What’s the Frequency? is a noir audio drama podcast created by James Oliva. I recently caught up with Oliva via video chat on Google Hangouts to talk about the podcast, the process of creating and recording, and its characters.
[Editor’s note: This piece has been edited for clarity and ease of reading.]
Rogues Portal: First question – elevator pitch What’s the Frequency? to our readers. What is it, what’s it about, and what makes it unique?
James Oliva: A not so hardboiled private investigator, Walter, and his bodyguard, Whitney, are hired to find a missing writer. Getting in their way is a city falling into madness, and a crime boss that’s also obsessed with a special typewriter. The show’s very much like LA Confidential meets David Lynch meets Charlie Kauffman’s love child.
RP: What’s your experience like in the audio medium?
JO: I’ve been doing audio drama for the past couple years now. I also have done some narration for ACX through Audible, which is owned by Amazon. There’s a couple books I’m in the middle of doing right now. I’ve also done guest spots on different shows, like Radiation World, which is actually one of my favorite shows. At this point, the experience is vast. When I wrote this, I was only about a year and a half into Greater Boston.
RP: What’s your experience like working with other storytelling mediums?
JO: I have some experience in stage writing. I wrote a play back in college that won some awards and I was able to do it as a full-length show as part of the curriculum. That was my first time being paid as a writer. Since then, I’ve kind of dabbled in all sorts of things. I did some skit writing for friends in some of their comedy projects for a while. I was plugging away at screenwriting — with nothing produced as of yet.
And that’s the thing about audio dramas, is that you can kind of take your idea and realize it with not a ton of investment. You don’t have to worry about lighting and all sorts of aspects of a film. With audio drama, you just have to have a mic and people who are willing to lend their voice pro bono. If everyone pitches in pro bono and then — when we get the proper support, we can pay them later on. It’s actually one of the aspects of audio drama that’s amazing.
— What's The Frequency (@wtfrequencypod) November 7, 2017
RP: Since you’re talking about working with people, what was your casting procedure like?
JO: It was pretty intense! We had a very short turnaround from when we conceived the show to when I wrote it to when we started casting. It was almost like going through some abbreviated boot camp of production.
I always have this idea in my head of how things should go. I had this concept of how I wanted to roll it out; I wanted to roll it out little by little, the casting process. I rolled it out to the audio drama community first. We have a very supportive community. I rolled it out to Klaudia, who is actually one of our actresses on the show and also someone who’s helping us work behind the scenes as well, as our Marketing Manager. She has a podcast fans Slack board. I rolled it out there, and maybe one other fan site. Then we started rolling it out publicly a week later. We gave a sneak preview access of auditioning a week before, and then a week later we went public. For the next three weeks, we just kept promoting and promoting.
We ended up with a lot of auditions! I wish I could say it was an easy process after that because we had so many great actors that auditioned, and more women than men! We gender flipped so many roles to make sure that we could get all the women. At the end of the day, I wasn’t even planning on having an ensemble, so I actually ended up with an ensemble at the end of the day. After I cast all the real speaking parts, I had a bunch of little one-offs and small bits. I had just planned on filling those in with other people from the audio drama community, but I had so many amazing people that I didn’t cast that I was like ‘Hey, do you guys want to stick around and do my ensemble?’, and so I was able to get some of these really amazingly talented people. People that I’ve begun to understand, in retrospective, have some decent voice acting careers going on! There was just an amazing amount of people, and so we did gender flip a few roles and it was a very rewarding process.
We ended up with a very diverse cast, probably more diverse than most other shows. And that was a goal! But it’s hard, because you’re doing just voiceover stuff, so it’s tough to go ‘we’re casting this role because of this ethnicity or this particular trait’. You don’t know what their traits are, we just hoped that we had a diverse cast and we ended up with a diverse cast, so it was very rewarding in that way.
What’s neat now is that we added a whole new level to the show where we’re doing these little commercials in between the episodes. One of my ideas for marketing the show was to make sure that we get out in a certain period of time. The guy who does the sound design [Alexander Danner] was like – we originally talked about September-October, and as it got closer he was like, ‘I don’t know, man.’ In his mind, he’s gotta have three in the bank before we launch. But I pushed that idea. We had like, one and a half. We realize that we’re only going to get about one out per month, and that’s not a very good schedule. Most people who listen to audio dramas get [an episode] once every two weeks, at least. We decided to come up with these commercials. Now we’re going to be able to access the ensemble people again and give them another different type of role to fill in on these Spishak [company within the universe of the show] commercials. So we’re doing more commercials for them and commercials for the radio station. We’re going to be able to dip back into the ensemble again and give them some more stuff to do, and that’s something that I’m incredibly happy to do, because they’re super talented people.
