Beyond the Big Screen with Jenny Turner Hall

Beyond the Big Screen with Jenny Turner Hall
Beyond the Big Screen with Jenny Turner Hall

Jun 01 2023 | 00:31:18

Episode June 01, 2023 00:31:18

Hosted By

Stuart Barefoot

Show Notes

Stuart talks with director, writer and producer, Jenny Turner Hall about her groundbreaking kids' podcast, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. They also discuss how Speilberg films influenced her work and some of her other projects like Marvel's Wastelanders: Wolverine.

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Today you’ll learn about:

  • Why mysteries are so interesting to us
  • How to create high stakes
  • Audio fiction and cinema as a storytelling artform
  • The inspiration behind Mars Patel
  • Creating audio fiction from scratch
  • Writing and directing for an already existing universe (Marvel) 


Jenny Turner Hall: 

Jenny Turner Hall, IMDB: 

Castos Academy: 

Castos, private podcast: 

Castos, website: 

Castos, YouTube:  

Clubhouse video: 

View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:00 It was said for a long time that Don Delillo's 1985 novel white Noise was unfilmable. And if you've ever read it, you can probably see why it's got these complex sentence structures and juggle several different themes in a really satirical manner. Noah Bombeck tried it anyway in 2022 to mostly positive reviews. Though as with any film adaptation, not everyone thought he handled the source material perfectly. It's not that critics would suggest Bombach is a bad filmmaker. He's actually considered one of the best in the business. It's just that Dolo wrote white noise to be read and Bombach made it to be seen. Those are two totally different mediums, and there's an inherent struggle in adapting characters and stories from existing work. Speaker 1 00:00:45 But coming to it, I was actually in a world that Marvel hasn't done necessarily in cinema yet. The Wastelands world was somewhat new. I actually got some creative license in what America looks like. Speaker 0 00:01:00 Next, you'll hear how a writer, director, and producer adapted characters from the Marvel Universe into a podcast series and how she also built another world from scratch. My name is Stuart, and this is Audience, a Casto original series where we go behind the scenes of all kinds of different podcasts and the creative process behind great audio. Speaker 0 00:01:24 I think one of the best ways to learn how to do something better is to go directly to the people who are really good at that thing. So at Casto, we do just that. Each episode of audience features some of the most talented and creative podcasters around, and we hope that by listening it will inspire more creativity in your work. As you dive into this journey of audio creation along the way, Casto wants to be part of your creative journey. From our suite of tools, future Rich hosting platform, and even our production services, we're here to help connect directly with us by emailing hello or by clicking on the link in the show notes. Speaker 1 00:02:03 My name is Jenny Turner Hall, and I'm a creator in the podcast space. I create series as well as write and direct them. I created a series, I co-created a series called The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel in 2016, and it won the Peabody Award in 2017. And that sort of put me on the map with audio fiction podcasting that was, uh, a podcast geared towards preteens, essentially, but a show that was meant to appeal to the entire family, especially during long car trips. And the inspiration, um, for that series was essentially Steven Spielberg and the movies that we grew up with, and taking the excitement that you experience in a movie theater and putting it in a podcast. That was the concept. Speaker 0 00:02:57 Jenny's been on the show before, and we mostly talked about a series called A Simpler Her Story that she helped Produce. But in the world of podcasting, she's probably best known for her work on Mars Patel. Aside from winning that Peabody, she mentioned Mars Patel was a groundbreaking show. In the world of audio fiction today, there's probably hundreds and hundreds of podcasts Gear towards Kids, but that wasn't necessarily the case back in 2016. What's that saying? See the need fill the need. Speaker 1 00:03:29 But certainly when we set out to do the series, we knew that kids just like adults, needed a hook. And with Mars Patel, I mean, there were a lot of things that were kind of coming together at once. Serial, I mean, I don't need to tell anyone who listens to podcasts. It was groundbreaking for everyone, not only in how it was constructed and how addictive this series was, but also the possibility of using podcasts as an art form and storytelling art form, certainly, which existed with radio plays. I mean, it's not like we're reinventing the wheel, but to bring it back into the public consciousness and as form of entertainment, that really appealed to us. You know, as kids, we had it more as kids shows, and all of us who created