Director, choreographer and dancer Lily Baldwin has appeared in these pages several times over the last decade in interviews about her work across both short film and virtual reality. But throughout this time, one project — alternately creatively compelling and deeply distressing — has been a persistent focus. In a story she details in our interview below, it began as Glass, an autobiographically-inspired thriller about a woman being stalked, that placed in the IFP (now Gotham) Emerging Storytellers program in 2014. It then morphed into a multi-part documentary TV series before finally now hitting download queues as a six-part Audible Original podcast, Stories of the Stalked.
But while Baldwin’s disquieting, enraging and ultimately empowering tale may have begun its development process years before this moment’s explosion of quality audio storytelling, the podcast form turns out to be its perfect medium. Narrating the podcast herself in the first person, Baldwin connects deeply with the listener as she takes us through the 13-year experience of being stalked by a British man she dubs “X,” who became romantically obsessed with Baldwin after spying her on-stage performing at a David Byrne concert. Emails, letters, strange parcels and, finally, even more confrontational and threatening messages sent after X arrived in Baldwin’s home of New York City followed. Baldwin’s responses have been various, from shutting herself down, retreating from the world, to contacting police, lawyers and seeking remedies within a legal system presently ill-equipped to handle the violence of stalking.
Stories of the Stalked mixes Baldwin’s intimate narration, interviews with lawyers and police, X’s actual emails (read by an actor), a limited number of impactful reenactments and haunting sound design and music by Hana Walker-Brown. And while the six episodes contain the suspenseful qualities that attracted industry attention when this story was in its fictional screenplay form, the podcast medium allows Baldwin to create a different sort of work, one that’s both activist as well as containing the emotional complexity of a great literary memoir. The contradictions of creating an artwork about the intrusions of a man who she essentially wants to be rid of are acknowledged by Baldwin, whose calm, compelling narration — she’s a fan of the TV show Dragnet‘s “just the facts” style — avoids the affected, sing-song-y “audio voice” that plagues so much of this era’s podcast storytelling. And while the podcast’s very existence provides its own form of closure, Stories of the Stalked is just one part of an overall project that includes a nonprofit, Stop Stalking Us, that is developing “resources including stalking-specific safety measures and a secure, supportive community hub.” “We will leverage our collective power to demand that stalking be addressed as the serious, violent crime that it is,” reads the organization’s mission statement.
I spoke with Baldwin over Zoom earlier in the year about how Stories of the Stalked morphed from fiction feature to podcast, the complexities of “alchemizing trauma” and her subversion of the “broken heroine narrative.”
Filmmaker: The last time I saw you was before the pandemic, on New York’s Lower East Side, and I remember walking with you for a few blocks. You mentioned to me that you had a stalker, but we didn’t talk about it in very much detail. And now, of course, I’ve listened to your podcast, and I did so while walking those same blocks. There was something very eerie about it, listening to the voice of someone you know telling you through headphones a very intimate, disturbing story. When you were talking about scrubbing your name off your apartment front door nameplate, I remember glancing over and looking at the front doors of the tenement walk-ups. All of this is to say that listening to the series was, for me, a very resonant, haunting experience.
Baldwin: I love that you made it into an immersive installation, which is actually what I wanted—to put the listener in the shoes of the experience.
Filmmaker: How did you land on the podcast form? I know you originally developed this as a film. Creatively, how did your intention of how someone would receive this material affect the way you presented it?
Baldwin: As a filmmaker, I love images, and [when thinking about this story as a podcast], I thought, what am I going to do without visuals? But I love working with less, and as a dancer, I’ve been trained to solve problems with whatever’s in front of me. So I thought, audio: it’s expansive and invites the viewer to co-author a story because they fill in the gaps. Often we paint pictures out of what we hear, and I wanted to include the listener in a kind of intimate, participatory fashion. I was a fan of Dragnet—the narrator on that TV show. [My narration] is not didactic in the same way, but I wanted to tell my real story without sensationalism. This is not me selling and pitching a racy journey, which is what I was exploring in the feature film [version], and which is still brewing on a shelf for a while.
Filmmaker: And what sort of team did you have to build to create this work?
