Sarah Wayne Callies Explores Podcast Storytelling With Ambitious ‘Aftershock’

Aftershock is now available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and whatever podcatcher you use!!


Sarah Wayne Callies’ scripted podcast program Aftershock was initially set for recording days in Los Angeles and New York. The pandemic altered those plans, but Callies remained undaunted. Aftershock is currently available on whichever podcatcher you use, and she talked to CinemAddicts about opening up her creative horizons.

First episode of Aftershock:

How does one actually record a podcast in the trunk of a car? Did you ask Rockmond Dunbar how he did that? First of all, it takes dedication and to me, as an audiophile, that seems almost impossible and dangerous and inspiring. 

It’s all of those things and you’ve just described Rockmond. He is impossible, dangerous, and inspiring as a human being. 

So what happened is we were recording over Squadcast. We had tried mailing him a mic. 

We had these beautiful Rode mics that we were fed-exing to the cast. But Roc has four young children that he was home schooling during the pandemic because it was early lockdown. I think it was April of last year. 

There was no place in his home that was quiet. I don’t know if he had the microphone or if he was using the mic on his phone at this point. But all the windows were bouncing the sound around so he was “I’ll just turn around.” Our engineer said, “I’m so sorry, it just sounds like you’re in a glass box.”

He said, “Okay give me a minute.” Then there’s this rustling and he says “how does this sound now?” (The engineer said) “It sounds great, where are you?”

“I’m in the trunk of my car.” I was like “I can’t thank you enough, I owe you one, possibly my right arm!” 

That’s how it happened. And I think when it was over he had to text his wife to let him out. (laughs). It was just a big thing. 

Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts:

You produced, directed, wrote and starred in Aftershock. How were you able to handle so many tasks, or was it simply a step by step process?

It is. It’s sequential. It’s not concurrent, which helps a lot. So the writing happens alone, in a room. I was actually shooting Council of Dads. I think I wrote the first four episodes before we started Council. So the rest of the season, we would shoot Council during the week and then go back to my little rental Savannah and then I’d write an episode during the weekend and then learn my lines on Sunday and go back to work.

But everything was done. I finished writing the season December 2019. And so that was pre-pandemic. And then it was like “Oh great, we will do five days in the studio. We’ll do New York and Los Angeles.”

We got one day in the studio in New York and one day in the studio in Los Angeles. Everything else was in closets, trunks of cars, Tati Gabrielle was in Germany because she was shooting there. David Harbour was in rural England for a minute. 

We had actors huddled in duvets, all over the world. That was the directing and recording of it all. A lot of the directing is in the editing and the producing is who do we bring on board, how do we pay for it, and all of that stuff. 

It flowed kind of fine. It was not overwhelming, believe it or not.

Aftershock is a story about forgiveness and who you trust.  It’s also about doing what it takes to survive. Does this theme consciously tie in with your body of work? I really appreciate the way you approach genre storytelling.

First of all, thank you. I take that as a huge compliment.

It feels to me like, if you look at the history of genre (storytelling), a lot of early George Romero, which started us off on the zombie path, started as a critique of our materialism and our consumer society.

You go back to Star Trek. There huge messages of social justice and inequity and equity in those stores. That is what always struck me as so powerful about them.

You can sit down and try and lecture somebody about the state of the world. As we’re learning, it’s so often, they will become entrenched and shut you down and not read the article you wrote in The Huffington Post

When we can embed some of these themes in entertainment, then we can present them in a way that generates a conversation and get people to engage with them. Whether or not they agree with you, at least they are approaching these questions and thoughts together instead of separately.   

How great has it been to witness your friends and colleagues collaborate with you on this project?

Hugely grateful. And surprising. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and as I’m trying to move into this second act of my career where I get to participate in the storytelling process a little sooner than just the acting component . . . what’s beautiful is the number of people who’ve been willing to go out of their way where they have nothing to gain to help me.   

