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Charlie Brooker Talks AI, USS Callister Sequel

Charlie Brooker Talks AI, USS Callister Sequel

Charlie Brooker anticipates a lot of things. As the creator and writer of Black Mirror, his Emmy-winning sci-fi Netflix series has predicted everything from new Apple technology to the election of a certain U.S. president.

With the season six episode “Joan Is Awful,” Brooker knew the AI-centered story would be timely. But even his dystopian crystal ball couldn’t have foreseen that the Ally Pankiw-directed installment starring Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek would become a flashpoint in Hollywood’s AI battle.

“A couple of times on the show, there’s been something I’ve written and then something similar happens in the real world similar-ish, says Brooker. “Narcissistically, you start to feel like, ‘This is too big a coincidence. I feel like I’m living in a simulation.’”

Brooker says he wrote the episode in summer of 2022. One week after filming began that fall, ChatGPT rolled out. The following summer, in 2023, the latest season of Black Mirror dropped and, with “Joan Is Awful” as the first episode. It was an actor’s worst nightmare brought to screen.

The episode follows businesswoman Joan (Murphy) unwittingly stumbling upon a streaming show about her life (on a Netflix-like platform named Streamberry). All of her movements — from bad to ultimately disgusting (she takes a dump in a church in a bid to make her life so awful that people will stop watching) — play out in 24-hour delay on the series, which recruited the beloved Hayek to play Joan. Once Hayek (playing herself) revolts over her AI-generated image being used in the show, Hayek and Joan team up in a meta battle against the streaming giant, which, per its terms and conditions, owns the rights to their likeness for the AI series.

The industry was in the middle of the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike when the episode released. Weeks later, on July 14, SAG-AFTRA members joined the writers on strike. All of a sudden, “Joan Is Awful” — which hit on themes that were central to the labor disputes — became a lightning rod amid the double writers and actors strikes.

“Someone sent me a photo of someone on the picket line dressed as Joan in her cheerleader outfit,” Brooker recalls of the surreal timeline of events. “Of all the episodes we’ve ever done, the timeliness of it absolutely couldn’t have been more spooky.” (Even more spooky: Two weeks after this interview, news broke that generative AI is coming to streaming so viewers can create their own shows using AI.)

In the conversation below, Brooker reveals what inspired him to create the episode (while musing about what a sequel could look like) and weighs in on the AI conversation now, while also discussing the upcoming seventh season of Black Mirror and the show’s first-ever (and highly anticipated) sequel to the Emmy-winning season four “USS Callisterepisode.


The timing of the release of “Joan Is Awful” may be the most Charlie Brooker thing that has ever happened. What was it like to watch that play out as the AI conversation began to explode?

It was really odd. So, I must have written it in June-July in 2022. When we shot it, it was September-October. It was just before ChatGPT launched. I think it was about a week later that ChatGPT came out and suddenly, everyone was talking about generative AI and how all creative jobs were going to be replaced, pushed out or automated. There’s also a lot of raw animal panic that takes over as a writer as soon as you see some of that generative AI output. I’d seen some of [AI chatbot app] Midjourney, the image generating stuff.

For a while I had wanted to do a story about a news network that bills itself as satire that isn’t showing news but is showing satirical content, which is photorealistic imagery of political figures either being humiliated or looking heroic. And the idea that was a strange way of doing propaganda that they could claim was satirical, but that was ridiculous and absurd. It was a funny and disturbing idea, but I couldn’t work out quite what the story was.

Then I was watching The Dropout, the Hulu drama about the Theranos scandal starring Amanda Seyfried, with my wife and we were discussing how weird it would be — because it was dramatizing very recent events — if you were Elizabeth Holmes watching this and it’s getting so up to date that in a minute, she’s going to put the TV on and see The Dropout. And so those two ideas kind of glommed together: of AI-generated imagery starring real figures — and a dramatization of somebody’s life that’s depicting them in a terrible light. (Laughs.)

