Geri Cole: Wow, I love it. It’s pulling in all these real world elements. One of the themes that I felt really stood out to me was this sense of personal responsibility versus following orders and that speech about him wearing the Wallace suit, which was incredible. I guess, did you speak with any veterans specifically, or I guess, where did that come from?
Zack Akers: No, I didn’t, but I did a lot of reading and I threw myself into the pit of the torture reports, which was really a foul thing to spend any amount of time in, but reading what had happened during the period of torture during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and what the governments had sanctioned and what was done.
Zack Akers: And then just trying to imagine how the people who had done that must have felt afterwards and how it’s sort of projecting my feelings onto someone who has done something that I couldn’t imagine, but I was thinking that if you do anything under orders like that, you could either justify it in your head or it’s something that you battle with the rest of your life like, “Could I have said no? Could I have done anything else?”
Zack Akers: And that idea of just doing what you’re told versus free will and how sometimes you feel like you don’t have that choice. And I definitely read a lot about veterans who are dealing with PTSD and their struggles and all that, but it was more just writing what I felt was true and building out this character that was tortured by that choice.
Geri Cole: I feel like I found myself feeling very intimately connected with the character. And I don’t know if it’s… Rather or not, I guess is my question is like, do you think that that’s one of the benefits of the medium, because it was in my head and I felt like I was almost in his body in a way?
Zack Akers: Yeah.
Geri Cole: I guess talk about what the benefits of the medium in that way in writing.
Zack Akers: It’s one of the things that I love most about the audio storytelling is that there’s this great quote that I heard Ira Glass say, but it’s not an Ira Glass quote. It’s a quote that he heard from someone, but that radio is the most visual medium. And it’s one of those things that I really like thinking about because it’s what you’re talking about. It’s so intimate and it’s so personal for every single person who listens to it and they paint the picture in their head. So everybody has their own version of Wallace, everybody has their own version of his office and his adventures and the underwater forest.
Zack Akers: And that’s a beautiful thing to me and everybody because of that, because your brain is constantly building out the space, you’re also projecting your own feelings. You’re involving yourself in this and that’s really fun. And that’s also why I think I tend to lean towards the thriller or the more terrifying elements of it, because I think that that’s the most exciting thing to do with someone, if they’re leaning in and paying attention. And you want them to stop doing the laundry or have to pull over the car for a second to be like, “Whoa, what was that?” So I absolutely love that part of it.
Zack Akers: Another thing that I love about it is how you can create a much bigger space and have much bigger events than you could in the visual version of whatever the story is that you’re telling. The budget for Shipworm, the movie, a visual movie, is so much more than the budget for a podcast, but it’s not going to feel any bigger or more expansive than what we did in the podcast, because of how intimate and because of how invested you are and because of what you’re doing in your own brain to fill out the visual space. So that is always the thing that excites me most about podcasting.
Geri Cole: Man, that is such a great way to think of it where it’s like, “It’s not taking up any more space, but that space would cost more in a visual medium.” So do you have a different approach in… I guess this is an obvious or strange question, but writing for screen versus writing for… Is there anything that changes, do you think as you’re writing?
Zack Akers: For sure. I think when you talk about the strengths, you should also talk about the limitations. And the limitations of podcasting are that everything has to be told, and that is a tricky thing to navigate in storytelling. Exposition is the hardest part of audio storytelling, and it’s something that I still listen to radio dramas from the 30s, 40s, 50s on. And the biggest problem any of those stories have, the example I use is, if you’re in life and imagine you’re going to punch someone, and I’m sure that you’ve never punched someone, but imagine that you have gotten to the point of, “I’m going to punch this person,” you don’t say, “I’m going to punch you,” and then punch them. You just punch him, right? But in radio and audio, if you just hit someone, without context, it doesn’t make any sense, right?
Geri Cole: Yeah.
Zack Akers: So you have to step out of real life a little bit, but if you step out too much, then the audience tunes out because it’s like, “That doesn’t sound real. Or that sounds like a writer is doing something.” So it’s definitely something that… And Limetown was a documentary formatted, fictional thing, which makes sense, because in a documentary radio broadcast, you do have to explain everything. So everything feels natural when the narrator comes in and it’s like, “And that’s when he started crying.”
