Dirk Maggs Interview: Hitchhiker's, Douglas Adams, Superman, Batman, & more...

Interview James Hunt 18 Jun 2013 - 07:00

James chats to directing legend Dirk Maggs about Hitchhiker's, superheroes, Neverwhere, sci-fi, and making radio sound sexy, big, and raw...

As a radio writer and director, Dirk Maggs' body of work is about as impressive as it gets. As well as being hand-selected by Douglas Adams to continue the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, he's also responsible for this year's smash-hit adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and the Hitchiker's Live touring stage show. James managed to catch up with him for a chat about life, the universe, and everything geeky.

So last year you did the Hitchhiker's Live tour, which reunited the radio cast on stage and had people like Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman guesting as the voice of the book. And clearly, it was a great success, because as well as releasing the live recording, you're doing another run this year, so let's start with that. When's it happening?

We start rehearsals in the second week of September, and open at the Hackney Empire on the weekend of the 14th, then it's running until the end of November. We're kind of adding dates as we go, but on the whole it's a three month tour.

And is it a straight reprisal of the first tour, or are there changes?

The first half, which is made up of the first two radio series, is much the same because that's material that you really can't miss out. It's the whole basis of the Hitchhiker's story. But the second half is more of a movable feast, we've got all five books to choose from so we drop in and out. We've changed about half, and hopefully there's going to be a slightly changed ending, but we're still talking about the technology to make it happen. And a big change is that this time, because Mark Wing-Davey isn't available, we've brought back Mitch Benn, who was in the fifth radio series, to play Zaphod.

So even people who've seen or downloaded the show can come back and they'll get a different experience.

Yeah. I mean, the thing with Hitchhiker's is that the script is the star, and Douglas, and having the original cast made it an event. But at the same time, there's so much material and what we want is for people to go back and discover the books, and the original radio series. So it's important to keep it fresh on stage to keep people excited.

And you were hand-picked by Douglas Adams to do the future radio adaptations way back in 1991, so did you feel a responsibility to look after that material and keep it faithful?

Oh, god yes. I had to add material in order the make the final radio series tie things up in a way that kept the Vogons in the chain of events and gave it a story arc, and all the time I was doing that I felt like I needed to solve problems in a Douglas-y way. One scene I wrote into the fourth radio series - the Vogon court of enquiry - it's not a Douglas scene, but I needed something to keep the Vogons in the loop, so I tried to write it in the style of an Adams-Smith-Adams piece, like they did at University. That kind of cerebral but anarchic style.

Yeah, and just the idea feels quite Douglas Adams-y, too. The idea of petty bureaucracy getting in the way of characters.

Yeah, it wasn't a thousand miles from the Kamikaze Pilots sketch.

It had the same element of futility.

Given that you were Douglas' choice, did that make it easier for you - having a mandate, I mean?

It made things easier at first, in that I had a clear idea of what he wanted me to produce because we'd talked about it at some length. Particularly for the Tertiary Phase. But at the same time, twelve-thirteen years after we spoke when I came to do it I'd say to myself "Douglas would want it this way", and then inside I was thinking "Would he? Would he? Are you sure?" - there was a slight need of a Oujia board at times. I'm always the first to come down on myself. I didn't have a high opinion of my ability to do it, except that he trusted that I could do it. Someone asked me if I felt intimidated, and the funny thing was that I didn't, because he trusted that I could do it.

There were times when I had to take a moment to really think through my memories of conversations that we had, but if I was ever in any doubt I'd go through the text and find the way through that Douglas had laid the tracks for years before. The Babelfish being the Deus Ex Machina in the coda that I added, that felt like it could be a Douglas idea, even though we'd never discussed it.

Yeah, and as good as it is, the book series does end on something of a downer…

Yeah. And Douglas had said that in retrospect, he felt unhappy about that and he wanted to do another book, and that he was sure he'd find a way out. So that was why I tried to use what was in there already, to find a way out.

Okay, now, because the site's Den of Geek I want to ask about some of the potentially geekier things you've done, and I can't not ask how you ended up doing the Superman and Batman stories. They were quite early in your career and they're what started your reputation as someone who made these richer-sounding "audio movies"…

Yeah, it was early in my career in Light Entertainment. I actually got that job because of [the documentary] Superman on Trial. The application involved putting in three programme ideas, and I was then working on Radio 2 trails and I'd already done one for some campaign called "Crime Check", which was me and Steve Madden pretending to be Batman and Robin. Pretty disastrously, as I recall. But for some DC comics reason approved it, and the lady who approved it asked us if we knew it was about to be Superman's 50th birthday.

Now, I was just applying for Light Entertainment, so I used that information, put it in as one of my programme ideas, and they accepted it and it got commissioned and sold. So in a way, Superman got me into Light Ent. It was actually directed by someone else, because I was just a baby producer and not allowed to touch things, but it did lead to us getting permission for Adventures of Superman. And that's when I got the idea to start making radio sound like films. I remember going out to research film soundtracks, and I took what I called "Popcorn Lunches", where I went to the Regent Street cinema and just watched films. I remember watching Terminator 2, and I was listening to the sound design thinking "Why can't we do this?"

