Deep Space Survival: An Interview with Wolf 359’s Zach Valenti ’12 and Gabriel Urbina ’13

“[W]e just don’t talk about what Doug would do for a slice of pineapple and ham anymore. Not since Apple told us it violated the iTunes Store’s terms of service…”

How do you create a sci-fi world without high-budget planet explosions, lens flares for days, or whitewashing cybernetic humans? Simple – record podcasts in the form of a space crew’s audio logs. In its third season, the award-winning, all-Wes alum-produced Wolf 359 chronicles the merits of floating around in the middle of nowhere. In space, no one may hear you scream, but communications officer Doug Eiffel and the rest of the USS Hephaestus beg to differ.

Here, Gabriel Urbina ‘13 (Head Writer and Executive Producer) and Zach Valenti ‘12 (Lead Actor and Executive Producer) talk about sunless basements, WesRave, plant monsters, and who they’d rather be stuck with aboard the USS Hephaestus. Read the full interview after the jump.

The dreaded first question – what is Wolf 359 about?

Gabriel Urbina ‘13: “Wolf 359 is a sci-fi thriller/absurdist sitcom… thing. (Yes, another one of those.) It’s about four people who, at the start of the series, have been stuck on board a space station 8 light years away from Earth for about a year and a half. I suppose it is, as much as anything, about what happens when you put four people with very strong, very different personalities in a really dangerous, really isolated pressure cooker of a setting.”

Zach Valenti ‘12: “People have described the show as: “Welcome to Space Hell: The Podcast,” “Three Bad Ass Space Ladies Judge the Hell Out of the Protagonist,” and “Mood Whiplash: The Series.” It’s also a chance to work with what has so far been an all-Wesleyan team. We’re going on 16 alumni from the classes of 2005 through 2015!”

How did you form your all-Wesleyan team? Do you still ~reminisce~ about college? (Are there any ~hidden Wesleyan references~ in the show?)

ZV: “It all started with Gabriel’s legendary Facebook post looking for a voice actor. A mutual friend pinged me about it and I hounded Gabriel until he sent me a pilot episode. The first draft was a one man show, where my character talked about the other people on-board. But the characters off the page were so rich, I felt we should expand the cast to include them. Next thing we know, we had some of our biggest Wesleyan creative crushes signed on with us.”

GU: “Hah, it was kind of a combination of “Who do we want to work with?” and “Who is returning our phone calls?” We didn’t set out with the intention of having all-Wesleyan team, but we’ve kept in touch with so many amazing Wes artists and performers who are constantly looking for new projects that it ended up being inevitable! And besides, why would we ever want to work with anyone other than Wesleyan people? They’re the smartest people in every room, and they know no fear. There’s still a few Wes-Celebs that we’d love to work with before we call it a day…

“And no hidden references that I can think of, but oh boy is there a lot of reminiscing. The creative team took a bunch of classes together in the Film Major, so there’s a lot of, “Remember that time Jeanine explained how this movie…” while we work on new episodes.”

Tell us about your life at Wes, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

GU: “It was great! I was pretty gung-ho about the film major, so I spent 96% of my time at Wes watching old black and white movies in a sunless basement. But I still managed to meet some stupid talented and absolutely inspiring people. And the dinosaur rides were awesome.”

ZV: “I only spent about 90% of my time in that sunless basement – another 5% was spent as WestCo co-president and 5% pointing cameras at as many things as possible. My favorite memory might be helping create WesRave by making the original promo video and website.”

How did you come up with the idea to create a sci fi podcast?

GU: “Really the idea for the characters and the plot just crashed into my head one day, and immediately I knew that this wanted to be a radio drama. It just felt like that’s the medium where these people wanted to live! But it ended up being a great fit – it let us produce and publish material very quickly, and focus on what’s interesting to us: the characters and the performances. Plus, it let us tell a science fiction story with a practically non-existent budget, which is a complete and utter luxury for young creatives.”

So what are some of your sci fi inspirations?

GU: “Farscape is probably the biggest one – that’s the model that I keep going back to. But lots of other things, like Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who… Joss Whedon is the patron saint of all things, of course. But there’s also a lot of non-sci fi things that I steal from. There’s a lot of like… Stephen Sondheim musicals in the mix. Heck, there’s a lot of My So-Called Life if you know where to look.”

What are your live shows and why did you decide to include them in your project?

