Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In today’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum talks with “Homecoming” star Julia Roberts and creator-director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”), ahead of the series’ Nov. 2 premiere on Amazon.
The psychological thriller, based on a podcast of the same name by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, focuses on a former caseworker, played by Roberts, who worked at a mysterious facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life.
When Roberts and Esmail first met over Skype, it was an instant “alchemy,” Roberts said. Because she hadn’t ever led a television series before, Roberts wanted Esmail to direct all the episodes and serve as “a captain” to maintain stability over such a long period of filming.
“I just felt coming into television, I needed something, some way of creating content that was familiar and a comfort to me, and the thing that I rely on utterly, is my director and that continuity,” Roberts said. “And I couldn’t imagine, particularly with a piece like this, chopping it into pieces and giving each piece to someone else to care for on our behalf.”
Esmail said the natural chemistry between him and Roberts, as well as with the rest of the cast and crew, resulted in an unusually smooth production. Even though industry veterans often warn of “the grind” that gradually wears people down over the course of filming, it never crept up on them.
“We were just always trying to have a good time every day we came to work. We were all friends and we all really liked each other. It was genuine, it was authentic,” Esmail said.
When his agent first brought up the option to turn the podcast into a show, Esmail was initially reluctant to mess with a good thing. But when he binged the podcast for a second time, he realized there were moments that were limited by the format that he could then explore visually. When there’s only a narrator, often times they’re telling the audience what has already happened and therefore ‘killing the suspense,’” Esmail said.
“Now, in the visual format, we can actually be with those two characters as we’re in suspense as to what is actually going on. And then when they discover it, we’re along with the ride with them,” he said.
Similarly, Roberts was initially skeptical that a 30-minute drama could adequately cover all the plotlines they wanted. But Esmail said if a story is laser focused and intimate enough, an hour would be needless. Plus, viewers will feel like they’re watching a continuous narrative if they binge it all at once, without the painful wait.
“I wanted people to have pain,” Roberts joked. “I wanted people to have to wait that week. That way, it’s a happy fury.”