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Charlie Melcher talks new Mr. Robot companion book and the future of TV storytelling

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Mr. Robot’s main character Elliott Anderson, played by Rami Malek, is so proficient with computers that if he wanted to log his thoughts and musings on them and also ensure that no one else would be able to access this writing, he likely could. And yet, featured prominently in Season 2 of the show is a journal – a physical journal – that Elliott utilizes to record his private thoughts.

The Mr. Robot team has decided to create an actual version of the book, titled “Red Wheelbarrow,” for fans. It is the only official tie-in book for Mr. Robot and was authored by show creator Sam Esmail and writer Courtney Looney.

If second screen apps have seen varying levels of usage and success over the years, complementary books have been a steady source of pleasure for TV superfans. That is largely because of Charlie Melcher, who, with his team at Melcher Media, has produced these types of books for Comedy Central (‘South Park: A Stickyforms Adventure’), HBO (‘Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell’), Bravo (‘Top Chef: The Cookbook’), Syfy, USA, and others.

When the Mr. Robot team decided to create a version of Elliot’s journal, they turned to Melcher and team.

Melcher is also the director of the Future of StoryTelling (FoST), an annual conference that pulls together technology, media, and communications professionals to discuss how storytelling continues to evolve. In addition to this year’s invitation-only summit, there will also be a FoST Fest open to the public that will feature augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), experiential theater, and other exhibits.

For more on Red Wheelbarrow, TV show companion books, and the future of storytelling, we spoke with Melcher:

Found Remote: Mr. Robot is about cybersecurity and hackers. So then why is an official book - a physical one - the perfect show complement?

Charlie Melcher: For MR. ROBOT, the show's creator and USA Network reached out to us due to our recent work on complex books like S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, because the show's second season heavily features a personal journal kept by the main character, Elliot Alderson. We worked closely with the production to match the onscreen prop as exactly as possible, while also generating a full new story written by show creator Sam Esmail and show writer Courtney Looney, complete with original handwriting and illustrations, plus seven removable artifacts from the world of the show.

As a huge fan of the show, I can say that one of the most fascinating aspects of hacking and cybersecurity that it reveals is how much hacking depends on real-world materials and activity. The journal in the second season embodies that; it's Elliot's attempt to "go analog." We were thrilled to have the opportunity to recreate something from the show's universe that fans can literally hold in their hands. It also functions as a kind of hack directly into Elliot's mind, and works as a brand-new episode of the show, in a new format. I'm especially excited to talk about some of the ways we stretch and even break the conventions of how a book can work; we'll be revealing more about that as we move closer to the book's release date.

FR: Shows like to focus efforts on complementary "second screen" apps and experience. How does this book help serve those goals?

Melcher: "Second screen" apps are meant to be experienced while watching the show. In this case, we view the book as a whole separate episode, viewed apart from the show but of a piece with it. And the book interprets the reality-bending, deeply psychological nature of MR. ROBOT into a new medium. At Melcher Media, we're always looking for ways to make all formats across both print and digital as immersive as possible. Immersive theater, virtual reality, interactive fiction—innovations on each of these can cross-pollinate across formats to create new ideas, and new ways to tell stories. MR. ROBOT is a great example of innovative television that's extended out to VR through their recent VR short, and interactive fiction with the MR. ROBOT mobile game. We're thrilled to be bringing Sam Esmail's creation to books as well.

FR: You have worked with networks like MTV, HBO, Bravo, and Syfy on non-digital extensions. Why are these extensions so appealing to superfans?

Melcher: I think there are two reasons that these kinds of extensions appeal to superfans. First, they provide insider knowledge and a deeper understanding of a show, it’s world and its characters—whether that’s through interviews with the cast and creators, annotated scripts, behind-the-scenes photography, or other ephemera. Second, they can fill in a show’s backstory and extend upon the world of the show and give readers a deeper understanding of it. The MR. ROBOT book, for example, is literally an object seen on the show, a diary that the main character, Elliot Alderson, writes in and supposedly burns—although it ends up being saved. So fans get to read his inner thoughts and unearth clues about his story and mental state. It makes the reader feel like a participant in the show’s universe.