GU: “We’ve only done one live show so far, but it was a complete blast! It was basically an expanded version of our radio show – most episodes are about 25 minutes, this was an hour-long, brand new script that told a new story. And we were able to get everyone involved in the series – even Alan Rodi [’12], our music composer! – to come down to New York and perform for a sold-out crowd.”

ZV: “There were a couple of things that went into deciding to do a live show. First off, cast was all over the United States – we’d never been in the same room at the same time. After doing the series for over a year, it felt like it was time to bring everyone together. And also it was a chance to stretch ourselves a bit – I’d never acted on stage more than 15 minutes in a 24-Hour Play Festival at Wesleyan before this! Plus, it gave our creative team the challenge of adapted an audio only property to the stage.”

What play was it?

ZV: “I played a gay man preparing to hold an adoption officer at gunpoint for denying me a child while my partner talked me down. It was called “Blueberries,” written by Anthony Bryan Lexington Smith [’11]. Nobody believed it could have been written over night. The reality is Anthony handed it in early – the dude’s a genius. Funnily enough, it was because of that play Gabriel heard about my acting in the first place.”

Tell us about the characters you play. What are their secrets? What are embarrassing stories about them?

GU: “As the writer I don’t really play anyone. Unless you count the evil God that’s controlling the characters’ lives….”

ZV: “I play two characters, Doug Eiffel – Communications Officer in search of alien life – and Doctor Hilbert – Station Science Officer who is definitely, totally not evil, we promise. Eiffel sounds a lot like me with my most charming radio voice (and a healthy amount of flatulence), while Doctor Hilbert sounds like an evil Russian doctor, but that’s totally just a coincidence, we swear.

“For secrets, we have a strict “no-spoliers” policy, so you’ll have to listen to the show. As for embarrassing stories – where do I start? There’s that time Doug proved how much of an action hero he was by crying like a grown-ass man when confronted by a space spider. And that day one of Hilbert’s many radiation experiments – a plant monster – took control of his body and tried to assimilate the entire crew. And we just don’t talk about what Doug would do for a slice of pineapple and ham anymore. Not since Apple told us it violated the iTunes Store’s terms of service….”

How does the story-planning go? Is there already an imagined ending for this space journey?

GU: “Yep, I have a pretty good idea about what the ending is. We begin each season by figuring out what we want the trajectory for that year to be – 12 months from now, where do we want the characters to be? Then, once we’ve worked that out, we start chipping away at each individual episode. We like having a destination in mind but giving ourselves some flexibility in figuring out how to get there.”

ZV: “It’s been awesome working with Gabriel on this – for a head writer / showrunner, he’s been incredibly generous as a  collaborator. Many of my weird ideas made it into the series so far, including one of the biggest plot twists in the premise of our latest season – which it turns out we both had independently of each other, as our mindmeld continues to deepen.”

Outside this podcast, what other projects are you involved in?

GU: “I’ve done a lot of freelance work as an editor, writer, and video producer over the last two years, and lately I’ve been trying to develop some original scripts and get some more personal writing done. The more we work on Wolf 359, though, the more it turns into a full time job!”

ZV: “Outside of Wolf 359, I create weekly videos on YouTube (please subscribe!). Primarily, I’m focused on raising awareness about mental health with Project Uplift. I also run video production at a cool education technology startup in NYC, called One Month. Most recently, I landed the male voice of Pillow Play – an app that provides guided sensual adventures for couples. And in my free time I volunteer as a reader for the blind through Lighthouse International. I think playing two characters on Wolf 359 prepared me to wear a lot of hats….”

If you had to be stuck aboard the USS Hephaestus with:
a. one character
b. one crew member
who would it be and why?

GU: “For the character, I think I’d pick Commander Minkowski! I think our temperaments are the most alike. Plus, unlike a lot of people on the show, she’s pretty competent, so I think I’d stand an okay chance of making it out alive if I was with her. For the crew, I think I’d take Alan Rodi because evidence suggests there’s nothing the man can’t do.”

ZV: “I’d definitely take Commander Minkowski because I value being alive and, unlike Eiffel, I dig competence in leadership. For the crew, I’d choose Cecilia Lynn-Jacobs [’11] because I trust fully in her ability to track and hunt Space Boar and reliably feed the Commander and myself.”

Listen to Wolf 359 here. Gabriel’s Twitter is here. Zach’s Twitter is here. Zach’s personal website is here. The void is not here.