How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)


It’s a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in the Meatpacking District. I’m waiting outside a hotel suite. It’s just before a junket interview that will be my last. A film publicist wanders in the hallway, jitters in her stride. She’s gabbing into her cell, calmly trying to placate a difficult client who doesn’t realize how difficult he’s being.

Being a journalist, I’m invisible. I’m the barista or bartender of the media system. I’m considered too dimwitted to pay attention to the dismal and terrible things that actors and filmmakers sometimes say. The expectation is that I won’t write about it. The idea here is that I can’t inquire, lest this prevent future interview opportunities from surfacing upon my shoals. I truly don’t care who I talk with, so long as there’s a fun and somewhat enlightening conversation. But this modest goal is incompatible with what is expected. I’m expected to offer softball questions along the lines of “Where do you get your ideas?” or “What’s next?” But I can’t. Just can’t. Don’t have it in me to dumb things down. This simply isn’t what journalists do. I feel compelled to present a film person with a goofy or thoughtful inquiry into his craft. Perhaps it’s naivete. But it worked back in the day for Mike Wallace. But if I do inquire, and I’m just about to, it’s considered “inappropriate.” No explanation or specific solecism given.

I’m expected to be dazzled by the limitless canapes, the endless stream of sandwiches, the food and drink that publicists are expected to provide, the tab paid by a studio with money to burn. But I don’t care about any of this. Because I’m a journalist. Not a freeloader. And I want to do my job.

I don’t know who the client on the phone is, but this publicist has a difficult task on her hands. I learn that the client has had press. Regis, a profile in the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other places. Not bad. But it’s simply not enough. This client wants more.

“I understand,” says the publicist, “but it’s been difficult to get in touch with you. You don’t return my calls. And it would help…”

The publicist is interrupted.

I learn that the publicist has been leaving several voicemails a day. The publicist has been trying to book this client — who could be an egotistical filmmaker or a self-important actor — on several shows. But without that pivotal communication on the client’s end, the all-encompassing media tsunami he demands can’t happen. And even if it can happen, it simply isn’t enough. The publicist is expected to make this happen regardless of the client’s recalcitrance. And in this way, the publicist isn’t all that different from the junket journalist. If an actor detects even the faintest slight, then it’s the journalist who takes the fall and the publicist is chewed out by another publicist just higher up the ladder, but all publicists are equal and just as expendable. The assumption is that the journalist will continue to dun his nose because he needs the high-profile interviews. I, however, don’t need or care to dun my nose. Thanks to a spectacularly bitchy publicist named Betsy Rudnick, a senior account executive at Falco Ink who I haven’t yet met, but who I learn later doesn’t like me but can’t tell me why, I’m about to commit unanticipated hari-kari and I don’t know it.

A film person wants to be on every radio and television show, wants to grace every newspaper. But the film person abdicates all control to the publicist. The film person is expected to be placated, taken care of, have his ego massaged, and who knows what else.

Some New York junket veterans — like a man named Brad Balfour who I have run into at press screenings and interviews and who has eyed my audio equipment not so out of bonhomie or curiosity, but with the hope of discerning some way that he can use me* — boast about having ten minutes with Samuel L. Jackson. I heard Balfour shrieking at the top of his lungs about a Jackson chat at a screening a few months ago. He had bagged Jackson. But what kind of sustained inquiry can you have in ten minutes? In the case of Balfour, the inquiry involves such insipid questions like “What inspired you to do In Country?” and “How did you prepare for this role?” Questions that nearly any junket journalist is going to ask.

This take-no-chances approach goes much further. There’s something called a roundtable interview, in which multiple junket journalists band together to offer the same questions with the same answers for the same outlets, where they can then take the same credit for being the “exclusive” interlocutor.

As a result, quotes from the same conversation have a magical way of popping up everywhere. You may think that Balfour got the scoop on Javier Bardem. But wouldn’t you know it? The same quotes — in particular, observe the “How am I with women?” answer and the specific references to Woody Allen and Milos Forman — show up in interviews with Coming Soon’s Edward Douglas, the Boston Globe‘s Michelle Kung, Collider’s Frosty (a nom de plume for a double-dipping journalist?), and the Sunday Mirror. (And if you want to have some real fun, Google a quote. You may be surprised by how frequently a specific phrase appears in interviews. If it doesn’t come from the same conversation, then it’s likely to be a phrase that a film person latches onto. An actor, after all, must know his lines. Boilerplate is an amazing thing.)