It’s incredibly collaborative and generous and I think when I decided I wanted to start directing, I reached out to a dozen directors I’ve worked with over the years and said “Listen, I need to learn about this.” 

There is nothing to be gained. It just means you have some idiot next to you asking stupid questions all day (laughs), taking up space.

Every single one of them said yes. It was such an honor to feel like I’ve been able to build relationships with people who are willing to take a chance. There is an extreme generosity to that. It’s moving.

With podcasts, one can rest their eyes and via their imagination become a participant in crafting the story. Even with the abundance of scripted programs and shows out there, do you feel that podcasts are not given its due?

I feel that podcasts are a very underrated space. 

We’ve got to start out with a shout out to Jeff Schmidt who I think is the best sound designer in the business. For me to call up and say “Hey, so I want to level Los Angeles in an earthquake and have an island rise out of the ocean. I can’t do that, can you?”

He said, “Sure.” (laughs) The man is an absolute genius and the success of the podcast is every bit as much as his fault as it is everybody else.

Podcasting is very interesting right now. Yes, it’s blowing up. But I still have dozens of friends who say “I don’t even know how you listen to a podcast.” 

I’m like “Hand me your phone. It’s an app. It’s free.” That’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s free, you’re not asking anyone to buy tickets to something.

The vast preponderance of podcasts, like early radio, is people talking and interviews. Some of it isn’t even edited which I have to say is a pet peeve (laughs).

When someone puts on a rambling, 96-minute conversation. I’m sorry. My time is precious. I have kids to raise. But then there’s this subset, like again in early radio, with these radio dramas and . . . your point about resting the eyes is brilliant.

At a time when we’ve got 6 hours of Zoom meetings a day. To be able to give your eyes a break and let your ears and your brain take over can be a real gift.

And for something like this – the budget for the feature version of this is very, very high (laughs). In order to do right, no one is going to hand me the budget of a Marvel movie. But everybody listening has this massive catalogue of every image and movie that they’ve seen in their head. When you close your eyes you can access it all for free. It’s kind of a miracle.

The listener becomes the production designer. They become the set builders and the special effects operators. And it also, in some ways, personalizes it because it means that whatever version of the earthquake pulls on your own fears and neurosis and experience is what your brain will serve up. There won’t be a disconnect between my vision of it and your vision of it.

Your mind is serving you up exactly what it thinks belongs in that blank space. 

Is eating Couscous a reliable form of sustenance when a catastrophe occurs?

I don’t want to disrespect the couscous industry! It’s kind of an inside joke with my husband because we both spend a lot of time backpacking in our lives. Especially when we were in college before there was this crazy profusion of freeze dried foie gras that they have in REI now.

You can have a five course Michelin star menu that is just add water. Camping now is very different. When my husband and I were backpacking a lot, it was like get a jar of peanut butter and like a five pound jar of couscous in your backpack.

And after night three, maybe I’m willing to starve to death instead of having another flavorless, half burnt pot of couscous. So that was sort of a personal inside joke. I haven’t had couscous since the last time I was on a trail in college. Honestly, I think it’s been probably since 1999 since I’ve had couscous (laughs). 

Maybe it’s a different thing though.

One last frivolous thing. On your Twitter feed you mentioned Kombucha. My podcast partner swears by it, and I am still wrapping my head around its benefit. Are you a Kombucha fan?

You know actually I make it. I bottle my own . . . the economics of it . . . right now I’m in Vancouver and I’m on location directing and right now I’m buying it.

I can make five giant bottles of Kombucha for about $1.75. If you buy it in a grocery store it’s like $10. So the economics of buying it sort of rub me the wrong way. I was raised by my grandmother who was raised by the Great Depression.

Frugal is a nice way to put it (laughs).

Listen to the entire interview on Spotify:

We are in the early days of this, but wanted to ask you about the possibility of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) as a way of broadening one’s creative horizons?

