Tally Abecassis, The Art of Podcasting No. 23

Tally Abecassis produces a podcast called First Day Back, a series on The Heard that chronicles her journey from documentary filmmaker, to stay-at-home mother, and then back to work. Only this time she’s entering the field as someone who “left the business” for motherhood. Abecassis brings her moviemaking skills to the podcast in a big way. She has a keen eye for tension and recording scenes as they happen in real time. When we sat down to talk, the conversation turned towards craft and identity and joining a podcast network. Also, what does it mean when adults have to grow up and face their mortality? It sounds deep, but Abecassis has wonderful way–like her podcast–of bringing hilarity and tenderness to all-too-real subjects. 

THE TIMBRE

I want to ask you about your filmmaking to start off, because I do think there’s an overlap. Some people would even call your podcast documentary style. What connection do you see between documentary filmmaking and podcasting?

TALLY ABECASSIS

It’s funny you see that connection because I find them so different and they’re using such different tools. With films, something has to happen in front of you. I mean, a thing–a physical thing–has to happen. Because if it’s just a bunch of people talking in documentary film, it ends up being… the worst insult for a documentary is, “Oh, it was a talking heads film. It was a bunch of interviews, a bunch of people talking.”

THE TIMBRE

So a talking heads documentary is considered sort of non-artistic? Is that what you’re saying?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, because it’s not that interesting to watch a bunch of people sitting in front of you. The kind of typical, boring documentary is experts sitting in front of a bookcase, with a lamp on one side, or a plant on one side, talking. That’s an insult to a documentary. I mean, you have to think of a visual way to express your ideas. And yeah, ideally, in a great documentary, you’re seeing things unfold in front of you.

THE TIMBRE

So to get back to what you were saying about the differences between podcasting and documentary filmmaking: You said they were very different. But there is sort of a parallel, right? You have a lot of moments where you’re pulling in friends, you’re pulling in past colleagues. You had that great episode where you called your former teacher. So there is some overlap, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Overlap of which?

THE TIMBRE

The idea of: ‘I need to get interesting people to talk–not on camera–but to talk to me, to tell the story that I’m trying to tell.’

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, but then you edit those people into something that works for the podcast. I mean, it’s always really difficult for somebody to have a thirty-minute conversation, an hour-long conversation with you, and when you cut it down to three minutes, it ends up not necessarily being a perfectly accurate representation of the actual conversation. You know, you might have talked about one thing for a very short amount of time, but that ends up being the part that’s the most relevant to the podcast. And when they’re your friends and your colleagues, it can get a little tricky. I have wondered about it, but so far I’ve felt like, ‘Yeah, I’m always being faithful to the spirit of what they said, so that’s okay.’

THE TIMBRE

But that’s true in documentary films, too, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yes, definitely. I remember hearing Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. He’s an Israeli filmmaker, and he made this film called The Inner Tour. It was a documentary where Palestinians toured around Israel and went to places in Israel that had been important to them. Like one person went to go visit the place where they grew up, and one person went to visit the place where their grandmother’s house was. So they basically took this tour in Israel. And I remember I saw the film, and the director was at this Q&A, and somebody said, “Well, how did the people in the film like the film?” Which is something that people always ask you at Q&As. <Laughs> I thought his answer was so interesting. He said, “You know, they didn’t really like it.” And he said part of the problem is that people are very complex. And one person could be, you know, a metal worker, and he’s divorced, and he’s got all these things, all these aspects to this life and–for the purposes of the story–you had to reduce him to a bit of a stereotype of one thing. He had to be the guy who wanted to find X thing–that was his quest. And you kind of reduced him to a very narrow thing. And when he saw the film, he didn’t feel like it really represented the complex person that he is.

That’s kind of what you always end up doing in a podcast, or in films. You have to reduce people to, very often, a narrow bandwidth of the way you see them.

THE TIMBRE

It reminds me of a John Lennon quote. Some journalist asked him a question at an interview, something like, “Oh, you know, two years ago you said that you were the best pop group.” Yada yada yada, whatever they said. And he just looked at them and said, “I don’t even know what the hell I tell you guys. You ask me a million things, and I tell you one thing, and then you quote me, and I don’t even remember saying it.”

I think what you said is exactly right. I think we’re all extremely complex, and that can be problematic when you’re trying to capture someone in one clip or one conversation. But the response to that, I think, would be: that’s why people like art where characters are seen in all their multifaceted ways and all their multitudes, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yes.

