No, despite what you might think, 2020 has not been “like an episode of Black Mirror” – and that’s coming from series creator Charlie Brooker.
Though these last 12 months have unquestionably been trying, Black Mirror‘s outlook on the year would’ve been even more pessimistic according to Brooker, with none of the positives (a renewed appreciation for the NHS and key workers, self-isolation encouraging us to reach out – albeit virtually – to our fellow man) that have emerged.
“If I’d been writing the Black Mirror version of a pandemic unfolding across the planet, it would’ve been incredibly violent and society would’ve collapsed into dust,” Brooker said at a recent press conference to promote his new Netflix project, Death to 2020. “And actually generally speaking at the moment thus far there is more… your neighbour is more likely to help you with something than they are to fight you for a bottle of water.”
The real pandemic, Brooker says, actually left him feeling unexpectedly bullish. “I’ve always been – and you wouldn’t tell this from Black Mirror! – but I’ve always been a a very paranoid and worried person who’s neurotically concerned that the worst thing possible is about to happen… and oddly when this happened, on some levels I pivoted to a strange kind of almost optimism, because once something terrible is happening, it’s suddenly a real and going concern and you’re not worrying about some great unknown, you’re dealing with an actual situation.”
Death to 2020 is a star-studded mockumentary from Brooker and Black Mirror producer Annabel Jones, with an eclectic and eccentric roster of characters each providing their own unique perspective on the year. It is, according to Brooker, “a very different beast” to anything they’ve put out before, including the Wipe retrospectives aired on the BBC.
“Every year [on the Wipe specials] I seemed to be saying ‘this is the worst year ever’ and then along comes 2020 and puts all of that into sharp relief! So it’s been an interesting year to approach – and the approach of this particular special is very different from the kind of stuff I’ve done in the past.
“For one thing I’m not in it, which is a relief to everyone – and it’s more sort of character-based.”
The sense of humour, though, will be familiar to any fans of Brooker and Jones’ past efforts. “It’s not just a sort of cathartic, gruelling watch – there’s a lot of stupid jokes in there as well!”
The film assembles a fantastic collective of star names – including Samuel L Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow, Leslie Jones, Black Mirror’s Cristin Milioti and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery – to portray its (fictional) talking heads, with Death to 2020’s “high-end” documentary stylings intended as something of a parody of Netflix’s own factual output.
“Netflix has had great success with doing a lot of documentaries – often about appalling things happening, with beautiful cinematography,” Brooker says. “So [the format] seemed like a good opportunity to do something that was talking about the year and was also gently tweaking the nose of a format that you would see on Netflix.”
Brooker began working with a team of writers on the special in the summer of 2020, but the script remained fluid, changing and evolving as the months went by. Filming took place over just 10 days in late November – around a month before the film’s premiere date.
“The main stories that we focus on are huge global stories – coronavirus or Black Lives Matter or the US election,” says Jones, Brooker’s partner in production outfit Broke And Bones, of the unique production. “Those are big stories that affect the whole world, so we knew what the structure of the show was going to be, but maybe with a few surprises along the way.”
“It’s tricky to do something where it’s a moving target and you’re still in the thick of it,” Brooker adds. “It’s been quite a reactive script, the script has changed a lot as we go through – there were some things we could try and pre-empt but you can’t completely predict… and we didn’t know what the ending was!”
With days still to go, fingers crossed it’s nothing like the denouement of an episode of Black Mirror…