An intense time

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You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to recently (March 2019)

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Podcasts have become so sophisticated that they have started to take on the characteristics of their entertainment predecessors. Their production values are often sky high. Many are divided into “seasons,” with lengthy arcs that take time to build and land. And also, as with TV, there are way too many to consume than a single person could possibly do in a lifetime.

As a result, there are some podcasts that I’ve wanted to get around to, but have avoided due to the “commitment” required. Now, a few lengthy road trips later, I am slightly more caught up on all the media I’m behind on.

Here are a few podcasts I’ve been listening to that I’d highly recommend:

The Drop Out – Examining the life and times of Elizabeth Holmes and her catastrophic failure of a company, Theranos, has become a big business. This podcast is one of the latest entrants. While I still think the book Bad Blood is the definitive retelling of the Holmes scandal, this podcast makes for fascinating listening, allowing you to hear fairly extensive interviews with many of the main players. With seven 40-45 minute episodes, they have enough time to dive in depth into some of the key aspects of the story. Overall, this is probably what I’d recommend for people who don’t have time to read the book but want to learn what went wrong at Theranos.

Surviving Y2K – I wasn’t a fan of “Missing Richard Seasons,” which I found to be a bit too creepy and invasive for my tastes, but I quite liked the second season of the Headlong podcast, which dives into the Y2K phenomenon. The show revisits the mania around the Y2K bug, and how people from different walks of life reacted to it. In addition, the host, Dan Taberski, uses the show as an opportunity to reveal how he tried to use Y2K to restart his own life. It’s a bold thing whenever a podcast host bleeds for his art. In this case, it also made for a worthwhile listen.

Slow Burn: Season 2 – “Slow Burn” is a testament to the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This politics-focused narrative podcast, whose second season covers the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, is fascinating and gripping.  Listening to it, I am struck by many things: The quaint concerns of both parties at the time (The Republicans were worried about the deficit and about the morals of our President; with time, let’s just say those concerns have been revealed to be not truly embedded in the DNA of the GOP). The cruelty of many of the players involved, who may not have understood that they were destroying a young woman’s life, but were certainly willing to take that risk. Mostly though, I realize how we’re still dealing with many of the same issues today as back then, not to mention many of the same actual individuals. If anything, politics and political coverage have been revealed to be even more venal than we could’ve imagined back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good One – Not a narrative show, but this podcast by Jesse David Fox makes for insightful listening about the nature of comedy. It’s basically Song Exploder, but for jokes. Where else can you find an analysis of the Totino’s pizza sketch on SNL and the “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” episode of Documentary Now?

I hope you have a chance to check these out. I’d ask for your recommendations, but I have too many other podcasts on deck already to possibly finish them all… (e.g. In The Dark, Caliphate, Serial Season 3, etc.). That said, if you have any must-listens, send them my way!


Some more links from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

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Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

500

As of this week, I’ve hosted and produced 500 episodes of the Slashfilmcast. You can listen to our 500th episode here. In this episode, my co-hosts and I reflect on how the show began, how the industry has changed, and what our favorite moments and films from the past decade have been.

The podcast has had a profound effect on my life and it seems to have had a strong impact on the lives of others as well. I’ve made so many friends and had so many wonderful conversations and experiences this past decade. It was nice to take a step back and just reflect on how unusual and interesting this entire journey has been.

I had a wonderful time making this episode and hope you enjoy listening to it.

Aaron Mahnke’s advice for starting a podcast

Lots of great advice in this Twitter thread by Aaron Mahnke about how to start and maintain a popular podcast. I was particularly encouraged by this piece:

STICK WITH IT. Don’t give up after six episodes. Growing a podcast from zero to success isn’t an overnight thing. It takes patience and courage. You need to hold on and work hard. There are a TON of other podcasts out there, and it’s going to take a lot of time and hard work to float toward to top. Refine, improve, and get better. You don’t have to be 100% perfect in the very first episode.

Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast is one of the few that’s even spawned an Amazon Prime Original series. (Note: Amazon is my employer)

See also: Brian Koppelman’s advice about not giving up.

Write Along – a new podcast about the creative process

I’m pleased to announce that I’m launching a new podcast called “Write Along.” It’s about writing and the creative process featuring screenwriter, author, and former film critic C. Robert Cargill. Our first episode is up now. Check it out on iTunesGoogle Play, or via RSS.

Cargill is a writer whose work I’ve followed for many years. I’ve witnessed his ascent from a film critic at Ain’t It Cool News to a screenwriter working on films that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In recent days, I’ve seen Cargill share advice tweets about the writing process that have resonated with thousands of aspiring creatives on the internet.


I recognized that Cargill’s advice came from a place of generosity. He’d risen in the industry and wanted to reach down and help the next generation up along with him. So in an effort to signal boost, I pitched Cargill on a simple idea: A weekly podcast, no more than 20 minutes long, that covers a single piece of writing advice. It would be another way to preserve Cargill’s counsel, while potentially adding several layers of interactivity on top (both my dialogue with him, and the audience’s dialogue with us).

