Episode 404: Jen Spyra, “The Empty Man,” Sandi Tan

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Character discovering skeleton in cave in promotional still from "The Empty Man"
Image via 20th Century Fox

The former “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” writer Jen Spyra talks about her debut short-story collection. Also, Sandi Tan on her acclaimed documentary, “Shirkers,” and her latest novel, “Lurkers.” And director David Prior joins us to discuss the challenges he faced making his eerie horror film, “The Empty Man.”

Featured in this Show

  • Jen Spyra Shifts From Colbert To Comedic Short Stories

    If you watch “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” then you’re familiar with the voice of Jen Spyra. She’s the show’s announcer and a former staff writer.

    Comedic writing comes naturally to Spyra, who has also written for the satirical publication The Onion. Moving onto satirical short stories, Spyra recently released her debut collection “Big Time.”

    “Big Time” features a variety of comical characters, including Mister Mittlebury, a millennial pig who performs improv; a time-travelling starlet from the 1940s who tries to make her mark in contemporary Hollywood; and the world’s very first influencer — a prehistoric cavewoman named Oola.

    Many of Spyra’s stories parody entire literary genres.

    “I love playing with genre because genre has defined guideposts and rules, and so if you know them, you can subvert them and tell a different story,” Spyra told WPR’s “BETA.” “So I only play with the ones that I have a deep affinity for. As for writers, there’s a bit of a shortcut happening. The audience already knows the world in terms of world building. I just need to hew to the rules, but I’m not starting something new.”

    Spyra says she’s especially proud of the book’s title story in terms of how much she subverted the genre to tell a different kind of story.

    “‘Big Time’ is a Hollywood rags to riches memoir. And I’m deconstructing that genre, the Hollywood rags to riches memoir, but telling a real story at the same time,” Spyra said.

    She said it was the most challenging story to write because of its length — a novella clocking in at just under 100 pages.

    “I kept pushing myself and breaking past what I’d done before,” she said. “Basically, the trick there was OK, I want to deconstruct this genre. So I get to play with all of the genre stuff, but it’s so freaking long. I have to also tell an emotionally gripping story that the reader cares about, you know. So with the short stuff, you can get by on style and jokes. But when you’re asking someone to hang out for that long, it also has to be absorbing on a more fundamental story level.

    The novella “Big Time” is clearly influenced by classic noir films and fiction. The protagonist Ruby Russell delivers first-person hard-boiled dialogue, which is only fitting since she’s a starlet living in the 1940s whose early years were no picnic. Ruby makes this very clear in the novella’s opening lines: “Look, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it for you. Hollywood is like a big fat man with a snarl on his face and a knife in his hand.”

    “She ends up through a sort of supernatural happenstance, getting flung into the future and wakes up on the beach in Venice, in modern day L.A., in the middle of a bikini boot camp class, and has to kind of find her bearings and figure it out and claw her way to the top,” Spyra explained.

    Spyra says she was partly inspired by Victoria Wilson’s massive 1,000-page biography of Barbara Stanwyck, which only covers the first 33 years of the legendary movie star’s life.

    “It talks about her early life and her rise to the top in Hollywood. And it’s such a brutal, traumatizing story. And I thought it would be really, really fun to tell a story like that comedically.”

    Another influence was Stanwyck’s 1933 film, “Baby Face,” which was made the year before Hollywood implemented the Hays Code which served as a method of self-censorship.

    “It’s so shockingly obscene,” Spyra says of “Baby Face.”

    “Of course they don’t actually show things, but what they’re referencing is so dark and essentially it’s not a Hollywood rags to riches story. It’s just a woman’s rags to riches story. It’s an incredibly ambitious, ruthless young woman who will really do anything to get ahead. And what she ends up doing in that movie is sleeping her way to the top. It felt like a very rich fish out of water premise that I could play with.”

    One of the recurring motifs Spyra uses to great effect is to take something contemporary and set it in a different time period to create one of comedy’s greatest concepts: the clash of context. The best example is “The First Influencer.”

    “‘The First Influencer’ is a story about a friendship between two cavewomen. And I’m always interested in the idea of the first, the very first time someone said a cliché, the very first time someone said a sarcastic comment,” she said. “And just as I was thinking about that, it did occur to me what was the very first time someone was cool, you know, like the first cool person. And I just thought of, ‘Oh, it’s funny to think of cool people.’ Back when there were only eight people, you know, that’s where that came from. I lurk a lot on Instagram and so lurking and being obsessed with cool people gave me the idea for the story.”

