Servant of Pod
Season 1, Episode 13
Tue, 9/8 11:25AM • 23:16
podcasts, laughter, people, audio drama, story, asian, kpop, movie, writing, paul, showrunner, korean, fiction, big, assistants, loop, interpreting, head, god, realized
Excerpt, "The Big Loop", Paul Bae, Nick Quah
Paul Bae 00:02
Let me turn on my camera for one second.
Nick Quah 00:04
Oh, are they in your room? [Laughter]
Paul Bae 00:06
Yeah. Hold on a second.
Nick Quah 00:08
I feel like I see them on Twitter all the time, I should at least get to know who they are. This is Paul Bae, one of the more prominent creators of fiction podcasts. He co-wrote the popular series The Black Tapes, which is one of the many podcasts being developed for television. He's done a lot of other things as well. But right now, he just wants to show me his dogs.
Paul Bae 00:12
The oldest black one is Monty, the tall, middle tan one is Billy, and the young crazy Pitbull one is Ella.
Nick Quah 00:36
Oh, man. Cute dogs, man.
Paul Bae 00:38
Yeah, Billy's, right now, in the studio with me lying down, farting. So if you heard me like sniffling, it's the the stench that has threatened to wipe me out. [Laughter] But I'm like, I gotta get through this for Nick. I can't pass out.
Nick Quah 00:50
I appreciate you, man. [Laughter] Paul is a genuinely nice guy. He's vibrant, and approachable, and earnest. And the fact that he's pretty willing to talk about his life is one of the many reasons he's developed a strong following. In the podcast world, he's also known for his work as the creator of The Big Loop, and is the director of the fiction podcast series from Marvel called Marvels. Right now, he's working on two upcoming projects for Spotify.
Paul Bae 01:20
I just recently, in the last few years, realized what my thing is, when people ask, "what is your thing?" I think it's always been--and my mom defined it for me--I've always been a storyteller, from the age of five. I'm the kid who would sit down on the grass, and all the other kids would surround, and I'd tell a scary story. That was my first types of stories. That, and jokes, which shouldn't surprise anyone, because a hitting a story's scary beat is the same as telling a punchline, right? It's all surprise, and you build it up the same way.
Nick Quah 01:46
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this episode, we're going to talk about how a one-time preacher and stand-up comedian ended up being one of the more prolific creators of fiction podcasts.
Paul Bae 02:06
I'm the one who built haunted houses in our basement and charged the local kids to come walk through the haunted house in my crawlspace. So I was always a little enterprising kind of storyteller. I found a way to tell the story that mattered to me. So before was a story about interpreting our world via God. And then when I lost my faith, it was just interpreting our world for young people and helping them navigate it. Then it became helping people laugh at their pain, and laugh at a few dick jokes along the way. And then it became, well, let's sell something for me, but tell something about ghosts as metaphor for God at the same time. In the TV stuff, everyone's noticing I have a thing that I'm always pitching, which I can't share right now because it'll give it away, but it's just telling stories in different mediums. I'm not tied to any medium. And I think that explains and the breakdancing was just, you know, Nick, my body wants to tell a story, right? My body just needs to--[Laughter] That sounds so stupid.
Nick Quah 03:01
You speak your truth, speak your truth. [Laughter] Paul was born in South Korea in 1969. When Canada adopted its Multiculturalism Act in 1971, his parents moved the family to Toronto. He says his work, regardless of the medium, is about interpreting the world as he sees it, whether he sees things as a Korean man, as a Canadian, or simply as a person grappling with existential anxiety.
Paul Bae 03:26
I have these anxiety attacks, to be honest, once in a while, where suddenly I'm reminded, this is all going to end. So there's an episode of Big Loop called "You," which I don't recommend during the pandemic, it's quite depressing. But that came out of me, several years ago, sitting with my at the time girlfriend, sitting next to her and thinking, "Well, I'm really lucky. I came out of my divorce. I used to be really depressed. I was a borderline alcoholic, but now look at me. My life has totally turned around. I'm so ****ing happy. I'm so ****ing lucky. It sucks that this is all going to end." And so I remember thinking that and looking at her and she goes, "What's up?" I'm like, "I'm very sad that this is going to end one day." And that went into that episode, that I could spill up my anxiety, and hope people will listen to it. I'm hoping they'll say, "Yeah, I feel that too. There's nothing we can do about it, and it ****ing sucks. And it's sad. It's depressing as ****. But what are we gonna do about it?" And there's no answer for that. And that's what that episode was about. So The Big Loop is sort of like me pouring in that, in different ways, into different characters, into different situations.
