Who Is This Dirk Maggs, And Why Does He Rule So Hard?
The colorful 'X-Files: Cold Cases' writer/director on adapting for audio well-loved works like 'Alien,' 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' and Neil Gaiman's novels.
August 3, 2017
Over the course of a prolific career, U.K.-based director Dirk Maggs has brought to life the fictional universe of familiar franchises like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and Alien, with deluxe, detailed soundscapes full of vivid and surprising special effects, developing a form of storytelling that feels truly three-dimensional. Also, as we learned firsthand at Comic-Con in San Diego, he’s a total character, a genuinely nice person, and someone we really want to hang with.
His latest project, the new Audible Original The X-Files: Cold Cases, deploys a full cast, including David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Agents Mulder and Scully, to adapt TV’s beloved conspiracy drama into something newly unsettling. Audible Range caught up with Maggs to learn about his journey as a storyteller, and why he believes there are no limits to what’s possible in spoken-word audio.
Audible Range: Obviously, audio drama is much older than Audible. Where did this fascination begin for you? Did you listen to a lot of radio as a kid?
Dirk Maggs: I did, actually. Audio drama never really went away in Britain the way that it died off in the U.S. during the 1950s, as television caught on. Here, it stayed. When I was a kid, every Sunday we’d have the radio on while we were having our lunch, and there were certain radio comedy programs from that period, which whenever I hear them I can smell roast beef and gravy. It’s a strange association of things.
It was always in my mind that I would love to work in comedy and radio. I joined the BBC and worked my way from a studio technician up to being a producer, and there was a vacancy in the comedy department, where all the programs I loved as a kid, where people like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and John Cleese and all my heroes came through … Douglas Adams with Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which was just happening as I joined the BBC.
When there was a possibility of a job in this department as a producer, I applied. I had to, for my interview, come up with program ideas, so I thought, “Oh, a birthday program about Superman. And wouldn’t it be fun to actually dramatize some of the comic book material?” We made the Superman tribute a docu-drama where we put him on trial for his life, and prosecuting counsel was Lex Luthor and his defense attorney was Lois Lane. I can’t imagine how quickly the law degrees are conferred in Metropolis, but anyway.
It was really fun because we mixed up lots of evidence of his past (obviously excerpts from the comic books) with the witnesses, and in his defense we had Jenette Kahn, who is president of DC [Comics], and we had Dave Gibbons who was co-author of Watchmen who became a good friend to me. And also, because he happened to be coming through the BBC that day and I saw him in a corridor, got Adam West, bless him, who came and [testified] for Superman and was absolutely wonderful.
AR: He just happened to be there on that day?
DM: Well, the BBC was one of those places … I walked in one day with somebody and out of the lift came a really famous Shakespearean actor. Someone like John Gielgud, someone really amazingly famous and old. Then down the stairs from one direction was coming the Archbishop of Canterbury. The other stairs from the basement was coming Frank Zappa, all in one area. I turned to the person I was with and I said, “Only at the BBC would you have this happen.”
AR: What are the things that you think the audio medium allows you to do as a storyteller that movies and TV, or even books, don’t?
DM: Basically, you can do everything in audio [that] you do in those media. The difference is that you, as a listener, you are kind of complicit. You’re not just sitting here absorbing it, letting it wash over you. You’re actually inside it. If you listen, as many people do now to this stuff, on your headphones plugged into your smartphone, you’re more immersed in the action than traditional radio drama listeners. But also, to an extent, more than you are even in a cinema, because in a cinema you’re locked in that seat in the room and your attention is very much directed ahead of you. Whereas if the story is playing out on a screen inside your head, you are in a sense almost physically present at the action.
It’s funny, I just finished an excerpt of X-Files about five minutes ago. The last couple of scenes were just Mulder and Scully in a situation and talking and moving around the room. I felt, yeah, I am standing in the room with these people, I’m actually there with them. That I think is the gift of it, that it becomes a very unique personal experience.
AR: With the X-Files, it’s going to be especially interesting because I assume that a lot of people listening to it will be fans of the show and the movies, and you have David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson performing their roles, so it’ll be an opportunity for people to really feel that direct comparison between the audio dramas and show.
DM: I’m hoping the fans will realize that they don’t need the pictures, particularly as there’s already visual reference, to be there with Mulder and Scully on what are really fun adventures … a lot of the old characters that have fallen by the wayside in the newer TV series are back and are functioning, and that’s part of the fun of it, too.