Marsh Patel had young kids at the time, and we were very concerned about our kids being overly addicted to screens. So we were thinking at both as parents and for other parents, could we create something that parents could enjoy with their kids? So number one, it would be written well enough and be interesting enough that parents could consume it with their kids and not wanna like, you know, gouge their ears out or eyes out <laugh> Speaker 0 00:04:44 The plot. They came up with centers on 11 year old Mars Patel and his crew of Motley friends who set out to solve the strange disappearance of kids at their school while battling the menacing and ever-present Oliver Pruitt. Now, there's no spoilers here, but I will say that their adventures take them beyond our world and evoke in a supernatural element that somehow manages to fill both futuristic and nostalgic. Critics have described the show as the Goonies meets Stranger Things, which makes sense. When you remember what Jenny said about Shein or co-creators being inspired by Spielberg films, Speaker 1 00:05:19 You know, I think that had a lot to do with we're all, we were all the creators are of Generation X and we all have certain sort of pop cultural touchstones, including for one, when we were kids listening to records in the classroom that was like, you know, Vincent Price reading, Edgar Allen pose stories, that kind of thing. So we remember what it was like listening to audio stories as a kid, at least I do <laugh> and enjoying that in the classroom. We all remember, you know, how important Steven Spielberg was to our childhoods and the idea of like the epic kid story that's told from the kid's point of view. So that really influenced what kind of story we were gonna tell. And the Goonies came up immediately as one of the references. And even though Stranger Things ended up being a comp from Mars Patel, we were creating Mars Patel as Stranger Things was being created. Speaker 1 00:06:16 So Stranger Things didn't exist when we were writing the first season of Morris Patel, but undeniably we see, you know, that there, there, especially in the first season of those two shows, there were some similarities. We were sort of, um, in the same zeitgeist and we wanted to really bring the production values of podcasting to the level that we saw in TV and film. We wanted to bring, you know, high production values to, um, podcasting, which of course cereal had too, you know, bring but original music composition, um, bring in the best actors that we could find, um, really good script writing. And there, there probably, there were some stories in the space for kids, but there wasn't a lot. And so it was just, we just hit it at a good time. I mean, we just kind of hit the wave where audio fiction sort of needed more content specifically for kids. Speaker 1 00:07:16 And we hit this, the, we were looking for the age group that was consuming Harry Potter, that was sort of what's called middle grade, um, which is kind of that eight to 12 time period that was the ideal age group to listen to our series. And, um, you know, we decided to market it. When we told people about it, we had to tell them how to consume it with their kids, which is, Hey, are you going on a long car ride anytime soon? Play this. And that is really how a lot of parents ended up discovering Mars Patel. They, they just put it on because they had a long car ride coming up for something and, uh, everyone got into it. The kids got into it in the backseat and the parents got into it in the front seat. And so really, it, it was, that's how we begun. Speaker 1 00:08:06 And it was a very do-it-yourself enterprise, which was part of the delight of being in podcasting at that moment. Scary because we didn't know what we were doing. We were putting our own personal money into financing Mars Patel and did it on a shoestring. The actors got paid very little and we're so grateful that they even took this gig <laugh>. And, and we used, uh, especially in the first season, a number of people that I happened to personally be friends with, I went to college with. In fact, Oliver Pruitt, who is our slippery somewhat villain of this series, um, he's kind of a Willy Wonka type, and I think subconsciously he was based on Willy Wonka and a little Elon Musk <laugh>, allegedly <laugh> that was voiced by Michael Pearlstein, an amazing actor I went to college with at University of Virginia, who does a lot of voiceover work. Speaker 1 00:09:02 And we were so grateful that he did the series and really brought life to that character. And that gave us an anchor for the series of, um, having a narrator to help along the young listeners to the podcast so they could understand what was going on. But we used the narrator as a character as well. And audio books hadn't quite figured out. I mean, as far as I know, at that time, audio books weren't doing creative things with the narrator. You could listen to audio books with just a straight narrator telling the story or maybe a radio play if you found it, but nothing that really