My interview with Nicholas Thurkettle

Nicholas Thurkettle is a writer, actor, and filmmaker, working independently in Los Angeles and Orange County with the continuing goal of bringing good work to audiences anywhere he can find them.

He is also a part of Earbud Theater and I had a chance to interview him a little while back.

What are the 3 best things about working in Earbud Theater?

First – the creative freedom. Casey Wolfe really believes in letting storytellers follow their impulses; and I think it shows in the broad range of tones and ideas that all fit into the “Earbud” experience.

Second – The live shows. These have really blossomed in the last year and a half to become an experience all their own; incredibly fun and energetic. We have people who are fans of the live shows who don’t even listen to the podcast (much as I’d like them to, ha!)

Third – the chance to experiment and play with audio as a way to stimulate the imagination. As a listener, by providing your own visuals, your relationship with the story becomes so much more private and personal.

What is your favorite thing about being a podcaster according to you?

The ability to get an idea out there into the world in a finished format.

I’ve produced theater and directed short films and published books, and no matter what you do there’s an incredible amount of labor and effort involved if you want to deliver something that’s polished and high quality.

Earbud Theater is a lot of work, but when you see how few people it takes to create a fully-realized story with giant scope and imagination, it’s pretty addicting.

How did you stumble into the world of podcasting?

I had written a screenplay called Habitat that was designed to be a microbudget sci-fi feature film – and I still intend to bring it to life that way someday!

I took it to a producer I have been friends with for many years, named Branon Coluccio, who has outstanding taste and usually very savvy advice.

He was involved early on in Earbud as a partner and adviser with Casey, and he was the one who put the two of us together, telling me that with a little work, Habitat could be translated into a very good audio drama.

He was absolutely right, and I had so much fun I had to stick around!

What was the first podcast you listened to?

Probably an episode of This American Life, which is really just a repackaging of their radio show.

For podcasts that are truly podcasts, probably the old Creative Screenwriting – my best friend would help organize and staff the screenings and Q&A’s and I love hearing fellow screenwriters talk shop.

What is your writing process?

I do a lot of noodling around with fragments of ideas, trying to find a world and a tone and a thematic idea that all resonate interestingly with one another.

You sort of dump everything out of the toybox and look for a couple of things to snap together like puzzle pieces, and then you start following that to figure out where it leads.

For my episode The Sounds Below, I knew I wanted to do a horror story, and to me the real horror is in human nature, so I thought about this quality people can have of trying to bargain with their fears instead of face them, and just made that literal in the form of Dr. Lebeaux’s shop.

For Scary Ride, it was the idea of turning this Haunted House environment upside-down and making the spirits real, but sad instead of frightening; and using that premise to explore how our fears can make us feel alone if we don’t admit to them.

What was the inspiration for Earbud theater?

Casey has always loved anthology storytelling like The Twilight Zone and Tales From the Crypt, just like I do. He had worked as a feature film executive at a major studio and realized that the high-budget end of filmmaking now is about extending these franchises that already exist rather than birthing new ideas.

But that raw material has to start somewhere – you need a medium that can gamble on new voices and new ideas, or else the creative ecosystem withers and dies. They’re raiding every comic book they can find right now but eventually they’ll run out of things they can make blockbusters out of.

Podcasting and anthology are an outstanding combined environment to nurture new stories. That philosophy also informs his work with Brick Moon Fiction, publishing short stories from the new generation of sci-fi/horror/fantasy authors.

That’s another podcast I would recommend to folks, especially because I narrate most of the stories myself!

What do you like about audio drama as a medium?

The rhythm of it is distinctive – it sits somewhere between a movie and a stage play in terms of dramatic flow.

My story Escape (the End of Humanity Song) is built around these very long dialogue scenes that let us get into the complex emotional terrain of this sibling relationship. The scenes would be 5, 6, even 9 pages long.

In screenwriting that would be death – you rarely let a dialogue scene go longer than 3 pages; while in the theater, too many scenes at that length can feel too short, it can give you whiplash. But that rhythm gives you a lot of space to create rich characters, and then not be hamstrung by having to cast someone by looks!

The audio also plays a really interesting role in creating a kind of confirmation bias in the listener’s mind – confirmation bias is a very under-recognized storytelling tool.

If one of the actors in Monday for the Sweepers just said “Ah, here we are in the woods!”, the audience thinks, “that’s B.S.”! But if you lay in those forest sounds first, then even if the audience doesn’t identify what it is right away, when the actors start talking about seeing squirrels in the trees, then the audience starts thinking “forest”, and because that sound has already been there for awhile, it feels legitimate and they’re totally plugged into the environment.

I never get tired of exploring that process of building dramatic credibility with the audience.

How does getting the script made into an actual audio drama work?

Once we decide to pull the trigger on a script, we start casting and scheduling. It’s a delicate process putting these sessions together, because I believe you get better performances when you have all the actors in the same space working off of each other.

