An Emmy Award-Winning Producer Teaches You Storytelling with Cody Sheehy
You need to tell a good story, no matter what kind of content you create. This is obvious in fiction, but it’s just as important in non-fiction. Don’t believe me? Take it from Emmy Award-winning producer, Cody Sheehy. He creates documentaries, and today he tells us why storytelling has been crucial to his work, and is crucial to yours too. In the PRO show, I couldn’t resist: I asked what it was like to win an Emmy.
- Everything comes down to having a good character. Your audience needs to associate with the character for them to feel connected to your content (this is why long-form> short-form).
- While Joseph Campbell’s formula is great in theory, it doesn’t fit perfectly in the real world. But you still need to take elements from it to craft something compelling.
- Finishing strong should feel like you’re running through a house, closing all the doors. Your character needs to grow and you need to close most, if not all, of the open threads.
Joe Casabona: You need to tell a good story no matter what kind of content you create. This is obvious in fiction, but it’s just as important in nonfiction. Don’t believe me. Take it from Cody Sheehy.
Cody Sheehy is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker responsible for the creative vision and execution of high-impact documentaries at Rhumbline Media. His films are focused on stories about our changing world, told from the perspective of people intimately connected to science and the natural environment. And the perspective of people there is super important because that’s where he finds his hero, his character for the story that he’s telling.
Today he tells us why storytelling has been crucial to his work and why it’s crucial to your work. In the pro show, I couldn’t resist. I asked him what it was like winning an Emmy.
Look for these top takeaways. Everything comes down to having good character. Your audience needs to associate with the character for them to feel connected to your content. This is why I believe long-form content is better than short-form content.
While Joseph Campbell’s formula for The Hero’s Journey is great in theory, it doesn’t always fit perfectly in the real world. But you still need to take elements from it and craft something compelling. And finishing strong should feel like you’re running through a house closing all the doors. Your character needs to grow. And you need to close most, if not all of the open threads.
I truly loved this conversation. It was a little bit different. I mean, how often do we get to interview Emmy Award winners? So if you want to get the full story, then you can sign up for the Pro show and get all of the show notes over at howibuilt.it/330. Or if you’re listening in Apple podcasts, it is now an Apple Podcast subscription. So you can sign up right in the podcasts app.
Again, I want to thank Cody for his time. He was very generous with it. We talked for a very long time. It was great. And I shouldn’t be delaying you anymore. So let’s get into the intro, and then the interview.
Intro: Hey everybody, and welcome to How I Built It, the podcast that helps busy solopreneurs and creators grow their business without spending too much time on it. I’m your host Joe Casabona, and each week I bring you interviews and case studies on how to build a better business through smarter processes, time management, and effective content creation. It’s like getting free coaching calls from successful solopreneurs.
By the end of each episode, you’ll have one to three takeaways you can implement today to stop spending time in your business and more time on your business or with your friends, your family, reading, or however you choose to spend your free time.
Joe Casabona: All right, I am here with storyteller and Emmy Award-winning producer Cody Sheehy. Cody, how are you today?
Cody Sheehy: I’m doing great. Really happy to be here.
Joe Casabona: Likewise. I have been banging the drum on storytelling, especially in podcasting for a little while now, so this is very serendipitous timing for us. I want to dive right into it with what makes a good story? We hear like the three-act arc, and there’s the climax. But what in your opinion makes a good story?
Cody Sheehy: Well, I think for me, it really comes down to character. I feel like when I’m really immersed in a great story, it’s a story where I’m associating with that character that’s on-screen or in my earbuds or whatever, and I can just understand exactly what their challenges are, what drives them, what their weaknesses are. For me, that’s the key. It’s the character.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s really important. It’s why with certain superheroes or every hero is flawed, right? Because inherently, we can’t really relate to Superman, but we can relate to Clark Kent.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, exactly. It’s those flaws that make them human. Also too it’s like when you’re building conflict with a character like Superman, what is the point if he’s just Superman and he does not have kryptonite? There has to be some way where you actually feel like their stakes in the battle, or it could go the other direction. Because ultimately, every story starts out with a story question. You know, it’s like, is the boy gonna get the girl? We don’t know. So that weakness is critical because the story question needs to be potentially answered either way, and that’s why you’re gonna watch or listen.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, it has to create that tension, right? And even in basically the first four phases of Marvel movies, all kind of followed the same story. It was a hero, he’s flawed in some way, there’s a conflict, it comes to a head. The climax is he fights a villain that’s almost exactly the same as him and he perseveres. But those movies are still so popular because there’s still the tension and you still create the doubt in the watcher’s mind, right? Like, “Oh, maybe they won’t come out of it. Maybe they’ll die this time or whatever.” Right?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. I mean, those movies are so archetypal in so many ways. Are you familiar with Joseph Campbell? He’s dead now.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, The Hero’s Journey.
Cody Sheehy: Hero’s Journey. I mean, when I watch a Marvel movie, I really see that kind of classic Campbell storyline on screen. And Hollywood has sort of adopted that as their summer blockbuster template. And we’ve seen that movie now a thousand times, but it’s riveting. To me, another element that’s important to it is that there’s a coming of age to it.
Typically, the hero is sort of an underdog or a young person who doesn’t really know who they are yet, and they have to find that. I find that act one often is about establishing that character in that place. And then you have the inciting incident right out of the gate. That inciting incident will transform their ability to resist the journey. So they go from being a reluctant hero to someone who’s actually on the journey.