combined both of those two elements. Speaker 3 00:09:41 Toothpick the drones right behind you, hand me that kni, jp, we've gotta get cat and go back under the trees. Stand still. I need to climb on your shoulders. What, what are you doing? I'm going drone hunting. What? A little closer. A little closer. Gotcha. Speaker 0 00:10:03 Mars Patel ran for three seasons, and the success of the show speaks for itself. Winning a Peabody Award is just about the highest honor someone working in the audio space can achieve, and the possibility for multiple spinoffs are still on the table. In the meantime, as audio fiction experienced a rebirth, the series called The Attention of Marvel Entertainment in 2022, and they hired Jenny to write and direct a 10 part podcast series based on the Wolverine character. It's called Wastelands Wolverine. Speaker 1 00:10:34 Um, I worked on Wolverine, the, the latest iteration of Wolverine, um, for the Wastelands series from Marvel. Um, I wrote, Anne directed the series. I wrote all 10 episodes and directed the series. And it was amazing to see for me, <laugh>, how much I had learned about <laugh>, about audio design. And it started in, you know, humbly with Mars Patel, but with the full instruments at my disposal and something that has a healthier budget like Wolverine. It was really exciting to take full advantage of that and just personally to see where I had come developed as an artist and creator who's working in this awesome field of audio fiction and forever wanting to, um, evolve our art form and, and keep, keep it alive and, and keep our listeners, our listenership ever growing Speaker 5 00:11:31 On. So Christmas Eve felt like a perfectly natural time to reflect upon her father come years of putting humans first, eliminating this disgusting plague of mutant kind Speaker 3 00:11:48 Go home. Speaker 6 00:11:50 So gonna gimme back my job that was stolen by another damn mutant. Speaker 0 00:11:55 Who are you? Speaker 7 00:11:58 Just another damn mutant Speaker 8 00:12:01 Wolverine. The Wolverine Speaker 0 00:12:04 Remorse Patel was a world that Jenny and her co-creators built from scratch with complete control over what the characters do and say and all that. Making a series for Marvel based on characters that have a long history with dedicated fans was a delicate balance. Speaker 1 00:12:22 So I was a Marvel fan. I read, I mean, I read Spider-Man comic books when I was a kid, and I love the X-Men. The X-Men probably was my favorite part of the Marvel Universe. So it was so perfect that I got to work on a series with Wolverine and my son is named Logan <laugh>. What was interesting is Wastelands, it set 30 years in the future, so I had to deal with, with the existing Marvel stories, which I, I I did a deep dive and read as many back, you know, of the comic books of Wolverine in particular that I could, coming to the role, but also just some of the other stuff that I, that I thought could help inform us. Even stuff about Jean Gray and stuff with Benito and, you know, just in terms of like what the backstories of all the characters were. Speaker 1 00:13:12 Magni wasn't in Wastelands unfortunately, but just just understanding what the stories are, you know, and the experiments that Wolverine went through, et cetera. But coming to it, I was actually in a world that Marvel hasn't done necessarily in cinema yet. The Wastelands world was somewhat new. I actually got some creative license in what America looks like. And, um, I took what was happening with our current political situation, essentially right now and, and kind of imagined that being played out to the extreme. And it was not hard to imagine, unfortunately, because it really was a matter of history repeating itself. You know, like I look to, um, Nazi Germany, unfortunately <laugh> as sort of what could happen if a character like Red Skull took over America, you know, red Skull was more the nemesis of Captain America. So it was interesting sort of reading the backstory about Red Skull and when that character was created and why. Speaker 1 00:14:19 And of course, red Skull was essentially, you know, a Nazi <laugh> and, you know, extreme ideological viewpoints and, you know, uh, racist ideals and stuff. It, it, like I said, it really wasn't that hard to imagine. But in terms of, um, building the world inside of the Marvel parameters, you know, there is a process. Everything that you create has to go through several layers of approval. That's how these things work. So, you know, everything was approved, what I wrote in terms of, um, making sure that that was, you know, in line that I was correct in terms of, um, keeping true to the characters that, that, that exist in the Marvel universe and the storylines. And that what I was writing wasn't somehow affecting future storylines that they have in mind for other things that they have in the pike and other mediums, whether it be the comic books or TV shows or films. Speaker 1 00:15:19 So there is a process. The podcasting division, the digital division that I worked with