Zack Akers: Because you do have to inform the audience, but we have expanded Shipworm to be just straight audio drama. So the rules of writing definitely change for that than they would for… And that’s a lot of why we’re doing it is because it’s like, “Oh, this is different. This is new. Let’s keep pushing things for ourselves and see what’s possible.” But it was weirdly, writing for the Limetown TV Show liberating. Sometimes it would just be like, “Oh, we can just show that. Cool.”
Geri Cole: Oh, we can just cut to that.
Zack Akers: Yeah, there it is. Cool. Great anyway. Great. And of course, writing for TV is really hard too, but the going from that to that, going from podcasts to do television, it was a relief in a weird way.
Geri Cole: Wow. Were there any lines that you felt like you had to toe in terms of mental health? Because I think another thing with Wallace, this character is obviously, spoilers, a bit like the idea that is whether or not he’s having a mental break, which I’m still not sure about. What were the, I guess, the lines or guidelines or guard rails, rather?
Zack Akers: We knew from the beginning that we needed this story to work in either case, right? So if you think that he actually is being held hostage and forced to do these things, that the story works. And if he’s having a mental break or some sort of disconnect that, that story works too. But I guess what we told ourselves was we need to be respectful as possible towards the version where these events are playing out only in his own head and never blaming that. It’s like we wanted the trauma to be the source of all this, in any case, sort of like dealing with grief was the problem, dealing with trauma was the problem.
Zack Akers: And that is something that I’ve had to deal with in my own life where, and that was the source of that sort of thing. I lost my mom unexpectedly a few years ago and it was one of those things that changed my life so profoundly that I’ve been writing about it ever since. And I think that was what I was most curious about exploring with this character is how you deal with grief, the person you become on the other side of a traumatic event. And if you can ever fix that fracture between the two versions of yourself and in that healing process. And that was more what I was writing about than anything else. So that was what was true to me as far as that goes. So that was definitely more my focus than anything else was putting trauma at the forefront and sort of like what you do and what you become on the other side of it, I guess.
Geri Cole: Wow. I’m sorry about your mom passing. Yeah, that’s a very smart, I think way to handle it is making sure that we’re not putting the drama and/or the issue on the mental health, but on to who you become. Let’s talk a little bit about the sound design, because it was incredible.
Zack Akers: Thank you.
Geri Cole: How did that happen? How’d you guys put that together?
Zack Akers: We work with this amazing sound designer. His name is Joel Robbie, and he has been who we’ve worked with on all of our podcasts since Limetown. He’s someone that Skip had worked with a few times out in San Francisco. And when we were doing Limetown, it was just those long shots. He’s like, “I know this guy and maybe he’ll want to do this.” And he instantly was like, “Yeah, cool.” He’s like, “I don’t really understand this quite yet, but yeah, I’m in.” And for him, it was like complete freedom. Normally when he’s sound designing to picture, he has limitations on everything. Everything has to make sense as to what you’re seeing, but with this, it would be like, “Joel, he’s underwater, he’s in a scuba suit, have fun.”
Zack Akers: And so all of the credit on the sound design goes to Joel. I mean, we certainly… I write in all the sound design into my scripts and what I’m looking for and the emotion and all of that. And I’ll even send him separate notes with pictures like, “I want it to sound like it’s in this car and this kind of road and the bridge looks like this,” so I’m very specific about the notes, but Joel does all of it. I mean, one of my favorite things is for 36 Questions, the musical, we had a duck as a character, one of the characters had a pet duck. And so Joel actually literally went to a farm and rented a duck and followed him around all day, just recording this duck and getting all of these sounds.
Geri Cole: I’m sorry, you said you rented a duck?
Zack Akers: Yeah. So he got all of these bespoke duck sounds for the project. And it’s like, that’s the kind of detail and passion that he puts into it.
Geri Cole: That’s incredible.
Zack Akers: And because we’ve been working with him for so long, I find myself trying to find the limits of Joel like, “Can he actually sound design this? I don’t know, but let’s try it.” And so far he’s been able to do everything flawlessly, which is probably bad for him because I’m just going to keep pushing it as much as possible.
Geri Cole: No, it’s good. I love that he’s getting you fresh duck sounds. No [inaudible 00:31:19].
Zack Akers: No, he does not tolerate [inaudible 00:31:22] duck sounds.
Geri Cole: Wow, that’s incredible. Also, I love that it’s like have fun. Just go wild.