As “Joan” came out, I knew it was timely. That season was originally going to be a season of all horror stories called Red Mirror. I was part way into the season and then I had this idea and I thought: It’s not horror. I mean, it’s existentially terrifying, but it’s not horror. It’s definitely a very Black Mirror idea. So I thought, “Fuck it, OK” [about the Red Mirror idea]. I felt like it had to be done now. I definitely couldn’t wait for another season to do it. So when the ChatGPT conversation caught fire and when it became a huge issue because of the strikes, I was slightly wiping my brow with relief that we got the episode out before. The timing of it was surreal. Hopefully, it added to the conversation.

Charlie Brooker at a Netflix Black Mirror April event in Hollywood.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

The idea that a streaming giant could do whatever it wanted with a person’s image — and replace a real-life actor with an AI-generated one — brought to life fears that striking writers and actors were fighting against on the picket lines. What writing on the wall had you seen in the industry?

That started out as a terms and conditions gag. So, Annie Murphy’s character Joan goes to her lawyer and says, “How can I stop them from doing this?” And her lawyer points out that when she first signed up for Streamberry, she will have — as we all did — scrolled through 78 pages of nonsense and just clicked “Accept.” And that’s given them the right to do this. So the intention at the time was not to comment on actors, it was a comment on the rights you unthinkingly sign away when you hit “Accept” on all sort of devices. With Alexa devices, you have to agree that your voice recordings will be uploaded somewhere — and God knows what’s going on there.

But it was interesting that both Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek were already concerned about this sort of thing. It was already on their radar. Especially as a female actor, fake images pop up, and for a while, I was already thinking about deepfake stuff. So it was like the gods were kind of smiling on us, where it made sense within the story that she was a customer of it, but it also spoke to this wider, insane situation coming around the corner. If the episode played any part in helping to galvanize people or entertainingly lay some of the issues out, then that’s fantastic.

Did actors and writers reach out to you saying that?

I got some emails from writers and directors, and actors were talking about it. Someone sent me a photo of someone on the picket line dressed as Joan in her cheerleader outfit. As a British writer, I’m somewhat insulated and not in the thick of a lot of those arguments or conversations. So it was interesting that I hit on something that was so of the moment. Of all the episodes we’ve ever done, the timeliness of it absolutely couldn’t have been more spooky.

One person we never heard a reaction from was Cate Blanchett (who played Joan in Hayek’s version of the Streamberry series). That was a funny surprise casting. Why did you think of her for this and what did she think of the episode?

We sought and got her permission to do it. When I was first writing the script, I knew we needed an A-list Hollywood star to play Joan, and we also needed Joan to be someone you know and like, where you aren’t thinking there’s going to be another twist level of reveal. The characters talk incessantly about, “Oh my God, it’s Salma Hayek playing Joan!” Which is slightly pointing you away from the fact that there are other recognizable faces at the Annie Murphy level. (Laughs.) And then once you’ve done that, you need to see that Salma is watching the show and that there is somebody playing her.

To be honest, it just struck us as funny. Because Cate Blanchett is such a classy figure. It’s a pity that we couldn’t get her to come and crap in a church like everybody else had to! And I’m sure if she had, she would have done it heartbreakingly well. (Laughs.) I didn’t have a conversation directly with her, but we heard from her reps that she was sort of into it.

Salma Hayek plays herself when she becomes caught up in the “Joan Is Awful” episode’s AI simulation.

Courtesy of Netflix

Was that crapping in the church scene one of the more fun scenes ever to write?

Probably up there! It’s so puerile, it’s so stupid. But it also makes logical sense within the story. Because, what tools does she have at her disposal? They’re making a drama of her life that goes out about 24 hours later, and all she can do is a dirty protest. [Dirty protest is a U.K. phrase referring to when prisoners smear their own excrement on the walls.] Sorry, I’ve gone and lowered the tone of this chat!

