Interview:Nathan Hoobler (October 2010)
Now you’ve written many different genres of shows for Adventures in Odyssey (AIO); adventure, suspense, biblical themes… do you have a favorite type of script that you enjoy writing more than others?
Well, I do enjoy working on all different genres, and that’s one of the great things about Odyssey is that you get to do all kinds of different stories, but I do have to say my favorite to write probably are the intrigue and suspense shows; for one they’re so much fun to brainstorm—to work out the details of those as a group and kind of talk through the different scenes and the cliffhangers and the plot points, but also they’re a lot of fun to write and I think our listeners really enjoy them. At the same time I’m glad we don’t do those all the time, because I think those would quickly take over the show, and spin the show in a different direction, but it’s really fun to do them when we have them. The Top Floor is probably my favorite episode to work on that I’ve done so far. On the other hand, one of the biblical episodes that I worked on, Bernard and Job, was certainly the easiest episode to write, because with a lot of our shows we go through a lot of drafts and we work on the projects real collaboratively, and somebody will come and say “Well, this motivation of this character doesn’t work for me,” or “This scene doesn’t make sense,” whereas when we’re writing a biblical show, it’s a little harder for them to come and say “Y’know, I don’t think Samuel would actually do this,” or “I don’t think King Saul would actually… this doesn’t seem within his character,” because it’s already written that way, so I thought that biblical shows were the easiest. Then I worked on Bernard and Jeremiah, and that ended up being one of the hardest shows, so I didn’t think that they were so easy anymore.
You mentioned in a recent interview that you’ve been busy with other Focus projects lately and haven’t really been writing much. In Album 51 you were credited on only one episode, Game for a Mystery, as director. Can you tell us anything about the other projects that you’ve been working on?
Sure. I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and that’s one of the great things about my job is that on any given day I could be doing a whole list of different things. One of the big projects I work on is the podcast, and that’s both audio and video, setting up interviews, coming up with questions, recording those, working with our freelancers who edit those podcasts, or some of them I’ll edit myself. Some of them are video projects, so we’ll actually need to set up the lighting, set up the sound for that, and edit that together, so I get to actually be a video writer and a video director and a video editor as part of my job too. For this last album, I did a lot of work on the wraps for the show working with the writers on those wraps and also editing those wraps. Something I did for the last recording session which was kind of an interesting puzzle was figuring out how to schedule the different actors, because we’re gonna get to Album 53 in just a minute, but it a had a pretty big cast for that album and figuring out when everyone was able to come in, working around everyone’s schedules, trying to make it so that one person didn’t have to come in for one scene at nine in the morning, and then wait around all day until they did another scene at five in the afternoon, so that was an interesting puzzle, trying to figure all that out. When fans come in to Focus on the Family, I do tours sometimes, and that’s very fun for me. Crowd recordings is another thing you wouldn’t think of, but that’s something we have to figure out how to do if there’s a scene that has a bunch of people reacting to something, then a lot of times I’ll help set up the crowd recording for that; I’ll figure out who needs to come in, what age groups they need to be, how many need to come in, and try and work with the sound designer to get that recorded. Speaking of working with the sound designer, all of the things are real collaborative, the video projects, I have a lot of people helping me on those, interns, and also other people who work here; Kevin has helped me with some of the video projects recently, so all the things I get to do are real collaborative, and that’s part of the fun.
In reference to the crowd recordings, are those just visitors to Focus that you use for those?
We sometimes will do that. Sometimes we’ll have a group coming in; maybe they’ll be a homeschool group or a group from a local school that comes in, and we’ll see that on the schedule and we’ll use them for a crowd recording. Other times it’ll be groups of employees or groups of students from the focus institute, or even friends that we know. For the last couple of albums we’ve had a local theater troupe who’s helped us out for the crowd recordings, because sometimes guests to Focus are very outgoing and very excited to be part of a crowd recording; other times they’re excited but just a little overwhelmed, and so it’s hard for them to get into the part while they’re so overwhelmed about being in the studio. That’s part of the challenge of recording a crowd scene, getting the right people into the room to make that crowd scene happen.
We noticed that Marshal Younger was credited as a writer on one of the episodes in Album 51, Target of the Week, and he’s also credited as a writer on a few of the episodes in Album 52. Were these written before he left Focus or is he still writing for Odyssey as a freelancer?
Marshal is still writing for Odyssey as a freelancer. One of the great things about Odyssey, certainly on the writing side, is that no one’s ever truly gone. People will leave for different reasons for a period of time but they’ll still come back to the show. Because it’s been going on for so long, there’ll be periods of time where people are busy with other projects and they can’t write, and Marshal’s not on staff with Odyssey anymore, but he’s still able to write with us. I was just reading an outline that he wrote just last week that’s probably going to be a part of Album 55, so he’s very much a part of the writing team for the show, even though he’s not on staff.
Now you mentioned Album 55. How far in advance do you start planning out for each album?
It depends on the album. Album 53 came together fairly quickly, and we kind of moved the schedule around just a little bit to accommodate Album 53. This 12-part story arc was originally going to be Album 54, and then we moved it back to number 53, but in general we’re probably about a year out from what you’re hearing on the radio, or maybe even in the case of 55 (that we’re just starting to work on now) I guess we’re a year and a half out from what you’re hearing on the radio. We just finished recording Album 53 the week before last, so we’re maybe six months ahead of what you’re hearing on the radio for recording, and anywhere from a year to a little more from the writing side.