Baldwin: This was a major team effort. I worked with Hana-Walker Brown, an amazing sound artist and writer herself. She really lifted it off the page. Kate Taylor, my audio producer, taught me how to use the spectrum of voice and how it’s not just what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it. When there’s less stimulation, i.e. visuals, the utterance of sound and voice can completely change everything. I did some of the scripts in Berlin, some in Boston, some in New York, and we’d have them be as live, as real, as possible. I would be exhausted, and [Kate] would say, “Okay, let’s go back to the top of that phrase, and let’s try maybe saying this after that”—kind of building out the emotional arc of my [vocal] performance.
Filmmaker: Tell me more about the recording process — getting the emotions right, but also about the blend of different types of audio source materials you use in the podcast.
Baldwin: I pulled from as much source audio as possible. Some of the voicemails are actual recordings. All of X’s words are real, they’re from my emails — nothing was created fictionally around that. I wanted a kind of live-action vérité feel, so I did a lot of field recording too. I walked around [recording in] Chinatown and Union Square, so all of the stuff on the streets was me actually reading the scripts [outdoors]. And then I was pushing the team of editors, all women-led, to create space for emotional landscape. You can’t just overdue words because they then fall of your back. When you write something on the page, it’s not the same as when it’s being read. I realized that some of the stuff I had written just felt way over the top [when it was read]. I thought, I gotta pull this back. A big part of the process was realizing the pacing. The first episode is very discourse-driven, putting big ideas in motion and then a thematic frame for the beats to follow. I talk about being on stage as feeling ecstatic, so what does “ecstatic” not only feel like, but sound like? And then the mix was super fine-tuned.
Filmmaker: When you were working with Hannah on the recordings, were you in studios? Doing this on your laptop with a portable microphone? What were the mechanics of the recording process?
Baldwin: When I was in Berlin, Brooklyn and Massachusetts, we rented studios for all of my script. And then the interviews were done in a home studio—a small room with blankets, rugs, [recording] in the back of a closet with a mic and produced by Kate, who was with me step by step. The rest was recording on a Zoom recorder.
Filmmaker: And tell me about both the creative and business evolution of the project. You wrote a feature screenplay, and as you were trying to get it made there was a boom in audio storytelling.
Baldwin: Yeah, there have been a lot of filmmakers who have been putting ideas in motion through podcasts to see where they land. It’s its own avenue to film. Glass [Baldwin’s screenplay] was initially a fictional story. I had co-written a version with Guinevere Turner, who wrote American Psycho, and Rose Troche had come on to EP it. I got some residencies, there was some funding, we had a great casting director, and we were going out to Mia Wasikowska. It was like, “We’re going to go!” But it felt like the story was going through too many lenses, too many filters, and I couldn’t access it. It had turned into a thriller. So I put a pause on it and wanted to make a documentary TV series. We began working with Ventureland, which is my main partner on this [podcast]. I had been working with Ali Brown as an EP and creative producer for about six years on this, and she teamed up with John Battsek and their London team, and we started pitching it as a TV series. We got pretty far with some networks, but they wanted to really sensationalize it. I would confront my stalker, and there would be cameras on it. But this is not about a fun and sexy hunt — I wanted to look at the narrative of the victim/survivor as unspoken, less charted territory that we don’t really give space for. So, we put a pause [on the TV version] and started talking about it as a podcast, which I thought could be a perfect medium because there are voices that are present but hidden. Living, hiding, shutting down, not being visible. Invisibility as [providing] a metaphorical slant — the podcast was the perfect medium for this.
Our amazing EP, Michelle Martin, at Audible in the UK, who has a ton of journalistic and creative integrity and creative integrity, brought us on. A lot of people who have had their own similar experiences that have decided to work on this, and I feel like that alliance is what’s helped me maintain its integrity inside of a pretty large mechanism. I mean, Audible is owned by Amazon—I was pretty nervous, to be honest. Was I commodifying my fear to tell a good story? That absolutely crossed my mind, and the answer is no, thankfully.
Filmmaker: I knew you had a stalker, but I did not know, and which I learned from the podcast, was how many years the stalking has gone on. I found that shocking. What has it been like for you developing this project while this behavior has continued to be inflicted on you? It’s a weird almost paradoxical situation. You don’t want this person in your life, you want him to go away, but at the same time—and you discuss this in the podcast—you’re making something that makes use of his intrusions.
