Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 21)

The Adventures of Apocalypse Al

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Cynthia Dale as Apocalypse Al

Greg Sinclair directed J. Michael Straczynski’s The Adventures of Apocalypse Al. Greg DeClute was the recording engineer. Colleen Woods was the associate producer.

I was assigned to do sound effects. As a fan of the television series Babylon 5 and Straczynski, its creator, I was glad to do it.

 The Adventures of Apocalypse Al is the story of a tough female private eye out to save the world. Not quite our world. A world of imps, zombies, techno-wizards, trolls, an undead ex-boyfriend, and so on. It consisted of twenty approximately five-minute long episodes. Cynthia Dale (Street Legal) played the female private eye, the eponymous Apocalypse Al. Other memorable actors included Colm Feore (The Umbrella Academy, Bon Cop Bad Cop) and Chuck Shamata (The Day After Tomorrow, Cinderella Man). Chuck was so good that Straczynski wrote him additional dialogue on the spot. I convinced Sinclair to cast Matt Watts in a cameo as a ticket taker in an amusement park. Matt’s sardonic delivery was perfect.

Straczynski showed up with Sara Barnes, who introduced herself as Samm. Like Straczynski, Samm writes television and comics. Samm was almost always with Straczynski during the production of Apocalypse Al but no one minded. We all liked Samm.

Whenever I work with someone famous, or someone whose work I admire, I have to decide: do I admit my appreciation for their work? Or do I pretend that I don’t know who they are? When I spent four days recording Margaret Atwood at her house, although well aware of her place in the CanLit pantheon, I pretended that I didn’t know who she was. It made it easier to relate to her as a normal human being.

Working with J. Michael Straczynski on The Adventures of Apocalypse Al I took a different tack. Early on I admitted to Straczynski that I was a fan of Babylon 5, and had read his column in Writer’s Digest, and knew about his work in comics. I even told him my two favourite Babylon 5 moments. The first was from the episode The Geometry of Shadows. Elric says to Captain Sheridan, “(I have learned) the true secrets, the important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain, or to say goodbye to a friend who is dying.” (I wish I knew what those words were…)

And the moment when G’Kar believes that Londo has done right by G’Kar’s people. G’Kar tells Londo how much this means to him, only to learn that in fact Londo has betrayed him. He’s arranged for an attack on the G’Kar’s homeworld. G’Kar’s reaction is heartbreaking. Stellar plotting on the part of Straczynski, and a pivotal moment in the series.

Straczynski seemed to enjoy talking about his work. He wouldn’t answer all my questions, though. For instance, between the first and second season of Babylon 5 the lead actor, Michael O’Hare (playing Commander Jeffrey Sinclair), was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner (playing Captain John Sheridan). Exactly why O’Hare dropped out of the show was a mystery. Straczynski had written about the transition in online forums but had stopped short of explaining it.

Referring to this, I said, “You weren’t very forthcoming about the transition from Sinclair to Sheridan, why that happened.”

“No, I wasn’t,” he said.  

“So, I won’t ask you about it, then.”

“No, you won’t,” he said.

After O’Hare’s death of a heart attack in 2012, Straczynski revealed that O’Hare had left the series due to severe mental illness. To protect O’Hare’s career, he’d promised O’Hare he’d keep it a secret until his death. And he did.

What Straczynski seemed to enjoy most was cracking wise. Just about everything out of his mouth was a joke. It was important to him to be the funniest man in the room. He almost always was.

There were a crazy amount of sound effects on Apocalpyse Al. Only one did I have any trouble with: the sound of Al’s car. It was supposed to be a muscle car. Probably I should have done what I’d done with Cherry Docs. I should have taken a tape recorder out on the street to record somebody’s sports car. But it wasn’t like we were making a feature film. I didn’t have an unlimited budget and tons of time. I was forced to rely on the radio drama department’s fairly extensive (though not quite extensive enough) sound effects library.

Mixing the show in Studio 212, we reached the first scene featuring Al’s car. Greg DeClute hit play on Pro Tools. We all heard the sound of Al’s car revving up in the control room’s enormous SOTA speakers.

Straczynski said, “What’s that?”

“That’s Al’s car,” I said.

“Al’s driving a lawnmower?” This was vintage Straczynski.

I didn’t like the sound I’d chosen either, but it was the best I’d been able to find. Clearly, I needed to do better.

“Lose it,” Straczynski said.

I deleted the unsatisfactory sound effect.

