The Creative Life: Audio, Amigos!

This Audio Life
My Life in Audio

This article was originally published on

In the summer of 1998, I moved to Los Angeles from the Northern California Bay Area. As a writer and recent college graduate, it would be a fair assumption that I moved to LA to pursue a Hollywood career. This would be inaccurate. In truth, I moved to Los Angeles because my girlfriend at the time was originally from the San Fernando Valley, and she wanted to be closer to her family again. I was a writer in need of an adventure. And, oh, I would write — but not screenplays. No, I was a fan of stories like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. I was a poet, dammit, not a crass commercial hack. Los Angeles would be the setting for my Great American Novel Which Observes LA from an Outsider’s Perspective. It was thus that I descended upon the city of angels with all the fervor of a budding anthropologist. The denizens of Hollywood would be my Gorillas in the Mist.

By 1999, after a failed attempt as a junior copywriter in a very specialized advertising firm, I found myself working a graveyard shift at a dotcom-era video production company, And — quite to my surprise (and probably only my surprise) — I found myself writing on-air scripts and spending my off-hours desperately trying to untangle the craft of the screenplay. By 2000, I had written my first feature-length script with my co-worker and newly acquired writing partner, Jeremy Rogers. I became enamored with form and with the concept of collaboration. Over the next few years, Jeremy and I would write three screenplays, some of which garnered a little attention here and there. Nothing to allow me to quit my day job… but, still.

In 2005, we were approached by an independent Canadian filmmaker who wanted to make a movie from our first screenplay. First he wanted to work with us to make a long trailer in order to acquire funding for the feature film. Jeremy and I took it upon ourselves to take it a step further. We boiled down our screenplay into a 25-page short film that could easily be filmed on a shoestring budget. We sent it to the filmmaker. He finally replied several weeks later, manically offering up a new spin on the script, which had been an urban ensemble drama about teenage runaways, that involved the entire piece being set in a near future where the kids would all inject neon-colored drugs. Correspondence trickled off after that.

A family friend of mine, actress Mary Alexandra Stiefvater, suggested that we simply film the script ourselves. It was so obvious.

How could we argue? She and her sister Kate joined us as producers, and we set about forming a production company and raising money to shoot our first film. We shot the film in 2005 over the course of a week, and if I had thought that the shift from short stories to screenplays produced a learning curve, it now seemed an infinitesimal shift in comparison to what we had to learn as first-time producers and directors. However, I like to think the final product was worthwhile. Bad Habits showed at a couple of festivals and won a couple of awards.

We’ve made two films since then. The next was an 8-minute short with two actors, filmed in one night. The third film was our most ambitious. We did not write the film, but we came aboard to direct. It was the executive producer’s story, and it was his budget. The making of the film was an interesting experience, but I felt as if I was getting too far away from the writing.

And here’s the thing — and if you’ve ever made a film, you already know this — the actual production of a film is really tedious. And if you’re an indie filmmaker, wearing the hat of both director and producer, it feels a bit like this: wait-stress-stress-wait-stress-wait-wait-stress-stress-stress.

I usually illustrate it with the following example: our last film called for a scene in which a 1920’s era detective chases a suspicious woman down a hallway. This “chase” lasts approximately three seconds on screen. It took three hours to light the set and probably another two to shoot the takes required.

While all of this was happening, all I could do was sit. And wait. And stress.

And listen to my iPod Nano.

And listen I did. At the time, I was just discovering podcasts prior to the filming of our third film. One of the first podcasts I began to listen to regularly was this site’s sister show, the iFanboy podcast.

And somewhere along the way, an idea began to form.

It takes so long to light a set. And we can only tell certain stories because we’re so restricted by budget.

What if we just got rid of the picture?

I was listening to downloadable shows that were produced on a weekly basis. From home computers. Why not use it to craft a story? What could I do then?

