'This American Life' Is Ready for Its TV Close-Up How do you turn a hit radio show into something watchable? For more than 10 years, the WBEZ-produced This American Life has been a vehicle for many different types of contributors to share their stories. Now, host Ira Glass is taking his weird and wonderful show to the tube. The TV version debuts in March, on Showtime.
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'This American Life' Is Ready for Its TV Close-Up

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'This American Life' Is Ready for Its TV Close-Up

'This American Life' Is Ready for Its TV Close-Up

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We all know the expression I feel like a fish out of water. Well, that's how a popular public radio host says he felt when he agreed to make a television show out of his radio program. The show is “This American Life,” the host Ira Glass.

NPR's Lynn Neary caught up with him recently as he and his crew were entering the final weeks of production on the TV series.

LYNN NEARY: There's a certain simplicity to the art of radio. At its heart, it's all about storytelling. And “This American Life” is a radio show that revels in storytelling - quirky stories, sad stories, scary stories.

Mr. IRA GLASS (Host, “This American Life”): Nothing look like it had changed over the winter, and just like the first time I had this accute feeling of being watched as I moved from room to room, touching things, opening up drawers, climbing up into the attic. Dave felt it, too. All their personal belongings were right there so they felt -

NEARY: “This American Life” seems like a radio program so wedded to the medium of radio that when the Showtime cable network first approached Ira Glass about turning it into a TV show, he couldn't imagine it.

Mr. GLASS: I mean we basically said no to them for a year and half. And we kept saying we have no idea of like how to make the images for this or how to be filmmakers. And you have to hook us up with people who could design something that would have a feeling, that would get across the feeling of the radio show. But we have no idea what that is. Like we need people who are experts of making images to come in and provide that part.

NEARY: They found those experts in cinematographer Adam Beckman and director Chris Wilcha. Sometimes Beckman and Wilcha have to tell people steeped in radio that their ideas just won't work on television. Other times, they take the ideas and turn them into compelling visual images.

Unidentified Man: Chris, I'll be ready in probably 10 minutes, is that okay?

NEARY: One recent Sunday they all assembled in a Brooklyn lab to shoot an interview with a scientist about the research he's been doing on memory in rats. Before the interview could begin, Beckman and the film crew had to set up the shot, creating a backdrop for the conversation, making sure the lighting was just perfect.

Mr. ADAM BECKMAN (Director of Photography): Yeah, Ronnie, I'm going to need more, a little more blue and some (unintelligible).

NEARY: This story, dealing with erasing memory in rats, caught the staff's attention when they heard that real people had called the researchers because they wanted their own bad memories erased. A fascinating idea, but Wilcha was struggling with the visuals. So while Beckman and his crew worked, Wilcha pulled Glass aside to pitch an idea.

Mr. CHRIS WILCHA (Director): Adam and I were sort of getting stuck on the notion of just filming the rats kind of running around in circles. And the rats kind of - and the rats have these circuit board things going out of their hands and it's all a little creepy.

Mr. GLASS: That seems good, though. It's creepy good?

Mr. WILCHA: We're going to shoot the rats. We're going to absolutely shoot the rats. But our second idea was that we would actually have actors in rat costumes be the rats. So in other words, we're going to shoot the rats. Don't get nervous.

Mr. GLASS: I'm not nervous.

NEARY: It's not the first time Glass has been a bit taken aback by one of Wilcha's ideas. Take the desk, for example. They'd been trying to figure out Glass's role as host. Would he just be an off camera voice? And if not, would he do stand ups on location or would he appear on a set?

Mr. WILCHA: And we were talking about what's the first thing you get when you get a TV show? You get a desk. And you're host. So we were like, we give him a desk and then -

Mr. BECKMAN: Chris comes to me. He's like, what do you get? You get a desk. He's like Leno's got a desk, Letterman's got a desk, Jon Stewart's got a desk. We're going to get you a desk. You need a desk. However, what if your desk appeared out in the landscape, like on an abandoned freeway in Los Angeles, on the Salt Flats in Utah, somewhere in the woods? And that you would never make mention of it, you would never sort of point to it.