Straczynski suggested that we move on.

I was surprised. I needed to find another sound effect to replace the one I’d deleted. Officially, we only had that day to mix the episode we were working on. We couldn’t move on until I’d addressed the problem.  

Pointing at the Pro Tools mix window, which now featured a gaping hole where the sound of the car had been, I said, “What about this hole?”

“I’m looking at it,” Straczynski said, looking straight at me.

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, we moved on. I would have to wait to fix the car sound effect.

The mix took much longer than an ordinary radio play. Mainly this was because it was a high production piece with plenty of sound effects and lots of sonic treatments. But it was also because we often took a lot of time to discuss each scene. We debated whether to include footsteps (we usually don’t include footsteps in radio plays unless there’s some specific reason to draw attention to them). We debated whether to include music in certain scenes. The music was excellent, by a composer whose name I’ve (unfortunately) forgotten. Although composed largely (if not entirely) on synths, it was lush and full and complemented the material wonderfully, successfully evoking Apocalypse Al’s fantastical, private eye universe. Straczynski didn’t believe in placing music underneath scenes that were supposed to be funny. He felt that it got in the way of the humour. As a result, we left a lot of musical cues out. 

J. Michael Straczynski, Samm Barnes, Greg Sinclair, Colleen Woods in the control room of Studio 212 during the recording of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al

The mixes took so long that we ran out of our officially allotted time. I was just supposed to be the sound effects guy on this one, but the department asked me to come in on the weekend to finish the mix. Greg DeClute wasn’t available. Neither was Greg Sinclair, so it wound up being just me and Straczynski.

We spent a lot of time talking. And when I say talking, I mean Straczynski telling me stories. It didn’t help us finish the mix, but I wasn’t complaining. He was sublimely engaging. He told me (for instance) about a film script he was working on, about a woman reuniting with her son who had been missing, only to discover that the boy wasn’t actually her son at all. This was a pet project of Straczynski’s. He’d spent many years researching it. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a couple of years later Clint Eastwood directed a movie starring Angelina Jolie about exactly that. Sure enough, Straczynski had written the script for the movie that became Changeling.

On Sunday, our last day working together, Straczynski said, “Listen. I know I crack a lot of jokes. I want to apologize if at any point I crossed the line or was offensive.”

There had just been the one remark, which I had opted not to take personally. As Lincoln is alleged to have said, “We should be too big to take offense, and too noble to give it.”

I had genuinely enjoyed Straczynski’s company.  

“I started this process a fan, and I’m finishing it as a fan,” I told him.

We shook hands, parted ways, and everyone lived happily after. Right?

Not exactly.

We still hadn’t finished the damn mix. By this time both Gregs were off on other projects. I spent the next couple of weeks mixing The Adventures of Apocalypse Al all by my lonesome in my favourite mixing studio, SFX 3. Occasionally Sinclair would pop in, listen to a scene or two, and suggest a few tweaks.

When it was finally done, I thought well that’s great. NOW we can all live happily ever after. The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was just about the most populist piece of entertainment the CBC radio drama department ever produced. I figured it would go a long way toward attracting a younger demographic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide crowd.

To help promote it, I posted about it on my blog. Jesse Willis, who runs a site called SFFAudio.com, began promoting it. Another site, Babylonpodcast.com, picked up on it. Straczynski himself talked it up, telling one blog (Dave Does the Blog) about it, who reported, “The CBC will be broadcasting a 12-episode (sic) radio series by Joe [Straczynski, not Mahoney] called The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, a noir sf comedy along the lines of Men in Black or Hitchhikers Guide.  Joe notes that it will eventually migrate to US radio and CD.”

Imagine my astonishment when, after all our hard work, and what must have been a considerable investment of money (at least in radio drama terms), the powers that be decided not to broadcast the show at all. Not even a single episode.

Why?

I don’t know. I wasn’t a part of that decision-making process, and every single person that was is now long gone from CBC Radio.

Blogger Jesse Willis started an online campaign that he called Free the Adventures of Apocalypse Al, with no success. The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was shelved, never aired. It’s probably not even in the CBC Archives.     

Years later the legal department came around asking me about the project. It seemed Straczynski wanted the rights to the show and was willing to pay. I don’t know how much money changed hands. I made copies of the production from the existing masters. I assume they were passed on to Straczynski, but I don’t know for sure, as we haven’t stayed in touch.

