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Glass Reflects on Televised Life

By S.T. VanAirsdale

This isn't technically a NYC cinema story, but the involvement of Christine Vachon and the very New York NPR host Ira Glass make the upcoming TV series adaptation of Glass's show This American Life a fairly essential development worth checking out. Glass previewed portions of the program, which debuts this spring on Showtime, during a Sundance panel discussion with director Chris Wilcha and cinematographer Adam Beckman.

(L-R) This American Life host Ira Glass discusses his show's TV adaptation with director Chris Wilcha and Adam Beckman (Photo: STV)

The show is like Dateline meets Errol Morris, with personal and narrative quirk subservient to a conventional newsmagazine austerity. Glass introduces segments from a Johnny Carson-esque desk plunked against the backdrop from which his stories originated; as evinced by a sample clip about a moody cloned bull and his sympathetic keepers, the interviews emphasize their subjects while retaining their host's inquisitive identity. "We go through a lot of stories to come up with like three or four stories to do on our show; we have the luxury that radio is incredibly cheap to do," Glass told the audience attending the event, introducing a discussion of how preparing the TV program differs so radically from his 12-year-old radio institution. "So to get three or four stories for the radio show, we consider 10 or 15 or 20 stories. And we only into production on seven or eight stores -- knowing we're going to kill half of them. Or maybe a third of them. And so we get (the subjects) in the studio, talk to them for maybe an hour, an hour-and-a-half and see if they're good. If they're good, they'll end up on the air. If they're not good, they... that's it. And that's a huge luxury. To do the story, we do an hour in the studio or we go to the person's house and take a digital recorder and sit at the table and talk for an hour or two -- a long time for a radio interview. And, you know, that's it for a lot of stories. There are stories we take weeks and months and we'll gather 100-150 hours of tape and (do something) documentary, but truthfully, the bulk of the show is much, much simpler. And so that's what we're used to."

Glass turned to Wilcha and Beckman. "And you guys are like, 'Yeah, we're not going for two hours.' "

"I mean, we would literally have to go take over a person's life for up to a week," Wilcha said. "You know; we'd shoot the interviews -- that would take a day. The lighting--"

"We pared the thing down to just the bare minimum," Beckman said. "We might have four lights, a very small camera package, and I never felt like we really had a crew; we just had one utility guy who helped us with everything from getting lunch to setting up lights. We moved quickly, although at times we were wondering, 'God, what's taking so long?' "

"They could literally record an interview and be on the plane an hour later, on Pro Tools, editing the thing," Wilcha said. "We would be setting up and shooting and days would go by and we'd need releases and the size of the crew -- for some of these, they were much larger crews. These were 15 people--"

"And the rest of the story, like, Adam would say, 'Among my people, this is very fast,' " Glass said.

"One of the things that I remember frustrated you on one of the first shoots was the sheer distance you had to have from your interview subjects," Wilcha said. "In other words, you used to be able to sit this close to somebody and talk to them, and we had you talking to this woman named Helen, who probably was 85 years old or something? Not only did you have to sit further away from her to not be in the shot, but actually she couldn't hear that well. And I think it was reflected in the interview and we didn’t use it. She was like, 'Huh?' "

Glass nodded. "Before the interview, she and I were joking around," he said. "It was really funny, and there was this really nice vibe to it. And then we sit down for the shot, and she's in front of the camera and I'm behind the camera -- like a good 14 feet away. I was going, like, 'What I said was...' "

"And then the other things -- we might have to show them this -- there were these indignities that Ira had suffered that you just don't feel on radio," Wilcha said. "A quick one we had an illustration of was that at one point during our shoot in Utah, the sun was coming up and Ira was backlit and his ears were backlit, and so he looked like an alien. We had to swoop in and tape his ears."

Indeed, as an outtake demonstrated, out came the gaffer's tape and thus was Ira Glass made ready for TV. If you're a fan of his, you'll love the show; if you're not (I would probably lean this way), the format is familiar enough to overlook his voice and self-awareness and locate the narrative hearts that make these stories worth telling. I mean, you can't really fuck up the tale of a guy who's bull gores out a testicle from a wound requiring 80 stitches. That's entertainment in any format, isn't it?

Posted at January 26, 2007 12:35 PM

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