For the first decade or so of their creative partnership, screenwriters Jake Emanuel and Willie Block were stuck living their version of what Emanuel calls the “classic screenwriter trajectory.” They were making work — sometimes for pay, other times on spec — and getting solid responses, but the material wasn’t actually getting made. (Aside from their time as staff writers on the animated rap-comedy Chozen, on FX)
Then came The Edge of Sleep — a narrative podcast, more like a teleplay — produced by QCODE. The show, about a night watchman who finds himself one of the last humans on earth, made serious noise and a big impression on listeners. That success led to The Edge of Sleep being optioned as a TV show and a new anthology series, also on QCODE, called Bad Vibes.
With The Edge of Sleep shooting in Toronto and season 2 of Bad Vibes already ordered, I spoke with Block and Emanuel about the new direction and energy they’re helping bring to the podcasting space.
You guys are doing something in podcasting that interests me very much, which is… In a field that’s pretty saturated with smart people talking and noodling around on ideas, you are bringing fiction and storytelling into it and really returning the form to the radio era. Did you guys approach QCODE and pitch a show? Was the genesis?
Jake Emanuel: First of all, thanks so much for your kind words. We really appreciate it. And you know, right now it’s a pretty remarkable and chaotic time for Willie and I, because as you know, we are putting out our first season of Bad Vibes, which we’ve been thrilled by the responses so far, and while we’re doing that and still working on it, we are simultaneously preparing to shoot the first season of The Edge of Sleep as a TV series in one week in Vancouver.
That was our first podcast that came out at end of 2019, the beginning of 2020. And so we’re just very excited that we’re working on both of them at the same time, in very different capacities. Our background is as screenwriters and as storytellers. And we were lucky that we were able to sync up with two of the most revolutionary companies working in this space, which is QCODE and also Salt Audio, who are the composers, sound engineers, and sound designers for both of our shows. And it was QCODE’s vision right at the beginning — when they did their first podcast Blackout, with Rami Malik — “let’s tell incredible stories to have the best sound design that’s possible.”
You feel that quality instantly. Salt does The Midnight Miracle and I know and really respect their work, and they nailed it with your shows.
Jake Emanuel: One of the things that got Willie and I really excited initially about The Edge of Sleep, which eventually also led into Bad Vibes, was we thought, “Wow, with the abilities our sound engineers have, what they’re capable of, we can tell really big stories, stories on an epic scale that would be very difficult to do in the individual media.”
So for example, in Bad Vibes, obviously it’s an ode to shows like Tales From the Crypt, The Twilight Zone, which we love, but because of the abilities of our sound engineers, we can jump from an episode that takes place in World War I to an episode that takes place in outer space; episode to episode. And in The Edge of Sleep, we loved the idea to tell sort of a supernatural horror, fantastical story, that had to do with the nature of dreaming. And we were trying to tell the kind of story that we thought would be very difficult to translate into a movie or TV show, but we were clearly proven wrong.
When I listened to Edge of Sleep, there is this scary thing for a podcaster — and when I listened to Bad Vibes, too — there’s this scary thing that I would imagine you guys felt at different points of like, “Am I trusting my audience and inspiring them to create visuals in their heads? Or am I losing them?” I felt like both of your shows dance that line incredibly well. What makes them binge-able is that the audience wants to meet you more than halfway. Was that something that you guys, as screenwriters, had to cultivate?
Willie Block: I mean, 100%, that’s something we worry about all the time. I think we learned a lot on The Edge of Sleep — because in The Edge of Sleep, we do tell it as a bit of a remembrance. The main character telling the audience. So it’s like we combined a little bit more of the audio book with that one. But I think with what we learned, you kind of have to walk the audience halfway because you want them to picture in their head. It’s something we kind of… I think the magic of that particular element happens during after we do the first dialogue lock to when we start mixing it, because we take out certain lines and turn in certain sound effects because we want it to be not totally concrete — then everyone’s experiencing it in their own way.
And it is closer to a novel listing interpretation of it.
Jake Emanuel: And the other thing that I would add is The Edge of Sleep was our first time doing it. And so, you’re right, there is this classic age of radio that was sort of missing in the US, not in Britain, but for around 50 years. So, as we were writing The Edge of Sleep, trying to kind of learn it with our team since we’re trying to do this on a different scale that hadn’t really been done in the US for a long time. And as we wrote it, we certainly learned a lot of things around the way. So, for example, The Edge of Sleep is sort of a post-apocalyptic tale about worldwide events, but we realized that we had to make it very intimate and only tell it with a select number of characters because if you’re a listener, themes get very complicated in audio dramas if there’s more than two to three characters talking at the same time.