In the end, the human rats didn't work out, but the desk was a keeper. A sleek art deco desk made of shiny red wood. Ira sits behind it and introduces the show and the stories staring at the audience through his big black-framed glasses. In one shot, the desk and Ira sit in the middle of the Salt Flats, looking like an inconsequential speck in a vast moonscape.

Mr. GLASS: (Unintelligible) as a result of (unintelligible) our entire program (unintelligible).

Mr. WILCHA: Why don't you just look at that line tape. You could start with the beginning of the piece?

Mr. GLASS: Yeah.

Mr. WILCHA: Okay.

NEARY: During an editing session, Glass, Wilcha and editor Tom Watson watch different versions of Ira sitting at the desk on the Salt Flats.

Mr. GLASS: These performances all feel very loose. Tom, did you -

Mr. TOM WATSON (Editor): (Unintelligible)…

Mr. WILCHA: Yeah. Most of them were very formal and kind of classical. I mean this was you were the most out of point in these takes today. You felt very -

Mr. GLASS: So I picked the loosest ones.

Mr. WATSON: (Unintelligible)

NEARY: Glass says getting used to the performance aspect of this job was one of the more painful parts of the experience.

Mr. GLASS: I don't see any positive aspect of being on camera. You know what I mean? Like I am 47 years old. I lost 30 pounds to do it. You know, I don't like looking at myself. You know, there's just there's nothing, you know what I mean, like no one after a certain age wants to see themselves on television. There's just no up side.

NEARY: But for all the complications of television, producer Nancy Updike says there have also been moments of unexpected pleasure. A longtime radio producer, Updike wasn't sure “This American Life” would translate to a visual medium. Then she saw the pilot.

Ms. GLASS: You know, I have movies and books. When someone tries to bring back a loved one from the dead, that never turns out well. (unintelligible) wanted to do it anyway, and they wanted to do it with a bull. His name is Chance.

Unidentified Man: Chance is just like a big bundle of loving -

NEARY: Updike says she was surprised they had managed to transfer the feel of the radio show to television. And the images of the bull provided a pleasure that radio could not.

Ms. NANCY UPDIKE (Producer): They're almost glamour shots of the bull, different parts of him, and he's in partially shadow and it's just breathtaking. And it's a bull and it's a moment you can't have in a radio show. Just a moment of pure visual reverie.

NEARY: Glass give credit to the cinematography of Adam Beckman and the direction of Chris Wilcha for capturing the essence of the radio show in visual terms. Wilcha says he was a fan of the radio show and was keenly aware of how highly crafted it is.

Mr. WILCHA: Everything was very deliberate. All the choices were very deliberate. It didn't have that sort of, you know, open ended verite feeling. There was always like we are going to put music here, we are going to highlight this moment. We are, you know, and the writing had such a sort of sense of craft to it. And I felt like that we needed to sort of be on our craft game in the same way.

And I think that in the shooting, we were like, we wanted real pure photography, a beauty in the way that things are photographed. Like that was really important.

Mr. GLASS: And I remember you and Adam talking about the radio show is much more talky than the TV show normally is. And so like what do the images need to be so you can actually listen to people and listen to their writing and just have a sense of like a moment of the stillness. You can take in the feeling of something and not be so frenetic. And I think that was part of it. But the images would be like shot widescreen, so they are really beautiful, but also like, you know, on a tripod totally still, people would walk in and out of the frame and there would be just moments where it would be just stuff to look at.

NEARY: It's taken a lot more time and money and people to create six half hours of TV than it would've been to do the same for radio. But in the end, Glass says, it's been worth it. And now he says he no longer feels clueless about what it takes to make a television show. In fact these days he's just as opinionated about what looks good as he is about what sounds good.

Mr. GLASS: Oh this - wait. That was the umbrella shot that was too long. This one. Yeah, that was the one.

NEARY: The TV version of “This American Life” premieres in late March on the cable network Showtime.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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