THE TIMBRE

We always consider art that reveals those things to be the best, because that one-dimensional character is always problematic in that way. But, like you said, it’s impossible when someone’s going to get just a little bit of airtime. I mean, how can you give them multitudes in ten seconds when you’re trying to create this piece of art that’s twenty minutes long and has so many different moving parts, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, well I think that’s it–it’s the moving parts–and, you know, you want to talk about one thing. This director I mentioned, he wanted to talk about these locations in Israel or Palestine. It was an ensemble piece. There were many people on the bus, and everybody had to have their little thing.

It’s probably easier to do those types of things in fiction. Create full characters.

THE TIMBRE

Well, I think in fiction you can bend the rules to your will.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, and you can make people. You can make it all fit together in the way that you want.

Whereas, in a documentary, you’re stuck with what people give you, and you craft it. Everybody always said they liked my finished films, but I do think that people see it and they’re like, “Well, it wasn’t really like that, and I wasn’t really like that.” It’s because you’re selecting moments, and you’re editing. I don’t know if I would ever want to be in anybody’s film for that reason.

THE TIMBRE

But you’re the star of your podcast. You are the protagonist. So you get to craft how you come across.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, I can hold back what I want to hold back. I’ve said with my podcast, “I have amazing access to me.” I’m not sure if I would’ve let anybody else follow me mainly because I know what it’s all about. I don’t think that’s to say that people shouldn’t trust me!

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> To prepare for our interview, I’ve gone back through the entire catalog and I’m amazed how consistent the voice is. I don’t know how conscious you were of what the podcast was trying to accomplish. Ostensibly, the podcast is about you getting back to work. And what I see and what I take from it is that it’s almost like realizing you’re mortal, you know?

I was listening to them, and I was like, “Man, I feel like this is everything that I’m thinking about in my life.” Maybe it’s about making hard compromises–maybe that’s what it is.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Hmm… yeah.

THE TIMBRE

But what would you say? What are the themes you found yourself exploring that maybe you didn’t expect?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, it’s definitely about places where I didn’t think I would be. You know, you see your life a certain way when you’re younger, and it’s just–your life is just not. It doesn’t always turn out the way you thought. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that I suddenly feel like I’m older than I was. Which is not the most profound thing to say, but I guess I’m not trying to hold back.

I think I came into it with a really honest sense of, “Gee, I don’t know if I want to be working right now. I don’t know where I want to be exactly.” You know, my mom died, and my mom was this really big deal in my life. Then I had kids, and I suddenly tried to kind of become her. Or do things that I thought she would appreciate. I sort of think sometimes you do things for people who died. And they weren’t necessarily the things that you were planning on doing. But you just find yourself doing things. I think I basically tried to become my mother for a little while there. And it was kind of the only way that I knew how to cope with the fact that I had become a mother, and I didn’t have my mother, and it was a really big deal to me. And then I feel like through the podcast, I’ve found my way back to be myself again.

THE TIMBRE

It must be nice to have the work and the project, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

It’s been really nice to have the podcast, to be honest.

THE TIMBRE

So are you editing your podcasts by yourself?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah. I’m a lone wolf, so that’s kind of okay. I’ve never been good at team sports. <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

So you’re going around recording all the stuff in your life. How much tape are you going through for a given episode?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Um, it’s not bad. I don’t record absolutely everything. I’m not kind of walking around just recording everything. I’m pretty focused on when I think something is going to be interesting. The problem is the interviews. As soon as you sit down with somebody–it’s really hard to sit down with somebody and talk to them for less than a half an hour. Pretty much with any half-hour conversation, the maximum you’re going to use is four minutes. So I guess I probably have two or three hours for twenty minutes, I would say.

THE TIMBRE

When did podcasting become something on your radar? Something where you thought, “Oh, I can do this.”

TALLY ABECASSIS

Oh, it was totally StartUp and Alex Blumberg. Because I listened to podcasts. I was a pretty big podcast fan. And then my brother said to me, “Oh, you should start listening to this podcast called StartUp.” And, I mean, I knew Alex Blumberg from Planet Money, but when I heard StartUp, I thought, “Oh my God, this is my skill set.”

I hadn’t listened to other podcasts and thought, “Oh, I can do that,” but when he was documenting something as it was happening, I was thinking, ‘He’s making a film.’

I started thinking, ‘Okay, what can I do? I could do something. I could follow a story.’ I had this friend and she was thinking of buying a farm. And I thought maybe I could follow her as she tries to build this farm, and then it kind of fell through. And then a neighbor was going to get a hive of bees, and I was thinking, ‘Well, you know, there’s no real conflict there.’

