[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for the “Black Mirror” Season 4 episode “USS Callister.”]
The first episode of “Black Mirror” Season 4 might be its most brilliant. Playing with tropes established by shows like “Star Trek,” it tells the story of a frustrated and petty programmer (Jesse Plemons) who imprisons those he feels have wronged him in a virtual game world. The longest episode of the season, “USS Callister” creates multiple realities that come together to tackle not just a journey of the bullied becoming the bully, but an overall climate that has become incredibly toxic… but with some hope for true change.
IndieWire spoke with “Callister” director Toby Haynes, production designer Joel Collins, and stars Plemons and Cristin Milioti to learn everything we could about how the episode came together, including how much work the Shatner impression took and how they got Aaron Paul for the episode’s final moments.
“Five Pages In, I Was Completely Hooked”
One thing Plemons and Haynes had in common when reading the script for the first time: The beginning left them bewildered.
Upon first reading, in fact, Plemons explained that he was extremely confused by the first eight pages. “Sci-fi isn’t really my realm, and I never really envisioned myself playing a commander of a space fleet,” he said.
But he also hadn’t watched “Black Mirror” before, despite the urging of friends, so he stopped reading and decided to watch a few episodes of the show, ultimately bingeing the entire first season before going back to the script. “Then I made it to the second scene, and immediately got it, and loved it,” Plemons said. “I decided pretty quickly after that that I wanted to do it.”
According to Plemons, his first conversation with Brooker involved just trying to find out what the inspiration was. “It’s so out there. He said he plays video games, and he also mentioned ‘Toy Story’ as being some sort of influence, which I thought was really interesting. Like the darkest version of ‘Toy Story’ you can imagine,” Plemons said.
Meanwhile, when Haynes was sent the script, the first few pages had him worried that the project wasn’t much of a departure for him, given his past work on shows like “Doctor Who.”
“I felt like I’ve done this before and I was all in the back of my head, thinking, ‘Is this all I can do?'” he said. “I told my agent that and he said, ‘Just keep reading. For goodness sake, just keep reading! It’s jolly worth the read.’ Then, five pages in, I was completely hooked. I just read it in one go and I completely ate the script up… I just knew I had to direct it. I knew I wanted it to be my challenge.”
“The Schedule Was So Horrible”
Haynes said that when he went to meet with the producers, “I think I did pretty well holding it together for most of the interview, until the end where I just begged to do it.” It got him the job, but then came, in his words, “the crushing disclosure as to the actual budget and schedule.”
In order to make “Callister” happen, things had to move incredibly fast, and it was a pressure Milioti definitely felt. “We were shooting so many pages a day, and they were such intense scenes and they were technically intense, too, so I was trying to focus on just how to get these words out in two takes,” she said.
How tight was the schedule? As just one example, Haynes noted that all the office sequences for the episode were shot in just three days. Fortunately, the cast was up for it. “We had to move so quickly. We were doing 14 page days and they really had to nail it on like take one or two,” Haynes said. “And they did. They were so sharp. So smart. And knew their characters so well. They had to play three different versions of themselves, and they delivered that.”
Added Haynes, “Every scene that was on the spaceship was just always about geeking out about being in a spaceship and with a cast like this, with material as good as this. But equally I was petrified that we wouldn’t finish it in time. That we wouldn’t be able to do it justice, because the script was so good, but the schedule was so horrible. We thought, ‘Are we going to be able to do our best work under these kind of pressures?’ And actually, I think the pressure helped. Everybody rose to the challenge and delivered their best work.”
“Turn Up the Shatner”
One element that stands out right from the beginning was the inspiration Plemons drew from perhaps television’s most iconic starship captain — Captain James T. Kirk, as portrayed by William Shatner in the original “Star Trek.”
While it wasn’t initially a part of the initial “Callister” pitch, Plemons said that “it just became obvious that there’s no way to do this without giving some sort of homage to Shatner.” So, in order to nail down the voice, Plemons worked with a vocal coach for the weeks leading up to production to find just the right cadence, and also watched a great deal of “Trek,” even listening to audio clips of Shatner on set in between takes.
“He was very funny,” Haynes said. “He would say things like, ‘If you ever need me to turn up the Shatner, I can do that for you.’ That’s what he’d say. That was great fun.”
Milioti noted that the reason the Shatner tribute works so well is that “it’s not a straight-up mimicry. It’s colored by it in a way that’s so fantastic.”
