For those who don’t know This American Life, you most likely know people who are longtime contributors to the program: David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff and current PC embodiment John Hodgman. The first time I’d ever heard OK Go was when they went on tour with This American Life‘s fifth anniversary tour in 2000.
The basic gist, what you will hear host Ira Glass often explain, is that each show contains three to four stories on one theme, such as fiascos, babysitting or quitting. Most stories are retellings of personal moments; some are fiction pieces. No matter the format, or your amount of interest in the subject matter – each story draws you in, makes you feel like you’re sitting in the room with the storyteller. And many will stick with you for days, if not years, afterward.
When it was announced that This American Life was developing a television version for Showtime, there was much apprehension on behalf of the fans. Understandably so. How could the intimacy of a voice in your headphones or your car be duplicated with images in your living room? Chris Wilcha, director and co-executive producer, found himself in the enviable and unenviable position of bringing the beloved radio show to television. Wilcha’s The Target Shoots First exploded on the indie arena in 2001, and led to a career of directing at Sundance, PBS, MTV and more.
When I call Chris Wilcha, I’m put on hold. The music is hard, blaring and I believe that it keeps telling me to get my punk ass up. Not that I had any question, but this is just another sign that we’re not on public radio anymore, Toto.
You were one of the few producers not involved in the radio version of This American Life. How did that affect your approach to the television show?
It was really daunting and really intimidating, and also very nerve-wracking.
Basically, I had a two-part involvement. First, I signed on to do a pilot. The circumstances of the pilot were such that the network put up some money and the whole idea was, “[Will Showtime] like what we do?” But there was a second tier, which was, “Will the radio people like making TV?” And there was the danger that, at the end of making this pilot, everyone could conclude that it was a disaster and that nobody wanted to do it and we would all move on. So there was the risk that, the thing we created at the end of the process was literally going to sit on some shelf somewhere and never see the light of day. So that was really intimidating.
And that process also turned into an extended job interview. Because if I had blown that part of it, this sort of five months we spent making the pilot episode, I could have been kicked to the curb (laughs). So that was also really nerve-wracking. Not only was there the challenge of problem-solving – how do we design this, how does it look, what does it feel like, how is it shot – just answering all of these insane questions, and also taking the radio staff through it. That required a sort of fragile diplomacy because they didn’t want to be told that things didn’t work, they wanted to be shown. You could never say, “Actually, you can’t do that,” or “That way of shooting an interview will be kind of a disaster, you can’t cut eyeline to eyeline of people staring into a camera” – you couldn’t tell them that, you had to show them. And everything took a lot more time.
What was also hard for me is that I was always the bearer of bad news — the guy who always had to tell them the thing that they didn’t want to hear. Like, “I know it takes you an hour to do a radio interview and you walk in with your tape recorder and microphone, you sit down and talk very intimately to a person, and then you leave. Well, actually, we need to go and hours beforehand, we need to set up lights, we need to scout the location, we’re going to need to stay there and spend probably a couple of days shooting the person and shooting some scenes.” It was so much more invasive and such a bigger and more arduous undertaking to shoot these stories than it is to record them as radio pieces. And so I was the guy who said, “Ira, actually, you can’t sit that close to the subject, you have to sit much further back because of the placement of the camera.” And that would then compromise the intimacy of his interview.
In a way, it was just an unenviable position to be in (laughs) because it was like, I was always the one saying “you know that brilliant and fluid way you can speak to people and not be that obtrusive? That intimacy and anonymity you can maintain – all of that is gone.” It was just really hard. (laugh)
In this great podcast of a panel you and Ira did at Sundance, Ira played a very funny deleted scene from the Burbank senior citizen short film piece. The screenwriter said she figured the director would know how to do everything. Like how to get a bus and a driver, and how to get the bus to stop outside where they were shooting at the right time – because he was the director, he should know all these things. It seems like your experience is very similar to what that moment.
It was the exact parallel experience. I don’t know if you asked him, if he’d cop to that (laughs). But I think it was more and more they kept finding out over and over and over what a pain in the ass it was [to shoot video]. There was a point where it was a little joyless to keep telling them that it was harder [than doing radio], like [when it came to] really simple things like access. It’s one thing to walk in with a microphone and to shoot; it’s another thing to walk in with a film crew. Oftentimes, people didn’t want to sign any of the releases that we’re required to have them sign – they don’t have to get releases for the radio show. We had a burden of releasing and legal kinds of thing with people being interviewed and places we were shooting that they just never had to deal with before. Over and over and over again, there were hassles that went along with it that weren’t so fun.
Was it a smoother run after you did pilot – get through one big learning curve, and then the rest was relaxed?