RP: Tell me about some of the successes and challenges in storytelling through an audio only format.
JO: I have a screenwriting background even more so than I even had a playwriting background. I write, very much, just how I write, and that’s how I decided to do this, not to handcuff myself and say ‘you know what, I’m going to try to learn this new format’. I just wrote how I write, trying to keep in mind that certain things are not going to translate. But I tried to not limit myself too much with that, even. I just decided, ‘I’m going to write the way I write, and then we’ll go back and figure out how to make this work.’ That was just an incredible way to do it and a rewarding way to do it. That’s how I recommend anyone else to do it, is just to write in the way that you’re comfortable and then go back and figure out the ways in which you need to make the adjustments work in the medium. We didn’t go too out of our way to make it work. If you’re in film, you’re going to choose a visual way to tell your story more so than you’re going to with words, because you have this medium to use, this ability to show images. Therefore, you can tell your story with that.
That’s kind of the whole point with audio, and the problem that I was having. I didn’t even know audio drama existed outside of radio plays from back in the day until two and a half years ago! Right before Alex pitched me Greater Boston, he was like, ‘You’re going to be a voice actor on my show,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, great’. [He said] ‘It’s a whole thing right now, podcasting these audio dramas’. I didn’t really know a lot so I had to play catch up. Some of the ones I was listening to or even the ones recommended to me, I was like, ‘these guys are great’, but there were some things that were lacking to me; things that didn’t’ feel necessary. Handling a lot of exposition – a lot of people explaining things in large info dumps. Horror is a very big genre in audio drama, and there’s a lot of people doing things like [saying] ‘Oh my god, he’s tearing his head off! Oh my god, it’s disgusting!’ I would go, ‘You should probably be running!’ That’s the thing I’m concerned about now. Why are you narrating the thing that’s happening to your friend? Let’s get out of the room, and I’ll just imagine what happened, how about that?
In audio, the way you show is through sound, and the thing we kept coming into contact with was people who would say, ‘Well, how do we know what’s happening here?’ And I would say ‘Two scenes from now, these characters pop up again, and there’s mention of what happened.’ So let’s deal with making the sound and the experience so detailed that even if you don’t get it right away, maybe, if you re listen to it, that you feel like you have the bigger picture and the bigger scope.
Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes you have to have somebody do something more overt. My rule is that we need to make it a part of something logistically said or done that helps accentuate it. I don’t want to do things like the exposition dumps and stuff like that. The first episode is 23 minutes long, but it zips by at this incredible pace that you’re just like, ‘Wait a minute, that was 23 minutes,’ which I love! I’ve sat down and listened to a 20 minute audio drama before and have been like, ‘oh my god, is this still going?’
I wanted to [dump you right in the middle of things]. Movies, especially horror movies, dump you right in the middle of everything. There’s usually a three page rule in horror. Within the first three pages [of a script], you want to zap the audience with something shocking that sets them up for the rest of the thing. That’s kind of how I treated it, even though there’s nothing horrific that really happens in the first three pages. I felt it grabbed the attention. We wanted to be able to hook [the audience] in and go ‘Hey, this is interesting, what’s going on with this show?’ That’s the kind of a show that we are. We’re kind of a show that’s going to constantly keep evolving.
3. Maribelle. I'm supposed to follow the rules. He's so hungry, but I'm supposed to follow the rules. https://t.co/gvuu3NBEBp
— What's The Frequency (@wtfrequencypod) November 5, 2017
RP: I do a lot of work with the Great American Songbook, so I really like the use of music in What’s the Frequency? to set the mood – that was the thing that grabbed me the most. Can you tell me some more about that? How did you choose songs to put in?
JO: [Alex and I] tend to look at almost everything as music. I see dialogue as music. There’s a rhythm and a cadence to it. There’s an element of timing that is there. In my head, I’m almost like a conductor. My hand is moving and I’m hitting those little points there as I’m listening. If it’s not hitting that point then we know we need to make an adjustment.
As far as the music is concerned, we have our main theme. It’s about an 8 minute piece that was composed for us by a friend of mine, Kurt C. Nelson. He’s a teacher at NYU and a composer. He’s incredibly talented. So I tossed him the scripts and said ‘could you make us a theme song’ and he came up with what he came up with, which you hear a lot at the end of the show. We steal it a lot for other little moments.
