Mini-Stories: Volume 9

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s the end of the year and time for our annual mini-stories episodes. We have three episodes this year, cresting over the new year because we have so many stories. Since these are always fan-favorites, I didn’t think you’d mind if we stretched it out a bit. If you’re new to this, the mini-stories are a hodgepodge of fun, quick-hit stories that probably came up in our research for another episode, or maybe it was just some cool thing that someone told us about that we found really interesting, but we knew from doing a little bit of research, they didn’t warrant a full episode and two months of hard reporting and interviews, but they’re great 99pi stories nonetheless. The best part, from my perspective, is that we do them as unscripted interviews, where I get to chat with the reporters who work on the show. Sometimes I know a little bit about what they’re talking about. Like we pitched them in a meeting, but sometimes I know nothing. They keep them from me. And that’s very fun.

Roman Mars:
This week, we have stories about movie novelizations, Swiss defensive architecture, central park lampposts, and the outlandish costumes of the sweetest supergroup, Abba. I mean, there’s no way you can hear that list and not listen. Right? Stay with us.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Up first is producer Chris Berube.

[MUSIC ENDS]

Roman Mars:
So I’m here with producer Chris Berube. Hey, Chris.

Chris Berube:
Hey Roman, how are you doing?

Roman Mars:
I’m doing pretty good. How about you?

Chris Berube:
I’m well. I’m glad we are doing our mini-stories chat.

Roman Mars:
I love mini-stories.

Chris Berube:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the mini-stories, partly because it is a less formal chat with you because I miss coming to Oakland and just having some time where we see each other in person and we can have our movie talks.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. We have to make do with movie talks on the Slack channel, that’s called Movie…. What is it called?

Chris Berube:
Is it Movie Club?

Roman Mars:
Movie Club.

Chris Berube:
I think it is. Yeah, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Well, okay. So I have decided to import our movie talks into mini-stories.

Roman Mars:
Perfect.

Chris Berube:
So specifically, I want to talk about a quarantine hobby that I have taken up. I’ve been reading a lot of movie novelizations. Roman, do you remember movie novelizations?

Roman Mars:
Sure. The ones I find funniest are ones that are like these action blockbusters that are the novelization of, I don’t know, Transformers Dark Side of the Moon or something like that. And you think, why would anyone read that thing?

Chris Berube:
Yeah. Speed: The Official Movie Novelization.

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Chris Berube:
It’s funny, there’s actually this really rich history to movie novelization. So they go back to pretty much the beginning of movies. So as soon as people started making movies, the producers realized, you know, we could turn a quick buck if we make a book that is based on the movie. But they really took off in the 1970s when blockbuster films started becoming a thing. So you had Indiana Jones and Star Wars and all these movies coming out. And some of those tie-ins were actually bestsellers. Like they made the bestseller chart.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Chris Berube:
I guess if you put yourself back in that head space, it makes a lot of sense. Back in the ’70s, you had to go see a movie in a theater… or not. There was no home viewing. You had to just wait until it came out on TV or you could get the movie novelization if you want it to relive the movie.

Roman Mars:
So it’s kind of like, if you wanted to “watch the movie at home,” you bought a novelization.

Chris Berube:
Exactly. Like this is the one way that you could relive it and revisit those characters and think about the movie again.

Roman Mars:
That actually makes a ton of sense. I like that.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
But that doesn’t explain, in this moment of streaming every type of video content that’s ever existed, why you are reading them right now.

Chris Berube:
True. I could watch Star Wars. If I wanted to watch Star Wars, that option is available to me. So I started getting really interested in these because of the generic product episode that we made. So do you remember the generic braining episode?

Roman Mars:
Of course. It was an instant classic. Everyone loved it. Especially your Canadian brethren.

Chris Berube:
It was the most Canadian episode of 99pi, we’ve had. So you may recall one of the people we spoke to for that episode was a guy named Terry Bisson, who was the editor of this series of generic books. This was like a footnote in the story, but-

Roman Mars:
Yeah, but it’s a very memorable footnote.

Chris Berube:
It totally is. So just refresh your memory, here’s Terry talking about the No-Frills books that he helped edit.

Terry Bisson:
I thought of it as a satire on publishing. If you could have No Frills cornflakes, why couldn’t you have a No-Frills romance?