I think when these kinds of show extensions are done well—when they both provide new information and look and feel like an authentic part of a show’s fictional world—they let the fan take a piece of that world home with them and make them feel one step closer to it, more connected with it. And that in turn gives them a feeling of coauthorship or agency.

FR: You are also directing the Future of StoryTelling (FoST) conference, now in its fifth year. “Storytelling” touches on all forms of media, but what trends are you seeing around the medium of TV and video content in particular?

Melcher: One of the trends I’m seeing is the growing popularity of short-form video, with the success of Snapchat, Vine, Instagram Stories, and other formats. The length of time in which a story can be told has become very malleable. It used to be that TV shows were thirty minutes or sixty minutes—and the full story was told and resolved during that period. Now, a short-form video can tell a story in two or three seconds, and a long-form TV series is ten to fifteen episodes told serially, and you can binge-watch at once from start to finish. So storytelling has been freed up to take on the format that makes the most sense for the content, and to accommodate the time people have to consume it—whether that’s a short clip that they watch on their phone while doing other things, or a whole series that they binge-watch over a weekend.

Another trend is the ability for people to create their own fan fiction, tribute videos, and other kinds of extensions and share those through social media. People are hungry to experience the stories they love with other people, and that no longer needs to happen while sitting in their living rooms with their family or friends. Now, fans can connect through social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to talk about their favorite shows in real time. People will tweet, make GIFs and short videos, and share them as a show is airing. Kevin Slavin and Kenyatta Cheese talk about this phenomenon in their FoST film, “The Audience Has an Audience,” which you can watch here. This idea of being an active member of fan communities around our favorite shows is another way of giving them meaning and value to us.

FR: How will technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality engage audiences in ways that one-way communication (like TV) can’t?

Melcher: I think one of the most profound shifts that has taken place in modern times is that people are no longer as interested in being passive consumers of their media. Most of us grew up in an age when all mass media was uni-directional. You had no choice but to sit back and watch or listen or read content, because that’s how all the technology worked. So, it was a passive act to consume media.

Then the Internet came around, and it was the first two-way mass media in history. All of a sudden, people had the ability to comment, to share, to give feedback, and to create. And this is what ushered in the new wave of social media, where people could comment and share. But the bar keeps rising, and people’s expectations now are for much greater engagement than just commenting or sharing. People today want to be part of the story. They want to co-author, they want to have agency, they want to have a role to play.

I see that human desire playing out in the next generation of technologies. While a lot of the VR work that I’m seeing right now is still being made in the tradition of film, with a primary, linear story, the medium is just in its infancy and still trying to find its own voice. More and more through technologies like VR and AR, people are being given the ability to discover, interact, or in some cases even control the evolution of the story. You’re no longer a passive voyeur, you are actually in it, physically able to experience what it’s like to battle Darth Vader or save the princess. To me, it’s like the difference between seeing shadows on a wall and seeing actual objects. It’s that profound of a shift in consciousness between watching things on a screen and being the actor in the middle of the adventure.

So VR and AR storytellers are just starting to figure out how to hand over the controls and create the kinds of stories that will let people have co-authorship. And this has been an important theme at the FoST Summit and is now the primary focus of the FoST FEST—exploring the evolving role of the audience in the digital age, from passive consumers of content to active participants. There are so many new ways that people are becoming heroes in their own adventures, whether that’s through these early experiments in VR, and AR, or with the help of sensors or artificial intelligence, or other natural user interfaces. This desire for people to play a more active role is also seen in the increasing popularity of things like immersive theater, LARPing, and Escape the Rooms. All of these forms of entertainment are feeding this human need we have to experience the world, and to do what stories have always done, which is allow us to understand ourselves better by trying on new roles and seeing the world from other people's perspectives.

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