One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.