No, because we did the pilot and that was all fun and games and then when we had to do a series. The pilot was complete improvisation – literally, the DP and the editor and I were the only support we had. So we were off picking up the equipment rentals and driving our own cars to the airports and making our own plane reservations. It was that handmade. When we got a little bigger and got aligned with this production company called LeftRight, we then had to find a way that we make the money make sense and make it so they were still doing radio shows with a certain amount of frequency. I felt like we didn’t find our rhythm until, like, the fifth episode. When we didn’t feel like we were totally making it up as we went along.
The other thing that was really intimidating is that we could never tell, going into the field, if a story was going to be a five-minute piece or a 25-minute piece. That is a production nightmare because you have to organize your resources – you can’t just open-endedly burn cash. Oftentimes, we’d go into the field and something would suggest itself as a short piece and maybe the characters weren’t as remarkable as we’d thought. And other times we’d go somewhere thinking something was smaller and then it actually turned out to be bigger and we had to go back and maybe do some reshoots. So I felt like we only figured out how much time things took to edit and to plan, until much later in the process.
I think that’s why everyone is feeling like we’d love to do a second season just because we kind of learned a lot and now we can put that all into practice. I think we loosened up a little later and it’s reflective that we got a little less anal. (laughs) We got a little bit more playful. It’s completely ambiguous whether we’re going to be able to do that – [Showtime is] not going to decide until we premiere.
When I saw the Brahmin bull story, I immediately remembered “Second Chance” from the radio show. Was putting that story in the first episode a conscious effort to show fans how a story that they were already familiar with would look visually?
Well, we shot that for the pilot and they then used it for the radio piece.
Oh, so the radio part was after the fact.
The bull story was shot completely as a TV story from start to finish and we went there with a film crew and the sound was captured by a sound guy – it wasn’t a radio story that existed first that we went and remade, reshot or did anything for. The bull story in particular was a defining moment of trying to figure out how it was going to look, how the show was supposed to feel, how we were going to photograph it. That was definitely not connected at all to it being a radio piece.
The fact of it being a radio piece is that, at the end of that process, Ira felt that the TV show might never see the light of day, so we might as well get a radio piece out of it. It was very economically smart because essentially Showtime paid for that to get made. (laughs) But there was no intention of that being a radio piece — it’s just that we waited around for a number of months after we finished it before we found out from Showtime if they were going to greenlight the series.
Fascinating. I felt the two pieces – the radio and the television — complimented each other well. Seeing the Brahmin bull is such a memorable thing. Once you see what’s going on, see what happened to the people — it kicks in for the viewer how the pictures enhance the stories that This American Life tells. I think it was smart to put it in the pilot because it shows the skeptics how well it can work.
I appreciate that. It’s funny because I felt that images of the bull make the bull a character in the TV piece in the way that the bull wasn’t in the radio piece. I don’t think one or the other is better – we tried to make the pictures, the photography of it, have a kind of beauty and ambition that the radio show has. By making simple choices of how still it was, and some of the framing choices.
Somebody at that [Sundance] panel raised their hand and said something like, “I don’t want to see the pictures and I think it takes away from it,” and after a certain point, I don’t know what to say! It wasn’t like a contest – it’s more like can you preserve what they do?
I remember there was a lot of anxiety from the radio staff about preserving the quality of the writing because TV can’t quite handle the level of exposition [that is usual in This American Life stories], you can’t be talking that long over pictures. We have rough cuts of the pictures that are just absurd, have reams and reams of writing and the words would collapse on top the pictures. You can’t concentrate for that long when you’re looking at something and you’re getting information from [the visuals], the soundtrack and the narrator – it’s collapses in on itself. But I think once they got the hang of it, once they embraced a slightly more simple and direct writing style, they realized they could preserve a lot of the same observations and the ways they make meaning.
The thing that kills me, and I love, about the radio show is that it is so brilliant as an economic model is that, because it’s so cheap to do, they can literally find a story, send someone to go out and record it, have the person edit it on the way home on their ProTools session laptop on the plane, score it and the day before it’s going to air, say, “You know what? It’s not good enough.” The economics are such in radio that they can maintain that level of quality control. They can kill stories that are completely finished.
The minute we would walk out the door with a TV crew, we were spending thousands of dollars just for the gear and the travel and the labor of the sound guy and the DP. The light kit, the cameras. So, when we came home, we couldn’t have that same kill ratio. We sometimes had to make things work or be more vigilant about what we chose instead of necessarily leaping on something that could have been more of a question mark.
Is there a story that you really wanted to do, but it just didn’t translate as much as you tried?
