In 2018, Arden made waves as one of the most interesting takes on true crime in fiction podcasting. Arden is a true crime satire, both poking fun at the genre and and becoming a perfectly thrilling mystery in itself–while also being a modernization of Romeo and Juliet.
The podcast’s second season, debuting December 30th, 2019, will be a take on another classic Shakespeare, Hamlet. I spoke with creators Emily VanDerWerff, Christopher Dole, and Sara Ghaleb to see what listeners can expect and the hurdles of modernizing Hamlet.
Arden dropped its first teaser for season two today.
An embed of the RadioPublic player for the teaser, which you can also find here.
To start us off, can you introduce yourself and your role on Arden?
Emily VanDerWerff (VDW): I’m Emily VanDerWerff, the co-creator and writer, and a whole bunch of other stuff, on Arden. I’m also the person who sends emails to the writers and says, “Where is your script?” Very important job.
Christopher Dole (D): I’m Christopher Dole, I’m co-creator and writer, and I’m the person who sends those emails to the editors.
Sara Ghaleb (G): I’m Sara Ghaleb, I’m one of the co-creators, co-producers, co-everything we do in this wild world, and I’m the one who says, “Did you send me an email about that?”
How did the three of you meet?
VDW: Chris and I have been in contact through an internet message board that discusses Oscar movies–we’ve been in contact since maybe 2007, 2008. He came out to LA to go to a class, and my wife [Libby Hill, another writer on Arden] and I went and had dinner with him, and then he crashed on our couch for a week or two, and then we collaborated on scripts together for eight or nine years. Towards the end of our time with this management company, we thought about some fun ideas we could do with a scripted podcast. What came out of that was a bunch of ideas, and the one that our manager liked the least was Arden.
D: We said to them, “We’re gonna do this. You don’t have to be involved.” And they said, “Okay, well, go do it.”
VDW: It really looked like I wasn’t going to be involved because I was working on a book, and working on a pilot script, and wrestling with my gender, so that’s when Sara got involved.
D: The person who is crucial to Sara and my friendship is Laura Stratford, who is involved in season 2. I knew Laura in college, Sara knew Laura from living in Boston–
G: We’re from the same small town, so I met Laura in high school.
D: When Sara moved out here to LA, Laura said we should meet, so we got coffee, agreed that The Flash’s Barry Allen is the worst villain alive, and I realized we were gonna be friends.
G: I think I talked your ear off about moon socialism.
Sara, you’ve said before that everything you write accidentally becomes a comedy. Do you think that plays into Arden and pushing the boundaries of genre?
G: I do sketch comedy at the Ruby Theater, which is so great because so much of sketch comedy–especially out here in Los Angeles, because everyone is trying to get famous–has a lot of rules to it, and that’s great to learn those things, but the Ruby is very free form. It’s all about, “Go have fun! Go have a blast!” I’ve gotten really into finding out the weirdest show we can put on. We just did a sketch show that was a Gothic murder mystery dinner party, just one long sketch. I’m always thinking with my sketches: “What’s the weirdest thing we can do on stage when nobody will stop me?” I think that plays into Arden.
VDW: Sara’s always pushing it to be weirder, and I’m always pushing it to be more like a 2005 prestige drama. Somewhere in between those two things, the show exists.
I think Shakespeare is the perfect fit for the three of you; the plays are taught so academically, but they’re so silly.
D: Oh god, yeah. Back when I was in college, I directed a production of As You Like It. The way I got the actors into it–this was, like, 2009, so Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin were the big zeitgeist things–is I told them, “Shakespeare was making the Apatow movies of his time.” That’s how you get them off the page.
VDW: I love how wildly the plays shift, tonally–and Arden is a show with wild tonal shifts. I think one of the reasons we get away with that is endemic to Shakespeare, in a weird way. You can do a staging of Macbeth that’s basically a slamming doors farce, or you can do one that’s a straight-up horror movie. Every season of Arden could effectively be a different genre, even though we’re in the true crime cold case format.
