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Rashida Jones and Michael Schur talk about bringing funny to Black Mirror

Michael Schur, Rashida Jones (Photo: Dominik Magdziak Photography/Getty Images)

Before Rashida Jones bid farewell to Parks And Recreation and beautiful tropical fish Ann Perkins, she regularly worked with that show’s creator Michael Schur. But for all the years of their long friendship—which started on their second day of college—they had never written with each other. That is, until they collaborated on “Nosedive,” one of the six episodes in Black Mirror’s new season on Netflix. Though they would seem an odd pair for creator Charlie Brooker’s often-horrific anthology given their sitcom background, their sensibilities match this frequently funny installment that critiques our social media-obsessed culture.

The episode, directed by Anna Karenina’s Joe Wright, takes place in a baby pink future where every human interaction is rated in an Uber-esque fashion. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, who is consumed with improving her standing in the social stratosphere. She needs to up her rating in order to move into her dream house, and sees an opportunity present itself when her childhood friend (Alice Eve) invites her to be her maid of honor. Unsurprisingly, Lacie’s ability to remain perfectly pleasant is challenged when her plans start going awry. The A.V. Club sat down with Jones and Schur at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss how they got involved with the anthology series.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix)

The A.V. Club: Your episode seems uncharacteristically hopeful for Black Mirror.

Michael Schur: That was certainly the intention. After [Lacie’s] kind of unplanned jail break from the system that she is in, she ends up physically confined, everything lost, all of her goals not only unmet, but now unachievable. Then the intention was to say that maybe this is the happiest she’s been in her entire life.

AVC: How did this all come together?

Rashida Jones: Well, we were both giant Black Mirror fans, and I weaseled my way into Charlie [Brooker]’s life. He was very, very nice about it. I had a friend who worked at Channel 4; I told him I was a big fan; I asked him if Charlie would be okay with me emailing him. We had a bit of a correspondence.


MS: And this was like years ago.

RJ: Yeah, this was like three, four years. And then we kept in touch, and he told me he was doing an American series. I called Mike.


MS: We’ve known each other forever. And I, apropos of nothing, said “Have you seen Black Mirror? I can’t stop. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve watched every episode four times.” And she was like, “I know the guy.” Because that’s what Rashida always says. And he was looking potentially for writers for an episode so we just…

RJ: Told him it would be us.

MS: Informed him that he found the right people.

AVC: Did he approach you with the general concept for the episode?

MS: More than the general concept. It was the idea and the outline.

RJ: The world is in his mind.

AVC: Did he say, “this is episode I want you to do,” or were there other options?


MS: This was the only one that he wanted us to do, and it was a pretty complete four-page, prose description of the story. We went through beat by beat and scene by scene. Part of the stated objective was to have it be comedic, and maybe slightly more comedic than the average Black Mirror episode. I think they’re all pretty funny, but it’s a comedic idea of a woman slowly losing her place on earth.

AVC: Or highly depressing.

MS: It’s like dozens of individual comedic incidents. We just sort of tried to triangulate how much or how little of the beats should be funny or should be dramatic.


RJ: And also, to track her emotional state and her relationship with the world around her and how it’s slowly changing. That, I think for us, was the meat of the story—where she is and where she ends up.

MS: Honestly, all that we—I’ll speak for you—wanted to do was like make sure we executed his idea properly because we were such huge fans, so most of what we did over the phone was like, “Is this okay? Is this okay? Is this okay?”

AVC: Mike, you have created successful sitcoms, and Rashida, you have written a film, but what was it like working with that framework?


RJ: I don’t mean to be overly obsequious, but I am such a big fan [of Charlie’s]. I just want to be a part of his process. I was just completely deferential because I knew I could learn so much from the way he thinks about it, so I just tried to think the way he would think and hopefully he would like the way I thought, and then he graded me on an Uber scale.

AVC: What was your thinking behind the use of profanity in the episode and how it is doled out?


MS: One of the worst things you could do in that world is curse at someone, which is why we have her do it. So we wanted, and I think Charlie wanted, to show, “this is not okay.” It’s way more not okay in that world than it is not okay in our world. Then the fun of it was that at the end the very liberating sequence was just her going crazy. It’s because she’s broken out of that universe now. In a world where everyone is rating you all of the time and the tiniest infraction can mean the difference between getting into the house you want to buy—those moments were very carefully chosen.

RJ: It’s also really fun to write cuss words. Just in general.

MS: It’s one of my favorite things.

RJ: It’s one of my favorite things, too.

MS: It’s a very blunt and effective instrument for showing frustration.

AVC: You guys worked together on Parks And Rec for many years, but this was your first time writing together. What was that experience like?


MS: It was pretty terrible.

RJ: Awful. It’s never going to happen again—I loved it. I was so happy. It was weird that we haven’t.


MS: Yeah, it is weird.

RJ: And it was fun, because we could kind of talk shit for a long time and then we’d get to it. It was an excuse to spend time together. And also because Mike has successfully run TV shows and I’ve never done that, and I’ve never been in a writer’s room. It was nice to have his guidance and trust in this process.


MS: It was very fun and it was very equal. Like, there was a very equal division of labor, which was nice. I think I wrote the first half and you wrote the second half? There’s a midway point in the story, which is basically her finding out that her friend doesn’t want her to come. I was like “All right, I’ll write up to there and you write after that.” So, we each wrote half, we folded it together, we blended and mixed and stuff and we rewrote it together as a team. It was very fun. Most of what we talked about was how weird it was that this was the first thing we wrote together.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: Did you come into this with strong feelings about technology like Instagram and Uber?

MS: It’s a good question.

