Interview with Rusty Quill and 'The Magnus Archives' director Alexander Newall
After five years of chilling horror and psychological intrigue, The Magnus Archives is coming to an end with its 200th episode. We’re thrilled to have Rusty Quill on our platform as one of our affiliates and eager to have them guide us through some of the process behind making one of the world's top audio dramas to date. Director Alexander J. Newall breaks down how the show came to be and shares advice for anyone looking to grow their podcast, engage their audience, or even start a show! Check it out below:
Q: Let’s kick things off with how Magnus Archives came to be?
Every time I answer this question I feel a little bit older because I am forced to realise just how long it’s been since we began!
I started Rusty Quill, the production company that makes The Magnus Archives, in 2015 but Magnus didn’t really begin until 2016 by which time I was already running our first Podcast: Rusty Quill Gaming. With one show up and running, I was looking to find some creative allies to work with on a new show but I was simultaneously working on a number of freelance gigs in addition to full-time night work so, as you can expect, it was tricky to find the time.
At the night job I met Jonathan Sims, the writer and lead performer of Magnus. We spent a few unprofessionally long coffee breaks discussing fiction and he eventually invited me to attend a gig he was running that year at Edinburgh Festival. I was already going to work on
other projects so while I was there I decided to take him up on his invite. That is how I found myself watching a bunch of elaborately clad space-pirates singing about drunken sailors and dying mega-cities. The group was called The Mechanisms and it was a Sci-Fi Musical Cabaret show led by Jonny that was exactly as elaborate as you are imagining. I hadn’t seen anything like it and the nuances of the storytelling really piqued my interest so I made a point of contacting Jonny a.s.a.p. to discuss whether we could collaborate on something. We met in a quiet coffeeshop basement off The Royal Mile and that was when he first pitched me The Magnus Archives.
The original pitch was significantly different from the finished project we now know and fear. For one thing, it was first conceived as a pure anthology of original CreepyPasta written and narrated by Jonny. I pushed for a broader overarching narrative with an ensemble cast that would run throughout the podcast, connecting all the stories and that was when Jonny suggested The Fears as a concept. (I can’t say any more on them without spoilers!). We talked for way longer than either of us had planned and by the end of that first meeting we already had the shape of the show. Looking back that’s pretty much the ideal pitch scenario isn’t it?
Q: What do you love about making a podcast?
I suppose its the fact that the sky is the limit. Anyone can make anything of any scale in the medium given enough time.
Right now, podcasting is at that interesting pivot point between the passion projects of pure innovation that characterises a new artistic medium and accelerating external interest from major players which means there are now lots of resources flying around for weird and wonderful projects that could never be realised at any other time.
Speaking to audio fiction specifically, if you want, you can make an enormous epic from the ground up with a relatively modest budget compared to Film or TV, meaning there is space for smaller independent organisations such as ours to get involved. That in turn means there
is more competition in the space so projects don’t end up as homogenised as in other media. Put simply, projects get to be weirder. In a good way.
Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is no price to entry. It still requires technical expertise, equipment and hard work but the barrier on the first two is dropping ever lower as new technology allows people to use their phones as a one-stop-shop for near professional grade audio recording, editing and distribution. So, if you're an over ambitious creative like me, there isn’t really a better medium to get stuck in and let your imagination run wild.
No-one can stop you building castles in the sky.
Q: What’s the process for creating an audio drama podcast, how do you write and plan an episode?
That’s a very big question but I’ll do my best to keep it brief.
First we’ll have an initial story workshop where the Showrunner, Lead Writer and the rest of the Writing Team will hash out the main story points for the season: what happens, when and why. All these juicy story secrets are then added to a Series Bible. Once this overarching structure is in place the writers go away and each write a few episodes with the lead writer overseeing things and ensuring that everything holds together.
While all that is going on the Showrunner (the creative lead on the project) will be consulting with the Writers and the Producers to build the direction and style of the show. That again is added to the series Bible along with work from our sensitivity team, marketing etc. so everyone is on the same page.
The showrunner will then work with the Producer on a casting call which is where we allocate performers for roles. As you'd expect this has been particularly difficult during a pandemic because we don't just need to make sure everyone is a good actor and available for recordings, we also need to provide every single performer with their own professional grade remote recording kit and schedule video calls so they can perform scenes together. It's been a huge logistical undertaking which has taken massive amounts of coordination and I am immensely proud of our team for doing such a good job with it.
Once all that's done and everyone is equipped and scheduled and you have your finished scripts and Series Bible you can finally start recording.
I should add though that these are processes we have developed over half a decade. When we first started work on The Magnus Archives it was much more rough-and-ready and as a result Jonny has written and I have edited every single episode of Magnus. I wouldn’t recommend doing that to anyone who also wants a social life!
Q: How do you connect and engage with your listeners?
We actually use a pretty broad number of ways to engage and its always evolving. When we first set up Rusty Quill in 2015 I personally set up the most retro forum you could possibly imagine but we moved on from that pretty quickly.
Now we maintain the standard social medias you’d expect like Twitter (@TheRustyQuill) and Facebook etc. which people use to contact us but we also maintain an official discord server with more than 11,000 members which allows fans a space to discuss our content with the creators and each other in more depth. Beyond that our fandom has been terrifyingly organised in setting up Reddit communities such as R/TheMagnusArchives and R/RustyQuill.
We also stream video content via Twitch (twitch.tv/rusty_quill) which often features performers and employees from the company and that allows fans to directly engage via live chat etc.
Weirdly enough, I think one of the biggest forms of engagement we see from fans is thanks to our licensing! We use a type of Creative Commons that allows people to generate fan-made content and although that stuff can’t be sold or anything it has allowed a massive community of fan artists to grow in spaces such as Tumblr which happened entirely organically.
Q: What’s one hot tip for the budding podcaster out there?
There is no “secret sauce.”
Sorry that's a bit blunt, I should probably explain. I often encounter people who are looking to start podcasting who feel that they can't succeed without some secret industry knowledge, some technical wizardry or business flair that will guarantee a hit but truthfully there isn’t one. As I said before, Podcasting is a younger creative medium that is still defining itself and that means that right now, diligent work is still the magic ingredient. All of the tips and tricks in the world won't make up for focused creativity, professionalism and perseverance.
That said… I would say that most people underestimate the conception part of the process and if you get that aspect right instead of just diving in with no real plan, you’ll have a much
easier project. To be specific, you want to take some time before you start creating your masterpiece and really try to pick out the core reasons for why you want to make it. What is it that you're trying to achieve? Who does it serve? What does success look like? What does failure look like? Ideally you will want a clear answer to all these questions and more before you even start work because if you do, then you can use that knowledge to guide you to a finished product that you can be happy with. Trust me, it's much easier to make a decision on some complicated production problem if you already have that roadmap to refer to, especially if you are aiming high.
Rusty Quill has released a new line to celebrate the end of The Magnus Archives era! You can check out their store here: https://www.teepublic.com/stores/rusty-quill.