Chris Berube:
So I did this interview with Terry and we’re talking and he’s actually this really fascinating guy. So he’s a really well-regarded sci-fi writer. And we were talking about his career and he mentions that for a while, he used to write movie novelizations as a way to make some cash. So he did some pretty big movies actually, like Johnny Mnemonic, the Keanu Reeves movie. He did Galaxy Quest. He did a Bruce Willis sci-fi movie that you may remember called The Fifth Element.

Roman Mars:
Oh, of course.

Terry Bisson:
And you remember that movie? It was about ’95 or something like that when it came out and it sold really well. I think the reason it sold was because people thought, well, maybe the book will explain what’s going on in the movie because there was a lot of stuff in the movie that didn’t make sense. And they thought maybe I would make sense out of it, but I didn’t even try.

Chris Berube:
So I’m talking to Terry, we’re talking about his career and I’m saying, “Wow, it’s really cool that you got to see these movies before anybody else.” And Terry tells me something really surprising, and that is, he never saw the movies.

Roman Mars:
Well, that is surprising. How is that possible?

Chris Berube:
Well, he might have seen the movie after it came out, but he didn’t get to see the movie while he was writing the book.

Terry Bisson:
It’s usually done while the movie is either still being done or is in post-production. And at the last minute they thought, look, we’ll spend 20 grand and it promotes the movie a little bit.

Chris Berube:
So, because of the production schedules, Terry said, in his experience, it was always based off the script and not the actual movie when you’re doing the novelization.

Roman Mars:
Wow. I guess that makes sense now that you lay it out, but it is truly weird to think about. That these novelizations haven’t connected to the actual visual part of the movie at all.

Chris Berube:
Right. I was actually a little bit skeptical when he told me this. I’m like, “How do you write a novelization of a movie with no movie?” So Terry, after we had our generics talk, he connected me with a friend of his named Liz Hand. Who’s another sci-fi writer who wrote a number of these novelizations and she pretty much confirmed everything that Terry said. She did 12 Monkeys. She did the X-Files movie. And she said, “Yeah, all you ever get is the script.”

Liz Hand:
I did six or seven novelizations. And with one exception, I, no, did not see the film.

Roman Mars:
As you’ve been reading these and doing a little bit of this research. What does it mean for the person writing the novelization to have not seen the movie?

Chris Berube:
So what it means is that the novelization will have a lot of detail that is different from the movie because of how movies are made. So think about it. Part of the issue is that stuff will change from the script while you’re making the movie. So, an actor comes up with a new line or some special effects are too expensive to film. Terry was telling me, actually, when he was writing the Galaxy Quest book, they kept changing the ending.

Terry Bisson:
They kept rewriting the damn script, and they probably had these groups that told them what ending they liked and stuff like that. I had to rewrite the last 10 or 15 pages of it, three or four times.

Chris Berube:
What Terry’s describing, which is like he would go back in and rewrite it to match the movie, that was kind of rare. That often did not happen. So with a lot of these novelizations, changes got made and the producers just wouldn’t bother to tell the writer who’s doing the novel. So there’s all of these examples of movie novelizations where there are details that are wrong compared to the movie. So Roman, for example, I assume you’ve seen E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?

Roman Mars:
Sure, I did. Yes.

Chris Berube:
One of the most popular movies ever. Now you remember there’s a scene in E.T. where Elliot, the little kid, is trying to lure out E.T. and he’s using candy.

Roman Mars:
With the Reese’s Pieces, yeah.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. It’s super famous. So in the novel, it’s M&M’s because they hadn’t struck a deal with Reese’s Pieces yet. So another example is the Empire Strikes Back, the novelization of that. In the novel, Yoda is blue. If you had to describe Yoda, first thing you say is he’s green, like he’s a Hall of Fame green thing. If there was a Hall of Fame for stuff that is green, Yoda would be in there on the first ballot, I think.

Roman Mars:
Absolutely.

Chris Berube:
So that thing happens quite a bit. There were small changes that would get made. And ultimately, that doesn’t really ruin the experience of reading the book. It’s still the same story. The other problem though, is that screenplays aren’t very detailed. So when you’re reading a screenplay, there’s just like a lot of gaps.

Liz Hand:
The screenplays, like 120 pages basically of material. And it’s all dialogue with a few set directions. You need a lot of filler.

Chris Berube:
In a screenplay, it might say, “The characters walk into a room.” And you don’t get any other details. So if you’re the person writing the novelization, you have to fill in all these details of what the room looks like or what the characters are wearing. All these things you don’t have access to. And sometimes the screenplay doesn’t have details of very important stuff. So Roman, one of my favorite movies is Alien, as you know.

