On a snowy November morning in a carpeted studio overlooking Bryant Park in New York City, a group of actors, directors, and audio engineers are working on an X-Men movie you’ll never get to see.
It’s a recording day for Wolverine: The Lost Trail, the sequel to the award-winning 2018 serial podcast Wolverine: The Long Night starring one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe, Wolverine.
But unlike the radio dramas of yesteryear, where exaggerated performances recorded in a booth were scored to over-the-top sound effects, the taping for Wolverine — a new franchise born from a partnership between Marvel and Stitcher Radio — is more akin to shooting a movie or rehearsing a stage play, sometimes all at once, according to Stitcher Studios executive producer Jenny Radelet Mast.
“We approach it like a film,” Mast tells Inverse. “Character is everything. It starts with the writing. Obviously radio drama has been around for decades, it’s part of the origin of the medium. But we were looking at this as a way to flip the medium on its head.”
Written by Benjamin Percy (DC’s Green Arrow) and directed by Brendan Baker and associate director Chloe Prasinos, The Lost Trail leaves the bitter cold of Alaska for the sweltering streets of New Orleans. From the bayous to the French Quarter, the man called Logan (Richard Armitage) crosses paths with a young Nawlins teenager, Marcus Baptiste (Rodney Henry) and a Cajun mutant named Remy Labeau (Bill Heck) — better known to X-Men fans as Gambit — on a mission to figure out the sudden disappearance of mutants.
Unlike The Long Night, which was told from the perspective of two FBI officers on the hunt for Wolverine, The Lost Trail brings Wolverine front and center as he navigates Louisiana’s mutant underworld.
On the surface, the influence of true crime podcasts like Serial and S-Town seems to influence Marvel/Stitcher’s Wolverine; Logan is always solving crimes, after all. But Stitcher and Marvel are quick to resist comparisons. To prove it, they sought about producing the show in a way that didn’t just feel like Marvel doing a (fictional) true crime podcast.
“It didn’t feel right for the medium,” says producer Daniel Fink, who works with Stitcher’s Jenny Mast on behalf of Marvel. “It just felt like we were taking the exact model and not making it our own to push the envelope.”
So the producers of Wolverine adopted a recording process previously seen only in the cutting-edge space of virtual reality. Four ambisonic microphones, arranged in a sphere, pick up “3D sound” in the room where the actors physically act out the script. Another camera records visual information that evaluates the distances between characters and objects, which serves to create an audio experience as dynamic as live stage plays.
Punching, drinking, walking through crowds, Wolverine “clawing” faces off — every action is picked up by the microphones. While I was unable to snap pictures of the studio, I could watch the action unfold: Inside a Nawlins bar, Wolverine and Marcus try to play it cool even though they’re outnumbered by hostile patrons. They’re looking for somebody, and they’re trying not to cause a scene.
Armitage and Henry mill about the space, picking up glasses and pulling up chairs to sit down at tables. Aside from the fact they’re holding iPads with the script (which they slowly rely less on take after take) and the audio engineers fiddle with knobs not twenty feet away, I almost believed they were rehearsing for a live play, not a pre-recorded podcast.
The technology inside the space was implemented at the insistence of the show’s directors, who have previous experience in nonfiction podcasts including Reply/All and Love and Radio.
“If you look at Brendan’s screen in the studio, you’ll see a grid,” Mast says, This grid displays sound and heat waves that reveal where sound comes from, and where it travels. “This technology they brought in [was] part of their vision. They’re non-fiction storytellers and they both understand story and character from that level too.”
Superheroes and audio dramas have a long history. Radio was among the first mediums that superhero characters, notably Superman, were adapted into outside comic books. And Marvel is no stranger to the format either. In 1974, Marvel produced a radio drama starring the Fantastic Four. But 2018’s Wolverine: The Long Night is the company’s first show released as an episodic podcast, and its recording process was unlike anything ever done before.
To the actors, it was almost like shooting a movie.
“I’m convinced we’re making movies,” says Armitage, an actor of the screen (The Hobbit), the stage (Mike Bartlett’s off-Broadway play Love, Love, Love), and animation (Netflix’s Castlevania) who voices Logan/Wolverine.
“This feels like the first couple weeks of rehearsal. We talk about, ‘Where’s the camera?’ because my mind works like a movie actor, you have actors to work off of. I go home at night and think about the boat we were on, the mosquitoes biting that didn’t happen. It’s something your head created, it’s vivid. I’m convinced this is gonna be seen one day.”
“It’s less cerebral,” says Rachel Holmes, who stars in The Lost Trail as an ex-lover of Logan’s named Maureen. “When you’re in a voice-over booth, it’s very isolating. You’re by yourself, it’s a pane of glass, there’s a mic. This time, you get to go into a room and ‘play,’ and you can forget yourself in a way that I love as a stage actor. Here, you play, and you trust what’s been captured.”
Bill Irwin, who plays the antagonist Jason Wyngarde, almost spoils a moment in the new season by describing a scene when he is, literally, thrown up against a wall. “You’re in the room with the people, you get to work off your scene partner. By takes three or four, you can get off the iPad script and look the guy in the eye.”
“Your mic is your stage,” says Fink. “It’s your camera and lens.”
Wolverine: The Lost Trail is steaming now on Stitcher Premium.