I only recently began listening to podcasts, but I’ve listened to radio dramas for nearly 30 years. An album oriented rock station in Columbus, Ohio, Q-FM 96, would switch their format on Sunday nights to play Dr. Demento followed by a science fiction series Alien Worlds. That relatively modern show – it can still be heard occasionally on XM-Radio’s Sonic Theater – led me to collecting cassette tapes of the old time radio shows like The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Light’s Out, Sherlock Holmes. I later moved to an area near Washington, D.C., where WAMU plays old time radio shows on Sunday evenings.
When I bought the MP3 player, I expected I’d be downloading music. Instead, it’s been a steady stream of fantastic new versions of radio shows. One of the first I discovered, and my favorite at this time, is Wormwood from Habit Forming Films LLC. It’s a complex, up-to-date, horror story set in a town filled with secrets and populated by colorful characters. There’s a ghost, mysterious figures, a monster, cattle mutilations, and, of course, an occult investigator, Dr. Xander Crowe.
Tragedy forced Doctor Xander Crowe down the pathways of the occult and he was forever transformed.
Now, chasing the vision of a drowned woman, Crowe finds himself in the haunted town of Wormwood, where evil lurks in the shadows and stains the souls of its inhabitants.
The production values and story telling are excellent. The cast is first-rate in a medium where they must create so many visuals with just the intonations of their voices and sound effects. Listening to one episode in October while mowing the yard on a sunny day, I literally jumped with fright at a terrifying moment. When a radio show can create such vivid scenes, it’s worth listening to.
I asked the creators of Wormwood, David Accampo (Co-creator/Executive Producer) and Jeremy Rogers (Co-creator/Executive Producer) about the show and they agreed to the interview.
Haunted Vampire: What’s the story behind Habit Forming Films?
David Accampo: Jeremy and I worked a graveyard shift for a dotcom company back in 1999, and we had similar interests, so we started writing scripts together. We got a little interest here and there, but the whole process became pretty tedious, and in 2005 we decided to make a short film, adapted from our first script.
Jeremy Rogers: Habit Forming Films came from a riff on the title of our first project, Bad Habits. Since this film was to be a very gritty urban drama, we decided to embrace the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter and incorporate it into the company name. With that, our very cool logo was born, complete with a syringe cutting down the middle and spattering across the letters. What’s it spattering? I don’t know.
David Accampo: I know, but I’m not telling. Anyway, together with producers Mary Alexandra Stiefvater and Katherine Stiefvater, and our cinematographer Nick Harris, we formed the company to shoot our first film. We’ve kept it going ever since.
Jeremy Rogers: And we’ve collected a few awards here and there. Bad Habits won a Bronze Remi in the Original Short Film category at Worldfest Houston 2006 and also a Best Actor Win for our lead Jack Sway in the Sacramento Intl Film Festival 2007. Our second short film, The Long Road, screened two weeks ago at Downtown Disney as part of the FAIF Intl Film Festival and won the award for Best Editing. We have another film currently in post that we’re excited about.
David Accampo: Wormwood is our first attempt to do something that’s in a different medium. We’re storytellers first and foremost.
Haunted Vampire: Tell us about Wormwood. How would you describe the story?
Jeremy Rogers: The thrust of the story is simple: A disturbing vision of a drowned woman by the hands of a young child lures a Los Angeles detective to an offbeat Northern California quarry town where nobody has drowned for over seventy years. But it’s clear that something sinister is happening in Wormwood, as the quaint façade is full of dark secrets whispered in the shadows, and a little gore (from slaughtered cows to dismembered human victims) is not unusual to stumble upon in the early hours of the morning. So, we build up a little bit of the old Hammers Horror, a little bit of the strange and disturbing, and cobble it all together with some atmosphere, some comedy, and hours of (meticulously constructed!) mystery to unravel. But even with all of the occult trappings, the violent murders, and the ritualistic sacrifices, Wormwood is really one big dramatic ensemble headed by a gloriously eccentric and self-obsessed Doctor Xander Crowe.
