People love a good mystery. Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie have created one.
The New York-based writing pair rocketed out of obscurity in 2015 with their experimental podcast Limetown. More a radio drama than an episode of Serial, the story of a radio journalist investigating the overnight disappearance of an entire midwestern town captured immediate attention, spawning a prequel novel and obsessing millions of listeners.
Now Bronkie & Akers reach a whole new audience with the television adaptation of Limetown, starring Jessica Biel. The show debuted on Facebook Watch–Facebook’s free streaming service–last month, with the pilot episode garnering a whopping 19 million viewers. Even better, the mystery series, which recalls Twin Peaks and The X-Files, features a queer heroine. Stanley Tucci, Marlee Matlin, Rekha Sharma and French Stewart also star.
Queerty caught up with Akers and Bronkie just ahead of the Limetown Season Finale on November 13 to talk about the reception, the future, and debuting a big-budget series on Facebook.
So How do you guys land a gig going from a podcast to a full-on mystery television series?
SB: Well there were a lot of steps and a lot of pain you didn’t see along the way to get there…
ZA: And a lot of luck.
SB: Definitely a lot of luck. But I think because of how unique and unusual the show was when it came out in 2015 it sort of caught the attention of the right people—the entertainment industry that is constantly trying to look for [intellectual property] and new stories. I think that this broke through in a way that they weren’t expecting and that we certainly weren’t expecting. But it caught their attention, and from there, it was a matter of us trying not to screw it up along the way. We had a lot of support. We signed on with an agency, WME. They asked us what we wanted to do, and we said we wanted to do it as a TV show. And they were like ok. And we were like, wait, that’s it?
ZA: From there they were the ones that connected us with Midnight Radio, the showrunners and to Endeavor Studios. With all that industrial support we were able to navigate it with a lot of pain to get it to where it is now. As for how we attracted Jessica Biel, I have no idea. I still have no idea. It’s a shocking thing. But she connected with the material and saw an opportunity with the character. So I don’t know what the answer is, other than we’re lucky and put a story out at the exact right time.
SB: So it was luck.
Luck is everything in this business. Where did the original idea come from?
ZA: There’s not a short answer to it. I was riding to work on the subway every day and I was always listening to podcasts. One day, looking around, I realized everyone had headphones on. And I realized it was an audience—something we could tap into. Skip & I had always wanted to work together, but we could never find the right time. So I reached out to him and said “We should do an audio film, a narrative.” So we just decided to throw ourselves into it and tried to ask ourselves “What’s the best, most engaging story in podcasting?” Skip had been reading World War Z at the time, which is based off the Studs Turkel approach.
ZA: Oral histories, telling intimate story in the face of major historical events, which really humanize it. Then it was like, what story do we tell? And I just had the idea of a town that disappears. So that’s how we started developing Limetown. From there, it was really just exploring the most interesting way to tell this story and developing things in the modern world we wanted to talk about and deal with.
Wonderful. So you mention that you never believed you would get a lead actor like Jessica Biel. Why, after you got set up at Facebook Watch, did you decide to go with Jessica? Let it be said, the whole show told from her point of view. She’s in almost every scene. It rests on her performance.
SB: Absolutely. The entire show rests on Lia Haddock’s [Biel’s character] shoulders. We spent a long time looking for the right Lia, and it was actually getting pretty close to production. We were less than a month out and still hadn’t found the right partner. Our studio, Endeavor, just wrote us one day and said “What do you think of Jessica Biel?”
SB: So we said “She’s incredible. Where was this email 12 months ago?!” So yeah, we were shocked. We had our first phone call. I was reviewing my notes from that call recently, and she had already thought so deeply about the character and who Lia really was before she’d even come on to the project. She knew Lia was a bloodhound, addicted to answers, ruthless and obsessive. And she was giving us very specific ideas, like Lia’s the kind of person who would break her finger in anger. Lia gets off on answers. It was so shocking that she was that invested. So we knew from that call she had to be Lia.
ZA: She’s also Jessica. Biel.
SB: And she’s Jessica Biel.
And this is some of her best ever work. I’ve never seen her display this kind of range before.
As someone who hadn’t heard the original podcast, I was delighted to see Lia’s sexuality treated with respect and frankness. Were you nervous about writing a lesbian character? Were you nervous about the response, since you’re both straight, cisgender men writing a gay woman?
SB: Of course. It is something you are afraid of. But we very specifically worked with as many female writers as we could, including a lesbian woman as we were building her character. It was something we were very sensitive about. But as you said, we wanted to treat it as matter-of-factly as we could. Lia, as a character, is not someone who thinks about it very much. We wanted to show that everything in her life that isn’t Limetown is sort of a distraction. Her sexuality, in particular, is very transactional: it’s very I need this right now. I’m going to get it. Then I’m going back to Limetown. That sort of character—it’s more interesting what it says about who she is than her actual identity.