Did you have any role in the development of any of the new characters that were introduced in Album 51?
Yeah. We tried to develop the characters in 51 in a somewhat unusual way. We’re always, throughout the history of the show, certainly in the ten years that I’ve been working here and even before that the Odyssey team was always developing new characters. We had a lot of new characters in 51 and we tried a little bit different approach to developing them. Dave Arnold and Marshal Younger and I went out to California (I believe) twice for audition sessions where we would just bring in actors and have them perform different characters for us. Out of that we created several of the characters in Albums 51 and 52; Mrs. Adelaide, who was in Stage Fright and also is probably gonna be in some episodes in Album 54, was born out of a voice that one of the characters that one of the actors that came in did kind of led to Mrs. Adelaide. Another one of them was Red Hollard, where we heard this guy’s voice and developed the character around him. Other characters, like most of the Parker family were developed pretty specifically before we actually had an actor in mind for them, but some of the actors’ voices certainly lead to characters. Once we had the characters that we wanted to create, we auditioned several different actors and we’d audition them over the phone, and then actually for some of the members of the Parker family and I believe also the members of the Jones family, we auditioned them together, like we’d audition several different pairs of husbands and wives together, just to see how their chemistry was. That’s really crucial in the studio is that you might have a great actor, but, for one reason or another, they just don’t have the chemistry with another actor. We wanted to get a husband and wife that had great chemistry, sisters who had great chemistry, for example: Olivia and Matthew we wanted to have great chemistry, so we did a lot of up front work on developing those characters. Character development is something that really never stops. Even now, we’ve developed a lot of these new characters but we’re trying to figure out which ones are actually gonna continue. There are some characters that show up on the show who are there for a few episodes, and then fade away because they didn’t seem like characters that need to continue for dozens of episodes, and obviously there are others who catch on, and people really like, and we love writing for them, and the actors are just perfect, and we want to continue those characters for many, many episodes. That’s what we’re trying to figure out now, as we’re continuing with these new episodes are: which of these characters are going to be the ones who last, and which ones are going to be around for a few episodes and then maybe fade off and just be around occasionally.
Does Focus pay any attention to the feedback that’s posted on these various AIO fan websites as far as characters that listeners like, or reviews of episodes… I know there are a lot of sites out there and many people are very active on those sites. Does Focus take any of that into consideration?
Absolutely. I think one of the biggest fallacies about writing is when you’ll hear writers say, “Well, I only write for myself and I don’t pay any attention to what anyone else says.” There might be some writers out there who can do that but I think that that’s a very poor way to reach an audience. With AIO, we’ve always tried to be real attentive to what the audience is saying about the shows, and what they’re thinking and feeling, and how the shows are impacting them. That’s why we give the address at the end of every episode. We take listener feedback very seriously; that’s not to say that we’re going to take the advice of every letter we get, because we can’t please everybody and every suggestion that they make, but we certainly take feedback into account. Let me give you an example, just to address some of the feedback we’ve gotten in recent days: Album 51 was definitely a learning experience for us. You might think that since AIO has been on the air for 23 years we would know exactly how to do the show, and never make any mistakes. Well, obviously that’s not true, because we’re human and we all make mistakes. Going into Album 51 the idea was “Let’s take everything that we want to change about Odyssey and change it all at the same time,” because we wanted to change the theme song, we wanted to do some tweaks on the cover art, we wanted to do some tweaks with characters, etc. Obviously, with Mr. Whittaker, we had to make that change as well. We thought that the best thing to do would be to change all that at the same time, and that we would let fans know that we were gonna make these changes, and then they’d be excited about seeing the “new version” of AIO. Certainly the feedback that we’ve gotten is that people didn’t like all that change at once, it just felt like too much change at one time, so that was a lesson for us. We probably should have made the transition to new voices, new characters, new artwork, theme song and all that over a period of time instead of having it all at once. That’s something that fans have communicated pretty clearly to us about the change, and something we have truly taken to heart.
Looking ahead to Album 53: The Green Ring Conspiracy, is this another album-long story arc, or will there be some stand-alone episodes on this album?
Well, to answer that, I’m prepared to reveal the episode titles for The Green Ring Conspiracy. You heard it here first—the episodes in The Green Ring Conspiracy are titled: The Green Ring Conspiracy, Part 1; The Green Ring Conspiracy, Part 2; The Green Ring Conspiracy, Part 3; and you can probably guess the other nine. We jut got finished recording those, like I said, maybe about ten days ago and I think that fans will really enjoy this album. I think that also, not jumping ahead of Album 52, I think they’re going to enjoy a lot of Album 52 as well. I’ve gotten some feedback so far, 52 has just come out in the last couple weeks, but it seems like people have been responding pretty positively to the episodes in there. I think that even though the change of Album 51 was so tough because there were so many changes at once, I think that when people hear 52 they'll be reassured that Odyssey is still on the right track.
Is there any other upcoming Odyssey news that you can share with our listeners? We talked a little bit about Album 53, but other than that is there anything else coming down the pipe for Odyssey?
Well, you know about the Imagination Station books that we’ve just announced here not long ago. We’re pretty excited about this new series for a bit younger listeners, kind of a gateway product to AIO for kids that are a little bit young for the radio show, maybe they can’t pay attention for a full half hour, then these Imagination Station books can kind of get them into the world of Odyssey. We also obviously have Album 52 that has just come out. I think that has a number of really fun episodes in it.