But the idea was that the only weapon at her disposal is to make her life so gross and disgusting that Salma Hayek will regret having licensed her face to the show. And it leaned into the conversation afterwards where they realize they’re both being screwed over, which was a bananas scene to write. I didn’t know who it was going to be when I wrote it. I prepared a version that was a bit more vanilla. It still had the shitting in a church scene, but it didn’t have some of the more specific references to Salma. It was “an A-list star.” We sent a version to Salma where we put her name in it. We had a Zoom with her and she got it immediately. She was everything you wanted her to be on that initial Zoom. Her one main note was, “Lean into taking the piss.” Like, “couldn’t there be more stuff?” She was very game for having the mickey taken out of herself. And, likewise, so was Annie. So once you’ve gotten the green light, I could sort of lean into it.

But, it was such a head fuck. Writing the script was difficult, because you had to have the script and then there was a satellite script that was the show-within-the-show, the one you only see on the TV. It’s always a bit of a mindfuck when you’re writing something where a character is watching something play out and you have to generate a second script. Thank God we didn’t have Cate Blanchett in there as well, because then there would have just been a Russian doll of scripts.

Typically you don’t do sequels — even though you are doing one with season seven, and we’ll get to that! — but have you thought about what your “Joan Is Awful” sequel would be? So much has happened since in the AI conversation.

Oh my God. Historically on Black Mirror, we’ve done quite a few AI episodes. We did “Be Right Back,” where Domhnall Gleeson dies and Hayley Atwell gets a chatbot version of him. We did an episode with Miley Cyrus where she plays an AI pop star and AI-generated version of her that’s composing music, and her consciousness is trapped in a doll. We did “USS Callister,” where they are not really AI, I guess they are fully conscious copies. So it’s obviously something we return to a lot across the seasons. And, I dare say it will come up again.

So I’d probably have to do it in a different way. Because if it was a direct sequel to “Joan,” I think it would make my mind melt and dribble out of my eye sockets or something. The number of conversations we had around the logic of the scenes, “OK, Michael Cera is on this fictive level, but now we’re on this fictive level.” It was making our heads hurt. [Brooker then pauses and thinks]… Well, making it would be an interesting experiment. (Laughs.) Trying to do a direct sequel to “Joan Is Awful” would be mind-boggling. The script would come out in the form of a tesseract or something.

A great photo shoot idea for you is Charlie Brooker as a Russian doll.

I was there at the church that day — we filmed all three Joans [doing that scene], including Kayla [Lorette], the real-life “source Joan,” whose take viewers see in the post-credits. It was a funny day. We’re missing a merch opportunity there: Joan Easter eggs!

One of my favorite bits in the episode is also when they break into the Streamberry building. I always like to write scenes where a character outlines something monstrous in a fairly laid back, matter-of-fact way. In the scene, Mona [Leila Farzad] from Streamberry is describing how they’re going to launch this for every single user. And the reporter is asking, “Why awful? Why are you doing these awful versions of peoples’ lives?” And she says they tried positive representations and people’s brains rejected it. Because it preys on your worst fears, people are sort of mesmerized and that really drives engagement. And I love getting to write those elements, it’s one of my favorite bits of the job.

Did Netflix, the very clear inspiration for Streamberry, have any notes for “Joan Is Awful”?

They really didn’t. The original script said “Streamberry” and it was described as a Disney+/Netflix/HBO-style streaming platform. Then, the final product happened by degrees. We went to shoot it and needed to design the front end for Streamberry and give it a logo. And we thought, “What if we just make it look like Netflix?” So we got permission. I mean, it looks a fuck of a lot like Netflix! It makes the Tudum sound. But they were kind of fine with it. There was no, “Can you change this or tone it down?” Almost disappointingly!

I read a review that said, “How did he manage to sneak this past them?” Of course I didn’t sneak it past them! As if they went, “Where did this come from!” (Laughs.) They were game. And afterwards, the Streamberry branding even popped up in Girls5eva season three [also on Netflix]. Netflix were so not bothered by the joke they let us license it and put it in Girls5eva.

Murphy as Joan, watching Streamberry.

Nick Wall/Netflix

When this first came out, ChatGPT was so new. You said at the time that maybe in five years the tech will be perfect and replace all of us, but probably not. Now that you’ve had more time with it, how do you feel about it as a writer?