I’m hoping it will absorb them and I’m hoping they will feel they’ve gone back to the universe of Mulder and Scully and are enjoying that chemistry.
AR: I imagine you are looking for some very specific things when you cast for voice acting. But in this case you were working with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny and several performers from the X Files TV show. Was that process at all weird or challenging for the actors? How did you get them in the head space of performing their roles for a different medium?
DM: It’s a lot easier when the actors know the characters they’re playing. You could feel that Gillian and David slipped on Mulder and Scully like a pair of really comfortable, well-broken-in shoes.
Particularly, I was at Gillian’s session and … she lives in London so she’s very acquainted with British audio drama and she does a lot of audiobook readings. So really she just got it immediately. David, after a half an hour of finding Mulder without having to have the wardrobe and the makeup and the lines, really enjoyed himself. Actually, that was the fun part. Hearing how the cast were enjoying getting back into the characters.
AR: There are a lot of sound effects in your work. What do you look for in sound effects? Presumably you’re looking for different things than someone working in a visual medium would.
DM: Really, what I’m looking for is a strange kind of realism, and it’s interesting because we’ve had several sound designers working on the series and it’s been interesting to see their take on things and then to discuss and find ways where we mutually feel we’re moving forward. What I mean by that is, and I’ll take Alien for an example, certain of the effects for Alien, we were very fortunate to get from Fox and from Creative Assembly, the company who made the Alien Isolation video game, which was superb.
I would’ve happily spent six months making new Aliensound effects. It was rather wonderful to be able to plug into their existing stuff, but there was still plenty I had to make myself, and attacking an alien, when no such creature exists, you have to think in a sort of lateral way about how to create it. I did plunder pretty much every animal I have in my sound effects store for an alien being killed at one point, and I think there was a tiger and a badger and a pig in there. Pigs are very good. Pig squeals are great for alien pain cries.
The fun part, as well, is you can use an acoustic to suggest something, and particularly in episode two of X-Files: Cold Cases, when they first go back to the old office and Mulder walks in and he says, “You know what? I think that’s my sandwich in the bin that I left last time I was in here,” just for fun, even though it wasn’t in the comic itself, I had his voice sound as if he poked his head actually in the trash can to check the sandwich.
AR: You’ve assumed a number of titles on these audio dramas and I’m wondering if you think “director” makes sense as a descriptor for what you do on these projects?
DM: Yeah, it’s funny. In the days when I was at the BBC we were known as “producers,” but actually we did everything. We booked the talent, we directed the actors, we supervised the edit. Since moving more and more into the field of audio drama — “audio theater,” “audio movies” is how I describe what I do — yeah, I think “director” does still work, because certainly there is a certain amount of pushing actors about, and so on. But it’s kind of weird, because over the years I’ve become a one stop shop: I adapt the script, I push the actors around, and then I add the noises.
It’s a team effort always, but you do have to kind of have a working knowledge of most of the technology you’re dealing with. I guess in the same way that if Ridley Scott walks onto a film set, he will ask the camera man what lens he’s using and will understand what the camera man means when he tells him.
AR: With something like The X-Files, we already have a sense of what that’s supposed to look like visually. With [the BBC production of Neil Gaiman’s] Good Omens we might not. Do you work with visuals and storyboards when you’re developing an audio piece?
DM: No, although I think you’ve made me want to try it now. The thing is, in the case of X-Files, I kind of have the storyboard in front of me, which is Joe [Harris] and Matthew Dow Smith and all the other artists’ work. In a way that work’s been done.
What I do is, I do write the scripts in movie format: Dialogue speech is in the center of the page and all of that, because that helps me think visually. I just write the story I want to see in my mental cinema. When people say, “Well, how should I write for this? Should I change anything?” I say, “No, write the movie. Write the movie you want to see, then worry about how you’re gonna make it work in sound alone.”
And actually, when you’ve written the movie you want to see and then figure out how to change it for sound, maybe you’ll change 10% of your script in order to accommodate a way of describing a visual event. But, if you’re really clever and you know how sound effects work, and how acoustics work, and you know how you can work with actors to make them feel complicit and to get them actually creating in the moment, in the room, you can make absolute magic, visual magic.
