For Will Poulter, acting in Black Mirror was a dream. Which is why he originally decided not to do it.
“To be honest I had a bit of a freak-out, and while I was really keen to be a part of their episode, I just wasn’t certain that I was capable,” Poulter told me around a year after he first got the call that the Black Mirror team might be interested in him playing Colin Ritman, the genius video game programmer who pops up throughout viewer-directed episode Bandersnatch.
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“I was quite nervous about playing the character with such a short amount of time to prepare. I think there was about two weeks,” Poulter said, looking back.
“And I thought if I was going to embark on a role like this, I’d want a lot longer. And I didn’t know if I can do it justice.”
In the end, as a massive fan of the series and not wanting to let the opportunity slip through his fingers (and after a Skype pep talk with co-showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones), Poulter took the gig – but if anything, the shoot for Bandersnatch turned out to be even more challenging than he could have imagined.
“At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to incorporate a far-reaching gaming analogy, it did feel like filmmaking on a more difficult level,” he said.
“It felt like boss-level filmmaking, where lots of it felt familiar – we were managing character arcs, we were shooting at a fairly fast pace, which is customary with television – but we also had multiple character arcs, and we were shooting far more material than you usually would.”
And while it’s common for TV series and movies to shoot out of sequence, the multiple narratives of Bandersnatch (accessed by viewers choosing different options at regular “choice points” throughout the film) meant that the actors often had to play completely different versions of their characters multiple times during a single day of filming, covering every option, replay and conclusion based on the sprawling multiple-choice storyline.
“It was difficult to keep track of when shooting scenes, yes,” Fionn Whitehead (who plays lead character Stefan in Bandersnatch) told RadioTimes.com, adding that his own centrality to the story meant he was involved in almost every scene.
“We shot the whole thing in seven weeks, which is an incredibly short amount of time to shoot that amount of material,” he continued. “So we were getting through so much stuff that often there wasn’t time to stop and think.”
“You’d be in a close-up, and you’d do four versions in a series,” recalled Poulter.
“So you’ll say something, and then there’ll be a pause, and the camera keeps rolling, and you’ll say something else, and the camera keeps rolling, and you say a third option, the camera keeps rolling – and that’s because you’re accommodating all of the different choices.
“And it’s kind of bizarre to jump into those moments and then factor in what you may have done just before you shot that version, and what may be about to do after the fact. That’s where the brains start to scramble.
“For Fionn, who actually breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, it must have been even more mind-bending.”
According to the actors, the only way to get past this hurdle was to try and ignore everything else beyond the particular scene they were shooting at any given moment, relying on director David Slade and script supervisor Marilyn Kirby for guidance as to which versions of Colin and Stefan they were supposed to be playing.
“Just before we’d shoot the scene, I’d go and talk to Marilyn, the script supervisor, or I’d talk to David, the director, and we’d talk about what had happened previously to this, whether a choice point would have affected that, and whether we were shooting two variations of the scene as a direct result of the choice point affecting it,” Whitehead explained.
“Or whether there was going to be another version, which had the dialogue slightly changed because of different choice points that had been chosen earlier, or because of someone having to go back to the beginning and re-do the whole thing.
“So it was very confusing,” he continued, “and very daunting, in a way. It was a big undertaking. I just had to be very clear, or at least as clear as I possibly could be about what the scene was when going into it, taking it one scene at a time.
As the sage-like Colin, meanwhile, Poulter had a slightly different approach.
“David and I would often talk in terms of ‘knowing’,” he told us. “We would often say to each other, right before a take – ‘And how “knowing” do you think Colin is in this moment? Oh, this is all-knowing. Ok, sweet.’
“’Oh no, this time you’re just vaguely suspicious of Stefan.’ ‘How high shall I dial the raised eyebrows on this one?’”
“David Slade was remarkable in terms of how he was able to kind of keep an eye on all the different strands that existed to the narrative,” the actor added.
“And Marilyn, our script supervisor, is potentially the unsung hero of this film. She was amazing at making sure that we kind of covered all the bases.”
“To try and keep track of the whole story as one would have just been madness,” Whitehead concluded, “because of the magnitude of the story and the branching narratives.”
In the end, Poulter and Whitehead managed to keep their sanity AND deliver some compelling performances – apparently, when “playing” the episode later they even remembered how a few of the storylines played out step by step – and Poulter says the experience of performing to an active, involved audience was a challenge he won’t forget.
“It was made much harder when you have this interactive element,” he said, “because the story can split off into so many different directions.
“Really, you’re just trying to make sure your performance caters to the choices that people have made. And you’re having to be more cognizant of the audience experience than you might be normally.
“Still, I’m glad that I got on the field, as it were,” he added. “I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity.”
Sounds like he chose the right path after all.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is streaming on Netflix now