When creator Ben Haber got in touch with me a few months ago to tell me about the soon-to-be-released AFTERSHOCK podcast, I was immediately interested. He graciously allowed me to listen early to the first three episodes and I can honestly say I’ve never been sucked into an audio fiction series so fast.
AFTERSHOCK is written and directed by Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break, Walking Dead) and tells a terrifying — though maybe not too far-fetched — story about a disaster in Southern California. The show also stars David Harbour (Stranger Things, Brokeback Mountain), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy), Tati Gabrielle (The 100), and more.
After listening to the first few episodes, I had to learn more about the production process.
I emailed Ben and asked if we could do a Q&A. Here’s how our conversation went!
What’s your background and how did you get into the audio space?
My major in college was Theatre and it was there, at Northwestern, I founded and ran a Theatre company…and produced A LOT of student Theatre. When I went into the professional world, I made a switch and went into Film & TV and, with two exceptions, that’s been the entirety of my focus.
Both of the exceptions are podcasts. I LOVE podcasts – I listen to them all the time and go to sleep to them every night. And I don’t even listen to any of the “big” ones. I listen to the niche ones – podcasts on history, wine, astronomy, etc. I love to learn and what I love about the podcast space is that it can be so niche that every creator can find their right audience.
The first podcast I did – and still do – is a weekly show called HOLLYWOOD & WINE. I’ve been doing it for several years and it’s so much fun to make. The amazing K&L Wines, California’s top wine shop, sponsors us, and I and two friends in the Entertainment Business sit around a table and drink a category of wine I pick. We taste through three bottles and drop some knowledge and opinions. Meanwhile, we have a guest host who is also in the business come and give that deep insight into their side of the world. It’s so much fun to make, it’s very niche, and it’s very DIY.
However, that base knowledge gave me the tools for the second podcast – AFTERSHOCK. And AFTERSHOCK is not niche. It is a big production. And we created AFTERSHOCK as an audio podcast out of business necessity.
It’s no secret that in Hollywood you’re benefited from having some sort of IP sitting behind you when trying to sell a series or film. That IP can be a book, article, toy, comic book…anything. Even a podcast. When my partners – Sarah Wayne Callies and Patrick Carman – and I came up with the idea of AFTERSHOCK, we felt our best road to success to sell our show as a series was to have that piece of IP we could bring into the pitch room. Yet, because this was an original idea, there was no IP. So we decided to create the IP ourselves.
But what form would that IP be in? We discussed comic book but that felt like a crowded space and one none of us were in. Patrick then revealed he had just sold a project to Audible and then it clicked – let’s do a podcast. Producing a scripted audio show is the same skillset as producing a scripted TV series but on a smaller scale. We knew how to do that and do it well. And I already had a fundamental understanding of the space.
From there, Sarah wrote a script, we got her agents at ICM and managers at Moore/Medavoy involved, pulled in Sarah’s old college friend David Harbour and colleague Rock Dunbar, and got Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, & Andrew Greenwood at Workhouse involved. They paired us up with the amazingly talented Sound Designer Jeff Schmidt and audio producer, the awesome Mark Ramsey (INSIDE STAR WARS). I followed Mark’s lead on how to think of things from an audio perspective vs visual and between that and my instincts, I quickly figured out how to produce a show that is of premium TV quality in the audio space.
I fully loved the experience and I want to produce more in the space.
What makes podcasting/audio production different from your prior creative experiences?
There’s actually not much different at the most basic level. Yes, it’s not as technically complex, there’s no going to set, management of crew, etc. But from a storytelling perspective, the process is the same. We put it through the same development regimen. We had the same deal negotiations, the same budgeting process. The only thing that we really had to be aware of was limiting the number of voices that were in a scene because we found with other shows, too many voices in one scene led to confusion. So we had to try to create the sense of scale but really keep the scenes limited to two or three people. Some scenes were bigger where we had five or six people in them and we had to manage those ones much more heavy-handedly.
That said, we were blessed that we had Jeff Schmidt as our Sound Designer. He can create an amazing soundscape and place everyone very specifically in it in relation to the audience. It’s an incredible skill and one that I think makes the show successful.
Describe AFTERSHOCK. What’s it about? And what sets it apart from other scripted audio experiences?
AFTERSHOCK is the story of the aftermath of an earthquake that levels the west coast and especially Los Angeles. However, while it destroyed LA, it also caused a giant island to rise off the coast, one that people flee to in hopes to create a new life for themselves.
The story is framed several weeks after the quake onboard a naval ship. Two survivors, played by Sarah Wayne Callies and David Harbour, have been rescued from the island along with a whole bunch of dead bodies. Sarah and David are each being interviewed, first by a reservist played by EJ Bonilla before the big guns of Captain Mark Dover (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are brought in. Each is telling a story of what happened and we quickly get we don’t know if they’re telling the truth.
However, the show is about so much more than that. While not going into too many details, it’s a show that resonates by making the audience reflect on itself while being a real cliffhanger thriller. You always think you know what’s going on but you don’t really until the end.
How did the project come to you?
The original idea was author Patrick Carman’s. He’s an idea factory and we met when I developed a book of his and sold it to Disney. He told me this idea and I loved it. I brought it my friend, Sarah Wayne Callies, who at the time was starring in COLONY, and I asked if she could introduce me to one of the writers on her show for it. Sarah loved the idea and asked if we would be ok with her writing it. I knew she could write and loved the idea. From there, the three of us developed it together.
What were some of the challenges of recording during the pandemic?
We were recording in studios up until the pandemic. We had the first episode fully done, most of the 2nd and a little of the 3rd. We knew we had to get studio level sound recording with organic performances but with actors at home and either limited or no equipment. It took us about a month experimenting but we ultimately found our solution was creating four USB mic kits that we would send around the world to our different actors and they would record out of their houses and surround themselves with pillows, comforters or be in their clothes-filled closets. The lynch-pin in this approach was Squadcast. Squadcast solved all of our problems by allowing us to have the video element so the actors could see each other and perform with each other while also recording each track on their own computers. Even more important, Squadcast only needs one person to be the engineer so we didn’t have to worry about someone forgetting to record – we could control everything and the actors just needed to worry about logging in and acting.
How did you find SquadCast?
My producing partner, Mark Ramsey, found it. We tested out a variety of services and found Squadcast to be the best one and the perfect fit for us.
How did SquadCast fit into your workflow?
Perfectly. As I said above, it solved all of our problems. We spent a month trying to figure out what we were going to do but when we discovered Squadcast, it was there for whenever we needed it. Honestly, it saved us.
Advice for other creators working on scripted shows for recording remotely.
With a good USB mic, pop filter, and dampened room, and Squadcast, you can get extremely close to studio level recording. In AFTERSHOCK you cannot tell the difference what was recorded remotely and what was recorded in studio. Our process was the perfect solution for creating a very high-end show remotely.
Arielle Nissenblatt is SquadCast’s Community Manager. She’s obsessed with all things podcast-related and is the founder of EarBuds Podcast Collective, a podcast recommendation engine. In her spare time, Arielle enjoys hosting zoom trivia for friends and strangers all over the world and rollerblading.