In the Super Evil Writers’ Room
How the Philippines’ first serial true crime podcast was made
A Pod People Have Been Waiting For
It’s almost a month since Super Evil began, and it’s topped the podcast charts with thousands of listens. Don’t want to blow too much smoke up our own butts, but I think it has spoken to an audience that wanted serial true crime podcasts in the Philippines. We’ve heard from listeners that this is the kind of pod they have been waiting for, that they can’t get enough of it, and that they are hooked and can’t wait for the next episode (and maybe even next season?!).
This was a year in the making, and Super Evil host Pam Pastor has talked, written about, and been interviewed about how much work went into the pod. For sure, she, producer Tricia Aquino, and audio lead Marc Casillan, did incredible amounts of work—hitting the archives, going out in the field, conducting interviews, and everything else that was needed to create something so rich and complex.
“My hands turned black as I looked for every single piece that was published about the murders of Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez...It was a slow, painstaking process but it was a necessary one. It was important for us to see how this story played out in our pages not only so we can present a complete picture but also so we can honor the work of the men and the women who covered the case for years.” —Pam Pastor, Super Evil host
I was mostly a bystander and cheerleader for this work, which was a partnership between PumaPodcast and Inquirer Podcasts. And if you want to read more about it, you can check out this feature in Inquirer, as well as this interview Pam did on the Linya-Linya show.
What I can talk about is the Writers’ Room, which we ran a few times in the course of this project. It’s a effective tool you can use to get creative juices flowing.
What is a Writer’s Room?
The Writers’ Room isn’t something new by any means. In fact, it’s something I brought over into our process because of my experience working in TV and film.
Other members of the PumaPodcast team also came from journalistic backgrounds, and so their experience in newsrooms added to the way that these ran. When you add in how Pam’s been with the Inquirer for over two decades, then you can take a step back and see the kind of storytelling chops that people were bringing into the room.
The way I think of the Writers’ Room is like musical jamming, but with story themes. If you were a band doing a jam, you all have skills with your instruments and you have musical ideas that you enjoy exploring. Once you all start playing and jamming out, you listen to how other people play, you adapt what you’re doing, or someone does a run and you match their run with your own, you’re all feeling it out. By the end of the jam, you might have the makings of a song, and it’s something you wouldn’t have arrived at if you were playing alone.
In our Writers’ Room, instead of notes, progressions, and rhythm, we have Post-Its, Sharpies, and interview notes.
We held a few of these rooms. One at the top of the project, where we were still brainstorming and trying to figure out the kind of story we wanted to tell. Then, as the research and interviews happened, we’d do sessions to incorporate new findings and flesh out new ideas. Eventually, these led to rough guidelines and notes which Pam eventually turned into her scripts.
We were fortunate enough to be able to hold the first few of our sessions at our office. We filled up the wall with pieces of story:
“We should talk about the movie with Kris Aquino in it!”
“Oh, what about the mayor’s private army?”
“And this whole victim-blaming debate that happened between Mon Tulfo and Rina Jimenez-David!”
“‘Yung isang star witness, ‘di raw pwedeng mang-rape kasi hindi na gagana ‘yung anting-anting niya ‘pag may ginawa siyang masama!”
There were so many pieces of story that we kept adding post-its to the wall.
Then the challenge was, how does this become a story? It’s so huge. There are so many ways we could tell this. How do we make sure that we honor the memories of Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez? How graphic should our portrayals of the violence be? How many episodes is this thing even?
And there’s so much excitement (forgive the writer nerd in me that says this) of moving one post-it from one position to another and realizing that, by that one move you’ve found the right way to tell the story. We organized by theme, by episode number, by what could fit and what couldn’t. You can tell when an episode doesn’t have enough in it when there are way more post-its in other ones. So through this process you even get a visual sense of content and episode length. We would end these often exhausted because our brains had been working so hard exploring all the different ways to tell the story.
Then it would be back to the field and off into the writing, before we did another session. The pandemic hit and we would have to learn to do all of this online. It wasn’t easy, but it was what the story needed and deserved, and I think that it shows in how each of these episodes have turned out and how people are listening to them now.
Why run a Writers’ Room?
The Writers’ Room is an opportunity to draw from a group that can explore ideas, and thereby come up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
You could farm out scripts, you could just assign the work, or you could go home and write everything yourself. But there’s an energy and something that is added by working with other people.
To add to that, where if you were a solo writer you would really only be talking to — or arguing with — yourself, when you go through this process, then your ideas have to win. Not that there’s some kind of competition where someone is keeping score, but rather, your ideas have to enter into a space with competing ideas, and it’s the best ideas that can win. When you argue about an angle, or a structure, or even whose quote should go before another person’s, then the people in the room will present multiple approaches and it will be a matter of the room discussing all the advantages of going one way or another. It’s almost like a forge where the best possible version of a story can get hammered out.
You also get to draw on people with different views of the work. In particular, I think my perspective was that of a potential listener who was coming into this blind. It’s a position that Pam, Tricia, or Marc would not be able to take because they were so deep into the story. Building out your Writers’ Room with people with the right perspective and experience means that you’re already running a prototype version of a story and seeing how people will respond to it.
We don’t run Writers’ Rooms for every project we do. But we have found that this, and processes like this, are incredibly useful in envisioning and executing large narrative projects.
Tricia shared this thought about it: “The most important thing about the writer’s room is it takes this massive beast of research and interviews and turns it into something digestible. Suddenly you can take on a narrative podcast when it can initially feel SO DAUNTING.”
It’s not a secret weapon, because it’s something that is used by other pods, and even other industries. What it is, is part of our process that we think gets us and the people we work with to this next-level storytelling that we aspire to do.