Inside the Covert, Round-the-clock Dash to Produce Two Mueller Report Audiobooks
The narrators were recruited months in advance, but kept in the dark about the exact nature of the project until the last minute
The professional narrators behind two 19-hour Mueller report audiobooks faced the tightest turnaround of their professional lives — and made their own small dent on history in the whirlwind process.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe produced a long-awaited 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. His partially redacted two-volume report, released last Thursday, dissected the Kremlin’s plot to sway the presidential election, established “numerous links” between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, and detailed 10 instances in which Trump had potentially obstructed justice in response to the investigation.
The report probed behind-the-scenes drama within the Trump campaign and White House. Producing the audio version so quickly involved a certain level of intrigue itself.
The report also spawned at least two audiobooks. One, an accompaniment to the Simon & Schuster print edition, featured reading by 12 professional narrators and four Washington Post journalists, debuted on Saturday. It currently sells for $24.80 on Amazon. Audible Studios on Monday also released its own free edition, featuring three narrators.
The report, in part, probed behind-the-scenes drama within the Trump campaign and White House — and producing the audio version so quickly involved a certain level of intrigue itself.
The narrators were recruited months in advance, but kept in the dark about the exact nature of the project until the last minute. To expedite the process, voice actors recorded the audio simultaneously in a marathon session starting the day of the report’s release.
Major publishers’ print editions of the Mueller report peppered Amazon’s AMZN, +2.54% best-seller list: A version by Simon & Schuster’s Scribner imprint with analysis by reporters from The Washington Post was No. 1 on Thursday evening, while Skyhorse Publishing’s edition with an introduction by attorney Alan Dershowitz was No. 7. Melville House’s no-frills “report and nothing but the report” version was No. 17.
Planning the audiobooks began months in advance
“Because we expected interest in the Mueller report to peak at the moment of its release, our goal was to make it available on audio as quickly as possible,” Elisa Shokoff, vice president and executive producer at Simon & Schuster Audio, told MarketWatch in an email. “It immediately became clear that we would divide up the report among a group of narrators, and record them simultaneously on the day of the release in various locations.”
Simon & Schuster began gauging its professional narrators’ availability months ago, according to narrators who worked on the audiobook, but didn’t reveal to them the nature of the project until the week of the report’s release.
‘It was an honor, it was a shock. I just felt so privileged.’
“As we didn’t initially know the length of the report or when it would be released, we didn’t know how many narrators we would need or who would be available,” Shokoff said. “We created a pool of some of our finest [and] checked their availability every week. When the day came, we knew who was able to begin recording immediately.”
Voice actor Samantha Desz, who narrated portions of the Washington Post analysis, recalled her surprise when she learned she would be working on the Mueller report.
“They mentioned it to us a while back, saying, ‘We have this very confidential project — we can’t tell you what it is, but what’s your availability in the coming weeks and months?’” Desz, 41, of Kansas City, Mo., told MarketWatch. “Then we all got the email that’s like, ‘OK, this confidential project is the Mueller report.’ And we’re all like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
“It was an honor, it was a shock,” added Cynthia Farrell, 46, a singer and narrator who lives in lower Manhattan. “I just felt so privileged.”
Narrators, editors and support staff worked around the clock
The report dropped on the Justice Department’s website about 11 a.m. on April 18. Simon & Schuster divided up the text among the dozen-plus voices and sent each person their assigned portion that afternoon, and assigned each person their own dedicated editor. The publisher circulated a document ahead of time containing pronunciations of tricky names — including Russian ones — expected to appear in the report, the narrators said.
Simon & Schuster circulated a document ahead of time containing pronunciations of tricky names — including Russian ones — expected to appear in the report.
“We engaged a Russian-speaking pronunciation consultant to be on call on the day of recording for any last-minute questions,” Shokoff said. “We also consulted with lawyers throughout the recording about how to read the legal terms aloud.”
Simon & Schuster narrators would send their audio recordings to their editors, who then advised them of any small corrections to re-record (or “pickups,” in audiobook parlance), according to narrator Gibson Frazier, 47, a Harlem-based actor, writer and filmmaker with off-Broadway experience.
The narrators remained on standby during a final quality-assurance process. It was all-hands on deck. The Simon & Schuster Audio team worked around the clock and finished by 2 a.m. Saturday, Shokoff said. “It was intense and it was hard, but it was also manageable,” added 36-year-old narrator Jayme Mattler, of Bushwick, crediting the publisher for a well-organized execution.
Audible, employing similar secrecy, tapped actor and audiobook narrator Victor Bevine for the project months ago without telling him what it was. He recalled one “false alarm” prior to the report’s actual release, around the time Attorney General William Barr received the report.
Victor Bevine has acted in ‘CSI’ and ‘Star Trek: Voyager.’ He narrated ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis and got his break in the industry reading parts of the Bible.
Bevine has had roles in “Law & Order,” “CSI,” “Oz” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” according to his IMDB profile. He also narrated Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk,” and says he got his break in the industry recording parts of the Bible.
“Audible reached out and said, ‘Are you free this weekend?’” Bevine, who lives in Hudson Yards and declined to disclose his age, told MarketWatch. “At that point, I figured it out.” He had been keeping up with speculation surrounding the report’s release.