And then I had the film project that I was trying to work on, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to go anywhere. But I thought, ‘That could be the narrative thread.’ And it’s kind of like Alex Blumberg is doing, where he’s trying to build this company, and I’m trying to get the film done, so that could be the sort of arc that I’m following. I thought it would be mostly about that, and then potentially it could be about me getting back to work. But when I was trying to shape the first episode, I realized, ‘Okay, it’s primarily going to be about me trying to get back out there.’

THE TIMBRE

You know, I can’t believe I didn’t make that connection. But I really like that you’re thinking about all of those. There’s an immediacy, I think, to StartUp and to your show.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Mm-hm.

THE TIMBRE

The immediacy of being in the moment with you–we’re hearing your emotion, as you’re struggling with these problems.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

And that’s really, I think, quite clever, because I don’t think we realize how many podcasts are recalling things from years past.

TALLY ABECASSIS

I’ve never tried to make that kind of a podcast, you know? Where the model of somebody sitting and recounting a story, that This American Life kind of model, where somebody’s telling you about something that happened. That’s why Startup appealed to me.

THE TIMBRE

Were you influenced at all by shows like This American Life? By that model?

TALLY ABECASSIS

I mean, I’ve always loved radio. I grew up in a house, probably like so many Canadian homes, where CBC was on the radio all the time, and I listened to CBC all day. And like so many other podcasting people that I’ve talked to, they heard This American Life and it completely changed the game for them. And I’m exactly like that. I think I’ve listened to every episode of This American Life. I love it, love it, love it. And all of a sudden, I feel like I can work in this medium, and it’s so different to me, and it’s like discovering a new toy.

And so I’ve just fallen so in love with it. Not at all fallen in love with talking about myself all the time <Laughs>, but it’s more the subjects that I’m interested in, the intimacy of it. Not to sound like a cliché, but you’re talking to people in open, honest, meaningful ways. And I just love it.

THE TIMBRE

We know that the film project you’re on–and the state that you are in your life right now–is going to come to some sort of natural conclusion, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

Is there a thought of a reboot, like: “I’m going to take this first-day-back concept, and apply it to the woman starting the farm”?

TALLY ABECASSIS

I want to do another season, and I want to follow… I mean, the response to this has been better than I ever could have imagined. I basically just started this thing, and I could have had three downloads for all I knew. <Laughs> I didn’t at all know where it was going to go; the response has been wonderful. And so I’m spurred on, I want to keep going. So I’d like to open it up, and do another season that’s following somebody else’s story. And I don’t necessarily want it to be a motherhood story.

THE TIMBRE

I know it’s a sports analogy, but I heard a sports announcer say that he used to be a basketball player. He said that the general rule–this is like a known rule–in the industry is: When you quit being a professional ballplayer, it’s going to take you seven years to get your feet under you and get a new identity.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Oh, wow.

THE TIMBRE

Whether it be a business person, whether it be an announcer. And I think that’s what makes it so scary: seven years. In your case, you’re probably thinking that’s a perfect timeline for you, right?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, totally. <Laughs> Exactly!

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, but there’s also this identity crisis. You’re suffering from, “Hey, I see myself as a mother. I mean, I’ve been doing six years of hard labor as a mother.”

TALLY ABECASSIS

Ah, yeah.

THE TIMBRE

“…and I’m getting reps as a mother, and I’m not getting reps as a filmmaker.”

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, exactly.

THE TIMBRE

And you start to feel like: Do I have the juice anymore?

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah! Yeah, I think self-doubt is probably the biggest theme of the podcast. I hadn’t anticipated just how much self-doubt is part of this whole thing. I think it’s really comfortable to lose yourself in motherhood, in a way, because it’s almost impossible to screw it up. I mean, even if you become an alcoholic, whatever, shitty mother. I mean, you’re still your kids’ mother, and they’re still going to love you, as fucked up as you are. <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Right.

TALLY ABECASSIS

And I felt really safe in that for a long time. I’m definitely not the best mother. I’m super impatient. Yeah, I do crafts once in a while, but that’s not the majority of my time. But it’s so safe, because they love me, and they see me as that. And you can throw yourself into it. It’s like, when you’re looking for validation, your kids are going to validate you.

And the professional side of things, I absolutely feel like, “Oh, God, do I still have what it takes?” And there’s also the mirror, the way that people see you. And I’ve talked about this a lot in the podcast. People in public now, when they see you with your kids, they’ll call you “mom.” You go to a restaurant and the waitress will say, “And what does ‘mom’ want to eat?” And it’s like, ‘Ugh, does the world see me that way?’ And I find that as soon as you get labeled a “mom,” there’s a lot that’s shaved off you. You can’t be cool.

