For those who see the techno-phobic anthology series “Black Mirror” as having an overly cynical take on the modern world, Season 3’s “San Junipero” would beg to differ.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis star in this surprisingly sweet love story, which is arguably the most fascinating of the new season. It is also the sort of episode that is impossible to discuss in depth without getting into spoilers.
IndieWire asked creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones to discuss the genesis of the episode in full. Consider this to be a deep dive into how “San Junipero” came to be, but only read it after watching.
A quick catch-up: “San Junipero” begins by throwing us into California in the 1980s — at least as far as we know. Yorkie (Davis) is new to this young hip party town that’s rich with the music and pop culture of the era, but Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) is happy to introduce her to some of its deeper delights. The pair become closer, despite a time limit on their interactions… Which we eventually discover is because San Junipero is a virtual world, and both Yorkie and Kelly are decades older than their avatars. San Junipero is visited both by “tourists,” whose time in the city is limited, and “full timers,” people who are technically deceased but whose consciousnesses have “passed over” to reside in San Junipero permanently.
The genesis of “San Junipero” began with the idea of setting a “Black Mirror” episode in the past, rather than the show’s usual futuristic settings. According to Brooker, the opportunity to pull that sort of switcharoo was a primary motivator: “It came about because I thought that’s not what people would expect to see when they switch on a new episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ They expect to see somebody frowning at an iPhone or something. So having it open in 1987 in California seemed like a good idea.”
Beyond the fun of going period with a show famously obsessed with the future, Brooker was also intrigued by nostalgia — specifically its recently acknowledged therapeutic uses. “I think we’d seen a documentary about it — it’s a thing that has been done where they’ll take old people and put them in a room decorated like the 1940s or something, and they’re almost physically rejuvenated by the experience,” he said. “So it came about by talking about both those things, and then a sort of story emerged from it.”
Brooker acknowledged that this was a relatively unique approach for “Black Mirror”: “It’s kind of unusual that we’d approach a story from a relatively dry starting point like that. Usually we’re starting just with a dilemma.”
In general, Brooker pinpoints the origins of a new “Black Mirror” story as beginning with a discussion between him and Jones about “a human dilemma or a ‘what if?'” How do they know they’ve landed on the right idea? As Brooker joked to Jones, it’s an idea that “usually makes me really laugh and gets you all upset. That’s when we go, ‘That’s a ‘Black Mirror’ story!’ — if I’m howling with laughter and you’re in tears.”
“San Junipero” is also one of the new Netflix episodes featuring American talent, which came about because of its invocation of pop culture from the 1980s and ’90s — a period of time when British pop culture was equally saturated with American references. “We did discuss actually, with that particular story, would we set it in Britain? And we kind of thought it wouldn’t be the same,” Brooker said.
“Even for a British person,” Jones said, “all of my references from that time are American.”
Brooker doesn’t believe every “Black Mirror” episode is built on a twist, per se, but he did pinpoint the advantage of having one when he sits down to write. “I find it actually quite useful rather than restrictive, in a strange way,” he said. “Because the worse thing when you’re writing is when you’ve got a completely blank canvas and a white screen and a blinking cursor, and you don’t quite know what to do. Whereas, when you know that 85 percent of what’s happening you can’t reveal till later on, it actually sort of narrows your options in a useful way.”
Calibrating the execution of those twists is a complicated process. “Often it changes quite a bit in the edit, as to what point you want to reveal and so on,” he said. “‘We’re giving away way too much here’ or ‘Now it’s too obscure.’ It’s an inexact science. So we’ll have our guinea pigs we’ll test things on.”
Jones agreed, noting that “There may be visual signifiers that you think were going to work and then didn’t, so you need more exposition in the edit. Often I think we worry that we give away too much and so we’re holding back, and then you think, ‘Actually we were overanxious.'”
Sometimes the team finds that they’re able to make adjustments in editing through sound design and sound effects. “It’s quite interesting how much you can tinker with things without having to go off and shoot something new or what have you,” Brooker said.
The fact that this was a love story between two women wasn’t the original plan: “The earliest iteration of when we were discussing the story to start with, it was a man and a woman,” Brooker said.
However, that changed once they realized it would be more interesting as a same sex couple. “Partly because there’s the whole storyline about marriage, and there’s the whole thing about having the freedom to explore a side of your life that was maybe more difficult for them to explore back in the day,” he said. “It felt thematically richer. It made more sense as a story. That’s much more interesting to write about than just ‘boy meets girl.'”
“It’s that thing of taking an 80-year-old voice and transporting them back to the time of their youth, but where attitudes have changed,” Jones said. “It’s not just go back and live your life again, but go back and live your life through different attitudes and different social norms. Which is fascinating.”
“Black Mirror” Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.