was just unbelievably great people who, um, were very supportive and gave me great feedback and, um, were kind of game for anything. And, and if ever I had questions about does this fit in with the storyline of, you know, of this X-Men character, whatever, you know, is it okay if I say this, whatever, they could always answer those questions for me. So I really had people who were encyclopedias of knowledge to always lean on, you know, and to give me direction on that. But weirdly, I got to kind of create the world from scratch there too in some ways. And I got to take the series to Canada, which um, was fun. It was just, it was something that had originally been planned for that a certain part of the series would go to Canada, or at least for an episode. And, and we, we really had fun with that because Wolverine is Canadian <laugh>. So I, I, I had just such a ball working inside a universe where there were some guardrails, but not, it wasn't totally restrictive. I got to set it in this futuristic environment. So, you know, I got to imagine what our technology would be then, and, you know, our resources in terms of water and where we would be in terms of how militarized we would be, et cetera. Speaker 0 00:16:43 When you build like a futuristic world like this and, you know, I don't, I don't wanna spoil anything, but I mean, yeah, wastelands, you can, I I think that gives us a relatively vivid <laugh> Speaker 1 00:16:54 Image. Mad Maxy Speaker 0 00:16:55 Pretty, yeah. Yeah. Mad Max is, is one of the things I always think of. How much time do you spend explaining to the listener, or how much time do you spend trying to give them context? Because it's, like you said, unfortunately, it's kind of easy to imagine a world where the environment is destroyed, where there's an autocratic leader. How much of that are, are you explaining through like, narration and, and how much of that are you just leaving up to the listeners on intuition? Speaker 1 00:17:21 For me, it's a lot of the intuition stuff because there's already so much business at hand with the story. I do try to sneak in details, you know, just details about water shortages or climate change that has affected vegetation or, or you know, ways that what used to be, you know, and, you know, mentions, mentions of history, which essentially is our current history now. There are ways to sneak it in. And then, you know, also more cliched ways too, like through newscasts that indicate what's happening on the outside, you know, that there's, there's ways to sneak in information about the current state of affairs through news, et cetera. But I think if you do too much of that, like you said, I mean it just, first of all, it kind of dumbs it down and secondly, it just wastes a lot of time. It's sometimes it's best to just sometimes have somebody state like a couple of key pieces of information at the beginning and just launch, you know, and, and, and allow the listener to get so hooked into the character and the story that they're not getting too bogged down with the details of, does America look like that 30 years in the future? Speaker 1 00:18:39 You know, because that could easily take over <laugh>, but you did put your finger on something Stuart, which is in a movie or a TV show, there's a lot of visual cues that we could use, right? In audio it's so much trickier cuz you don't have access to any of that. So unfortunately you do have to put some of that into the mouths of your characters, you know, some ex dispositional details that just kind of help set the environment of where they are. But I didn't make the future look that different from what we are dealing with right now. It is a little, it's more technologically advanced, it's more robotic, but it's also, you know, I dealt more with the political situation, like where we could be politically in the future in terms of like our, whether one person would get rid of our government, et cetera, like that. Speaker 1 00:19:32 I focused more on that, that was my way of envisioning the future versus what do our cars sound like in the future. And, and, you know, will we finally have flying cars? And you know, I I, I didn't go into that, but that is another way of treating it. I think that's easier for visual design. And what's cool about the Wastelands series is that every series which features a different character, there's a series about Hawkeye, et cetera, had a different take on what the feature was gonna be. You know, like they all have their own flavor, but we had certain sort of touchstones that happened in the story that were germane to all of them, which is essentially that the Avengers get defeated. And so we all had that as a touchstone, and so that's great, you know, um, that we all had this like, major thing in common, but we all followed different characters on their different individual journeys until they had a final Wastelands episode, which was a, which was a meetup series where they all came back together again. Speaker 1 00:20:34 And of course they're, they're older, you know, it's