'Wolverine' Podcast Team on 'Apocalypse Now'-Inspired Season 2

The surprise hit returns with the Marvel mutant heading to Louisiana and meeting Gambit: "We didn't want to rinse and repeat, so we flipped the paradigm," says writer Benjamin Percy.
Courtesy of Marvel

When Marvel ventured into the unchartered waters of podcast territory, no one could have had anticipated that comic book fans would be receptive to an audio story. But Wolverine: A Long Night, which finds the character embroiled in an investigation in Alaska, cemented its audience and gained new fans.

At the helm is writer Benjamin Percy, who has authored comics including Batman, Green Arrow and James Bond, and audio producer/director Brendan Baker, who hails from public radio, specifically the Love + Radio podcast.

Following the team's iHeartRadio award for best scripted podcast, the second season comes highly anticipated. Titled Wolverine: The Lost Trail, this installment will explore the historical underbelly of Louisiana and introduce familiar comic characters such as the Cajun thief Gambit and Jason Wyngarde, mutant leader of the refuge Greenhaven. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Percy and Baker about how they built the immersive world and extracted the soul from Wolverine's savage exterior in season one, and the inspiration they drew from Apocalypse Now for season two, where Wolverine is the head of an investigation. 

To give everything you have to this podcast, comic books must have made an impression on you. Can you recall your first impactful experience?

Benjamin Percy: I grew up in rural Oregon, and it was such an isolated area that we didn’t have a grocery store. We had a mercantile. My mother would take me shopping and would deposit me at the end of an aisle beneath a spinner rack, and I would pull down comics and paw my way through them. If I was good while she was trundling down the aisles with her grocery cart, then she’d let me take one home. I still have a lot of these dog-eared, wrinkled, stained copies. I was never a collector, someone who shrink-wraps my comics; I read them to death. I can’t recall reading any novels until fourth grade when I picked up The Hobbit. Comic books made such an imprint on me, and it was the dawn of my understanding of storytelling. They had an incredibly formative effect on my life and imagination.

Brendan Baker: I didn’t have a lot of exposure with comics as a kid growing up. My initial awareness of the Marvel Universe happened through the X-Men animated TV show in the '90s, so that’s when I came to know the characters and the video games. I did most of my comics reading in the last few years when preparing for this gig. (Laughs)

Percy: A late-blooming nerd.

Baker: Well, I was always a nerd, but not that part of the nerd role.

Ben, you pitched this project to Marvel with a 30-page bible that ensured the job was yours for the taking. What is it about the character of Wolverine that excites you, and how far back does your interest in the comic go?

Percy: He’s always been my favorite character. There’s something about being a very grumpy, smelly, short, muscular, cigar-chomping, whiskey swilling loner that makes the imaginative leap not too great when I’m writing about Logan.

There are different depictions of Wolverine in various comic books and stories; from the fun and cartoonish clawed beast to a character with real soul. How did you hone in on the elements that you felt most compelled to explore?

Percy: I read my way through the [Chris] Claremont library, and I love the work that Jason Aaron and Greg Rucka have done, in particular. I was really trying to hone in on the soul of the character and his savage qualities, his loneliness, his haunted-ness and his search for atonement. Maybe he’s spent a little too much time in the spotlight recently, and it's made him a more warmhearted and friendly character than I perceive him as. As much as I’ve enjoyed the films, I also feel like the character has been somewhat misrepresented outside of the film Logan. This was a deep dive into the soul of the character, and it’s a soul that is encased in a lot of muscle and hair and barbed wire and poison. Deep down inside of this guy there’s a heart, but he’s made a lot of terrible choices, and he’s plagued by his decisions. His want to do the right thing does not come easily, so when we were looking at inspiration, Unforgiven was a primary source. It’s all about a character who has a history of violence who’s trying to escape it and is dragged back into the fray. This was a really unique take, and I was surprised that Marvel allowed us to do it. We pushed Wolverine into the shadows once more and made him the subject of an investigation — I think that enhanced his mystique once again but also made the characters and the audience afraid of Wolverine, as they should be.

The podcast feels like you’re in a comic book – it’s audio, but the visual landscape is constructed, the sound is wall-to-wall, it’s all very palpable and suspenseful. What kinds of conversations did you have during production that set the trajectory on this path?

Baker: A lot of our process was one of iteration, so we would get Ben’s early drafts of the scripts and get a sense of what the world was and what the environment was going to feel and sound like. Early on, I made a playlist of music that evoked the same kinds of images of being in Alaska — there’s one scene in particular where a hunter sees Logan running with a pack of wolves in the distance, and I wanted to get an emotional feel for what that would sound like. Throughout my radio career, I’ve insisted that music and sound effects are working in place of the image; the elements in the music actually help listeners build the scenery for themselves. That’s one of the cool things about audio in that it sits halfway between film and a novel in the sense that, in a novel, you’re reading the text and building it in your mind; in a film you’re consuming it and being given the imagery and the sounds. Here, we’re in this middle ground where the sounds are creating a scaffolding for your imagination. So I would look at Ben’s scripts and try to figure out what kinds of images I was getting from the text and then find audio ways of emotionally translating that into sound, whether it was through effects or music. I think a big part of the process was taking the scripts and making early prototypes, so Chloe Prasinos [associate director] and I acted out the entire series to get a sense of what it would sound like. That gave us the framework to go back to Ben and give feedback on how the script was shaping up in the draft process.