One of the great themes in the show—I don’t want to give away too much—is the idea that the more unfiltered and joined minds become, the more dangerous it makes anything. People react to feelings before they even understand their own emotions. How much is that inspired by so-called toxic fandom on social media or the internet?
SB: It’s absolutely an influence on the show. When we first conceived of this idea, Zack said it was a way for us to express our fears of the modern world. That is one of the fears: the erosion between our public and private selves. It certainly comes from toxic social media. The other big aspect of this—and what I think is even more embedded in the DNA of the show—is how much we crave it.
SB: We talk about it as toxic, but we’re absolutely addicted to it. That’s something that comes up—I don’t want to get into too many spoilers—this is the story of people who are left out, and their want for that connection, and what they’ll do to get it. So it’s certainly an influence on the show.
Did you have reservations about Facebook Watch? They’re both a relatively new platform, and, in a sense, part of the toxic social media.
SB: I think certainly early on when you’re working with that kind of ground-level operation. But that was sort of quickly put aside when we started working with them creatively and seeing how they thought about the show. It was their idea to make it a half-hour drama. The pilot was written as a one hour drama, as sort of “prestige TV” in our mind. They presented it as we want to do it this way. And it really unlocked the show in a way for us. We realized as we were writing, it was more fun and engaging and we could do more exciting things. We have episodes that last 22 minutes and we have episodes that last 36 minutes. That’s a huge range in television, and it allows for unpredictability. In a larger sense, it also allows for a larger, global audience. Anyone who has a Facebook account can watch. It allows for people that love mystery shows to talk to each other, which they do. It’s all right there. When we put the podcast out we had a lot of people tell us how important it was that we put free content out there. They couldn’t afford other ways of distracting themselves from the world. That meant a lot to us: that we were allowing that. So Facebook Watch allows for that—free prestige television. You can make a great product everyone can access.
Zack, I know you’d worked a bit in TV before. Skip, you’re new. So how do you guys go about developing a story and structuring a season? What’s your process like?
ZA: That’s a great question. One thing that I think is important on this season level—and I’m not sure how unique this is, but its something we did on the podcast—we started with the ending. We had a really clear idea of how the story concluded, and what happened to the town, and why. Knowing that, having that clear, we could improvise our way to that ending. So that’s one way: to have a great idea and structure your season.
SB: Particularly this season, we also wanted to explore different aspects of the technology itself. We wanted to do animal testing. We wanted to explore personal relationships with the technology. It’s what we were talking about earlier: the need to get the latest and the greatest. So I think that a lot of our process comes from talking about themes, what we want to explore thematically, and on a literal level, what are the conversations that we want to have. From there, you begin to generate characters and the best events to tell this story. So I think we start at a cloud level and work our way down. It’s probably really inefficient, but having those larger thematic conversations grounds it in a way.
ZA: That holds true when we adapted it for television. Most of our non-negotiables were at the thematic level. At its core, this is a story about the clash between humans and technology, and the question of if technology will save or destroy us. That was non-negotiable. Everything else was up for grabs.
Now, because Facebook Watch is a new medium, how do you guys gauge the response to a show? Ratings? Clicks?
SB: I mean I’m not sure how to gauge it to be honest, either. It looks like it’s doing well, and we hear a lot of good things from people we know and people we don’t know. I think that its successful, but I sort of make it a goal of mine not to pay attention to it either way. When people reach out directly, it’s great, but you can kind of get lost in that stuff as a writer.
ZA: But I think it’s doing well. The response has been really positive.
SB: The only honest answer I can give on this one is on the personal level, which is did we make a product that we’re proud of? When I look back on my career, that’s not always the case. I can absolutely say on this show, after everything we’ve gone through in the past six years, I’m very proud of the final product.
ZA: Our main goal always—Skip and me both—is that we just want to keep working. We just want to do the work that gets us more work. So that, I think, is going to happen. We’ll see. We try to do the best we can to keep doing it.
In that case, how does having a hit show change life for the both of you? Do you wake up after the premiere to the phone ringing, sort of as it does in the movies? Or do you just go home to the same apartment?
ZA: I have a seven and a half-month-old son, so my world is him. It keeps me very grounded. So I see how it’s a little crazy, and how [the show] affects pop culture, and how people respond to it, but then he poops his pants and I have to go take care of it.
ZA: So it’s a way of keeping myself on level ground.
SB: I was expecting [the phone to ring] but literally nothing changed. It was funny: I was having a conversation with Zack a few nights ago, and I was like has anybody unexpected reached out to you? And he was like no… So yeah, that’s one of the best things: we stay grounded.
ZA: I think it helps that we both live away from Hollywood. He lives in Brooklyn, and I’m in Massachusetts right now on my way back to Brooklyn. I think that geographical distance helps.
SB: We’re both looking for apartments right now. It’s really humbling when you’re walking around New York in the pouring rain carrying a wet duffle bag of stuff looking for a new sublet.
Fair enough. So do we know about Season 2?
ZA: We don’t know yet.
SB: Fingers crossed.
The entire first season of Limetown is available to stream free on Facebook Watch.