­ate to share it.” When his agent ap­proached him about turn­ing Home­com­ing into a TV se­ries, Esmail ini­tially re­fused: He saw no rea­son to mess with some­thing that worked so well in its orig­i­nal for­mat. It was only when he lis­tened to the pod­cast again that he found his mis­sion: to use the cam­era to heighten the sus­pense and ten­sion al­ready present in the nar­ra­tive. “I started to re­al­ize that there is an­other di­men­sion to the story that we could do in­ter­est­ing things with, visu­ally,” he says.


To give Home­com­ing a fresh iden­tity, Esmail leaned into the es­sen­tial dif­fer­ence be­tween ra­dio and TV by show­ing more and telling less. The pod­cast had to rely on ex­pos­i­tory di­a­logue and speeches to move the plot along, which “killed the drama, sus­pense, and ten­sion” of cer­tain mo­ments, Esmail says. For tele­vi­sion, though, he used near­word­less scenes to pro­pel the story, let­ting the au­di­ence ex­pe­ri­ence the mys­tery right along­side the main char­ac­ters. He also used cin­e­matog­ra­phy to his ad­van­tage. To adapt a mo­ment that, in the pod­cast, in­volved two char­ac­ters sim­ply talk­ing about the place where they worked, Esmail moved his cam­era around in a long, sweep­ing take, “al­low­ing the au­di­ence to peek in on the fa­cil­ity while eaves­drop­ping on the con­ver­sa­tion,” he says. “It [was] a great way to rhyme vi­su­als with di­a­logue and ex­pand the ex­pe­ri­ence for the viewer.”


For Esmail, us­ing plot and im­agery to strike the right mood is the hard­est part of the creative process. He says the more ex­per­i­men­tal and ab­stract qual­i­ties of Mr. Robot were some­what buried in the show’s first sea­son. Even­tu­ally, they blos­somed into the for­mat-break­ing episodes of sea­sons 2 and 3, which fea­ture dream se­quences and frag­mented nar­ra­tives. Esmail ad­mits be­ing tempted to sneak things from that world into Home­com­ing, given the shows’ sim­i­lar­i­ties. “But we al­ways stopped our­selves and chal­lenged our­selves to say, Wait a minute: How does it work in this show?” For Home­com­ing, Esmail says he leaned heav­ily on the more tech­ni­cal as­pects of film­mak­ing, like fram­ing, cam­era move­ment, and light­ing, to “add that layer of speci­ficity that gives the show its unique vibe.” The re­sult: a modern ver­sion of Hitch­cock at his best.


Esmail is cau­tious about mi­cro­manag­ing his crew—a sit­u­a­tion he avoided by bring­ing his en­tire Mr. Robot staff from New York City to Los An­ge­les to work on Home­com­ing. “You have to have that core creative team around you who’s go­ing to sup­port your vi­sion, and chal­lenge and evolve it,” he says. He sim­i­larly de­ferred to the ex­per­tise of Home­com­ing pod­cast cre­ators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who serve as showrun­ners for the TV se­ries. “I was [never] go­ing to take over writ­ing du­ties,” he says. “I was a gen­uine fan of the orig­i­nal pod­cast, and I had the two mas­ters of [it] with me. It would have been stupid for me to push back, or ig­nore that.”

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