On a personal level, I’m excited about this podcast for two reasons: 1) I’m thrilled to be working with Cargill, whose voice I’ve always found to be compelling (even if I often disagree with him), and 2) I think there’s a lot of discipline involved in turning out a podcast that’s only 10-20 mins long each week, and I’d like to practice that discipline. I like to go long with my content. I meander. I don’t edit tightly. Can this weekly podcast that’s shorter than a sitcom episode provide enough enjoyment and utility to justify its existence?

Let’s find out together.


A few other notes and observations from the week:

  • If you’re an aspiring podcaster these days, I think it can be tough to figure out exactly which site to use for hosting and creating your podcast. There are just so many options out there (e.g. Podbean, Libsyn, Anchor, etc.). I honestly struggled for a little bit before settling on a hosted WordPress.com website, coupled with a Libsyn account for hosting files (the latter is primarily for the statistics and metrics it provides. WordPress hosts files too, if your’e into that sort of thing). I’ll probably review this experience at some point, but I chose it because it offers a lot of control over the podcast feed, with fairly minimal cost.
  • A big shout out to Wikirascals for helping me out with podcast art, and to @ZShevich for helping us come up with a name for the podcast.
  • This article about the last days of Blockbuster is beautiful.
  • I finally caught up with this powerful essay in which Darius Miles explains what the hell happened to Darius Miles.
  • Sandi Doughton has written a meditation on how to survive in Seattle traffic, which turns into a broader piece on the psychology of road rage. I can support Sandi’s premise that Seattle has some pretty terrible driving. Getting around by car is pretty unbearable and the lack of a subway system doesn’t help.
  • Roxane Gay writes about why you should vote even if you’re disillusioned right now:

Every single day there is a new, terrifying, preventable tragedy fomented by a president and an administration that uses hate and entitlement as political expedience. If you remain disillusioned or apathetic in this climate, you are complicit. You think your disillusionment is more important than the very real dangers marginalized people in this country live with.

Don’t delude yourself about this. Don’t shroud your political stance in disaffected righteousness. Open your eyes and see the direct line from the people in power to their emboldened acolytes. It is cynical to believe that when we vote we are making a choice between the lesser of two evils. We are dealing with a presidency fueled by hate, greed and indifference. We are dealing with a press corps that can sometimes make it seem as though there are two sides to bigotry. Republican politicians share racist memes that spread false propaganda and crow “fake news” when reality interferes with their ambitions. Progressive candidates are not the lesser of two evils here; they are not anywhere on the spectrum of evil we are currently witnessing.

Building something new

From 2012-2016, I probably had the most/best creative output of my entire life. I hosted several popular podcasts simultaneously. I directed a film. I made a cello album, complete with multiple music videos that racked up thousands of views. But the past two years have been a challenge for me when it comes to my creative pursuits. There are multiple reasons for that, but the long and the short of it is that going at things so hard took its toll on my health, and I wanted to focus on other aspects of my life. I mostly swore off creating anything new as I’ve regrouped and reassessed where things have been going for me, and where I can apply my talents to make the most impact.

In the past few months, I’ve had several conversations with different people about launching different podcast projects, and it finally looks like one of them may launch soon (of course, if/when it does, you’ll be among the first to know about it). I love the process of creating something new. It’s fun to brainstorm about a new name, figure out what the art should look like, and consider how to get people excited for it.

It’s always more fun to launch something than to maintain it. The former is filled with endless possibilities. How well will it do? Who will listen? What awesome conversations might result from it? The latter, while still enjoyable and rewarding, is less exciting and ultimately becomes a big responsibility, especially if the show does well. One gives creative energy; the other one can occasionally take it away. But both are valuable in their own way.

I’m excited to take some baby steps back into this world and start making things again. You never know where things will go.

As I move through my life these days, I’m often reminded of the words of Terry Rossio, who wrote an incredible essay called “Time Risk” that still informs how I think about the world (the whole essay takes a couple hours to get through, but is worth it in my opinion):

When I was a college student at the University of California at Irvine, my very first theater class, the professor lectured for three hours about the arts, about how the days of our lives would burn up, one at a time, so which particular fire, meaning your career, might be worthy for you to be consumed? It was moving and memorable. He tied together art, to time. The beauty of being a writer is that you can instigate projects, you can make that choice of how to burn up those moments of your life. Producers must search, and struggle to find something worthwhile. Directors must search, executives must search, actors must search. Only the writer invents from nothing.

“Which particular fire might be worthy for you to be consumed?” Like most people, I’m just trying to choose the right fires.


Five things I’ve learned from podcasting for over 10 years

There are only a handful of movie podcasts that have been going concerns for more than 10 years, and Filmspotting is one of them. Not only are they one of the longest running, they are also one of the best. I remember when I first started podcasting, I held them up as the gold standard in my mind. I’ve always looked up to their eloquence, their slick production, and their ability to build community around moviegoing.

So it was an absolute delight when they invited me on this week to discuss two of my favorite topics: Crazy Rich Asians and podcasting. We all reflected back on 10+ years of doing this, and how it’s changed our view of the world. I hope you can check out the episode.