This fiction of a perceived exclusive allows readers to think that they’re getting something unique. But when an actor hits New York, “friendly” interviewers are selected to obtain quotes, and the results are nothing less than a mass dissemination of the same material. Junket journalists often team up to collect their work. One group interviews the actor, another a director. The film person maintains the practice of repeating the same quotes, ad nauseum, to these “journalists.” It all becomes a journalistic circlejerk.

The junket has been around longer than you might expect. One of Hollywood’s earliest moments of junket excess came in 1963, when a then whopping $250,000 was spent promoting Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Kramer was summoned to defend the crazed financial excess. It set a precedent. Now nearly every film released by a studio spends a remarkable sum of money on junkets.

And if you think junket journalists are bad, there are other hacks who go much further. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association‘s ignoble relationship with Hollywood has the studios picking up the airfare and hotel bill for journalists. There are sometimes gift bags. Bribery. (For what it’s worth, the HFPA also oversees the Golden Globes, in the event you actually believed that there was some integrity.) And then there’s Ain’t It Cool News’s Harry Knowles, an online “journalist” regularly flown out by studios to premieres. In 2006, Eric D. Snider revealed more, writing a candid column entitled “I Was a Junket Whore,” in which he chronicled further indiscretions. Snider remains banned from Paramount screenings for telling the truth.

* * *

I was at Soho House to talk with film people behind Santosh Sivan’s film, Before the Rains. I set up the interview because I had admired Sivan’s 1999 film, The Terrorist, championing it when it had played during the San Francisco Film Festival that year. I had intended to talk with Sivan about his stunning visuals. But the deal was this. I could talk with Sivan, but only if I likewise talked with actors Linus Roache, Jennifer Ehle, Nandita Das, and Rahul Bose. No problem. I set up a roundtable conversation. I figured that questions could be bounced off Sivan and the actors. And all of us would have a fun time. I had set up the interview with an amicable and adept publicist named Caitlin Speed, a lively woman whom I had booked previous interviews with, and who simply got the inquisitive intent and nature of The Bat Segundo Show. But when I showed up, another publicist asked me who I was and who I had set up the interview with. I told her. And eventually, Caitlin and I found each other.

The atmosphere was chaotic. Das was on her way out. Sivan hadn’t arrived. No reason was given. No problem. I’d carry forth an impromptu discussion with the remaining actors. And if Sivan showed up later, he could nudge his way in. This was, after all, the natural flow of conversation.

Actors are, on the whole, very friendly. They are, after all, people. But there are some who have chips on their shoulders the size of Montana. And it is these prima donnas who tarnish the profession. I began my conversation with Bose — easily the best actor in Before the Rains and, as it turned out, the smartest guy at the table — and Ehle, given a relatively thankless role as the wife to Roache’s adulterer. Things started off okay, with Bose claiming to be Ehle and “very sexy.” But when Roache, the film’s leading man, arrived, flashing his pearly whites, I was expected to break off my conversation with Bose to acknowledge his presence. (You can hear this awkward pause in the podcast. I’m presenting the audio file below unedited. I leave others to make up their minds over whether I went over the line with my questions or whether the actors I talked with were incapable of working without a script.) The problem was that I was in the middle of a query with Bose on how Sivan had placed his character at the top of a cliff, and I was curious to know how landscape and position affected his performance. And I thought it very rude to break off this conversation in media res. When Bose was finished with his answer, I then introduced Roache. Roache was getting fidgety, presumably because he was not the center of attention.

Me: I should point out that Linus Roache has just joined us. How are you doing?

Roache: I’m very good. How are you?

Me: Doing fantastic. I alluded to — I was talking with Jennifer about the scene with you and Jennifer in the bedroom, where both of you are positioned in a manner in which — you’re both diagonal to the bed frame. We were talking about this notion of performance in relation to landscape. And I was wondering if you had any particular thoughts on how landscape or the environment in this film — because this is a very environment-specific film — pertains to your performance. Or working within these limitations.

Roache: Wow! What a question.

Ehle: I didn’t talk about that at all. Ed was talking about that. I said I had no idea about the landscape or anything.

Roache: I don’t know how to answer that. Uh….

Bose: I did the mountains. Landscape and the mountains were mine. She said she did the tea gardens.

Ehle: Yeah.

There was nervous laughter. And at this point, Roache then shifted into boilerplate.

Roache: I don’t know. I just loved being there. I was just out of my mind being there. It was just such an incredible environment to make a movie in. I literally like — I had tears in my eyes when I left. Because I had never been in such beauty for so long. So I understand why my character didn’t want to leave there. The way he fell in love with it. So.

Okay. So he wasn’t getting it. So I thought I’d try a goofier approach to loosen Roache up. Something predicated upon an observation I had of the film, something I was curious about, and something he might have some fun with.