Percy: It’s a really curious process, because if you think of comic books as being a visual medium, how do you replicate that with sound? How do you make a fight scene work? It was a learning process, and part of that came from reading stories like All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, where the principal character is blind — it’s interesting to figure out how he replicated experiences through tactile moments. One of the things that I felt like was so inspiring was that I was in new territory, a frontier that I wasn’t always comfortable with. That led to all sorts of aesthetic discoveries and made storytelling feel fresh to me. For example, if we’re in a windblown forest, out at sea, in a cave, a cult compound, an interrogation room, how can the characters and the audience feel anchored in that environment, not just through expository dialogue, but through the sound effects that Brendan and Chloe are siphoning into the audience’s ears?

What was the casting process like for the audio Wolverine, and what kind of weight did Richard Armitage bring to the role?

Baker: We worked with a casting director to find Richard, and part of what makes him so perfect for the character are the qualities that Ben described earlier about Wolverine. His reluctance, the soul inside that’s often overpowered by savageness — Richard understood that at its core. When we wrote to him about the job, he wrote back this really long letter that described everything he was getting from the character after reading the scripts, and it just felt like he grasped the vision of Logan. To reference what Ben was saying about Logan being in the shadows in the first season, in the second he’s brought out into the front a lot more. In the very first recording session for the second season, hearing him again in the role felt like coming home. Not only does he bring the character to life, but he adds nuance and layers into the relationships with the various characters in a way that gives [listeners] a sense of Logan’s pain. He’s trying reluctantly to be a good person while insisting that he’s not a hero. That tension plays through the entire series.

With the investigative formula that the show follows, it appeals to fans of Serial and other true crime podcasts. Was that part of the assignment, or did it evolve naturally?

Percy: It was not part of the assignment. I was told nothing, except “Pitch Wolverine.” Serial and S-Town definitely came to mind, but also Twin Peaks and True Detective. The latter is all about unreliability, and the interrogative formula of our first season aligns with that — every character has a secret, and none of them are telling the truth. It’s your job as the audience to unpack the mystery alongside our agents, who themselves aren’t being fully forthcoming.

Baker: One of the nice effects of telling the story this way is that the audience is closely aligned with the investigators throughout the whole series, so it has that effect that Ben was describing where Wolverine is in the shadows and the audience is at a little bit of a distance. They learn more about Logan as the investigators talk to people in the town and figure out why he’s there. This is a nice introduction for people who don’t know anything about the character while also being rich with nuanced references for audience members who love Wolverine. Ben has encoded a lot of Easter eggs and references from the comics that are there for the fans.

Speaking of those who don’t know the character, how would you describe the emotional through-line of this podcast to them?

Percy: In the first season, Logan remains largely in the shadows; he’s a mystery even to himself. We have a small town in Alaska that is put under the microscope and slowly unburdened of its secret. You have a Twin Peaks-like scenario where we’re looking at a character but also at a landscape where the narrative and the metaphors are entwined as we explore them. Ultimately, you’re exploring a turnstile of mysteries. In every episode, whatever you thought was going to happen soon gives way to a larger question mark that draws you into the next episode. We hope to defy the audience’s expectations as to who Wolverine is; though they might think they know him from the films or comics, we’re exploring new emotional territory.

You mentioned that in season two, Logan is going to emerge from the shadows in Louisiana. Can you talk about the new setting and continuing story?

Percy: We didn’t want to rinse and repeat, so we flipped the paradigm. First you have Wolverine as the subject of an investigation and now Wolverine is the head of an investigation. In the same way that we had Alaska as the edge of the world, the last frontier, a wild place where people go to hide, we’re treating Louisiana similarly. It’s a ghostly stage in so many ways; it’s got these sunken shacks and cypress trees and swamps glowing blue in the night, French quarters, psychics, voodoo ceremonies — it’s a place where history lives. At the end of the first season, Logan is coming back into his memory, and now in Louisiana, a setting that informs this troubled region that he’s traveling through, a ghostly history is coming back to him. Apocalypse Now was a primary influence for season two, it’s a quest story. And a love story, but that has nothing to do with Apocalypse Now.

I imagine that season two will also introduce more elements of the Marvel Universe for those experienced enough to pick up on them.

Percy: Indeed. We have characters like Gambit, who I’m especially excited to write. I love the "frenemy" relationship, the odd-couple pairing with Wolverine and Gambit. And we have a villain that many will recognize, a lord of illusions who comes across really cool in audio. The way that Brendan and Chloe are rendering the psionic and telepathic influence of his character is eerie.

Baker: In the second season, not only do you get a sense of the Marvel Universe, but you get a wider sense of this world; whereas Alaska felt very remote as we were focusing on a small town, we now zoom out more, and there’s a larger tension that Louisiana is experiencing right now with mutants.

This Marvel podcast was somewhat of an experiment. Are you able to share the future of other Marvel podcasts?

Percy: We can’t share too much except stay tuned! Can we say anything else, Brendan?

Baker: No, you hit the nail on the head there.

There’s also a comic book alongside the podcast. I know that’s not off-limits for discussion!

Percy: Yes, the second issue just rolled out. I had to take 10 episodes and truncate them into five, so it’s not simply a novelization of the podcast but sort of its own creature.

Baker: Seeing the audio universe filtered through a visual lens [by artist Marcio Takara and colorist Matt Milla], there are entire scenes where I was like, Oh my god, how did they know that Sheriff Ridge’s office was supposed to look like? They got it spot-on.  

Percy: One of the cool things that Milla does is he renders a different color scheme for every witness account, so the interrogative formula remains, and as they’re interviewing different people and we slide into the past, he gives each of them a unique color aesthetic to tinge their memory.

Wolverine: The Lost Trail premieres on March 25.