Ira Glass and This American Life Change the Life of a Tampa Man, Just By Reporting on Him
His thin, slightly nerdy voice echoes the rhythms of his quirky, wondrous public radio feature show, even over the telephone line from New York City. And our meeting likely wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Mike Phillips.
Mike is an amazing guy in South Tampa who loves Dr. Who, quotes Seattle rockers Death Cab for Cutie and can only move his left thumb and his face. In today's Floridian, I tell the story of how Mike, who struggles with a neurological disorder which took away his ability to operate many of the muscles in his body, climbed out a depression and began to find a new independence in life after trading emails with Glass, who was interested in profiling him. (at left, Mike poses with his girlfriend, St. Petersburg Times reporter Sara Rosenbaum)
For a while, Mike's story was a contender for This American Life Live, an event tonight in which Glass presents some stories from the TV version of his show, answers questions and shows outtakes in a presentation beamed to theaters across the country, including three in Tampa and Sarasota. But the story proved too long for Glass' live program, though it will be featured on the first episode of This American Life's second season on premium cable channel Showtime.
It's a powerful, penetrating story, featuring picturesque cinematography and movie star Johnny Depp appearing as Mike's voice (because he breathes through a respirator attached to his neck, Mike doesn't talk much, anymore). And Glass made time in a busy pre-Live show schedule to talk a bit about how his story on the 27-year-old became an example of a media version of the fabled Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the very act of observing something can change it forever.
When did you realize Mike's story could be material for This American Life?
The point at which I thought it was a story was really early. We were emailing about something which isn’t a big part of the story on television – which is how often he has these near death experiences where his breathing gear will stop. Sometimes he’s alone, and sometimes he’s surrounded by people who don’t notice that it’s happened. The way he wrote about what those moments were like was utterly without melodrama. It was just a very easy to relate to reporting of 'Here’s everything that goes through my head when I realize I may die in a minute.' It was kind of amazing. My favorite thing – it happens to him so much, he has a lot to say about it – he thought about the moment when Switch dies in the Matrix movie. And she says 'Not like this.' That’s what he thought. I totally can imagine what it’s like. He just seemed like somebody who was having a number of extraordinary experiences but could relate them in a way anybody could relate to."
Mike seems determined not to be portrayed in the typical way disable people are shown in media.
"We knew he wouldn’t be a caricature of a disabled person – the courageous person who triumphs over adversity. We really tried to structure it so that would not be available to the viewer. When I met Mike in person, the very first thing he did, was that he played me a song a church had written about what an inspiring figure he was. He was very respectful about the people who wrote the song, but it was clear that it wasn’t capturing his experience. It’s not his job to be inspirational.”
How did you get Johnny Depp to serve as Mike's voice on the story?
In a real moment in the story, when I asked Mike 'Who would you like to read your narration?' He said Johnny Depp or Ed Norton. I said well, Ed Norton's based in New York City, you see him on subway with his kid. He seems like a human being who a person could reach. We contacted his agent, said here’s the thing. He was out of the country shooting something and could not make it happen. They expressed regrets and we left it at that...About three weeks before we finished the episode, the president of (Showtime), Bob Greenblatt, asked if we had approached Johnny Depp. He had been in contact with Johnny Depp – for him, Johnny Depp was somebody he could get on the phone. So basically, I emailed his agent at UTA, and he agent passed it onto his sister – his sister is his business manager. What I’m told I his sister forwarded it to Johnny and he said yes. I think I got a reply that day and Johnny was in. I basically pasted in the email some of the things that Mike had written to me. And I said, 'Here’s who this is, and we’re not interested in doing a corny kind of story.' Apparently, he (may) have a recording studio in his home, he just did it on his own.”
Have you ever had a source talk about your show changing their life in the way Mike does?
“I think the way in which we changed his life is the way that anybody’s life might be changed by suddenly having the national press show up. And that seems fine. If somebody was a peace activist and we convinced them to join the marines I would be worried. When we do these stories, I assume I’m seeing some glossy version of someone's life. I’m company. I’m seeing as much as I can see when I’m company. I don’t think there exists some deeper, final truth. In these kinds of situations, I’m looking for something that is true. I’m not Seymour Hersh investigating Abu Ghraib. As long as what we’re showing actually is true, its okay if we don’t get to the bottom core of everyone’s feeling.”