Fearful Symmetries

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10 April, 2008

Visions of Murder: An Interview with David Accampo

Back in January, I wrote about a new audio drama podcast that I'd discovered - Wormwood. I had been watching my shiny new Twin Peaks DVDs when I discovered Wormwood and the TV show's influence was obvious. It was impossible for me not to be drawn to the adventures of the acerbic Dr. Xander Crowe in the titular town as he sought to understand a vision he'd had – a vision of murder. One of the shows co-creators, David Accampo, found the post and left a comment. I asked him if he'd be so kind as to answer a few(!) questions and he generously did so.

What was the genesis of Wormwood?

The Wormwood production was borne out of a couple of different elements. First, from a story side, I had long wanted to write a long-format story, something resembling the TV series and comic books I grew up with. Something that would really let you get to know characters over a long period of time. Habit Forming Films had, until that point, mostly concerned it self with independent film productions, where budget was a great concern. So in addition to the long-form story, I wanted a chance to bust out of the restrictions of film production and do something where our imagination could be unfettered.

On top of all of this, I wasn't just frustrated with budget restrictions, I was also frustrated with the TIME it takes to shoot a film. You can spend hours lighting a set for what ultimately ends up being 10 seconds of film. I figured that we could record actors reading scripts much, much more easily. And we can all work in sweatpants if we want.

Audio seemed like an ideal solution. The web and online stores -- like iTunes -- are primed for audio formats. And I love the idea of bringing back a classic, often forgotten form of storytelling!

How did you go from video production to an audio drama? How is working in the two media different/similar for you?

As I mentioned in my previous answer, you've got a lot fewer restrictions and less to prepare. Our recording studio consists of four microphones, a small, portable mixing board, and a laptop. We record everything with the actors sitting around a table (except for occasions where we can't get an actor to come in, and then we record them separately).

I think that the similarities come from our experiences working with actors. While audio and video have different emphases, it still comes down to working with actors and making sure they create performances that follow your blueprint while allowing them a personal spin on the character.

The post-production process is also an odd one. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about picture, so you can easily edit out gaps or squeeze things together to speed up a scene. It's easy to lose bits of scenes if you realize you don't need them. On the other hand, you don't have the visual anchor of the picture, and audio editing can be a bit tedious in that way. You've really got to LISTEN carefully to everything because there's no picture there to show you you've got the wrong clip, etc.

Was Wormwood always intended to be a podcast or was a CD release planned?

While we've put Wormwood onto promotional CDs on occasion, it was always meant to be a podcast. The whole idea was launched from my purchase of an iPod and subsequent addiction to podcasts. I realized that this was a totally easy way to get content to people, and that people might listen to something like this while at the gym or sitting in traffic. The podcasting format is a fantastic independent distribution channel. And as independent producers, that's like a godsend. A mainline to the world, via the web!

Besides Twin Peaks, what were some of the other inspirations for the program?

With six writers, you can imagine there are probably LOTS of influences, but I'll stick to mine. Twin Peaks, as you mentioned was a huge one, but so are a lot of TV shows. We talk about Lost a lot in the writer's room, in the way they structure the narrative and reveal characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also a big one for me as I loved the teen dramady merged with action/horror. I think you see elements of that in the Rachel/Jacob storyline, and as well, in a lot of the banter between Sparrow and Crowe and Jimmy Details. And while this may not be readily apparent, Veronica Mars was also a big influence. I loved the way the first season of that series wrapped up as one giant mystery novel. I mentioned that to the writers a lot as we plotted the course of the
first season.

Outside of TV, there are the obvious influences of the old-time radio shows. I used to work a graveyard shift at a dot-com company, so late at night, I would find old radio shows on the web and crank them up. The Shadow, Hermit's Cave, stuff like that.

Lastly, I have to mention comic books. Hellboy, The Sandman, even the serialized soap opera of the Uncanny X-men (circa the 1980's) left an indelible impression on the long-form story.

I just realized I haven't even touched on authors like Lovecraft and Poe and Clive Barker and Stephen King! Basically, Wormwood is the distillation of nearly EVERYTHING I've ever loved in fiction, whatever the medium!

How did you hook up with (co-creator) Jeremy Rogers?

I met Jeremy in 1999 at the aforementioned dot-com company. We both worked the graveyard shift, and we had lots of time to talk about movies and writing. He gave me an amazing script he had written, called "Adapting Monsters". It blew my mind. After that, we just kept talking about writing, and we eventually collaborated on a feature-length screenplay called Bad Habits, of which a short film was eventually made (as Habit Forming Films inaugural effort).

How did the other writers of show get involved?

Jeremiah Allan was a writer we met on a short-lived writer's forum. He was working primarily on comic book scripts (still is!), but he loved the idea of collaborating, and he came and really helped us put some flesh on the skeleton that Jeremy and I had drafted. In fact, Rachel's plight in Season One stems from a short spec he submitted to us to get the job. Rob Allspaw is a long-time friend. We had never written anything before, but I needed something to fill in an episode (Episode six) for us, and he volunteered. Really surprised me with some fun, fun stuff! After that, Tiffiny Whitney and Rick Bata came on board. We had met Tiffiny through an LA based networking group, and we knew she was funny and talented, but we quickly learned she was a hell of a writer, too. Rick was a friend of Rob Allspaw's, but he was eager to get involved in the project, and he turned in some great stuff for us as well.