Nick Quah 04:27
The Big Loop is an anthology series that spans horror, science fiction, and dark comedy. Its tagline is "stories of finite beings in an infinite universe." This clip is from an episode called "The Promise," which tells the story of a Korean gangster.
Excerpt, "The Big Loop" 04:44
I grew up in Gwangju. I don't know where I was born. But the orphanage wasn't fun. My boss adopted me in Gwangju, raised me with his family in Gwangju. Gwangju was my life. I asked him once, why he adopted me. Out of the hundreds of orphans, why me? And he said, [Korean language clip] He said "your hands." [Korean language clip] "You had the hands of a killer." [Korean language clip]
Paul Bae 05:17
The Black Tapes became my commercial thing. The Big Loop, that became my personal journal to put into story format, but I had a business plan for The Big Loop too. It wasn't just all--I had a few commercial stuff in there to make sure someone might buy it.
Nick Quah 05:29
Yeah. So that experience--or that psychology of yours, to take things not for granted, but also just to stick to the moment--do you feel like that has prepared you for a life in the film and television business? There's this... one of the greater stereotypes and mythologies about Hollywood is that it's a brutal, brutal, brutal business. Do you think that you feel like your experiences kind of prepare you for that kind of life?
Paul Bae 05:58
Yes, I definitely do. I think what happens is because... everyone always talks about, "just make sure they like you." The chances are people aren't gonna like your pitch. They'll invite you and they won't like the pitch. Move on. And people always say "make sure they like you." I didn't understand why, and the one that ended up buying my most recent series, that network, that was my fifth pitch to them, and I realized, "Oh, they like me." Then I started realizing, "oh, they like being around me." And then the people I do the notes call with, they tend to save me for the end of the day. I don't like being at the end of the day because everyone's tired. But they've confessed to me they like it at the end of the day because they say I lift up everyone in the room. That makes everyone happy. Because I never fight about the notes, I'm very collaborative, and I realized--I'm starting to realize--I bring a lot of joy. I think I exude a lot of... everyone's trying their best to make this thing work. Everyone's doing their best, coming from their different angles, and I'm just happy everyone's ****ing here talking about my thing, right? I never forget that. I'm really happy in the beginning, the middle, and the end, and I never, maybe because I'm old enough, I don't take it for granted, because I don't want that. The last thing I want is for me to keel over with a heart attack tomorrow, and my last memory is of me getting into a fight with executive yesterday. I think that'd be an awful way to go.
Nick Quah 07:09
Paul says he's still considered a newcomer when it comes to television. Nevertheless, he's at the table. And his work has an actual shot at reaching a screen. And he's not the only one. So why are film and television studios so interested in podcasters right now?
Paul Bae 07:26
I have two reasons for that. And one's sort of a jokey reason, but I think it's real. The first jokey reason [Laughter] is that podcasts are easier to consume, for assistants. Because what happens is, like, The Black Tapes was discovered by my manager's assistant Chad. He was driving one day, and--he heard about it through a party--and he's driving on the way to work, And he's--assistants are so busy--and he just listened to it. And he's like, "wow," and he fell in love with it. Then he told his boss about it. If it was a novel, I don't think he would have had the time to read that thing. Everyone in Hollywood drives all day and they're stuck in traffic. I think they spend about at least two hours a day. So podcasts are the easiest way to consume it. It sounds ridiculous but an industry is being formed because of the way people--[Crosstalk]
Nick Quah 08:04
I believe it, I believe it. [Crosstalk] [Laughter]
Paul Bae 08:07
Yeah, exactly. So I think that's a real reason, though. People tend to laugh when I say it, but I think that's a real factor.
Nick Quah 08:14
Have you met Chad?