  • Writer, Director David Prior On The Horrors of Making 'The Empty Man'

    David Prior got his break directing DVD special features for such David Fincher films as “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” He obviously drew on that work experience in writing and directing his debut horror feature film, “The Empty Man.”

    “Any time you spent hanging around the set with David Fincher or Peter Weir or any number of the other people that I’ve been able to hang around the set with, it’s always going to be valuable,” Prior said.

    “The Empty Man” focuses on an ex-detective named James Lasombra. James is grieving the deaths of his wife and son. He helps his friend Nora whose daughter has gone missing.

    James’s investigation leads him to a sinister organization called The Pontifex Institute, which turns out to be a cult. The film stars James Badge Dale, and chameleon-like actor Stephen Root who delivers a great performance as the cult’s leader.

    The movie also became embroiled in a mega media merger that delayed and botched its release. “The Empty Man” features an impending sense of dread and doom and themes of guilt, grief, the meaning of existence and mind control. Prior explains to WPR’s “BETA” why he wanted to include such big ideas in his film.

    “I just always liked those ideas,” Prior said. “And I think part of the fun of genre is the way that it allows you to talk about deeper, serious human universal truths or ideas or common fears and things without being too precious about it. You can kind of look at it out of the corner of your eye, the way that genre allows you to literalize a metaphor and kind of come at it askance.”

    “So you can tell a story about guilt or greed, for example. And you can do it in a very kitchen sink sort of way where you’re having characters hash out their problems and talk about their inner feelings over dinner. Or you can have a character who ends up meeting a little green-eyed monster and just kind of take the idea and shape it a little bit differently. And in a way, it can almost be kind of a spoonful of sugar that can help the medicine go down. I think it’s kind of a proof against pretentiousness in some way, because you can talk about big ideas without actually presenting them as big ideas.”

    For Prior, working with Root as the film’s cult leader, was like working with an “absolute pro.”

    “He embodies the quintessential character actor, the concept of somebody who can move easily back and forth between different genres and different types of character and things. He’s ridiculously funny and unbelievably menacing and really charming and capable of accessing all sides of the human animal,” Prior said.

    Root flew into South Africa with only about 24 hours before he was on set.

    “He was completely jet-lagged, but completely prepared, an absolute pro,” Prior recalled. He said that one of the most joyful moments during production was the scene between Root and Dale.

    “The way that Root had, just kind of without even discussing it with me beforehand, all of the rises and falls in the dialogue where which words were stressed, which ones weren’t, all of it was exactly the way I’d imagined it when I was writing it,” Prior said. “And it was one of those sort of semi out-of-body experiences.

    There are always obstacles to overcome during the filming of a movie, but these obstacles were more difficult than usual for Prior, his crew and cast. They spent around 50 days shooting in Capetown, South Africa. Then they moved to Chicago to wrap up the production with about a week’s worth of exterior shooting. Unfortunately, Chicago got 2 feet of snow, and they had to shut down production after just a couple of days. The costumes got held up at Customs, so the Illinois wardrobe crew was scrambling, trying to figure out how to replicate the costumes.

    “Then our executive at Fox, who was our lead advocate within the system, left the studio,” Prior said. “We were kind of abandoned. It was an interesting thing because I think we were cheap enough that we weren’t drawing enough attention, and it took them a while to replace our previous executive. And any time that happens, it’s precarious. I mean, anybody who’s read even the briefest overview of Terry Gilliam’s career kind of knows when something like this happens. So we didn’t have it as bad as ‘(The Adventures of) Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film) but we had, you know, we had some problems.”

    “The people who inherited the movie just had no vested interest in it whatsoever,” Prior recalled.

    By the time the trailer for “The Empty Man” was being made, Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox was complete. Prior didn’t even see the trailer until the day before it came out. And the trailer misrepresented the film as a teen thriller, Prior said.

    Prior takes pride in the fact that “The Empty Man” has received some excellent reviews since its release. “It’s been said before, but there’s something probably in the nature of finding something that’s been discarded and picking it up and dusting it off and going, ‘Hey, I kind of like this,’ that makes you take ownership of it in a way that it inspires more personal devotion than something that had been really cleverly marketed to you.”

    Vulture has described “The Empty Man” as “the next great cult horror film.” And fellow filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has reached out to Prior.

    “Guillermo del Toro called out of the blue the other day and was enormously supportive and flattering about it,” Prior said. “He said that he was so offended by the way the film was treated that I think he said he thought it was his moral duty to try to make sure that doesn’t ever happen again.”

