Vanity Fair: 10 Cloverfield Lane Director Dan Trachtenberg on His Easter Egg-packed Episode of Black Mirror
Oct 20 2016
Will video-game culture eventually take over all of film and television?
In the midst of a scarily massive real-world internet outage on the East Coast of the United States, Netflix unleashed the third season of the highly addictive, technophobic anthology horror series Black Mirror. Thanks to a new deal with Netflix, the British cult hit has received a significant upgrade. The season is longer (six episodes compared to the usual three), the budget is higher, and there is some A-list talent behind the camera—including BAFTA award-winning director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and hot up-and-coming 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg.
Trachtenberg’s episode, “Playtest,” sees a backpacking American, Wyatt Russell, testing out a new gaming technology that puts the player in the middle of their own personal nightmare. The bulk of the episode plays out like a haunted-house story, with Russell carrying most of the plot—including jump scares and nasty twists—with his easy, Owen Wilson-esque charm. Trachtenberg spoke with Vanity Fair over the phone about the many video game influences on “Playtest,” and how Russell’s take on the character dramatically altered who we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Vanity Fair: If you were trapped in the video game of “Playtest,” what primal fear of yours would manifest?__
Dan Trachtenberg: Oh! Ooooooooo. First of all, I would never do it. Ironically, this episode is based on so many games that I’ve played. I appreciate the craft in Bioshock and Resident Evil, and I’ve played all of them. But I also learned that I don’t like playing them because I get really scared. So I would never do this. I have an Oculus, but I have not played any horror games for it and I never will. But, frankly, my worst fear is dying. I thought that we all were afraid of death, but I’ve talked to my wife and other people and they’re not afraid of death the way I am. I find that really confusing. I don’t like the idea of nothingness—that’s terrifying to me. But I don’t know how that could manifest in a horror video game.
But I think Charlie Brooker—who created Black Mirror—is like the British Larry David. He’s an intense worrier. But he worries in a very funny way, especially for others to observe. He knows a lot of worst-case scenarios, and has studied the preventative measures for those bad things. He had a million survivalist tips. He’s like a walking Wikipedia, so I think that we probably share that fear.
Was it 10 Cloverfield Lane that got you this job, or had the Black Mirror people seen your Portal short? Portal: No Escape seems almost like a better audition piece for this episode.
10 Cloverfield Lane had just come out—it was like a week or two after. It hadn’t even come out in the U.K. yet. But they were excited to hear about the movie, and then seeing it and talking to me about this episode that was kind of thriller-y, horror-y, not knowing that I had the same geektastic relationship with video games that Charlie [Brooker] has. We both used to host a show that reviewed video games, but didn’t know that about each other. So it became this match made in heaven, and we were able to tell a tale about video games that incorporated the games we know. We included so many Easter eggs throughout the episode that I’m so excited for our community to find.
Can you give you an example?
I want people to find them. But there are names that are similar. There’s a major Bioshock reference. There are some Resident Evil references. There’s a shelf of video games that has some of my favorites in there. Yeeeeah—maybe when it’s out a little longer and people haven’t picked up on them, I’ll tell you more. But I’m hoping there’s a Web site where people go, “oh look, this happened and that happened.”
Oh yeah, Reddit will have this whole thing cracked wide open before the weekend is over.
Right! I hope so.
I know you went through the script for 10 Cloverfield Laneand added some humor to punch it up. Did you wind up doing the same with the script for this episode?
Yeah, there was a development process for sure. But Charlie is really funny and he writes that way. Really, it was casting Wyatt Russell that was the ignition for making the episode really fun and turning the main character into someone you can root for in a way that wasn’t on the page initially. Wyatt improvised so much, and there is so much on the cutting-room floor that I can’t imagine will ever see the light of day. We played this improv game—“Add A Line.” Wyatt and Hannah [John-Kamen], who played Sonja, would act out a scene, say their lines, but then have to add something else at the end or in the middle. And it really kept them on their toes and developed this lovely banter between them. He’s just so talented. Everything he said was hilarious, but also in keeping with the character. Almost all of the goods came from him in this episode.
In the earlier draft, Cooper was someone you wanted to have learn a lesson. He was more of a rude American. But with Wyatt playing him, he’s someone you care about a little more. You’re hoping he learns a lesson, but more like you’re rooting for him to learn a lesson.
When 10 Cloverfield Lane came out, so many people were comparing the connected Cloverfield concept to The Twilight Zone and to Black Mirror, actually. What makes a Cloverfieldproperty, and what makes a Black Mirror episode? What makes them belong as part of a set?
I thought a lot about Black Mirror in reference to The Twilight Zone,and I feel like a lot of those classic Twilight Zone episodes are only as good as their endings. They’re not very meaningful until the end. What I love about Black Mirror is that, you know, a lot of them do not have twist endings. And when they do, they are already thoughtful and fascinating and interesting and about something along the way. The reason I think we hold films like The Sixth Sense and Citizen Kane in such high regard is those are movies that were amplified by their twists, but were already bringing the goods. I think—I hope—the Cloverfieldmovies are really unique takes on genres we’ve seen—being told through a new lens. So being genre, a mystery, and anthological is what ties Black Mirror and Cloverfield to the Twilight Zone tradition. But I think they’re better even because they’re not reliant on the twist at the end.
I think a lot of gamers were pleasantly surprised to see how much the new HBO series Westworld is inspired by video games and the gaming aesthetic. Obviously, your Black Mirror episode is all about overt gaming influences, but how do you think gaming will continue to creep into our film and TV?
Yeah it’s going to continue to happen and I love it. I don’t think a lot of people would spot the video-game influences in 10 Cloverfield Lane.People think it’s just a Hitchcockian mystery. And I was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, for sure. But for a generation prior to mine that would be the sole influence. Since I grew up playing video games, I drew so much inspiration from that world. I think soon people are going to shed the hackneyed impression in their mind that only movies with machine guns and aliens and robots are a video-game movie. Everyone who saw Edge of Tomorrow can figure out that’s a video-game movie. But no one is comparing 10 Cloverfield Lane to a video game thing. For Westworld to be so influenced by video games is amazing, and it’s only going to continue because video games have become so incredibly cinematic but also so profound. They’ve become an incredibly moving experiences with well-crafted stories that are, sometimes, beyond what movies are doing. So all of us who are playing continue to be inspired by that, and want to bring it to the silver and small screens. So I only hope it becomes more and more embedded.