Then you’re gonna see that character go through some kind of threshold and enter into what they call the shadow world. The shadow world is sort of where it’s the larger world out there. But it’s also like a world full of dangers and unknown things. So they’ve kind of left their hometown at that point. And they’re going to encounter strange and mysterious forces. And then they’re going to meet a mentor who has been there before them and has done it before them is going to show them the ropes. And I can keep going. But you’re going to find those elements almost in every single Hero’s Journey story.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. When I think about The Hero’s Journey, I mean, I feel like Star Wars is a classic example of like… a commonly cited example of it, right? I don’t know if you’ve seen the quote-unquote, “memes” of how like Harry Potter and Star Wars are actually the same movie or the same story?
Cody Sheehy: I haven’t, but I wouldn’t doubt it.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. It’s like a young orphan living with his aunt and uncle,-
Cody Sheehy: True.
Joe Casabona: …his mentor’s a wizard, has to fight a dark force that he’s somehow related to.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Joe Casabona: But again, that’s what creates the riveting story. Of course, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has been co-opted for all sorts of things. Don Miller uses it for building his whole story brand thing, is that where your customer is the hero, and you’re the mentor. But like you said, in the beginning, this is really important, right, our listeners or watchers, our audience needs to associate with the character in some way. They have to relate and they have to feel an emotional attachment. Because without that, you might as well just read an academic paper, or whatever. Like, just read the facts of the situation.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. I mean, I think as human beings, ever since we’re little kids, it’s a skill that we’re all striving to perfect. It’s probably a genetic thing. When you get into a group of people, you immediately try to figure out what everybody else is feeling. I mean, just imagine, you know, two human beings encountering each other out on a plane back and we’re all cavemen. You got to figure out right away are they a friend or a foe, are they mad, are they angry?
So we have this mental model and we try to project into that other person, given the clues that they’re giving us and try to become them and understand what they are. And that’s empathy. And with storytelling, what you’re trying to do is get someone to apply that same human-to-human connection that we’re so good at to this fictional character or this character that’s on a two-dimensional screen.
And when they do that in a deep enough way, that’s when that suspension of disbelief happens. And suddenly you get that tunnel feeling. You’re in that dark theater and the screen suddenly becomes entire world and you’re no longer in that theater, you’re like inside the story because that ability of your brain has been triggered. So I think that’s what you’re trying to do as a storyteller is just get that feeling of like full immersion into the story.
Joe Casabona: That’s such a powerful point because it’s about the… I know people who question every movie they ever watched. Why would they do that? And most people don’t because of the suspension of disbelief. One of the things that takes me out of it immediately is terrible dialogue. Again, to continue citing Star Wars, episode two, I was re-watching that recently, and I was thinking, yeah. And I was like, “Oh, maybe this isn’t actually as bad as I remember.” Like, I got panned. They get to the scene where Anakin says, “I wish I could just wish away the kiss you gave me.” I’m like, “What is that?”
Cody Sheehy: I know. It’s been years since I’ve seen that. But I think there’s a part of that where he’s like, “I love you.” And she’s like, “No, I love you more.” And he’s like, “No, I love you more.” And was just going back and forth. Was that in that movie or am I…?
Joe Casabona: I can see the scene where it’s like they’re in that field and they’re kinda like playing around and just having just the dumbest conversation I’ve ever heard.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. And something that I always wonder too is like, Okay, suspension of disbelief, it just crushed in that moment. I’m suddenly in the theater looking around at other people trying to figure out like, what it could be more entertaining than this film because I don’t believe this anymore?
But if we were actually hanging out with two high schoolers out in a field and they’re in that moment, who knows what they’re saying? They’re probably seeing some pretty dumb stuff because so much of that is like chemical and vibe, and all those nonverbal signals that are going on. I was thinking that if that movie had been cast well, and the two characters really had chemistry, I wonder if they would have been able to pull off even the crappiness of dialogue, just because so much of a great love story is not really what you’re saying but it’s all the signals that two bodies are sending, you know? So I’m just throwing it out there.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. Right. And that’s such a great point, right? Because like casting… I’m gonna say, like, Hayden Christensen got a really raw deal. But I think that George Lucas totally dropped the ball on directing. He was just like, “Yeah, do this in front of a green screen, it’ll be great fun.”
Cody Sheehy: Oh, that’s a good point, too. That’s back when they were really trying out a lot of new technology. Maybe that’s what made it all so awkward is it just didn’t feel good.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s true. Because you get into that uncanny valley, too. All of these elements go into storytelling, right? But wasn’t The Hobbit kind of panned for having too high a framerate that people weren’t used to yet?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. I mean, it was 60 frames per second. And for a lot of film aficionados especially, that feels really kind of silky smooth and looks a little bit like home video or something you see on TV. I have that reaction to it too. Avatar too is interesting, because they go up to I think it’s 48 frames per second for the high-speed action scenes, because the problem that they’re all facing is like you get judder in 24 frames per second, which is what the standard is and it looks good, it feels good, feels like a film. But it gets judder when the action gets high.
So I think Avatar, what they were doing is when the high-speed action came on, it would switch to 48 frames, and then when it would go back to so things didn’t have the blur and then judder. But then, in the regular stuff, I believe they would just go back to the regular frame.
Joe Casabona: That’s really interesting. Again, bringing it back to a story, these kind of subtle signals or maybe ineffable is the word that comes to mind, right? Like when I was making tutorial videos with my friend, I was like, Does it really matter that the cursor is perfectly choreographed? And he was like, People… they won’t be able to put their finger on it but something will feel off about the video if you don’t do things a certain way. They’ll just know that something’s wrong and they won’t be able to say what it is.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. Yep. Because film is a language. And although people may not be able to write this language very well or understand it, they definitely know how to read it. They read it really well, because we consume a ton of media. So maybe there’s like a subtle little rule that you’re violating. I think it’s also totally apparent, like when you look at an older movie from the 1950s. And even now, the 60s and 70s, when I go back and watch those films, the language has changed, especially in the pace of editing.