David Accampo: I think some of the early wording I used to describe the story was “House comes to Twin Peaks.” Doctor Xander Crowe is an occult detective with a haunted past, and we’re injecting him into a town (Wormwood) with a bizarre mystery that spans generations. Our idea was really to blend our love for mystery and horror into an ensemble drama that created a “world” that we could explore for quite some time.
Haunted Vampire: What’s some of the inspirations for the story?
David Accampo: Wormwood is a distillation of everything I like. In films, I love the creepy mysteries like Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate, and Angel Heart. With TV, the homage to Twin Peaks is obvious. I was a teenager when that show came on the air, and it just changed my whole perception of what TV could be like. I’m also a huge fan of comic books, and so the serialized storytelling format really appealed to me. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is a big inspiration, as is the DC/Vertigo series Hellblazer. Doctor Xander Crowe is also our attempt to create a cool anti-hero reminiscent of the pulp heroes… and I’d even take it back further to some of the early “psychic detectives” like Dr. John Silence or (ahem) Thomas Carnacki.
Jeremy Rogers: Not that long ago, Doctor Xander Crowe could have been played by Peter Cushing or Oliver Reed. I think Arthur Russell in the role nails this sort of hell-bent character in the classic way of the old movies. You might notice as the series progresses that some of our character voices become eerily reminiscent of the great old mystery and macabre icons. Not that I wanted to pay homage the black and white flicks so much; this isn’t Grindhouse of the audio podcast market. But I did most want modernize it in that elaborately cool way that certain writers, notably TV writers, have been able to accomplish in recent shows.
Haunted Vampire: How many other episodes will there be?
David Accampo: The first season ends on episode 24. However, we have a blueprint for two more seasons, each with 24 episodes. This first season will conclude the mystery of why Xander Crowe came to Wormwood, but it opens up the larger mysteries hidden in the town.
Haunted Vampire: Tell us how the episodes produced? How many people are involved in writing and editing the scripts, acting in the productions and behind the scenes?
David Accampo: When we first started creating the series “bible”, it was just me and Jeremy. We quickly added writer Jeremiah Allan, who helped us flesh out some of the characters. Jeremy and I wrote the first two episodes, and then we held our first writer’s meeting. This is interesting to note because Jeremiah actually lives in the Midwest, while we’re in California. We use VOIP technology to hold conference calls – creating what I call a “virtual writer’s room.” In the writer’s meeting, we broke the stories for the first 8 episodes and assigned several episodes to each of us.
Shortly after that, we brought on Rob Allspaw, who wrote episode 6 based on our outline. Since then we’ve added Tiffiny Whitney and Rick Bata, and we continue our virtual writer’s room, each time breaking down 8 episodes and assigning them to the writers. They turn in their drafts, and then Jeremy and I, as the show runners, edit everything together, making sure all the voices sound like we want them to sound, etc.
Jeremy Rogers: Once the scripts are in and edited, we send them out to the cast. We have 11-13 cast members (many take on multiple roles so dividing real flesh and blood actors with character voices is really tricky and I don’t know for sure that I’ve met the entire cast, or it could be that I’ve met more of the cast then there actually is).
The recording sessions are fun days. We all meet for about 8 hours in a house out in the valley, where we munch on doughnuts and sandwiches, as we rotate the cast at the table, four at a time. Each recording session covers 8 episodes (1/3rd of the season) and so we have to work fast and efficiently to cover roughly 185 pages of script. As Dave monitors the recording level, I focus on making sure we cover all of the scenes, all of the lines. Fortunately, our talented cast has quickly embodied their characters so there really is much direction needed at the table. Besides, we can’t write a single word without hearing their voices now, so the time for directing Wormwood comes during the story and scripting phases.
