On paper, getting Johnny Depp to narrate Keith Richards’s autobiography, Life, should have been simple: Richards’s representatives agreed to have Depp narrate and Depp’s representatives ironed out the deal with publisher Hachette Audio.
While convincing a Hollywood celebrity to narrate an audiobook is usually a long shot, in this case it was the most straightforward part of the process: Depp had long been friends with the Rolling Stones’ guitarist. “He does an excellent impersonation,” says Michele McGonigle, director of audio production and executive producer at Hachette Audio. “They’re very close.”
But that closeness nearly derailed Depp’s participation in the project, and at the same time proved to be its saving grace. The issue was scheduling: Depp was in the midst of filming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The film’s shooting schedule spirited Depp from Hawaii to Los Angeles to Puerto Rico to the U.K.—basically nowhere near a studio Hachette could rent for Depp to record the necessary 22.5 hours of audio narration.
“We knew it would be difficult, but we didn’t know the scope of it,” McGonigle says. She was conscientious of Depp’s film commitments. “He was filming 14–16-hour days and reading at night to get the book done. It was unfair to him to work 20-hour days.”
The very reason Depp was busy on yet another Pirates sequel could be attributed to his performance as the drunkenly swaggering pirate captain Jack Sparrow, inspired largely by Keith Richards. In fact, Richards himself made a cameo in the third Pirates film as Jack Sparrow’s long-lost father. In other words, if Richards hadn’t had such an influence on Depp, there might not have been a film franchise for Hachette to compete with from a scheduling standpoint.
However, Depp was also in the midst of directing a documentary about Keith Richards—a pet project of his. And because of Depp’s interest in documentaries, according to McGonigle, he traveled with a sound engineer and a mobile recording rig, meaning he was able to narrate Life—which won the Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year in 2011—wherever he traveled.
“I didn’t work with him directly,” McGonigle says. “They did their own thing and they gave it back to me for processing and editing.” Usually, McGonigle’s duties require her to sit in the studio as producer and director and, in post-production, to undertake occasional editing and audio mastering duties as well. The production of the Life audiobook was unique because Depp’s schedule kept him in transit and there was no way for McGonigle or any of Hachette’s producers to be present during the recording sessions.
“When I got the raw audio, if there was anything that didn’t come across the right way—general performance issues—I would give him notes back and he’d redo those lines,” says McGonigle. “There really wasn’t much. He’s pretty flawless. He’s a pro and knows Keith so well, he knows how to tell the story.”
Ultimately, the details of the performance—for instance, whether Depp would attempt an approximation of Richards’s accent or not—were ironed out. Hachette decided that Depp should read in his own voice. “We went back and forth on that too,” McGonigle recalls. “He’s such a well-known person, to put on an accent would have been weird.”
Despite Depp’s accommodations, however, his shooting schedule still didn’t permit him to read the entire autobiography, and McGonigle hired musician Joe Hurley to read the chapters Depp couldn’t. “With big-name [narrators] we always have backups,” says McGonigle.
It helps, of course, if the big name narrates a book written by either a friend or by him- or herself—the latter was the case with audiobook versions of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Diane Keaton’s Then Again.
But when publishing houses ask celebrities to read work from an unfamiliar author, the trouble isn’t just with scheduling: much effort has to be made to just get the star’s attention.
When Laura Wilson, director of production at Macmillan Audio, agreed to produce an audio version of Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret’s short story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, Keret began writing a fantasy list of potential readers, regardless of practicality.
“As a filmmaker, I always have a lot of ideas and thoughts when it comes to audio reading, both about the casting and about the way the stories should be read,” says Keret. The fact that there weren’t any audio versions of his previous books in English heightened his enthusiasm. Though Keret had five short story collections released in the U.S. since 2004, Suddenly was the first of Keret’s collections to have an audiobook.
Not every actor Keret wanted to enlist made sense; a couple, he later discovered, were dead. However many of Keret’s choices were driven by a desire to match each distinct story with the right performer: he wanted Josh Radnor, from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, to read his story “Upgrade” because, he said, he “felt that it was a very emotional and sensitive story that needed, at the same time, perfect comic timing.” Keret sent to Willem Dafoe (Platoon; Spider-Man) “Mystique,” a story that Keret characterizes as “the most philosophical and abstract story in the collection.” He thought Dafoe had qualities that could take a monologue based fundamentally around an idea and breathe life into it.
Keret also wanted Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada; Hunger Games) to read “Creative Writing,” about a hard-nosed businessman who suddenly realizes the power of fiction, because he liked “the combination of [Tucci’s] very ‘corporate,’ almost detached voice which at the same time carries some inner and hidden vulnerability.” And Keret sent to the chameleonic actor Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma; The Messenger) the short story “Healthy Start,” about a man whose identities constantly shift.
