‘This American Life’ host Ira Glass can tell tales on any medium
January 26, 2018
When you hear the name Ira Glass, you probably immediately think of his popular public radio show, "This American Life." But, you might not think of the well-known radio host and producer as a movie producer.
But a movie producer he is, and he premiered one of his many films this year at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
"Come Sunday" is based on and adapted from an episode of "This American Life", which follows the story of Reverend Carlton Pearson, a distinguished evangelical pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"I've felt for a really long time that one of the worst covered groups in America by journalism is people who have faith," Glass said of his decision to follow Pearson's story. "I feel like generally the way that reporters come into their world is almost like anthropologists, and often they [people of faith] are treated in cartoonish ways, and there is very little documentation of the emotional experience of what it means to have faith in America."
So, he set out to document Pearson's controversial interpretation of Christianity.
"God reveals to him that you can get to Heaven even if you don't believe in Jesus," said Glass, "and he begins to preach it. And his whole life begins to fall apart."
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His followers, friends and family begin to question his beliefs and fight against what he's preaching.
"These are people arguing against him, who love him," said Glass. "And they're like, 'Brother, I would like to believe, but it's not in the book.'"
Glass said the drama around Pearson's story and the complex relationships made him enthusiastic about adapting it to film.
"Then there's the horrible process of making it into a film," said Glass. "I don't know how people do it. It is a study in delayed gratification at a level I just cannot comprehend. How do you people do it?"
However, it seems like Glass is in the movie business for the long haul — "This American Life" is essentially turning into its own production company, said moderator and contributing New York Times writer Logan Hill. Glass even admitted in a Monday panel that, among other things in the queue, popular podcasts "Serial" and "S-Town" are headed the way of film, too.
But Glass said that's not as easy as it seems.
"Is part of the difficulty there is that they work so well in their original medium?" asked Hill.
"Yeah, they're designed as podcasts," Glass replied. "Figuring out how to do 'Serial' again as a film is a really tricky process. Should it be a film? Should it be a miniseries? Is there a Sarah Koenig character?
"As a radio producer, I often feel like, 'we nailed it!' There's no other feelings you could extract from this," laughed Glass. "But some of the filmmakers we talk to really have a vision of it that seems really cool… I don't even know what stage it's all at. I guess I should have inquired about it before talking about it in public."
But Glass preaches that figuring things out and trying new mediums is something he enjoys, despite being "bad" for most of his career.
"I was bad," said the renowned radio host. "I was not good for a really long time. It wasn't like I was bringing in any kind of freshness, I was just not good.
"For me, that was a decade of my life," said Glass. "I know I'm making video stories, but they aren't what I want. They're not as good as other people's stories and they're not what I have in my head."
Hill also took a moment to ask Glass about sexual misconduct in the public radio industry.
"Were you aware of the amount of harassment reports, not at "This American Life", but at other public radio [stations]?" asked Hill.
"No, I wasn't at all," Glass said. "But talking to the women on staff, some of them knew people at other public radio stations who knew what was going on.
"Some of it wasn't even the sexual harassment part, but male radio hosts just being total dicks when they got off the air," said Glass.
He said some women told him that some hosts would get off air, and then loudly berate the women the host was just interacting with.
"It's just such a weird opposite of public radio hosts on the air," said Glass. "They're talking to you in this reasonable NPR voice, and the thought that the second the microphone goes off they're abusing some 25-year-old production assistant and yelling at her — that's the weird flip side of the nicey-nicey NPR voice … It's disturbing and weirdly funny, too."
Overall, Glass said he's excited to keep producing movies and trying to tell in-depth stories like he is doing now on "This American Life" and other nonfiction storytelling podcasts.
"It's about understanding what really happened and finding the other parts of it that people can invest emotionally," said Glass. "I think so much about the beginnings of things … I think as soon as you walk into people's real feelings, then they'll just go with you."