Think that working on the set of one of television’s hottest shows is all glitz and glamour? Well, think again. I sat down with Mr. Robot writer and producer Adam Penn—nominated for an Emmy Award this year for his work editing The People v. O.J. Simpson—to discuss what day-to-day life is like on the set of this highly praised hit.
“Well, there is no typical day for me,” Penn laughs of Mr. Robot, the critically acclaimed drama about Elliot, a cyber security engineer and hacker who suffers from depression and social anxiety disorder. Elliot is recruited by “Mr. Robot” to join a group of hacktavists whose mission is to cancel all consumer debt by attacking a major company that happens to be Elliot’s employer’s largest client. To give you a sense of how the series is doing, the show’s second season (on TV now) was picked up before the first even premiered.
What most people don’t realize when watching a forty-four minute television show is that months, if not years of planning go in to every last detail of the finished product. Penn, as both a writer and a producer for the show, has to wear many hats.
“When I’m in the writer’s room—there are about seven or eight of us in there—we all sit down with Sam [Esmail, the show’s creator] and talk about every detail of the show. From every single word in every single line of dialogue to what props will be used for each scene in each episode. We start by talking about the season overall, what’s going to happen and then break it down by episode.”
While certain episodes of Mr. Robot are assigned to specific writers, “it’s truly a group effort,” says Penn. “When you spend this much time with people, you become a family. Every day is like Thanksgiving dinner. One moment, you’re laughing and having a great time, the next you’re arguing over something trivial. The next you’re making up. We get so comfortable with each other that it can get intense at times, but it’s only because we all want to put out the very best product we can. And I think we do.”
Because Mr. Penn also serves as one of the producers on Mr. Robot, his job doesn’t end when the ink dries on final draft of an episode. While the majority of the writing is done in Los Angeles, filming takes place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. So once writing is complete (or nearly so), Penn and the rest of the production staff head to New York to start filming.
“A typical day of filming is crazy intense,” says Penn. “My job is to watch everything after it’s filmed—give the editors time to put together their episode. After they’re finished, I will do a preliminary pass before Sam watches.” Esmail also serves as the show’s sole director. “I help get every episode close to the point where I know Sam will approve.” Penn, for his part, knows what Esmail likes. The two studied together at New York University and have been friends for nearly two decades. “Working with one of your best friends is amazing,” he adds. “Being part of this experience and doing it all with someone you’ve known for so long makes the work so much more personal. Knowing where we came from and how hard it was to get here makes every day truly gratifying.”
All that hard work is not without its perks. “I got to see Hamilton,” Penn laughs, “and I didn’t have to take out a second mortgage on my house in order to pay for it. Oh, and I also got to see it with Christian Slater. So that was pretty fun.” He continues, “When I was growing up, Christian [who plays the title character on Mr. Robot and won a Golden Globe for his performance] was the guy my friends and I looked up to. Movies like Heathers and Pump Up the Volume were watched pretty frequently in my house as a teen. We thought he was the coolest. When you meet someone you idolized as a teen, you never really know what to expect. The beauty of it all is that he couldn’t be any nicer if he tried.”
It’s not just Broadway that makes the long days worthwhile. “I mean, Hamilton was fun and all,” says Penn, “but I got to go to the Writers Guild Awards, which we won, and I got to accept the award with my best friend of twenty years.”