Interview | Aftershock with Sarah Wayne Callies
Aftershock is a new scripted podcast on the iHeartRadio Network, directed, produced, written by and starring Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break, The Walking Dead, Colony). Aftershock features a star studded cast including David Harbour, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Tati Gabrielle, Janel Parrish, and more. Gemma Kent spoke with Sarah Wayne Callies about the process and her experience with making the podcast.
Q: The first thing I want to say about Aftershock is that I have binged the whole series and I am obsessed with it. I can only assume that COVID had an impact on the podcast production and the experience in general?
S: Yeah. You know, I’ve never done this before, which is why I desperately needed our brilliant sound designer, Jeff Schmidt. Not realizing that with sound design, he’s also the production designer and the cinematographer and the DP. I mean, he did some really extraordinary things in this. I was surprised by the different aspects that were both easier and harder than I thought. For instance, when I said, “yeah, no problem. I’ll write 10 episodes,” in my head, there was an asterisk saying: “But it’s just audio. So it’s gotta be easier.”
So I somehow stupidly thought that writing 10 episodes would be easier. I hadn’t even started writing the pilot and all of a sudden it hit me as I was outlining, that this has to be just as good as anything that you’d put on HBO. You still have to develop the story and the characters. In some ways, I was a little gobsmacked by how much work the writing was. But the flip side of that is, I had no budgetary constraints in terms of location and special effects. It is just as expensive to destroy Los Angeles in an earthquake and have a new island rise up from the ocean as it is to go to the zoo.
I have friends in graphic novels who’ve talked about “ink is ink is ink.” So you have a tremendous amount of creative latitude because there’s no line producer looking over your shoulder going; “Um, right. But we can’t destroy Los Angeles on our budget. So what are you going to do instead?” But then the limitations of a podcast are really interesting because you can’t really have more than four people talking in a scene without knowing who they are, so we ended up with a festival of accents. Like, I called up Joy Lenz and I was like; “You do a French accent for me because I need you to not sound like me.” I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know. Do Jess and Dave sound too similar to use?” Because they don’t look a thing alike, so it never occurred to me.
Q: So, how did you actually decide to write a podcast?
S: Well, I was working with Ben Haber and Patrick Carmen and this idea came up. I grew up on an island and I live on an island now. Island culture is really interesting and specific. Often there are issues of territory and indigenous rights and manifest destiny and who are the people who come because they want to be off the grid and who are the people who come because they want to import the metropolitan culture they came from? As we got into the development, we realized how expensive it would be if we did this in a visual medium. When you have that kind of money on the line for all of the right reasons, you have to hire a very, very experienced writer. Podcasts are the medium that gave us the most amount of creative control, to tell the story we want to tell the way we want to tell it. And if it has a future in another medium fine, but let’s start with our creative work at its best.
Q: That’s really interesting that you mention creative control, because obviously you wear so many hats for this whole production. You were involved in the writing of it, the direction and played the lead. Did you find it was tricky to switch between those roles? While you were performing, did you ever feel like you might want to go back and change the lines or even the plot?
S: You know, what’s nice is they are by and large successive. So, first you do the writing, then you do the recording, and then so much of the directing happens in the editing. You can kind of forget that you’ve done the other stuff. You get in the booth and you go, well, this idiot writer wrote the stupid thing, and now I’ve got to find a way to make it work. The scariest part was finding myself in the booth or recording remotely during the pandemic and realizing that I somehow convinced these wonderful friends of mine who were world-class actors into doing this. Now they were about to say words that I had written, having spoken the words of Academy Award winning screenwriters and Broadway playwrights and Aaron Sorkin and just going; “Oh my God, what if they say. ‘Hey, this is a piece of shit, Callies and you’re terrible.’ Why did I do this? What if they hate it?”
That was the first moment of terror. Then the next moment of terror was the day it was released when I went, “Oh, now an audience is going to hear it” and I can’t hide behind; “Oh, I’m just the actress. I didn’t write it. I didn’t create it, don’t get mad at me.” Anybody who doesn’t like it – it’s my fault. It’s on me. I have nowhere to turn and no one to hold accountable except myself. So those were the moments where my stomach went to water.
Q: You’re known for your roles on-screen, such as in TV shows like The Walking Dead. In terms of acting, did you find it strange to focus purely on your voice? Was it a very different kind of acting for you?
S: Yeah, I’ve done a couple of audio dramas before. I did The Twilight Zone with Stacy Keats. There’s something really wonderful, because you don’t have to go through hair and makeup and all of the things that take time that are not acting. But as I was listening back to the podcast, there were a few moments where I thought; “oh, I think I rolled my eyes, as I said that and you can’t hear it.” So in the future, I think I’m going to have to do what I’m saying, which is migrate some of my facial expression more into my voice as I try and get better at this.
Q: One thing that I loved in Aftershock was the unreliable narration. In the first few minutes you have Cassie talking to the cadet, and she says she was on her own when the earthquake actually happened, but then you have the scene of Cassie with McKayla’s dad. You never could be quite sure if people meant what they said or what they were saying was true. For me, it sounded a bit like the right-wing media in the U S or people’s views on authority figures. Was that something going around in your head while writing?