Despite the vim with which Keret hurled himself into his audiobook project, pitching to celebrities is by and large a routine process: producers at the publishing houses solicit each actor’s agent and wait to hear back. Often, the first-choice actor will refuse or the agent won’t answer and the producer can’t afford to lose time waiting for the actor to accept, in which case it’s time to move to plan B.
Before soliciting anyone, Keret spoke to a known Hollywood agent, a friend of a friend, and asked for advice on the best way to initiate contact. The agent’s response: “Just don’t.”
Hollywood talent comes saddled with minimum fees, which are hundreds of times more than what audio publishers can afford to pay, Keret was told. Many are so busy, they won’t even bother reading the stories they’re sent. “You have to understand this isn’t Israel,” the agent said. “It’s Hollywood. And here things don’t work like that.”
But because Keret figured the worst-case scenario involved him writing a series of mash notes to various actors he admired, he decided to proceed.
“I’ve written to each fantasy reader [and said] why I feel he would be the perfect match for the story. Some didn’t write back, others wrote very warm e-mails explaining why they can’t or won’t, but some said yes,” says Keret. “I always felt that the ones who had said yes said it solely because they had liked the text. After all, they had no other reason to say yes.”
Besides Wilson, Keret also worked closely with Oren Moverman, writer and director of Rampart and The Messenger (which starred Ben Foster, one of the narrators of Keret’s collection), to both cast the audio project and facilitate contact with potential readers. Other celebrity narrators, like Radnor and Ira Glass, host of This American Life, also assisted Keret’s outreach to readers.
The project came to fruition: Radnor, Dafoe, Tucci, and Foster all narrate one of Keret’s stories. Additionally, the roster includes actress-director-author Miranda July, writer-director-author John Sayles, and high-profile authors Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and Aimee Bender.
Wilson admits that this method of casting is anomalous, particularly given the magnitude of the author’s participation in the actual process. “It’s unusual to have so many narrators, so by definition you get more author participation,” she says. “You’re not coordinating with one person.”
Keret’s improbable success getting multiple actors to read his short stories might be a combination of perseverance, luck, and the fact that his fiction quickly affected people who weren’t otherwise aware of his work. Another possible contributing factor: each actor only read a single story, which made scheduling easier.
“I’m always surprised when we get film or TV actors to [narrate],” says Kelly Gildea, an executive producer at Random House Audio’s imprint Listening Library. “The time commitment is big and they’re so busy. It’s a lot to ask of anyone.”
On average, it takes two hours to produce one hour of usable audio. A 12-hour book, Gildea points out, takes four six-hour days in a studio. Scheduling constraints can lengthen the process. When Depp read Life, it took him 30 to 35 hours total, broken down over days to accommodate his film shoot, according to McGonigle.
While Depp reading Richards’s book in his own mobile rig is extreme, audio producers typically book a studio around the celebrity’s location and supervise remotely. Gildea remembers directing actor Bob Balaban over the phone while he read a section of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography.
Most recently, Balaban narrated the audiobook version of the upcoming Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by novelist T.R. Pearson and former NBC executive Warren Littlefield. Balaban, who lives in the Hamptons on Long Island (N.Y.), read in a nearby studio Random House Audio rented for that purpose.
“He’s actually mentioned in the book,” Gildea said. Balaban played a version of Littlefield in the fourth season of Seinfeld, appearing as an NBC executive with a daughter whose endowments catch George Costanza’s eye. “I was talking to Warren Littlefield about the book,” recalls Gildea. “He mentioned loving Bob, that he would love to get him for the book. [Balaban] accepted and it’s kind of funny: Bob reading for Warren, and himself being in the book.”
Actor Casey Affleck narrated Ben Mezrich’s book Sex on the Moon from a remote, rented studio. “We do most of our recording in a Random House studio,” says Gildea. “But if they live far away, we rent one. We try to accommodate as best we can.”
Because Affleck lives in Southern California, Random House Audio rented Firehouse Recording Studios in Pasadena and sent a director, Danny Campbell, to see the project through.
Gildea, however, was especially surprised Affleck consented, since, unlike Balaban, he had no connection to the book he was being hired to read. “I had produced a Ben Mezrich book before,” she said. “We’d used a narrator who did a great job. But the second book, it seemed to read like a film.”
Moreover, Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires had recently been made into the hit film The Social Network, so it made sense to Gildea to get a young actor to narrate Sex on the Moon.