G: You know what I like about Shakespeare? Minimal stage direction. Also one of my favorite things about audio drama. I don’t want to read where people are walking. I don’t care! That’s what I bring to the table. I studied Shakespeare, and my main takeaway was, “Great, all talking. Love it. Most of these are dick jokes, and/or about murder.”
We’ve pinned down “Why Shakespeare?”, so why true crime?
VDW: I think that was me. I’ve talked about this a million times, but the idea gestated from when I was listening to a bunch of audio drama, fictional podcasts, and I was also listening to a lot of true crime podcasts. Everybody at the same time had the idea, “Someone should make an audio drama that sounds like a true crime podcast,” because there’s 500 of them. But the thing that fell into my head was that there’s an interesting thing to be done if you have two different narrators who disagree on what happened in the case. Some of these shows allude to other narratives of what happened, but you always hear the “official” version from the person who’s speaking. I find true crime endlessly fascinating and morally icky. Some of them are so good, and some of them are so bad, and the line between the two is so thin–and I think that’s a rich area for drama, especially if you’re presenting it as found footage.
D: One thing we’re discovering as we’re developing this season is that there’s a lot of genres in true crime. Everyone thinks of the Serial model; this season is going to be very S-Town in its approach. We’ve talked about doing something like The Dropout. There’s so many genres within this realm that are worth exploring.
VDW: The founding podcast of true crime is Serial, and that’s about trying to exonerate someone who’s innocent. We haven’t even touched that.
G: Serial was really something–they did a Saturday Night Live parody of that. I don’t think there’s any other specific podcasts that you could just do a sketch on SNL where everyone in America would get it.
There’s the joke on Bojack Horseman, too–Sarah Koenig is Diane’s ringtone.
G: Those have been getting a little more niche, which I appreciate.
I would love to hear your opinions on S-Town, because it’s a controversial one.
VDW: I think it’s a beautiful work of art that’s really reprehensible. If it were fiction, I might say it’s the best podcast ever made, but it’s not, and that really weighs heavily on me. Aja Romano on Vox was one of the first reporters to cover S-Town in any sort of skeptical tone, and people got so mad at them. Now, three or four years later, people cite them as the key piece of evidence that S-Town is bad.
G: And it’s so obvious!
VDW: S-Town is so fundamentally flawed that I can’t stop looking at it.
G: I listened to S-Town, and I did not like it, and it made me angry, and that’s what I’m bringing into season two. I didn’t like it, but I still think about it, because it’s incredibly human, and personal, and flawed, in very interesting ways. If it were a novel or something, it would be beautiful–but how dare you air this? This is too personal to be just a news podcast that anyone in the world can download whenever they want. I’m shocked that it’s freely and widely available.
D: It’s kind of astonishing, when you sit back and think of the infrastructure that made this show, and the levels of production it had to go through where everyone said, “Yeah, this is fine. This is something we’re going to stand behind.” Were they just blinded by the artistic potential and ambition? Where did they forget these were real people? Did they forget the real people? How did they come to choose this story? It’s shocking that it exists, and kind of horrifying–but yet, as Emily said, there’s something strangely beautiful about it.
G: S-Town has this undercurrent that it’s about a man processing his grief over a friend’s death. It’s not technically part of the narrative, but it’s interesting–it’s obviously so personal because this man died, and the reporter was deeply affected by it. You couldn’t do another S-Town, because you can’t organize that kind of human grief.
VDW: One of the things we do on Arden is take true cases and twist them so much you can’t see the true crime roots. I wish they’d just done that.
G: I’ve been reading history books, and it shocks me every time a historical writer will write something that’s obviously from a personal account, like a diary, and write it as fact. They’ll write, “And his wife had no idea!” and I think, “There’s no way you actually know that. You’re definitely not getting that from her.” True crime feels like a new genre, but it’s not. It goes back to newspapers and gossip columns. It’s so dependent on the narrator and who the narrator talks to. Who is deciding what is true, and who is giving them that information?