While Bevine was originally slated to narrate the entirety of the report, the report turned out to be more voluminous than expected — so Audible roped in actor Marc Vietor to read the second of two volumes and actor Mark Boyett to read chapter headings and the appendix. (Listeners may recall the duo’s voices from the audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84.”)
Bevine says he stayed in the studio from about 4 p.m. to nearly 11 p.m. on April 18, worked 12-hour days on Friday and Saturday, and then wrapped the project on Easter Sunday.
‘I think it was quite elegantly written’
The narrators had their work cut out. Frazier, for example, was assigned about 35 pages that covered the storied June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between top campaign officials and a Russian lawyer, former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s encounters with then-Senator Jeff Sessions and campaign adviser J.D. Gordon, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s activities.
‘Our job is to make it sound like we’re just sitting down and reading this to you for the first time …hitting all the pronunciations correctly. It takes work.’
Frazier’s finished product amounted to “a couple of hours” of recording length, he said. “Our job is to make it sound like we’re just sitting down and reading this to you for the first time … hitting all the pronunciations correctly,” Frazier said. “It takes work.”
Robin Miles, the award-winning voice actor of audiobooks including a Michelle Obama biography and the young-reader adaptation of Kamala Harris’s forthcoming memoir, tackled about 50 pages that contained case-law citations.
Miles happened to have worked as a paralegal after college at the law firm Skadden, she told MarketWatch — the former workplace, coincidentally, of ex-Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig, who was charged with lying to federal investigators this month in a case spun from the Mueller probe. (Craig pleaded “not guilty” to those charges.)
With legal-proofreading experience under her belt, Miles already knew how to read aloud abbreviations like “U.S.C.” (United States Code) and “F. Supp” (Federal Supplement), for instance. “[Simon & Schuster] just got lucky on that,” said Miles, who lives in Harlem and declined to give her age. “I don’t think anyone knew I had been a paralegal for nine years.”
‘My favorite part was that I got to quote the President saying “f***.” Who gets to quote a president saying that? I felt very special and lucky.’
And Mattler, who says she typically gravitates toward fiction and nonfiction projects with a “quirky, sarcastic, edgy feel,” received a meaty 40-page portion in the obstruction-of-justice volume — including a coveted line describing Trump’s allegedly slumping back in his chair and declaring, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f***ed,” upon learning of the special counsel’s appointment.
“My favorite part was that I got to quote the President saying ‘f***,’” Mattler said. “Who gets to quote a president saying that? I felt very special and lucky.”
Some even found the report more engaging than they had anticipated. “I was expecting to find it more dry than it was,” said Vietor, 48, who lives on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. “It was clearly written. I think it was quite elegantly written.” Mattler said she was surprised at how “palatable” the writing was.
How narrators played it straight
Narrators told MarketWatch they avoided editorializing, and didn’t use character voices for quotes or otherwise infuse their recordings with emotion. “My thinking was just to make it as clear as possible,” Frazier said. “The object of the report is clarity, and so that’s got to be my object when narrating it.”
“You don’t need to sell this book. You don’t need to amplify anything in it,” Miles added. “Just present it.”
Narrators told MarketWatch they avoided editorializing, and didn’t use character voices for quotes or otherwise infuse their recordings with emotion.
Mattler, echoing her colleagues, said she “played the whole thing straight,” even the F-bomb. “It was important for any opinion that I had not to shine through — this isn’t an opinion piece,” she said. “Things could have been said very calmly, and it’s not my place to amplify an emotional state in a book like this.”
Vietor also read the President’s alleged expletive for Audible’s version. “You want something to be fluent and understandable and engaging, but you don’t want it to sound like you’re telling a story in the interest of forming an opinion,” he said. “It’s tempting to read a line like that very dramatically.”
Miles, for her part, recalled reading certain passages she found “jaw-dropping.” “You’ve got to deal with that, dispense with the emotion, and move on,” she said. “You stop; you let it wash over you: ‘Wow, OK, that’s damning.’ … And then you go back to your position of neutrality.”
Narrators who spoke with MarketWatch, some of whom said they were SAG-AFTRA members, declined to discuss how much they had been paid for the gig.
SAG-AFTRA’s 2019 Sound Recordings Code sets a $210.50 minimum standard rate for narrators per finished hour of recording. But while some companies may pay union members the Sound Recordings Code rate for audiobook work, such work is typically done under separate audiobook agreements, SAG-AFTRA’s website says. “I will tell you this: I don’t work at minimum anymore,” said Miles, a SAG-AFTRA member.
‘A public service’
Aside from the obvious time constraints — narrators said this audiobook had the quickest turnaround they had ever experienced — the project posed certain logistical difficulties.
“Sentences being broken up by constant references to previous cases, and making that flow, was a challenge,” Farrell said. She said she tried to be as active and present as possible in her delivery, avoiding the clinical tone that can put some listeners to sleep.
For Bevine, “the hardest thing was that there were footnotes on almost every page.” “We were constantly deciding: ‘Should we include this footnote here? Will it be helpful or will it be more confusing to the listener?’” he said.
Some narrators said they felt their role in recording the much-awaited special counsel report made them, in a small way, part of history. Bevine called the Audible Studios version, available for download free of charge, “a public service.”
“It was my son who said, ‘Wow, Mom’ — a 16-year-old knew what this was. He was impressed that his mom was part of it,” Miles said. “I’ll take it.”