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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

The Great Radio Drama Submission Call

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

(Here’s some more).

Studio 212,
Where the CBC Radio Drama Magic Happened

In late 2004, Damiano Pietropaolo, the Head of Radio Arts & Entertainment (which included Radio Drama), stepped down from that position. Greg Sinclair took his place. Greg immediately made two significant moves. First, he took me off The Schedule. Second, he put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call.    

Taking me off The Schedule meant that I could no longer be assigned to ordinary technical bookings. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I’d been an audio technician seventeen years and I was sick and tired of The Schedule. My every move was dictated by The Schedule. I had no control over The Schedule. If you wanted to have a meeting with me, you had to talk to the scheduling department, not me. I couldn’t plan my days or weeks because if I did, my plans could and would be overwritten by the scheduling department. I would explain this to other people in the CBC. They would have no idea what I was talking about. The Schedule was a phenomenon unique to technicians.

I was also tired of feeling like a second-class citizen. In the studio, producers called the shots. They were the bosses. They weren’t really the bosses; I didn’t report to a producer. But in the studio, if a producer said, “Do this,” I pretty much had to do it. It didn’t matter if I’d been on the job seventeen years and they’d been on the job seventeen days. Taking orders from people with a lot less experience than me was getting real old.

I got so fed up with being a tech that one day I decided I didn’t want to be credited on air as a technician anymore. I told Writers & Company producer Mary Stinson this.

“You don’t want to be in the credits anymore?” she asked.  

“By all means put me in the credits,” I told her. “Just don’t call me a tech.”

 Officially I was an Associate Producer/Technician. In my mind, I was a Recording Engineer. I aspired to be a Recording Engineer/Producer. I asked Mary not to refer to me as anything other than somebody helping put the show together. Of course, the nation didn’t care what CBC Radio called Joe Mahoney. Only Joe Mahoney cared. But Mary respected my wishes.

The second thing that Greg Sinclair did was put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call. He wanted to reinvigorate CBC Radio Drama by attracting new talent and projects. Between The Great Radio Drama Submission Call and being taken off The Schedule this was an exciting time for me.

 The Radio Drama department received over four hundred submissions for potential projects. We divvied them up between the recording engineers and the producers to sift through. Each of us would choose one or two to develop and produce. Finally, I thought. Another shot at producing! One step closer to my dream of becoming a Recording Engineer/Producer.

I enjoyed sorting through the slush pile. As an aspiring writer my short stories had been in enough slush piles over the years. It felt good being on the other side. I loved being able to announce to the Canadian science fiction community that I was looking for their submissions on behalf of CBC Radio. I was pretty puffed up about it. But the actual work of reviewing the submissions turned out to be quite a slog. It was maddeningly difficult to discern the wheat from the chaff. So many submissions were just kind of the same. Average. Very few were obviously terrible. The whole process was so subjective. I could easily have missed projects with potential because I just didn’t know any better. Over time, though, certain submissions began to stand out, for different reasons. Sometimes the distinguishing factor was who submitted the proposal. Other times it was the proposal’s obvious quality. Yet other times it was because the proposal spoke to me in some way. And sometimes it was a combination of the above.

Robert J. Sawyer, with whom I’d worked on Faster Than Light, submitted a proposal with his friend Michael Lennick for a half hour radio play called Birth. Birth explored the accidental emergence of sentience among robots on Mars. It wound up on my final list.

Another proposal that stood out was a play called Worms for Sale by Stacy Gardner. Worms for Sale was about a witty, bored high school graduate in Newfoundland trying to decide whether to stay or leave while being a friend to her heartbroken mother. It was “a play about who we are and how we survive the elements of place.” Stacy’s proposal, which included snippets of dialogue, exhibited a fresh charm and an originality of voice that appealed to me. Worms for Sale found a home on my list.

Meanwhile, Greg Sinclair received a proposal by Joe Straczynski, otherwise known as J. Michael Straczynski, also known as JMS. Greg was quite excited about telling me about this because he knew that as a science fiction fan I would know who JMS was. He was right; I’d been aware of Joe Straczynski’s work for several years. Straczynski had been the main creative force behind the hit science fiction television series Babylon 5. He’d written most of the episodes. As far as I was concerned, he was a genius. And now Straczynski had proposed an action adventure fantasy series for CBC Radio.

Sinclair and I had images (sound bites?) of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in our minds. Adam’s bestselling books had started life as a hit radio series on the BBC.  That was the Holy Grail Sinclair and I sought. Surely a project with the likes of Straczynski would bring science fiction and fantasy fans to our doorsteps in droves, and completely rejuvenate the radio drama department. J. Michael Straczynski’s The Adventures of Apocalypse Al made the final cut.

I don’t know how many radio plays we ultimately selected, but it was a fair amount. The next step was to develop each project. I was excited to get started on my choices, Worms for Sale and Birth. I contacted Stacy Gardner and Rob Sawyer to tell them the good news and arrange times to meet. (I would wind up producing sound effects for three other projects: ManRadio, The Thing from Beyond My Closet, and The Adventures of Apocalypse Al.)

Rob arrived at the Toronto Broadcast Centre to discuss Birth accompanied by his writing partner Michael Lennick. Michael was the brother of former CBC Radio host David Lennick, who had had a radio show about fifteen years earlier called Sunny Side Up. (Sunny Side Up had actually been one of the first shows I’d ever engineered as a brand-new CBC Radio tech. Nervous, I’d managed to drop a CD on the floor. Fortunately, it had still played.)

Michael Lennick had his own claims to fame. For CFMT-TV in Toronto he’d co-written The All-Night Show, which had featured Chuck the Security Guard, played by Chas Lawther, with whom I also made a couple of radio shows over the years. It’s a small world. After that Michael toiled as a visual special effects artist for two decades, working on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Dead Zone, and TV series such as War of the Worlds (1988). When I met him, Michael was producing well-regarded science and history documentaries.

The Lennick boys had come from famous stock, too. As a member of Wayne & Shuster’s repertory company, their mother, Sylvia Lennick, had famously played Julius Caesar’s wife, uttering the immortal line, “I told him, Julie, don’t go!”

After meeting Rob and Michael, I met with the author of Worms for Sale. Stacy Gardner turned out to be a charismatic young woman originally from Newfoundland in Toronto working for Covenant House. Worms for Sale was the first time she’d submitted any of her work anywhere.

We brought in experienced story editors Greg Nelson and Bev Cooper to work with our new crop of writers. Greg Nelson drew Birth and Bev Cooper Worms for Sale. Each writer (or team of writers) was contracted to write three drafts and then a final polish of each script. The producers and story editors would make notes on each draft and the final polish. The purpose of the polish was to correct any remaining superficial issues once all the major problems had been (theoretically) addressed. After all that the plays would be considered ready to record.

First up for me would be Birth.

More on that next.

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.  

Amanda Interviews Joe

Ryerson Student Amanda Raya

A few weeks ago Ryerson student Amanda Raya interviewed me about turning my novel A Time and a Place into an audiobook. I spouted all sorts of inane gibberish and she politely thanked me and I figured she’d go find somebody infinitely more sensible to interview and that would be that.  

She has since done her Ryerson magic on our interview and made me sound not only human but somewhat intelligible. I think her excellent questions have a lot to do with it.

She’s graciously allowing me to post the interview here. Et voila:

Amanda Raya interviews Yours Truly
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