Roman Mars:
Sure. It’s great.

Chris Berube:
It’s one of the best. Here’s something that’s funny about the screenplay for Alien. They don’t describe the alien.

Roman Mars:
So what did they do when they had to do the novelization?

Chris Berube:
I found this old article about Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelization. And he says, he went to the studio and was like, “Hey, can I see the alien?” And they said, “No.”

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. So what did he do?

Chris Berube:
Well, there’s a lot of passages in the novelization where you could see he’s clearly trying to avoid getting specific about it. So here’s one, “There was a vague suggestion of something tall and heavy.” This is a bit later on, “Above the helpless figure was a faint outline, something man-shaped, but definitely not a man.”

Roman Mars:
Oh wow. There’s some real verbal gymnastics to not be specific there. That’s pretty good actually.

Chris Berube:
And that novelization of Alien is seen as a classic of the genre. It was an actual bestseller. But there are some cases where the writer is trying to fill in these details and add things and gets a little carried away maybe.

Roman Mars:
Give me an example of that.

Chris Berube:
So an example of this that’s pretty notorious is Jaws: The Revenge – the fourth Jaws movie – and the writer added this whole backstory about why the shark in Jaws keeps chasing the same family, and the explanation is a voodoo curse.

Roman Mars:
I think in Jaws: The Revenge, the shark follows Alan Brody down to The Bahamas or something like that.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. That is what happens. And clearly the person writing the novelization-

Roman Mars:
Took some inspiration-

Chris Berube:
This is a leap in logic that’s a little too far, so I have to do something to explain it. So ancient curse is the easiest way to connect those dots.

Roman Mars:
It makes as much sense as anything else.

Chris Berube:
And this kind of thing would happen when you were writing and you hit a book where you didn’t know what to do, and Liz Hand gave me an example from her career where she had to do this.

Liz Hand:
I won’t say that the novelization of Catwoman is my finest moment, but it was a paycheck.

Roman Mars:
Does she mean the Halle Berry movie Catwoman?

Chris Berube:
Yeah. So the Halle Berry Catwoman, kind of a notorious flop. I think it still has 9% on Rotten Tomatoes last I checked.

Roman Mars:
Rough. Yeah.

[BARTENDER: WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?]

[CATWOMAN: WHITE RUSSIAN, NO ICE, HOLD THE VODKA, HOLD THE KAHLUA.]

[BARTENDER: CREAM. STRAIGHT UP.]

Chris Berube:
Liz was given the script for this and she looks at it and she realizes, “Oh, no, this is a mess. What am I going to do? There’s very little detail in here. How am I going to fill a book?”

Roman Mars:
Then how did she solve this problem?

Chris Berube:
So get ready, the way she solved this problem is kind of amazing.

Liz Hand:
So what I ended up doing, there was a character in the book, in the screenplay rather. It was a supporting character who was like a renowned cat-ologist, a supposed anthropologist / archeologist who specialized in cats. And the Catwoman character would go periodically to visit this woman to ask for, you know, “Oh, help me OBI-cat, tell me what to do with my little pointy ears.” And so what I thought, it was like, okay, I know what I can do. Even though this is totally out of line, I’m just going to do it anyway. So I wrote three or four little cat… I made up three or four little cat fables or fairy tales. And so each time the Catwoman character would go to see this woman, the action ground to a halt. I dropped these things in and basically they were filler, but for me, they were fun.

Chris Berube:
And actually, one of these folk tales that Liz wrote turned out so well that she managed to get it published in a couple of short story anthologies, including this one anthology of stories about cats, where it’s a story by Stephen King, a story by George R.R. Martin, and also her short story that was originally in the Catwoman novelization.

Roman Mars:
That is so good.

Chris Berube:
It’s really funny. It’s so interesting because a couple of months ago, I probably had the same thoughts that you did about movie novelizations. I thought, oh yeah, these are cash-ins, these kind of seem like hackwork, but the deeper you dig into them, the more you realize there’s creativity here. They’re kind of weird. They’re kind of their own thing from the movies. And to me, that’s a really interesting way to think about the original movie and it kind of deepens the whole experience of being a fan.

Roman Mars:
It’s kind of beautiful. I really love it. People operating with creativity in the sort of marginalia of this gigantic, creative apparatus. It’s so cool.