On March 14, 2014, Jesse Willis reported the following:

“Nearly 10 years ago I began reporting that J. Michael Straczynski had been asked to write a radio drama for CBC Radio One. Later, we learned that Cynthia Dale had been cast in the title role. And still later that the show was in production. And it was indeed recorded. But it never aired. Over the years the campaign to get it aired plodded along—but without any success. Then a couple of years ago word of a comics version came about. [Editor’s note: On June 10th, 2014, Straczynski and Image Comics released a comic book version of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al with artists Sid Kotian and Bill Farmer.] Now, after the comics version is actually out (the first issue was dated February 2014) I am stunned to report that there is indeed now a new audio drama available. I should point out that this is an entirely NEW recording (not the one Canadian taxpayers paid for but never heard) and we don’t know yet if the remaining 3/4 of the story will be produced for audio.”

From SFFAudio

The new audio version of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was produced by Patricia Tallman. Tallman had been one of the actors on Babylon 5. (She had also appeared in several Star Trek franchises and had been Laura Dern’s stunt double in Jurassic Park. She also briefly ran Straczynski’s production company, Studio JMS.) The cast of this new version included Patricia Tallman herself as Allison Carter, Robin Atkin Downes, Fred Tatasciore, and Stephanie Walters. Robin Atkin Downes was also the sound effects editor/designer.

I’ve never heard this version, and probably never will, though I am curious whether Robert Atkin Downes managed to find a decent muscle car sound effect.

From back left: Samm Barnes, Cynthia Dale, Greg DeClute, J. Michael Straczynski, Greg Sinclair, and I can’t tell who the rest are

“Birth” of a Radio Play

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Phil Akin, Rob Sawyer, Michael Lennick, Joe Ziegler
recording “hubbub” for the CBC Radio play Birth

We spent a few weeks flinging notes back and forth, refining the script for our radio play Birth. A couple of sample notes:

Page 7, Line 3: Does Juan always say “goddamned” bugbots?  This is twice in a row.  Now, if he says it every single time, that could be funny…

And…

Is there any reason why Dr. Askwith couldn’t be a woman?  To balance the cast…

(I didn’t realize at the time that the character was an homage to producer, writer, interviewer Mark Askwith of Prisoners Gravity and Space Channel fame.)

After signing off on the final polish we began to ready Birth for production. Michael Lennick, co-writer of the play with Rob Sawyer, let it be known that he was interested in directing it. Considering his background in television and film production he would have made out just fine. Where he might have lacked the grammar of radio drama production I could easily have helped out. But I was producer of the project. As such, I had the right to direct it. Because it would constitute my first opportunity to direct a radio play, and because I’m a selfish bastard, I wasn’t about to pass it up. I hoped it would be a stepping-stone to more such projects.

I explained this to Michael. He took it graciously.

Casting Director Linda Grearson helped us land some fine actors, including Phil Akin (The Sum of All Fears), Joseph Ziegler (founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre), Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience), Andrew Gillies (later of Orphan Black, and who had been featured in my adaptation of The Cold Equations), Brenda Robins (Heartland), Jani Lauzon (Saving Hope, A Windigo Tale, and with whom I had worked on Six Impossible Things).

It typically takes one day to record a full cast for a half hour radio play such as Birth. On cast day I felt confident. Wayne Richards was my recording engineer. It was good to have a friend at the controls. The ebullient Rosie Fernandez was our Associate Producer. Such a positive presence. Michael Lennick, Rob Sawyer and I sat with Rosie behind the credenza in Studio 212. I would be able to consult with both Michael and Rob about the script if need be. I had spent several years watching various directors do their thing in this very room. If they could do it, I could do it. Right?

The cast of Birth: Jean Yoon, Phil Aiken, Joe Ziegler, Andrew Gillies

How hard could it be?

Harder than I expected.  

Wayne opened the mics on the Euphonix System 5. He hit record on ProTools. We did a take of the first scene. Afterward, I didn’t feel we’d gotten what we’d needed. I went out to the main floor of the studio to sort it out with the actors, among them Phil Akin. I knew Phil a bit, having worked with him before. I’d cast him hoping that along with being a talented actor his (relatively) familiar presence would help put me at ease.

Phil happened to have a Black Belt in Aikido. Once, I’d overheard him offer up some martial arts advice: “In a fight, the first thing I’d do is kick my opponent in the inner thigh. Give them a Charlie Horse. It would hurt like hell, disable them right away.” It so happened I was studying Matsubayashi Ryu Karate at the time. Once, at the dojo I attended, a black belt had asked me if I’d ever experienced a Charlie horse.

