Making it Real: Ian Chillag on Everything is Alive
Have you ever considered whether the train seat you sit on every day to work has its own thoughts? Or what the lamppost that peers into the window of your apartment thinks about the TV shows you’re watching? Welcome to the world of Everything is Alive, one of the most unlikely hits of the podcasting universe, in which inanimate objects bare their souls and spill their stories. Novel's Jess Swinburne spoke to founder and host Ian Chillag about how you get a bar of soap to say what's really on its mind
Imagining the inner voices of inanimate objects is something many of us have probably thought about – though rarely to the extent that Ian Chillag does in Everything is Alive, a Radiotopia show from PRX. From a grain of sand to a satellite orbiting Earth; a set of Russian Dolls to a Shrek tattoo; a pane of glass to a balloon – since the series launched in July 2018 Chillag has invited them all into the studio and subjected them to the kind of thoughtful, compassionate probing that psychoanalysts generally reserve for their clients. What does a rental car think of the hip-hop its renters pump out on the stereo? What are a baguette’s true feelings about the French? And if you haven’t heard the series, and are wondering how a can of Coca-Cola or lamppost can talk … Maybe it’s time to listen to an episode or two of this genre-bending show. It might just change the way you move about it in the world.
Ian Chillag is a producer and writer who lives in Brooklyn. Along with making Everything is Alive (which has just finished its fifth season), he's been a producer on NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His most recent show is In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight: a “TV rewatch podcast for a TV show that never existed”.
Jess Swinburne:Where did the idea for Everything is Alive begin?
Ian Chillag: I’ve always joked around and pretended to know what objects are thinking. I think it's a thing that all humans naturally do, but most people stop at a certain point and I continued. Some of my interest also came from producing news at NPR. I’d be working on a story about banana blight somewhere, say; if you’re producing, the thing you want to find is a primary source, so we’d go find the banana farmer who is dealing with this thing. It always occurred to me that an even more primary source would be the banana itself.
Jess: What draws you to the objects you interview?
Ian: It’s more art than science. Some things feel like they possess a personality and some things don’t. If you have multiples of an object, like four wine glasses, let’s say, and you pull one away from the set – if you can feel the loneliness and contemplation of that glass, that’s a good indicator that you can create something that feels like it’s actually thinking.
The other thing I figured out early on is that there are two types of objects – objects that are used all the time and objects that are used only once. In Everything is Alive, that’s a very profound difference. For an object that’s used once (like the can of cola , the subject of our first episode), its whole life is spent in anticipation, thinking about the moment it will be used. It spends almost all of its life not doing the thing that it was made for, and that’s a strange existence. Something like a subway seat, on the other hand, is used all the time, and so it constantly gets to experience what it is. I hadn’t thought about that binary until I got into making the show, so I felt it was important to have a mix of those objects. I strive to have a diversity of objects, personalities and cultures in each season.
Jess: Going back to what you just said about the loneliness and contemplation of an object, one of my favourite episodes is the Russian Dolls one . You observe that even though the smallest doll sits inside the others, it’s also in a room by itself. That really stayed with me.
Ian: That was one of my favourites to make. It was the first time we had multiple objects in one episode, so it made it easier to think about the objects' world without us. If the objects are mostly talking about their experiences with humans, it’s kind of a failure. The episode should really feel like they are talking about their experience of the world.
Jess: Of course when you’re “interviewing” an object, you’re in fact interviewing an actor playing the object. How does that work? Do you think, say, Connor Ratliff would be a perfect pair of leather pants and approach him, or do people sometimes come to you with objects they’d like to play?
Ian: Usually we bring the object to the actor. Often we tell them that we’re thinking about a number of different objects. If any jump out at them, they’ll pick one. But then for the most recent series, we approached Jes Tom and said that we wanted to work with them and it was Jes who suggested they be a baguette. That’s how that one began.
