Hollywood is tapping the podcast well as a budding source of IP, with popular shows like Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, and Limetown getting picked up by HBO, FX, and Facebook TV, respectively.
One of the most recent adaptations–and one that’s setting the bar particularly high–is Amazon Studios’ and Universal Cable Productions’ co-production of Homecoming, Gimlet’s star-studded 2016 narrative podcast about an experimental facility that helps reintegrate army veterans to civilian life but is also shrouded in secrets.
Sam Esmail, the Emmy-nominated writer and executive producer of Mr. Robot, created the Homecoming series with the podcast’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. Esmail spoke with Fast Company for its November issue about the particular challenges of transforming an audio-driven story into something visual. And while Esmail directed all 10 episodes, he was adamant that Horowitz and Bloomberg be the series showrunners, despite their relatively limited experience in television. They immediately found themselves navigating a learning curve that forced them to decide when they could trust their instincts and when they should listen to others.
“We had this weird situation where we’re both pretty inexperienced but also, through this crazy series of circumstances, in a position of real authority,” Horowitz says. “To strike that balance every day with all these decisions–when is it your job to listen and learn, and when is it your job to protect the story? I don’t think it ever becomes simple. That’s just part of the job.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bloomberg adds. “You have to allow space for your creative impulse and your instincts, which got you to this spot. And then at the same time, to listen to what people are telling you who are either more experienced or who you decided to bring into the process.”
One such case came about when Horowitz and Bloomberg trusted Esmail’s request that much of what they’d built in the podcast remain the same in the TV adaptation.
“Our expectation coming in was: We need to stage a lot of this stuff. We need to break a lot of this stuff out,” Bloomberg says. “Sam, very often, was like, ‘No this scene works–we’re going to keep it like that.’ It felt more like Sam was with us on the side of the podcast when we were trying to figure out how to communicate that through [TV]. It never felt adversarial or like he was trying to turn it into something else.”
Overall, the adaptation process helped Horowitz and Bloomberg expand their storytelling vocabulary. The treatment facility is barely a backdrop in the podcast, but through conversations with Esmail, it became a character in itself on the series. In the pilot episode, there’s an expertly crafted, sweeping one-take of the facility that establishes characters, location, and even a little foreshadowing. Describing the facility through visual language is just one of many instances where Esmail, Horowitz, and Bloomberg added to the story in a way that is unique to the TV format–without undoing the core spirit of the original Homecoming podcast.
“We kept that stuff really nonexistent in the podcast, even in our own minds,” Horowitz says. “It was a blind spot for us as creators. And then once we started asking questions about it, it opened up all sorts of new possibilities.”