Me: There was one aspect to your character that actually disturbed me. And that was the fact that your hair does not move — with an exception near the end. There’s a stray follicle that actually sticks out. But for the most part, your hair is completely slicked back.

There was a confused look on Roache’s face. Bose tried to bail him out.

Bose: He was very particular about it. Linus, you know, I won’t say he’s vain. But there’s definitely a hair thing going on there. And he just — if his hair would move, he would call for a cut and take the shot again. He said, “Let me know if my hair ever moves.”

Me: No, but I mean was this an actual plan on your part? Because not even the wind can knock your hair out of place.

Ehle: Did you enjoy the movie?

Me: No, serious! It was like a Steven Seagal motif or something.

Roache: I never noticed that. I’ve got scenes where I’m covered in water. And I’ve got scenes where my hair’s all over the place.

Me: Even…really? Because every single time, your hair is like completely pomaded.

Roache: Well, they did use pomade in 1939. But yeah.

Me: Well was there any particular Brylcreem thing?

Roache: Yeah, we used hair pomade that they used in 1937.

Me: What research did you do to get the exact nature of Brylcreem right?

Roache remained baffled. He glared at Bose, annoyed that Bose, a mere supporting actor, was the better wit.

The hair angle seemed right at the time. Knowing of the mothballs that Marlon Brando had placed into his mouth for Don Corleone, I was genuinely curious about the question of how slicking back one’s hair affected an actor’s performance. But I also wanted to have fun with this. And I can now see how an oversensitive “Serious Actor” might take the Steven Seagal comparison the wrong way. It is worth observing that Roache’s Gaia Community profile page has “to help define human relationship beyond ego” listed as his singular Goal.

I then asked a question to the group about how Sivan’s color schemes — green devoted to the colonialists, brown devoted to the tribes, and red foreshadowing a tragic event — might have affected performance. I wanted these three actors to understand that this was an inquiry. Roache then burst in with an answer.

Roache: This movie was more about a kind of creative, you know, rock and roll, jazz fusion situation. Because you had a creative genius like Santosh Sivan. I mean, there weren’t a lot of huge decisions being made in this kind of arty level like that. It was more like a creative process that was unfolding. And some of it was crazy and chaotic. And some of it was just like following what was there and making the most of it. And that’s what a genius like Santosh does. So…

Me: Yeah, but I…

Ehle: If there was anything intellectual about the film, it was streaming out of Santosh. I don’t think anybody ever sat down. It was a very unconstipated process.

In other words, any interview was a matter of parroting the press notes. Any remotely intellectual query was “constipated” and verboten.

Roache: Yeah, yeah. The script though was well thought through and multi-layered. In terms of taking a domestic story, extrapolating that out into something epic. So that’s why you had structure. That’s where you had structure. But within that, you had this guy who was like, “No no no, that shot isn’t about you. It’s about an insect.”

Me: Yeah. Well, landscape is very important. In your house, in your character’s house, there is this particular color scheme going on. So as a result, this has to affect your performance on some level. There’s the red carpet. The red that’s kind of a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen later on in the particular film. And so when you are dealing with colors that are this dominant on the set, and in your particular environment, this has to have some effect upon your performance.

Roache was having none of this. And so I brought up the way in which his eyebrows had moved up and down as the events unfolded in the film. Roache mentioned something about training at the “eyebrow school” and was then ushered away from the table.

The conversation continued with Bose and Ehle, and there were a few interesting thoughts exchanged about acting with gesture limitations. But the mood had permanently altered. I had committed the unpardonable crime of “going after” the leading man. When the actors left the table, they used a common status exercise to turn their backs to me and not offer me any kind of eye contact. Ironically enough, I had brought up the question of eye contact during the course of the interview.

My friend, serving as a technical assistant, and I left the room to ponder what had just happened. She had helped me out with a few other multiple person interviews. And she had observed another actor run away after I had asked a question about the relationship between backstory and performance. This interview, she told me, had outdone that.

We then returned to the white room for my turn to talk with Sivan. I had been told by Caitlin that I would get five minutes. Another woman — the aforementioned bitchy publicist, Betsy Rudnick, as it turned out — then told me that there was “no time in his schedule.” I told her that I only needed five minutes and that I had prepared specific questions, that one of the reasons I had come was to talk with Sivan. But talking with Sivan was impossible. A phoner was offered. My friend, who was utterly appalled by the way I was being treated, then said, “We don’t do phoners….ever.” I then tried to smooth things over by asking how long Sivan was in town for, suggesting that I could come back the next day to conduct the interview. Perhaps we could make more of this and have a serious conversation about the film. Rudnick retreated away.