The other sound design aspects – we go through a lot of Creative Commons sources and anything that’s really public domain, for the most part. There are occasions where for our Patreon members, I create my own music – not through conventional methods. Again, it’s taking from Creative Commons sources but I’m also distorting and warping and really changing it so I can go on to create something brand new. What goes into it is this concept of what fits the scene and in what way is that music coming in and how we do the changeover. So everything is meant to service that moment.
But we also do a lot of creative stuff for the show. You’d be surprised. You can take an alarm clock sound and warp it enough times where it has this really eerie sound to it. And you can play it under a scene and make the scene a little more intense. We even found some public domain cartoons and took little snippets out from the orchestral stuff to help us out. We give it a lot of thought and Alex certainly has a lot of fun seeking out himself. And a lot of the choices we make are stuff he tends to find. There’s only been a rare couple of occasions where he’s brought me something and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s not quite the music, we need something else.” He’s got a pretty good instinct.
RP: Do you also do that for sound effects? Do you do any Foley work?
JO: We definitely do Foley! In the upcoming episode there’s some sips and ahhs and drinking sounds that I recorded myself that we slipped in for some other characters. Alex will go out and record footsteps or things we need to fill in the gap. There’s a gun sound that we did where we had someone pull out a gun and cock it back, and he used a reversed stapler sound and added something else. The telephone sound in the first episode is not a telephone – because who has a rotary phone anymore – but he had to meld 4 different sounds from common household stuff that eventually created this new combo sound. That’s one of my favorite sounds in the first episode.
RP: What’s your recording setup like? Are you recording separately or together? What software do you use?
JO: I use Audacity, personally. I have Reaper and FruityLoops, but I don’t know how to use either just yet. I stopped having any time to sit down and learn that type of thing because things are crazy busy right now. There’s just so much going on that I don’t have time to do Youtube learning videos. Alex uses Reaper.
Almost every single one of our actors is remote, which might be shocking because some of the show sounds like everyone is in the same room. I only had 2 actors that were in the same room at any given moment and that was 2 characters introduced in the second episode, Archie and Lillian. Barton has younger siblings that are twins, and they live over in Boston. Alex is in Boston, so he had them in the same room together acting. It was nice to have. But everyone else did remote and so we went through mic techniques with people to tell them how we wanted them to try to record.
My recording setup is in a built in closet. There are people I know that are professional voice actors that use anything from their closet to a home studio. Even if they’re on the road, they do a mic setup in their hotel room. You can do it any way, you just need to do your best to cancel out the reverb. People in LA, I went to their homes and did hands on, in the moment directing. For everybody else, we just did rehearsals via Slack. We did voice chat Slack, and I had them read me their scenes. I would just give them adjustments or ways that they could try it.
As a director, I’m of the belief that it’s very hard to be wrong about your acting choices. You can only be limiting yourself. The only time you’re really wrong is if you’re really misinterpreting the context of the scene. But if you understand it, you can only be a little off or maybe not looking in the right direction. We left a lot of room for people to improv or do experimental vocals or weird things with their voices. This is the first season, so most people weren’t really that comfortable or knowledgeable about what we were doing with the show. It took a lot of trust. I have a lot of people who just gave us straight takes. I think next season we’ll have a lot of people like ‘Yeah, I know what crazy stuff we’re gonna do, I know what this show is, so let’s do this.’ I want a lot of freedom for the actors, because I’m experimenting on my end.
RP: I’ve been watching Westworld lately, and I learned that they only gave the actors information based on need to know moments, so a lot of actors weren’t sure what was going on as far as the larger plot goes. Do your actors know what you have planned?
JO: I have a very distinct take on this, and I hope this isn’t as harsh as this is probably going to sound. I feel if you’re an actor and you say ‘I don’t want to know this because my character wouldn’t know this,’ I think it’s bullshit. You know lots of things your character doesn’t know. It’s acting, you’re an actor. You need to forget some things you know personally to play your part. If you’re going to tell me because what I told you what happens in the story that now you can’t play your part, I don’t know what you’re doing here. I don’t know why you’re an actor. There are people like, ‘I don’t want to know my character’s a bad guy at the end of the season because I don’t want to play it like he’s a bad guy.’ My answer to that is: don’t! You as the character don’t believe you’re a bad guy, so why would you act like a bad guy? It just doesn’t make any sense.
