wikiDeeks Interviews Adam Key. NCISLA Writer Extraordinaire!
After watching “A Land of Wolves,” wikiDeeks set out to talk with Adam Key about his experience co-writing this episode. Adam discusses his entry into the profession and what it’s like to work with this cast and crew, and especially writing for Deeks and Eric Christian Olsen. Thank you to Adam for being so gracious and patiently answering all our questions. We know you will enjoy reading what he has to say about his work and NCIS:LA!
Tell us about your journey with NCISLA. In what role did you start, and what different jobs have you done over your time there? What do you enjoy the most?
When I started in film/TV I worked in production, this was like 2004. This was my career trajectory for like ten years. I was a non-union assistant director (AD) for indies and an additional ‘Day-Player’ production assistant (PA) on studio shows and bigger films, just for reference, my first PA gig was on Batman Begins. I always wanted to become a writer; however, production was the way into the business that the universe presented to me… so I took it. Working as a Day-Player PA basically meant that I was bouncing around from show to show – day to day – as needed, and it was in this capacity that I first came to NCIS:LA. At the time I was going between NCIS:LA and a show at ABC called No Ordinary Family. Then after a few episodes I was offered a position as a permanent production assistant on LA, so I took it.
I assumed the role as Key Set PA and that carried me through a couple seasons until an opportunity presented itself to work in a field that I loved (writing) and I made the transition from a Set PA to the Writers PA. I was a Writer PA for several seasons while also dealing with a number of personal and family crises that came up. It was my job as a PA in the writer’s office that allowed me to have the flexibility to be there for my family when they needed me, which I am grateful for. After my run as Writers PA, I was promoted to Writers Assistant (more responsibility and more involvement in the day to day of the room). Since then, I have been fortunate to co-write three episodes and act in a number of others. I still work as Writers Assistant, but to have the opportunity to show that I can do more has been a blessing. I am a creative person. You ask which job I’ve had here that I enjoy the most, I think being able to write/create stories for these amazing characters AND be able to play amongst them are two totally different beasts and I honestly love them both for the different satisfaction they provide.
You’ve co-written three episodes of the show. Let’s talk about the first one, “The Monster,” written with Frank Military: How did you and Frank split up the writing duties? (How is that usually handled when there are multiple writers? Do they each take a different part of the story? Does one do a first draft and the other the second?)
Well, everyone and every situation is different. And that’s just speaking from my own personal experience. How it worked with Frank is different than how it went with Kyle, which is also different than how it was with Justin. I think it just comes down to personal preference and experience. Me, I’m kind of a ‘whatever guy’, I mean I’m down with whatever works. However, breaking up the writing makes it move the smoothest. With Frank… he already had the initial idea in place before I came into it. He had a story he wanted to tell, and I was fortunate to be able to tell it with him. Then we sat in a room and broke the story into its beats. After that, we split the acts up between us. Then after we finished our acts we put them together, like forming Voltron, and each took turns going through the whole of the script. We passed it back and forth between us a few times until we were happy with it, then we sent it up the chain and that was that… More or less. I’m sure I’m leaving out some of the nuance, but that was pretty much the gist of it. Now, if that’s how Frank always does it when he co-writes, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.
How did you feel about the very dark Frankenstein serial killer storyline? How did you approach dealing with such dark material?
I loved it. I was100% thrilled that this was going to be my first script for the show. Not that I’m into serial killers, I just really enjoy horror, thriller, suspense stories and that’s what this was. I love exploring bad guys… like real proper villains. I like to get into characters like that and play with them, how they respond and react, and how the heroes have to adapt and deal with them. The Frankenstein Killers are something that we had never seen on our show before and it was fun to be able to pull in a new element that could catch our team off guard… and the cast did not disappoint. Honestly, I think my favorite moment in the whole episode is near the end when Callen rejoins the others after having spent the whole day with Mosley and the AFT. He’s like “so how was your day?” and Deeks, in a very Deeks way is just like “Oh, you know, serial killers cutting people up and sewing them together” (I’m paraphrasing.) And Callen just stands there with a “Wait… what?” expression… I love that moment so much. Funny thing is that that actually didn’t make the initial cut. So even though that moment happened, it almost didn’t happen.
As far as how did I approach it? I approached it like any other story. It doesn’t really matter. Dark material. Light material. Middling material. What’s the story? Who are the characters? What do they want? What are the obstacles?… For me it’s just easier to think about it in those terms, otherwise I get lost in my head too much. It’s also more a question of what about this story is interesting to me? If I can’t find the things in the story that are appealing and interesting to me, then I find myself caring less about it. You have to find that element that speaks to you and keeps you engaged. I know not everyone sees the process like that, and that’s fine. We all have our way of doing things. But for me, it’s about what is the interesting/exciting bit that I get to explore.
What did you learn from the experience and from working with Frank?