S: That’s a really interesting take on it. I’ll be honest. I didn’t think that deeply into it. What I remember was reading the first True Detective and thinking there was something really fascinating in two stories being told at the same time and knowing that both can’t be true. Also, the reality that we do remember things differently. There are a lot of times in Aftershock where Cassie is lying to cover something up, but I remember hearing, I think it was Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast on memory. Shortly after 9/11, they had a bunch of New Yorkers write down where they were when it happened, who was the first person they told and what was the first thing that they did.
They came back 10 years later and they asked the same questions, and they answered them differently. It’s not necessarily that we’re lying. It’s that there’s so many pressures on us psychologically that change our relationship to the truth. I do think that’s fascinating, especially in a crisis, that human beings sometimes need to rewrite their own history.
Q: You can’t help but listen to the podcast in the year 2021 and notice words heard in Aftershock now being used in our own day-to-day. We’re talking about this mysterious illness and we don’t know what’s happening, with all these buzzwords like “quarantine” and “isolation” and “sanitisation.” Was that a coincidence?
S: Yes! And actually, it was interesting because as we were writing it, I got really granular about disease and epidemiology, because I wanted it to be accurate. I do remember at some point someone being like, okay, it’s not like the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] is going to be listening to this. Don’t worry about it.
I was kind of a nerd about it and I was just like, no, no, no. I’ve got friends who worked for the CDC because I lived in Atlanta for a while. So let’s get this right. And then the pandemic happened and my first thought was; “God – we can’t release this. No one is going to want to consume storytelling about a virus.” But we’d already written it, we’d already recorded half of it, and at a certain point I just sort of went; okay, but it’s not about a virus, right? It’s about human nature and it’s about land and ownership and our inability to judge character. But it terrified me and I was actually a little bit worried about the response to episode 10 and what Dover does at the very end, because in a theoretical world, trying to avoid a theoretical epidemic – I think that felt very different as I was writing that in December of 2019 than it does now.
Q: So if you had an opportunity to write it again with what you’ve experienced in the last year, do you think it would be a very different ending or even a different plot? Would you still use the story of a virus spreading?
S: That’s a good question, and I don’t really have an answer. I haven’t thought that way, but I do think that there’s something that I’ve planned if we do get to do more seasons. There’s something that I’ve planned for the island that helps it shift away from a virus and shift into something that is also grounded in the times but that allows us to explore these similar questions without being quite so close to current events. This is supposed to be escapism and my hope is that it is, but I don’t want to put anybody through flashbacks while we’re doing this.
Q: In Aftershock, you have the earthquake and this idea of a natural disaster. 30 years ago people might have said that’s a little bit fanciful. But here we are 2021, and it all seems like this could happen tomorrow. Even while I was listening to the podcast, the news was reporting on Hurricane Ida. I love how you interlaced reality intro the podcast. You have the pandemics and they don’t happen in isolation to other natural disasters.
S: But the other thing that was interesting to me as I was writing Janel Parrish’s character, as somebody from Hawaii who feels really strongly about Hawaiian sovereignty, there was a little bit of pushback from other people involved in the project who just thought; “we don’t get her, like, what are you doing here?” In fact, there was one very funny conversation that was both funny and tragic at the same time, where somebody said. “What she’s doing is ridiculous. She just shows up on new land and plants her flag and takes it.” I was like, “I agree. That’s ridiculous.” “And they were like, yes, it shouldn’t be in here. I said, “Well, it is the entire story of colonizing North America and Africa and the entire world with the exception that at least in Aftershock, she does it on land where no one else is currently living. So at least she’s absenting herself from genocide,” and there was a little bit of an eye-roll.
What’s interesting is, a year and a half later since those episodes were written, there are more conversations about land back and indigenous rights and reparations. In Canada, we’re talking increasingly about reconciliation with the first nations. The person who had given me those notes actually phoned back and said, “you know, this is interesting that this now appears to be something that is being talked about more broadly.” I realized that it was something that was always talked about in my life because Hawaiian sovereignty was just a constant question.
When I was growing up and coming to the mainland, I had a lot of indigenous friends talking about what happened in their communities and what continues to happen in their communities. Ongoing colonialism and the adverse effects on communities. I was grateful to hear that it does not feel like it comes out of left field for people any longer, that there’s a little bit more of an awareness of the responsibilities that we have to make certain things right.
Q: The last question that I have for you, I was delighted to hear you mention the possibility of future seasons of Aftershock. Are you hooked on doing more podcasts or are you hoping to start moving towards more visual media now that you have proven yourself as a writer?
S: Well, you know, I don’t know that I’ve proven myself enough. I don’t know that Steven Spielberg’s going to be like, would you come write my next film? Great as that would be. No, I love Aftershock. I feel like I’ve just built some relationships with these women into places where they’re really getting interesting. So I would love to do future seasons. I’m not entirely sure how that happens because again, I’m still new to this process, but I would absolutely love to do that. And the whole scripted podcast world, again, there is a level of autonomy and creative control that I really enjoy.
You can listen to the full season of Aftershock on the iHeartRadio Network now, or wherever you normally get your podcasts.