Then the next day we had an effects session with Tim Sturgeon and Wilfredo Acosta, and I said "they make everything louder than everything else, how the hell do they do that?" and they said, "oh, it's compression, it's this, it's that". So we played with the BBC gear, which was never built to be that cutting edge, and tried to make it sound like that. So even from the off I was trying to make radio that sounded really sexy and big and raw.

And were you already a fan of superheroes before then?

Oh absolutely. My parents used to run children's homes, so I was always friends with a lot of kids, and the older ones, the teenagers, got comic books, and this is in the early sixties so it was fantastic time for it. I remember when I was eight I got my hands on one of the Spider-Man issues, and up until then I'd only been reading DC stuff, and I just couldn't believe it. It was just something else. Superman and Batman were great, but they were straight arrows. I remember seeing Spider-Man confronting a burglar and he's standing there with his belt-light on, and says "I hope you're going to come quietly because these ever-readys are on their last legs!" and it was just such a funny line, I thought "what is this!?" and of course, it was the world of Stan Lee. So yeah, loved them all, but I've got a very soft spot for Superman and Batman.

You've done movie tie-ins as well, like the Independence Day companion piece...

Oddly, that was actually not something I wanted to do, but we were offered the chance by Fox and what ultimately attracted me to it was the idea of doing the homage to Orson Welles and War of the Worlds. Doing that was great, and doing the British version of the story amused me, I like that tongue-in-cheek moment where someone says "Well, we won't defeat them but the Americans will."

We also did American Werewolf in London, because the brother of Eric Myers, one of our leads, was in college with John Landis. And he said we could do it, and I love the film, so I was thinking well, where did the werewolf come from? We could maybe eke that out a bit, put a bit more flesh on the bone, so to speak. So I met John Landis and he was really supportive of the idea.

The weird thing with DC was that they said in their contract that we actually couldn't do Batman or Superman within eighteen months of a Batman or Superman movie. Which was fine for me, because I always felt the point of what we were doing was that it shouldn't be connected to the film. We didn't need the film to make the pictures. In any case, it'd be like a giant liner passing a tiny dinghy, the movie would just wash over us, so it probably helped.

Superheroes do have that radio tradition, with the very early adaptations, the forties radio serials…

Yeah, Kryptonite was invented to give the Superman radio actor [Bud Collyer] a holiday, which is fantastic!

Just for fun, if you could do a radio play about one of the any superhero franchise, Marvel or DC, which would you choose?

I'd love to do do Batman again, but set it in the forties. Yeah, Batman in the forties. That'd be great fun. Or even Superman in the thirties. Go back to the time they were created and do something in a way that the big movie studios would never touch. Even by the time we did Batman, the Burton/Keaton movie was out and the whole [affects gruff Batman voice] "I'm Batman!" version was how it was seen, and that was never how we saw it. Our Batman was Bob Sessions, a song and dance man, who had a wonderful voice. A bit more like Kevin Conroy in the animated series, and the wonderful Arkham Asylum/Arkham City games. I like Batman to sound human, not superhuman. 

Oh, since you just mentioned games – I was surprised to see that you did the voice directing for two Broken Sword games, The Sleeping Dragon and Angel of Death, which is a little off the track compared to most of your career.

Yeah, I did that with Charles Cecil and Revolution, and it was great fun. I forget how I came to it, I think Charles just looked me up. Games are surprisingly hard, you know? You need to get five thousand different takes of people saying "ow". And the studios we did it in were music studios, which are full of hard surfaces, and I said "oh, they're full of hard surfaces, you know that'll echo like hell? They'll have to damp it down." and he said "No, no don't worry, it'll be fine, they said they take care of that." I told him we'd get there and find them gaffer taping duvets to the walls. And we walked in and that was exactly what they were doing! But yeah, that was great fun, I got to work with Rolf Saxon [George Stobbart, the lead of Broken Sword] who's just's great, such an intelligent actor.

So you go and do other projects like that, but then you always return to radio. So what is it that brings you back to the medium?

It's the only one that'll pay me! No, I mean, I thought I wanted to work in television, and then I did work in television quite early in my career and I just thought "this is too small, too cosy, too limited". This was in the eighties, there was a series about David Lloyd George that they'd tried to do sort of movie lighting on, but any time they dropped the lights to get a good shadow, the television cameras just said "oh, I'm not going to bother with that" and it ended up going out entirely in mud coloured tones, and I just thought "this is crazy! You can't do anything here!"

So I went back to radio, where I could do things like Superman, Batman, Judge Dredd, Spidey, Voyage, American Werewolf... and I can make them sound exactly like films. I remember having a very clear thought early on - I found an unlocked studio in Broadcasting House and was mixing the Superman documentary overnight - and I realised halfway through that I'd made a rod for my own back, because it had to sound like that all the way through. Cloth rustling, objects on desks, the Foley track, the background noise, then the music... And I thought "this is going to sound great, but it's going to be a slow business". I was right, but it sounded exactly the way I wanted to sound. Then they wanted the Radio 1 stuff, which was sixty-five three-minute episodes done the same way. And with a smile on my face I was saying yes, but inside I was thinking "holy smokes, the amount of work..." - but you know, it sounds like a movie in your head, and that's what I was after.