Paul Bae 08:15
Yes, I have. Yeah, I kept hugging him, I felt really weird. Because I was so grateful! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 08:19
Well, tell me about Chad, what's his deal? [Laughter]
Paul Bae 08:23
He's moved on to something else, another business, I got to catch up with him. But it's, he's a guy that I'm so, so grateful for. And then to actually have him hand our thing over to Guymon, who ended up being my manager. That's a big deal. And that's happened for other stuff. It's always an assistant that's discovering stuff, and then passing it up, and they're doing that with podcasts. Everyone's listening to... and they're young, and they're all the exact demographic for podcast consuming. So I think that's the one thing.
Nick Quah 08:30
Shout out to the assistants. They should be unionizing.
Paul Bae 08:54
Well, that's the assistants' side, the reason it gets sped up the chain, but the reason it's actually circulating around Hollywood is, Hollywood is, what I've learned, you always see the stereotype: "What's big this year?" Meteors, okay, everyone's gonna do a meteor movie, or comet/Earth destruction movie, or dinosaurs. It is very buzzy. And trends happen. So I'm hoping this is not a trend. But it could be, I don't know. Novels are still being adapted, short stories are still being adapted. People from social media have, like with these Twitter threads, they're being, once in a while, picked up, and I think podcasts, as long as the quality stays high, they'll keep at it. They'll keep searching podcasts for new material.
Nick Quah 09:33
So I think this speaks to a secondary trend that's been happening in the podcast business lately. I think I'm seeing a lot of people using the medium as a place to test intellectual property, explicitly. And I feel like I've listened to a lot of podcasts these days that feel like spec scripts. Is that something that you're seeing, and do you find that frustrating?
Paul Bae 09:53
It's a definite trend. Because I've had meetings with some of the companies--the big ones--and they're like, "okay, we see"--and they basically told me--"we see this as a cheap way to test our properties. We have like 20 movie ideas." And then I tell them how much it cost, how much I could do it for--you could do a whole series for the cost of a pilot.
Nick Quah 10:12
Paul Bae 10:13
Right? And gain a user base, bring them over to from the IP, the podcast, over to TV or film.
Nick Quah 10:19
Paul Bae 10:20
So I know that's real. What's happening, and it's no secret--you've written about this--is that these podcasts are being... I've always described audio fiction as a loss leader. Whenever I went into these meetings, I'm like, you realize, you're not going to make money off this. You're spending money to advertise the thing it's going to become in your mind, your movie or your TV series. And it's very rare that a podcast can make enough money that an executive will be happy.
Nick Quah 10:44
That's very true. Yeah.
Paul Bae 10:45
Right? It's enough for me to be happy, but not somebody who's used to millions of dollars, so I always warn them about that. And so I don't get frustrated so much. I've been spending not a lot of time, but I'm spending any free time I have devoted to helping indie creators that I know and I'm not really friends with but I'm getting closer to, that I've always been a sort of a sideline fan of, and I'll reach out to them say, hey, do you have representation? And they're like, no, or they have one, but they're not doing anything. And then I'll contact my person. I'm like, hey. I send them the link to their show, I go, let me know if you want them, and then I know at least one of them got signed. Another one, I helped with negotiations with a big company, and they just signed a sweet deal. So that's the way I don't get frustrated. I'm like, okay, this is a reality. People are coming in. And I've talked with show runners on Zoom, helping them make audio drama, because we've become friends. And they're like, hey, Paul, we can't do our TV production. Can you teach me how to do audio drama? [Laughter] And they're really good at... they provide me, if I ever become a showrunner, they're like, here's what you need to know, Paul, about the business. So they help me too.
Nick Quah 11:44
Well, tell me a bit about more about that. It sounds like so you're saying that in the pandemic, now that everybody's shut down you're seeing showrunners, television showrunners, now trying to make fiction podcasts. Is that what you're saying?
Paul Bae 11:54
Yeah, because they're realizing, unless you're a mega showrunner or producer, it's really hard to pitch, an original series that came out of your head.
Nick Quah 12:02
Paul Bae 12:03
Without any IP--even they're having problems. Everyone jokes about it, everyone talks about it. Among TV writers especially, they're like, yeah, they want the IP. Even if they don't read it, they won't read it. They just need to know what's out there. And so they see podcasts as a way to do it. I haven't seen any of them yet. The ones I've talked to take the serious steps to do it. They just want to know like, what does it involve? How much money am I gonna have to spend? Who will I have to hire so they and they always do it respectfully. So I don't want people thinking, yeah, these these guys coming into our territory. Because I'm someone that did that. I used the space of audio drama to turn our screenplay into another media and happened to fall in love with audio drama in the process.
