Did you ever dream of being in the room during an iconic moment of film history? A new podcast called Blockbuster is doing its best to make that dream a reality.
Created by Emmy winner Matt Schrader, Blockbuster is a six-part docu-narrative podcast dramatizing the friendship of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as they were making their formative films, Star Wars and Jaws, with the help of composer of John Williams.
Schrader has basically created a modern radio play, blending meticulous research with strong vocal performances, sound effects, film clips, and an original score, all into a highly entertaining audio experience. The show puts the viewer right there, with Spielberg and Lucas, for the moments when they changed movies forever.
Here’s a short, exclusive clip from the series, which is now available on Apple and Spotify. This clip is of George Lucas (voiced by Ray Chase) showing Star Wars to his friends for the first time. Those friends include Spielberg (Max Mittelman), Brian De Palma (Lex Lang, who also voices Harrison Ford), as well as his wife and editor, Marcia Lucas (Julia McIlvaine), who has the perfect final words in this scene.
Intrigued? We sure were. So we got in touch with Schrader to have him answer a few questions about his unique take on Hollywood history.
io9: Why this story and why this format?
Matt Schrader: We think of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as these larger-than-life figures, but in the early 1970s they were just two young artists pursuing their dreams. I think anyone can relate to that. George and Steven admired and relied on each other for emotional support, and I don’t know if we would have ever had Jaws or Star Wars if they hadn’t been friends. We might have, but the world would be very different. And they never would have created Indiana Jones together, and planted the seeds for an entire decade of film in the 1980s and beyond. The story is amazing because it’s these two people who don’t know they’re about to change the world.
We geared it for the podcast platform because we saw an opportunity for Blockbuster to be the first biopic “movie for your ears,” a nice description that has sort of stuck.
io9: How would you compare the amount of production you and your team put into an episode of Blockbuster with other pieces of media? Things such as a more general podcast? A film? Or an old school radio play?
Schrader: A lot of people still think a podcast is something you record with your friends in your garage, which is probably 95 per cent of them I guess, but we were really going after the premium high-production scripted side of this space, like Homecoming or Blackout. Actors and sound design, and original score to tell a story. But obviously this story is true, so we had to first research it like Serial or a true-crime series.
We intentionally approached this like we would a feature film because it was a big undertaking, and we wanted to channel some of that cinematic quality into the scenes you hear. Blockbuster might be more work than has ever been put into a limited podcast series before, but in the end, we were overjoyed with the end result.
io9: As writer and filmmaker yourself, how do you see the podcast as a new form of storytelling going ahead? Is Blockbuster the first of its kind?
Schrader: I started my career as an investigative journalist with CBS and NBC, and I left to pursue my first documentary. After doing the whole theatrical release campaign for that, I really fell in love with this idea of immersive true stories...that I think transcends whatever platform it is, because there are so many ways to create stories nowadays: movies, TV, web videos, podcasts, Snapchat, etc. It all starts with a powerful story.
Steven Spielberg once said in an interview, “a great story is a great story,” which actually made it into one of his conversations with George in Blockbuster. So in some ways, I don’t know that the platform matters if it’s done well. It just so happens that podcasts are this massive new expanding world people are discovering right now, and sound and music are so vitally important to the story we wanted to tell.
io9: Did you have to get permission from anyone or any company involved to do this, or is it all fair rights? Meaning Fox, Universal, the individuals dramatized, etc.
Schrader: It was a very extensive process because these huge movies are part of the story arc, and how can you tell a story about Star Wars without mentioning Star Wars? I always kind of chuckle when I’m watching something on TV and there’s a generic version of “Coca-Cola” and it’s called something like “Cool-Cola.” We all know what they’re referencing, but it really takes the viewer away from the story. We wanted to make sure we weren’t overstepping anything creatively but could be realistic and use archival audio and music and film clips to tell the story. It did require the help of a legal and clearance team so we knew how we could include the opening of the 1976 Academy Awards telecast, for instance. I’m glad we went that route because it’s much more authentic and feels real.
io9: What were some of your primary sources in piecing together this story? Did any of the actual principals help at all? Did you reach out to them?
Schrader: Oh, so many sources. It ranged from letters and documents from their offices during that era, to newspaper clippings, and lots of video interviews. There have also been a number of books that touch on this era of filmmaking, so we were really trying to pinpoint the friendship of George and Steven in all of these sources, and create a biography of their friendship.
In my experience as a journalist, biographical stories can come off as “staged” if they directly involve their subjects, and we wanted to maintain journalistic standing, and avoid any criticism of being part of someone’s “public relations” team (which would do this story a disservice too). This is such a powerful story of inspiration, and struggle, and triumph—and it’s done in such respect and admiration for what George and Steven ultimately accomplished. We felt Blockbuster was best created 100 per cent independently and journalistically. It’s always important to get as close as possible to the setting, however, so we prioritised interviews from the 1970s to try to get the most accurate descriptions of how it all really happened. We actually included one scene in which George meets one of the journalists who wrote about him on the set of Star Wars, which actually happened. So there are parts that can be very meta.
io9: The actual dialogue and interactions, closed-door private stuff—is that mostly educated guesswork or how did you go about approaching the writing of those scenes?
Schrader: It was one of the most interesting research projects I’ve ever done, and arguably the most unique part of this series because we started to piece together these moments, sort of like a detective would if investigating something. We would find these old archival interviews where George talks about meeting Steven, and someone else’s interview that says where they were, and someone else who described the environment that day. We started to take those millions of little jigsaw puzzle pieces and start to form a picture. Where we could, we tried to use their exact words, like when Brian De Palma saw Star Wars for the first time and asked George, “What is this shit?”
io9: Did you have any trouble putting together a crew, both above the line and below the line, for this mostly unfamiliar approach to storytelling? Were people sceptical?
Schrader: Well, it’s new and new things always require a little explanation. I was fortunate to meet some of the crew on my 2017 film Score: A Film Music Documentary, but this was an entirely different format. We kind of settled on this as being a “biopic podcast series” or “biopod,” which is a term for this genre we’ve sort of coined now.
Fortunately, sound designer Peter Bawiec was into this idea from the very start, and his passion shines through this series, especially in the scenes where we see Steven and George grappling with chaos around them.
I realise I just said “see,” which isn’t technically accurate, but it’s kind of like a good book in that your brain puts you right there with them on the set of Jaws and Star Wars.
io9: With Blockbuster coming to an end, do you have other similar stories you want to tell in this format and can you give us any hints if possible?
Schrader: There are a few really powerful personal stories at the center of iconic films I’m exploring. It might be the next season of Blockbuster. I really like the “biopod” genre because it allows people to connect to the characters, instead of just hearing them described by someone. We’ve talked about Titanic, The Dark Knight, and most recently Avengers: Endgame that would all work with the Blockbuster title.
There are a lot of parallels actually between Star Wars and Endgame, and how the story relates to culture. But in 1977 there wasn’t even a history of these kinds of movies yet, and that’s why I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were such visionaries. That’s the friendship where it all began, and it’s a lot of fun to see it all come to life.
Once again, Blockbuster is available on Apple and Spotify.