Kor Adana has the kind of job both aspiring and seasoned writers alike would kill for. Namely, as a recently promoted staff writer, he’s one of a handful of individuals currently helping to dictate the creative course of Mr. Robot, USA’s brand-shattering, breakthrough series and one of television’s newly minted must-see dramas.
For the uninitiated, the show follows the exploits of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a young hacker and drug addict who comes under the mentorship of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the mysterious, yet charismatic leader of an Anonymous-style group called fsociety. The organization’s brand of anarchy-infused hacktivism hinges on cleansing the world economy by bringing down its evil corporate influences, as personified by a not-so-subtle Enron stand-in, E Corp (aka “Evil Corp”). The show’s haunting, often surreal, dive into Elliot’s damaged psyche and the world of hacking—a subculture previously characterized by Hollywood as everything from squirrelly sleazeballs, to archetypal punk rockers with laptops—quickly earned critical raves, a fervent fan following and a bevy of awards (most notably a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series and an additional Best Supporting Actor trophy for Slater).
Elliot is a character all too familiar to Adana, who dabbled in hacking during his formative teen years. It was this very background that encouraged Mr. Robot creator/showrunner Sam Esmail to bring him onboard as his assistant and just as quickly promote him to a technical advisor position.
“Honestly my role doesn’t really exist on other shows,” Adana freely admits during our interview. Indeed, this level of authority and influence when it comes to developing the technical vocabulary of Mr. Robot crystallizes the many ways in which the series distinguishes itself from its more traditional cable peers. Besides offering complex characters, shocking twists and unnerving visual imagery, the series has been embraced by the tech community for displaying a grounded approach to hacking that puts all other Hollywood productions to shame. Much of this can be traced to Adana, who can spend upwards of several weeks coordinating with the prop, set decoration and video/animation departments in assuring that what appears on screen—no matter how brief—is technically sound.
“I write down these detailed breakdowns of how each hacking screen behaves and how it operates,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll do the hack myself and do a screen recording or I’ll find footage of the hack being done. Then, it’s a battle with the legal department about clearing the right pieces of software or hardware. I come from a place of wanting everything to be as authentic as possible. So if you can do this hack for real—which you should be able to, because that’s what we set out to do in the writing phase—I want to use the tools you’d actually use, I want the hardware you’d actually use and I want to show that on the show.”
Adana acknowledges that such a time-consuming process is precisely why most TV shows would not prioritize or even attempt such realism, especially given the rigors and deadlines inherent to a TV production schedule. In the age where the general population is now more tech-savvy than ever, however, he considers such meticulous work essential to the integrity of the series.
“Everyone and their brother has a cell phone,” he says. “Everyone knows what an iPhone or computer should behave like. You have a lot more eyes judging the usage of the technology.” Later, he adds, “We have a community of very, very smart fans who’ll freeze frame every screen we show and analyze it and figure out what tools we’re using and what clues we’re hiding. When they see something they recognize, they love it. I’d like to think that, even if I weren’t working on the show, I would love seeing something that accurate.“
Adana’s dueling interests in tech and the creative arts started at a relatively young age. Born and raised in West Bloomfield, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit), he credits an early interest in tinkering to his father’s work as an engineer. As a young teen, he underwent every wannabe hacker’s rite-of-passage by building his own computer from scratch. In regards to film, meanwhile, a prepubescent Adana found his mind blown open to the possibilities of the medium after a late night viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I remember I started it around midnight,” he recalls. “Immediately after I finished it, I rewound the tape and watched it back. By the end, it was six in the morning. I had stayed up all night thinking about this movie. I was trying to figure out what it meant. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. For two or three weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then it hit me, ‘Wow, a movie can have this kind of profound effect on someone.’ I wanted to be able to create something that makes someone else feel that way.”