I was working on Alien: River of Pain earlier this year with Colin Salmon who was playing Captain Brackett. Colin was great because after a bit he developed this stance at the microphone. He would stand there like he was surfing an imaginary wave as he was saying the lines, and that was how Colin got in the zone to create this character. One of the great things about doing this in the studio is that occasionally there is a camera in the room, but usually there isn’t, so people can just look as stupid as they want and it really doesn’t matter.
Another thing about the medium that I love is the fact that nobody can see what is really going on, it’s all smoke and mirrors which makes it really exciting.
AR: Is it important to you to respect the already existing universe of franchises like Alien and X-Files, or do you feel totally emboldened to create something new?
DM: No, I’m always aware … it’s vital to respect what’s gone before, and especially for X-Files and Alien — these have huge numbers of people for whom this is important and you have to honor that. I spend an awful lot of time trying to get it right.
In [Alien: River of Pain], which is a prequel to Aliens, the James Cameron movie, there are scenes from that movie kind of replicated in the drama. I felt conflicted about that because I don’t want to improve on what’s gone already and Jim Cameron is a brilliant filmmaker. I wanted to bring something new to the party, so what I did was I actually went to these original scripts, the drafts before they did it in the studio. And if you look at the original script and look at the movie, you can see where the need of the moment changed certain lines, and so on and so forth. So, I actually worked from his script before those actors got their hands on it, rather than after.
AR: In the case of something like Hitchhiker’s Guide, as I understand it, you were the hand-picked adaptor of Douglas Adams’ work. Can you talk to me a little bit about your relationship with Adams? You said he was a mentor to you, and I know you’re still working on Hitchhiker’s Guide to a certain extent.
DM: Yes, well Douglas heard when I did the Superman docu-drama and then a couple of series of Superman on BBC, because DC was very pleased with it. At that time he’d just finished what turned out to be the last Hitchhiker’s book, because he, sadly, died before he could write anymore. He wanted these three novels to be brought back home to radio. He asked my boss at the BBC if I might be free and available and interested in doing it. I think I was at his front door before he put the phone down from that call — and panting!
It was such a wonderful thing to have someone of that imagination and stature hear your work and think that you’re the right person to bring theirs back to life in sound. We had several very happy afternoons talking about how to bring Hitchhiker’s back and the imaginative changes that might or might not be made. It was astonishing to me that he trusted someone who was really as new as I was to the game. Over the rest of the ’90s, whenever we bumped into each other … we would sit down, have a cup of tea and a chat.
I had corresponded with Neil Gaiman for about 25 years, but we actually only really met up when we started doing this BBC stuff together — we had lunch last week, and we were talking about how we were both mentored by Douglas. Because he was a journalist, and Douglas, I think, persuaded him that he should be a writer. In the same way Douglas picked out what I did and encouraged me to do it by giving me his big box of toys to play with. What a fortunate connection to have made, and what a fantastic man. I’m thrilled that all the techniques that brought me to Douglas’s attention and made him trust me, I am now able to bring to bear on The X-Files.
AR: Do you just have a taste for science fiction and superhero stories or does it come from a sense that these are the stories that work best for ambitious audio?
DM: It started that way, but really I’d like to be doing Shakespeare — but nobody asks me! I mean, I love sci-fi, but I love lots of other things, too: biography and history and good novels and plays and poetry. That said, I am speaking to you from an office full of toys. I have to admit there is a [xenomorph from] Alien looking down at me from an angle, and then there is a Dalek from Doctor Who somewhere else.
AR: It would be cool if you did, like, Alexander Hamilton’s biography with sound effects and a full cast.
DM: I would love to do that … because you can. In the end, the biggest inspiration for me is a well-told story. All I am is a storyteller, and it’s just the techniques you use, isn’t it? What I’ve tried to do is to give it a kind of a rhythm, I suppose, because I’m a drummer in my other life. I think that drummers know where to drop the bombs, as one BBC producer told me once. There’s a way of telling a story …. If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to: A. write the script, B. push the actors around, C. edit the dialogue, and then D. add all the sound effects and the music, what you’ve got is a wonderful way of getting a rhythm into it and putting a bit of a swing on one bit and then hitting hard somewhere else, and so on.
It’s like watching, for the first time, a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is so perfectly put together, and all the jumps are in the right places, and all of the moments of calm before the storm and all of that. It’s the work of people like Spielberg and great directors. That’s really the thing. It’s all to do with storytelling and using the media to convey this story in a stylish way. It really doesn’t have to be science fiction or fantasy. It could be Alexander Hamilton.