D: This is one of the core things Arden is about. We’ve really talked about it for this season. There’s gonna be some stuff–I’m just gonna end there.
VDW: You’re going to question whose story this is, I will say–who’s telling this story, whose story this is to tell, and what role our characters have in telling it.
Does Arden have a thesis on the existence of an objective truth?
VDW: The first scene of season two literally has characters talking about this.
D: This is what season two is about.
VDW: Bea believes that yes, there is objective truth. Brenda believes that you can find out what happened, but you can never find out to your satisfaction why. On a fundamental level, people are mysterious to themselves. The idea that you could ever necessarily explain why you did something is, in essence, false. The real desire of all true crime is to figure out with 100% certainty what happened, and you can do that, but you’ll never be satisfied. That’s kind of what happened in season one, and we’re chasing that even more in season two.
What was it like adapting Hamlet, a ghost story, into a podcast universe that’s been fairly realistic so far?
D: Well, skunk apes and moon mines are things that canonically exist.
G: Emily wrote the pitch for season two, and when I realized it was Hamlet, the first thing I thought was, “Bea and Brenda do not agree about ghosts.” That’s what was appealing to me. It’s not so much about the ghost story; it’s more everyone saying, “It’s a ghost story!” or “No, that is not a thing.”
VDW: We’re definitely touching on the ghost. Our version of Hamlet, Dana, believes she’s seen a ghost. Whether she has is going to be open to debate. That’s one of the things about an audio drama: you can’t really capture a ghost on tape–or can you?
D: There’s a lot of different things that a ghost could mean as well.
G: We’re all haunted, aren’t we?
D and VDW: (Laugh)
Have there been any particular hurdles in modernizing these stories so far?
VDW: When I was first like, “The rancher’s child is a daughter,” and I was trying to make all characters women for some reason, we had a conversation about season two where we thought we could not do Hamlet. We talked about that for maybe five minutes before deciding we had to tackle it. Just shifting the story to a modern, capitalist society changes so much about it, because now there are mechanisms to deprive Dana of her inheritance that don’t necessarily involve murder. It’s so hard to come up with a way in which someone could be murdered or maybe not murdered with nobody knowing who did it or how in an era of modern crime-solving techniques. That’s a thing we really struggled with. And Ophelia is trans. We have these riffs on classic characters.
D: One thing is that our version of Hamlet is female, and that changes a lot with adapting the play. When you’re thinking of Dana Hammill not just as Hamlet, but also as her own character–because she does have to stand as her own character–you have to decide, who is our Hamlet? What is the reading we have of this play? This is definitely something we argued about: is Hamlet an anti-hero? Is Hamlet a villain? Is Hamlet just in over his head? When you’re making Hamlet a woman, there’s a fair amount of his character that’s rooted in disgust and fear of female sexuality.
G: And the flip side of that toxic masculinity is that Hamlet is very much a character who doesn’t understand that someone else in the world could possibly have it worse than him even though he’s . . . living the life, honestly. He has every opportunity in the world for happiness but he’s miserable, and he makes everybody else miserable, and he doesn’t even seem to notice or care.
D: There’s no character in Shakespeare that has greater control over his own narrative than Hamlet. Every option is presented to him over the course of that play, and he actively chooses not to take them.
G: Even now in 2019, it’s harder for a woman to believably have that much confidence in her own privilege. I think we’ve made Dana less wishy-washy by merit of if you’re a woman and you’re wishy-washy, you get that squashed out of you. Hamlet can be wishy-washy and still the most privileged person in the room. Dana has to pick one.
VDW: Dana’s not in control of her own narrative. This show is being edited by other people. The voices we trust are Bea and Brenda, and how does that change her story?
D: Especially because in the play, there’s no perspective that can challenge Hamlet, and we immediately have that through Bea and Brenda.