“I’d always been a big fan of his,” said Gildea. Learning that Affleck had narration experience—Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for Audible’s Signature Classics series—was also heartening. “I found it encouraging he had read something before because he knew it wouldn’t be a shocking time commitment.”
On March 3, the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles served as the forum for a live recording of the stage play 8, written by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk; J. Edgar), about California’s Proposition 8 trials, which sought to overturn the state’s gay marriage ban. Directed by Rob Reiner, the cast was a roll call of Hollywood’s A-list: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Christine Lahti, among others, headlined the roster.
Although radio theater company L.A. Theatre Works produced the broadcast, producing director Susan Loewenberg credits the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact for assembling the cast and suggesting the venue.
“We had nothing to do with the casting,” Loewenberg says. “When it’s a worthy cause, it’s easy. Rob Reiner picked up the phone, talked to George Clooney, and Clooney said, ‘Let’s go.’ Rob has such credibility as an artist and activist. It was no problem.”
Unlike conventional audiobook productions, 8 was performed only once and in front of a live audience. There were no retakes and the production would not have the luxury of days to calibrate the performance at the sentence-by-sentence level. “Our challenge was to get a good recording in one shot,” says Loewenberg.
Before the performance, Loewenberg had to go over technical details with the screen actors, not all of whom were used to working in an audio-only medium.
“They needed to make sure their mouths are on the microphone,” says Loewenberg. “You can’t turn away or you’re off-mike. You either don’t look away or you move your mouth around the mike. They also had to figure out at what level they needed to talk.”
To her relief, the actors adapted quickly. “As the BBC producers would say,” says Loewenberg, “half the volume, twice the intensity. That’s the secret for a great recording.”
However, in general, actors used to theater or screen work have similar difficulties working in an audio medium.
“Sitting still and not moving much can be a challenge for people used to using their body to tell a story,” says McGonigle. She echoes Loewenberg’s sentiment that some actors need to acclimate working around a mike. “Audiobook narration is such a different part of acting in that you are by yourself,” McGonigle adds. “There are a lot of actors that really do work well on their own, while for others, monologuing might not be their strong suit or they might not be able to convey the differences between character voices. It is your voice alone that conveys everything, all the characters.”
McGonigle points out that, unless performing in a multicast production, there is no other cast member off whom the actor can bounce and there are no props (although during an L.A. Theatre Works live audio recording of Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, the stage manager emptied a bucket of water onto actor Richard Dreyfuss’s head to close the first act).
Gildea has noticed that film actors accustomed to reading scripts are occasionally taken aback when they’re handed an entire book. “I’ve had some people say that it’s fascinating to have the whole story in front of them and not a condensed version,’” she says.
McGonigle also acknowledges that some actors simply don’t fit a particular audiobook. Occasionally, this requires extra work during the recording process, going line-by-line and editing everything together into a seamless whole. Rarely is recasting necessary—McGonigle estimates in her 11 years working in audio production that she’s only had to let go of four or five narrators, not all of whom were celebrities. “Usually that person is grateful for being let go,” she says. “They knew it wasn’t working.”
Narration is a talent, says actor Stacy Keach (Two and a Half Men; The Bourne Legacy). “There’s a difference between spoken dialogue and telling stories,” he says. “Generally speaking, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber—those are stars who know what they’re doing when they get in the studio,” he says.
As a founding member of L.A. Theatre Works, which originated as a straight theater company, Keach was part of the 34-person cast that marked the company’s first foray into recorded drama in 1985: a multicast audio production of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which featured Keach, Edward Asner, Helen Hunt, John Lithgow, and Ally Sheedy. Since then, L.A. Theatre Works—which records mostly plays—has audio productions of nearly 500 works.
Keach in particular has an extensive background with audio performance: his father had a radio show in the 1950s called Tales of the Texas Rangers. “When I was 12 years old, I used to go down and listen and watch him create these radio shows,” Keach recalls.
Besides acting in film, television, and on stage, Keach has done extensive audio work—narrating shows like Nova and National Geographic programs, as well as numerous audiobooks, such as Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. “In fact, I just did one for Blackstone Audio—another Mike Hammer incarnation, Lady, Go Die!” Because of Keach’s association narrating Mike Hammer novels, going back to the ’80s, “it’s kind of an automatic—when they’re going to do a Mike Hammer novel they come to me.”
While Keach occasionally likes to enter a studio cold without having previously read the work he’s been hired to perform, there are times when—similar to Depp narrating Life—knowing the story intimately helps him tell it well. When Keach performed Job in The World of Promise Audio Bible, he initially was troubled because he couldn’t reconcile why God would let the devil do what he did to Job. “It was a real challenge for me to define the tempo and the level where his voice came from,” says Keach. He drew connections with his recent performance as King Lear in Washington, D.C., which helped him hone Job’s voice. “In both cases, they’re old men. So vocally, automatically, Job’s voice has a gravelly quality: deep, resonant, echoes from the past,” says Keach. “And also the inability to deal with obstacles, emotional obstacles that are created, in Lear’s case by his daughters, and in Job’s case by God.”
