Born as coffee-shop performance project in Austin, Texas, The Intergalactic Nemesis mashes up the comic-book art of 1930s-era pulp serials with the vocal performances and live foley work of a classic radio drama. Dubbed a "live-action graphic novel," the show went on to play for audiences in movie houses and theater spaces in 60 cities around the country.
Director Jason Neulander and foley artist Buzz Moran, a Madison native, discuss epic adventure storytelling and unexpected sound effects before their performances of Book 1 and Book 2 at Overture Center on Saturday, March 23.
Isthmus: What is it about this story that makes it ideally suited for a unique storytelling format like this?
Neulander: Comic books? Invented in the 1930s. Radio drama? Perfected in the 1930s. Our story takes place in the 1930s, and is a consciously pulp adventure. It's from an era where the world wasn't completely mapped out, where no one had actually been to outer space. There's a love for the idea of an adventure as a place to activate the imagination.
What specific influences are you drawing from in the storytelling and characters?
Neulander: For me, it's a lot of old movies. I really studied His Girl Friday when we were re-working the script, specifically for the dialogue, but also for Molly Sloan, who is this crackling reporter character very similar to the character that Rosalind Russell played in the movie. A lot of the sci-fi movies of the 1980s: Alien, Terminator, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and also elements of the things that influenced those things, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Katharine Hepburn is a huge influence in the roles that she played: The Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib come to mind.
How do you reinterpret modern and classic influences you've named through the lens of a radio drama? A radio play of Terminator sounds kind of incredible.
Neulander: [Laughs] You know, those films were drawing from older films as well. Terminator is a great example of pulp science-fiction storytelling at its absolute best. Time travel! Killer robots! Twist endings! All that stuff comes from this amazing era of storytelling that probably reached its pinnacle in the 1950s and 1960s. At the end of the day, Star Wars or Terminator or Alien are all telling the same kind of story that goes all the way back to the Iliad and the Odyssey: epic adventure, good versus evil. I really believe that, at our core, we crave that kind of storytelling, the kind that activates the imagination and has underdogs becoming heroes.
What influences do you draw from to create sound effects for the show?
Moran: I'll look at anything that's going to approximate the sound I'm looking for, without any regard for whether it's some little toy laser gun or it's an old fashioned radio sound effect that needs to be built. But then the next question becomes "Can we travel with this?" That's definitely a consideration at that point: What can make the sound that we can actually bring with us?
Certainly, it's more fun to have something really strange. We want our sound effects objects to be small enough to travel with, but at the same time, we want people to be able to see them from the audience, for them to say "wow, what is he doing with a box of macaroni and cheese? What's that slide whistle going to do?"
When it comes to sound effects, that gets really fun. You just have a bunch of stuff on stage, and people can see it laying out. They have no idea what half the stuff is, and for the half that they do know what it is, you can't really guess what it's going to be. Why is there a suitcase on the stage? Why is there a child's remote-control cement mixer on the table? If they miss a sound effect, if they don't see what you did with something, they will often come up and ask after the show. They're really curious.
How do the live music and the foley work build the world that The Intergalactic Nemesis takes place in?
Neulander: The sound effects are all really about putting you in a placethings as simple as footsteps walking on a wood floor versus a metal spaceship floor, or more complex stuff like robot servos or giant blast doors. All of that is being done live, and it's super fun to watch, but also, if you don't watch it and you just focus on the screen, it totally transports you to the place that you're watching.
One of the cool things in [The Intergalactic Nemesis' second book] Robot Planet Rising is that there are six main characters in the story and each actor plays two of them. In several scenes, the only two characters on stage are those two characters. So you get to watch these actors go back and forth between their two characters, having a full two minutes of dialogue with themselves. It totally works; it's really amazing. You catch yourself thinking, "That's one person doing both of those voices. How is that even possible?"
Buzz, which sound is your favorite, and how do you create it?
Moran: One of my favorites is that the bad guy in the show has "the power of mesmerism," which we also refer to as a "mind whammy."
I'm a person interested in sounds, and so I just buy toys that make cool sounds. I had one those tubes that you spin around over your head: a five-tone musical tube, I believe it's called. You swing it around and it makes a sort of woo-WEEE-woo-WOO sort of sound. I took two of those, and I cut one down shorter than the other so that it would make a dissonant chord between the two. This sound sort of has everything; it's an abstract sound, not a real-world sound at all, plus there's this visual element of swinging these two toys above your head. And, it's a great sound. It kind of wins in all categories.
Is there anything else viewers should know?
Neulander: One, you definitely don't need to be a fan of comic books or radio plays to get into this show. I think anybody who grew up on Star Wars or likes to have fun will like the show. The second thing is that Book 2: Robot Planet Rising (the 8 p.m. show) is a standalone story, so you do not have to have seen the first one (the 3 p.m. show) to get into it.