Tell me about the casting process. Did you have to audition a lot of actors before settling on the cast?

The casting process was interesting. We posted some notices, and having done this for a couple of films, we knew it might take a while to find a cast the size we needed. However, things fell into place fairly quickly. On the first day of casting, we met Sonia Perozzi, who surprised us with interpretations of Sparrow and Rachel that we loved. And Peter Dirksen came in and gave us a killer Jimmy Details and Jonesy. And then Rob Grindlinger came in, and he completely understood our influences and what we were trying to do, and he made a great Sheriff Bradley.

The second batch of auditions were actually held online. This was an
interesting process. We used Skype and we asked people to come and read for us. This was a purer audition process because we could really ONLY hear the voices now. The first thing was that some actors, when allowed to read the script, really ended up reading the script instead of truly acting it out. The stand-outs are people who can read but ACT what they're reading. It's a subtle but crucial difference. It took a few rounds of casting, but we eventually found our entire cast. We're really pleased with the way it all turned out.

Did you have all of the season 1 episodes written before you recorded? If not, did the characters & story evolve as the recording process went along? Did any of the actors influence how their characters were developed?

Good questions. First, we had eight scripts in hand for the first recording session, and that's what we recorded. After we finished that, the writers came back and we broke the next eight episodes, wrote them up, and then recorded those. That said, we weren't working without a blueprint. Jeremy and I crafted a pretty elaborate series bible, so we knew how Season One would end before we ever wrote the first scene. So while we only had eight scripts, we knew where we were headed.

However, the characters and story did evolve and grow as the process
went along AND as the actors brought life to their characters. I think Arthur Russell's manic Crowe encouraged us to let him go on longer, wilder tirades. Dave Johnston's Wayne Drexall turned a bit-character into one of my favorite voices on the show. But all the actors gave us some great performances, and by episode 24 I could hear no voices in my head save those of our actors! Cheyenne Bsaies IS Lemora Haskell! Koralee Nickarz IS Deidre Frost! Anna Maganini IS Lynette Bradley. I write for those voices now.

I should also mention that a side effect of this is that we trust our actors with some level of improv. It turns out that Rob Grindlinger and Joe J. Thomas worked together in the past, so we often utilize the two of them for mob goons or talk show hosts, and Jeremy and I won't even script anything for them. We'll just set the scene and let them go!

Tell me about the production process. Where do you record and how long does it take to record an episode?

A season is divided into three recording sessions, eight episodes at a time. We can usually record eight episodes in about eight and a half hours, give or take. We record at a house in the San Fernando Valley. It's not the ideal recording location, but it makes it comfortable for our large cast. They can relax in the living room while they're not recording. In production, Jeremy and I serve as directors, although we don't really direct that much at this point. We offer little bits of guidance, but our cast is like a well-oiled machine. Jeremy usually also plays script supervisor, crossing off chunks of script as we record them. I play production engineer, monitoring sound levels and exporting files as we go.

Do you create the sound effects from scratch or do you grab them from compilation albums?

Sound effects come into play in post-production. We hired a sound engineer to generate/find some sound effects for us. He created the Muddy Man sounds and gave us a big selection of sound effects based on our requirements. After that, Jeremy and I (who do all the editing) create additional sound effects or find them online, as needed.

How do you finance the production?

This is an easy, short answer: out of our own pockets! We do have an online store set up to buy Wormwood merchandise, but really, with no advertisers or anything like that, this really is a self-financed production.

What's it like trying to promote an audio drama podcast? Do you folks advertise? Do you try to draw the attention of certain reviewers/writers?

That's been an interesting learning experience. We don't advertise. We do try to attract people's attention, but it's usually through very grass roots means. We spend time on message boards, online venues like that. Because I'm a big comic book geek, I actually thought that our series would appeal to people who like comic books, so I sent a press release to a comic news site called Newsarama.com, and they ran it for us. That got some attention. We also brought promotional CDs down to the huge San Diego Comic con International show last year, one of the biggest pop/geek culture venues of the summer. And, as word got out there, we discovered new forums that existed JUST for folks in our niche, like the amazing www.audiodramatalk.com. We were led to that by a podcast called the Sonic Society that features a lot of audio dramas. In fact, both that show and Radio Drama Revival have been HUGE boosters for Wormwood. These guys LOVE the medium, and they totally embraced our freshman effort. We owe them a lot!

Are there any plans to continue Wormwood beyond season 2?

Right now, we have the main story of Wormwood mapped out as three seasons. This has always been our plan: 72 episodes. However, we've always joked and talked about possible spin-offs or sequel series. Anything is possible. We've really tried to create a vast landscape here, a canvas we can paint for years.

Do you have any aspirations to do other audio dramas?

Aside from the possibility of spin-offs, I'd love to do more in the
medium. It's absolutely a great medium, and has such great potential. But right now I am just completely enjoying living with these characters! I can't seem to focus on any other long-term ideas. I suppose maybe a mini-series of some sort would be really cool. I think we're still finding out way as audio storytellers, and I'd love to keep experimenting!

David Accampo on MySpace

Wormwood: A Serialized Mystery

|| Palmer, 8:08 AM


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