in the future. So we also had that in common too, and focusing on the age of the characters and, and, and having that sort of be a reference to where we are in history and in time by looking at the age of the character and hearing the sound of Wolverine's voice, not as Hugh Jackman, but as Robert Patrick, you know, an older man. That's, that was my way of handling it. And, and I used a lot of, I really took advantage of the fact that Wolverine has issues with his mind and he's constantly flashing and he, you know, because of his, um, regenerative properties, you know, he can live much longer than everyone else. So his history goes really far back. <laugh>, you know, he's been in almost probably every major world war, at least in the last 200 years. <laugh>. Speaker 0 00:21:29 Yeah. You, you kind of touched on something where you, you were talking about how every season features a different character, and I know when you have a subculture or a fandom, and this is like writ large, you could say it about Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, you name it. People are very sensitive about it. Oh gosh. They're very, they're very attached to, they're very attached to continuity and, and these storylines and what is and isn't considered canon. So when you're writing for Wolverine, and again, you're, you, you're someone who loves it. You named your child after the character <laugh> too. Are you, are you being real conscious about that continuity, about the history of the character? Speaker 1 00:22:09 Yeah, uh, yes. <laugh>, you are very aware of it. You're very aware of it because it's like a sacred trust. You know, this is a beloved character and I have reverence for the people who came before me and not only created the character, but all the writers who wrote the character. Um, in every iteration it's just a baton pass and I pass the baton back and there's something really beautiful about that. But like I said, it's a sacred trust. So you don't wanna like completely do something that is so antithetical to who Wolverine is, that you destroy the character for people. That being said, at a certain point, you just have to write and you have to not be you. You can't be afraid of breaking a few eggs, you know, because you, you have to be you. Some fans absolutely loved what I did, I mean, really loved it. Speaker 1 00:23:05 And some fans thought I was, you know, it was a little too jokey or something like that, you know, and I liked the wit of Wolverine, so I definitely leaned into that sometimes. And I like the idea that Red Skull, one of the criticisms also, I got some people absolutely loved my, the way I wrote Red Skull. And some thought that, uh, they didn't love it at all. They thought it was just so like, you know, stereotypical red skull. But I, I deliberately wrote Red Skull, the way the comic books portrayed Red Skull. I mean, this is not a character with a lot of nuances, you know, uh, retcal is, is is not, uh, a character that, that that is kind of teetering between good and evil. I mean, red Skull's kind of firmly a psychopath. I didn't really wanna write a story that was empathetic to someone who was, you know, essentially a Nazi in disguise. Speaker 1 00:24:02 You know, like I, I just didn't care to get into making Red Skull a lovable character. I did create complications for that character and gave that character some different stakes in the series. So it wasn't, you know, I, you still have a responsibility to create a character, but there has been a trend in comic books to take, you know, to go into a deep dive of either the, the superhero like the Wolverine and do kind of a very dark take on Wolverine or to take the villain and do a more empathetic look at the villain. And for me, that had already been done for Wolverine in several, the comic book series. And with Rezko, I just didn't feel like he was the right character to do that kind of murky territory. You know, I just, I went for something that was really, had great stakes, was fun and entertaining. Speaker 1 00:25:02 And the central relationship wasn't between Red school and Wolverine, but it was in fact Wolverine and a teenage girl, you know? And that, that the geriatric <laugh> Wolverine teaming up with this teenage girl who was giving him a lot of attitude. That was a really fun relationship to write. And Sophia that character that was a new character for the Marvel universe. So that's what I decided to do. I had to make peace with it, you know, that, that there was no way to write something that was gonna please everyone. You know, it's different from Mars Patel obviously, because kids are, in some ways they could be a tough audience too, but they were easier, you know, they, the response to Mars Patel, you know, because it hasn't been around as a franchise was, uh, very positive when kids latch onto it. And what was interesting here, we've got this audio drama series and at the time there were some kids dressing as Mars Patel for Halloween, and you kept thinking like, well, what does Mars Patel look like? You