Nick Quah 12:43
An evangelist of a different kind. More on Hollywood, and podcasting, and the audition that changed Paul's life in a minute. What are the differences between writing for the screen and writing for the ear?
Paul Bae 13:12
Oh, okay, so this one is very specific. I have a secret that--there's not really a secret--but I have a tactic. [Laughter] I have a technique for writing audio drama, like very literal, specific technique. When I sit down to write audio drama, I make sure I have music in my head. It's not playing. But I have a piece of music in my head to drive the mood because everything I write for, for example, Big Loop. Music is so important to The Big Loop. Sometimes I don't have... I have an idea, but I don't know how it's gonna go until I find the song that's going to end it. For example, "Children of God," that one. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a man struggling with his faith because of his child that is only a head. Right? It's just so abysmal, and so hope crushing, and so nightmarish.
Excerpt, "The Big Loop" 13:56
You know how you see Christians talk about God answering prayers. I used to talk like that too. But during that time I realized God might answer your prayer in action. And you might hear him, but not literally, you know, but in the result of prayer, but you never really hear a voice, you know, it's not his voice. Sure you hear the voice of other Christians interpreting God for you, telling you what God intends for you, for the baby, but it's not like God goes "This is God," that "the reason I'm giving you this child is because it's a test of your faith." It's never a voice. We just say it is to fill the silence. Because the truth is, God doesn't speak that way.
Paul Bae 14:53
And it makes you think like Job. It makes you think, what the hell are you doing God? What are you doing to me, a faithful servant, a servant of God? I was really struggling, how do you tell this ****in' story? I'm not Cronenberg. I'm not as skilled as him in that kind of macabre storytelling. Then this band from Sweden that I love, Tjuv, they have this song called "The River" and I heard it, I'm like, that's the feeling. That's the feeling of throwing it away, your logic, and just going with faith, and just hoping the universe rewards you for being a good person. And so the whole thing I wrote with that music in my head, and the way they talk, and the way the narration went, and everything about that was driving towards that song. So a lot of people notice, The Big Loop, when you end an episode, you have these feelings, and the song allows you to sit in those feelings. It's because I'm writing towards that song at the end. So it starts as audio. For when I'm writing TV, it's all visual. I'm thinking of what do they look like? What are they walking through? What is their home like? It's entirely visual. So it's a different way of writing. And I notice on the script, because I do that, the TV version has more description in the scenes, where the audio version has none. It's just people talking.
Nick Quah 15:59
So let's focus in on what you're working on podcast-wise these days. You've got two shows through Spotify. One is a "Black Tapes for teens," essentially. And the other one's about a Kpop group, which is one of the more interesting things that's crossed over into the West in 2020, of course, as Asian folks who've been very aware of this for a while. [Laughter] Tell me about these projects.
Paul Bae 16:19
Yeah. So, Amanda Chi and The Ghost Sessions, I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to tell, but it's basically what the trades were saying: it's a young girl, a Korean/Indo-American girl, who has to navigate her way through a new high school while learning of a new power, which is she can see ghosts and interact with spirits. It becomes this crossover between a whole bunch of... like Veronica Mars, and I guess Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then the Kpop one was based off of... I have a friend who was the lead singer in one of Korea's first Kpop groups.
Nick Quah 16:54
Wait, what?! [Laughter]
Paul Bae 16:55
Yeah, it's crazy. It's a crazy story. Well, I'll say it. His name is Sean, I don't want to say the name of the group, but Kpop fans who know history will know who this is. He's back in Canada, he's a realtor now, but he went through a crazy experience in Kpop, starting before there was Kpop, before the country started putting their muscle behind the music industry and the entertainment industry.
Nick Quah 17:16
Yeah, it's a real state effort. It's wild how Kpop is a state creation, a little bit.
