When Charlie Brooker was looking for directors for the third season of his future-horror series Black Mirror, Dan Trachtenberg must have seemed like a natural for “Playtest,” the season’s second episode. Brooker’s script has a down-and-out American trying to earn some fast cash in London by playtesting a virtual reality horror game for a secretive publisher. The game takes place in a haunted house setting where new threats lurk around every corner, but part of the threat is outside the game entirely, and for the protagonist — easygoing surfer-type Cooper, played by Kurt Russell’s son Wyatt — a further threat comes from his past, and his troubled relationship with his family. All of which winds up sounding a lot like Trachtenberg’s recent horror movie 10 Cloverfield Lane, also about a protagonist trying to escape a suffocating relationship, an enclosed physical space, and a series of nested lies. Trachtenberg also describes himself as a hardcore video game fan, which played heavily into the way he chose to structure the episode. (He's also the writer-director of the fan short "Portal: No Escape.") I recently talked to him about the episode’s video game Easter eggs, the tricks of the trade in directing scary stories, why horror is good for the soul, and the parts of technology that scare him.
"Playtest" opens exactly like 10 Cloverfield Lane: your protagonist packs a suitcase, there's a close-up of his hand grabbing a key item on his way out the door, then a shot of him in a vehicle leaving, getting a phone call from someone he's leaving behind, and dithering before rejecting the call. Was that a deliberate callback? An inside joke?
Total coincidence. I forgot about that! But it was on my mind, because what is not a coincidence was me being super lame. As creative as I hoped to be with the opening shot, the episode is also pretty much the same gimmick as 10 Cloverfield Lane. We start out thinking we're viewing something in a certain way, and then the camera pulls back to reveal other things. And there's this one long take where the camera is pulling back to reveal more and more. I couldn't think of a better way to do it. Even the overall idea, where we're questioning our reality, we think we're seeing it through one lens, and we're actually seeing it through another — I couldn't shed that.
It was really weird — there were other similarities in the script that got cut. There was a sequence where Cooper is driving out to the SaitoGemu office, and it was the same thing, these overhead shots of a car in the wilderness, like in 10 Cloverfield. We cut those, like "Oh God, if people pick up on this, we kinda look super lame." Still, that's awesome that you spotted it.
How directly did you work with Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker? Was this a normal TV director work-for-hire deal, or did you have more leeway with the script?
It was much, much more collaborative than that. I showed up to London when this was just a treatment, and we worked on it together. Charlie is very much the auteur of the series. It was all very Charlie. We were able to develop the script together, and even after we cast it, we developed it further, because casting Wyatt Russell really influenced us, and informed that character and the script in different ways. So we reshaped the story.
And the series this season — the worlds are even more different and more distinct. They definitely embraced all the voices of the directors they hired. They wanted us for those voices. Because it's an anthology show, they really wanted viewers to say "Oh, that episode is distinct, it's the one with that world." It became very collaborative.
You made such a point with 10 Cloverfield Lane about shooting in script order, to follow the characters as they developed. Was there any impulse to do that here?
Definitely the impulse will always be there. My impulse will always be to shoot in order. We did it as much in order as we could. We shot in sections in different locales, but within the locales — the London stuff, and the haunted house, and the gaming company scenes — we shot in order as much as possible. But in moments, we couldn't. Thank God for Wyatt being as deft and as awesome of an actor as he is. He was able to go to really crazy places, then find a switch and turn it off. We weren't able to shoot in order totally, like in Cloverfield Lane, but as much as we could.
There are some really basic keys to writing horror, like isolating the characters and building tension gradually over time. Are there similar basics for visually presenting horror? Tricks of the horror-directing trade?
In the same way, it's about slow-burning and stillness. Building in pauses. There's certainly a math to a jump scare. There's a rhythm. We try and fuck with that throughout this episode. We know when you're expecting it, because we're so familiar with the genre. When there's negative space in the frame, you know something is going to occur there. We've been trained to expect that: we're seeing something, we cut away, we're going to cut back, and there's a scare. It's the classic ghost-house trope where someone goes to the bathroom, sees themselves in a mirror, bends down to wash their face, or opens the mirror cabinet and then closes it again. We know when they close that thing, something awful will be in the mirror. These days, it's about being genre-aware, being aware of those things that can keep audiences on their toes. Being aware of that visual language. There's a math to playing eerie music, too. There's a rhythm to that, for sure. But it's more exciting when you take into consideration that people are accustomed to it, and try and do it in a new way.
One of the big tensions in "Playtest" comes from how determined Cooper is to not be scared, how skeptical and defiant he is as creepy things are happening. Are you tweaking the audience a little with that theme? Acknowledging that they're also aware of the genre and resisting the scares?
For sure! Cooper's saying the things we're thinking. There's a push and pull. Sometimes he's a little more aloof than we are, because that's his character. There are times when we're totally with him, and times where he's not, when we're like "Come on, that's scary!" Charlie and I are hardcore gamers, and we really wanted to embed this with an awareness of gamey-ness.
How did that come into play?
