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How the new podcast thriller 'The Cipher' became a legit sci-fi phenomenon

By Mike Avila
The Cipher

Chance Perdomo knows a little bit about being part of a hit series, thanks to his time co-starring on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But even he admits to being caught off-guard by the attention garnered by his latest project, the science fiction audio drama The Cipher.

"It does feel different than a hit TV show in the sense that it was a lot more unexpected," Perdomo tells SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview. "This was just a project we all wanted to do together, the stars aligned and it was a great passion piece. It’s incredible that this niche release has become this audio blockbuster."

Since its debut in late December, The Cipher has been a runaway success.

It hit #1 on iTunes' drama chart and cracked the Top 5 Fiction list. The podcast, commissioned by BBC Sounds, tells a fast-moving, globe-trotting story centered on a puzzle called the Parallax that has vexed the brightest minds on the planet. Two teenagers — Sabrina, portrayed by Anya Chalotra (The Witcher), and Benny, voiced by Perdomo — become the first to crack the code, and it sparks an adventure that includes everything from a serial killer to a mysterious cabal of scientists, genetic splicing and even extraterrestrial interference.

The serial thriller is the brainchild of Brett Neichin, a screenwriter who took 20 years to become Hollywood’s latest overnight sensation. A fan of the types of online mysteries that spark numerous Reddit threads, Neichin based his story’s main character on a real person, Sabrina Gonzalez. She is a theoretical physicist who became a professor at MIT at just 23 years old and in Neichin’s words, “she’s a real-life superhero. I wanted to create a cerebral hero named Sabrina [for my story] as an homage to her,” he says.

The world of The Cipher combines cliffhanger storytelling and powerful sound design to provide an immersive experience for listeners. There are also several puzzles sprinkled within the story that the writer included to give listeners something to dig for. “In the writing of the show, I planted a lot of different Easter eggs. Pop culture references and such, for the listeners to find,” he says. “I’ve hidden many ciphers in the narrative to get people engaged in it.”

This was Perdomo's first time doing a scripted podcast. He says he was instantly hooked reading the pilot script. "When I read it, I thought, irrespective of whatever medium it is, this writing is brilliant and I wanted to be part of the story," he says. "Brett's writing piqued my interest and then I found out Anya was in it, and from there, it was a no-brainer.”

The Cipher script

Neichin had been the definition of a struggling screenwriter for years. While he had sold a few projects, none had been produced, which meant he had to keep his day job as a personal trainer at the JCC in Manhattan. His luck began to change more than a year ago when he submitted his outline to an open call by BBC Sounds, which was looking for a podcast project aimed at younger audiences. His was selected and things rapidly fell into place. "As soon as I had written the pilot script, Anya read it, just fell in love with the project and got attached early on," he says. "So I was able to fly out to London and meet her and got to know her voice and her cadences. And so I wrote the role of Sabrina specifically for her."

Perdomo, a 2019 BAFTA nominee for the film Killed by My Debt, adjusted his acting approach to the audio-only setting. He paid a lot more attention to his voice and was mindful of quivers and changes in pitch. "You have to be conscious that this isn’t a visual medium," he says.

The 24 year-old actor says the initial plan was to mimic a live-action production. “We were originally going to act it out as if we were filming with cameras, but with mics everywhere instead. That wasn’t possible because of COVID," he says. Instead, the production, led by director John Scott Dryden, figured out a workaround. "We were in separate rooms at the recording studio and we all had monitors, so we could see each other’s performances as we were doing it. So we were still acting to each other.”

Neichin credits Dryden for creating the immersive sound design that many reviewers have cited as one factor in The Cipher's success. He also underscores the technical hurdles the production had to clear due to COVID-19 protocols.

"Because of the lockdown, John was recording all of this in various studios in London, New York, Iceland, Paris. He was coordinating the actors all over the world."

Perdomo says having the monitors was incredibly helpful to the actors. "It intensified and helped with the camaraderie, and the tension and chemistry, too," he says. "We were all able to move around in our little studio spaces, acting it out and struggling, and hitting the wall … it was a fun acting exercise to do and I think it helped elevate our performances and engaged the audience because they can feel us being inside the story.”

Neichin and Goldhawk Productions, the company behind the podcast, have plans to capitalize on The Cipher's success by creating 3-5 high-concept projects a year that could travel across several mediums. "We want them to start off as podcasts, create a universe, establish a fan base. But we're committed to making our projects as audio first," Neichin says. "Not just because it's COVID-proof, but because we really think scripted audio is the one area of podcasting that has yet to break through. And it's been really awesome to see The Cipher get the traction it has."

According to Neichin, talks have begun about possibly adapting The Cipher for television. Perdomo would be happy to see that happen. “I would indeed. Benny was a fun character to play," he says when asked if he would reprise his role as Benny onscreen. "He’s very confident, he’s very calculating. He’s very fun to play, especially alongside Anya.”

Neichin says several of his old clients at the JCC, including Andre' Aciman, author of the book Call Me By Your Name, have reached out to congratulate him on his success. He hopes his story serves as inspiration to other Hollywood hopefuls to keep chasing the dream. "It's been so overwhelming and I've just been so grateful for the entire experience. It's been very, very surprising."

You can listen to The Cipher on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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