Chris Berube:
I have a few special thank you’s before we go. I want to thank my brother, Dan, who is a big fan of these novelizations. He gave me some great advice for this story. Also thank you to Justin Morris, who gave me a great list of things to read to learn more about this and thank you to the authors who are very serious science-fiction writers who indulged me and were very generous with their time talking about these footnotes in their careers. So thank you to Terry Bisson. Oakland’s ownTerry Bisson. And thank you very much to Liz Hand. Her new book, it’s a novel called, The Book of Lamps and Banners.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much.

Chris Berube:
Thank you, Roman.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
One of the stories that came over the transom via Twitter this year is about the four digit codes on the lampposts in Central Park, in New York City. A person named Gloria @Lucent508 tweeted about this clever form of way-finding in the park. And I think like a hundred people sent it to me.

Roman Mars:
So each lamppost in the park has a four digit number on it. The first two digits represent the closest cross street to the post in the 840 acre city park. So if the first two digits are 96, the post is parallel to 96th Street. The second two digits represent two things, which side the lamppost is on and its relative distance from the edge. If it is an even number, then it’s on the east side of the park. So E, even, E, East that’s how I remember that. And an odd number of means that that light is closer to the west side. The smaller the number, the closer it is to the edge. So for example, 9605 is roughly parallel to 96th Street. And it’s pretty close to the west side because it has a small odd number. But if a lamppost is numbered 9642, it’s closer to the east side than is to the west side. But because it has that high number of 42, it’s more towards the middle of the park. So if you ever get lost in Central Park, find a lamppost, read the embossed number and you’ll know roughly where you are.

Roman Mars:
When the explanation for this code found people on the internet, a lot of people were intrigued by it, but they often wondered, well, what good is this cool way-finding method if nobody knows about it? Well, the answer is, it’s not really wayfinding for us, for patrons of the park. It’s really for park employees whose job it is to replace and repair those lamps. Now that you know, you could spin around with a blindfold on, set off in any direction, find a lamp and know where you are in Central Park, which is pretty cool.

Roman Mars:
Up next is the digital director of 99pi and the co-author of the 99% Invisible City, Kurt Kohlstedt.

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Roman Mars:
So if you know anything about the history of Switzerland, you probably know that it’s a beautiful, mountainous country and it has famously remained as neutral as possible when it comes to global conflicts. Kurt Kohlstedt is here to talk about how that stance has shaped the built environment of Switzerland, including kind of obvious ways, but also really strange and furtive ways as well.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes. Switzerland is filled with defensive architecture and infrastructure and yes, some of it is pretty obvious, like on the tops of some hills and mountains, you can find these rows of jagged concrete teeth just sticking up from the ground. Some people call them Toblerone lines.

Roman Mars:
Like the chocolate. That’s another thing that Switzerland is famous for, is that spiky chocolate.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. And it’s because of that jagged shape, but these are built up to stop incoming tanks from rolling over hillsides, into Swiss territory.

Roman Mars:
So these literally look like, if you were to take one of those chocolate bars out of its package, it’s a big piece of concrete that just looks like a Toblerone.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Basically, yeah.

Roman Mars:
So that’s an example of kind of an obvious defensive design. What’s a more invisible design?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, I’ll start with the one that sent me down this whole rabbit hole. So a few years back, the Swiss government decided to remove some explosives from an old bridge and that made the news.

Roman Mars:
So wait, so they actually had explosives built into the bridge itself?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes. And that was my reaction too. I had the same question. I was like, “Why would you rig your own bridge with explosives?” And the bridging question is an old one. It’s 700 plus years old. But during the Cold War, they strapped TNT to this thing so that key supports could be detonated in case of invasion.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So they removed those, is that tactic no longer a thing in Switzerland?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, here’s the thing, Switzerland, won’t actually comment on that for security reasons. So it’s possible that they’re just done with that, but it’s also possible they just swapped it out with new explosives. And this is just one part of the equation. So some bridges are also flanked with artillery, which is hidden in the mountainside and works as like a backup system so they can retreat. And then if the enemy tries to repair the bridge, the Swiss can just rain fire down on them and stop them from doing it. And so all of this is a way to keep the enemies, both from crossing the bridge and then from fixing the bridge in case they want to come back across.

Roman Mars:
Right. So they got explosives to detonate the bridge and guns pointing down at them in case the enemy wants to repair that bridge if it’s been detonated. So they have all kinds of things in their arsenal.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes, totally. And secrecy and redundancy are a huge part of that. And bridges are also just a small part of that. So in the Alps, for example, the government has carved out tens of thousands of bunkers and other installations over the decades. And they’ve also rigged explosives up in the mountains to trigger landslides. Again, a way of stopping or at least slowing down would-be invaders. And then there are those little villages and you know the ones I’m talking about, you see them on postcards.

