Taking Podcasts for the Long Haul with Carrier
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s late at night. A truck is driving across the highways and byways of this land. The driver is trying to stay awake, wishing that they were home. The truck is making some weird noises. The trucker decides to listen to something to keep sane.
Is this trucker listening to Carrier, or are they living it?
Carrier is the latest hit immersive audio dramatic podcast from QCode, the company that also brought us Blackout, starring Rami Malek of Bohemian Rhapsody and Mr. Robot.
Carrier stars Cynthia Erivo (Tony winner for Broadway’s The Color Purple) as a trucker who takes on a very strange cargo, which lands her in trouble with the law, the government, her trucking line, the lab she picked up from, and other truckers. As she crosses the miles of blacktop, she starts to wonder if she will ever find her way home.
The series also stars Hollywood names like Lamorne Morris (New Girl), Martin Starr (Silicon Valley), Lance Reddick (The Wire), Elliott Gould (Ocean’s Eight), Robert Longstreet (The Haunting Of Hill House), Dale Dickey (Hell Or High Water) and Chris Ellis (The Oath).
We recently sat down to chat with Carrier creator and director Dan Blank to discuss the brave new world of podcasting and audio drama.
You have a background in visual arts and effects, and yet there is obviously nothing at all visual about Carrier, except through the mind’s eye. What was it about this medium that intrigued you?
I had been playing a little bit with audio. I come from a background in VFX, but I’ve also done some work in tech and virtual reality. I had been playing with binaural audio recordings as part of my work for Google with some of the virtual reality stuff that they had been developing. What I found was that in terms of trying to create an immersive experience, what we were trying to do with the virtual reality stuff; audio really was a big component of that. Just the binaural audio itself I thought was a pretty powerful way to transport people and create a really immersive experience. Rob Herting [founder of QCode] had approached me about producing podcasts. That’s where I was really drawn to the idea that I could take some of this audio drama stuff and use binaural audio recordings to create something that was immersive. Again, this idea that it’s all storytelling, it’s all filmmaking. Creating a narrative however you need to; [it] interested me a lot. What’s funny is that visual effects and animation and sound design are actually pretty similar, in terms of how you approach a project. It’s just a bunch of different elements that we are piecing together to create the illusion of a space and a story.
To a certain extent, Carrier reminded me of the classic old radio dramas, like for example Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.” Do you see this as a new version of that tradition?
Oh yeah, certainly. I had obviously been very influenced by old radio dramas. I grew up with a lot of that stuff, in the back of a car listening to some of those cassette tapes from old recordings. I really loved one called Suspense. It was sort of like a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was a weekly anthology and they would get real movie stars to come in and do live voices.
I remember I loved a similar series called Radio Mystery Theater.
What’s nice now is that for a long time it used to be that radio dramas were popular because people were gathering in their living rooms around the radio and listening to the story. Then it was replaced by film and television for the narrative medium. But lately we have films everywhere we go. We have access to all this stuff at any time. There is this opportunity where people are not able to just sit in front of a couch or go the movies and there is a chance to captivate them. That’s why I think we’re in a golden age of audio drama right now.
How is writing for an audio play different? In what ways is it harder, and what are some of the benefits of creating specifically for audio?
This is my first audio series, so a lot of the things that I did were making my own rules. (laughs) I thought that could be the way to approach this stuff. I wrote the scripts the same way you would write a screenplay. The creative challenge is saying, okay, I don’t have visuals to help me here, so anything that I’m going to be using to tell the story has to be sound. That has to be written. That has to be described. When you look at the stage directions in a script, a lot of the sounds – everything from the way that she grips her steering wheel to the sounds of the creature – all that stuff is described pretty well. Along with all the dialogue and everything else that goes into a screenplay. Sometimes it might be something that is written – here’s a visual of what’s happening. A road map for the engineers and sound designers and everybody, so that we all know blocking of what’s really supposed to be happening, so it doesn’t just become this tumbled mess of sound effects.
I was reading that Carrier was originally planned as a film project. How did you decide to switch it to a podcast?
Actually, it was just great timing. I was in a place where I was starting the project and wanted to make a really small film as my next endeavor. Rob Herting had contacted me and said, “I’m starting this audio-drama company. Do you have anything that would work?” I thought this project would loan itself to the medium really well. My whole goal was to do something that was really contained. About this one character and the voices she is hearing over the CB or cell phones or whatever the creature is in the back. That allowed for it to just translate pretty easily. What was nice about it was that you’re not worrying about production budget and the large-scale stuff that goes into the making of a film. You could just take a lot more risks and focus on the craft, which I just love. I want to keep working in this space as much as I can. It’s very liberating.
One thing I’ve always felt about horror films is that what you don’t see is often infinitely scarier than what you do see. Obviously, audio is an ideal conduit for that. Do you believe that, and was that something you were considering in the creation of Carrier?
Yes. What was nice is that we had mapped out exactly what the creature would be, how it was going to sound, why it sounded the way it did. We knew even if we didn’t fully make certain things clear to an audience, they would be able to fill in all the gaps – whatever they imagined this creature to look like. I would find that there were things that suddenly had a lot more power with just audio. For example, the sound of her breathing. Or silence. Suddenly it would just start to create a lot more tension without having to do a whole lot. I know some people had trouble listening to it while driving, or doing other things, just because it would be so anxiety inducing. I hope so.