From there, Dave and I alternate editing each episode, adding in sound effects and music. Our edits usually take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours, and in some early cases, more than 20 hours per episode. But as our production value continues to rise, we’re becoming much more efficient.
Haunted Vampire: I’m curious about the behind the scenes work. Obviously a lot of effort has gone into the show yet they’re free downloads. Is it done for resume building or as a hobby or is there some hidden revenue stream?
David Accampo: Honestly, it’s a little bit of everything. First of all, we’re storytellers, and we like creating things. We also like collaborating, and we like working with actors. So the podcast seemed like a cheap way to get all the fun parts of storytelling without the expensive and time consuming elements we’ve dealt with in when making films. I think my first pitch to Jeremy about doing a podcast was starting something like this: “I’m so sick of waiting three hours to light a shot that last 10 seconds on the screen…I have this idea; what if we just didn’t do the visual part of it…?”
Jeremy Rogers: Dave and I have been writing together for so long now that the idea of evolving a long-form story immediately appealed to me. Our sensibilities are complimentary. While I lean towards filmmaking, I’m a writer first, and so it didn’t take much convincing to get me interested in these podcast-things that Dave kept talking about. I realize that Wormwood might sound like a project fueled by frustrations with filmmaking, but that’s really not the case. We’re genre guys. We’ve haven’t been able to scrape together the means to produce a great horror film, so our shorts have been mainly talking head dramas to date. But with Wormwood… if we want to write in a Muddy Man ripping the arm off a bartender, then dammit, there’s nothing stopping us. Our love of the strange and imaginative has been unleashed with this project. And now that we have an assemblage of writers and actors, there’s no stopping any of this.
David Accampo: Exactly. There’s no hidden revenue stream. We wanted to make something that was complete in and of itself. And we wanted to entertain. However, we would like it to show as a portfolio of what we’re capable of as writers. And further, we think we’ve created a really interesting world with Wormwood, and we think it could be translated into other media, like comics or film or television. So there is definitely a desire to use this as a stepping-stone to bring it to an even larger audience.
Jeremy Rogers: We’ve just recorded the final eight episodes of the first season, so now it’s just a matter of waiting each week for the new episodes to go online. With that completion on the horizon, we’re going to start looking into those cross-media avenues fairly soon.
Haunted Vampire: What can we look forward to in future episodes of Wormwood?
David Accampo: Are you looking for secrets? Heh-heh…we’ll never tell! But I can tell you that episodes 17 through 24 really do start the roller coaster ride to the finish. We’ll learn more about Sparrow’s past with Crowe, and we’ll uncover some secrets about Hank Mason. We’ll also find out more about Rachel and Jacob, and their storyline. Episode 24, which is currently titled “Tea and Sympathy (for the Devil),” will deliver you the reason that Crowe came to Wormwood.
And yet…it’s only the beginning of the story…
Haunted Vampire: What will Habit Forming be working on next?
Jeremy Rogers: 2008 will be a banner year for Habit Forming Films. Our third film, The Hollywood Informant, an ambitious black and white film noir made in conjunction with Geeworld Studios, will be submitted into the festival scene. We’re excited about this project, and think that with the mix of period detail, clever writing and acting, and our first chance to really show a sense of visual style, this project might go on to some really great things for everyone involved.
With that, we’ll be doing our best in 2008 to produce our first feature film. We have a few scripts ready to go, but there’s that lure of the horror film that keeps us itching to write something new and intense. The ideas are flying back and forth, the notes are being jotted, and soon, we’ll be looking for funding… like every other indie out there… sad, but true.
And of course, next up for Habit Forming Films is Wormwood Season Two. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this: We know all about sophomore slumps and bloated sequels, and to that we strive.
David Accampo: Er, you mean we “strive to avoid”…right? Right, Jeremy…?
Check out the Habit Forming website here.
And, of course, for all things Wormwood, go to Wormwoodshow.com.