Jess:The show is described as “unscripted”, but is that true? Do you genuinely not have a plan? You just let the interviews run and see how they go?
Ian:I used to strive for perfection, which means it felt a little less real; I’d do a number of retakes. These days, I’m a little more willing to not do retakes. I have a little conversation with the actor a few days before to map out scenes, images and an ending that I want. It’s like guided improvisation. Sometimes we end up somewhere else entirely.
Jess: Can you tell me more about that? Do you leave it up to them to create the character they’re playing, or are you involved in that process too?
Ian: I start by asking what comes to mind and what character starts to form when they think about the object. In that first conversation before the recording, we spend a little time shaping the basic character notes. So, for example: If you’re going to be a pencil, what are your hopes and dreams? Do you always dream of writing your own message? Are you bitter because you have to write whatever a person wants to write? Are you anxious because you’re constantly afraid of the pencil sharpener? These big questions will inform the base notes of a personality and they can then go away to think about those things.
Jess: Each episode features a brief insert interview with a "real" human, in which you discuss something specific to do with the object central to the episode. How do you plan these too?
Ian: When I start thinking about an object, I do a bit of research to find stories from the world of that thing. We’ll try three or five of those over the course of an interview. Sometimes one will work, sometimes a couple, sometimes none. In the most recent episode, Playing Cards , the Four of Clubs asks why he’s called “Club” when he doesn’t look anything like a club. Peter Grosz was just joking around, but I thought it was an interesting question so I found Ken, a card collector and historian of cards, who could help me figure it out. I like to get the interview with the object edited down pretty far. Whenever it feels like there’s a question hanging, that’s where the phone call should go. I always want to speak to a real human being rather than an expert.
Jess: Do you explain the context to the people you’re interviewing? Do they know they’re on a show that interviews inanimate objects?
Ian: I try not to. I never want them to play with it. One thing I like about that part of the show is that you never know where reality ends and the fiction begins, so I’m careful not to explain the show.
Jess: My favourite example is in the Baguette episode , where you call up Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, Missouri, which advertises itself as “Home of the Throwed Rolls” . We discover that “throwed rolls” aren’t a special kind of bread, but a description of how servers actually throw the rolls to their customers. Luke, who you speak to, takes the job incredibly seriously.
Ian: The whole thing of Everything is Alive is that it’s a ridiculous premise treated with absolute seriousness. You almost never hear me laugh. I take great pains to make it very deadpan. You don’t want the suspension of disbelief to fall apart.
Jess:What does the future hold? Are you going to continue until you run out of objects?
Ian: At the moment we only do 5 or 6 episodes a year – both because it’s a hard show to make but also because I have other things to think about. Sometimes I think I’ve done enough but inevitably there are more interviews with objects I want to do or new things to find out. It’s difficult because the suspension of disbelief is so fragile – if a conversation sounds too planned, the whole thing falls apart. You know there is a human being telling another human being to pretend to be an object. If you hear too much of this then it falls apart. I sometimes feel a little pinned in by the show. The show has to continue to be what it is and it is very hard to break the formula in the way that I would like to.
Jess: How hard is it to sustain the suspension of disbelief and get the tone right?
Ian: When the show was starting, a friend said they thought it would be more like giving a croissant a French accent. But I want it to sound like real people. The flatter it is, the more you can hear the contrast between the comedy and meaning. We fail a lot, though. There are many episodes that don’t see the light of day because we don’t get the tone right. It’s hard to get right.
Jess: A lot of the objects seem to have quite sad inner lives. Which object do you have the most sympathy for?
Ian: Sometimes people ask me if making the show has changed my attitude to the inanimate objects in my life. I will say, after I interviewed Tara, the Bar of Soap , every time I got in the shower and looked at my bar of soap getting smaller and smaller, I felt something I hadn’t felt before.
Ian:Sadness and guilt.
Jess:A sad and guilty shower is a bad way to start the day.
Ian: It really is.