Behind-the-Scenes with Andy Mills

How much did you know about what stories you’d cover while you were in Iraq before you went?

I didn’t know of any specific stories that we were going to try to cover, but I knew that I wanted to capture what Rukmini actually did everyday. What does her particular kind of reporting look like? How does she end up in the places she ends up? How does she feel when things get messy? I also knew that I wanted to meet people who lived under ISIS and had a story to tell. The bet was: if I go and follow this great reporter as she covers an important event unfolding in the world, I’ll be able to make something worthy of the effort. I love that the folks that run The New York Times have so much faith in the work we are doing in the audio department that they took that bet.

And did you know anything about the story you tell in Haunted by ISIS ?

When you hear the story, you hear the honest account of how we stumbled into this. We had started the day off trying to go into Western Mosul with a Search & Rescue team that digs bodies out of the rubble, but when we got to them, we learned that there was a media blackout in the part of city where we were headed. So instead we went to a camp where people who had just been liberated from the city were taking refuge. When we were talking with the gentleman who manages the camp about the people he’d seen coming out of the city, he mentioned these three women and right away - Rukmini perked up with intense curiosity. It was clear that we should ditch all our other plans for the next few days and just follow wherever the clues led us, and I'd keep the tape rolling.

What challenges did you face as a producer that were brand new to you in this setting?

Well, there was the crying a lot while listening to the tape (though, I’m actually a pretty regular crier). Then there was the fact that I was making it from my laptop while in trucks, on rooftops and in hotels in Iraq (though, I made most of it in one sweaty and sleepless night). But the main challenge was in trying to keep its emotional journey intense, without making it manipulative or sensational. This is a tricky dance - and one I’ve tripped over my shoes on in the past. I really wanted to share with people how it felt to be in those tents with those young women. I wanted to capture a bit of the horror and helplessness of their situation - but also feel a taste of the hope Souhayla embodied when she started to come to life while seeing the photos on Rukmini’s phone.

I think that part of the reason that was uniquely tough is that the day I met Souhayla was one of the most profound and meaningful days of my adult life. I don’t think I’ll be done processing that day for a long time. In fact, I’m tearing up now just writing this remembering her tiny frame being held by her uncle. I am so damn lucky to have a job where I can take a profound day like that and try and share it with people who like to listen to podcasts. But the downside is: how do I make something that can hold a candle to the actual experience? I must give special props to Theo Balcomb, Lisa Tobin and Annie McEwen for bringing their brilliant ears and encouragement in this department. I believe in the power of sending a draft to a friend (or collaborator) and saying, "be blunt with me."

Rukmini describes each scene with such wonderful specificity, I can see the girl wrapped in a blanket despite the 114 degree heat… how did you both decide to frame Rukmini’s role in the telling of this story?

I love this question because it gets to one of my favorite things about working with Rukmini: She is a great extemporaneous storyteller. I try not to give her much coaching at all, I never write anything down for her to read and I invite her to be as long-winded as she wants to when describing things to me. It makes for a lot of work in the cutting-room, but it is worth it because it makes the whole audio piece feel like her. And in my opinion, there is no one on in radio or in podcasting who is like Rukmini. It would be a shame not to lean into that.

I also hear Rukmini responding as a person rather than a reporter, tsking and saying "oh my God" for example. Why did you decide to keep those asides in the piece?

The short answer is: I like this. You can hear Michael Barbaro doing similar things on The Daily . You can hear Jad and Robert doing this on Radiolab . This is how people actually communicate with one another. I really love to hear the sound of people thinking and feeling. Additionally for this story, the main character in a lot of ways is Rukmini. So I wanted to try and help people crawl inside her head as well as in her shoes.

And how did you deal with Rukmini's question in the piece, about knowing just how much to push as a reporter, and when to retreat?

I loved that. I think that’s part of what gave the piece a special power. I was with Rukmini for 21 days in Iraq. We traveled together in armored vehicles to the front lines of battle, we searched bombed-out buildings for ISIS documents, we slept next to our interpreter on rooftops while gunfire and explosions boomed out in the darkness around us, we interviewed ISIS captors in makeshift military prisons and along the way, the question I think I asked her the most is: “How do you feel right now?”

That’s partly because one of the things that Lisa, Theo and I have loved from the beginning of our launch of The Daily is how we have the chance to see that the reporters we work with here at The New York Times are not just reporting the day to day happenings around the globe, but they are actually living deep inside these places and these stories. We are trying to use the audio medium to bring to light that when you see “Rukmini Callimachi - Mosul, Iraq” in the newspaper - that means that Rukmini is currently embedded with soldiers and writing from her laptop, plugged into one of the only working outlets in an abandoned building within earshot of real danger. We want to show that she didn’t just hear about these Yazidi women from a government source, she really walked into their tent and had to confront the raw experience of that as a person.

What of your RadioLab sensibility did you bring to the telling of this story?

The most obvious parallel would be this story I made with Greg Warner called Outside Westgate. Similarly, the reporter is the main character who is trying to solve a tricky mystery connected to terrorism and gets into a messy moral/ethical situation (I LOVE MESSY). There are also some sensibilities in audio production: I always try to use plenty of archive audio to move the listener back in time, I always aim to lead scene changes and plot reveals with tape (not narration) and then there is the way that Rukmini told me the story extemporaneously, which was very similar to how the talented Greg Warner tracked this story.

But there is also this other thing that Radiolab is great at that people don’t always pick up on: the close ups. Jad taught me the power of really going tight with the metaphorical camera. Zooming in on the moments that contain magnitudes. In Outside Westgate , one of these moments happens on the escalators inside of a mall during a terror attack, where a witness crosses paths with a terrorist and gets a really good, long look at him (listen to around 16:10 mark to hear it). That visual is the key to the whole rest of the story.

With Haunted by ISIS , those visuals happen inside the two tents we visit. The most powerful one is when Souhayla begins to pull herself up at the end of our interview. It felt like the power of these photos and what they said about the demise of ISIS in Iraq were giving her a tiny bit of strength. The way I organized all the sounds is trying to bring the listener in to that strength as close as possible.

Can we expect more of this kind of highly produced, immersive reporting from The Daily in the future?

For sure! We see this as a successful experiment. One thing we think a lot about with The Daily is how to tell the big stories of our time in a way that feels immersive and creative and like the audio production and storytelling that we bring to the table is just as good as the New York Times journalism coming from these reporters. You should expect that we’ll be sending out producers with reporters to more places in the world and keep trying to bring the listeners deep into that experience with all the tools of the audio world.

Read Rukmini Callimachi's full article and find The Daily on your favorite podcatcher.