Yeah, there was this story about Jack Hitt, the reporter that they work with a lot. It was the piece about him and his landlord possibility wanting to have him assassinated. It came up very early on as a TV story – we were going do it and we scouted and scavenged for old news footage and basically what we discovered is that this story happened completely in the past. There was nothing visual that we could even reference. The characters were mostly nonexistent – one had even died, one was in jail and couldn’t talk to us. And so we desperately wanted to make this into a TV piece and at one point had invented this entire graphic design scheme where we were going to navigate from talking head to talking head by going through electric plugs, the camera was going to do this move that actually pushed through the interior of the building. Some David Fincher sort of move. It ended up being that there was no way – all it was going to be was a collection of people talking and it was just unsustainable as a piece of television. Apparently, it has made for a phenomenal radio show but we couldn’t make sense of it. That happened a couple of times.
There was one piece that we worked on about Congress and where it was all of these politicians talking about various things about the “Do Nothing Congress” of last year. They would tell us these amazing stories and these amazing details and then [tell us], “Oh, but you can’t film in there,” and “Oh, you’ll never get access” and so to make imagery or to show a scene was virtually completely impossible.
That’s another amazing thing about the radio show. They can just put a person in a room — they don’t even have to be in the room with them — and they can have a person just tell a story. And we cannot do that [on television]; there’s no way to just pull that off. There was a burden for something to happen in front of the camera – some way to make scenes or make pictures to show things that was going to magnify what the person was saying. So, yeah, there were a lot of things that didn’t happen at all.
On the radio show, listeners often know what to expect from a story by who is telling it. Like, what Ira or Julie Snyder or Jonathan Goldstein’s point of view brings to the piece. Whereas on the show, it’s the camera being the benevolent guide so the stories don’t necessarily have a slant of a particular writer/reporter.
So much of what I like about the Utah piece is Nancy Updike’s writing. (Nancy is one of the founders of the radio show with Ira.) So much of the soul of that story is her – her observations, the things she says and the way she writes and sort of narrates the piece. I don’t think that totally got lost.
There didn’t seem to be many pieces from the usual contributors. Was there as a reason for that?
I can’t think of an example where we tried something that outright didn’t work with a contributor. It just took a while to figure out how it was going to get shot and how it was going to work.
There was always this question of first-person filmmaking. There was a story in the sixth and final episode where I think we finally found a way to integrate the reporters. We’d been doing a story about genetically modified pigs and the search for the modern pig and how our food is made and manipulated. We had done the primary shooting where we had been interviewing scientists and farmers, and I had spent a lot of time shooting, just sort of making up stuff, [with a] little camera. When we got back, I tried to do the straight story of just the scientists and the very clinical, scientific narrative of how this happened, and it kind of didn’t work. And then we went back to the “making of” footage and realized that that footage and our discomfort, our squirming and going through the whole experience of going into one of these modern pig farms, which are these indoor spaces where the pigs spend their entire lives in these really small pens. And us, telling our experiences of actually making the piece brought something to it, actually helped it. Contributed to the meaning of it and helped us tell a certain kind of story. That was something that we figured out as we went. I think we’d probably do again if we did another season.
I think everyone wanted the contributors to be more involved, it was just a question of exactly what they would do and what story was appropriate for them. And if we did do a second season, I think there definitely was a desire on Ira’s part to get people much more involved and swept up in it.
The radio show uses certain music cues again and again to evoke a mood attitude. Did you try to create a similar recognizable visual cues?
I think there were some shooting things that we figured out early on that just worked for us and worked for the way we wanted to shoot. For instance, very early on, we shot the Burbank story [in Episode 2, “Growth Spurt”] with two cameras. When we got back and started to assemble it, I was really not into it – and I realized it was like a reality show. The coverage and the way it looked and some of it was handheld because of the circumstances we found ourselves in. There was two ways to go – [one was to] shoot with more cameras so we would cover everything and every breath they took. Or, there was making the opposite choice and saying imagine if you can tell this story with one camera and really commit to having it on the tripod and stay out of the way of the characters and to not be trying to chase everything and be insecure about what you were and weren’t getting. You would lose certain stuff, but the aesthetic commitment to the way you were going to shoot it was such that what you did get was going to look a certain way and you were really going to be rigorous about the story you followed and you were going to let a lot of superfluous things sort of fall away.
That was a big moment [when we decided that] we want to shoot with one camera, we don’t want to shoot with 10 cameras or even two. And we don’t want to shoot it handheld – that was something we learned early on that wasn’t working for us.
Again, on the radio show, they can run around and interview anyone they want and if we did that – we would have needed the Project Runway kind of machine. That’s not to denigrate that – but they probably have five crews running at once because they have to follow each character and all the little moments are captured because that’s the texture of what you’re doing. So we went the opposite direction – the true test is if we can pull this off with one camera. That was a choice that was made early on.
It reflects the radio show, which often has one person, telling one story. You don’t get other’s reflections on the story, which I think is mirrored here with just using the one camera. You don’t necessarily need to know all the superfluous things.