I mean, the movies nowadays are cut so fast, and younger audiences can pick up just a single frame, and they’re gonna get, “Oh, man, that missile went left to right there.” Whereas in the old days, you know, they would like literally show the missile fly across the screen and we’d spend three seconds on it. Like, Yes, I got it, left to right, you know? I know where we are in space here.” So yeah, it’s like the language changes over the years.
Joe Casabona: Oh, that’s so funny. You know what that reminds me of? and then I want to move on to kind of the next topic here. But what that reminds me of I bought the… Warner Brothers released their 100 most popular movies or their 100 most important movies or a DVD set, and the first one was just called The Hotel, and it came out in like 1930, or maybe 1932.
And it’s legit just people talking in a hotel. And I’m like, “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever watched.” But like in 1930, it was like moving picture and sound. And that was probably all that was needed to like wow the audience. I was just sitting there thinking like, “What’s even happening? The dialogue isn’t necessarily good. It’s just like…” I was very bored by it as a mid-20s person at the time.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, I know.
Joe Casabona: Really interesting. Now, film is a language as you’ve said. There’s this kind of formula that you’re supposed to follow. And we’ve talked exclusively about fiction here. When you’re building a fiction world, whether you do it well or not, you control every aspect of it. And you need to build the world and you need to make it believable still, but like…
You know, I just read Blake Crouch’s book Upgrade, which is about modifying your DNA and it’s in some unnamed future. Like some unnamed near future. And I think he did a good job of making me believe that this was possible. But he gets to control the entire story.
When we’re talking about nonfiction narratives, so this is like a podcast, or a film that you’re making, or a story that you’re trying to tell to an audience that you’re speaking to, how well does that formula translate to real life?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, it’s a tough question. With documentary film, especially, there’s a lot of limitations around what you’re actually going to be able to capture in terms of video that can go on screen. For example, my last documentary was called Make People Better. And it’s about the first genetically engineered twins that were created in China secretly in 2018. And then that story broke and the Chinese scientists who did it was disappeared.
So we were part of breaking that story. And it was crazy because that scientist actually had tremendous support from the communist government to push genetic engineering to the next level and get it into human beings, because there’s international taboo around that. And he also had massive support from top American scientists, including like Jennifer Doudna who developed CRISPR, the latest techniques for editing, and including James Watson.
He met James Watson, the guy who discovered the structure of DNA.
Cody Sheehy: Oh, wow. And he asked him, he’s like, “When you uncovered the structure, did you think that someday we would be editing human beings.” And Watson was like really old and kind of deaf, so he had to write down the question on a piece of paper. And then he just wrote back his answer, which was yes. And then the Chinese scientists asked some question, was, do you think we should do that? And then Watson just wrote back, “Make people better?” And that’s how we got the title for the film.
But it’s also great. It’s great because it’s so ambiguous. Like, what did he mean make people better? Was he talking about making people more healthy or was he talking about literally improving people, in some way enhancing them? And if that’s the case, what is better? And who’s deciding that? And shouldn’t we all have a say in this technology that has the power to just reshape humanity at the rate of Silicon Valley Tech development? It’s a crazy story.
So your question was about how do you apply the storytelling structure to that when it’s like actually happening in the real world, in this case, in real-time. I think in that film, and maybe a lot of films, there’s sort of a process, like a three-step process.
The first step is okay, I want to make a film about genetic engineering. I know that. And so I’m going to do a bunch of research, read a bunch of books, interview, informationally, several people, and get a picture of what I think an interesting story might be. And I’m going to kind of write out a treatment and maybe the scene, maybe that scene, maybe it’s this kind of thing.
But if it’s a PBS documentary, you could then just go and interview the top scientist and kind of stick close to that structure, probably. But if it’s a documentary, like the one I’m talking about, we actually went to China knowing that that’s where the frontier of genetic engineering was. Not frontier in terms of technology, but frontier in terms of likely there was somebody making babies in a lab somewhere kind of thing, and started to investigate.
And then that’s when we met the scientists. And then suddenly, we knew this guy is actually the guy—he’s the one who’s gonna do the moon landing for genetic engineering. He hasn’t admitted it to us yet, but he’s slipped enough times that we know that it’s him. So we’re gonna stay close to this guy.
So then it’s like everything I had written before, everything I knew before suddenly just becomes context and background. And then you rewrite out a news story and start trying to film that. So you do a bunch of filming, all this happens, the story breaks, the guy ended up being disappeared by the communist government. All these different things happen. We just film and film and film whatever we can. Whoever’s connected to that story we’re interviewing them, we’re trying to be in the places where it’s happening. At the end of the day, then you’re sitting on a pile of footage.
And this is where it gets kind of weird. Because at this point, the real world quits giving you input. Now, you’re a creative storyteller with a pile of clips. So this is your haystack. And you then take everything that you thought you knew and you throw it away. And this is a great time to bring in a really good editor who doesn’t know anything about the story, and he or she is coming in fresh.
And this fresh perspective goes through and looks at all the material and they tell you, you know the story that I think could be in here? And the director and the editor really start to work together be like, Well, that’s close to reality but we’re missing one thing. What do you find in there? And it just kept going back and forth, back and forth.