In March, Amazon subsidiary Audible.com, a provider of downloadable audiobooks, announced its A-List Collection, which pairs Hollywood stars with classic novels. The initial release, recorded in 2011 when the project was known as Project A List, included Anne Hathaway performing L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Kate Winslet performing Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin; Samuel L. Jackson performing Chester Himes’s A Rage in Harlem; and Susan Sarandon performing Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.
According to Audible senior editor Matthew Thornton, stars often agree to work on audiobooks because it allows them to expand their creative horizons. “It’s an opportunity to exercise different muscles as actors, and performing an audiobook also gives an actor a lot of creative control,” says Thornton. “Several stars have already expressed interest in doing another book for us.”
The A-List Collection is a result of the success of the one-off performances in Audible’s Signature Classics series (the same series that included Casey Affleck’s performance of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that inspired Gildea to cast him in Sex on the Moon), and is designed, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, to capitalize on the audiobook industry’s growing $1 billion market, and to gain new customer subscriptions to the Audible service.
Moreover, while Audible does not release its financials, Amazon has seen healthy growth in its total media sales—19% growth from March 2011 to March 2012, totaling $4.7 billion globally.
Despite Audible’s push to drive sales using star talent, celebrity performances in audiobooks aren’t a new concept. Wilson worked with Meryl Streep on the children’s book The One and Only Shrek! and with Colin Farrell on Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World—the movie adaptation of which also starred Farrell.
For Wilson, the decision whether to cast a household name is mostly a matter of finding the right voice for a particular project. “You sometimes read a book and think so-and-so would be perfect for it and sometimes he’s a celebrity and sometimes he’s not,” she says. “I think it’s something that’s always been a part of what we do.”
Thornton predicts an increasing number of high-profile actors will be interested in narration. “Audiobooks are a growth market in the acting business, and the feedback we’ve received from the actors who’ve done books in our A-List series, as well as other high-profile talent we’ve worked with—for example, Kenneth Branagh, who’s nominated for an Audie Award this year for an Audible Studios production—is nothing but positive, so we expect other Hollywood stars will also want to try their hand at this powerful art form,” says Thornton.
Thornton adds that while securing high-profile actors can be undermined by complicated schedules, “audiobook narration has become an increasingly viable career path for young talent.”
Whether celebrity readings will attract new customers as Audible anticipates, Etgar Keret has a more romantic notion about audiobooks, centered around the medium opposed to the sales figures. “I truly feel that these readings of the stories are not a service for people who are driving and are too busy to read, but an art form on its own,” says Keret, who admits to being a “huge fan” of reading series like Selected Shorts and This American Life. “With some of the readings, I like them better than the texts themselves and feel that their readers’ interpretations had turned into something new, which is in some cases more emotional or sophisticated than the story as a text.”
Keach views audio as a medium that penetrates much more deeply than other storytelling formats. “It stimulates your imagination as opposed to when you view something on the television or in a movie,” he says. “As far as the imagination is concerned, I think radio and audio have a tremendous effect on us.”
June Is Audiobook Month
The Audio Publishers Association is kicking off its third annual social media initiative in support of June Is Audiobook Month, a campaign aimed at boosting the visibility, awareness, and popularity of audiobooks through direct interactions with consumers.
Hoping to double the 7.5 million participants from last year’s campaign, the APA has recruited more than 50 celebrity authors—including the likes of Judy Blume, Michael Connelly, Roger Ebert, and James Patterson—who will reach out to their fans about audiobooks.
Participants in this year’s campaign will be blogging, writing Facebook status updates, and issuing tweets with the hashtag #JIAM2012. Authors, narrators, and fans will be recommending audiobooks, recalling favorite listening experiences, posting photos, citing favorite performances, and sharing audio excerpts.
Additionally, the APA is running Get Caught Listening, its annual viral video contest aimed at promoting the audio industry. Entrants are asked to create a short video that champions audiobooks in a fun, engaging, and original way, while making use of the “Get Caught Listening” theme.
The APA will select 10 finalists; the contest winners will be determined by fan voting and a panel of celebrity judges, with prizes of $5,000, $2,000, and $1,000 going to the top three videos.
Ryan Joe has worked as a technology reporter, a research analyst, a writer, an illustrator, and a host at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. He lives in Manhattan.