Paul Bae 17:21
Yeah. And it was just before that. He's one of the ones that made Koreans realize, Oh, this could be something we could invest in, and take out there. His story was just insane. And I remember him sharing it with me one night and I'm like, do you mind if I take this part of the story and turn it into an audio fiction? And you come on? And then he goes, Yeah, but then I didn't use it. It just felt sort of weird using too much of a story for something that's going to be out in public, so I changed it all up. But the idea of someone's ascendant career in Korea brought up other things that I was personally struggling with, and that I've personally seen, having grown up in the Korean church. So I wanted to tackle those issues. So I thought, well, this is a good way to do it. And I get to maybe meet some cool Kpop stars while doing it.
Nick Quah 17:22
Okay, so I'm generally hesitating to ask this question because I feel like it might be a little self-indulgent. But I'm going to ask it anyway. [Laughter] How has your Korean-ness-slash-Asian-ness informed your experience in the entertainment business?
Paul Bae 18:20
Oh, it's been totally shaped by it. Like, a lot of kids who grew up in the 70s and the 80s, there was only a limited amount of media you could consume. So I grew up watching... I grew up wishing I was white, basically. All my heroes were white, until Bruce Lee came, right? Like before, I wanted to be Six Million Dollar Man, I wanted to be... There was no Asians to look at, all right? I just want it to be something that I consumed. I never saw me on the screen. You hear the story all the time. And then when I was acting, I remember I got so sick of some of the roles I was getting. This one time, I don't mind saying this, there was a very well known TV show, and my agent said hey, they want you to be a pizza delivery boy, but you don't have to say anything, just practice reacting to something terrible. I'm like, okay, so I just practice my reactions. You know, like "oh ****" in the mirror. Showed up, it was all Asian dudes. And I'm like, well, that's really interesting. They have the heart set on an Asian guy delivering this pizza. And then the casting directors assistant came out to the room and said, "Okay, guys, there's a slight change. The character is no longer pizza delivery guy. It's Chinese takeout guy. But you guys probably all figured that out." And I remember looking at all the other dudes in the room, and I could tell right away, none of us had figured that out. Like none of us had assumed that. And it was so insulting. And I felt so, not hurt, but angry that at that age, I have to debase myself and sit in a room with with other guys trying their best to achieve their dreams. And just sort of been tossed away with these assumptions. And so I thought, you know what, I need to be on the other side of that camera. I'm ****ing sick of this. I need to be on the other side writing stories for people like me. So that's one... and I was already writing screenplays, but at this point I really started a focused effort in systemically building my skills to realistically get something sold.
Nick Quah 20:04
Hmm. Last question, and I want to stick with the entertainment industry angle a little longer. So I think I personally grapple with feeling a little bit weird about the representational politics of Asians in Hollywood. I mean, it's fine if we get more like Crazy Rich Asians or, you know, x genre movie, but with Asian leads, but I wonder how far that's actually going to get us because we're still not talking about Asian people actually being owners of studios, or having any structural power, or anything like that. I'm curious if you have any thoughts about that.
Paul Bae 20:38
Yeah, I think it's good to go on several tracks. So I like us having... and I say us, like, people that look like us. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 20:48
It's just young people here. [Laughter]
Paul Bae 20:51
I like people that look like us finally getting some power and control in an industry that has historically not allowed people that look like us to have those things. I like that. So I like those movies for that purpose, and for entertainment. But I also think it's important for movies, like with Alice Wu, making the smaller movies. The more intimate, very personal movies. And it's not that they said, Okay, let's reverse engineer this genre and put all our Asian friends in it. It's not that. She just went, this is my life, alright? This is... Or The Farewell, that one. "This is me." This is... Like, more personal stories. I think we can do both and everything in-between. I think it's really important because it's always like, one for them, one for me, right? One to make the money, one to use that money to finance the thing I really want to make.
Nick Quah 21:02
Paul Bae 21:10
But if we can do both simultaneously, that's good for everybody. And it's good to see people like Randall [Park] and Daniel Dae Kim really opening up their own production companies, telling Asian... basically doing what Jordan Peele is doing. He, and he's not just, he's telling a history of the Black experience in America using a very familiar genre and just turning it on its head. And I would like to see us doing that kind of thing, being super inventive but encouraging each other, and giving each other the resources to do that.
Nick Quah 22:11
Paul, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Paul Bae 22:14
Oh, thanks for having me on. This has been awesome.
Nick Quah 22:31
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.