A Look At the Heavy Lifting Behind The Truth’s ‘The Body Genius’
Looking the part might cost you your life.
In “The Body Genius,” a recent serialized story from cult fiction podcast The Truth, we meet Evan: a popular, dedicated Hollywood trainer who specializes in guiding movie stars through “extreme transformations.” His reputation is threatened when he arrives at his gym early one morning to find one of his famous clients crushed to death in a high-tech new weight machine. Evan then takes solving this murder into his own hands.
We asked The Truth creator Jonathan Mitchell and “The Body Genius” writer Hunter Nelson to take us the behind the scenes of the series, giving us a look at their influences and how The Truth crafts a unique sound design to bring the story to life.
Jonathan Mitchell, creator of The Truth
Can you explain how “The Body Genius” came to be on The Truth?
Our associate producer Davy Gardner knew Hunter Nelson from working with him in the sketch program at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. We met with him and asked him to pitch us a bunch of ideas for serials.
One of the ideas he pitched was “a hardboiled detective story in the style of Raymond Chandler, but instead of a private detective, the protagonist is a meat-headed Hollywood personal trainer trying to clear his name after his famous actor client is found crushed to death in a leg machine.”
The first thing I liked was that this idea would have lots of narration — these types of film noir detective stories always do. I think narration works really well in audio, and the character in this would be totally different from what we normally associate with that style — an “unlikely detective” story. I also thought a noir detective structure would make a great serialized story, because there would be nice cliffhangers as new information was revealed. Stylistically, I heard this as The Big Lebowski meets Burn After Reading meets Altman’s The Long Goodbye. I wanted it to be grounded in the characters and in a recognizable reality, more satire than parody.
What’s the collaborative writing process like, especially working with writers who may not have written for audio before?
When I’m working with writers who are new to the medium, my strategy is to begin the story at the pitch stage and try to encourage choices along the way that play to audio’s strengths.
I like to start with a pitch that has a compelling premise and a strong story arc, and a clear idea for how to use sound, so we’re starting from a place where sound will have an important role in the storytelling. That’s about 80% of writing for audio.
Then we meet weekly. The first meeting will be a treatment with all the story beats worked out. We’ll try to strengthen the structure, look for clear act breaks and talk about how sequences will be conveyed in audio. For example, with “The Body Genius,” I remember discussing how the fight sequences might play best in audio.
What do you think writers from different backgrounds and mediums can provide audio fiction storytelling?
We’re still at a stage in the development of fiction podcasting where there are relatively few people who have a lot of experience doing it, so the vast majority of people who are trying it are new to the medium.
I think people will always crave fresh perspectives on life and the world around them, and a person who’s new to the medium is probably going to gravitate toward a different set of ideas than someone who’s been doing it for a while. There’s a real opportunity to diversify the medium and open it up to all kinds of interesting approaches to storytelling.
Podcasting is such an accessible medium, so we’re seeing a lot of people writing for audio who may not have even considered it 10 years ago.
What was the process for sound designing “The Body Genius”? Was it different from other stories you’ve done?
It was pretty much the same. The main difference with “The Body Genius” is that it has far more narration and montage than most of the stories we’ve done on The Truth. That affected how music was used and how action was conveyed.
There were also a lot of fake movie clips and talk shows in this story, which I always love doing. It gives me the opportunity to try sound designing in many different genres without having to do a complete story in that genre.
Most of the sounds I used in this were from sound effect libraries, but I needed to create some of the more specialized foley sounds myself. There’s one scene where Evan flicks the cheek of a rubber dummy, and so I went searching through my daughter’s toys to find just the right type of rubber sound. At first I thought maybe a rubber ball might work, but it sounded too hollow. Then I found a latex dinosaur puppet. I put it on my hand and flicked it, and it was exactly the dull rubber “thwock” sound I wanted.
All of the dialogue in this series was recorded in a studio. We used a small iso booth for the car scenes. It was tricky, especially for the outdoor scenes. One of my secret weapons is I put everything through convolution reverb, which is basically a technique that allows you to sample the reverb from any location and apply it to any sound. So I have reverb samples from every imaginable type of environment — cars, stadiums, gyms, the woods, a parking lot. It’s really fun to play with, and it makes a big difference, especially when paired with just the right ambient recording.
