The one-two punch of social media and the coronavirus has pretty much put the kibosh on the concept of the class reunion. If you want to know what the honors grads of the Orlando arts scene are up to this Halloween season, Audible is the punch bowl you need to be hanging around.
Keep your ears peeled for Thursday's drop of "Catchers," an eight-episode audio drama from the minds of Central Florida expats Ben Rock and Bob DeRosa. These proverbial local boys made good have worked up a monster movie without pictures, in which two mismatched animal-control workers (Billy Gardell and Herizen Guardiola) responding to a call come face-to-snout with creatures that are significantly more dangerous than Old Yeller.
"The story of 'Catchers' is very much about people versus nature," Rock says. "And like a lot of horror stories, it's about people getting over their personal differences to solve an inexplicable problem." It's also an immensely fun listen — and a natural development in the creative collaboration Rock and DeRosa have enjoyed for over a quarter-century.
"Everything we do is rooted in our friendship," DeRosa says, "which is totally rooted in our shared history of being aspiring filmmakers in Orlando."
They met in the mid-'90s, when they both had films in the Brouhaha indie-flick showcase at Maitland's Enzian Theater. Rock was about to make the transition from studying film at UCF to house-managing at Enzian, while DeRosa in those days was an improviser and budding screenwriter whose ubiquity on the local scene would get him mentioned in practically every issue of this publication between 1997 and 2001.
As their friendship progressed, they experienced professional windfalls that ultimately took them to Los Angeles. Rock parlayed a gig as production designer on his college pals' watershed The Blair Witch Project into a directing career of his own (including 2008's smooth and assured feature Alien Raiders). DeRosa, meanwhile, capitalized on connections he had made working for the Florida Film Festival to write the ensemble indie drama The Air I Breathe, and later penned the Ashton Kutcher–Katherine Heigl vehicle Killers.
Throughout it all, the two have continued to work together regularly — on late-night plays for L.A.'s Sacred Fools theater company, the horror/comedy web series 20 Seconds to Live and the horror fiction podcast "Video Palace." A request for a pitch from Audible made Rock think of an experience he had had a few years earlier with an extremely laissez-faire dog catcher.
"I just had the thought of how dark or how funny it would be if someone with that attitude had to deal with something," Rock says. So the action of "Catchers" takes place on the last day of work for an apathetic cynic (Gardell) who's handing the baton to his less beaten-down successor (Guardiola, the perfect Gen-Z foil). Together, they have to try to save a besieged family from beasts whose origin is as mysterious as their assaults are vicious.
The overall effect is as if John Carpenter had written for Arch Oboler's old "Lights Out" radio program — not surprisingly, as Rock and DeRosa both cite Carpenter as a major influence, and Rock listened to Oboler's work and other classics of horror radio as a kid. (Additional touchstones mentioned by the pair include the films Tremors and even Repo Man). [Editor's note: Oboler's "Lights Out, Everybody" is also available on Audible.]
"It's funny, audio narrative has been around as long as radio and never really stopped in places like the U.K.," Rock says. "[B]ut with the rise of podcasting and services like Audible, it's going through a very exciting reinvention in America right now.
"For us, it was fun as hell to explore a big monster story like we might have seen growing up in the 1980s, but to use modern audio technology to tell the story in a fun, visceral way that audio does better than anything else."
Their writing process, they say, was old-school, with story beats written down on note cards and pinned up on cork board for review. Then each guy would script the episodes to which he felt best suited. Finally, they would rewrite each other's work into a cohesive whole.
"The goal is to get to a point where we can't remember who originally wrote what," DeRosa says. "I generally lead with my heart, so there's a lot of me in Blair, our young dog catcher trainee, while Ben is an expert at writing filthy, cantankerous dialogue, so he was uniquely suited to writing for our about-to-retire dog catcher, Collins."
When it came time to record, the old-home-week vibes got even stronger. Keith Hudson, an old friend of Rock's who had acted in his first short films, flew out from College Park to snag a part as one of the innocents Blair and Collins have to rescue. (Hudson's extensive screen credits include Rock's Alien Raiders, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Logan Lucky, and copious amounts of TV.) The biggest name in the cast, though, is Gardell, who met Hudson and Rock when they were all members of Winter Park High School's Thespian Troupe 850. Since then, Gardell has become a bona fide sitcom star: He was the "Mike" in Mike and Molly and is currently the "Bob" in Bob Hearts Abishola.
"Working on 'Catchers' with my high-school buddy and friend of 30 years, Ben Rock, was like we hadn't missed a day," Gardell says. "It's a gift to work with people you started your dream with, and I think that magic came into play on this project and people are gonna love it."
Even though the scourge of COVID forced the production to be a little less intimate than everybody would have preferred — with parts recorded via Zoom rather than in the same studio — the end result still sounds natural and convincing. And behind the scenes, the participants all say, the homecoming atmosphere truly prevailed.
"It's fair to say that Orlando — or at least Maitland and Winter Park — are in the DNA of 'Catchers,'" Rock says. DeRosa concurs:
"I talk about it all the time out here, and people are just mystified that we had such a vibrant community back home, and now so many of us are out here making amazing movies and shows and we're still friends. It's really a testament to a special time in a special place."