In the midst of devouring the works of Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino and Akira Kurosawa, Adana found an additional, albeit unconventional, creative outlet in the art of prank calls, which he characterizes as being his gateway into hacking in that they both rely on the perpetrator engaging in a convincing con. As it turns out, the prank call community was replete with hackers and Adana quickly fell into their orbit. By his late teens, however, he had abandoned the practice after one of his hacks nearly landed him in hot water.
“A prank went horribly wrong and I had a close call with the authorities,” he explains. “It was close enough to scare me straight and convince me to stop taking stupid risks. Also, considering how easy it is to stretch the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act [CFAA] to fit any number of scenarios, which is ridiculous, the potential punishment for getting caught just isn’t worth it. Nowadays, any hacking I do is purely research for the show.”
Shortly after graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a network security and administration degree (his father only agreed to offer assistance if he got a “real” degree), Adana secured a gig working network security for a major automotive corporation in Torrance, California. As someone looking to break into the entertainment industry, he saw this as the perfect opportunity. He would spend his days working for a paycheck and the rest of his free time writing and networking with other aspiring creatives. Eventually, Adana accrued enough savings to quit and pursue his Hollywood dream full-time. What followed was the ceremonial series of jobs and internships, which frequently involved working alongside colleagues five or six years his junior. His career finally took a major step forward after he landed a job as showrunner’s assistant on the short-lived USA drama Rush.
When Rush failed to garner a second season, USA executive Jake Castiglioni—having by now become familiar with Adana’s background—decided he’d be the ideal assistant for a new tech-based drama coming down the network pipeline. Upon reading the pilot script for Mr. Robot, Adana developed an immediate connection with the world and its unorthodox lead character.
“The first thing that drew me into the pilot was that Elliot hated dressing up. Some of the subtle anti-establishment stunts established in the pilot would be him wearing his hoodie over his shirt or him really hating the people at work. That felt like me. At my [corporate job], I would never tuck my shirt in, I would lock myself in my lab and not want to deal with anyone at work. When I saw that in the script, I was like, ‘Alright, I get this guy.’”
And if there were any lingering doubts about whether or not Adana and future boss Sam Esmail would see eye-to-eye, their first interaction promptly put any such notions to rest.
“Within the first half-hour of sitting down with Sam, I told him about my background and what my old career was. He had a huge smile on his face,” he recalls. “He gave me the job right then and there.”
According to Adana, Esmail’s lack of experience with traditional TV hierarchy resulted in a decidedly untraditional writers’ room wherein everyone—assistants included—were encouraged to toss out ideas and offer feedback. Adana quickly proved his bona fides by helping design the specifics of what would become fsociety’s Season One master hack.
“When they have these monologues explaining these hacks, I remember feeling really, really validated because I knew I had a lot to do with creating those plans,” he says. “To see it on screen and have people react in a positive way was extremely fulfilling.”
That’s not to say the show hasn’t occasionally been required to fudge some details for the sake of narrative efficiency. Adana admits that several of the featured hacks would primarily consist of “sitting at your computer for hours and hours before you get to the point that we show on the show.” He specifically cites the climactic hack in episode six, wherein Elliot aids in the prison break of a vicious criminal. In reality, he explains, the hack performed on the show would require numerous more steps that the show simply did not have the real estate to properly convey. Shortcuts aside, however, reception from the hacking community has proven encouraging. Near the beginning of our conversation, in fact, I ask if he or any other member of the show’s creative team lives in fear of being infiltrated or having story details leak.
“It kind of happened,” he replies. “There was a hacker who found a vulnerability on our website. Luckily, he didn’t have any malicious intent, and he contacted us and had us patch it up. In terms of a serious data leakage or any kind of story information, I agree it would be ironic, but hopefully that doesn’t happen. A lot of the members of the hacker community really dig our show. I don’t know if anyone would be motivated to do that.”
It’s safe to say that when hackers respect the show enough to offer help rather than instigate sabotage, Adana has gone above and beyond earning his paycheck.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.