Roman Mars:
So you mean like these Swiss hill towns with little picturesque cottages and some farm animals and beautiful views. Those are part of the defensive design?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Not all of them, but yes. There’s this whole subset of camouflage designs. Like anti-aircraft guns that are tucked behind these cute little windows in cozy-looking fake cottages. And the juxtaposition is crazy. Here, check out this link, just take a look.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Oh my goodness. There’s a big gun coming out of that cottage.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It is super strange, right?

Roman Mars:
Whoa, that is really something. That’s a Swiss gun right there.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It really is massive. It’s something else. And what really is impressive to me too, is the attention to detail on these things. So in theory, these only really need to work at a distance. They’re not made to be camouflage up close, but nonetheless, they’re really skillfully painted. They even paint fake shadows under the fake overhangs. You have to almost walk right up to one to see what they really are, or at least see what they’re really not.

Roman Mars:
So it sounds like this approach kind of pervades all kinds of things in terms of their defensive design. Like it has effect on the architecture, the infrastructure, but is this a particularly Swiss thing? Is this where this kind of thing started?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. The Swiss have bunkers that date back to the 1800s. It’s like most countries, but they got really worried and really serious about this stuff in the 1930s.

Roman Mars:
I wonder why?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, right. So on the one hand they had this relatively defensible mountainous landscape, but on the other hand, they were completely surrounded by countries that, as it turned out, were on the brink of another world war. So their preparations made sense.

Roman Mars:
So this kind of cropped up between those World Wars. But you also mentioned the Cold War. So it sounds like they got started, but then they saw more of a need even after the Axis and Allies powers fought all around them.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. That confirmed their suspicion that they really needed this kind of defense. And so Switzerland wanted to be prepared for anything and to make guerrilla war as hard as possible on potential enemies. So among other things, they even built enough shelters to literally house the entire country’s population, which it’s unprecedented, no other nation has done anything like this. And it even became a matter of policy to make sure every citizen had the right to access bunker space if they needed it.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s really something. And then there’s all this self-destructive design, the big red button that loads everything up. It’s hard to imagine, why have a button that strikes everything.

[ALARM: DANGER. THE EMERGENCY DESTRUCT SYSTEM IS NOW ACTIVATED. THE SHIP WILL DETONATE IN T-10 MINUTES.]

Roman Mars:
What circumstance makes you decide to really go through with that?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
That’s the crazy thing to be in. And if you could imagine this from the point of view of an engineer, a Swiss engineer, who is tasked with doing this. So they’re building a bridge, they’re building it to stand up and work as a bridge, but they’re simultaneously building it to blow up or to serve another function. Like, to be turned into a bunker or whatever. And I actually read about this one bunker, for example, that is really just a railway tunnel that’s used as a railway tunnel, but they’ve packed it with supplies. And the idea is that in an emergency, they can house 20,000 people in there and they’d blow up and cave in the two main entrances. So it’s like a rail tunnel by day and then, if disaster strikes, it can be this huge bunker that’s carved into a mountain.

Roman Mars:
The world has moved on, the Cold War has evolved in certain ways. Is this still a thing? Are they still making things like this? Is this a part of the Swiss mentality when it comes to building things, to have this kind of defensive structures?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It is in part. So they now have more publicly known structures and installations and bases and things, but a lot of this stuff is still classified. So it’s hard to tell exactly how much, but you can see this shift in that they started to sell off some of these places. So, there’s some bunkers that people have turned into houses and also these fake homes that once housed artillery are now, in some cases, becoming real homes, that house people.

Roman Mars:
I like that. That’s something that we wrote about in the book with Toronto, the electric substations that were camouflaged as houses. And then the technology evolved past the point of needing these kind of converters and therefore, those houses became actual houses.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, exactly. It’s a really strong parallel. It’s one of the reasons I was like, I thought about talking about this in the book and that section was getting a little bit long on camouflage. So it felt a little redundant.

Roman Mars:
Pretend to be a thing long enough, maybe you’ll grow up to be that thing. Pinocchio becomes a real boy.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
Thank you, Kurt.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Thanks so much.

Roman Mars:
We have one more mini-story about the strange tax law that made Abba dress the way they do, maybe, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Up next is producer Vivian Le.

Roman Mars:
Hey, Viv.