Pretty much the same. It would be a fool’s game to say that it will never replace humans. And I never tried to get it to write a screenplay or anything like that. I told it to tell me a Black Mirror idea and what it came up with was very derivative, because that’s its job; to impersonate plausible content effectively by impersonating other things. So it really can’t just generate something genuinely new. There’s still a lot of stuff it just can’t do.

I can see the value in it for summarizing things. I can imagine it being like a super Eliza, the very first one of these in the ’60s or ’70s. Eliza was a program that was a sort of psychologist. It would ask you questions. “What is your name?” “Charlie.” “How are you feeling today?” “I’m feeling a little distraught.” “Well, why are you feeling distraught?” It was a bit of a magic trick, and quickly people would start conversing with it and spilling their deepest fears to this thing that is just dumb and bouncing back questions. I can see the value where it will get to that point where you are asking it questions and can say, “I’m stuck on this story,” and it’s teasing the answer out of you. But because it’s still leeching off people, it’s the mechanically reclaimed meat of the creative world. Even in illustrations, when there was this big wave of AI illustrative work taking jobs from artists, most of it you can tell by just looking at it. It has that slightly eerie style. A bit of a Body Snatchers shiver to it. I’m sure there will be tools where people feed it a 200-page script to get it down to 90 pages. But, we don’t have to do that! We don’t have to be in the iPad in the Apple ad just getting crushed!

You took a long break before last season saying the world was too bleak for more Black Mirror. What can we make of you being back in a more normal cadence?

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Oh, I wouldn’t take that as any sign of optimism! I’m more optimistic here in Britain, because I think we’re going to finally get rid of the government that we’ve had installed in this country like malware for years; that will probably get wiped out with the next election. I don’t have a good feeling about the American election, if I’m being honest. And there are all sorts of horrific things going on in the world, obviously. In writing stories for Black Mirror, I don’t tend to look at the news pages and go, “I’ve got to do a story about this.” It tends to be me generally worrying out loud. Black Mirror’s continued existence is nice for me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I think the world is in such a healthy state.

But you aren’t putting out a Red Mirror season of bleak horror dystopia.

Not just yet, no. We’re in mid-production [on season seven] at the moment, and it’s all quite mad right now. We’re at the point where you finish some of the episodes, and you are shooting another one, and prepping another one. They’re all different, all with different directors and casts. So this is the point where my head is a bit … I’m under a lot of fun pressure. It’s a nice job to have, at the end of the day.

Turning to the “USS Callister” follow-up, you haven’t done a Black Mirror sequel.


Why did you want to for this one?

This has been brewing for actually quite a long time. And it’s partly because of the way that it ends. The first one ends like you could just carry that story on and follow where they go now. So it was always like, “Hmm, I’m going to do that.” It was something we were looking at for quite a long time. There were various iterations it went through, various version we wanted to do and were discussing on and off for several years. But there are a lot of schedules to sort out, and then the pandemic got in the way. It was something that looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and so I was delighted when it did. So, it’s been a minute. But even writing the characters is a luxury I don’t often get. I’ve never had it before on Black Mirror, to have a character that survives beyond one episode! So that’s been a lot of fun, and then seeing them all on set has been fantastic.

So Cristin Milioti and the cast are back, except Jesse Plemons [whose character died in the first one]. Or, could he be back?

You’ll see. Yeah, you’ll see. (Laughs.) But we continue the story from where we left off. And there are some new characters as well. There is new stuff to do with where they’ve now ended up versus where they were. Normally, I do other shows, like Cunk on Earth, which is like a mockumentary show with Diane Morgan that’s now on Netflix. It’s a character that we had in the U.K. from this show I did called Weekly Wipe. That was the character I’d written for most, an ongoing character. So it’s a lot of fun to be able to do that now with this sequel, and it does make me also look at other episodes and go, “Oh, we could…” Usually, I think what you could do is a follow-up in the same world, even if not the same characters. Where it’s the same premise or a continuation of the theme. But anyway, we shall see.

