Saturday, May 26, 2018
  • Thursday, Jun. 30, 2016
Adam Penn Reflects On Cutting "American Crime Story," Writing "Mr. Robot"
Adam Penn is in the Emmy conversation this season for editing "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" and writing for "Mr. Robot."
Editor & Composer POVs on "Mr. Robot"; Music for "American Crime Story," "Scream Queens," "American Horror Story"; a directorial take on "Vinyl," "The Americans," "American Crime"

Artist perspectives in this installment of The Road To Emmy span writer, editor and composer insights into Mr. Robot (USA Network), editorial and music POVs on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX Networks), music for American Horror Story: Hotel (FX) and Scream Queens (FX), and a directorial take on Vinyl (HBO), The Americans (FX) and American Crime (ABC).

Cutting & Writing
Adam Penn has the unique distinction of being in this season’s Emmy conversation as an editor and a writer--for two different shows. Penn cut multiple episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and penned episodic fare for Mr. Robot. The latter already earned him a Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award as part of the series’ writing ensemble.

Penn can put that honor on his mantle alongside an American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award which he received in 2015 for the telefilm The Normal Heart, directed and produced by Ryan Murphy. The Normal Heart additionally earned Penn an Emmy nomination in 2014 in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie category.

Penn made his first industry mark on the editing front, starting out as an assistant editor on Nip/Tuck where he developed a working rapport with series creator Murphy, later being promoted to full-fledged editor on that show. “Over the years Ryan and I figured out we have very similar sensibilities when it comes to pacing, music, sound design, all that good stuff,” related Penn. “I wound up working with him many times on projects, including Normal Heart, American Horror Story [multiple episodes from 2011-’15] and Scream Queens [the pilot episode]. The Normal Heart, was the first time we worked together with him directing.”

Penn has since cut such Murphy-directed fare as the Scream Queens pilot, and multiple episodes of American Horror Story and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Penn is most thankful that his collaborative bond with Murphy carried over to American Crime Story. “I had heard about this O.J. Simpson project and it’s a job I would have tried to get even if I didn’t know Ryan,” said Penn. “This was a story I actually had clear memories of when it actually happened. In my head it was almost like a cartoon. The way the trial exploded onto the scene, it became a caricature of itself in a weird way for me. I did not know fully what to expect from a TV show about this story. But when I started seeing the cast being assembled and read the scripts, I got excited. I knew immediately they weren’t taking the easy, cartoonish, sensationalized approach to this story. Instead I saw a very realistic, human approach to these people. I started seeing dailies. I knew it was my responsibility to continue and to do justice to that approach. The actors were brilliant, portraying fully fleshed out human beings.”

Besides his work on American Crime Story, Penn may also have an episode of American Horror Story: Hotel up for Emmy consideration this season. The challenges of the two series are decidedly different. Penn observed, “Coming from American Horror Story where everything is being heightened, over the top, fun and crazy, this [American Crime Story] takes another approach which requires the editor to step back a little bit, to let the actors live and breathe on screen. We as editors have to be a little more invisible on a show like this. The biggest challenge was almost figuring out how to quietly go about my business and present something that would have viewers thinking about the characters.”

Penn’s affinity for characters and their development springs from his writing chops. “I always wanted to be a writer,” he recalled. “I was always writing on the side. When I got out of film school, the assistant editing and editing was initially a money thing. Then I got into the world of Ryan Murphy and thank God I genuinely loved the shows he was making. Editing went from a money gig to something I cared deeply about because of the projects.”

Still, Penn’s writing aspirations continued and were fully realized with Mr. Robot. Penn had gone to film school with Sam Esmail, the show’s creator. “We had written together dating back to school, exchanged notes back and forth over the years,” said Penn. “A couple of years ago, Sam sent me the pilot draft for Mr. Robot. It was my favorite piece of work I had ever read of his. I thought there was a good chance it would get made--the only thing that could stand in its way was that it was pretty dark. Sam got the series going and demanded that I come into the writers’ room with him. He had never been a showrunner before and wanted me as a friendly face. We have similar sensibilities and we had already been doing things for years working together for free. It was nice to finally get to collaborate professionally.”

Penn, who’s now a producer on Mr. Robot, discovered, “I physically cannot write while editing. The jobs are similar in many respects, using the same parts of the brain.” Yet while he could not hands-on edit Mr. Robot with his focus being on writing, Penn had a say in bringing someone in who could cut it, literally. Philip Harrison was part of the Ryan Murphy family of collaborators. Harrison edited multiple episodes of Glee, which Murphy created in tandem with Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk. It was in that Murphy coterie of assembled talent that Harrison crossed paths with Penn. 

