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Opinion and Insight

Playtest: Dan Trachtenberg Gets His Game on in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Great Guns UK, 2 weeks ago

The Great Guns director on finding the human horror in VR for his episode of the Netflix hit show

Playtest: Dan Trachtenberg Gets His Game on in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

Black Mirror, the critically acclaimed show that eyes up technology through the lens of human ineptitude has returned with a new series on Netflix. And thanks to support from Netflix, showrunner Charlie Brooker has been able to create a more cinematic, ambitious interpretation of his dystopian vision – including some help from Hollywood talent. 

Dan Trachtenberg, the director who this year released the thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, was brought on board to shoot Playtest, the second episode of the series. It’s a deeply human tale of fear and avoidance that also explores the dark side of technologies like VR and the potential of video games to create deeply emotional, immersive stories.

Playtest follows an American adventurer called Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell), who finds himself skint in London and having a fling with an intriguing video games journalist. To earn some cash he gets a job as a tester for an innovative new game that involves an implant in his brain and a night in a spooky old house…

For Dan, it was the ideal project. He may be best known for the blockbuster 10 Cloverfield Lane, but he burst onto the film world’s radar with his short film ‘Portal: No Escape’, based on the popular sci-fi puzzle game Portal. That is to say, he’s a huge gamer… but, surprisingly, that’s not what got him the job.

“Charlie Brooker also has a background in video games - he was a journalist. I did not know that about him… and he did not know that about me until we first got together and started talking. We really hit it off and it was really fun to work with someone like that – we were able to geek out throughout the whole process and inject the episode with an authenticity and little flavours of games we like in the genre,” says Dan.

Although the episode uses video games, virtual reality and mixed reality to tell its story, both Dan and Charlie were keen not to inadvertently demonise a medium that they both love. 

“Originally as the script developed there was a point where we felt it was saying ‘video games are bad’,” explains Dan. “Separate from VR there was a spin to the story that was feeling that way, and Charlie nimbly adapted that because that’s not how we feel. We wanted to make it more about the characters and not that video games were causing all this bad stuff, because it doesn’t, ultimately. It’s people.”

Instead the episode is a great exercise in the tropes and rhythms of the horror genre – and Dan had lots of fun toying with audience expectations – but it was also a chance for Dan and Charlie to explore the emotional potential of games. 

“I personally have been just as – if not more – impacted by video games recently than I have been by movies. You can be so profoundly moved and they are so experiential. I have had some incredible experiences with video games and I know Charlie has as well, and I think there’s a real power to move people through that kind of storytelling. I’m glad that that’s a take-away of the episode – how technology can be used in that positive way… before it all goes awry! We’re just now getting to a more sophisticated place where video games are a real art form; where they’re not just about competition and more about the story.” 

But not only did Dan and Charlie get to play around with a medium they both love (and there are lots of Easter Eggs for gamers), the project was also fun from a production perspective too. Most TV shows have a pre-existing cast, standing sets and an established tone, so incoming filmmakers simply slot in as a ‘director for hire’. However, due to the anthology nature of Black Mirror, the episode’s production felt more like that of a ‘mini movie’. That meant that while Playtest was authored by Charlie, it was very much a collaborative, creative process.

“Charlie is really the author of the series and this episode – it totally comes from his mind. But I did get the chance to contribute as much as a director can contribute,” says Dan. “These are little movies, essentially, and I was able to develop the script with Charlie like a director would on a movie, in a short amount of time. He was able to write so quickly and so smartly that we were able to do something of movie calibre as quickly as we did. But ultimately it’s his voice – I think there’s a little flavour from myself and Wyatt, but it’s very Charlie.”

The whole project took about three and a half months, including 18 days of shooting. It also meant that Dan, who is usually based in LA, got to spend plenty of time with the team at Great Guns, who represent him for commercials. He also got the chance to explore London through the eyes of a tourist – something that he tends not to do when he travels.

Another revelation for Dan was working with Wyatt Russell on the film, an actor who he says captured the easy going humour of protagonist Cooper as well as giving an incredibly raw performance (without giving away too much, the horror crescendos to a tough emotional gut punch).

“Wyatt really delivered. He really got to a place that was incredibly tense and emotional. What was interesting – well I don’t want to give away spoilers – but we were very careful with how many takes we could do towards the end but he really put himself through some turmoil. I think that’s why the end became so emotional; he really chose to do things a certain way that he didn’t have to do,” says Dan, who is keen to work with the actor again.

At the end of such an enjoyable process, though, the burning question has to be: would Dan be up for a Playtest-like experience himself?

“No!” says Dan with a laugh. “Charlie and I both share this: we both don’t like horror games! I’ve played all the games that are referenced in the episode because I’ve played tonnes of horror games, I play most games… But I realised that with that kind of games… even something like Bioshock, I don’t actually have fun. I’m too scared. It’s a tension-filled experience and it’s so visceral, ultimately I’d rather not be holding the controller right now. So I definitely would not be doing that…

“… the Gopher Game is amazing, though. I’d play that one.” 

So while he might not be off immersing himself in the latest virtual reality horror games any time soon, Dan is instead focusing on getting back into commercials following this year’s successes with Black Mirror and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Genre: People , Strategy/Insight