And we also had a great writer too. So the writer would also help us go through these scripts that are being written out based on transcripts from material we add until we have a rough edit. And then you go into kind of phase three, which is you start showing that to people and you start kind of testing it on various audiences people you trust. Often a good place to start is our other editors that really know story. And they will tell you, this is not working, this is working, you’re missing this scene.
I think at that point, you really start to kind of go back to what we talked about at the start of the interview, which is like, “Okay, we’re really missing a mentor here for this guy.” And if we could slap in a mentor in the section and figure out who that was, and tell that story, we’re going to connect a bunch of dots in the story structure for the audience.” And that might be important, you know.
So you start to kind of look at the structure, you know, and go back to that and then edit. Eventually, you get to a fine cut and start showing that to audiences, see how they react to it. And mainly they’re. I think you said something really smart at the beginning, which was like, people will tell you, “I don’t understand this. I don’t know.” They can’t quite put their finger on it. But they will give you… enough people will ping on something and they will give you wildly different reasons of why they don’t like it.
It doesn’t matter what they say. It’s just that they all know that there’s a problem here. And so then that’s where you kind of highlight that one read and go back and start looking at it again and trying to figure out how to make it more clear. It’s almost always a problem of the information is not coming through clearly in that area for some reason. And so yeah, try a different edit, try whatever it takes. Eventually, you get to your final product.
So it’s very different than, say, a narrative film where you can polish the script, and then go spend a lot of money building sets and setting up exact camera motions and everything. It all happens almost in post. It’s kind of crazy.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s super interesting. And again, I mean, aside from me being a huge pop culture nerd anyway, I want to relate this to a couple of pieces of pop culture that we’ve already mentioned here. One is Star Wars. There’s like the… I don’t know, if it’s an urban legend. It’s disputed at least that Star Wars, the first movie was saved in the edit. They had a bunch of raw footage and there wasn’t a good story there.
I mean, clearly, they had to get enough raw footage to make a story. And they had a general skeleton that they probably didn’t need to deviate too much from, like what you’re talking about here, right? Because like you have an idea of what’s going in. But then you also have a bunch of unknowns, like this scientist that you learned was like the moon landing guy of gene editing. So I’m thinking about that.
And then the other thing I’m thinking about is, I love the Harry Potter movies. I also read the books. So my friend and I watched, I think, it was the sixth one or the seventh one together, where they really dig in the Horcruxes. And he was like, “That movie was terrible.” And I’m like, “How is it terrible.” And he made me realize that the movie didn’t actually explain what Horcruxes were very well or that there were a bunch of them. And I was like, Oh, I knew that because I read the book. And he’s like, “You shouldn’t have to read the book to get the movie.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s accurate.” So it’s just interesting because that series was also kind of happening in real-time as the movies were being made.
Cody Sheehy: They’re relying on the audience to have read the books. That is fascinating.
Joe Casabona: It was kind of like earth-shattering for me. I was like, “Oh, this is wild.” But then if you read the books, you’d also know that they get a bunch of stuff wrong, especially in the third movie. So…
Cody Sheehy: Can you imagine a future where there’s this multimedia environment coming at us from all these different directions, like social media, what you’re seeing in the theater, what you’re reading online, fanfiction, like, on and on and on. And the story that… I don’t think it’s this way yet, but I can envision as kind of a franchise really relying on their audience to piece together the story from all these different things that are happening, you know, and kind of… I don’t know what that’s called. I guess it’d be like… I don’t know. It adds value to each other different media products. You have to look at them all to get the story. I don’t know. Maybe that would just be a total failure too.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. I mean, we’re kind of seeing it a little bit. So my first memory of something like that is when, I think, it was Halo 2 came out, there was this accompanying website that had to do with beads and hexagons. And it was not clearly associated with the movie but if you solve the puzzle on this website, you got an extra bit of story in context for Halo 2.
Cody Sheehy: Got it. I think you’re right. I think the marketers have been trying to do this.
Joe Casabona: And then if we look at, again, the Marvel, it’s called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one division in Loki set up really important parts like the TV shows on Disney plus set up really important parts for like phases five through eight or whatever, right? Like they introduce… Well, Loki introduces Kang, which is what the next probably 10 or 15 movies are going to really be based on.
Cody Sheehy: Right. So they’re all interlocking? Yeah.
Joe Casabona: Which is overwhelming. I mean, I’ve got three kids. I haven’t seen Ant-Man: Quantumania yet. I haven’t watched Secret Invasion yet. Like, am I going to be lost? Because I didn’t consume this one movie in a pantheon of like 20 different media properties?
Cody Sheehy: I think it’s going this direction, for sure.
Joe Casabona: Super interesting. But I want to dig in on something you said here because, first of all, we have this formula that kind of becomes like a loose blueprint for how you want to tell the story. But you said you collect footage and other recordings, and then at this point the world stops giving you stuff. And now you need to bring in other people who aren’t as close to the project as you and can kind of look with fresh eyes. And at some point, you need to put this narrative together and maybe give the guy a mentor, because that is still how people look at stories. So even if he’s doing it all on his own, surely he’s had to have some help or someone guiding him along the way.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. So, for example, him meeting Watson and Watson giving him the okay to do it changes everything. It changes the story. Like once that crucial piece of information is delivered to the audience, suddenly, it goes from what the media had been saying about this guy, which is a rogue scientist to, no, he’s not. He’s someone who was like put up to it by these other more powerful people and then made a sacrificial character.
Like they needed him to go to jail and be disappeared for breaking this ethical international boundary, this red line around it. So it changes the tone of everything. And we found that because we were thinking, “Well, who are his mentors? Who motivated him to do this? Why was he doing this?” And then that scene totally just falls into place. So that structure provided a creative entry point to a whole new part of the story, essentially.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s wild. And then of course, the harder part for you is, at least from, I think, a typical American’s perspective is, China is extremely secretive and possibly duplicitous about a lot of things. I want to talk specifically about this now. How did you kind of suss out what was good versus possibly… What is the word I’m looking for?