I gave everyone the option, though. I tried to respect everyone’s method, but I definitely made it clear about what my feelings were on the subject. But I made all the scripts available to everybody in the Slack. I had everyone join Slack in the cast and I made a channel that I dumped all the scripts into. I was very forthcoming as to what’s going on in the show and let everyone ask me questions before we got into any rehearsal.
RP: Tell me about your characters. How do you go about developing them?
JO: I’ve added to my crew behind the scenes over the past couple of months. I started out with two other writers that I brought on after I started writing the first episode. I figured out they could help me with rewrites because we’re on a really short time schedule. I offered a decent amount of say in the show going forward after the first season for coming on. Both of them didn’t make it for one reason or another – no hard feelings from either side. As the show progressed and we launched I felt like we needed more people behind the scenes.
These people have gone on to read the scripts and as we’re talking about them I find myself going ‘I love that moment! I love those characters!’ I would say that my favorite character to write for is probably Whitney. I have a lot of favorites. It’s like choosing your babies, right?
I love writing the Whitney-Walter dynamic. Their dynamic continues to open as the show continues. There’s lots of characters that I love – lots that have yet to be introduced. But a lot of what I liked writing were my pairings. I had people going off and pairing off on their own little journeys and those are the moments that I like the best.
When I go into developing [characters], I take it from an actor’s perspective. You’re an actress, right? [When you’re an actor], you can be in a scene and you can improv as that character and be outside the lines. Because you know the character. It’s a real thing to you.
RP: That’s pretty much what being in an ensemble is like.
JO: Right, exactly! And that’s a really great place to come up through is in the ensemble. I remember being in the ensemble and not really even paying attention to what’s going on onstage because I’m literally in my moment in whatever make believe thing I’m doing. You have your own story going on! I think that’s what you have to do. You’re not paying attention to the audience anymore. You’re not playing to them – you’re living in your own thing and you’re not watching the action on the stage as if you’re a member of the audience, which happens sometimes with certain people. And it makes the audience’s world more enriching and I believe in that; in little pieces being everywhere and layering.
Especially with the sound design – we really put a lot of things into it – a lot of Easter eggs that people upon re-listening will get new experiences. If you have really good earphones, you’ll hear even more. Some things, you just won’t hear in your car.
With the characters, I tend to improv! It’s crazy, because sometimes you’ll have 4-5 characters in a scene so you’re shifting around. But as long as I know what’s going on in the scene, I’ll noodle my way through and write how the characters would react. To give them a real sense of character. A lot of writers write and you’ll just get their voice. Every character sounds like it came from the same person. I try really hard not to do that. I try to give every character their own perspectives and temperaments and voice.
RP: Which character do you most relate to?
JO: I relate to Walter quite a bit. I think that’s the one I kept getting from people as far as family and friends or people that knew me that were reading it. “Oh, you’re playing Walter, right? Why [not?] This seems like it was written for you, you wrote it!” It’s already a vanity project in the sense that I’m doing what I want to do and I’m indulging myself. I could have made it that, and I just wasn’t interested in that.
Walter […] connects to a part of me. He’s kind of a mix between Groucho Marx and Indiana Jones and Bugs Bunny and Robert Downey Jr.’s character from Iron Man – he’s contrarian. He’s the opposite of everything he needs to be in any given moment. If the moment is very serious, he’s not; if the moment is very silly he’s very serious. He’s always going to be taking these contrary positions and making jokes when he shouldn’t be making jokes. That’s why he’s always in trouble. That’s how he got his nickname. He’s constantly making life harder for himself.
I’ve always related to those characters, though. Cool Hand Luke is probably my favorite movie. I’ve related to these characters for so long that it made me realize these connecting themes of these people that beg to be destroyed.
— What's The Frequency (@wtfrequencypod) November 8, 2017
RP: What do listeners have to look forward to in future episodes?
JO: It’s a show that changes. By the end of the season, I feel like most people will probably be like, ‘What’s happening!’ We have a very good potential to either endear a lot of people […] or the ability to possibly just alienate everyone, […] like ‘This isn’t what I signed up for, I wanted a detective show!’
RP: Sometimes it’s good to alienate the audience a little bit, because you get them to think a little.
JO: I love alienation! We’re making a show that I would love to invest my time in. Again, I’m a huge fan of David Lynch – of all these people that tend to be a little more fringe-y. […] Our hope is that what we’re doing in the show is that we’re training the audience how to listen to our show. As we go along, we’re making the adjustments for them and they’re learning more and more. So that by the end, we’ve turned the heat up and – they say you put the lobster in the water and you let the boiling water go with them. We’re turning up the heat slowly on the show, and we’re gonna cook you all.