It's super-general and super-specific all at once. The structure of the episode, and what's happening with Cooper, comes from a lot of the horror games we grew up playing. There are very specific names from video games, major concepts and dialogue from other games. There are games on a shelf in one shot — those are from my past, and Charlie's. So there are lots of different versions of video game influence, just little "Oh, look at that" moments, or "My God, they're doing that thing from that game!" I can't wait for gaming culture to see the episode, and to discover the things in it. Probably there are some things that most people would miss, but that one person will find and alert the community to.
"I can't wait for gaming culture to see the episode, and to discover the things in it."
And you aren't being specific because you want people on that treasure hunt?
Yeah, I don't wanna give the goods away. I would love to hear people asking "Did you see this? Did you see that?" I'd even prefer to see them say, "Was this a reference? Was that a reference?" It's something I learned from J.J. Abrams: I'm such a talker. I love talking about this stuff. But I realize it's so much better when people have the experiences on their own. Keeping that mystery alive is a great thing, so I need to train myself to embrace the mystery more often, and have the secrets feel like a special experience for people who are watching.
"Playtest" goes down a rabbit hole of reality toward the end, and it just keeps spiraling deeper. What kind of discussions did you have about where to actually end the episode?
I worried about people anticipating a nested endings. Like with all things throughout the episode, we were trying to be in tune with the audience, and trying to be genre-aware. We knew what people were expecting to happen, and trying to take them in different directions, while also having those revelations be important and meaningful. So it was a combination of "What are they thinking at this point? What are they expecting?" "How can that be subverted?" And also, "How can this help us arrive at a moment where we go ‘Ahh, got it, that's what it's about." In general, that's what our thought process was.
What do you think about Cooper's theory that we all scare less easily now that we're constantly diverting ourselves, now that our attention is constantly half on our phones or our devices?
I thought that was a brilliant Charlie notion. One of the things I loved about working on Black Mirror is that the show raises so many interesting questions and theories. The distractions are a way to calm ourselves down. I think it all comes from a similar place, the place all myth and story comes from, from the time when we didn't have answers. When we had less to draw on. We had to use our imaginations, and create those answers for ourselves. When there's less to do, less science and reason, less communications from different cultures to help our general understanding of all things, you can certainly come up with really scary answers to the questions you have to address on your own. When you don't understand why a bad thing happened, it can be overwhelming. You assume, "Oh my God, it could be this dire drastic thing." Before we understood that houses shift just over time because the ground is moving, the creaks in a house were assumed to be apparitions, or ghosts. Before we understood that we live on a planet, and there are others, the only answers to where we came from had to be something supernatural. So yes, I think that's a fascinating idea: when we had fewer answers, and fewer distractions, the mind fills in the blanks.
The episode just briefly addresses the whole question of why people seek out experiences that scare them, because they feel relief at being alive afterward. Do you have any larger thoughts on that impulse to play terrifying games and watch terrifying movies?
Wes Craven has these two incredible quotes that have really guided me, for all storytelling, but specifically genre storytelling. He said that horror movies are a boot camp for the soul, and that horror movies don't create fear, they release fear. For me, that is very much the Holy Grail of it all. Not only the making of 10 Cloverfield Lane and "Playtest," but also what it's all about, in the way that we deal with fear. How necessary it is to watch horror, what a soulful experience it is.
In "Playtest," there's a scene with Cooper on an airplane with a little girl who's scared because of turbulence. And he says, "Don't worry, this is fun," and shows her how to turn the turbulence into a ride they're enjoying together. That's a precursor in the episode to how we might deal with fear. Making a story out of the experience makes it much more palatable.
I really love World War Z. I remember walking into that movie, or seeing Jurassic Park for the first time as an adult, and feeling every piece of tension, and then coming out breathing at the end. That was as soulful experience for me as watching Tree of Life. To feel that sense of dread, that tension where your heart is racing, and your palms are sweating, and you come out breathing at the end of it, and you know you're okay. Life is a very scary thing, because it's unknown. Anything can happen anytime, and that is terrifying for all of us, to not to be in control. And to have a controlled set of scares that you can enjoy, where you know you're still safe... At a horror movie, you can see other people dealing with the scary things. They can bolster you. You can think, "Okay, if that guy can deal with it, I can deal with it." There are lessons to be learned there, as opposed to having a frivolous popcorn experience. I think some of this stuff is good for your soul.
Black Mirror is so specifically focused on fear about the future, about today's technology and trends, and where they might lead. Is there anything about current technology that actually makes you nervous?
Charlie is a lover of all these things, but is also a worrier about all these things. I think all of us should be. I mean, I love my phone. I think it's an incredible advancement, and it's made my life better. Yet I'm also terrified of it. I'm terrified of cancer. I just had a little baby girl, and I'm on the phone in one hand, and she's on my lap, and I have these flashes of my mom saying "Don't stand too close to the microwave, it's radioactive!" and all that stuff. That's why we've fallen in love with Black Mirror, because it's about the necessity of progress, and the danger of progress. We can't help ourselves — once you make cars, we're so much better off as a society, a culture, than when we just had horses and buggies. With trains, we can do so much more. And yet there's more death, there are more accidents. It all taps into something I'm compelled by — the duality of how great the future is, and how terrifying it is.