In early April a meme was floating on the interwebs. It consisted of two photos of Donald Glover. On one of Community, where he is neatly cut, smiling and drinking coffee, the headline reads: "New Year, with an eye on 2020!" Next to it was the photo "Three months later"; It's a take from a Childish Gambino video in which he is shirtless and with a shotgun.
My January 2020 reflected Donald Glover's sunny optimism. I had just received an assignment to make a long-running film of mine that a French company had selected the previous summer. Pre-production and start dates were even set. It looked like I was finally going to work with serious people and this would be the year of the Sleeping Shepherd. I even had a post-Berlinale meeting with my producers where they explained how all the funding had been set up throughout the European film market. We had a couple of glasses of wine and the subject switched from the movie to the corona virus which then became widespread in Lombardy, Italy. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the sick and bodies were piled in morgues. I've traveled quite a bit and I know the Italian healthcare system is top notch – basically Switzerland with better food. So I should have been worried, but I wasn't. And none of my US producers. We all thought we'd get this out with no problem.
A few weeks later, I was locked in my apartment with my wife and dog, staring out the window at an endless quarantine. I either drank box wine while looking on the news for a clue as to when this might end, or drank box wine while watching Criterion Channel all day. I wasn't feeling well either. Also, my wife was now working from home, commanding the living room, so there were Zoom conference calls all day every day. I'm sure I wasn't alone when 10 or more disembodied voices roamed their home.
But we never know where the inspiration will come from, and my wife's Zoom calls got me thinking about sound and the old adage, "The best movie is silent while the best piece goes on the radio." If I didn't make my film soon, I could at least play one song on the radio! Some theater groups had done zoom readings, such as the production of Sophocles' Oedipus the King in the Theater of War, but personally I found that the format of the speaking head led me out of the play rather than into it. Instead, I'd use Zoom and record the whole thing remotely, then add music and sound effects to create a radio play. How hard could that be?
I started thinking about what I had already written, what could be quickly turned into a radio play, or what is now referred to as a "radio play," and kept coming back to Craiglockhart. It is not remotely similar to my other works. In fact, it's melodramatic as hell. After watching a six hour documentary about World War I, I was worried and fascinated by how terrible and pointless it was. Out of this, Craiglockhart was born; a kind of WW1 One flew over the cuckoo's nest. It was also an experiment to see if I could write in a limited number of places for a limited number of characters. I read it again, did a couple of passes to make it "just sound," and surprisingly it worked. At least I hope it was.
The next step was to find someone stupid enough to partner with me on this quixotic quest. My friend James Faller was another filmmaker who spent his quarantine not making a hole in his living room floor. He liked the script and quickly agreed. He would be co-producer, editor, and some sort of combo-drama assistant director / script-supervisor combo, taking takes and driving production.
After that we had to find actors. In all honesty, I'm a homebody and a misanthrope so I don't hang out with that many people and I certainly don't know a lot of actors. But I knew a theater director who knew actors, so I started with him. Gregory Wolfe is the artistic director of the critically acclaimed theater company Moonwork, which produces Shakespeare primarily with classically trained actors. And like James and I, he was house tied and gone crazy too, so he became our casting director. I sent him the script and the breakdown of the characters and within a few days he introduced me to the actors via email. The next step was setting up Zoom auditions. James read with the actors and allowed me to concentrate on their performances. The first thing I noticed was that the video had to be turned off or it would be distracting to watch people read – especially when they were trying to judge them based on their spoken performances alone. We also immediately noticed the strain on the internet from everyone working from home, so both James and I ran ethernet cables through our homes to keep the signal from dropping out. Otherwise, either or both of us would get bumped by Zoom, leaving the actors alone in some kind of underworld. Another thing we realized is that even with ethernet cables we couldn't rely on Zoom to get consistent sound. As a result, the actors had to record directly to their computer's QuickTime audio and later email the sound files to us (a future editing nightmare).
After the cast, a podcaster friend of James recommended sending all actors highly rated, affordable Samson Q2U USB microphones. You might think that would be easy; Sign up to Amazon and do a few clicks and everyone gets a microphone, right? Not correct. I don't know, but I suspect we'll find out later if there has been a deluge of podcasts and audio dramas recently produced, but by that time there was a run on USB microphones. And even after being found after a lot, a lot of work, the USPS and Fed-Ex were completely overwhelmed by all of the people who were on hold to order things online. It took over a week and a half, but at some point everyone got their microphone.