know, because they've only experienced Mars through audio. So it was, it's just fascinating that kids would, you know, pick that up. So I got to experience what that's like too with Mars Patel, just on a completely different level, Speaker 0 00:26:18 I have to ask, did anybody come trick or treated at your house dressed as Mar Patel <laugh>? Speaker 1 00:26:24 They did not, but I had a lot of people that I grew up with get in touch with me and say, my kids listened to Mars Patel. So that was really interesting that people that I was friends with at the age I was with Mars Patel getting in touch with me. Cause they have kids the age of Mars Patel, the character and saying how much their family loves the series. But it was, but it's really fun writing. So now I've got to experience it twice on a smaller level with Morris Patel of like, what it's like to grow a fandom and then experiencing it on a macro level with Marvel. I mean, Wolverine was a billboard in Times Square, like <laugh>, you know, that was a first, you know, for me, like, you know, to have something that has that kind of reach, you're lucky, you know, to have that happen even once in your lifetime. Speaker 0 00:27:16 Well, Jenny, I think your work speaks for itself and the two conversations we've had, we've discussed four different projects and they're all outside the box and they're all very different from one another. So I think, uh, aw. Any, any final thoughts before we close up shop here? Speaker 1 00:27:32 I just wanna thank anyone who has found Mars Patel. It was such a joy to create that series and is very near and dear to my heart. But I also want to just emphasize to both kids and adults alike that Mars Patel was a do-it-yourself enterprise, and you too can create a Mars Patel. I mean, it comes from your imagination, you know, and we taught ourselves a lot along the way with Mars Patel, and now the technology makes it more accessible than ever to create your own work. And when kids say, well, how do I get started in podcasting? You know, a lot teenagers in particular ask me that question. I say, just make a podcast, you know, figure out how the technology works. It's not as difficult these days and experiment and enjoy finding your own voice and what turns you on in terms of stories. Speaker 1 00:28:29 You know, what, what stories are you drawn to? Who are your influences as you're starting out? It's okay to imitate your influences, you know, eventually you'll find your own unique voice, but you gotta start somewhere. And it's interesting, Mars Patel is, and of course, Wolverine, these are at higher production values, but you can make a really charming podcast with low production values, you know, and in some ways it could be more charming. So don't be afraid, just go out and tell your story. If you have a burning story that you wanna tell, don't wait for anyone's permission. Do it yourself, because you'll learn more from that than any internship that anyone can set you up on. So that's, that's my parting piece of advice for anyone who wants to get involved with audio fiction. Speaker 0 00:29:19 You can find the unexplainable disappearance of Mars Patel and Wastelands Wolverine, anywhere you get your podcast or just linked below. It's great when we can have guests come back on this show to talk about different topics and projects. So instead of getting another podcasting tip from Jenny, I figured we'd leave you with one final thought. We've probably all heard that saying that audio fiction is like cinema for the ears, which as a frame of reference does make some sense. But cinema is a very visual medium and podcaster auditory, and I think Jenny puts it best. Speaker 1 00:29:53 I don't think all audio fiction should be cinema for your ears because cinema is a beautiful and lovely art form that we should totally support and, and keep alive. But so is audio fiction, which is its own art form. It doesn't need to be called Cinema. But anyway, Speaker 0 00:30:11 Audience is a Casto original series. Our founder and executive producer is Craig Hewitt. Production assistants is provided by Jocelyn Devore, ISEL Brill, and Marni Hills. Our website and logo design is courtesy of Fran Schwab Brill, our head of product here at Casto. All of our music comes from the Story Blocks Library. This episode was written, edited, narrated, and produced by me. I'm Stuart Barefoot. All previous episodes can be streamed anywhere you listen to podcast and Next time on audience, I chat with Jasmine Morris from the podcast Hitman about true crime and journalistic ethics. Speaker 9 00:30:54 Yeah, and I didn't think that this story would be true. Crime <laugh>. I sort of bristled at that genre at the time. And I think that that's just because, again, my time at Story Core, and I learned this so much from Dave Ise who founded Story Core, you get out of the way and you let people tell their own stories. And I think for a lot of true crime, you don't always hear from the people whose stories. These are.

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