Pale Men Glenn McQuaid and Larry Fessenden chat about Fessenden’s audio drama Who Killed Johnny Bernard? Now available at TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE The Podcast. Sketches by Brian Level.
GLENN McQUAID: WKJB is a very personal piece for you, how was the experience of putting your grief into this story?
LARRY FESSENDEN: The script came to me very organically. I had been to my friend’s funeral and many stories were told and so the set pieces wrote themselves: The accident, the sailing ship, swimming with a whale shark, working in a bank. Of course I added the bargain with the demon, because that’s what we do in story-telling, we envelope the truth in a cloak of the imagined to quench our thirst for meaning in a random world.
I liked the idea of writing a literary piece, with plenty of voice over. Sometimes with our Tales we dive into the drama through dialogue and sound effects and let the audience figure out where they are, but here I wanted to celebrate the written word with a prose style and that approach worked for this piece.
Another structural device I employed was to repeat the same dialogue twice, providing a jump-scare with the accident the first time, and then the second time, a deepening of the emotion and sense of dread as you start to recognize the dialogue and this time you know what’s coming. I like to think of it as a demonstration of Hitchcock’s famous description of shock vs. suspense: if there’s a bomb under the table and it goes off, that creates shock. If you know it’s under there, but the characters don’t, that creates suspense. This is maybe a slight variation, where you feel sad because you know the fun they are having is going to end horribly.
Anyway, these are all things we can do in our radio plays: experiment with ideas in writing and structure and point of view and see what we can get away with in this format. As for dealing with grief, I cried many times writing the piece. At least the process was cathartic for me, I can’t judge its effect on the listener.
GM: Who Killed Johnny Bernard uses quite a few different locations and drifts between several time-lines, how did you find producing and directing such an ambitious live event?
LF: Glenn, you and I worked very hard to have the transitions make sense. Ambiences and sound effects are even more crucial in a piece like this because they are actually establishing cut points and dissolves between time and locations as if it were a film. It was quite ambitious to pull it off. It is after shows like this that we always say, why not run the same tale for a week so we can actually do it right. Alas, we have never allowed ourselves that opportunity. I don’t mind the punk aesthetic but it takes its toll.
GM: As somber as the piece gets, I had a lot of fun working on it with everybody, there was a fun, family oriented vibe about the production that echoed some of the lighter moments of the story. Was that intentional?
LF: The story deals with the relationship between father and son and it was quite magical to have my pal James Le Gros and his son Noah on stage and then myself and my own son playing music for the piece. Glass Eye Pix projects always aspire to family and camaraderie not because we’re a bunch of saps, but because that is the best way I know to ward off the darkness all around. This radio play is about the horror, but it is also a celebration of a life well lived and the other intangible things we must defend, even as our ideals unravel in the public sphere.
GM: It’s alway a pleasure to work with James LeGros and he is terrific here, was he on your mind while writing?
LF: James is family, I always know he will serve the material well. I liked the idea of pairing him with his own son for this so it might have been on my mind.
GM: Matthew Stephen Huffman, one of the nicest guys I know, is absolutely terrifying here, what have we done to poor Matt?
LF: Matt is a treasure we’ve been mining since the first season of Tales. He has a great voice and the perfect attitude for the Tales ensemble. I think life has pulled him away from acting regularly but it is nice to know we can drag him back to the mic now and again and get these delicious performances.
GM: Music is a big passion of both of ours, how cool was it to have your son, Jack Fessenden jam along side you and James LeGros’ son, Noah?
LF: That was fun, all part of putting something real and unexpected on stage. We’re the producers: If we want to end the play with a little sax solo, that’s just what we’ll do!
In conclusion I want to post this photo of me and the real Johnny (last name not Bernard), showing the sorts of things we got up to. At my insistence we would perform scenes from “Cabaret” for friends and family, with him playing Liza Minelli and me as Joel Grey. John was game for anything. We were doing drag acts in the 70s before it was cool.