But every extra character makes that exponentially more complicated. We’re doing this for effectively zero budget; so you want to respect the time of the performers you’re working with and find a block of time that inconveniences them the least.

We try to get it the whole show’s dialogue recorded in one night; but exceptions happen. With Scary Ride, the kids and the adults were recorded on completely separate nights, and it’s a credit to our director Christine Weatherup that the performances connect with one another so seamlessly that they ended up winning Audio Verse Awards.

Renaissance Man, I recall, was an insane hodgepodge because it had so many characters in it. I played two roles in that and I recorded them in my bedroom closet without ever meeting the rest of the cast or hearing their performances.

My newest episode, The Mektalos Caper, which I’m editing now, features the largest cast we ever got into a room at the same time, which allowed us to do really fun things like create sounds of crowds muttering or laughing or screaming.

Once the raw recordings are done, we assemble the dialogue cut. Just as in a movie, you’re selecting the best takes of each line (we usually have at least 2-3 readings) and splicing them together so that they flow just as if the actors performed it all perfectly with no interruptions.

I think listeners would be shocked if they knew just how often we’re switching between takes – sometimes an actor starts a sentence in take 1 and finishes it in take 3. As a finicky director, I love being able to control a dramatic pause down to the split second 🙂

From there, it goes into the effects editing phase, where we add in all of the non-dialogue sounds, as well as process the vocals to add little extra touches of environmental authenticity, or filter them to make them sound like phone calls, etc.

Early on, we had to grab sound effects from any free source we could find regardless of format or recording quality; Habitat can be hard to listen to for me now because I was doing all that mixing and editing myself with almost no training, and now it sounds super bumpy and messy to me. But as our team and assets have grown, so has the consistency and quality of the effects and soundscapes.

Craig Good, our post-production wizard, recorded an old refrigerator in his garage to get the subtle background hum of Raff and Knaack’s timeship in Monday for the Sweepers; that’s a level of artistry and control we just didn’t have back in the beginning.

Music also gets placed at this point, usually pre-made tracks from one of the incredibly generous composers out there sharing their work with a Creative Commons license. And then the final mix balances the relative volume and stereo placement of it all, so these noises work together rather than stepping all over one another.

When you do it right the work just disappears into this rich audio drama fabric, and you don’t notice that sometimes the whispers are the loudest moments because that makes dramatic sense in the moment.

While that process is going on, we’ve also assigned an artist, who creates the promotional visuals for the show. We’re all fitting our work in around paid jobs and don’t want to rush anything out unfinished, so sometimes it’s hard to peg a release date too far in advance, but once we have a sense for when the show will be ready, we start up the promotional machinery.

Finally, we upload the episode and then start obsessively watching the download stats, ha!

How do you go about getting others involved? Particularly if they’re far away?

On our non-budget you have to nurture relationships with people who enjoy the creative outlet first and foremost; so you just keep doing it and telling people you’re doing it and, uncannily, you start accumulating connections with people who are excited about the medium and want to contribute.

Craig Good, whom I mentioned, is located up in the Bay Area, so when it’s time for him to step in and start mixing, a whole lot of chunky files start flying back and forth through Dropbox. I’ve still never even met him in person!

Ashley F. Miller, who did the artwork for Monday for the Sweepers and wrote the love song for Boney McGee, lives in South Carolina and is a multi-talented longtime friend of mine.

Kevin Necessary does terrific artwork as well, he lives and works in Cincinnati where I grew up, and we were connected by a mutual Cincinnati friend – he’s an editorial cartoonist by day and Earbud lets him create pulpy, geeky stuff he can’t always do in his day job.

There’s a podcaster named Summer Brooks (shout-out, Slice of Sci-Fi!), after she interviewed us for her show we had her play one of the callers in 911 and she literally phoned in her performance from Arizona. Aurora Culver, who is the driving force behind our live shows, is both a friend and a super-fan of the show, as well as a hell of a theater producer/director, and it was her idea that those skills were the best way she could contribute to Earbud and it’s been a total game-changer.

Could you tell us a bit about the process to turn a script into a finished audio drama. Which part do you enjoy the most?

For me, the recording night is better than Christmas. It’s such a thrill to hear actors bring these words to life and add their creativity and personality.

We have so many huge laughs that happen in the room because of that accumulating creative energy. The writing is solitary, and the editing is also solitary and can be exhausting; but for that night, it’s just pure play with great people and I’m completely in love with it.

I’ll never forget recording The Sounds Below, as we got to that climax and Jill Cary Martin (who played Dr. Lebeaux) was just emotionally annihilating Chris (played by MacLeod Andrews), and I was getting full-body thrill chills at how awesome the two of them were.

I know I’m loving the work if I forget that I wrote it, ha!

Thanks once again Nicholas for this interview.

Be sure to check out his website for more information.

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