“No,” I said.

“You should,” the black belt told me. “So you know what it feels like.” Without warning, he kicked me hard in the inner thigh, giving me a Charlie Horse.

The pain was excruciating.

 So, I agreed with Phil on that point.

One of the shows I’d worked with Phil on had been an episode of The Mystery Project. I’d been the recording engineer. I’d had an issue with the first take of the first scene on that production too, but the problem had been technical. Something wrong with the quality of the audio. The actors had all sounded off mic. After confirming that nothing was wrong with the console, I checked out the Dead Room where Phil was waiting around the MS stereo microphone with the other actors. The problem was immediately obvious.

“Did you figure it out?” Phil asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone hung the microphone backwards.” (It might have been me.)

Phil mimed smoking a cigarette. Not just any cigarette. “Have another toke!” he said in strangled voice.

Back to the recording of Birth, shortly after the first take of the first scene. The actors were talking loudly amongst themselves and I was having trouble getting their attention.

“Take control, Joe,” Phil instructed, if not exactly conferring authority upon me, dangling it before me, at least.

Okay.

But how?

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that something wasn’t working in the scene, but I had no idea how to fix it. No clue what to tell the actors. Other than give them line readings (saying the line for them) but it was my understanding that actors typically resented line readings, so I didn’t do that. All those years watching other directors, arrogantly thinking , “I can do that.” Every bit as naive as a director thinking they could sit down, roll up their sleeves, and operate the multitrack audio console just because they’d sat in the same room as an engineer for years.

I muddled through.

At lunch, I asked Michael how he thought it was going.

“It’s like being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce,” he told me.

Given my obvious lack of experience directing it couldn’t possibly have been true. Michael must surely have been wishing that he was directing the production himself. But he was far too gracious to say so.

Recording Engineer Wayne Richards at the controls

I was glad to get the cast recording over with. Once we finished taping I had far more control. I edited and mixed Birth in my favourite studio, Sound Effects 3 (SFX 3). As with my previous pet project Faster Than Light, I turned over every stone to get it perfect, or at least try to. I edited the dialogue tracks (picking and choosing from various takes) and laid in the sound effects. Michael showed up to help with the final mix.

Shortly before working on Birth I’d convinced my boss John McCarthy to purchase new plug-ins for the ProTools in SFX 3 (plug-ins are essentially special effects for audio). The usual plug-ins, the Gold Wave bundle, were good but limited. So, I had some great tools to work with. The only problem was, playing with the plug-ins, and trying to get everything just right, took me twice as long as it would have on a regular project. 

The upshot is that I didn’t finish the project in the time allotted. I had to come in on a day off. I worked all day, futzing around with the voice of the killer robots, trying to get it just right. Using my new plug-ins I finally managed to create an original treatment for the robot’s voice that I was happy with, that I didn’t remember hearing anywhere else on either TV or film (which had been my goal).

A few days afterward I had a meeting with one of our departmental managers about something else entirely during which I happened to mention that I’d come in on a day off to finish mixing Birth. I thought he’d be impressed by my dedication. Au contraire.

“You can’t do that,” he told me.

“Why not?” I asked. “It’s not like it cost the CBC anything.”

“It’s not fair to your colleagues,” he said. “Because you come in on a day off and they don’t, your work winds up sounding better than theirs.”

I mentioned this conversation to producer Bill Lane. “Talk about a culture of mediocrity,” he remarked. 

Birth premiered, Friday, July 8, 2005, at 10:00 p.m. across Canada on CBC Radio One as a part of a limited anthology series called Deep Night, executive produced by Gregory J. Sinclair.

Tragically, Michael Lennick passed away in 2014, way too young at the age of 61. Michael and I had hit it off, working together on Birth. Yet I never saw or spoke to him once afterward.

I really wish that had not been the case.

Rosie Fernandez, Michael Lennick, and Yours Truly behind the credenza in Studio 212

Lorina Stephens Launches Dreams of the Moon

Recently I had the pleasure of helping my former publisher Lorina Stephens launch one of her own books, the latest of ten so far, this one a collection of short fiction entitled Dreams of the Moon.

The launch, which was conducted virtually (as so many necessarily are these days) was hosted by Richard Graeme Cameron, editor and publisher of the Aurora Award winning Canadian SF fiction magazine Polar Borealis.