Zack Akers: We had done this enough to where we understand the power of panning sound and making things louder than they would be naturally or making things more quiet, so people lean in for important moments. So all of those tricks that we’ve learned over the years are something that we work with Joel a lot, but he is a wizard. I call him a wizard all the time, but I genuinely believe that he is one.
Geri Cole: He’s an actual wizard. Let’s talk also a little bit about the performances because they were also incredible. Did you, or do you write with having certain folks in mind or did anything change once you had the project cast?
Zack Akers: Not really. I mean, one of the good things, if you can call it that about the pandemic is that you have a lot of actors who need work. And a lot of really talented actors who otherwise wouldn’t be doing podcasts, who need to do something. So when we were casting, we were just so lucky to have so many talented actors audition for basically every role in the show, every role in the show. And the great thing about casting for podcasts is it’s just the performance, that’s it. There’s no other consideration, right? It’s just like, “Who gave the best performance? Who has the best voice to listen to?”
Zack Akers: And then once you get your leads, it’s like, “Whose voice sounds different enough from that person so you don’t have conflicting voices that way?” And so those considerations go into it, but it doesn’t matter about age, race, anything. It’s just, who gives the best performance? And actors love it because there’s no blocking, there’s no lighting, there’s no makeup. They just come into a booth, they pour their soul out and then they go home. And so once we cast Quentin and Miriam and then everything else fell into place, it was just like, “Oh, this is going to work. I feel like everything here is going to work.” We did a read through with Quentin and Miriam and Lee and Jessie Shelton.
Zack Akers: And I just remember coming away from that being like, “Wow, I can’t believe how good everyone is.” It feels so good when you have such talented people to do it, but nothing that I can remember really… Well, I will say because Quentin is a black man, there was the moments around the cops and those really loaded moments like, “Is there anything that we need to think about here? Is there anything that we need to engage with here?” And luckily, most of it is him being away from the cops, right?
Zack Akers: There isn’t a moment of confrontation until the very end when he does confront them, but that felt like a moment to me that was all about him, it didn’t have to do with them. And we did write it in the moment of the chief being like, “He committed the act of violence to himself, to be clear. We had nothing to do with it.” Realizing that that’s something that would be considered, but most everything else just felt like a human experience.
Geri Cole: There are two questions that I want to ask. One is, is there a different… It did feel open at the end. I believe that he was truly being controlled, but is there a definitive answer on that?
Zack Akers: I can’t answer that.
Geri Cole: Okay.
Zack Akers: I can say that I have an opinion as a writer. I have my own opinion, but I hate the idea of me saying if you’re right or wrong. I want you to be right. And I want you to experience the story in your own way. And the fact that you don’t know is what we wanted. We wanted the conversation to happen outside of the project and amongst people who had listened to the show. So I feel like I would be doing a disservice to give you, but there is… I mean, in my mind there is an answer, but I don’t want to give it.
Geri Cole: That’s totally fair except, which leads me actually nicely to my next question, is there a desire, I guess in a general, Limetown obviously has been adapted into a television series. Is there a desire to adapt this into a feature film and that’s just in general? Again, there are many benefits to this medium just as there are many drawbacks. And so it’s like, “Is there a desire to cross pollinate, if I’m using that correctly?” Do you mean or no?
Zack Akers: I mean, it’s one of those things that the reality of it is, of course, we would be open to the adaptation because that’s what gives you more money to do other things, that is definitely where more money exists. It’s also really fun, any sort of production is fun. And to own property that’s being adapted is valuable. And we understand that as a company, so it’s good for our company, but I do bristle at the idea of you make things to have them adapted, because I think that, that demeans this medium in a way that I find gross and I think is actually something that happens a lot where it’s like, “Oh, my pilot didn’t work, so I’m just going to do it as a podcast.” Thinking that it’s just like, “Oh, that’ll work.”
Geri Cole: Like it’s an easier thing.
Zack Akers: It’s like it’s an easier thing, when it’s you have to ask yourself why something is a podcast and why it’s being told that way, not just because you can’t tell it as a TV Show or as a movie. So that’s one of the biggest tests for us. That’s why we don’t do many shows. It’s why we only do them when they feel like, “Okay, this is right for this medium, this is what we’re going to do. And we’re going to make the best version of this possible for this experience.” And if it becomes something else, great, but if you don’t do it well here, no one’s going to care about it in any other form. So that is always our priority when we’re making these projects.