And so what’s funny is that with Bad Vibes, we were able to work with a tremendous amount of very talented screenwriters from a variety of different backgrounds. Some of them are comedic writers. Some of them even wrote YA novels. Some of them are great horror writers who have written wonderful horror movies. But for the most part, these were all writers who were writing audio fiction for the very first time. So as the showrunners of Bad Vibes, we were kind of excited to help navigate these writers and help them tell their tales, learning the lessons that we had learned from The Edge of Sleep.
What’s an example there?
Jake Emanuel: So for example, like we said, “Hey, listen, if you’re telling a story with four people in the scene. If it’s a road trip with mom, dad, brother, sister, that’s great. The audience is going to be able to follow who’s who. If you are writing a story that’s four Wall Street bros, all in their twenties or thirties, talking over lunch, no one’s going to know what the hell is going on.”
There’s little lessons like that, that we learned along the way. You know, while we love traditional horror stories, we love Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft — dark, adult stories — we try to push our writers to really embrace the technology that’s at our fingertips to tell exciting stories that work best for the audio format. So for example, the episode that just came out this week for Bad Vibes is this episode called “BugBugBug.” And the main character has a beetle inside their brain and using binaural audio and what our brilliant sound designers were able to do is that if you’re listening on headphones or Air Pods, there’s audio tracking so that it literally sounds like the bug is crawling around your brain. You can go make it go left to right, up and down. We’re really excited about utilizing that sort of technology in the story when we can.
So many pods tend to rely on passive listening. It’s like you’re in traffic, you might be on the couch texting, you might be texting and in traffic. But Bad Vibes — I’ve found to be a much more active listening show.
Jake Emanuel: These are not two and a half hour Joe Rogan interviews. We love long form podcasts, but we’re trying to tackle it from a very traditional way where it’s like, “Listen, we’re just going to try our hardest to grip the hell out of you for 20 minutes and make sure you’re focusing on what’s going on in your ears.” And whether we’re successful or not is up to the audience. But that’s what we’re trying to do, every time. Every time, we’re trying to tell a very engaging story that takes up as much of the listeners’ attention as possible.
Willie Block: And also at the same time, as you said earlier “it’s a very crowded space,” right? So it’s like when we think about it, we’re like, “Okay, what aren’t people doing?” I feel like there’s always a space to run into when it comes to storytelling…
That’s nicely worded.
Willie Block: Yeah, when it comes to storytelling… There’s also a lot of visual TV shows that are anthologies, especially with Bad Vibes. But we felt like we were really situated; a place where we could really compete with those guys in terms of the scope of the story we were telling, because we’re not really bound by the budgetary restrictions of a physical show.
Jake Emanuel: Exactly. Even a show like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone is going to give some people headaches. If you’re going to World War I or to outer space.
Willie Block: Or inside your brain.
Jake Emanuel: Exactly. We are definitely running into some of those headaches on the TV show The Edge of Sleep, which is going to be amazing, but we just saw a way of using podcasts to be able to hopefully stand out in the podcast space and in the movie and TV space.
The first episode I listened to of Bad Vibes was the nightwatchman episode.
Jake Emanuel: “Shifter.”
Which I loved and it gives off those really cool, as you said, Twilight Zone vibes and just asks for 20 minutes of active time. You could be running or driving but not like… parenting or texting or working. Is there going to be a season two?
Jake Emanuel: What’s funny is that the fans of The Edge of Sleep are champing at the bit for seasons two and three, but the damn problem with that is it’s just to me and Willie’s writing. So it takes us…
Willie Block: It is very complex.
Jake Emanuel: And so it takes us a very long time to write those. We conceptualized Bad Vibes, partially because we went, “Man, is there a way to keep doing podcasts because we love them, but at a little bit of a faster pace?” And so we said, “Oh, we know all these incredibly talented writers that could write amazingly in this space.” So the idea for Bad Vibes is to have bi-annual seasons where we do eight to 10 episodes, every six months.
We have been picked up for season two. And so we are hoping to release in spooky season, Halloween time.
I think part of what you guys are doing is becoming the producers who can go, “Wow, we want to highlight a wide range of talent.” Part of that might be people who are in the second or third waves of their career who we’ve admired for some time where like a lot of the costs of entry are a lot lower. The barriers are a lot lower because the stuff doesn’t cost that much to produce. Has that been a kind of a creatively rewarding part of the whole process for both of you?
Willie Block: Very. It’s been one of my favorite things.
Jake Emanuel: It’s like creating a great album or mix tape.
If you want to look at why our IMDB list is so short, it’s just that classic screenwriter trajectory where you get stuck in 10 years of developing and you’re spending all this time writing stuff, that you either got paid for or not paid for, but 99% of the time just does not get made. So we know many writers who have a similar experience, and we’re just really proud and happy that our little, our small, tiny corner of the industry, we can say, “Listen friends, we can’t pay you that much money but if you write one of these, we 100% guarantee we will make it. We’ll have the most excellent actors and we’ll have the most excellent music and sound design, and we’ll get it out to lots and lots of people.” That is something that we’re really proud of that we’re able to curate.