As someone who wasn’t all that into “Star Trek” beforehand, Plemons found that part of the fun of embodying Shatner came from the Canadian actor’s background. “Shatner’s so entertaining, and he takes it so seriously,” he said. “I found out that he was a Shakespearean-trained actor, and I think that really comes across when you watch ‘Star Trek,’ or anything he does. He treats the words as if they’re Shakespeare. It’s very theatrical… He either goes way over the top with what he’s doing, or just completely throws it away. It’s just a lot of fun to play around with that.”
It was Plemons’ first time dealing with technobabble, it’s worth noting, and he said that “it was definitely tricky going over the dialogue enough times to make it feel like it was something you were familiar with, and used on a daily basis. All that watching hours and hours of ‘Star Trek’ helped quite a bit.”
“The Most Fun Thing You Can Imagine”
“Callister” was filmed at Twickenham Studios just outside of London, beginning with the sequences inside of the Infinity system, followed by the “real world” scenes in Daly’s apartment and the Callister offices.
Building the set for the Callister ship included some nuance beyond what you might initially notice, because according to production designer Joel Collins, “we had to design a spaceship, and we also had to transcend some history. The fan history of a fake show, you know?”
This was because in the beginning, the USS Callister is rooted in the retro design of Daly’s favorite show, echoing how the visual style of “Star Trek” in the 1960s looks very different from the franchise’s current look.
“‘Star Trek’ transitioned, and fans stayed with it most of the time,” Collins said. “But some love the old stuff, and some like the new stuff. So somewhere in the development of the feel of the ship, and then the game that [Daly]’s created, which pays homage to that, we had to trope, to a point, those types of shows, but also make it a design able to transcend into what maybe J.J. Abrams would have done with the show further down the line.”
There, Collins is referring to the end of the episode, when the Callister crew escapes Daly’s closed system and finds themselves in the main game universe. In fact, as Collins describes, the world of the Callister changes a few times over the course of the episode: “It goes from the show reality that you’re watching, through to the people who are stuck within the ship’s reality, through to the upgraded, new upload that hits and re-skins the entire ship, putting them into the modern game that they finally end up in.”
Haynes was thrilled by the end result. “The design department for ‘Black Mirror’ is one of the best design departments I have ever worked with,” he said. “They’ve done every single episode. They’ve conceptualized the future so many times over… I knew that I was working with the A-team and it was a question of raising your game, not the other way around. It was always about making sure that we were getting the best for the script.”
“The most fun thing you can imagine,” Milioti said of walking onto the set for the first time. “The coolest thing you could ever imagine in your life. It was certainly the coolest set that I’ve ever gotten to play on.”
Less fun was the official Space Fleet uniform for women, though Milioti did say that it was perfect, given the scenario.
“This is exactly what this guy would make women wear. It was exactly how this misogynistic, sheltered, warped mind would be like, ‘Yes, this is what women should wear, the most uncomfortable thing possible to show off their bodies,'” she said. “We could barely move in those things. We just were freezing all the time because it was a very cold set. I loved it. It helped so much because I was so uncomfortable in it all the time, and that’s exactly what it would be like.”
“Slowly, The Hero Shifts Places”
For Plemons, shifting from playing Daly in the virtual world to playing Daly in the real world wasn’t a massive challenge — thanks to his hair.
“It was something in the initial script that I really liked, which was that he was fairly sad in real life. A sad sight,” he said. “And they describe him as balding, and overweight, and just uncomfortable in his own skin.”
At the time of filming, Plemons had long enough hair to create the perfect ‘do for his “Space Fleet” look, but in trying to create his real-life look, he decided he didn’t want to go with a bald cap. “Every time I see that in a movie, you can kind of tell, and so, I decided to just go for it,” he said. “The hair ladies were very surprised, but looking in the mirror after we gave myself a receding hairline and bald spot, that made it a lot easier to slip into real Daly. Just walking around with that.”
Haynes called Plemons “a gift of an actor to work with. He’d just get on with it.” But he also noted that they didn’t initially bond, because “he was spooky to work with initially because he was playing Captain Daly, like a powerful Daly, who is a sort of dictator.”
And then, when they shifted to shooting the office sequences, Haynes said that Plemons was “totally different. You wanted to kind of give him a hug. He was so sad and kind of lonely.”
