Interiors is an online film and architecture publication, published by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Interiors runs an exclusive column for ArchDaily that analyzes and diagrams films in terms of space. Their Official Store will carry exclusive prints from these posts.
The visual medium of film has meant that style has always played a significant role in cinema. It’s one of the reasons why film and architecture have gone hand in hand for the past hundred years. In some sense, both mediums display complementary qualities; film as photography captures the structural aspects of architecture, while architectural design dictates cinematic space.
The same can’t be said for television – because even though television has undergone an aesthetic transformation in the past few years, with shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Detective, and The Knick, it’s still very much a character-based medium. The format itself allows for the close examination of characters over the course of many hours.
Mr. Robot opens in a New York City coffee shop (Think Coffee on 4th Avenue in reality, but named Ron’s Coffee in the series), with the majority of its first episode set entirely in a single location as it introduces its audience to the character of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). In contrast, the season wraps with a tracking shot tour of an opulent mansion, a place whose connection to the narrative of the series as a whole is shrouded in secrecy and mystery. These spaces couldn’t be more different from one another, and yet, that’s precisely where Mr. Robot finds its architectural interests – in disparate, conflicting spaces.
Mr. Robot switches between spaces that include gritty New York City streets, abandoned buildings, and modern office spaces. The sleek steel structure of E. Corp’s building façade juxtaposed with Elliot’s Lower East Side apartment building, next to fast food restaurants and subway stations, makes this arguably the most architectural television series ever.
In fact, for a television series so incredibly interested in architecture, it’s fitting that its protagonist spends his days overlooking an architectural model of the city of New York at the Queens Museum. It’s the architectural style of filmmaking, however, that makes Mr. Robot so rich.
Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot is the work of a singular author, and while it’s heavily invested in its protagonist’s unreliable narrative, it’s also very much concerned with architecture and style. This is mostly seen in its unconventional framing as well as its photography of office spaces and buildings; it’s a series interested in how spaces appear and how characters appear in those spaces.
Throughout the series, Esmail continuously uses his camera in ways that speaks to the architectural significance of spaces. In the second episode of the series, for instance, a camera is attached to the front door of Elliot’s apartment – as he opens his door, we see the entirety of the space through the movement of the camera, all in a single shot. This occurs once again in a later episode with a camera attached to the side of a car door. In fact, even the series’ most notable scene, in which our hero devastatingly discovers a deadly surprise in the trunk of a car, a sharp performance is made possible by an effective choice – holding on his reaction for an unbroken take that lasts several minutes. This is a series – and a filmmaker – inherently interested in using space to capture feeling. These significant moments throughout the series are all determined by the use of space (or lack thereof).
The most prominent space in the series is Elliot’s apartment, which becomes a safe haven for his character. It’s the one space that feels somewhat safe amid the intense chaos throughout the series; even though there are outside forces that threaten the private space, such as when Fernando Vera’s crew infiltrates the space or when Tyrell Wellick breaks in and confronts Elliot, there is a great deal of power in Elliot’s apartment. It’s more than his home, it’s where we, as an audience, continuously revert to throughout the series.
In fact, for a show that deals with so many complex ideas – crises of identity, hacking, corporatism, oppressive government surveillance – this single apartment space grounds the story. It’s how the audience can connect and identify with the hero amid these concepts.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, Matthew Munn, production designer of the pilot episode of Mr. Robot which set the stage for the remainder of the season, speaks about his work as it relates to Elliot’s apartment.
Munn notes that the apartment space is “small and cramped… it is a New York apartment after all and I wanted it to feel like one.” The space, however, is also a reflection of Elliot’s character. Elliot, for instance, isn’t the type of person who would be interested in painting his walls, which is why the filmmakers opted for warmer grays as a way of making the space feel safer, along with incandescent lighting that warms up the overall space.
The interior of his apartment also doesn’t have a particular style. “We talked a lot at the outset of prep that Elliot's apartment should be a reflection of him and his interests. In my mind, Elliot is not an interior decorator, and his apartment functions as a place for him to work and sleep.” The series effectively makes Elliot’s apartment home base, but even within this single space, there is a strong emphasis on specific spaces, such as his couch and desk. The majority of his time is spent working on his computer or doing drugs as a way of escaping from reality.
The most significant space, however, is Elliot’s desk. “The desk area was all about his work. We wanted a simple table to support what was obviously the only thing in the apartment that Elliot really spends money on – his computer.” Elliot is a character that has a homebuilt computer system that he spends his time taking apart. In a life of chaos, he finds order in his own way. “I wanted this space to feel like it was a work zone and to be cluttered in a way that only Elliot could discern its order.”
The architecture of Mr. Robot is a reflection of its characters. The clean, contemporary office spaces of E. Corp accurately reflect Tyrell’s persona, whereas the chaotic apartment space best mirrors Elliot’s lifestyle. Matthew Munn elaborates by noting, “Elliot’s apartment is almost like a cave where he goes for sanctuary and work; so much about the outside world makes Elliot uncomfortable, almost like a wild animal, and I tried to make the apartment feel like the cave that he would retreat back to.”
The 2nd Season of Mr. Robot premieres July 13th, 2016 on USA Network.
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Interiors is an online publication in which films are analyzed and diagrammed in terms of space. It is run by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Check out their Website and Official Store and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.