Making an Audio-Film 'Cinematic': An interview with Roshan Singh on 'Temujin'

 
Something new to start the year? Ever heard of an audio-film? Here is something of an old but new idea. Dramatic audio rendition of a story. Rediffusion-style storytelling but long-form and more ‘cinematic’. 

Temujin: An Audio Drama (Temujin) is the brainchild of Roshan Singh, a recent graduate from Yale-NUS College with a specialisation in creative writing. With years of archival research, travelling to Mongolia, and intensive writing/rewriting, Roshan was granted the Yale-NUS College Outstanding Capstone award for Temujin and he set out to create Temujin as a free-to-access high-quality audio drama to be made available on major audio distribution platforms by early 2020. 

Temujin follows the rise of Genghis Khan (once named Temujin) - and the fall of his closest friend. The sun rises for another day across the Mongolian steppes. Genghis Khan is at the cusp of creating the largest land empire ever known and all that is left is to decide whether or not to kill his oldest rival and friend, Jamukha. 

Told from Jamukha's perspective on what seems like the last night of his life, Temujin reveals a rarely-told moment that shaped human history: the ill-fated bond shared between two young warlords caught between rivalry and friendship, empire-building and tender brotherhood.

To uncover more stories behind the making of Temujin, we went straight for the horse’s mouth (pardon the pun). We spoke to Roshan the creator.

What attracted you to the Genghis Khan story? And why this chapter from The Secret History of the Mongols?

The first point of contact was my best friend (and our Executive Producer) Amarbold Lkhagvasuren. He once mentioned that he found the historical Genghis Khan more compelling than Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and suggested I do some reading. He pointed me towards ​The Secret History ​ and Jack Weatherford’s ​The Making of the Modern World ​ to begin with. Once I started, I found myself -- admittedly to my own surprise -- genuinely engrossed.

What surprised me most was that these stories are incredibly intimate. I was expecting lengthy accounts of war and bloodshed, but those actually tend to be glossed over in favor of gripping exchanges between flawed and relatable characters. It’s almost entirely relationship-driven. The stories that we’ve chosen to feature in our adaptation are centred around possibly the most dramatically-charged relationship in the entire epic: the tragic, decades-long friendship of Jamukha and Temujin.

You mention a lot of existing representations of Mongolian history in English is inaccurate, what are the misrepresentations and how is the real Genghis Khan like?

We could get into the strange history of the Hollywood adaptations, notably including ​The Conqueror ​(1956) starring John Wayne as Temujin. Suffice it for now to say that there’s some strange stuff out there.

There hasn’t yet been an English version of the story that I’ve found in my research which really focuses on the complex tenderness between Jamukha and Temujin. Usually, the character of Jamukha is either glossed over, reworked to be a moustache-twirling villain, or written out entirely. The fascinating nuances in Genghis Khan’s character which are revealed by his relationship with Jamukha are lost with these changes.

As I mentioned earlier, I found that ​The Secret History of the Mongols is driven by the depth of its smaller moments. Generally, the film adaptations I’ve seen go ‘big’ at the direct expense of that depth. The warfare which is given relatively little space in the source material often becomes the selling point of the adaptations.  All this said: the goal of ​Temujin ​is not to revise Genghis Khan historically. What we’re aiming to do is to faithfully adapt a surprisingly intimate story which is at the center of one of the primary historical sources about his life. If we do our job right, this shouldn’t replace existing discourse on the man, so much as nuance the popular perception that he was little more than a simpleminded and bloodthirsty barbarian warlord.

 
Characters from Temujin: an Audio-Drama
Tell us a bit more about your immersion in Mongolia and some interesting anecdotes in the course of your research for this story. 

I realised that the trip to Mongolia would be necessary pretty early on. It was partly a matter of further historical and cultural research, as you would expect, but also of geography. Early drafts made it clear that I couldn’t proceed with writing unless I could visualize what the characters were seeing and feeling around them at any given point in time. All the more so when we’re talking about the Mongolian steppes, which is an entity all its own.

I had the pleasure of travelling with Amarbold and his family, who helped curate a thorough itinerary for our road trip. A large part of the journey was dedicated to covering the types of terrain that were being represented in the story, and understanding what it meant to live and move about in those spaces. 

Having been to those places allowed us to isolate key sounds that evoke them -- so what we wound up doing was, distilling the visual reality of the place into its key component sounds, which then allows the audience member to recreate a version of that visual reality in their own heads while they’re listening. Another interesting fact: we wound up needing to use fewer sounds as opposed to more in our soundscapes! It turns out that our ears are actually very sensitive to the reality of what we’re hearing, and that fewer (if carefully-selected) soundscapes are more pleasing to the ear than a ‘realistic’ full recreation.

This research also directly informed the very first monologue in ​Temujin, which is about the vastness of the open Steppe set against the claustrophobia of its densely-packed forests.  

Is this possibly the first full-length work of audio-cinema in Singapore? Where else has this been done?

I don’t believe there are any other audio projects of this scale happening right now, although we certainly can’t claim credit for being the first: serialised audio fiction is a major part of our Singaporean storytelling tradition. At the peak of its popularity in 1980, close to 100,000 Singaporeans were subscribed to Rediffusion radio fiction programming. We even had legendary politicians like S. Rajaratnam writing radio plays for Radio Malaya -- fun fact, George Orwell himself was so impressed by Rajaratnam’s writing that he personally invited him to write scripts for the BBC.

Where are audio-films usually available for public consumption?