RS: I do have very strong, very conflicted feelings about rating systems and social media. Remember when everybody had BlackBerrys there was something like “red light blinking disease” where the people would obsessively look at their BlackBerrys to see if the red light started blinking?


MS: There was also “phantom buzz.” When people would take their BlackBerry out of their pocket. They would feel like it was buzzing.

RJ: That’s fucked up. But yeah, I wish for myself as an adult that I cared less what people thought of me, especially people who don’t know me. I remember the first time I was upset about something on social media you said, “It’s like you walking down a hallway and you peek your head into a room and there’s a bunch of people talking about you and they don’t even know you and you’re like upset for a sec and you’re like, ‘Fuck this! They don’t even know me! I’m outta here.’”


MS: And also, specifically, that you have the option to go into that room or not. You’re told there’s a bunch of strangers talking shit about you in there, it’s up to you to poke your head in or not. So I am not on Facebook. I’m not on Instagram. I only use Twitter, which I wish I didn’t. I stopped using Twitter for a while just because I got sick of it and I started using it again, but I don’t check the “mentions.”

RJ: You don’t?

MS: Almost never. And the reason is because I was like, “Why do I keep going out of my way to see comments written by people to me, at me, that I don’t know and didn’t ask for?” And I guess you could say that I ask for them, because if you tweet you ask for it, but I just don’t really check it. It’s usually infuriating.


RJ: Well, it’s related to this episode. Your “mentions” are right next to your “timeline.” So it’s designed to make you care as much about incoming global news as you do about funny jokes about global news and [as you do about] what strangers think of you, which is really what this episode is all about. We do hold those things similarly important, you know?

MS: It’s a false equivalency. I also think that that the main problem with a lot of social media stuff in terms of ratings is it’s a very skewed motivation. Like, people do things with terrible motivations and those motivations are selfish and self-interested and financially driven, instead of—and I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish—but, you should be nice to people because it’s better to be nice to people than mean to people, not because you think there’s something in it for you.


RJ: This is the most extreme example, but that Periscope rape case where this girl was live-Periscoping her friend’s rape. Her defense was—when you’re on Periscope, you get these little hearts—she was addicted to the positive reinforcement, and so she forgot that it was real.

AVC: There’s such a distinct look to this world, and it echoes the idea of the perfectly composed Instagram photo. Was that something you were thinking about?


RJ: It’s so beautifully conceived that I was like, “This is so confectionary and satisfying,” and I found myself, as I do often on Instagram, really responding to it in a visceral way, where it’s like, “This place is so perfect and beautiful!” When I see somebody sun-drenched in a shot with their espadrilles and a cup of coffee, I’m like, “Your life is amazing. It’s so perfect.” I get drawn into that very easily so it totally worked, because the visual style sucks you in. It makes you want that.

AVC: Do you want to collaborate on a writing project again?

MS: No.

RJ: No, never again—Yeah, maybe.

MS: What would we do? We have to do something that’s as weird as writing a Black Mirror episode.


RJ: A musical?

MS: We should write like a Gilbert and Sullivan style musical that has to be performed on an old sailing vessel.


RJ: At this point, the expectation is very high. Like, we met doing a play freshman year.

MS: We didn’t technically meet there. We did a play freshman year, but we met like on day two of college.


RJ: That’s right.

MS: We met day two and we did a play that fall.

RJ: But that’s how we became friends.

AVC: Were you guys in the same year?

RJ and MS: Yeah.

MS: This is like our 23rd anniversary of meeting each other, literally right now.


RJ: Oh yeah!

MS: September.

RJ: Happy 23rd! I think that’s wood? What’s the gift?

MS: Friends?

RJ: Wood for friends.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Black Mirror (Photo: Netflix)

AVC: What kind of reaction have you received when you’ve told people that you did this?

RJ: They’re confused. Rightfully confused.

MS: Well, we were sort of sworn to secrecy because the show, rightfully so, guards its secrets, so as it began to leak out after they made the announcement, I got a lot of texts from friends and emails from friends and most of them were just pure jealousy.


RJ: Yeah.

MS: They’re like, “You got to do this!” Which is how, by the way, I would have reacted.


RJ: I would have been so upset.

AVC:. Did writing it change your feelings about social media at all or deepen them?


RJ: I think I feel confusion and shame about my own relationship to it, and I think it’s sort of nice to push it this far. And it’s kind of cathartic because I realize my need to be liked or my need for strangers to rate me well, even with their words and their thoughts, I’m not alone in that, and the whole thing is set up culturally so we feel that way, and hopefully enough of a light is shone—Shined?

MS: Shone.

RJ: Shone on that in this episode.

MS: Shorn.

RJ: Shorned on that. I hope enough sheep are shorn on the show that like people don’t feel alone, but also that you can kind of take the time to existentially evaluate what it means to you.


AVC: Sometimes nice things happen online. Did you aim to show that?

MS: I would say that the episode is less concerned with that aspect of it. What it’s saying is, in a world where your interactions with humans are solely about rating one to five, two things happen: One is all humanity is lost in the name of fake pleasantries and also there’s no nuance to that system. There’s no room for complex interactions that are rich and meaningful. My assumption about it would be [Charlie] was less interested in the obviously true statement that good things happen online, too.


RJ: But I do think that because it’s a simplistic system it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, because you’re trying to ensure that people treat each other well, in a very kind of simplistic way.

MS: Right. If the system, instead of rankings, was a world where everyone had a gun to their head if they were mean and they’d be shot, you wouldn’t think that’s a good system. To me, that’s what this is about, people acting all the time like there’s a gun to their head, instead of the way they would normally act.


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