I kind of thought as much and it’s funny – we just had an experience today when there was a moment in this pig story where, there’s some shots of pigs and the narrator says it’s really hard to fall in love with a chicken, but I think that you can fall in love with a pig. We just had some shots of pigs and we just got this promo back and somebody at Showtime, in the promo, put in a shot of a chicken, because the person in the narration was saying “chicken” and they felt that they absolutely, unequivocally at that moment needed to see a chicken. We weren’t as literal in our punctuation of things. Because there was a certain faith that every certain thing didn’t need to be “say and see.” You could inhabit the story and you could be in the world of it and not have a chicken cutaway just because the narrator says “chicken.”
Which pieces from the series would you put together as quintessential viewing for someone you want to introduce to This American Life: The TV show?
Hmmm. The mix tape version?
Side One: Probably the Chris Ware animation [Episode 4, “The Cameraman”], Joe (the kid who doesn’t believe in love) [Episode 2, “My Way”] and the Utah religious painting story [Episode 3, “God’s Close Up”].
Side Two: The Mojave Polaroid Story [Episode 3, “God’s Close Up”], the [Brahmin] Bull Story [Episode 1, “Reality Check”], Making of Modern Pig piece and the Weiner Circle story [both in Episode 6, “Pandora’s Box”].
While you had screened the show at panels, what was it like to bring it on tour and see the reactions of hard-core TAL fans? (And I mean hard-core — there were people banging their feet like it was a rock concert in Lincoln Center.)
Overall, I was blown away seeing Ira’s rock star-dom in action. Lincoln Center especially, the crowd just went bananas when he came out onstage: like Van Halen-at-Madison-Square-Garden-in-1984 bananas. As for the reaction to the TV show, it felt like we had to win the crowd over each night. Seems like most people came to the show with serious skepticism but after seeing the footage, they were encouraged.
What has surprised you when screening the show on tour?
The fact that lots of public radio listeners don’t have TVs, much less Showtime.
Is there a typical This American Life story in your life that you’d love to see on the show?
Meaning some narrative that I’ve stored away that I might pitch? I don’t know, with my experience – what they like and what makes it through their filters is so specific and I think a lot of people think “Oh! That would be a perfect story for This American Life,” and what you quickly find out is, in fact, that it wouldn’t be a perfect story because the degree of specialness for them to think it’s interesting is really intense.
I remember hearing pitches or thinking of things and thinking, “Oh my god, that would be perfect!” and finding out, that’s exactly the story that they would throw away because it’s kind of been done or it doesn’t have anything surprising about it or a plot twist. So I find their standards intimidatingly high (laughs) and am in no rush to put anything in my own life to be judged by those standards at the moment.
What is your advice for people who feel that they have a story to tell?
Well, I was always a big proponent of making it yourself. At least do a portion of it that’s kind of proof of concept — make 15 minutes, shoot with the character. Don’t pitch an idea to somebody, show them tape.
The technology is such now that you can pull that off. I was in graduate school at a transitional moment between old editing methods of tape and actual flat beds of film and at the time, there was one AVID at my graduate school program and it was coveted by everybody. And from what I’ve heard from people who attend the school now, kids all have FinalCutPro in their own rooms and are editing their own features.
That’s what was so great about The Target Shoots First — I didn’t pitch that as an idea. It was a finished product, so if somebody liked it and wanted to broadcast it or put it into a film festival, it wasn’t going to change. Whereas, since then, I’ve experienced things where I pitched an idea, the person who I pitched to had a version of it in their head and me making it had a version and we had to work out some kind of compromise. I’d always feel a little bit bummed at the end because it wasn’t the thing I wanted. So if you can make it independent, it’s not the worst thing in the world. But of course, financing all these things tend to make that impossible. (laughs)
Speaking of The Target Shoots First, what was it like to have your first documentary to win awards and be so well-received?
It was incredible. It did exactly what I hoped it did – I worked in the music business, I didn’t have a clear career path in mind when I made this choice to abandon all that, to go to graduate school, to switch gears and to make this totally different professional choice. While it took some time to find some traction, and it took a little while to bounce around the whole film festival circuit, it ultimately led to all the things that came after it. I met someone at MTV through that, who ended up giving me a job. I pitched ideas and she let me make my first shows that I had pitched. I basically got to change careers because of that and I got to do that for a living. And even that took a little while to fully cohere – I was working at a dot-com for a while. It evolved, but ultimately, it was amazing. It could not have been better.
It has surprised me that [the documentary] has continued to bounce around. It was recently shown on the Sundance Channel. And every once in a while it has a screening. This year, we’re trying to get a DVD together and the only reason that didn’t happen sooner is some music rights issues that I just have to slog my way through. But I’m just shocked that it’s still bouncing around. I’m really lucky.