G: Hamlet believes he knows the objective truth of what happened, because he believes his ghost dad. Instead of directly confronting his uncle at any point, what he wants is a trial in the court of public opinion. He wants everyone in court to see a confession, nothing settled quietly behind closed doors. With true crime, everyone can make a podcast, everyone can just put their personal shit on the internet–and I think this is an interesting take on that. Dana wants a podcast on this crime–or maybe not a crime, maybe an incident–as her way of doing it in front of the court.
D: A thing that Sara has talked a lot about it giving a platform to someone who shouldn’t necessarily have one.
VCW: We’ve also hired a writers’ room. I’m so tremendously glad we did that, because they made the story so much better. We had some really fun arguments about different points within the season. We brought back Libby [Hill] from season one, and we also hired Lenny Burnham, Allison Solano, and Mara Woods-Robinson, some of whom have worked on podcasts, some of whom are new to the form. We’ve been so blown away by their work. I wrote episode three, which introduces the case, with Allison, and I’ve been like, “Oh my god, this is amazing. What am I doing here?”
There’s an interesting update on how you’re doing the soliloquies in Hamlet. How did you come up with doing them as songs?
VDW: We talked super early on about Dana performing at open mics–I think that was a Sara pitch. From that evolved the idea of Dana being a singer/songwriter.
D: This is where Laura Strattford returns to the narrative after introducing Sara and I. Laura is the co-founder of a Chicago musical theater group called Underscore Theatre. Their recent musical about the Haymarket Riot won the Jeffs for best independent new musical. It’s an awesome group. Laura has very kindly agreed to help us turn the six soliloquies into these musical numbers. I’ve been mainlining a lot of Kacey Musgraves, Phoebe Bridgers, some Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. We’re trying to break down the soliloquies–because we don’t want to directly quote them–to their emotional content. When you have a musical number, there’s an idea that it’s something that cannot be expressed too words. It’s an emotion that is too big to be expressed by just words. That’s what the soliloquy is in Shakespeare. It ended up being a very natural progression to take those to music.
G: I liked the idea of Dana, a modern Hamlet, doing open mics, like, “My uncle murdered my dad! I see ghosts sometimes!” From my perspective, the soliloquies are so essential to Hamlet. He gets in the middle of the stage and has a conversation with himself where he works things out, and that’s a lot of what songwriting is.
What was the decision like going from a soliloquy to a diegetic audience?
VDW: Yeah, every time I listen to these great songs, I think, “How is Dana not signed to a major label?” Is that a thing we have to talk about, or is it more tragic that she’s just wiling away in some Montana town when she could be the next Kacey Musgraves?
D: It’s kind of like the thing in the play where Hamlet says that if he wanted to, he could just go be a playwright.
VDW: One thing that changes when we added a diegetic audience is that people have distinct opinions on Dana’s work. Some people really like it, and some people really hate it, and that sort of breaks down on their feelings towards Dana. I think that’s a really interesting tension to explore with the townspeople.
G: Part of it was also, again, my feelings on Hamlet being someone who does things in public. In the play, he’s pretending to be mad to put on a performance for attention. Him pretending to be mad is his way of publicly accusing his uncle without ever going up to his uncle and saying, “I accuse you.” He’s doing a performance for the benefit of an audience where he can publicly talk about what’s going on in a coded way. In my mind, that so clearly translated to writing these songs that are metaphors of her very real opinions on what happened. She’s saying, “I’m gonna perform [these songs] and you can’t say anything about it, because that would be acknowledging the truth of them.”
D: I’ve gotten to write some of [the music] as well, which has been something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. I’m very excited to have that opportunity. There’s one song that I wrote the chorus for, and that’s very cool.
VDW: I wrote a song for a minisode, and hopefully we’ll be able to record it soon. Very important.
G: I wrote, uh, all of Brenda’s theme songs.
D: The true musical stars of Arden.
What are you listening to right now? Emily, I know you gave yours during our last interview.