Vivian Le:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
So what do you have for us this year?

Vivian Le:
So what I wanted to do for my mini-story this year is talk about the band ABBA, because it’s been a very long, very difficult year and ABBA brings me a lot of joy.

Roman Mars:
I mean, did you have anything specific about ABBA, or did you just want to chat about ABBA for the next 10 minutes?

Vivian Le:
I would actually love to chat about ABBA and the Mamma Mia cinematic universe and how much it rules, but I actually do have something specifically that I wanted to talk about. And that’s ABBA’s outfits because I think it’s pretty well-documented that they consistently dressed in these outrageous stage costumes when performing.

Roman Mars:
They were not known for their subtlety.

Vivian Le:
No. So I guess I’m just going to give you a quick tour of some of ABBA’s best looks so that we can be on the same page. So I dropped in a photo, which is a lot. It’s a look.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. Indeed.

Vivian Le:
So Frida, who’s on the left, she’s wearing a snakeskin jumpsuit. You’ve got Benny next to her, who’s wearing this blue blazer and his lapels are made out of a giant ostrich plume. But my favorite is Bjorn, who’s on the very right. He’s wearing a head to toe jumpsuit, blue skin-tight with a cape.

Roman Mars:
I mean, they kind of look like professional wrestlers or kind of like circus performers or maybe circus performing professional wrestlers.

Vivian Le:
Bjorn literally looks like he’s about to be shot out of a cannon in this picture.

Roman Mars:
That’s right. It’s so good.

Vivian Le:
I know. I love it so much. But the reason why I want to talk about ABBA’s fashion choices, in particular, is because I had read this really weird piece of trivia that, if it’s true, makes this the perfect mini-story for me. The reason why ABBA’s outfits were so out there and so wild was because, according to Swedish tax law at the time, if you were a performer and your costumes were not suitable for everyday wear, they were tax-deductible.

Roman Mars:
That’s so funny. So the point is if you’re a musician and your stage clothes are just too impractical for everyday wear, to go to a birthday party or an IKEA or something, you could actually write them off, as costumes. They were professional wear.

Vivian Le:
Yes. Exactly. So this had been picked up by a bunch of different websites, but it was reported that this particular tax law encouraged ABBA’s costume designer to make their stage outfits as flamboyant and essentially as unwearable as possible.

Roman Mars:
I mean, this actually kind of reminds me of the fact that bricks were taxed differently in England at different times. And so you can sort of date how old a building is by the size of its bricks. So there’s all kinds of things in the design world that are due to mundane tax considerations and not because of some grand design idea. But it does make me think, in the case of how flamboyant these costumes are, and because it’s ABBA, and because it’s the internet, just how much this is true versus how much this is just ABBA clickbait.

Vivian Le:
Exactly. Because this is still disco music that they’re dressing for.

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Vivian Le:
And I got kind of hung up on this. So I ended up calling somebody to find out.

Owe Sandström:
“Yes, Vivian. I’m with you.”

Vivian Le:
“Hi, you knew it was me. Is now still a good time to talk?”

Owe Sandström:
“Yes, of course. Nothing can take me away from you until death do us part.”

Roman Mars:
That’s a charmer right there.

Vivian Le:
Seriously.

Roman Mars:
So who’s this?

Vivian Le:
So this is Owe Sandstrom.

Owe Sandström:
“My name is Owe Sandstrom. I am, well, among other things, the designer of the world-famous ABBA group from Sweden.”

Roman Mars:
Wow, so you went straight to the horse’s mouth. This is the source.

Vivian Le:
Yes, exactly. And I really wanted to talk to Owe, not just because he knows the answer to this tax question, but also because he might literally have the most fascinating career on the planet.

Owe Sandström:
“I’m also professor of science, teaching young people to become zookeepers and working with wildlife and endangered species. I’m actually also working as a Safari guide in Kenya. I’ve been doing that for 25 years.”

Roman Mars:
What? So he’s a zoologist who leads safari tours in Kenya and also designed all the costumes for ABBA.

Vivian Le:
Yes, and he also arranges flowers and he owns a restaurant. But probably the thing that he’s really known for now is his work with endangered animals. He’s actually one of those television animal specialists who will bring tarantulas and tortoises onto talk shows. So he’s basically like the Jack Hannah of Sweden.

Roman Mars:
Totally. I know exactly what you mean.

Vivian Le:
He actually started out his career wanting to work with endangered animals and just kind of fell into costume design.

