Directing is a visual medium. Where do actors enter a scene? When? How do they look? What emotions can we see in their eyes? What is being left unsaid?
So what happens when you take the visuals away?
That was the challenge Troian Bellisario faced when conceiving Ad Lucem, a scripted podcast series starring Chris Pine and Olivia Wilde. Originally, Bellisario conceptualized the plot — a world in which technology allows one person to be many things to many people — as a film. Later, as the world expanded, a television series. Then, a producing partner posed the thought: what about a podcast? Suddenly, a whole new world opened up.
“We did something [with sound] in episode two where we're in a phone call, which is the way I'm even experiencing my voice right now,” Bellisario says over ZOOM, gesturing to her in-ear AirPods. “It's like you want to be inside the character's head with their EarPods, so that you're hearing the way my voice sounds to me, which is conducted through my bones: a little bit muffled, a little bit insular, and then your voice is coming very clearly in stereo. The fact that they were able to give me those options would never be in a TV show. A TV show is proscenium. That's it. So all of a sudden it ripped the lid off of all of these new opportunities for me.”
Here, Bellisario details how she wrote, acted in, and directed the new series, streaming now.
How did this idea first come to you, five years ago?
I feel like I was almost lucid dreaming, or maybe I wasn't even dreaming. I remember in my dream or whatever I was thinking about, I was following behind this young woman in New York, and she was going about her normal day. She was going into a bodega, going down the subway, but she was constantly fielding text messages, phone calls, emails from a bunch of different people, and she was a different person to everyone. So she was somebody's boyfriend to one young woman, or she was a girlfriend to another person, and so on.
To me, what I loved about this character was that she was almost totally neutral to us as the audience. I imagined us being able to read the messages on the screen and watching her cycle through all of these different characters, with people being whatever her client needed her to be. And then I was thinking about, "Okay, so then how would this person be in a relationship? How would she maintain all of these relationships?" And eventually, people would want to meet up or would want to do FaceTime.
How did it evolve into this entire world, rather than more of a character study?
I talked to my friend and writing partner, Josh Close, about it, and he was like, "That's a crazy concept for a company. What's that company about?" So he started talking about the company and about who runs the company and who are the other people that work at the company. And then we were like, "Well, this can't be a film. It's like a whole TV show." And so, we started working on it as a TV show, and we wrote a pilot, and we made a series Bible, and then our friends, Ian Gotler and Chris Pine, were producing together under Barry Linen, and we did a stage reading. It was really fun.
What did that stage reading look like?
We did a screenplay reading at my house, and it was sort of hilarious because all of the people that you hear voicing the characters are our friends. After that, Ian, "Still thinking about the story. I want to make this with you if you're interested in making it." And so, we kicked it around for a while as a TV show, and then he had the great idea to be like, "What about a podcast space?" And that was how it became a podcast.
Was that hard to wrap your head around? Going from a visual medium to just audio?
Yeah. I mean, to me, it was entirely visual, right? The original idea, I was essentially watching a tracking shot behind this character and watching the text messages pop up on the screen. Generally, when I write for TV or for film or stuff like that, it's only visual. And so, when Ian said to me, "Okay, what if it was a podcast?" I was like, "How would you do any of this only with sound?" Because I was thinking in the past, in terms of radio plays, right? I was thinking, "This person walks into a room like clump, clump, clump.”
And when we got to meet with our producers, who were QCODE and SALT, they were like, "Let us show you what a podcast can be." What they talked about specifically with creating spatial audio was like, "We're going to create a scene that's going to be two characters. Let's take the Miranda character, played by Olivia Wilde, and Dominic, who's Chris Pine, and we're going to set a scene in Miranda's office." And so they're like, "What does Miranda's office sound like? What kind of air conditioning does she have? Is it broken and busted, or is it very high-end? What kind of clock does she have ticking on her wall? Can you hear people in the outside offices?"
How was that for you also acting as the director?
This was the really fun part for me as a director. You have to think, “When you see this scene in this conversation, are we in Miranda's point of view?” Do you want to put the listener right over Miranda's shoulders so that her voice is more present, and we're experiencing things more as Miranda, or are we in a wide shot, so we're equidistant from both characters. It’s almost like working in a totally different dimension.