Audio-driven stories have been on the rise again thanks to the ubiquity of podcast culture. Accessing them is usually as simple as logging on to either Spotify or Apple Podcasts, no additional payment required. That’s where you get classics like ​Welcome To Nightvale which helped to establish the creative potential and mass appeal of the format. Marvel Entertainment recently dipped their toes in the medium with ​Wolverine: The Long Night, as well.

It’s easy to find a huge variety of long-running serials, but self-contained audio drama experiences are a bit rarer. One of my favorite recent releases is ​36 Questions, which is a free-to-access three-act musical by Broadway talent at the top of their game. I’d also recommend scoping out Audible for their archive of BBC productions, including the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide ​series and their adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s novels. The consistently high production values across their music, foley and performances are really quite stunning. They set the high bar we’ve strived to meet in our own work.

What do you say to people who think this form of presentation is too old-fashioned?

The first thing I would say is, digital audio storytelling is one of the newest presentation forms to hit the mainstream. We’re only just beginning to see (hear) what the medium is capable of, given the almost limitless possibilities afforded by modern audio engineering tools and resources. What’s more, it’s one of the most accessible forms I can think of -- the content is just about three taps away on your phone or laptop.

I think the idea that audio content is outdated comes from the fact that people aren’t huddled attentively around radios anymore -- the whole ‘video killed the radio star’ idea. But people these days are plugged in and listening to content on their phones while commuting, working out, or doing mundane tasks. There are just as many consumers of audio content as there have ever been, if not more, and that’s the audience I imagine would have an interest in tuning into ​Temujin.

What’s in it for younger audiences who are used to flashy visuals in storytelling?

I would say it boils down to the specific strengths of our audio-only medium. A lot is actually gained by ‘losing’ visuals! But let me give you a specific example. 

We don’t normally think of prose as ‘films without the visuals’. The type of engagement you get when while reading a novel is entirely different than that of watching a film. Prose evokes thoughts, images and sounds unique to each individual -- film is able to curate all of the above in ways that the viewer may not even have imagined possible. 

The audio drama format exists somewhere in-between film and prose. It has the personalised and evocative visual properties of prose, as well as the immersive and engaging qualities of film. It is its own entirely distinct kind of storytelling engagement, and one that I think first-timers will be delighted and surprised to experience.

Listening to the sample, I must admit the use of the English language seemed slightly disorientating because the delivery and the aura of the clip sounded very anglicised. Unlike actual movies where you can get actors speaking in their natural language and superimpose subtitles, how do you plan to create authenticity around this story?

We have to clarify what we mean by ‘authentic’. The moment we decided on English as the language for the script, we had to approach the project through the lens of translation and adaptation, because, of course, these people didn’t speak English. Nor did they speak modern Mongolian. But asking an audience to accept the translated language of an adapted story is an entirely reasonable, and entirely common, prospect. The alternative -- asking our actors to ‘put on’ Mongolian accents -- was something I refused to consider.

The authenticity that most concerned us was our relationship with our source material. I did not want to change any of the lines of this history -- and I wanted to be extremely careful about reading between them. After more than two years of development and research, I can say with confidence that our characters’ behaviors, motivations and actions are all rooted in a close reading of ​The Secret History of the Mongols

The colloquial English was the end-result of finding a way to keep these characterisations as immediately accessible to the listener as possible. In some of our experiments with other styles, there was a performative artificiality that creeped in -- this includes a version of the script based almost on the elevated verse found in the English translations of the Secret History, and another that was entirely in iambic pentameter. 

In the end, I’m confident that the style we arrived at communicates these characters clearly, and that these characterizations honor our wonderfully-rich source material. This is the most meaningful kind of authenticity we could aspire to.

Who are your actors? Could you share some of your directing treatment?

It’s a fairly international cast, comprised mostly of people with whom we’ve had good working experiences with in the past. We have actors from Indonesia, the Philippines, India, as well as a whole bunch of us from Singapore. This is reflective of the greater production team make-up, where we have a Canadian and two Mongolians as well. 

In terms of directing, what made this process interesting (and different from traditional stage or screen variants) was our recording set-up. Rather than isolated capsule rooms, I was keen on recording our full ensemble at once. This could be compared to a theatrical one-shot: our recordings would be harder to ‘adjust’ in the editing room, but if we got it right, would result in a brilliant, continuous and theatrical feeling across scenes. We were also keen on blocking out specific moments of action mid-scene as live foley, which is kind of like the audio equivalent of using practical effects instead of VFX.

The end-result? When listening to the audio drama, you’ll be able to tell exactly where everyone is within the space, and what they’re doing in relation to each other -- like a stage that exists solely in your mind. It’s a really immersive and one-of-a-kind feeling, and one that I’m glad we took the time to get right.
 
The foley production should be interesting. Could you share more about it?

Of course! I think, when you get into it, you’d be stunned by the sheer possibilities that are opened up to you. It feels a bit like having a limitless VFX budget. Anything you imagine can be incorporated into your soundscape -- you can modulate where those sounds are coming from, you can convey motion, you can play with filters that suggest interior/exterior locations, and best of all, you can modulate each and every one of those at will. You can build up a world for the listener, and send it crashing down in a second. 

That, actually, is the first huge lesson I learned about foley production. When you can do anything you could possibly think of, the art is in doing less, not more -- especially when we know that we want our character performances to be the driving force of the listening experience. We’ve arrived at a design which strikes a nice balance between moments of sound design splendour, and more subdued soundscapes that support the vocal performances rather than distracting from them.

Following a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign last year and the completion of production, Temujin will launch late this month and will be available for free on all major audio platforms.

Follow its progress on:
  • Facebook (facebook.com/temujin.audiodrama)
  • Instagram (@temujin.audiodrama)
  • Twitter (@temujindrama)

Interview by Jeremy Sing

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