[Put on your headphones and press play.]
EXT. RURAL ALBERTA LANDSCAPE - NIGHT, THEN
An upside down prairie. Legs punching out of tall grass, a young girl with a tangle of black hair and a scowl tries to do handstands in the field outside her house. She kicks off the ground, warbles upside down for a moment taking in the inversion of the endless prairies sky and the expansive ground above, then tumbles back down. The sky collides with the earth each time.
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She stares at the prairie upside down. She has found her balance.
MATCH TO —
EXT. RURAL ALBERTA LANDSCAPE - NIGHT, NOW
She is older. Late-twenties. Tired. Rightside up now, but the world is upside down around her. Her name is SOPHIE and she’s illuminated by the hundred disparate sources of light in a field filled with trucks blasting headlamps in every direction. She drifts through the gathering.
A wash of voices begin to bleed in. Folksy, lively, they sound like people answering a question off the cuff one after another, men and women. And their answers are all roughly the same —
The rat? Oh the rat? You’re talking about the rat?
Until the mix piles onto itself and crescendos, snapping away to Sophie’s voice.
The first thing I saw when I pulled off the road, off the road, off the road, into the small town of Fort Cash, was a tailgate. A tailgate, for those who didn’t grow up in a place like Fort Cash, is a party where people drink and play music off the back of a truck. This tailgate was down a range road. And when I got there — no invitation, drawn to to the lights like a moth — I asked folks about the man I had driven 19 hours to meet.
Sophie has sidled up next to the side of a truck, reaching over the side of the flatbed with her microphone extended awkwardly. Our audio has, in the style of a radio program, bled from narration to field recording
Do you know the name Webb Ratliff?
Backlit by the flood of lights, the scruffy, otherwise innocuous country boy takes on a monolithic quality to him.
Talking about the Rat?
The crowd of people, young-ish, exclusively white, rummage around them. It’s folksy, but there’s an antagonistic edge to some of what we see. The testosterone and mud of it lears at Sophie as she roams through this world she used to know.
“The Rat.” Alberta doesn’t have rats. If you look at a map of the global rat population there’s one place in the whole world where rats don’t live. There’s a void, like some purge took place, here in Alberta — which it did. But they aren’t talking about rats. They’re talking about a man. A man who last year wrote me a letter.
And if you wanna know what this tailgate, what this community, and what the town of Fort Cash thinks of that man, I offer you this.
What do you mean by that?
We’re living in faces. Faces of these people, by day the clerk at the town gas station, the mine manager’s son, the school teacher’s assistant — brought out of and into this new context. The community gathering. The third space. The tailgate.
Means the only difference between a rat, and Webb Ratliff, is if I caught a rat on my property? I’d make it quick.
As we listen, we see Sophie off interviewing someone else. As she has this unheard conversation, she catches the gaze of a man watching her. A little older. wiry, scruffy, beer-soaked-everything. The relationship is ambiguous at first, but she comes to find his focus unnerving. She’s reacquainting herself to the tensions of this place. The in-group, out-group power dynamic. How unpleasant it can be to exist there in her body.
SOPHIE (OFF CAMERA)
Why is that?
We return to them — to the microphone in his face, grounded again in the moment.
The truck. The lights. The swarm of bodies and dust and sweat.
(With a sigh)
Cause it wasn’t a rat that killed that girl.
And the score escalates and crescendos around us until —
The VO theme song plays. Sophie is upside down again.
Digital Series Proposal
VO is a mystery that unfolds across both CBC Gem and a viewer’s podcast app. The series invites audience to explore their relationship with an unreliable narrator while a riddle unfolds on the frigid commune of a reporter’s career defining subject.
Story + Format
VO tells the story of Sophie Dunnwater, a reporter filing a story for a fictional, long running CBC radio show and now podcast called VO. As she reports her investigation of Webb Ratliff — the patriarch of a religious commune and the town pariah of the small community of Fort Cash — the story she’s filing serves as the narration and audio track of the show we’re watching. We can see her holding a microphone in the face of other characters. She is our storyteller and narrator.
As Sophie descends deeper into Ratliff’s world, an unexpected turn of events leads her to make the choice to stop telling the truth. It’s when Sophie makes this decision to stop being honest with her audience that what she as the show’s narrator is telling us, and what we can see with our own eyes, falls out of sync.