We waited some more. I observed Rudnick laying into Caitlin, who stood shell-shocked by the window. I approached Caitlin and asked what the problem was. She said, “I don’t understand. The guys from The Signal loved you. So did the Hennegan brothers.”

I then approached Rudnick and asked again what the deal was with Sivan.

Rudnick snapped at me, telling me that there would now be no interview with Sivan. The reasons and conditions were changing by the minute. She told me that I had made the actors uncomfortable. That my questions were “inappropriate.”

“What specific questions?” I asked.

She would not say. So we left without causing a stink.

Out in the streets, I was overcome with rage. Not for the unprofessional manner in which Rudnick had handled the Sivan interview, but because I then fully understood how the junket system was a sham. I was upset by the manner in which Rudnick had said something terrible to Caitlin, who is a good person, and how all this had presumably originated from a minor affront to Linus Roache’s ego. He seriously believed that he could coast by on his generic answers. He seriously expected to be the center of attention.

I felt compelled to smoke a rare cigarette.

I resolved then and there never to do a junket interview again. And, at least for the time being, I do not want to talk with actors. I will have nothing to do with Falco Ink or any agency that Betsy Rudnick is a part of. I am not interested in being a marketing tool. I’m interested in inquiry. I’m interested in maintaining the mix of goofy and intellectual questions that have long been at the center of The Bat Segundo Show.

Again, I leave the listeners to judge whether my questions were “inappropriate.” The audio can be listened to at the end of this post. Yes, there were some tangents involving Roache’s hair and the way that he used his eyebrows. I suppose that what makes my conversation different from, say, David Letterman interviewing Gwyneth Paltrow about her knee is that I opted not to stare in awe at Roache’s middle-aged mien or worship his almighty presence, whereas Letterman’s intent involved soothing Paltrow. And it says something that James Lipton, the man considered by many to be the finest actor-oriented interviewer, often has actors spill their guts out to him on personal matters — most notably, Jack Lemmon confessing his alcoholism. Curtis White has identified this tendency to prioritize the personal over the intellectual as symptomatic of the Middle Mind, represented by interviewers like Terry Gross. Citing an author whose real-life husband had dropped dead shortly before this author’s book was published, White observed that “[t]his was the point at which the book became interesting for Terry. If her poor husband hadn’t dropped dead, Terry would never have been interested in her or her book for this ‘show of shows.’ ‘What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?’ Fresh Air? How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor’s degrees. Car Talk has more intellectual content.”

The “inappropriateness” was the idea that aspects of an actor’s performance were open to playful or even quasi-intellectual questioning, and that this served in sharp contrast to the lurid soothing and constant ego-stroking that today’s celebrity interviews require. It wasn’t as if I had asked Roache what his favorite sexual position was. Although I suppose that this question would have been more “appropriate” than trying to query Roache about his acting process.

But if a film journalist does not play the fool, if he asks an actor to use his brain, or if does not spend his time assuaging the actor in some way, it is a contumely to the control that the film industry wishes to maintain. Any trade secrets or insights for the public are reserved for the DVD commentaries, which generate more money for both the studios and the paid participants. And the Betsy Rudnicks of our world demand a climate in which journalists are supplicant sycophants, but the perception of inquiry is sustained because the interview is framed in a Q&A format predetermined by unreasonable conditions and unvoiced demands. The film journalism world is as phony and fabricated as the film world. And from these execrable conditions, self-serving hacks like Brad Balfour boast and profit.

These people believe that you are stupid. They believe that you will buy anything they tell you to. And as the film industry has extended its control over the types of questions and the types of journalists that actors and directors will talk with, the only spirit of resistance comes from celebrity gossip reporters determined to dig up any bit of nastiness. And the public, hoping for one small shred of the truth, laps this up. But despite this, the pursuit for intellectual truth is abandoned.

Because of this, I have decided to abandon my brief flirtation with film journalism. I’m sticking with books, comics, and a few other things. When I wrote about movies in the late ’90’s, there was still the possibility of conducting interviews with inquiry in mind. But that time has now passed. Conversation has been replaced by kissing an actor’s ass. Current film coverage, given what I have described above, is not in any true sense journalistic. It also isn’t much fun. The true sign that it’s over is that opportunist typists like Brad Balfour seriously believe that they are journalists, and they do not recognize the sad solipsistic leeches staring back in the mirror.

* — Balfour does indeed use people, such as this poor guy who was “[e]ager enough to get sucked into becoming a transcriber for Mr. Balfour: transcribing many of his interviews for eventual publication on the website.”