  • Is There Any Story Sandi Tan Can't Tell?

    No matter the platform, Sandi Tan is a gifted storyteller. She proved it in 2018 when she released her fascinating documentary, “Shirkers.” That movie told the twisting and surreal story of her lost amateur film — also dubbed “Shirkers” — from her teenage years in her native homeland of Singapore.

    Tan recounts the tale to WPR’s “BETA” about a self-avowed American film teacher, who was actually Columbian, named Georges Cardona who took Tan and her friends under his wing to make their film only to make off with the 16-millimeter negatives.

    “He stole this film, destroyed our lives, vanished and then years later, when I moved to the U.S., I recover the footage of this lost film and I make a film about this whole process,” Tan explains.

    Tan was contacted by Cardona’s widow after he died. She alerted Tan to the fact that Cardona had hoarded the raw footage of Tan and her friends’ film for what ended up being the rest of his life.

    What’s remarkable about “Shirkers” the documentary is Tan weaves together a compelling narrative with only about a half minute of footage (plus some recordings) of Cardona himself and only the visuals from the raw footage. All of the sound had been lost.

    “It was a great thing because it showed that I wasn’t lying about this thing that happened to me, first of all, and that it showed that I knew how to tell the story, even though it’s a great challenge to tell the story with almost hardly any footage of the villain,” Tan said. “The stories I tend to want to tell tend to be slightly more complex and convoluted and the fact that I could pull a compelling narrative out of what many thought was an impossible story to tell was actually a very good thing.”

    “Shirkers” would go on to be nominated for a Peabody, and Tan won the prestigious Sundance Film Festival World Cinema directing award.

    Cardona himself would inspire a similar character in Tan’s debut novel “Lurkers” with the boundary-crossing, gas-lighting drama teacher, Mr. Z.

    “(Cardona’s) one of several inspirations for that character. You know, writing him was a way of completing a conversation that wasn’t quite complete or has aspects of conversations that he and I have had,” Tan said. “So, I’m writing with intimate knowledge of what it’s like to talk to a man who would tell you things and then pretend he didn’t say it just to mess with you.”

    Mr. Z is teaching the protagonist, Rosemary Park, one half of the Korean sisters whose family tragedy kicks off the narrative. Along with her younger sister, Mira, the novel circles around the Parks’ neighbors and their sleepy neighborhood suburb north of Los Angeles on Santa Clause Lane.

    Tan’s inspiration for the book came from her own move in 2006 to a placid neighborhood in north Pasadena. The area and the residents were still experiencing a post 9/11 paranoia and reservedness.

    I had to imagine the neighborhood to be more interesting than I thought it might be, in order for me to feel comfortable and feel like I wanted to be there,” she said. “So, I started to kind of think about, imagine myself into the lives of those around me and what would happen if these lives collided somehow.”

    The fellow residents include a former and aging horror novelist, an ex-hippie with an adopted Vietnamese daughter and the recently widowed Park matriarch who desires a move back to Korea. Each character seems to be restless and dissatisfied with their own lives but lack the tools or motivations to change.

    “They all feel like they’re on the sidelines of things. They’re kind of lurking on the sidelines and looking upon their neighbors as being the main action,” Tan said. “And then when they do actually interact, it often doesn’t happen in the ways that they might have imagined things would happen.”

    Tan does a marvelous job balancing all of these character collisions. There’s a lot of repetition and mirroring going on in the story where characters face similar realizations or choices.

    “I knew that they were living so close to each other that they at some point would have to interact and things would echo,” Tan said. “The way people collided into somebody’s life would happen maybe in similar ways at different times. I kind of liked playing with echoes and doubles and things like that and mistaken identities.”

    The way Tan ties these arcs together is both organic and satisfying. “Lurkers” concludes with equal parts ambiguity, heart and regret.

    Now, Tan focuses her attentions to a third discipline of storytelling. She joked on Twitter that it should be an album called “Twerkers” to maintain the rhyming pattern, but it will be the forthcoming film adaptation of Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel, “The Idiot” — which Tan says has shades of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in it.

    “In ‘Vertigo’ you have Scottie, who’s kind of obsessed with this unattainable woman. And in ‘The Idiot’ you have a very smart young woman, Selin, who is obsessed with this boy, and she doesn’t know she’s obsessed with him, even though you watch her life just kind of disintegrate.”

    Sounds like a story Tan is fully capable of telling.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Jen Spyra Guest
  • David Prior Guest

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