Cody Sheehy: What’s the real or versus unreal in this world?
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s the perfect way to put it.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. And it’s so, so true. This is a great question. So the genetic engineering revolution that’s happening right now, just in general, is in a very high hype state. It’s a lot like AI, where everything’s getting real hyped right now and companies are getting built, billion dollars are getting invested here, there, whatever. So everyone’s hyping and VCs and stuff. So that same vibe is going on in genetic engineering too. Biotech is going to be the next big revelation. Right?
Then layered on top of that is what you just said, which is we have this culture, two different powerful cultures are coming into rivalry between the United States and China. And there’s a lot of things that are being hidden and a lot of competition, and a lot of secrecy around where each of these countries really is.
And then the third layer, which makes it even harder, is the scientists themselves are also shadowboxing around this too. So in public, they know the public, because of the polling, is not really ready yet to accept the idea that we can radically engineer human beings to have different abilities and whatever. That’s just too much for us. You know, designer babies. Like we’re not quite there.
But behind the scenes, there’s a huge percentage of them may be approaching 50% that think we should go for it. That’s just how they view it. I mean, they’ve been studying genetic engineering their whole lives. They’re really smart. They’re really great. They think that they can control this kind of power. They’re fascinated by it, they want to do the next breakthrough and they don’t want anybody to tell them that they can’t.
So behind closed doors, they’re like, “We want to do this. So how do you separate fact from fiction in all this? ” I mean, the way that we did it was we just interviewed lots of people. I mean, 40 or 50 interviews and almost none of them were actually in the film. But after a while, you start to kind of get a sense of, Okay, well, we’ve heard this one thing from like seven people now. That’s probably they’re circling something that’s true.
And then the other way you can do it too is we’ve talked to everybody, and nobody will talk about this one thing. So that’s something that they heard… there’s like a gap here, and I got this suspicious. So like, Let’s get inside that and see what that is. So by kind of mapping out the community, and figuring out who is on what side of this and that, like, who knows who and what are they saying and all of that. You can kind of triangulate some version of the truth. I don’t think you can ever get to the truth of anything nowadays, just because of the way the world is 100%. But I think you can kind of the big-picture stuff you can kind of do.
Here’s a weird little side story about truth, I guess, and China. So first off it’s very difficult to film in China. So we kind of had to sneak in there. But other than that, this weird thing happened. So our team includes this really great researcher at Arizona State University named Ben Hurlbut. He studies this stuff all the time. That’s what he does.
He gets a phone call from JK—JK is the Chinese scientist—while JK was under house arrest and disappeared. And he gets more than one of these calls. So he gets a series of calls from him. Basically, JK is like, “I want to talk to somebody in the West and just tell my story.” So Ben recorded all those. And those are really an important crucial part of our documentary, these secret calls that JK made to Ben, this Western researcher.
And because JK is faced with prison time, at one point execution was being floated, I think he just wanted his story to get out is what he told Ben. “I want the truth out there. At the end of the day, somebody should know the truth, I’m going to tell you.” Okay, so that’s great. That’s interesting.
But you start thinking about a little bit more. There are 12 Chinese secret police guarding this guy outside his room, the New York Times is trying to get into him and they can’t. They’re filming all these guards and the guards, eventually, they confront them and everything. So this guy is under house arrest? Why are they letting him talk on the phone? And how can we believe that nobody is listening in on that line? You know, this is crazy. This is the number one most censored topic in China in 2018. They’re not listening to this guy that they put under house arrest. Yes, they are.
So then you start to wonder, “Well, why would whatever authorities there are that are listening to us and why do they allow him to tell the story? So then you start to realize, Okay, we’re also part of their play in some way. They want this to come out in the west.
So I think the answer at the end of the day, as best I can piece together, is in China, yes, they censored this topic. They don’t want the Chinese people to know that they were involved in a big scandal, and it looks bad. So we’re gonna cover it up. But in the West, there’s no way to cover up the scandal. You can’t censor everything that’s out in the West. So they went with a different tactic, which is, we’re going to point fingers, it wasn’t just us. It was also the US scientists were in on us, too. We’re going to make it muddy. So I think that’s why it happened. So I don’t know where I’m going with all that other than it’s a little bit of insight into some of the intrigue around the information space.
Joe Casabona: But that’s really interesting, right? Because as the storyteller, you need to understand what agendas are at play here, right? When people ask me about reading the news, and how do you know the truth? I tell them I do… if it’s a topic I’m interested in, I do exactly what you did. I talked to a number of… or I read a number of articles from various viewpoints and I try to figure out the common thread, right? And I’m like, Oh, well, these are like the things that all of the mentioned are the facts. And then there’s some sort of editorializing going on. Right?
But that’s very interesting to me, because until you said, “This guy is under house arrest, they’re definitely listening to him,” I didn’t think of that until you said it. But it’s absolutely true. It’s like how… who was the Chinese tennis player who got disappeared? And then she like put out a video that’s like, “I’m okay.” And I’m like, “I don’t believe that.”
Cody Sheehy: You’re under duress.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, right. But that’s really interesting. So to bring it back to creating this nonfiction narrative, we still have the skeleton of what we talked about earlier of The Hero’s Journey and laying out these details. But everybody knows… well, I’m going to say everybody knows. I think a lot of people know that a story can be made or broken in the ending, right?