Why have you decided to do more mini-series on The Truth? What do you like about longer-form stories?
On just a basic level, it gives me the opportunity to try something different. I’ve always liked to do a variety of things, and I think that’s why I started an anthology series in the first place, so I wouldn’t be stuck in one genre or with one set of characters. And after a while of doing that, the constant change of it becomes something you can get stuck in. And so stretching out and exploring what can be done with a different format is a really nice change of pace.
Hunter Nelson, writer of “The Body Genius”
Hunter Nelson is a writer and illustrator. He’s the creator of the comic Tasky John and a former writer for The Onion. His work has appeared in Clickhole, Funny or Die and onstage at the UCB Theater.
How did you get the idea for “The Body Genius”?
I once had a personal trainer who would schedule workouts at 6:30 a.m. I’d show up at the gym all ready to go, and five minutes after the workout was supposed to start I’d get a long, panicked text from him saying something serious had come up and he couldn’t be there. He did it like six times in a row and for some reason I found myself unable to get mad at him. In fact, I’d reply as if I were the one in the wrong, saying things like, “Aw man — no problem! So sorry you’re having a tough morning!”
I realized I just assumed my personal trainer was the nicest and most sincere guy in the world — a way better person than me — just because he was good-looking, healthy and said encouraging things to me sometimes. I tried to come up with a web series or something about a trainer character who was actually that sweet and incorruptible finding himself in some kind of serious trouble. But nothing came of it!
Later, when I was coming up with stuff to pitch to Jonathan for The Truth, I thought it would be fun to do something that was plotted like a Raymond Chandler novel or a film noir, but centered on some profession other than a private investigator.
When I realized hiring a trainer has a lot of superficial things in common with hiring a P.I. (you sit in an office, you tell them your problem, you appeal to their expertise, you’re extremely desperate), I remembered this trainer character I had already partly developed. Then I guess the Hollywood aspect of the story grew in naturally because I love coming up with fake movie titles.
What were your influences?
When I was writing it, I was mostly thinking about those Chandler stories and just having Evan react sincerely to the kinds of things that happen in them. I was also thinking a lot about PC point-and-click adventure games from the ’90s like Full Throttle, Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, since they often placed clueless protagonists in the middle of big weird mysteries, and they were funny and suspenseful at the same time.
The narration in “The Body Genius” is probably influenced by the audiobook version of the fake Alan Partridge memoir, I, Patridge: We Need To Talk About Alan, which has a lot of great examples of how you can slip jokes into narration even when a character is taking themselves very seriously.
What was the process like writing the story for an audio medium? How was it different from previous work you’ve done?
I tried as hard as I could not to think about what made it different than a movie, and figured I’d adjust through trial and error. Other stories I had heard on The Truth were told so cinematically, I figured I’d write that way and let Jonathan tell me what didn’t work.
By the end of the project, I had figured out that a lot of writing audio fiction is about gently managing the picture in the listener’s mind, finding the line between what sparks their imagination and what makes them disappointed that they can’t see what you’re describing. You want to give them the freedom to add their own choices and associations to what they’re visualizing, but you want just enough control over what they’re imagining that you can make things like physical comedy and suspense work.
What do you think writers from different backgrounds and mediums can provide audio fiction storytelling?
It seems to me that the appetite for audio fiction is suddenly enormous, and rapidly growing, so it’s a great time to experiment. The difference with audio fiction is, with patience and a few key skills, you can make a low-cost experiment sound like it has a big budget. What that means to me is, if there are barriers between you and your dream project in another medium, you should consider doing it as a podcast.
Because the scene is still relatively new, every artist who brings a crazy or personal or ambitious project they couldn’t get made elsewhere to the world of audio fiction stands a good chance of doing something that’s never been done before and permanently altering the landscape.
What’s your favorite episode of the series, and why?
Probably “The Body Genius, Part 2,” because there’s so much movement and “detective work” in it. It was the one I was the most nervous about, because it sort of sets the rhythm for the rest of the series. But when I heard it, all the quick character interactions and different bizarre spaces that had to be established felt so real and exciting, and I realized it was going to be very fun to follow Evan wherever he decided to go next.