This is going to sound like a cheat, but I don’t really have the words for what I learned. I absorb lessons. I’d be a terrible coach because I can’t really explain the things that I know, but I know when they’re being done wrong. Like I learned a lot from Kyle as well, and what I learned from Kyle is completely different than what I picked up from Frank because they are two totally different kinds of people, and they speak to different aspects of who I am. I don’t think I’m an amazing writer, not yet. But I’m definitely better than I was before I worked with these people. You can take that to the bank.
Let’s talk about “A Land of Wolves.” What parameters were you given about the story?
Not many. We knew that we weren’t going to have Callen and Rountree, so we had to make it work without them, which I think we did a good job of. But for the story story… we came up with the pitch. Other than maybe some suggestions that we were given along the way not much really changed from the initial idea. I think that we were given the greenlight to write this specific story because people liked the idea we started with. I guess the main unspoken parameter was don’t screw this up.
Were there things you needed to include, like the continuation of Fatima’s post-shooting storyline?
Not many. It was suggested to us to come up with a character like Aliyah, someone that if it worked could be another go to person to bring in and out as needed. It’s nice to have a selection of “other agents” to pull from and place in Ops or in the field from time to time. So, we created Aliyah. Rosa was also someone we spoke about with the showrunner as being someone that Kensi could connect with while she’s out there on her wilderness getaway. As for Fatima and her trauma, that was something that Justin and I wanted to incorporate. The fact is, as Fatima explains to Kilbride, she’s different from the others. She wasn’t a cop, or secret agent, or Navy SEAL, or the military brat daughter of a skilled Marine, or anything else like that… She was an actress, a regular person from the streets of Beverly Hills, and then she committed to her beliefs structure after a tragedy and became an office/ops person. She was then THRUST into extraordinary situations, situations that she learned to thrive in, but that were also dangerous and high pressure. It’s a given that she is going to respond to the things she’s been through differently than the others. It was an honor to be able to explore that with her character, and to be able to incorporate Kilbride into that conversation.
How did you and Justin divide the writing duties?
Initially we broke it up by acts. Then, as we got closer to finishing, we worked on the acts together, meaning we sat down in the same space and went through them scene by scene, taking turns doing the writing.
Did COVID affect any of your decisions about the story?
No. I don’t think COVID affected this particular story in any additional way. Not as much as it affected others.
You mentioned on Instagram how important it was for Deeks to be paired up with Sam in such a stressful situation where he was so fearful about his wife’s safety. Can you talk a little more about why you said that, and how you see this relationship between the two men evolving over time?
The thing about Deeks and Sam is they began in conflict. Physical conflict. Professional conflict. Ideological conflict… The first time they met each other they were working undercover in a fighting gym going after the same person, but Sam was with NCIS and Deeks was with LAPD. It literally led to the two of them fist fighting each other. A relationship born in violence. On top of that they are almost complete opposites of one another. Sam is the squared away, always on mission, military minded Navy SEAL, federal agent. Deeks, on the other hand, was a slick talking, kinda cocky, long haired, slightly grimy, definitely not squared away, secretive Cop… who, Sam and the team thought might have been a bad guy… First impressions. Gradually Deeks and the OSP team have gotten closer, but to me it’s always seemed like that bond between him and Sam was taking the longest to connect.
Then came the torture room… Then the death of Michelle… Bit by bit major events were happening that joined Sam and Deeks and gave them an understanding of one another. I feel that in this moment, with Deeks going through what he was going through and feeling what he was feeling, that Sam was (and is) the perfect person for Deeks to be isolated with. Not just for Deeks’ sake but also for Sam’s. These two men are from opposite worlds but when it comes to who they are at the core, and what they believe in, that’s where their similarities are. And I think… not wanting to put words in Justin’s mouth because he has his own reasons for things… I think that Sam and Deeks needed to go on this quest together. They needed to be there for each other and for Kensi.
How did the final Densi scene come together? Was it exactly as you’d originally written it, or did you make any changes when shooting?
That’s how we always intended it. The biggest change was that originally Justin and I had more for them to say at the end of the rescue scene, but the story was served better by getting us out of that and into the home sooner. I think that last scene at home really says it all and puts a nice bow on the episode. He’s glad she’s not dead. I think we can all agree with that.
As a writer, what’s it like to work with someone like Eric who does so much improv?
It’s awesome working with Eric. It always has been. I think one benefit that both Justin and I have is that we both came from working on the set before working in the writer’s room. Because we spent so much time on set and in the trenches with this cast and crew, we were able to understand them pretty well. There’s also a bond/connection that is formed when working with people for so many years and so many hours day to day. So, when it comes to the execution of the script you have an idea of the types of performers you are working with.