One of the big points of doing Black Mirror is to make them all as different as possible, even though there is a unity of mind through them. When you see people compiling those tier lists of their favorites and least favorites, you some how some of them are almost always near the top. But, it’s so unpredictable! Every one is someone’s favorite, and everyone’s favorite is someone’s least favorite.

The crew of “USS Callister,” the season four Black Mirror episode that released in 2017.

Courtesy of Netflix

Oh, yes, I did one after season five and your interactive adventure with Bandersnatch. And my co-worker and I got into such a heated debate about my choices.

I think you could psychologically profile someone. The really horrible ones, like “White Bear” or “Shut Up and Dance” — really nasty, nasty ones that in my head are like the punk singles. And then you have something like “San Junipero,” which is like a booming, big love ballad. We try to get a mix every season so that there is something that will delight and probably annoy everyone. (Laughs.) You sometimes get a real visceral reaction. Like someone who has shown up and they just want a nasty “White Bear,” abrasive, horrible [episode], where “USS Callister” to them is a little too nice. Or something like “Metal Head,” which is quite a strong flavor. But it means I never get bored. I’m in the wonderful situation where I get to make these little films. The problem is I have to write them all! Usually you are writing something and convincing yourself it might get made. And I am the opposite — it’s going to happen, I’ve got to come up with something! And they’ve all got to be different. It is quite a unique challenge.

Can you tease any of the other themes or episodes in season seven? [The six-episode season is coming in 2025.]

I’d love to. But I’m pretty sure I can’t or shouldn’t. There’s so much I could say. I think I can say that we just wrapped on “Callister,” and we’ve just started on another one. I’m really excited. I’m always excited about all of them, but I think we have a really good mix. I’m about to start writing the last one, which actually is terrifying because I probably should have written it several weeks ago! We have a real mix of things, really exciting castings that have happened. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much. We’re in the bit that I really like, where you’ve locked an episode, so that’s such a good feeling. We’re doing the final polishing of the score and the mix on one of them. And we are doing something really cool right now that we’ve never done before — but I can’t say what it is.

How many seasons do you think you will go? Forever?

I don’t know, because like I said, I’m in a really, really fortunate position where I get to write this stuff, and it gets made, and I get to work with amazing people who also make me look better. And I love every minute. The editing is my favorite, actually. And there’s so much variety, so it’s in many ways inexhaustible. I’m sure I’ll find out when we’re not doing any more seasons! It will be made apparent to me at some point, I’m sure. But I’m in it for the long haul. I’m not going anywhere.

Sometimes in between seasons I have retirement fantasies. Have you ever used a jet washer? I promise this is relevant. (Laughs) I was jet washing my patio and had a moment of thinking, “This is more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done. This should have been my job. What the fuck am I doing with my life?” After about 15 minutes, the cold water is blowing up your ankles and it’s actually quite monotonous but somewhat satisfying. So sometimes I get the feeling that I should take a rest and walk the Earth a bit, but I think I’d go bonkers.

Ten minutes of you jet washing a patio as a cold open to a Black Mirror would be a really funny way to mess with the audience.

It would certainly be high risk! I’ve had all sorts of ideas of things you could do that would be unique to Netflix, that we may or may not do. Ultimately, you want the show to entertain people where they have a good time even if it’s a bad time, if that makes sense. You want people to walk away feeling something.

Back to “Joan,” I want to mention that Ally Pankiw did such a good job directing, and she’s got really funny bones. She’s a comedy writer. That’s one of the first times we had a comedy writer directing an episode. That episode is probably the most overtly comic one we’ve ever done. And you can go from something like that to [season six episodes] “Beyond the Sea” or “Loch Henry,” they all make sense to me as part of the same bit of the Black Mirror Venn diagram. So, as long as I can keep switching up the tone and the genre of what we’re doing within our own genre, I’m very happy with where I am.

All Black Mirror seasons are now streaming on Streamberry — er, Netflix.

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