That was when things started to click for me. I recalled how I had listened to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on the radio with my parents. I recalled listening to a mesmerizing storyteller named Joe Frank who would irregularly appear on the radio on late nights driving home from my job as a bartender in San Francisco. I remember pulling up and blasting MP3’s of old serialized radio programs as I made my way through the exhausting graveyard shifts at the production company.

So what if we told a story in audio?

New ideas began to form, swirl, and link together: Podcasts. MP3 players. Everyone’s always listening. They’re plugged in. They could listen to stories while driving. While at the gym. While on the subway.

I’m not sure if I emailed or called first, but I know I hit Jeremy with a barrage of ideas: “what if… okay, okay… what if he’s a detective…an occult detective, yeah… and he’s got this mysterious hand… and…and… he comes to a small town. But everyone there is hiding secrets! Yeah! Like the boxer who is on the lam after getting mixed up with the mob!”

You see, my entire life was informed by longform serialized storytelling. However, the budget restrictions and time constraints of the independent, no-budget, short film meant that we had to think carefully — we were forced to fit stories to the restrictions tiny budgets and reasonable, available settings.

And now the gloves were off.

When I was a senior in high school, I fell in love with David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. From about the ages of 13-18, I became a regular viewer of Days of Our Lives — after spending a week with my friend Matt Ault, who watched “Days” each day after school with his mom. I had grown up in the ’70s and ’80s, reading the long, interwoven plot threads of Chris Claremont’s run on Marvel Comics’ The Uncanny X-men. In fact,the first set of books I really remember reading as a child was The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I had lived my whole life to make this series.

I had been waiting for this, searching for an outlet into which I could throw all the crazy things that informed my childhood and adolescence. However, until now, I had always worn shackles. Literature, in my mind, required merit and gravity. Films required time and money. But here in the realm of audio, I could collaborate with a whole team of writers. I could work directly with actors at the height of their craft, without having to worry about make-up and lighting. And best of all, I could imagine long stories spanning both space and time. I could give my characters time to live and breathe. I could build mysteries within mysteries.

As I write this, we have just launched Season 3.2 of my audio drama, Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery. This installment, entitled “Wormwood Portraits,” offers a series of character-based vignettes that serve as a sort of mosaic upon which we are moving forward our main plot — not unlike the structure of shows like TV’s Lost.

I love that I can say that. Here I am with my audio show. We’ve told a grand mystery over three seasons, and we’re still finding crazy new stories (vikings!) to tell within that framework.

Admittedly, the move to audio has been strange. There is a growing niche of people who listen to audiobooks. And people love genre TV shows more than ever. But by being an “audio serial,” I sometimes think we get lumped into people’s memories of sensational 1940’s radio serials, like old episodes of The Adventure of Superman. And while we like these things, I think our show attempts something a bit more modern in sensibility. It is, as I said above, a TV series… without the picture. If you could listen to Lost while running on a treadmill, wouldn’t you like that? If you could sit in traffic and listen to an entire season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, conjuring all the imagery in your mind while giggling to the witty banter… wouldn’t that be a cool way to fight the boredom?

That was our goal. And in a true indie spirit, we’ve tackled the dramatic serial podcast with the same D-I-Y attitude we’ve had with each of our creative projects. When we jumped into film, we surrounded ourselves with talented technical people, and then we trusted them to get us the best visual based on our direction. With Wormwood, we taught ourselves as much as we could about the technical aspects of our chosen medium. And like everything else we’ve done, there’s been a learning curve. I’ve learned a lot about audio production in the past few years, or, well, I’ve learned enough to realize how much I don’t know. But we still fumble along. I’d like to think after three seasons, we’re halfway decent, but I can no longer judge. Maybe we’re just too stubborn to quit. But I can say this: we’re having a great deal of fun. I got to write the series I’ve been aching to write for years. I get to work with some really talented actors and writers. And we get to put something out that anyone anywhere in the world can find and download.

And that’s pretty damn cool.

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