As well as having run Five Rivers Publishing, Lorina has worked as an editor, a freelance journalist for national and regional print media, and (as mentioned) she is the author of ten books. She’s had several short fiction pieces published in well regarded venues such as Polar Borealis, On Spec, Neo-opsis, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy anthology Sword & Sorceress X.

Graeme recorded the launch, which included an interview with Lorina during which she expressed herself quite eloquently (certainly well enough for someone to invite her on, say, a national radio show about books, just saying) as well as a couple of short readings from Dreams of the Moon.

And here it is, in its entirety:

Other work by Lorina Stephens includes: And the Angels Sang; Caliban; Dreams of the Moon; From Mountains of Ice; Memories, Mother and a Christmas Addiction; The Rose Guardian; Shadow Song; co-editor Tesseracts 22: Alchemy and Artifacts; co-author The Giant’s Rib: Touring the Niagara Escarpment; Credit River Valley; Stonehouse Cooks

Worms for Sale

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

St. John’s, NFLD (photo credit Bigstock)

Set on the rock five years after Newfoundland’s Ocean Ranger disaster, Stacy Gardner’s Worms for Sale is a moving and amusing story of a mother still reeling from loss after the Ocean Ranger disaster and dealing with a daughter wanting to leave her small newfoundland town for Toronto.

“The title came first,” Stacy told me about writing it. “And then the characters just started popping up.”

A colleague at Covenant House in Toronto, where Stacy worked, had told her about a recent CBC Radio Drama submission call for which we ultimately received four hundred submissions. Stacy submitted Worms for Sale. I selected Worms for Sale because it exhibited a fresh charm and a clear originality of voice that appealed to me. Stacy hadn’t expected anything to come of her submission, but felt fortunate to have been short-listed, then finally commissioned.

“All of it was just beautiful, an unexpected gift,” she said.

As Stacy got Worms for Sale in shape for production, with the support of script editor Bev Cooper, it didn’t take long to complete. But no sooner had we got the script finalized did I found myself locked out of the CBC, along with most of my colleagues in yet another labour dispute, the infamous 2005 lockout

Back inside after two months of pounding the pavement, we decided to produce Stacy’s play in St. John’s Newfoundland, with the help of regional producer Glen Tilley. I had great admiration for Glen Tilley’s work (and his terrific moustache). He radiated Newfoundland charm and had produced the renowned satirical radio drama The Great Eastern (hosted by Paul Moth, aka Mack Furlong). Tilley was also responsible for influencing the build of their first proper radio drama studio in St. John’s, Studio F, which over the years hosted The Wonderful Grand Band, Great Big Sea, and more. It was in Studio F that we proposed to record Worms for Sale.

One day producer James Roy sidled up to my workstation. “You’d probably better get going on Worms for Sale,” he said. He didn’t explain why but it was clear that something was up.

Alarmed, I phoned Tilley to expedite dates and other arrangements. Stacy, excited about the impending recording, would be coming with us. I was looking forward to my first trip to Newfoundland, as well as the opportunity to direct another radio play.

And then it all came crashing down.

Before we could board the plane to Newfoundland, The Powers That Be cancelled most of the radio drama projects from our submission call that had not already been produced. That included our half-finished project Worms for Sale. I never learned exactly why, though no doubt it was a financial decision.

I was left wondering, if only I had moved the project along faster, booked the tickets to Newfoundland earlier … but probably it wouldn’t have mattered. I felt terrible for Stacy.

“It was just shitty,” she described the experience of having Worms for Sale cancelled. “Like being in love with someone and then breaking up unexpectedly.”           

The decision was, of course, entirely the CBC’s prerogative. Still, it was embarrassing for me personally. We set all these writers up, only to pull the rug out from under them.

Stacy didn’t give up, though. “I stayed with the script,” she said. “I got a Toronto Arts grant for the script to adapt it into a stage play.”

In the summer of 2012, Stacy produced Worms for Sale for The Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, featuring actors Tajanna Penney, Jennifer Neales, William MacGregor, Deborah Perry, and Bruce Williamson. Janina Kowalski directed it.

“It was a seed,” Stacy said. “It didn’t grow in the original garden, so I took it and grew it in a different one.”

It ran for seven sold out nights at The Alumnae Theatre. I made sure I was there to see it. It was great on stage.

It would have been great on the radio, too.  

« Older posts

© 2021 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