Baldwin: Thank you for asking and recognizing that. It is surreal how long this has been continuing. I’ve always been my own instrument—that’s my function with myself, and how I think as a dancer. When I started to teach myself to make films, I didn’t have anybody, so I just used myself in everything. That’s where the muscle is strong, but it’s much bigger than that. I talk also about alchemizing trauma and pain. I can kind of rewrite it—and control it—as something outside of myself. There’s a level of contextualization and distance that happens when it exists outside of me. When it’s not just me, myself and I, and is literally in the ears of others, it’s theirs and, in many ways, not just mine anymore. There’s a lightness to that, a release, especially in the amount of people that have reached out with [their own] stories since this has come out. That’s been amazing. The process? Yeah, it’s been really hard and triggering, and I’ve had to kind of scare myself into writing [about it]. Back when [X] was in the city, and I was going to the store, going to the corner—how was I gonna to tell this? Putting myself into that place and meanwhile getting emails [from him]—it was brutal. I don’t want to do it again.
Filmmaker: I did think about how triggering this must have been to revisit those emails. There’s a fearlessness to this project, but I also imagine a kind of, as you allude to, artist’s split brain at work. There’s the person affected by this on a human level and the artist looking at this as material.
Baldwin: There is some level of dissociation, or a sort of immersion and disassociation that happens all at once. Also, I’m very trepidatious around women being put through the trenches as creatives digging—the “broken heroine narrative.” That’s something that I’m very interested in subverting; this was an empowering decision on my end. I was directing a man to play my stalker.
Filmmaker: As someone who reads a lot of screenplays, one thing I often see in works by new writers is “protecting the protagonist.” Oftentimes protagonists are autobiographically inspired, and there are no flaws, no warts, which is something you absolutely do not do here. The scene at the Chateau Marmont is one that leapt out at me. I love that you kept the argument there with your boyfriend in, and also that you had that little apology to him later.
Baldwin: Oh, I’m so glad. Frank Mosley, a director and a friend who I’ve worked with, [played my boyfriend]. I pushed for [those scenes] towards the end. We didn’t want to do reenactments—they always feel a little stiff, you know? That’s why it was sort of an atmospheric throwback to the immersive field recording that we did late at night in one more studio. I’m glad that read to you because bringing him in, the character, the human, was important to talk about intimacy and as a sort of counterpoint.
Filmmaker: It’s great that you pushed that scene to where you did. Because you were willing to go there and reveal something about your behavior that is unpleasant, the listener knows that they can trust other things you’re saying.
Baldwin: I really appreciate that.
Filmmaker: Where are you now that this project is over?
Baldwin: After releasing this, I have felt pretty shy and reclusive on a personal level. So I’ve just sort of been battening down the hatches, cleaning my house and my studio, and actually just changing the channel to writing and other kinds of fun projects. I do have another project that is pretty intense about my story, A Chronicle of Hip. It’s an experimental documentary based on my story of the perfect storm of illness and pain, which led to me replacing my hip. I’m interested in how the personal can become political, or part of a collective conversation. I’m also taking a breath, because getting this non-profit [running] is no small feat. We’re fundraising for that—we want to build a community hub, an interactive global community where people can safely engage around this topic of invisible violence. Stalking often falls under domestic violence or sexual abuse, [so] it’s about really carving out its own niche space for support and resources. And also ultimately [lobbying for] some sort of policy change—I mean, had my story been a felony it would’ve been a very different situation.
Following our interview, Baldwin emailed an answer to my question about specific film and literary works that influenced Stories of the Stalked in some way. In addition to the writing of Anne Carson and Michele Haneke’s very on-point Caché, here, in her words, are others:
-Maggie Nelson’s queerifying approach to form–in particular how her research/information fuses with personal anecdote and memoir
-Friend and author Sarah Gerard–the tone of her prose, the quiet fierceness of it–in particular Binary Star, in which she explores an intense relationship to her body.
-Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, in which Chris explores auto-fiction (though SOTS is all true) and puts herself in the “stalker roll.”
–Titane—kinetic sound design, intense and smart and not shy at all.
–Perfect Blue—love the pacing and general villain/culprit reveal. So artfully deconstructed.
–The Red Shoes—inspired by the themes of “something good gone wrong” in comparison to my big gig dancing on tour
General depictions of female figures:
–From Jessica Jones comic books to Mad Max with Charlize Theron—how a hurt woman avenges her perpetrator, how masculine the depiction of “overcoming trauma with power” is. Wanting to subvert this.
–Research into the archetypal Lilith figure; the demonized heretical woman who speaks out, as per being “a victim with an outspoken voice”