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June 25, 2019

Matt Schrader '11, Elena Bawiec '16, and Peter Bawiec '15 talk "Blockbuster"

The Pioneering, Genre-defining Lucas/Spielberg Podcast and its SCA Roots

By Ben Del Vecchio

The light hustle and bustle of a Los Angeles street hums a roadside “room tone,” a pause in the conversation permits the background noise to filter through the phone. On the other line is Matt Schrader – journalist, director, producer, School of Cinematic Arts Class of ’11. He’s fresh out of a pitch meeting, on an evening stroll back to his car when he pauses: “It might be a little noisy.If it’s easier, I can call you from the car."

It might be noisy, but the sounds are suitable. After a day of binging Schrader’s latest podcast, Blockbuster – which features dynamic and immersive sound design by Peter Bawiec ’15, a carefully composed orchestral score, and a plethora of audio tracks that mesh voiceover, narration, and sound effects in service of creating a “film-like” experience – a singular phone line pales in comparison.

The noise is a welcome complement to the conversation.

After graduating USC, Schrader has spent the better part of the past ten years working as a journalist for NBC and CBS on self-contained projects outside of regular news operations, “combining higher production value content with a journalistic bent,” he says. After he left, he produced, directed, and wrote his debut documentary, Score (2017) –– a film music documentary which, via journalistic inquiry and sleek production, offers an inside look into the lives and work of film composers, their scores, and the creative process behind their craft.

Blockbuster is a natural successor to his work on Score. The program tackles the rise to fame of legendary filmmakers George Lucas ’66 and Steven Spielberg, but with an innovative, docu-narrative sonic style.

“We basically took the journalistically researched sequencing of events from podcasts — the structure —and combined that with the film production back end, marrying those with a story instead of just facts,” says Schrader, explaining Blockbuster’s initial concept. The result: an immersive, nostalgic story of two old friends and their early celluloid escapades that echoes through old studio lots, screenings rooms, editing labs, and film sets around the world. Schrader wrote a series script, recorded the narration and voice actors with Bawiec, who then began to sound design an immersive world set in 1970's Hollywood.

“We knew that one way to anchor the audience in a place in time was through the sound design, so we put a lot of attention into the detail of that world: cars, phones, typewriters,” Bawiec says. “Our objective was to respectfully dramatize every single scene —to give it a character, to give it an arc."

“Largely,” says Schrader, “we approached this like one continuous feature film. We wanted there to be a story arc that came in three acts, and that would be satisfying in the end.”

The story begins shortly after Lucas and Spielberg’s film school days (Lucas at SCA, Spielberg at Cal State Long Beach), when they met and palled around with the other “Movie Brats.” The first episode details a gathering at Francis Ford Coppola’s house for a screening of Spielberg’s made-for-TV debut feature Duel (1971). Also in attendance: Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. The scene sows the seeds for the series; Blockbuster isn’t just about the worldwide smash-hits Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), it’s about a creative friendship that enabled those successes.

“We’re telling the story of the blockbuster film, but we’re also telling the story of the Hollywood dream,” says Elena Bawiec ’16, a producer on Blockbuster. “It’s really bigger than just Spielberg and Lucas. It’s universal to anyone striving to achieve something. The person who achieves is the person who keeps going after failing, and that’s what this series is about."

While Schrader cited other podcasts, which have had scripted stories, as influential (the concept recalls the Wellesian radio broadcasts of the early 20th century), he says, “there hasn’t been a true story, about real people, told both journalistically and narratively.” That’s where Blockbuster slots in, spinning narrative yarn replete with dialogue, scenes, and sound design but within a non-fiction framework, “marrying true facts with storytelling."

Some publications (including a rave review in Forbes) have discussed Blockbuster as being among the medium’s genre-creators: the “biopod.” Biography podcasts are on the rise (Spotify’s Stay Free: the Story of The Clash ads and billboards are plastered across Los Angeles), though few podcasts structure their stories as three-act narratives.

“All of us are filmmakers first and foremost. We’re not podcasters, we’re filmmakers. So we took everything we learned at SCA and applied it to a different medium,” says producer Elena Bawiec ’16. “We were trying to create a story that allows you to feel their journey and the experiences they went through as if it was for the first time.”

“It’s interesting how everything old becomes new again at some point,” says Schrader, at the mention of old radio programs, both narrative based (like The Shadow) or informative, ‘50s ‘docudramas,’ –– “that’s kind of what Blockbuster is about, more or less. There’s this original great age of big romantic, larger-than-life, King Kong (1933) type spectacle movies. They start to feel outdated, then they start to be forgotten. People start to forget there’s power in some of those stories. The vision Lucas and Spielberg had was something that tapped into the greater mythology of the story that they were working on.” 

Kong’s score was penned by Hollywood’s Golden Age titan Max Steiner (CasablancaGone with the Wind), and was an influence not on just Lucas and Spielberg, but their shared composer John Williams. Blockbuster’s ace-up-its-sleeve is Hollywood’s most famous film composer, whose story is inextricably tied to Lucas’s and Spielberg’s. Indeed, William’s scores –– for Jaws, Star WarsRaiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind –– provided an epic, orchestral entryway into the worlds built by the iconic filmmakers.

“We wanted to take the existing format of podcasts and tell a story in a cinematic, making it really feel like an immersive experience,” Peter Bawiec says. 

Indeed, with Blockbuster, Schrader and Co. was trying to evoke the immersion of their subjects: “The musical approach we took for Blockbuster was referencing those great Williams scores of the ‘70s, but also trying to find a way to do something with our original score that the dialogue couldn’t do.” 

Schrader spoke of Star Wars’s lasting effect on the popular consciousness, from the Marvel films to Game of Thrones, but his remarks suitably describe the success of his own work: “it’s all about world-building. Creating that place for people to step outside their own lives, into a new experience. The world-building aspect is the most powerful thing of the last century of cinema.” 

The team behind Blockbuster is comprised of a cinematic coterie of USC alums: SCA pair Elena & Peter Bawiec produced and sound designed (respectively), with SDA alums/voice actors Ray Chase (as Lucas) and Max Mittelman (as Spielberg), and Jean de Meuron as marketing supervisor.

“Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are an inspiration to everyone who aspires to create and tell stories. There is a magic to their work that moves you on an emotional level,” de Meuron says. “Movies are about making dreams come true, and Spielberg and Lucas dedicated all of their passion to that dream.”

Schrader traces the genesis of this project to his time at USC: “I took a Drew Casper class that was about Spielberg — a deep dive into his films. A lot of what I learned and studied in that class indirectly contributed to this project. As for Lucas, I never really considered myself a Star Wars ‘fan,’ so one of the cool experiences in making Blockbuster was discovering the risky, entrepreneurial moves Lucas made while trying to make his film.”

“He was willing to take a risk for the chance that he might be able to reinvent something and do something new and fresh.”

Blockbuster itself is an entrepreneurial venture –– ad-free, its goal is to provide an immersive experience without the jarring intrusion of sales and commercials. Instead, the series was released independently, relying on investors, as well as user and listener donations to fill the monetary void left by ditching advertisements. The move seems to have worked –– the series topped the documentary podcasts charts upon its release, and its following is only growing. 

“Spielberg, Williams, Lucas, end up being friends and a creative trio responsible for so much in the modern world, and –– they all have buildings now at USC. Their legacies will be eternal –– John’s music will live on, Spielberg’s impact will live on, and Lucas’s world will, too.”

 “Blockbuster” is available now, free, ad-free, and streaming on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or here.
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