Roman Mars:
So how does one do that? And how does one go from working with animals to ABBA?

Vivian Le:
Well, that’s also kind of a wonky story. So according to Owe, he was at university studying zoology and botany and marine biology.

Owe Sandström:
“You see, studying at the university was quite expensive, so I had to earn some money. And you see, believe it or not, but during a period of my young life, I was studying the art of flamenco.”

Roman Mars:
Wait, flamenco dancing. Is that what he said?

Vivian Le:
Yes, flamenco dancing.

Roman Mars:
So let’s back up for people who just joined us. He’s a zoologist who leads safari tours in Africa, he designs costumes for ABBA, and also was a professional flamenco dancer?

Vivian Le:
Yes. He’s literally the most fascinating person on the planet. So Owe told me that he basically started sewing because he and his fiance at the time, they had this background in flamenco dancing and Owe figured that they could earn some extra money by performing at flamenco clubs. But there was this one problem, which was that his fiance said that she didn’t have any flamenco dresses to perform in.

Owe Sandström:
“And I said, ‘That’s not a problem, darling. I will make one for you.’ And of course, she laughed. And she said, ‘But you can’t make flamenco dresses, Owe. Come on. It’s quite complicated.’ And you see, you shouldn’t say no to a person like me.”

Vivian Le:
So he ended up taking his mother’s old dresses and then teaching himself how to make flamenco dresses. And he just ended up being very naturally good at it. So the dresses that he was making for his fiance caught the eye of a local theater group in the area, so he started designing for them. And then he started working with local musical artists, making costumes for musical performers. And that’s how he ended up meeting Frida from ABBA.

Owe Sandström:
“So she took her friends, three of them and herself, of course, to my studio. And I said, ‘Well, tell me, friends, I don’t know anything about you. Well, I know the singing and who you are, but what do you want?’ And then, Vivian. Then, Vivian, Bjorn said these words, remember them: ‘Owe, remember nothing is too wild.’ I guarantee he did regret that many times.”

Vivian Le:
So the first outfit that he ended up designing for ABBA as a group was for this video called Ring Ring. Those are actually the costumes from the picture that I showed you above, where Frida’s in the snakeskin jumpsuit and Bjorn’s in that blue bodysuit with a cape.

Owe Sandström:
“If you look at it, you can see Bjorn. He looks like something between a circus artist, a drag show, and Superman. He has a cape. He has this leotard with big sequins, these enormous platform shoes. Well, he looks really crazy because you see, I was so fascinated by circus because I had some friends working with circus and look at these outfits and costumes. And you’ve got a small circus company. Really. It was the first time that a pop group should be dressed with plumes and with sequins and leotards and everything. And that was the beginning.”

Roman Mars:
So what he’s saying there is the reason why ABBA looked like they were straight out of the circus in that music video is because Owe was literally inspired by the circus.

Vivian Le:
Yes, exactly.

Roman Mars:
It’s a straight line.

Vivian Le:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
Well, so I guess the big question is, “Did that tax deduction incentive encourage Owe to make their outfits even more absurd?”

Owe Sandström:
“That’s a very funny story. Well, it is actually partly true, but not concerning ABBA. But can you imagine ABBA wearing these outfits when they’re going shopping, singing, ‘Honey, honey, I want to buy some honey’ and ‘I want salad.'”

Vivian Le:
So he said that while he did purposefully make costumes more impractical for tax reasons for other musicians, that was never his goal when he was designing for ABBA.

Owe Sandström:
“I had some artists who came to me because I made costumes for most of Swedish artists, really most of them, and some of them came, ‘Can you please write me a paper to the tax authorities so you can convince them that this outfit is not suitable for wearing at a funeral or at a dinner sitting or whatever?’ So that happened three or four times. So actually it’s partly true because there was a law, and it still is a law in Sweden. But I can tell you, it was never any part of any of the costumes that I designed and produced for the ABBA group. Never, ever. So now you’ve got the complete answer.”

Vivian Le:
So in the end, were ABBA’s costumes tax deductible? I mean, probably because they were clearly not-

Roman Mars:
Oh yeah.

Vivian Le:
Seriously, why not write them off? They’re not suitable for everyday use. But that wasn’t a factor in how Owe designed for the group.

Roman Mars:
I know that the tax deduction story makes for a good story, but I kind of like his answer better. I mean, he didn’t create these bonkers outfits for ABBA because he needed to. It’s just because he wanted to.