So like, I think of The Matrix, I loved The Matrix 1. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only one that exists because two was basically filler and three was terrible. Dexter was one of my favorite TV shows. And then like the series finale was so bad that it just kind of crushed the show. People feel the same way about How I Met Your Mother. And then most notably, Game of Thrones, right?
How do you finish strong? Obviously, this story is not finished with I’m gonna say, most contemporary documentaries, right, because I think Netflix and a bunch of the other streaming services are racing to put out documentaries about things as they’re happening. Is Tiger King one? I never watched Tiger King, but that feels like one of them. Like that story’s not really done yet, or wasn’t done when it came out in 2020.
Cody Sheehy: I mean, they have another season and whatever but yeah, they’re reaching, I think, to keep it alive because it’s such a big hit.
Joe Casabona: Right. But how do you finish strong here?
Cody Sheehy: Well, this is difficult. A good friend of mine told me that the best way to end a documentary is it should feel like you’re running through a house and all the doors are slamming behind you as you go. So you’re being chased this house and all these doors are slamming. Like that’s kind of the feeling that you should get.
I think what that alludes to a little bit is the documentary has opened a lot of questions, a lot of threads, a lot of character storylines are in there. And you need to close each one of those off. And as you close them off, they drop out of story. You might do that in order of importance. If there’s no other factors, then it’s probably like the least important thread you close first and the most important thread you close last, and then throw credits.
But there could be other considerations. If you want to build, you know, excitement or something to how the information connects together, it’s all important. But yeah, so you’re gonna close those threads out. And so how you end people’s character journeys in the story is often very transformational. So it’s like, as the hero faces some kind of challenge, they’re gonna have to change to meet that challenge.
And what we take away from a story is how somebody changed to meet this new threat, essentially. So it’s like understanding how all these people were affected by this event sort of creates the feeling of, well, I’m affected by this story as well. One of the important things to do, I think, is to not tell people what to think; it’s to let them come to their own conclusions and really engage their own emotions, engage their own intellect. Because there’s so many pieces of information that they have from their life experience that you can’t anticipate. So you need them to paint in all the color and the lines that you’re drawing and come to their own conclusion. And I think that’s a great ending is one that’s interpreted differently by different people. They all get something out of it.
Joe Casabona: That’s great. And like, you know, on this show, and in business, in general, we talk about, like, you got to niche down and you got to talk to specific people. But when you’re going for something like this, you want them, like you said, to fill in the blanks because that creates the… that strengthens the emotional connection.
Like, for me, I have a hard time watching… I’ll give you an example. Four Brothers was a movie that came out. I’ve got three younger brothers. So like when the youngest brother gets like shot to death, that really impacted me. It was very emotional. And you’d like kind of knew based on where the movie was going, like, “Oh, something horrible is going to happen to one of these guys.” But they create that tension in that mystery. And then what they each do afterwards is not explicitly stated, but it’s internalized by the audience. So I internalized it differently, obviously, as the oldest of four boys.
Cody Sheehy: Right now I’m writing a fiction story, and I just had my first son, so he’s one and a half.
Joe Casabona: Oh, congratulations.
Cody Sheehy: Thank you. That’s a life-changing event. But anyway, as you know. So in the story, there’s a little boy who dies. I don’t think I could have ever written anything like that before I had my own son, because there’s just no way to, I think, really understand what that’d be like for a parent.
Joe Casabona: That’s super interesting. Because there’s the strong empathy factor. And people know it’s there. Now, I want to touch on coming out of the deep that we were just in. I want to touch on something else here, right? Because you have all these threads you need to tie together. If you don’t, it kind of feels unfinished.
I interviewed my friend Mike Pacchione on this show a while back. He’s a speaking coach. And he talked about how when you tell a good story you need to include important details, but not every detail, because people will take that detail and wonder why you told them that. I guess ultimately, my question is, how do you make sure you tie all the threads together? Like you’re closing the doors, it may be when you’re kind of test watching this movie, right, is that one of the things that you kind of realized, like, “Oh, we didn’t tie this up and now we need to, or we need to take it out.” What’s that process like, tying up all these loose threads?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, for sure. I don’t think it’s critical that you tie up every loose thread. I think you can actually get away with leaving quite a few open. It’s all about kind of painting this emotional landscape. So if there are some threads… like in our film, what happened to the genetically engineered baby girls, you know, these twin girls? Where are they? And we don’t know the answer to that. We just lean into that. Or like we don’t know. They’re still missing. They are somewhere in China. We don’t know.
And I actually really liked leaving that one open because it creates this idea that it’s a mystery, there’s still a mystery here, this story is not finished, and engineer is going to keep on going. These girls are gonna grow up… you know. So it’s like, I think it kind of keeps you engaged and it gives you something to talk about after the film is over.
So when everyone’s like leaving the theater, they’re like, “Well, what about this? Or what about that?” And sometimes they’re just rehashing threads that are closed, but a lot of times it’s the ones that are left open that generate that conversation after the movie is over. So I think there’s that. So I think there’s a balance between how many close and how many don’t.
There’s some that you have to close. And the main character’s narrative arc I think is in that camp. Like you really need to resolve did boy get girl, did Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star? Like, that major external story? So there’s an internal story and external story. I think the external story has to be closed up essentially.
And then in terms of those little details, like somebody has Red Sox on, why is that shot so close on Red Sox? That’s a detail I’m gonna log away for later because we’re solving a mystery. Here’s another critical thing I forgot to tell you. I just said at the beginning. But what drives a story beyond character is a sense of mystery. So you need to be giving the audience a puzzle, a mystery. Like, Who is this person? This is a mysterious situation.
