10:00am PT by Lexy Perez
'Limetown' Creators Talk Adapting Hit Podcast for "Hair-Raising" Facebook Watch Series
More than four years ago, at the height of the early post-Serial podcast boom, Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, the founders of podcast studio Two Up Productions, released the first season of Limetown. Though it was their first foray into the podcast medium, the scripted show was downloaded more than 10 million times, topped the Apple Podcast chart and was ranked as one of iTunes' best of 2015. Now it's been turned into a scripted television series debuting Oct. 16 on Facebook Watch.
The fandom surrounding Limetown grew to become a phenomenon, with Akers and Bronkie's passion project ultimately sparking a cult following. Fan theories and forums can be read on Reddit, and even a simple Google search generates a result asking the question as to whether Limetown is in fact a real city. The positive response and excitement surrounding their podcast still surprises Akers and Bronkie, who studied together at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and followed their creative inklings when devising the show.
"We honestly didn't think anyone outside of our Facebook feed would listen to this show when we first made it," Akers tells The Hollywood Reporter. "So for it to become something that people obsess about and talk about and have all the forums that they do, it's still a shocking thing that I can't really focus on much, 'cause I figure it would be way to distracting for me."
The podcast centers on Lia Haddock, a journalist with American Public Radio who becomes determined to investigate the disappearance of over 300 scientists, researchers and their families from a self-contained company town in Tennessee known as Limetown. Though the town's disappearance sparked a media frenzy at the time, Haddock's goal to uncover the 15-year-old mystery becomes personal, because her Uncle Emile was one of those who vanished. With each listen, audiences unravel the inscrutable plot twists and assess the intricate details, trying to resolve the looming mystery.
With audiences enthralled by the true crime and mystery thriller elements of the six-episode project, the podcast ultimately drew the interest of WME, which signed Akers and Bronkie and began to explore a television adaptation.
"It wasn't something we'd ever heard before," says WME agent Andrew Mathes. "Doing scripted, fictionalized podcasts wasn't a big thing, but the way they had the storytelling, the production value, it just really caught our attention and was something that we hadn't really been exposed to before, and we had to meet them."
He added: "I think it made everybody exposed to something that was almost like War of the Worlds, that really took you and captivated you. I remember having clients call saying, 'Is this based on like a real story?' Like people aren't sure. It was a really great experience for two guys who are genuinely so nice and so cool."
Endeavor Content — through its new audio division — released the second season of Limetown last year, and Simon & Schuster published Limetown: The Prequel to the #1 Podcast, written by Akers and Bronkie with Cote Smith, last November to offer the backstory of Haddock and Emile for readers looking for more content.
Now the podcast is getting the television treatment. Endeavor's 10-episode adaptation of Limetown for Facebook Watch stars Jessica Biel in the role of Haddock. The series is written and executive produced by Akers and Bronkie with Biel also exec producing via her Iron Ocean Productions banner alongside Michelle Purple. Midnight Radio's Josh Appelbaum serves as executive producer and showrunner, with Rebecca Thomas directing.
This next chapter for Limetown is actually a medium more familiar to Akers and Bronkie. (Akers produced sports documentaries, and Bronkie moved to Silicon Valley to direct and produce commercials.) "Our brains were always in the film, television and visual storytelling space. When we did the podcasting thing, that was the sort of backwards complicated way to tell a story," says Akers. "When we had the chance and the opportunity to adapt it to the visual medium, it almost felt natural in a lot of ways, and like a relief."
The series found a home on Facebook Watch, the streaming service behind Sorry for Your Loss and Red Table Talk, thanks to head of development Mina Lefevre's excitement over the project. "When Mina came in a few weeks prior to us taking the project to market, she really talked about what the platform was going to be and what type of content they wanted to pursue," says Mathes. "You look at a lot of the stuff they have, and what they're doing in the larger sense gave us a real desire to want to send more elevated fare to their platform. She really responded in such an aggressive manner that we felt like she totally got what the show is."
Akers and Bronkie spoke to THR ahead of the series premiere to discuss their journey from podcast to screen, the challenges of adapting their story and whether fans can anticipate more seasons.
Limetown was released in 2015, but the fan-demonium surrounding it seems to continue to grow. Did you expect any of this when creating the podcast?
Akers: Absolutely not. You know, it's the story that we tell a lot, but we honestly didn't think anyone outside of our Facebook feed would listen to this show when we first made it. And so for it to become something that people obsess about and talk about and, you know, all the forums that they do, it's still like a shocking thing that I can't really like focus on much, 'cause I figure it would be way to distracting for me. But it's cool that it exists. Like, I'm glad that it exists in the world that I am not looking at right now.
How did you come up with the creative concept of this story?
