Summer 2018


Big Tech Down to a T

No detail is too small in Silicon Valley's quest for authenticity


Alec Berg, right, says notes taken from talking to tech leaders "seeps into the show" (Photo: Frank Masi/HBO)

Silicon Valley, Mike Judge's HBO comedy, isn't the first show to tackle Big Tech and its cutthroat culture. But with season 5's storylines about artificial intelligence run amok, the compromising of consumers' private data and the creation of a decentralized, ad-free internet, the series continues to be almost clairvoyant in its take on the tech world.

Helping the show's creatives gain insight, says director, executive producer and co-showrunner Alec Berg, are the pre-season note-gathering research trips that include talking to tech titans such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who also worked as a consultant on the show. "All of that stuff kind of seeps into the show," says Berg. "We'll see a certain person behaving in a certain way or meet someone who has a funny way of speaking, and those are things that make it into the show all the time."

But the series' bracing authenticity is also due to meticulous directing. "We have Easter eggs all over the show. Everything on the computer screen to what's on the white boards has to be very accurate," says director and executive producer Jamie Babbit, who, in directing her first episode in 2016, learned how much effort is sunk into keeping things authentic when she began to erase an equation from a board in the office of Silicon Valley kingpin Gavin Belson (Matt Ross).

"Everyone started freaking out—someone spent two weeks making sure it made sense," says Babbit. "A huge part of directing the show is making sure the math is right. Most shows on television, that kind of stuff isn't a detail that people care about. But on Silicon Valley, that's something we care about a lot."

Adds Berg: "I've worked on a lot of shows where if someone says something a certain way, it's funnier or less funny. But I haven't worked on a lot of shows like this where if someone says something in a certain way, it's wrong."

As with all the other Silicon directors, Babbit and Berg rely on a team of three on-set primary tech consultants—season 5's trio were Tim Anglade, Jonathan Dotan, and Todd Silverstein—making constant adjustments, both during the four-day prep schedule, as well as the five days of shooting. In addition, Silicon has a network of roughly 36 outside experts who can weigh in on things like cryptocurrencies or China's booming tech industry and culture.

Jamie Babbit, wearing a cap left, works with a team of three onset tech consultants. (Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO)

The character of once-downtrodden Jian Yang (Hong Kong-born actor Jimmy O. Yang), which began as a two-line ancillary part in season one and has since evolved into a full-blown antagonist, required bringing on someone fluent in the language of someone who works in the Chinese tech industry. "That was actually one of the hardest things," says Babbit. "All of the boards were built on a stage in Los Angeles, had to be in Mandarin, but not a direct translation, but that of a Chinese coder."

While over the past five seasons, the central cast has become adept at smoothly delivering even the most tongue-twisting tech dialogue, Babbit has come to expect it may not be as easy for guest actors. "They aren't used to the lingo, and so getting them to sound natural is always the goal of the director," says Babbit. "Repetition helps a lot. So does giving them really specific business; saying lines while doing tangible things like holding a pen or eating an apple can make them seem more realistic. In real life, we tend to do multiple things at once; we don't just stand there and talk."

There are subtle ways Silicon Valley telegraphs that it's in the know about Big Tech from the opening credits, which subtly change from season to season (in season 5, to reference how Russia influenced the presidential election, a blinking Facebook sign goes from English to Cyrillic). Then there's the true-to-life look of the background players, be they parked behind a computer in an open scheme office to a ridiculously lavish toga party.

"There's a lot of very pretty people in Los Angeles, actors who are in between jobs, but we need people who have that Cal Tech look," says Babbit, adding that the most credible-looking extras are asked to come in street clothes, then given a time-tested Silicon Valley makeover. "We put a lot of Patagonia fleece on people. That seems to be a consistent Palo Alto vibe. It's part of what makes our show unique."

How do they know that paying attention to even the most minute detail is a winning strategy? Berg says it's how the series is received by real-life residents of Silicon Valley. "The most flattering feedback I get from people in the tech industry is that they find the show really hard to watch," he says. "They say it makes them nauseous because it feels too close to home. Which means we're getting it right."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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