Decisions, decisions. Frosties or Sugar Puffs? It’s the first one you face in Netflix’s interactive Bandersnatch, so it was only fair that its major players had to make the choice as well. Creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, along with actors Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter and Asim Choudhry, decided well within the mandatory 30 seconds. The score? An overwhelming win for Frosties by 4 to 1, with Jones providing the solitary vote for what we now know as Honey Puffs. And Chaudhry stipulating his Frosties needed 30 seconds in the microwave, complete with milk. It’s not one of the permutations in Bandersnatch.
Netflix’s first – for want of a better description – interactive movie is set in the burgeoning world of video games in the mid-1980s. Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) has come up with the idea for a new game, the Bandersnatch of the title, and it’s been picked up by a go-ahead young company. But as he writes the code, with help from games genius Colin (Will Poulter), he becomes increasingly paranoid and convinced his life is being controlled by another force. Throughout the action, the audience is given choices which determine what happens next, from the simplicity of cereals to deciding on whether a character lives or dies.
Both cast and creators faced a myriad of decisions before and during the making of the film. As Black Mirror’s own creative genius, Brooker was in the unusual position of relinquishing control over his work to the audience. He found it worrying and liberating at the same time. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to home in on what the story is and you go through certain processes in the script and the edit. But here, because of the nature of this particular story where there are different sorts of realities intertwined, you can literally break the fourth wall, so you do it. That bit was very playful and experimental and fun.”
Jones, his co-writer and producer, comes across as the more logical, business minded half of the partnership. She views the film more as another Black Mirror episode instead of a standalone. “We’ve demonstrated in other Black Mirror seasons that we can take on many different genres and tones and they still feel very Black Mirror. So we just happened to have taken that and done in just in one individual film.”
The young cast faced decisions before the Bandersnatch script fell into their hands. All Black Mirror fans – Will Poulter admits he was actually watching an episode the night before he heard he’d landed the part of Colin – they all had concerns about whether the film was little more than a gimmick. Fionn Whitehead recalls “it was a concern of mine before I had a meeting with Charlie and Annabel to discuss it with them at length – and before I’d read the script. Then I realised it wasn’t, that they had their hearts in the right place and that they really wanted to do it justice.”
Asim Choudhry sees it as new way of storytelling, but one underpinned by a serious motive. “Nothing is going to beat the conventional, laid back way of telling a story. This was brave. There is the fear of it being gimmicky but when you understand the project, you most importantly understand the intention behind it. There’s a deeper understanding in this narrative about the illusion of free will, about mental health and about how sometimes you feel helpless and you don’t have choices. I thought there were layers and layers of detail, levels of research and sincerity put into this format which, to me, removes any thought of it being gimmicky.”
After his recently well-documented step away from Twitter, Poulter is keen to highlight the positive reception the film has received. “We all heard from so many people who really, really loved this film. It was an overwhelmingly positive reaction.” But he does have reservations about artificial intelligence, both now and in the future, which tie in with the project. “I’m concerned about it actually reducing social mobility. For as much as we regard technology and the internet has having made us more socially mobile, all of that exists online and less and less people are having face to face, physical interactions. So often, social media is an opportunity to project an ideal self instead of an actual self. So it’s good to be involved in something which forces attention and increases the activity of the viewer. There’s no chance to look at your phone because you’ll miss something.”
So a film experience or a gaming experience? For Jones, “I would say it’s an interactive film. If I still care for the character, and I feel all those endings co-exist and there’s a truthfulness to all those endings ….. All of these stories all co-exist and that gives it a cohesion and hopefully makes it feel like a film.” Brooker looks at it in a slightly different way. “I would describe it as a mongrel or a hybrid. It’s definitely not a standard linear film and I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a game. If you want to play a game, you go and play whatever. It is a very simple game, but it’s not trying to replace games or films, really. It’s somewhere in the middle.”
Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter and Asim Choudhry were all talking to Freda Cooper.