I’m fascinated by NFTs. One of the things, I think for visual artists that’s really interesting is this idea that you can structure it so that, every time that the NFT is sold, there is a commission that goes back to the original artist. Which strikes me as hugely fair. 

There was a guy I knew years ago in Los Angeles years ago who was an early collector of Kehinde Wiley. My friend has made a fortune, but after the original sale, Kehinde hasn’t made anything on those paintings which just strikes me as kind of crazy that a painting was bought for $250,000 that might be bought again for $2 million dollars and Kehinde doesn’t see anything from that.

There is something as an artist that strikes me as, potentially with NFTs, creating an economic structure, that’s vastly more equitable for people who are the initial creatives.

Art will expand to any space where there is an audience. At a time when certain kinds of art have been so corporatized that people are frustrated by the limitations. Then they’ll find those places.

For me, it was scripted podcasting where there was an opportunity to exercise a giant level of creative control over your own work. So yeah, I hadn’t heard about this show, but I’m interested in it. I’m a little concerned about the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies because it’s one of those invisible or easily hideable costs.

It’s easy to hide the environmental costs to it. One of my friends sent me an email about . . . I don’t know if it’s Seneca Lake but it’s one of the Finger Lakes that is adjacent to a crypto currency mining facility and they use the water in the lake to cool the facility. And the lake water temperature has risen from something that’s hotter than bath water. It’s in the 90s of degrees. That’s really troubling to me.

I’ve got to figure out the environment ethics of cryptocurrency for myself.

My mom wanted me to tell you that she loves your work in Prison Break.

Well thanks mom!

On that note, how do you as an artist handle all the compounding goodwill that have for you? Is it something where you can’t let that get to your head and you have to put it on the shelf? Or is it something you’ve learned to appreciate the moment or the compliment.

Oh I’m so grateful for it. I really am. I came up in theater so I’m used to people standing up for me and clapping for me at the end of the day (laughs). 

Or not. Or having people standing up and throwing tomatoes. You get input. And input is useful because it tells me if I’m communicating effectively. 

That doesn’t mean that input has to be positive. There was a lot of negative input on Lori Grimes. That taught me some really important things. It taught me about more about the misogyny about our culture than I expected to learn. 

Frank Darabont and I had sat down and had a long conversation about this character should not be an angel. I don’t want to pander to an audience. I don’t want everybody to like me. That feedback we kind of like high-fived. We set out what we needed to do here.

The feedback is useful. I think sometimes there can be a boundaries issue. That’s just become part of the job. Setting those boundaries in a healthy. 

My family is not public. My kids are not on social media. My husband is not on social media. And because I don’t put them out there, there seems to be a lot of respect for their privacy that comes to be.

Can you name one of your all time favorite movies, and what is it about this film that still resonates with you?

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. When I saw it, I had never seen anything like it. I think it was my first exposure to Australia which may have given me a radically skewed (perception). I was like “Australia is where all of the awesome drag queens live.”

Visually it’s extraordinary. It’s some of the best costume design I’ve ever seen. There’s an entire dress made out of flip flops which is arguably the greatest thing ever invented as somebody who only wears flip flops whenever I can.

It’s a beautiful piece about social justice. It’s shot incredibly well. It holds up. I showed it to my son the other day. I was like, “You need to see this.” He was in one of those “Old people have never made anything cool.” I was like “Shut up and watch this movie” (laughs).

By the way, I’m turning 50 in a month. I’m so old. I actually covered that press junket in New York.

No way! Not to mention, and it’s a small part of it, but the aboriginal representation existed in so many stories about . . . as somebody who comes from Hawaii, representing Pacific Islanders and aboriginal existence – it’s totally science in stories that are told about Hawaii or Australia or anything else. It was very cool.

And happy birthday in a month. Congratulations!

Sarah thank you so much for taking the time, I love Aftershock, and continued success!

Thank you so much. I look forward to the next time we talk.

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