Each episode of VO is available as both a podcast, and as a digital series on CBC Gem, pointing to one another. Podcast listeners get a more fleshed out version of the story (twenty minutes versus the digital series’ ten minute cap), a version that extends beyond what viewers get to see. But crucially, what viewers get to see is the whole truth, unfiltered by and often conflicting with Sophie’s telling. Scenes regularly continue after podcast throws to commercial break. Sophie is an unreliable narrator caught in the act.
Buzzing like a piano wired tuned too tight, VO is a bleakly funny mystery that tests the boundaries of digital series and podcast in entirely knew ways. It’s an old-school mystery about a reporter investigating a subject, an ambitious experiment in form, and an exploration of truth and morality in the internet journalism era.
In June of last year, upstart reporter Sophie Dunnwater received an invitation. It came in the form of a letter from a man named Webb Ratliff, inviting her to break the press blockade and join Ratliff on his sprawling northern Alberta religious commune. The number one suspect in a suspicious death on unincorporated land near his property, (and charged in the 90’s with string of bombings of sour gas mines) Ratliff is a reluctant national story, having proffered no quotes or interviews until his hand written letter to Dunnwater.
He is nonetheless reviled by the town.
The only reporter given access to the national story, Sophie parlays the letter into a shot on popular and titular radio program/podcast “VO.” She doesn’t know why he chose her. She doesn’t know what will happen when she arrives in the small community of Fort Cash. She doesn’t know whether he’s guilty. She only knows this is her chance and she won’t give it up.
What she finds in Fort Cash is a community etched with battle lines. Tangling with an aggressive town sheriff, a school teacher with unclear motives and an unexplained influence over goings-on in the town, and the Ratliff clan themselves, Dunnwater begins parsing through the evidence and filing her story.
And when she makes a discovery that would forever impact the Ratliff family and the town of Fort Cash, Sophie makes the decision to withhold information from her audience and the public. She decides to lie. And with that lie, her fate and the fate of the Ratliff family are indelibly intertwined.
VO is an ambitious undertaking, and we think, a perfect fit for CBC Digital Originals. Creating a first-of-its-kind trans-media series is an endeavour in itself. Creating one that takes on the economic, racial, political, and gender tensions that define life in rural Canada is another. We need a partner who is willing to take on both of these challenges, but CBC of course needs to know that we can deliver.
Sticks & Stones productions is proud to point to three projects we think are relevant. The first is Renewable, a web-series about people fighting for a sustainable future in the heart of oil country. On Renewable we learned how to create an episodic digital original series, run the marathon of creating a show, and build hype around a new series. We’re proud of the result and the recognition it received.
Renewable led to the second project we’d point to, the CBC documentary Ha Ling Peak, the story of a fight over a mountain that thrust a small town into the international limelight. Ha Ling Peak was where we learned how to expand our cinematic style and tell a longer form story. We’ve been a commercial production company for quite a while, but it’s here that we learned to work with broadcaster both creatively and technically.
And the last is Hacked, a podcast project about the underbelly of the internet where we learned the production and business of the medium. An Apple Editor’s choice and Top Ten podcast in Canada, Hacked was eventually optioned for TV development and was where we learned the storytelling and sound design tools that would be essential on this project. It’s also where we became familiar with the community and audience this show is in many ways targeting.
CBC Digital Originals are, as we’ve discussed, concerned with unexplored worlds and untapped audiences. Between its format and its themes, we think VO does this in two ways. Podcast audiences are hungry audiences. Roughly 100 million Canadians – about 80% of those people in Digital Originals exact 25-40 demographic — consume podcasts. And from our experience, they’re constantly in search of something new. A digital original fiction series that examines the unique relationship between a podcast listener and storyteller, subverting that relationship in mind-bending ways is exactly the kind of innovation they’re looking for. And with the podcast version of the series pointing to the show, and the show pointing to the podcast, we have the opportunity to double dip our audiences in a way that’s exciting and satisfying for both.
And then there’s the world of VO — of a rural community tangling with economic and social tensions. While Sophie is investigating Webb for his involvement in the death of a young woman, he’s primarily a town figure defined by his religious and political leanings. A suspected eco-terrorist and religious radical, Webb is a lens through which we want to explore the political tensions that define life in rural Canada. We’re from Alberta, and much of our work has been focused on the conflict that defines life between the coast. With VO, we want to create a dark, funny, surreal mystery that drops audiences in the middle of all these competing forces. We want to drive them forward with a compelling mystery and bring them in with a totally one-of-a-kind format.