As part of the show, we each shared the top five things we’ve learned from podcasting (Filmspotting host Adam Kempenaar has been doing this for 13 years, Josh for 6, me for 10). Adam decided to give his list in the form of movie quotes, so I joined in on the fun. Below is my list in written form.

5. “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” -Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Everyone is just out here trying to do their best and be a good person. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when people are enjoying your work over a long period of time, they tend not to vocalize their enjoyment to you on a regular basis, whereas people who don’t enjoy it tend to vocalize it frequently. This is intuitive and reasonable; most people who love TV shows, podcasts, advice columns, or other regular publications don’t write to them regularly to express their appreciation. When you’ve enjoyed something for a long time, you tend to start taking it for granted as a part of your life.

But as a creator, this can lead to a skewed perspective of whether/how people are actually enjoying your work. On a long enough timeline, negative messages can come in with a significant frequency in relation to positive messages. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people consuming your work are the silent majority, still enjoying and valuing what you do. Typically, looking at things like download numbers and other forms of engagement will bear this out.

4. “I mean, I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.” -Jack Dawson, Titanic.

This quote illustrates two points for me. Firstly, podcasting has been a huge blessing to my life. It’s allowed me to meet interesting filmmakers and fascinating people. It’s let me interview my heroes. In some ways, it was an entry point into my professional career. When you create something that people find valuable, you can never predict what the next steps in your life will hold.

The other notion this quote brings to mind is how in Titanic, there were many different classes of people on the same boat. Likewise, there are many different levels of success for podcasting. Most people probably think of the wildly successful ones (e.g. Adam Carolla, Marc Maron, etc.), or conjure more simple images of a few friends podcasting on a laptop for an audience of a dozen or so (AKA how I got my start). But there is a vast “middle class” of podcasters. These are podcasts are too large to quit, but too small to make a living off of. It can be challenging for people to wrap their head around this.

3. “I wish I knew how to quit you.” – Jack Twist, Brokeback Mountain.

Many podcasts are extremely delicate creations and survive only because they are labors of love. The ones that aren’t created by a media company or journalistic in nature (i.e. the ones that are podcasts like the ones I do) depend on two or more people being interested in a specific topic, and being willing to talk about that topic regularly and thoughtfully over the course of many years.

Typically these people have strong opinions and large personalities — otherwise the podcast wouldn’t be super interesting. And it can be difficult for strong personalities to continue wanting to interact with each other over a long period of time. Furthermore, minor things can disrupt this balance: a change in life circumstance, a move across the country, a new job, having a child.

When you hear a podcast that sounds professionally done, it can be tempting to assume that the people on it are professionals who earn a huge portion of their income from podcasting. More often than not, this isn’t the case, and an extremely specific set of circumstances is what allows the podcast to exist. Too many podcasts I’ve loved have vanished overnight (RIP Filmspotting SVU).

Podcasts are delicate things. Treasure them for as long as they’re around.

2. “Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.” -Bojack Horseman, Bojack Horseman.

The internet can be a fetid cesspool, but it’s also allowed me to make meaningful connections that I still treasure. Through my podcast work, I’ve met listeners who have become close friends, important collaborators, and just folks whose work brings value to my life. Many of these are relationships that will last me the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

1. “Neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens.” -Jon Laroche, Adaptation.

In the past few weeks, I’ve received extremely moving emails from some of my listeners. I’ve heard from Andrew in Canada about how the podcast helped him through Stage 4 cancer. I’ve heard from Hiren who fought an auto-immune disease and found the podcast helped him stayed connected to the world of movies. And there’ve been many more over the course of the last decade.

None of this is what I could’ve possibly expected when I started the podcast. All of it is gratifying and humbling.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from podcasting: Things you do that may have little to moderate significance for you may have enormous significance for other people. I don’t have any illusions about what I do when I podcast; it’s mostly just messing around on Skype with some really interesting folks who have great opinions about movies. But what has become clear is that even though it’s just a weekly quasi-obligation for me, other people can find a lot of value in it.

You can extend this lesson to other aspects of your own life. The things you do may not mean that much to you but can impact others in big ways. A kind word said to someone having a difficult day. An expression of gratitude for someone who’s done you a favor. A moment of silent sympathy for a friend in need. People value things in different ways. It’s incumbent upon us to respect that. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned over all these years.


  • Since I quit Twitter, I’ve been really interested in how large social platforms moderate their content. This week saw two blockbuster pieces that covered just that. Radiolab did a fascinating episode about how Facebook wrote its code for moderation. Motherboard also had a written piece on the topic. Both show that Facebook is struggling with an impossible task. But at least it’s struggling with it.
  • Thanks for reading this week’s blog posts and for replying to them via my email list! One piece of feedback I’ve received is that emails don’t allow for the level of interaction that platforms like Twitter do. So, one thing I can offer from now on is if you reply or email me at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net with your questions, I’ll try to make one weekly email/blog post dedicated (or partially dedicated) to publishing your replies and my responses to them.