Having only known the film planning, we weren't sure how to plan a radio play, so we started slowly. Also, the script was written in game form, so there was no exact film-style page counting. In the end, we found that scenes ran another third longer than the page number. Plus, we would have a number of actors juggling kids with their partners, and some with out-of-the-way day jobs, narrow windows under which we could record. The average day of recording was four to six hours, and we had a total of nine days of production for three 30-minute episodes.
To speed things up, we did rehearsals before we actually started recording. However, I had the foresight to record the samples, which as anyone who has done any form of production knows, some jewels can be delivered in the mail.
We had a couple of technical problems. Actor sound files came in all sorts of formats; mp3, .wav, .aiff and so on and so on, which leads to not so funny sound differences. Also, we didn't have any meters, so we had recording levels everywhere. Of course, these aren't the things you think of when you have your Eureka moment and think, "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" If you actually knew how much work you had in store, you might prefer to go back to your box wine and criterion option.
Despite the technical issues, I think we performed excellently, especially given the stress and disembodiment we all experienced remotely and in quarantine. I have since found out that many audio dramas record actors individually, but think if you use this method you lose the momentum that comes from actor collaboration, even if it is done over the internet. Sometimes, during the post, I enjoyed hearing the banter between the takes in which characters were discussed and the world we wanted to create became concrete, even if that was all backstory and the real story behind the fictional characters.
Back to "If I had known what I was getting myself into …"; Post production turned out to be a bear. We didn't have a workflow and neither James nor I were very knowledgeable about sound editing software. We chose GarageBand because it was simple drag and drop with easy to adjust EQ and plug-ins. We later found that it was missing when trying to fine-tune, and mixing deeper was a bit counter-intuitive. Regardless, I would listen to the takes and choose readings that I would send to James to build in GarageBand. Not being able to meet in person meant that any decision was very difficult to implement. lots of WeTransfers and phone calls. It would take days to create a particular scene. James did the sound design with occasional notes from me. We wanted the asylum to have a certain “fun house went wrong” quality so that there were a lot of door slams, moans, voices and steps in the background.
We needed music and James introduced me to his friend Andrei Gravelle. Andrei works with his partner in Nanotopia as "Bio-sonification of mushrooms and occasional sonification of other non-human biodata". I would say it's very Brian Eno-like ambient music that I'm a huge fan of.
Sound effects would come from free sound effects sites, which could mean days of listening to army exercises or street noise. All in all, an enormous amount of work for just two people locked in two separate apartments. By the time we finished our three episodes, we were both burned out.
How do you distribute a radio play? I asked Jamie Dolan, who produced day in and day out. Another quarantined radio play (in fact, they are stories about life in quarantine). He suggested using Simplecast, which is best described as the audio version of Vimeo. Once uploaded, Simplecast will walk you through the steps to post / embed your work on major platforms like Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and Apple. After that, with no huge support from Gimlet Media or Luminary, who can get your trailer onto your supermarket's muzak station, it's no different than self-distribution indie movies where you hope to get a spark from social media and word of mouth . There are also podcasts on podcasts and so far Craiglockhart has been featured on Audio Drama Debut and on afairexchange where they interviewed James.
Behaviour rules. I don't recommend recording through Zoom unless you are living in quarantine (I am now dreaming about what this would have been like in a studio). With zoom, recording levels and room sounds will be everywhere. It's not that you can send a sound engineer to your actors' homes when no one is allowed on the street. And some actors' apartments will be box-shaped, while others will build tents out of blankets to keep their children from playing in the background, which gives their voices an entirely different quality. Some actors are more dynamic in their portrayal, which means that highs and lows can be lost depending on microphone placement. And there is always the pleasure of low flying planes and sirens. Of course, if we had the budget that The Sandman had from the BBC, we could have sent special rigs, expensive microphones and sound partitions to each actor, but that wasn't in our nonexistent budget. Edit on a cloud platform so everyone works with the same material and software, whether it's ProTools or Adobe Audition. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time replicating the work. Work with generous friends and people who are more talented than you. You can always claim that it was your idea later.
Now that Craiglockhart is done and the summer COVID-19 hiatus is wearing off, is it about box wine and criterion again? Yes, it took about three days to get bored again. I like the medium of radio plays and started to turn my graphic novel Necropolis into one. Although I think that I don't want to be more of a piece on the radio, but more of a challenge. It's going to be more like a '70s concept album combined with a certain avant deconstructivism of the Firesign Theater. All of this sounds very intellectual for a horror story with a radio play.