And so you often do that by planting clues. And then people can spend some time trying to figure out what those clues mean and logging them away for later. I think it’s very unsatisfying if you give clues that end up being totally irrelevant. Not just red herrings, because red herrings can be fine. Like, oh, they took me over there but wasn’t that okay? I understand that clue. It’s just a clue there for no reason whatsoever is kind of feels like an error.
So there’s a process where you go through everything really with a fine tooth comb and look for things that maybe you’re hanging on from earlier edits. Like that red sock was critical, because there’s a Red Sox scene later, and then that Red Sox scene later got cut, and you don’t need the clue at the beginning anymore, and you better catch all those. So little bit of that.
Joe Casabona: That’s so funny to me. Because as you’re talking about these things, I mean, Star Wars, right? Spoiler alert, Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star when he uses the force. But the movie ends seemingly satisfyingly, but the Empire still out there. Like you didn’t see Darth Vader die. And that was like the first thing that my friend, Amy, said to me after I watched it for the millionth time, and she watched it for the first time, and I know what’s gonna happen because I know that there are a few other movies at that point, five other movies. She’s like, “It feels so unfinished.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I mean, it’s a trilogy. So it is. But people in 1977 didn’t know that. They didn’t know there were more movies coming out. George Lucas didn’t even know more movies were coming out. So that’s super interesting.
The other thing I want to touch on here. Like the main character has to change to meet the challenge. And I guess I’m just gonna run through all of my favorite pop culture things here. Because I feel like that’s what made How I Met Your Mother so unsatisfying. I don’t know if you watched How I Met Your Mother.
Cody Sheehy: I’ve watched a lot of episodes, but I wasn’t like a huge fan. So I wouldn’t know each detail.
Joe Casabona: So I’m going to spoil the ending here for you. Is that okay?
Cody Sheehy: Sure. Go ahead.
Joe Casabona: Okay. I don’t have to but it’s gonna be harder to make my point. We spend the entire series knowing that Ted and Robin aren’t gonna get together, right? And that’s like a refreshing thing. That’s the mystery of it all. It’s like, Oh, Ted is in love with Robin and season one. And we know that she’s not the kid’s mother, so this is going to be great. And then in the last season, the actual mother has a terminal illness and dies and then Ted gets together with Robin. And that felt very unsatisfying. Because I’m like, you open to this mystery and then you just turned it into a typical romcom sitcom, or whatever.
Cody Sheehy: Oh, they wasted it. Because like, What a great story premise. Like, who is the mother? Or who does he end up with? That’s a great premise. And yeah, they just toss it in the trash. It’s crazy.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, in like the last hour of a hundreds of hours TV show.
Cody Sheehy: How cheap is that? Yeah, it’s terrible.
Joe Casabona: So really, really important stuff here. So we’ve been talking for a while now. I want to try to give our listeners a satisfying ending and close some of these threads. So if someone wants to… This is gonna be kind of two, maybe two different answers here, right? We’ll kind of split the baby.
How do you think somebody should get into creating documentaries? And then for someone like me, who doesn’t really do documentaries, but I try to do these kinds of nonfiction podcast episodes storytelling, what are the first thing that we should think about when we want to approach telling a good story?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, okay. Well, I think the way to get into documentary is, so typically, the first-time documentary filmmaker have amazing documentaries, often that might be the best documentary that they make in their whole career. And it’s a great feel to like break into because of that fact that first-time filmmakers are the ones who had an amazing story happen in their life that they have access to, they have access to the characters, and they have the time to spend, who knows, five years. I think five years is average length of kind of your big document, you know.
Spend time with those subjects filming them, doing all that stuff. Whereas later when you have, quote, unquote, “made a job out of it” and you’re trying to produce a documentary every two to three years, and you’re trying to raise money and you’re trying to get the next one and you’re trying to network and blah, blah, blah, suddenly, you’re like a guy in a suit somewhere in an office building or whatever and you’re no longer like that scrappy kid that was right next to the great story.
So what does that boil down to? I think the advice is if you’re trying to get started and you see a really amazing story, there is nobody who can tell that but you. It has to be you and so you should do it. Because that’s going to be a great story. And just film, you know. Film everything you can. If it doesn’t make it on the video, it probably won’t be in the story.
Joe Casabona: Oh, man, I love that. Always keep the camera rolling.
Cody Sheehy: Keep the camera rolling. Totally. There’s gonna be a question… Man, I know you want to keep this thing. So sorry, I’m starting to ramble. But often there’s a question of like, should I put myself in the story or not? And there’s a strong pressure to do that because how else do you make a narrative out of it? Often the story that you’re experiencing is the investigation that you’re doing. The story reveals itself to you and documenting that is like an easy way to tell the story. So like you’re part of it. But try to shoot it so it can be either way is what I would say.
Because if it becomes a major, major documentary, probably they’re going to try to cut around you and cut you out of it. You know what I mean? So just film it both ways.
Joe Casabona: There’s the danger of almost making you the hero in that. I mean, is that accurate? That’s my first impression at least.
Cody Sheehy: That’s exactly right. And the problem is, you’re not nearly as interesting as the story you’re trying to tell. So you should not be the hero most likely. If you’re that interesting, someone with a camera should be following you around.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. Someone else should be telling your story. Right?
Cody Sheehy: Yeah. Yeah. It takes a while to kind of learn that but that’s probably the truth.
Joe Casabona: To drive that home, I’m just gonna say Ben Franklin’s biography is hailed as one of the greatest biographies of all time. His biography is not very good. Like he doesn’t remember details properly, because it’s just like 50 years of him journaling. And he doesn’t even get to the part where he discovered lightning electricity. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin is much better than Ben Franklin’s autobiography, as a cherry on top of that point.