Eric is a professional. He’s been doing this for a while and understands how to produce and how sets run. He is going to do what is best for the scene and for his character, and if he has a problem, he’ll pull you aside and talk about it. I never had to worry that he was going to go off in left field and do something damaging. I knew that anything Eric would come up with would be in the flow of what was happening. The truth is that on any given day there’s a chance that any of the cast could throw a zinger out there or ask to shift something around. As long as we are all on the same mission, working together, then we’re fine. After all, there’s always a chance that in the moment a writer will want to change what the character says, too. Sometimes inspiration hits you and if you’re able to give it a try, give it a try… As long as we also do a take as it’s written.
Is an episode written in stone when you start filming or do you find yourself making changes throughout filming?
For the most part, yes. The plot. The general story…certain things will remain the same. However, you have to be able to adapt if something outside of your control happens or if, like I said above, “inspiration hits.” Often times we do rewrites to accommodate cast or weather, other times as you’re shooting or in prep meetings you realize that this thing or that thing needs to change to something else… Maybe you wrote that a scene takes place in a lightbulb store… but there’s issues with it so now it has to happen outside in a parking lot… and maybe there’s a random snowstorm that day… you take a breath and adjust. Maybe you have a scene with Bill, Bob, and Betty… but Betty has a family emergency, so you have to write her out and now it’s just Bill and Bob, or maybe you bring Sophie into the scene (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). So, for the most part, yes… but anything could happen so you should be prepared for that.
You said on Instagram that your dad was in the military when he was younger, and he died before you started working in show business. What do you think he’d have thought about your work on NCISLA?
My work specifically? Who knows? I’m sure he would be proud of me because he was my dad, and he was a good guy. But I think he would have been more excited because of the world I’m currently working in. As I mentioned online, my father was a fan of JAG, which as I’m sure you all know is the grandfather of NCIS:LA. He probably would have had a lot of criticism and asked a lot of questions about things involved with the show. And when he would have visited me in Los Angeles (I am not from California) he would have enjoyed visiting the set… Like he would have enjoyed meeting Mac now that he is part of the show. I just think overall he would have had a really nice time with me being where I am. My father was in the air force. He didn’t go career and he didn’t stay long, but he was always interested in that world. He wanted me to join, I just didn’t have the same desires that he did or discipline that he had… The furthest I got was 2 years of Naval Jr ROTC in High School. So this, this would have been a nice happy middle, I think. This would have made him proud.
What’s it like working with this cast of actors?
It’s great. I worked on a lot of shows before coming to NCIS:LA and I can easily tell you that person to person this is the best overall cast I’ve ever worked with. It really is like a family. And since day one, when I was a Day Player production assistant, every single one of them greeted me with politeness and as a professional. I love these people. I’d stand up for them any day of the week.
Do you have any plans to write more for the show? What other projects are you working on?
I guess we’ll see what we see. It depends on the schedule. The stories… A lot of variables. I’m a small part of a big machine and I’m glad to be a part of it. Thankfully we have a lot of awesome writers on this show who keep the creativity and originality flowing, and our showrunner knows what he’s doing, and he does it well… which you already know or none of this would be happening right now.
As for other things I’m working on… I’m always preparing new ideas, new pitches, new samples. And during the hiatus I co-wrote, story produced, and acted in a brand-new feature film, a romantic dramady called North of the 10. NoT 10 (as we call it) streaming on BET+ starting Feb 10th. It was an awesome experience and the second film I worked on with writer/director/producer Rhyan Lamarr. So, keep an eye open for that!
I really enjoyed hearing more from Adam about his work on the show. He answered questions I’ve had for a long time about the mechanics of co-writing. It’s so interesting to hear that that memorable line at the end of Monster almost didn’t happen. I also appreciated hearing how his approach to any story is the same, whether it’s filled with Frankenstein serial killers or more typical bad guys. I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I try my hand at a fan fic. I really liked the different perspective he and Justin gave us on Fatima, and of course enjoyed all the Sam-Deeks interactions in “A Land of Wolves.” I think it goes to show how important it is for the writers to be familiar with these characters and their history, whether it’s 12 years of history or just a few. And yes, Adam, I’m pretty sure your dad would be super proud.
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I really appreciated this interview. Listening to a pro talk about writing in inspiring, especially one who has worked with Frank Military and written for ECO. I especially liked his comments about new characters and writing villains. I have written a few villainous characters, but having the chance to see them on screen must be particularly rewarding. He seems to be having the time of his life. So happy we all got to hear his take on those scenes between Sam and Deeks, in Land of Wolves, and the thoughts behind them. I hope they give us a few more episodes featuring those two together.
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I was really impressed by how much he seemed to know about the characters (speficially Sam and Deeks) right off the top of his head. Sometimes it seems like TPTB forget some of the important details that we fan(atic)s would like to see remembered or used consistently. Maybe that’s a benefit of having c couple of different roles in the writers’ room first?
Thanks for a great discussion, Diane and Mr. Key!
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A fascinating and refreshing insight into the creative workings of the show. I enjoyed all of it immensely. Thank you to all concerned.