And I find it very hard to straddle the two identities of mother and filmmaker. And I wonder a lot about the way other filmmakers see me. Like the producer who said to me, “Oh, we wrote you off. I just didn’t think you were coming back.”

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, that was harsh.

TALLY ABECASSIS

That was harsh! And of course, I went back to her, and I thought like, “I’m going to ask her what she meant by that.” And I went back to her and interviewed her. And of course she was completely unwilling to go there with a microphone in front of her face. She was just like, “I never said that. I don’t remember saying that at all.” And I wasn’t really willing to push hard enough and completely rupture that relationship.

But yeah, I feel like the way people see me is completely different now. And documentary is probably the most forgiving of all the media. But it’s still there. I feel pretty insecure when I go back into that world now.

THE TIMBRE

I think by exploring this topic, to me, you really revealed something that was important: how much identity affects what we are able to do. It can be really paralyzing.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah. I mean, it’s like the guy in the last episode, Brian, the writer. I loved it when he said, “You know, when you’re a writer, people question you so much. You go to a cocktail party, and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re a writer? Where do you write? Where have you published?’” He’s like, “If I was a doctor, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, where do you do your doctoring at?’”

THE TIMBRE

I loved that. That was so great.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah. I mean, they would, but you have this certain amount of credibility. And it’s the same thing in filmmaking. I used to find that I would say, “I’m a documentary filmmaker,” and they’d say, “Oh, what have you done?” And the chances of them having seen your films was pretty low. But if I would say the films have been on TV, it really legitimized everything. It was like, “Oh, you’ve been on TV? Okay. Well, that’s actually real.”

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, they can check the box, and move on.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah, exactly. “Oh, she’s an actual…” I mean, probably it’s because so many people say they’re a documentary filmmaker, and they haven’t actually made films out of them.

But, yeah, identity is so tricky, too, because there’s how you see yourself and where you want to be eventually. And there’s how everybody else sees you.

THE TIMBRE

I’m sure now you probably feel strange saying that you’re a podcaster. Or do you feel strange?

TALLY ABECASSIS

I don’t know, I haven’t actually had to say that. And part of the problem is that so many people don’t know what it is. And a lot of people say to me like, “Oh, how’s your blog going?” <Laughs> I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily got street cred in the podcasting world because I don’t come from radio. I’ve done a couple pieces for CBC radio, but have I paid my dues? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would feel comfortable saying that yet. I may say “I have a podcast,” but then, who doesn’t? <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

You’ve only been out there for several months, but I think the show has raised its profile. And then you just recently joined The Heard, and I wonder if you could comment on that. How did you find each other?

TALLY ABECASSIS

I love those guys so much. I was introduced to The Heard from Rob McGinley Myers, from Anxious Machine, who’s been super-supportive of me from day one. There was a bit of a process. Jakob Lewis started it, and he pretty much had set it up. They asked me to join, and they had a kind of vote.

It’s been so, so, so helpful because podcasting can be really solitary. And I think people don’t always appreciate that. But working with The Heard, we have a weekly Skype call, and we work together online, and we give each other feedback on cuts. And Jonathan Hirsch of ARRVLS has been really generous, providing scoring for a lot of us. And it’s just a community of people who really respect each other and really like each other personally, which is really fun. I mean, our Skype calls are ridiculous because we have business to attend to, but then we all just want to hang out on the phone because we like each other.

THE TIMBRE

I like the group you’re with. There’s an accessibility that I really like. It makes you wonder, “Where is this thing going?”

TALLY ABECASSIS

<Laughs> Yeah! I think we all feel that way. I think we all share the love of what we’re doing. So absolutely, there’s a sense of wonder there, where we’re all like, “Wow, we’re able to do this? This is so great!” And it’s not like we have a shared aesthetic necessarily, but I think we have a shared commitment to a certain level of quality. We’re definitely all producing things at a certain level I would like to think.

But they’re also just really nice people, and it just makes me feel so much less alone in doing what I’m doing. Any kind of question I have, you just put it online on Slack, and everybody weighs in and just gives you advice. And the genius of the way Jakob set it up is just that, any time any of us does well, it kind of benefits all of us, because we’re all promoting each other. And so if one of us gets a lot of downloads, and then within that episode, there’s an ad for another person’s podcast in the group, and then, you know, it kind of goes in circles.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, you’re all out to sea, but you’re with a good group.

TALLY ABECASSIS

Yeah! I feel really lucky to be part of it. And it’s working.

~

 

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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