Cody Sheehy: Yeah, exactly. Then to flip it around, though, there are situations where it’s not the case. So one of my favorite filmmakers is Verner Hertzog—I like Grizzly Man and all of these great documentaries—he’s in those documentaries. He’s narrating those documentaries. It’s his voice. And there’s something about him that is interesting. I don’t know what it is. At this point, he’s famous as well. So there’s celebrity status on top of just this mesmerizing quality to his voice.
And what a lucky son of a gun. Because if you can get away with narrating your documentary and putting yourself into it, you now have total power over that story. You can write whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can put yourself in whatever scene you need to. If there’s some kind of emotional payoff that needs to happen, and you just don’t have the footage for it, you can assign that to yourself, and then go film it. Like he has total control.
And that’s why his documentary is so great is because whenever there’s a gap, he fills the blank, you know. So I guess what I’m saying is there is a power to doing it. So you’re tempted to get to the dark side and do that.
Joe Casabona: There are rules, but like everything rules are meant to be broken. To bring this back to our Star Wars connection, Werner Hertzog was in the first season of The Mandalorian, he played one of the Imperials, who, ironically enough… I mean, I think this is mostly confirmed at this point. But they wanted to get a hold of the child to analyze his DNA and try to create force-sensitive beings. So tie it all together, that’s.. poof. Closing up the threads.
Cody Sheehy: That door slam shot.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, exactly. Boom. Okay, awesome. So this was your advice for documentary. One piece of advice, maybe on kind of general storytelling for content creators and entrepreneurs.
Cody Sheehy: Oh, man, I don’t know if I am a total expert here. Trying to think of what connects. I mean, it seems to me, this is just me kind of guessing here. But it seems to me that what really is working on the internet right now is like novelty. It’s like hijacking the part of our brain. It’s like, what is that? Is that a bear? Oh, no, no, that’s just a [inaudible 00:48:49]. I’m cool.” But it’s like you see some of the internet you’re like, what is that? Like? I’ve never seen that before. I got to see that. Especially TikTok, you know.
And then there’s this other thing that seems to be working too, which is layered into that which is a rhythmic almost like a dance, kind of like a motion, like a certain kind of mesmerizing sort of feeling that you get from the footage of the sea like over and over. It’s like kind of like loops, almost, you know. I have no idea what I’m talking about right now but I just know that I find myself endlessly scrolling on that kind of content. Maybe that’s just my feed. I have no idea.
Joe Casabona: But I mean, that’s interesting because, especially TikTok is like they know probably more than any other social app what makes people watch and they’re going to surface those sorts of things. So I think that’s really interesting.
Let me ask you one more pointed question then before… And for members in the pro show, we’re gonna… I know we’ve gone a little long here, but we’re going to spend a couple of minutes talking about what it’s like winning an Emmy. So if you want to hear that conversation, you can sign up at Casabona.org/join.
But I guess let me put it this way. I feel I’m very effective at taking things from my life and finding the story. Like I have a note in my notes app for a story called I got a girl pregnant in kindergarten. It’s just a very… I don’t know how to use the story. But it’s basically like this girl and I in our kindergarten class was married, and she put her baby doll thing under her shirt and said, “Our first baby”. And again, I don’t know how I’d use that story, I just cataloged it away. I’m like, This could be a good story, depending on the point I’m trying to make. So I guess, how do you look at the world and your experience and try to find stories to tell?
Cody Sheehy: So I mean, that is a great headline, the story that you have, because of a novelty thing. It’s like, yeah, “Wait, that’s impossible. I got to look at that to figure out what the puzzle is here.” So it’s that novelty works. And then it’s like, you have a very limited amount of time. So you got to connect with… I’m assuming we’re talking social media. So you have such a limited bandwidth to connect.
I don’t know, it’s like this themes that are large and connect to everyone is like, well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s going to be something to do with overcoming challenge, probably. So there’s some very clear struggle that is overcome and then some very clear lesson that’s learned is probably… you know, they say, the shortest story out there is a joke.
A joke is essentially boiling it down to just the bare essentials, you know. The setup and then the punch line. So I think social media is a little bit like that. It’s like taking story and content down to just… stripping it down to just the essentials. Like a haiku. You know, it’s like very, very limited amount of content. So it seems like a very hard medium to work in to be honest. Documentary gives you more time. So that’s where I shine.
Joe Casabona: Nice. I like that a lot. Cody, this has been such a great conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time. If people want to learn more about you, where can they go,
Cody Sheehy: They should go to makepeoplebetterfilm.com. That’s where you can get all the links to watch the documentary. And also I want to point you towards the podcast. It’s free. It’s on that website. You can listen to it on your favorite podcast app. It’s seven episodes. We take you deep, deep, deep into the genomic revolution, way past designer babies, the documentary. Goes into the whole thing. Bioterrorism. It’s awesome. This underground community of DIY hackers that are like doing all this stuff in the garages at home. It’s a wild world out there. And I think people are gonna love this podcast. So yeah, makepeoplebetterfilm.com. And all my [inaudible 00:52:22] on there.
Joe Casabona: Awesome. I will link that and everything we talked about in the show notes over at howibuilt.it/330. That is howibuilt.it/330. You can also become a member over there to hear Cody tell us about what it’s like winning an Emmy. But that’s it for this episode of How I Built It.
Cody, thanks so much for joining us today.
Cody Sheehy: Thank you. It’s been awesome.
Joe Casabona: And thank you for listening. Thanks to our sponsors. And until next time, get out there and build something.