An Interview with Writer Sarah Shachat
1. Please introduce yourself, where you’re from, and what you do currently.
2. So this blog post is a bit different in that it focuses a little less on video production/filmmaking and more on writing for audio-only dramas. What drove you to the podcast world (more specifically, audio dramas)?
I very much was driven there, as opposed to driving myself. I explored Welcome To Nightvale and Serial as they respectively entered the zeitgeist, and I’ve been a big fan since college of the Mercury Theater on air stuff, War of the Worlds and Dracula and so on. But the wonderful thing about podcasts is a lot of their drive is word-of-mouth, so it was really on the recommendation of friends in the last couple years that I started getting into the podcasts I follow closely.
What’s wonderful about them is that they have such low bar for entry, comparatively. All you need is a mic, a computer, and a guide to figure out how to set up a feed. There were a couple of times in the last few years that I’ve worked with friends on podcast projects that never really quite got going – we’d record a few episodes and have fun arguing about different movies – but it never quite clicked. And yet, all we out were maybe $70 and a few hours of our lives, enjoyably spent.
Then another good friend of mine from college, Gabriel Urbina, sent me this pilot script he’d written for a radio drama set on a space station. It was an interesting script, very funny, and with the potential to be even funnier. After asking him if I could do a pass on it, I pretty much got hooked. Audio dramas, specifically, are a wonderful writing challenge. You have to rely on suggestion in order to tell the story. Very different from the broader building blocks prose gives you, and way more slinky and fluid than the clarity of an image. The show needs the listener in order to make it come alive. So writing for radio isn’t about what you imagine’s going on in a room on a space station, say. It’s about what you allow to be imagined, what’s going on in someone else’s head – that’s the experience.
Ha, I was sort of winding there towards the end of that last question. But the challenge is that there are strong restrictions placed on what you can convey with sound alone. We (Gabriel, Zach Valenti, and I, who all write for the show) have conversations all the time about how things would be different if we were doing Wolf 359: The TV Show. There are certain actions you wouldn’t think of – one character passes a piece of paper to another character – that are almost impossible to write for radio. But a space mutant plant monster? That’s real easy. So there’s a give and take to it. You have the ability to be big and ambitious and bold on a nothing budget, but you have to go to increasingly difficult lengths to convey smaller moments or transitions, because everything has to come from a distinctive sound.
That’s a little bit why it’s so wonderful, too. You have a very basic toolkit – the actors’ voices, whatever sound effects you can license, music (and in our case we’re spoiled by Alan Rodi’s divine score), and, of course, silence. But by making things that simple and that restrictive, it actually opens up a lot of opportunities. We’ve done audio monologue vignettes, we’ve done an audio montage sequence, we’ve even done an audio montage flashback sequence. The constraints force you past a lazy or easy solution. It forces you to think about the most intuitive, the most effective way to convey information to the audience. And of course, there’s a lot of opportunity for shock and surprise because you can constantly redefine space in a way you can’t if you have visuals. You thought three men were having a private conversation in a normal looking room? Nope, the walls are completely covered in platypus fur. And nope, the lamplight is actually coming from a green diamond. And nope, the men all have three eyes. You have the ability to force the audience to re-evaluate their image of a scene, and that forces them to dive deeper into it. There’s a wonderful intimacy with radio, and good radio dramas get to play with that.
In terms of how it compares to other forms of writing, it’s most like screenwriting. What you as a writer put on page is a blueprint, at best the Google Maps, to the story. It’s actually on the actors and the editor to produce the “text” the listener will interact with. So you do all the same sorts of things you try to do with a screenplay: write scene descriptions that’ll be helpful for the actors/director, locate them physically and emotionally, write good dialogue, create a structure that makes what happens in a given episode both surprising and inevitable, based on who the characters are and what they’re up against. You know, maddeningly difficult stuff.
The actors don’t ad-lib a lot – though some great suggestions, especially Zach’s, have made it in – but they do contribute in a huge way through the table-reads/rehearsal process. It’s where we can finally hear our words said aloud by people who do that really well, and that clarifies a lot of the issues a script might have/help us cut things down/realize what we were idiots for missing. Gabriel and I will usually do one or two (or six) more passes of a script after that, before it’s “locked” and becomes a recording script. The actors will perform it, and – barring any last-minute adjustments or cuts by Editor!Gabriel – that’s what becomes the episode. So there’s a structure to the creation of the show and a schedule, but it’s all a very open process. We’ve had actors give us story ideas or had long, involved conversations about their characters, and that’s been invaluable. Usually story changes will come out of that kind of collaboration. We realize we’re missing something or that an episode as it stands isn’t what it needs to be. Usually one of us is just unsatisfied for reasons we can’t quite articulate, and then in conversation we work out what needs to shift.
Season 3.5 of Wolf 359 is most of it, honestly. I occasionally review films for a lovely, silly site called Movieboozer.com, and am working on couple other non-fiction-y projects that should start coming out towards the end of the summer. Also, having a job, paying rent, and learning how to cook things that aren’t curry: those are huge parts of what I’m working on now.
8. Anything else you’d like to add?