The episodes all suggest in the beginning that the series works best if listened to on headphones. I must confess I listened to it while driving. But why do you feel this immersive effect is important for the listener?
The way that we recorded everything is a process called Binaural Audio Recording. I urge you to give at least some of it a little bit of a playback on headphones, so you might understand what some of this stuff does. It’s not just the stereo recording that you are traditionally used to. The recordings are actually done with a sort of mannequin head, with microphones inside these two ears. What it does is it captures sound the same way that our own heads do. So, when it plays back, it’s very dimensional and you’ll keep turning your head around thinking that there’s stuff around you. It’s almost as if you were watching a movie and you had the choice between 2D and 3D. Hopefully the movie still plays in 2D, but if you put on the 3D glasses you get some extra goodies in there.
The story is an interesting mix of human drama, adventure, science fiction and even a bit of political and environmental commentary. What inspired the story?
I have always been someone who is interested in high concept or supernatural stories. I love Twilight Zone and old science fiction. What is always part of those stories is the ability to use that as a way to talk about real issues. Things that are affecting us today in our lives. To me, you can’t have one without the other. If you’re going to do a monster movie, there’s going to be for me probably an environmental theme or something social. In terms of tone, I love Hitchcock and I love Spielberg. There’s always humor and character and heart and relationships. That’s what keeps you invested in the adventure, in the story, wanting to find out what happens to these people.
There is a good amount of pretty specific information on the trucking world in Carrier. Did you have any kind of background in trucking, or did you just research it?
(laughs) It was a lot of research. Obviously, I began just by reading some books and looking on some websites. Then as I got to the place where I was going to start writing the script, I didn’t feel confident enough that I knew what I was doing. When I figured out what the route of the drive was going to be in the story, I booked a flight and flew out to Chicago, and drove from Chicago to Kansas City in a rental car. I stopped at every truck stop along the way. I interviewed truckers. Every time I interviewed one, I’d start to come up with more questions that I’d ask the next one. I recorded the whole trip with my dash cam. Captured sound effects at every truck stop along the way. I felt like for three days I had really lived the life of a trucker as much as I could. The really nice thing is that truckers love to document their lives. You can find video journals on YouTube of every single thing you need to know about how a trucker unhooks his trailer, or makes a delivery at Walmart, or any of these things. You can really get some good primary sources on that stuff.
It was interesting that your heroine was a woman of color, which is not what people tend to think of when they think of truck drivers. Why did you find that an interesting dynamic?
I had this concept for a while. I had the basic idea that there was going to be a truck driver that picked up something and didn’t know what it was. I pretty quickly decided it was going to be a female trucker, because I thought that was an interesting twist on it. Then, as I started to work on it, I discovered that women of color only make up one-half of one percent of all truckers. So, suddenly this character is an outsider everywhere she goes. When you’re talking about law enforcement in certain states, suddenly she’s going to have trouble trusting people that she can confide in. That created a lot of inherent obstacles for this character as she’s on her journey, which made for frankly some easier storytelling. There is this subtext that grows with every decision she makes. I was really drawn to the character as soon as I thought about it. The story really, really got fleshed out from there.
Carrier got a good amount of fairly well-known actors in the cast. How were people cast for the roles?
It was really great because we were in Los Angeles. We cast Cynthia [Erivo], who plays Raylene. Everything was based on her schedule. She agreed to do it. She said I’m available for this two-week window, whenever you guys are ready. It was very short notice, in terms of when we were able to record with her. We had to cast pretty quickly. That actually worked to our advantage. We put out a big all call to a lot of different people and said, “Look, we’re recording on Monday. Are you available on Monday for two hours? Can you drop by? You don’t have to be dressed. You don’t have to look good. Just be in an acting workshop, basically.” We got a lot of people to agree with it, because they read the scripts and they thought it was fun and different and a good exercise. They wanted to work with some of these other actors. It was very surprising when we started to get people responding and saying that they would do it. Some of these actors were people, when I would tell the casting director, “I’m looking for an actor who is like this name.” Let’s say Dale Dickey. And they’d say, “Oh, well let’s just call up Dale Dickey and see if she is available.” Sure enough, she agreed. So, we got some of these wonderful actors that I never thought we’d be able to work with.
When people think of podcasts, they usually think of them as being news or entertainment based. However, scripted dramas are really taking a hold on the market. Why do you feel that podcasts lend themselves to dramas as well?
I’m not sure. I can only guess for myself. There is only so much of news and current events and things that I can take. There are times when I want to escape. The same way that I want after a long day to maybe turn on the TV and watch an old movie, I think that audio dramas – people are becoming more aware of them as an option. When you’re sitting in traffic, or you’re walking the dog, you don’t have to just listen to heavy politics news or two people talking about pop culture. You have a chance to really escape and be transported into a whole narrative. You don’t to sit on a couch to be doing that kind of stuff. We’ve got great creators who are putting a lot of thought and effort into these. The quality is getting up there at the level of film and television.
What’s coming up next for you? Are you looking to do more podcasts, or return to other mediums?
Yeah, sure. We’re trying to get a feature film into production, get that going. Then I’m looking at what my next audio dramas are going to be. I might also be working on some things that aren’t dramas; other ways to push storytelling in audio.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 23, 2019.
Photos ©2019. Courtesy of QCODE “Carrier.”