Since we're talking about process, then, how do you see yourself? Primarily as a writer, or director, or do you see no separation?

I like "writer-director". Before I can direct, I like to write, because then I've got a handle on it. Just thinking about Neverwhere, I've been trying to get a project together with Neil (Gaiman) for fifteen years, but being an independent it's hard to sell stuff in. When someone at the BBC suggested it, Neil asked if I could do it, which was great, but right then I knew I'd be alright because if I can adapt something, I know I can make it sound good. Whereas if I'm working with someone else's script, they might not have quite as visual an imagination as I like to work with.

And Neverwhere must've been pretty special, because had such a great cast as well. Cumberbatch, McAvoy, Anthony Head, Bernard Cribbins…

Oh man, it was unbelievable. Just the first name on each column said yes, it was absurd!

Was that always the one you were trying to adapt, or was there something else you wanted?

Ah, well, we were talking about Sandman for ages, and DC were up for it, but as I was saying, I couldn't sell it in. And then DC gradually froze over. But Neil has so many great books that it's sort of academic, you could pick anything. We'll hopefully do some more stuff.

Do you even think about just cutting out the middle man, then, and selling direct to the consumer?

Yeah. Actually Perfectly Normal, the production company I work through, was originally founded to do podcasts and stuff, but that was seven years ago and at that point the business model wasn't really there. You didn't have things like Kickstarter and iTunes, it's changed a lot since then. That said, the sort of budget you need to do something like Neverwhere, you kind of have to go through a broadcaster. Even with that, the budget ran out long before the job did, for me. It's hard to find that level of investment outside the BBC, and without it we couldn't have had that cast, and someone - normally me - would end up working for nothing!

Also, for the last five years Hitchhiker's Live has taken over, but absolutely, we have got plans for podcasts and downloadable stuff that we would like to do.

It's strange because radio has - not really bounced back, because it never went away - but it's become something people can now almost produce at home, and similarly there's a hugely increased appetite for it because of smartphones and tablets.

Yeah. I guess that's because it's very simple to do - well, let's be careful what we say, it's still very hard to do well - but if you've got production skills and a good script, then you can make very convincing sounding audio without great hardship. It's interesting, because I was out in the States for a convention and I've got a lot of friends in the US who work in the medium, but obviously out there, there isn't much public broadcast stuff. Most of it's done online, by collectives, and I think over here the BBC kind of masks that, because of the sheer volume of media they put out. Which is a wonderful thing, but in a way, it might put people off trying. And they should try.

People do say to me, oh, I've written a script, I want to make it a film. And I say well, if what you've written is that good, why don't you make it an audio thing? They want feedback and they thing they need to go and shoot it, they need sets, lighting, costumes, everything just to see if it works. But if you're doing audio, all you need is a dead room, a good mic and someone who knows what they're doing sound-wise. That's why I'm always saying to people, if you want to write for films, first try making your own stuff. Even if you haven't got actors, just record it yourself, using different voices. There's nothing more brutal, nothing that makes you a better writer, than actually hearing your words spoken by someone.

And the customary last question: what are you working on at the moment?

Okay, so we've got the next Hitchhiker's tour, and then we'd like to take it overseas but we've got to negotiate with Disney, who own the performing rights. I'm doing another major radio project in the next eighteen months off the back of Neverwhere. And the other thing I'm doing are some filmed webisodes, which are a sci-fi space thing that we're doing with Dave Gibbons [the artist of Watchmen], Andy Secombe [the voice of Watto from Star Wars] and Simon Moorhead [the producer of MirrorMask]. And that's called Torus. We hope to shoot a ten-minute taster for that in the new year. I'm excited to try working in a new medium, trying something I've never seen before. And you know, maybe it'll be crap, but hopefully it won't be!

Dirk Maggs, thank you very much!

Hitchiker's Live recordings and tickets are available at the official Hitchhiker's Live website. Dirk Maggs' radio shows, including the Hitchiker's Guide Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential phase and his Superman and Batman serials are available to buy from AudioGo.

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Disqus - noscript

Lovely interview. There's a frood who really knows where his towel is.

In the mid '90s Dirk Maggs wrote, directed and produced a Spider-man audio drama for BBC Radio 1. Brian May wrote and performed the theme tune.

Small point - Mitch Benn never played Zaphod in the radio series, as far as I can tell... Apparently he played the small role of 'Pseudopodic Creature' in the fifth story.

Right you are. We've clarified that! Cheers.

What a really odd looking chap. . .

I wish he could work on a finale to the Dirk Gently radio series. Oh well, maybe someday.

Agreed!!

I;d love to see Cumberbatch as dream in a Sandman film or series.

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