It was a contrast that spoke to the way Daly’s personal traumas end up affecting the people he enslaves. “You see he has every right to be as angry as he is. It’s what you choose to do with that, and it’s the way you react to the adversity in your life, and he reacts to it in a way that’s unconscionable,” Milioti said. “But he’s just not like an archvillain. You understand why this guy is where he’s at, but I love that. Slowly, the hero shifts places.”
Plemons noted that “I think everyone has a sort of real self, and a fantasy self, or version of themselves they would like to be thought of as, and aren’t really allowed to experience that in real life. So it comes out under the blanket, or whatever, online. I don’t know how conscious I was of making him sympathetic, or anything like that in the beginning. But as it played out, like, my God, it was pretty brutal… Just that opening sequence. I understand how that could drive someone to do what he does.”
Which stands in sharp contrast to what Nanette experiences, in Milioti’s words: “She just distances herself in a fucking work environment… I mean, we couldn’t be more in the midst of that element of it being timely if we tried. And he takes her and throws her into this torture chamber because she makes him feel small, when she’s just trying to work and not be harassed.”
“Let’s Just Ask Aaron”
In case you weren’t paying attention to the closing credits of the episode: Yes, that was Emmy winner Aaron Paul making a quick voice-over cameo at the end as “gamer691” — something which even surprised the cast when they first screened the episode, as it was one of the last elements that came into place.
As Haynes explained, they experimented with a few different approaches for the unseen gamer that the Callister crew encounters in the final moments, as the original idea was for the character to be “more geeky, more of a squeaky voice, like a little kid.”
But Brooker wasn’t happy with the way it was playing, because according to Haynes, “he felt that trying to make a joke about computer game users being creepy felt very wrong to him. [Brooker] is a gamer, and he felt like it was talking down to the audience.”
The solution they ultimately landed on was that “it was more interesting if they come through this horrible journey and the first person that they come in contact with is somebody who doesn’t give a shit,” Haynes said. “So we needed a voice that doesn’t give a shit and… I was like, ‘What accent do you want, Charlie?’ And he said, ‘Well, what about Jesse from ‘Breaking Bad’?’ That kind of ‘Hey y’all, fuck that’ voice.”
That’s when casting director Jina Jay said, “Well, let’s just ask Aaron. I’m sure he’ll do it.”
Turns out, she was right. “It was fantastic,” Haynes said. “We got him on the phone and we had a wonderful couple hours recording that and playing with it.”
“We’re Hopefully Flushing Out This Shit”
While the harassment issues “Callister” embodies might feel incredibly relevant to this exact moment in our culture, the episode was actually shot much earlier in 2017. That said, the fact that it was filmed around the time of Trump’s inauguration definitely had an impact.
“What I find interesting is that none of us knew about the Weinstein scandal that was yet to come,” Haynes said. “This huge kind of flushing out of toxic masculinity that is happening in our industry. That was yet to happen, [but] it has resonance about all of that stuff about masculinity and what it is to be a bully and what it is to hold power over someone. And it’s just great that it’s sort of come out in our industry now that we’re hopefully flushing out this shit, basically.”
Milioti noted that during filming, the cast and crew took a break to join the Women’s March in London, and the storyline had a major impact on her at that moment. “I think that for me, this felt a little bit, probably unconsciously at first, the story that I wish I would’ve seen in life, that this woman who is a hard worker and doesn’t take any shit beats this small-minded bully at his own game. I don’t know. I sort of loved that, that she calls upon this inner strength to defeat this person who is in the wrong.”
She added, “I also think it’s a story about that we have more inner strength than we realize. I sort of feel like [Nanette] finds her truest self in that world, in the fake world, because at work she’s trying to be not too much of a bitch and be sweet about it even though she’s kind of being harassed… I hope that’s one of the takeaways, that this person who I think you kind of underestimate a little bit at the beginning as this sweet girl at the office, can captain a fucking spaceship and can defeat a pretty enormous evil presence.”
Someone Please Cast Cristin Milioti As a Starship Captain
The final minutes of “Callister” set up what could be an amazing new series (if “Black Mirror” were the type of show to do that sort of thing), with Nanette taking the captain’s chair almost by default — something that genuinely thrilled Milioti.
“I couldn’t believe that I got to do that,” she said. “I was so devastated when this ended. I wanted to see where they would go next. I loved shooting this so much. I was so sad that it was only five weeks. I could’ve done this for months…I was really, really sad when it was over, and I would go do it again in a heartbeat. If they had a sequel to that episode, I would not even think twice.”
“Black Mirror” Season 4 is streaming now on Netflix. Additional reporting by Steve Greene.