When we listen to audiobooks or when we read a book even, a different part of our imagination is engaged because we are coming up with the visuals, right? When we watch TV, the visuals are taken care of. I've had so many people reach out to me and be like, "It's so disorienting when I'm listening to the podcast because I'll turn around over my shoulder and think somebody's coming from the door behind me.” That doesn't happen in a TV show. I feel so excited to be working in this space because it's a totally new level of audience participation.
How does your day-to-day as a director differ working on a project like this versus your traditional visual medium?
It was really fun because we did a lot of in-person recording. I had Olivia Wilde, and Fiona Shaw and Chris Pine, some of the greatest actors, right in front of me recording their lines. And I was like, "I can't look at them because if I look at their faces, I'm going to look for the performance in their faces." These are some of the greatest actors that are working right now. So what I had to do a lot of was just close my eyes or look away because I had to be like, "I have to get every nuance in their voice."
Did you have to change anything plot-wise when you readapted it for this different medium?
When we had conceived of it as a television series, it was a pilot and then a general arc for the first season. But it wasn't until we got the green light that it was going to be a podcast that we had to actually deliver episodes. So a lot of what was the decisions that were made in terms of where the story goes, what ultimately happens at the end of the season we decided by, “well, we're not going to be able to show this, what we create auditorily, if that's the correct word, for people to understand the rise and fall of this whole season.”
How did you decide on an ending that leaves the audience intrigued and potentially wanting more, without being able to leave anything, quite literally, “unsaid?”
I'm so stoked for the end of this. When I turned in the final script, it really was like, I don't know what we're going to do in sound to make this happen, but I just had this concept, and I was like, "I know what this would be visually. What do you think it could be in the podcast space?" And they read it, and they were like, "Okay. Great." And then they just totally executed in this really beautiful way. I think because I wasn't feeling hemmed in by it only being auditory that I was like, "Okay, what if this is just something that's totally not visual? Totally not what we would think of as closing?" So I don't know. I'm excited. Hopefully, you'll like it when you get to it.
Going back to that first read-through, did the people who read for certain characters end up playing them in the final version?
The great thing is my friends are always so supportive and so down to read and help each other. We always are reading each other's scripts and doing feedback. had a lot of people in mind that I was like, "Oh, this is the character that you would read."In that script reading, I read Miranda, and I had one of my best friends read Phil, because even though I knew I wanted to play Phil, she is a smaller character in the first episode, and Miranda's sort of a driving force. In my head, I never even could have conceived that as somebody as amazing as Olivia Wilde would play her.
Chris was there for the original reading — when did you guys first become friends?
Great story. So Chris is very, very dear friends with my husband and a bunch of our friends that we all know through USC. But I met Chris because my first job after theater school was at the Geffen, doing a play called Farragut North. Chris Pine was playing the lead character, and I was Olivia Thirlby's understudy. I was 23 years old just out of theater school, and here's Chris Pine, who's in a position in his career that I would totally aspire to. And he was just so lovely, so welcoming, so kind, and we became friends then.
Then the next job that I got was on stage at the Geffen and cast across from my husband, Patrick. And that's how Patrick and I got together. And it was this sort of hilarious thing where then Patrick was hanging out with Chris and Chris was like, "Oh, so I hear you're together with some girl." And he is like, "Oh, it's Troian. And Chris was like, "Wait, Troian, Troian? I know Troian." And so it's crazy to say, but we've all been dear, dear friends for 15 years.
How did you eventually get Olivia involved?
The great thing partnering with Barry Linen and Chris. With Chris, so much of his work was with the character of Miranda, we were like, "We want somebody that you want to play with. Who do you see in this role? You're more than just an actor that we're asking. You are producer, so this is your job to help us flesh this out." And so we were thinking about actresses, and he had just done a project with and had a great time with Olivia. And he was like, "I think Olivia might be kind of great for this. Let's see if she'd be into it." And he straight up like sent her episodes one through three, and I'm not kidding, 48 hours later, she texted, and she was like, "I'm in."
It was so crazy, and we were like, "Okay, now we're working with Olivia Wilde. That's awesome." And she was so great. It was my first time working with her, we got to speak leading up to it, and then she just came in, and it was so fantastic working with her. Not only do I love her as an actor, but I love her as a director. And so, it was really cool to get to experience her and have her ask me all the questions, 'cause she was like, "I've never thought about doing something in the podcast space. How does this work?”" And then at the end of it, she was like, "I think I want to make a podcast." And we were like, "Go, Olivia, go."
AD LUCEM is protected under the current SAG-AFTRA Podcast Agreement