Akers: The first step was realizing that a fictional podcast could be a thing that Skip and I could do together. And that just came from the times I was riding the subway every day to work and I was listening to the podcasts every day. I realized that there are so many people in the subway car with me with headphones on, and I just had one of those moments like, "Oh, we could do something here." Skip and I had gone to school together, and we always wanted to work together, but we lived in two different cities. We could never figure out what the two of us could actually do with our full-time jobs in different parts of the country. This felt like something we could do on our nights and weekends. I just remember Skip being like, "Why is no one else doing this?"
We started thinking about the best kind of story to tell and what the medium is. Skip was talking about how he just read World War Z by Max Brooks. That felt like something we could do, an oral history of some larger historical event. One day I called Skip and I said, "A town disappeared." And he said, "Why?" And I said, "I don't know." It was basically a whole conversation around that. What was the town? What were they doing? Why did they disappear? That led to a whole Google document full of questions and answers that eventually evolved into the idea of Limetown that I took and wrote the pilot for in the winter of 2013. I wish there was a better story, like "I was in the shower one day," but it took months and weeks of just sort of focusing on different aspects of podcasting itself before we came to this conclusion.
Was it always the intent to have it be adopted for a TV show?
Akers: Oh, absolutely not.
Bronkie: When he first called me saying we should do a fiction podcast, that was pretty unheard of at that moment. And you know, it's funny, because they're called back to the oldest form of stories there is.
Bronkie: Yes, radio dramas. At the time, there were over 200,000 podcasts, and all of them — with the exception of one — were nonfiction. It really was a novel idea at the time, and it was not something we ever thought could lead to other derivative forms, because this was pre-Serial. The medium itself wasn't necessarily legitimized, and it didn't have the credibility that it has today, and nobody was using podcasts as a meter for television and film the way we're seeing in the last couple of years. So it was just a completely different era in 2013 when we first had this idea for working in the medium.
Akers: We really just wanted to do something cool that we would want to listen to. It really was just like, this is interesting. No one seems to be doing this. Let's try and see how it works. Let's experiment with this and see what comes of it.
How has it been adapting the podcast for the show, and what's been the most difficult part of the adaptation process?
Bronkie: Maybe not the hardest thing but the most important thing to bring from the podcast to the show was the tone. There are moments in that show that are unforgettable, and it's a very specific tone, that sort of hair-raising, off-kilter vibe that you feel throughout the six episodes in the first season. Some of the best advice we ever got when we were in the early phases of adapting the TV show was to make sure you master a tone, because that's what makes the show true to itself and it's what is ultimately going to resonate the most with an audience. I don't give Zack and I credit for a lot of things, but I do think trying to make sure that the TV show maintains the podcast tone was something we pulled off, and I'm really, really proud of that.
Akers: The most challenging thing for me but ultimately the most rewarding, and what makes the TV show something that I'm really proud of, was figuring out who Lia is and what her story is. In the podcast, the way that she presents herself is very curated and very careful and particular, so you get very little insight into her personal life. She's a journalist, and she wants to present this story in a very specific way. So with the TV show, it's like, how do you get past all that? Once you get past her shield that she shows the public, who is she as a person, and what is her story? Skip even says, "What kind of journalist tells the story that she knows puts the people she's talking to in danger?" Who is that person, and also what kind of toll does that take on a person? How does that affect her soul in the end? Thinking about that and fitting in that space really helped the television series a lot. And, of course, Jessica Biel coming on and sort of digging into this character and really wrapping her head around who she is and what her journey is, that helped it exponentially as well.
Jessica Biel not only stars in the series as Lia Haddock but also executive produces. What was it like working with her?
Bronkie: One of the most fun parts of the adaptation was the collaboration with the team that we got to build out. I mean, Jess and her producing partner came on as executive producers, and we had a singular director, Rebecca Thomas, for the entire season, which is super rare in television. So we had this really great core team. Once everyone was on board, we just locked ourselves in a room for two weeks and went line by line through the entire season and developed the character Lia Haddock. The insights that Jess brought to the table made Lia so much more real and grounded and interesting.
Akers: The biggest difference between the podcast and the TV show is her character and how you experience her story. But I think that is a really exciting thing, too, for people who actually know the podcast. That's a whole new layer for them to delve into.
Will there be any more seasons of the podcast or series?
Bronkie: We've been so focused on that first season of the TV show — literally up until this month finishing the deliverables and getting everything ready for launch on Oct. 16 — so it isn't something we've thought a lot about. We know that there's a huge world here. There's an entire book, and there's just a lot of material around Limetown. So if the opportunity presented itself, the answer is yes. But, right now, we're just really focused on letting season one out into the world.
Limetown is available to stream on Facebook Watch on Oct. 16. Two new episodes will be available every Wednesday at 12 p.m. PT/3 p.m. ET on the Limetown Facebook page.
Watch a clip from the premiere below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.