“When Sam brought Adam on board as a writer for Mr. Robot, it was Adam who suggested me for a slot when they were looking for editors,” said Harrison who was immediately drawn to the series. “I was blown away by the pilot, The world was so real and detailed. The central character, Elliot [cyber security engineer Alderson portrayed by Rami Malek] was so compelling. It was hard to take your eyes off the show. The pilot also reminded me a lot of the things I love--which Sam loves too like Kubrick and David Fincher films.”

Harrison cut three episodes during year one and is doing three more in season 2. The transition to Mr. Robot was inherently challenging for Harrison. “Coming off a show like Glee where every cut pops and you’re striving to make sure the audience understands exactly where they are in any given moment, Mr. Robot was quite an adjustment,” Harrison observed. “The shifts in story have a much slower pace, so my natural instinct from Glee also had to shift. It was tricky at first to trust that the story was there--that there was enough story to hold that slower pace. I give Sam a lot of credit. He trusts the reality of the characters and I too had to have that trust to slow down the pacing of my cuts. There’s enough substance underneath everything to keep it standing. The meaning of a show like this is more between the lines. I had to see things from that perspective as an editor.”

Mac Quayle
Last year composer Mac Quayle landed his first primetime Emmy nomination on the strength of his music for the “Orphans” episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Now this awards season his name has come up in Emmy speculation spanning four series--American Horror Story: Hotel, Scream Queens, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Mr. Robot.

Penn, who put up Harrison to edit episodes of Mr. Robot, also recommended Quayle to do music for the show. Quayle came to know Penn as an editor during their time together on Ryan Murphy shows. “Adam called me one day and said, ‘You may not know this but I am a writer too,’” recollected Quayle. “He told me he was ‘getting a job writing on this new show [Mr. Robot] created by a friend of mine [Sam Esmail].’ That’s how I got the initial meeting and the job--that and Sam being interested in electronic music for the show. I think Sam liked some of the electronic music I had worked on with composer Cliff Martinez [for Ryan Murphy].”

While Mr. Robot was a new show for Quayle, so too were American Crime Story and Scream Queens--and for that matter, even though he garnered an Emmy nom in 2015 for American Horror Story: Freak Show, his return engagement on American Horror Story: Hotel was in a sense like starting all over again on a totally different show. “American Horror Story changes completely each season and a whole new musical idea was needed for Hotel,” said Quayle. “We ultimately chose to have a very electronic sound, maybe going back to the 1980s and ‘90s, a lot of synthesizers, almost no real instruments. The first episode was quite intense as we came up with the sound for the season.”

American Crime Story provided a creative contrast, said Quayle, because it was based on a true story. “Because of that, our approach was to not be too heavy handed with the music, to be more subtle so that it felt more real rather than trying to force or push the drama. Music can of course push things wherever you want to go. But we had to be more understated, to let the great acting performances in the show do the work. Being understated was the right place for the music to sit.”

Scream Queens--unlike the other three series scored by Quayle that are up for Emmy consideration--has a distinct comedy element. “It’s a blend of comedy with horror,” observed Quayle. “Comedy is much more difficult for a composer as compared to writing something scary, edgy or tense.” Quayle tapped into varied elements for the score ranging from retro 1980s to ‘90s synthesized fare, even going back to the horror movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a nod to some John Carpenter fare, among other inspired sounds.

Nicole Kassell
Another multiple show Emmy contender is director Nicole Kassell whose episodic work this past season spans series including Vinyl, The Americans and American Crime

For the rock and roll period drama Vinyl--created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter--Kassell helmed the “Cyclone” episode which had the delicate proposition of capturing character Ernst (portrayed by Carrington Vilmont) as real and present, having the ear of Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), yet ultimately proving to be in fact a ghost.

For The Americans, the challenge, according to Kassell, was logistical in nature, centered on a short, tight shooting schedule “yet having to deliver this incredible quality in terms of both performance and visuals.” 

And for American Crime, Kassell directed the season finale of the poignant John Ridley-created series--a prime challenge being “wrapping up so many stories. There was an inordinate number of scenes in that script, tracking all the characters and connecting with all of them. I really like to sink under the skin of every character and we had an extraordinary amount of extraordinary characters, a plethora of riches in that cast and story.”

Kassell herself has a rich body of TV work with other credits including Better Call Saul (AMC), The Killing (AMC) and The Leftovers (HBO). She made her first major industry splash in the theatrical feature arena with The Woodsman which premiered in  competition at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The screenplay, based on the play by Steven Fechter, was co-written by Kassell and Fechter, winning first prize at the 2002 Slamdance Screenplay Competition. The Woodsman received a CACAE (art house award) at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, The Jury Prize at the Deauville Film Festival, a Humanitas nomination, and the Satyajit Ray Award at the London Film Festival. Additionally, Kassell was nominated for a Gotham Award (Breakthrough Director) and an Independent Spirit Award (Best First Feature).

This is the seventh installment of a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Sam Esmail, series creator/showrunner.