We’re Alive is brand new to the Nerdist Podcast Network, but it’s by no means a new show. For three seasons, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse have done their best to protect themselves, holing up anywhere they can and attempting to make some kind of life while the rest of the world is dead. It’s a struggle, to say the least. This podcast is an audio drama, in the tradition of classic radio programs like The Shadow, that employs talented voice actors and cinema-quality sound effects to create a movie for your ears.
We spoke to the creator of We’re Alive, KC Wayland, about the trials and rewards of doing an audio drama, the difficulty of killing characters, and what he would do in the event of a world overrun with zombies.
NERDIST: What made you want to do a dramatic audio podcast?
KC WAYLAND: The concept of creating We’re Alive as a dramatized podcast originated from a multitude of places. For my graduating senior thesis, I chose to do a character-driven 3D animation project. One of the things that it required was to have several audio-only recording sessions with a variety of actors. What I devised was a sort of roundtable with everyone all gathered on a sound-stage, interacting and playing out the story in front of individual microphones. Through that process, I discovered that audio performances could carry enough power and energy to tell a cohesive story, in many ways more so than when it was accompanied with our low-budget animation.
I continued working on developing more scripts for feature films, but seemingly every time I talked about producing them, the visuals were the most limiting factor. There was no way to produce the grand ideas I wanted on the budgets available. In 2009, as I was developing We’re Alive as a concept pitch for television, I continued to struggle with the question of how any network would be able to adapt the show without the story or ideas suffering.
It was then that I listened to podcasts for the first time. Some of my favorite comedians were producing a weekly show that listeners could download on demand. I realized that this would be a great delivery method for my story if combined with the techniques I learned from the animation voice recording, combined with a fully developed sound design. There was no limiting factor of the visuals, and having it audio-only would allow me to create anything and everything I wanted for the story.
N: What are the challenges of writing audio drama, as opposed to visual drama?
KW: Writing for an audio drama can be a difficult transition from writing for visual mediums because it defies the principles of screenwriting. In a TV show or movie, a writer must consistently show the audience rather than tell the audience. The clear choice for most audio-related stories I researched bridged the visual gap with narration, but I found that this not only slowed the story down, it made the drama or action come to a halt.
After a while, I was able to find the right balance of being able to portray things through sound effects and dialogue with minimal narration. Whenever characters interact, I would carefully interweave visual descriptions into the lines to illustrate what is happening. We still use narration, but it is used in our story as an added perspective. This gives a unique vantage point of what is going on while being able to embody the energy and emotion of the person’s experience. This makes everything feel more organic, even though you are still being told what is occurring.
N: Which zombie movies influenced you and the show most?
KW: Most people think that I’m a big fan of zombies or apocalyptic stories, but for the most part I’m a fan of human drama. It’s the characters that the story is about. That being said, my favorite “zombie” movies that I could say have influenced me would be 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, each for different reasons. 28 Days Later has a unique approach to an individual trying to survive and has a much more natural and realistic tone, while Dawn of the Dead has a more sensationalized approach to having to survive and using human ingenuity to overcome obstacles. The overall arc of both is all about people and characters, and how they have to rely on each other, and that’s where the real story is. These examples are a little older, but part of writing this entire story is to minimize influence from any other zombie-related mediums. So after I started writing in 2009, I wasn’t allowed to watch or read any other zombie-related materials. So, once We’re Alive is over I’ll finally be able to watch The Walking Dead.
N: How difficult is it for you to kill off characters you like?
KW: It’s very difficult to kill off characters that I like, because they are like my children. In order to write so many episodes, I have to get into their heads and become their voice, and so after a while you can get attached. The only way I’ve been able to overcome that is to pre-determine who lives or dies at various parts of the story. There are few-to-no deaths that don’t have any sort of influence or outcome on what happens after. If someone dies, there’s a reason, and the story can’t move on without that happening. In the end, killing off certain characters becomes essential for the story to move on.
N: How far out do you plan the stories for the season, or is it episode-by-episode?
KW: When I first outlined the entire story back in February of 2009 for the TV pitch, I outlined the first two seasons. Then, by mid-season one, I figured out the big events that led up to the ultimate conclusion. It’s been a constant refinement as the story continues, and shifting things slightly to constantly make it better, but the overall outline has been there for some time. It’s very important to me to have each character have their own natural arc, and that every event and discovery build up to one big final ending that doesn’t leave the story incomplete. That can only be done by planning and outlining everything in advance.
N: If you were in a zombie apocalypse, what two weapons or tools would you be sure to bring?
KW: Being in the military for six years, and drawing from my experiences in Iraq, I would definitely say that a Hummer and M-16 would be the best tools of choice for me. The rifle is extremely accurate, reliable, and I’m familiar with it. The Hummer, however difficult to find fuel, is much more equipped for tight spots and conflicts than most other vehicles.