Vivian Le:
Exactly. Owe was telling me that his inspiration came from everything like from the animals that he worked with to Swedish flowers, to his friends at the circus. So what he created was really a reflection of his eclectic background.

Roman Mars:
He really does have an eclectic background. What a fascinating man. Oh, Vivian! (imitating Owe) Well, that’s great. Well, thank you for solving that mystery that I didn’t know I actually needed solved.

Vivian Le:
It was my pleasure. I did want to give a quick thank you to the ABBA museum in Stockholm for connecting me with Owe.

Roman Mars:
That’s great. And thanks to Owe because that’s probably the most interesting man we’ve had on our show.

Vivian Le:
He’s the most fascinating person I’ve ever talked to in my life. Thank you, Owe.

Roman Mars:
I love it. Thanks.

Vivian Le:
Thank you.

Owe Sandström:
“If we don’t hear from each other, a Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Or as we say within the family ‘Happy New Year, Happy New Year’ (singing), as we say. Bye-bye, Vivian!”

Roman Mars:
We’re going to be hearing more mini-stories from the rest of the 99pi crew as the first two episodes of 2021. Happy New Year.

———

Roman Mars:
As of the end of 2020, 99% Invisible is Katie Mingle, Kurt Kohlstedt, Delaney Hall, Emmett FitzGerald, Sean Real, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, Chris Berube, Abby Madan, Christopher Johnson, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 99.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best, most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Discover, listen, and support them all at Radiotopia.fm.

Roman Mars:
You can find us and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. I bet you could still buy a last-minute copy of the 99% Invisible City just in time for Christmas if you act right now. Get it at your local bookstore, or by going to 99pi.org/book. I know that your daily habits have changed a lot this year, and for the people who have stayed with us listening from week to week, I thank you. I am grateful and I do hope you keep coming back. There’s so much more good stuff in 2021. I cannot wait. Keep in touch at 99pi.org.

  1. Iain Clarke

    I really enjoyed the segment on Movie novelisations, but one thing was glaringly missing, as you mentioned the Star Wars books. It may have simply been due to when you recorded it of course.

    Disney are ****ing over the authors of those and other novels. SFWA were initially fighting back on behalf of Alan Dean Foster (one of those prolific SciFi authors you mentioned), but many other have come out as well.

    In short, Disney are claiming they bought the rights to publish these books, but not the matching obligation to pay royalties. This article does a reasonable job of summarising:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/19/sstar-wars-author-disney-royalties-alan-dean-foster

  2. William Westbrook

    I recall that Annie Hall wrote novelizations, which Ally Singer thought was a waste of her talent.

  3. Frank

    Thank you for the mini-stories, always an interesting listen :-)

    I happen to live in the beautiful downtown Geneva, Switzerland. The discussion on Swiss defensive architecture made me think of a few small things that I happened across here …

    Leaving Geneva one morning I ended up in a curious train car: the inner walls of the train car prominently displayed quotes from and about the Swiss. The one that stuck to mind translates to something like: the secret desire in the Swiss people’s heart is that there is a third world war so they can stay out of it again. Never saw that rail car again, I am curious whether anybody else has seen it. Starting to think I am imagining it.

    A curious feature of taking the train in Switzerland is that on Sunday evenings all the train cars are packed with people in uniform – often carrying their military issue rifles. Don’t be concerned though, war has not broken out during your mountain retreat: the Swiss military service requires the men in Switzerland to train for two weeks each year with their original group. You are allowed to split these two weeks up. Furthermore rail travel for military service is free. Hence the full train cars on Sunday evening as folks are heading home from military service.

    A side note: you are supposed to take home and care for your rifle. You are not allowed to have ammunition for the rifle at home, that is stored in armories.

  4. Keith Koski

    I enjoyed the short story about ABBA’s costumes. Btw – Owe bears a visual and spiritual resemblance to Roy Rogers.
    https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/5b6a17963e2d0998fa566b42/1543280003458-T96L39PRG1SBXNXWMJOU/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kMoAVHDfrdwophOt5tR2Qwl7gQa3H78H3Y0txjaiv_0fDoOvxcdMmMKkDsyUqMSsMWxHk725yiiHCCLfrh8O1z5QPOohDIaIeljMHgDF5CVlOqpeNLcJ80NK65_fV7S1UeEhF7xEXj8-BIXIbgwZXb2dlnLXzi8u_FnXs6nLqpOShAgNtVhIb0iIxDMwkPeLEw/Dusty+DESAT.jpg
    Happy 2021!

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