Geri Cole: So in The Guild Podcast Series, the OnWriting guide to crafting scripted podcasts, which you kindly participated in, you talked about the creative and business side of creating podcasts, since those episodes were about two years ago and the podcasting landscape has changed a good bit, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the industry shift and how it’s impacted your work and mindset.
Zack Akers: Well, I think it’s changed for good and for bad. Well, bad is all in where you are in life and who you’re working with, but I think in my mind, the bad part of the industry is that it has certainly become more corporate and it has certainly become more like television and that there are studios and that there are very certain paths to get things done, as opposed to in the days of Limetown when we first started, it was just sort of like, “Yeah, we just put it out there and it could do just as well as anything else,” where I feel like now, because there is a massive podcast market, I think I read something like there’s more than a million podcasts now.
Zack Akers: And it’s like, there’s so much just noise and how you penetrate it and how you break through is definitely a lot harder than it used to be. And you’re forced into avenues of following a studio system, which again is good and bad. It’s good that the industry is being legitimized in such a way, but it’s bad for independent producers or people who are just starting out. But I do think the exciting thing and the unknown thing is the new subscription model that’s being introduced by Apple and Spotify and I’m sure everyone else, that will allow for a direct payment to the creator.
Zack Akers: So it means that you no longer have to rely on advertising for money, which is also a busted system for fictional podcasts and it’s hard to make money that way, but if you have 10,000 loyal listeners to whatever you’re doing and you charge a certain amount, you can make a good amount of money that way, and you can be an independent producer that way. So I think that, that might change this industry in a way that people don’t fully understand yet. And when I say people, I mean, myself too. It could either fall flat or it could be something that is truly game-changing and allows more people into the space and allows more people to make a living doing it this way.
Zack Akers: And I’m hopeful for that. And I think the fact that Apple is committing to it does make it more possible than it’s ever been, because people are just used to paying for things through their system and it’s not going to be a lot to be like final pay, 2.99 for six months or whatever. Whatever you want to do to subscribe to this company and whatever they’re making. So I am excited about that and to see if that makes the changes that we think that it will.
Geri Cole: You have, again, just perfectly led me to my next question, which is, and I like to ask all the guests to the podcast this question, is success. Rather, I like talking about the idea of success, because I feel it looks different for everyone. And so I’m curious what success looks like for you, what it used to look like for you, and what it looks like for you now?
Zack Akers: That’s a good question. I think for a long time, I felt insecure about calling myself a writer, because I knew writers and I knew what they did and what they wrote and I felt like I wasn’t at that level, or I didn’t deserve to be one.
Geri Cole: Same.
Zack Akers: Right. Yeah, I feel like that’s a universal feeling among writers, but I think when I realized that it’s all that I wanted to do, and when it was when I had the full-time job doing documentaries, and it was like, all I was doing when I wasn’t sleeping or eating or trying to maintain a relationship with my wife was daydreaming or writing. And it’s what I wanted to do and what I did when I had free time. And so it’s like the fact that I can do that for a living and that I can call myself a writer, that I feel comfortable saying I’m a writer. When people are like, “What do you do?” I’m a writer.
Zack Akers: That’s a really powerful moment in your life when you can say that and feel confident in that and feel like I can make a living doing this. And so that is the criteria for myself, which is like, “Can I support myself and my family by doing something that I love?” And if I can, then that is amazing success. That’s all that I want, because if this didn’t work and I had to go work at Whole Foods or something else, I would still be writing. And it’s what I would be doing anyway. So the fact that I can do this, and it’s how I can support everyone that I love is just a miracle. And I don’t know if that will ever… If that does change, then I’m a bad person. I don’t know what’s happened to me. But that’s all that it is to me now.
Geri Cole: Yeah, that’s such a fantastic answer. And I also think that that’s probably a good place for us to wrap this up. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Zack Akers: Thank you.
Geri Cole: This was a really lovely conversation.
Zack Akers: Great. No, thank you very much. It’s a real honor to be here talking to you. So thank you very much.
Geri Cole: Well, actually, also one more question. What’s next? What’s coming out next?
Zack Akers: We just have several things bubbling right now, but there’s nothing that I feel confident enough to be like, “This is the thing right now,” but we have a lot of things brewing right now that I’m excited about.
Geri Cole: Okay. Well, I’m excited to know what they are.
Zack Akers: Yeah. Thank you.
Geri Cole: Awesome. That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at wgaeast.org. And you can follow The Guild on social media at WGA, East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.