The hosts of a podcast that throws rocks at the downtown New York film world have long hidden their identities. Now they’re ready to reveal themselves.
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Earlier this spring, KJ Rothweiler and Curtis Everett Pawley, two podcasters from New York City, made a Zoom call to one of their most dedicated listeners for some professional advice. On the other end of the screen was the actor Jonah Hill, smoking an American Spirit somewhere in Malibu, Calif.
“Who’s who?” Mr. Hill asked.
“No. 1,” Mr. Pawley replied.
“No. 2,” Mr. Rothweiler said.
“It’s so cool to be able to put faces with your voices,” Mr. Hill said. “I mean, for you guys it’s not that cool, but for me it’s cooler.”
For the past two years, Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley have been leading double lives, working undercover from a small Canal Street studio.
Calling themselves the Ion Pack, the pair have podcasted anonymously, with their identities known only to a small group of friends and acquaintances, including me. The show is videotaped, with its hosts wearing black Lycra face masks and pitching their voices down to a subterranean baritone.
The project, which began as an Instagram account in 2018, peddling memes that punched up and poked fun at New York City’s film establishment, has become something of an underground talk show for the city’s downtown artistic scene.
As a former target of the pair’s trolling on Instagram, Mr. Hill was once skeptical of Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley. But they got his attention. He began listening regularly to “The Ion Pod” during the pandemic, and had a change of heart. Being roasted for the “right things,” he came to realize, was actually “awesome.”
The call with Mr. Hill proceeded like a standard “Ion Pod” episode. There were sincere tangents on Celsius energy drinks (“I was a guava boy, but then I tried the orange flavor,” Mr. Hill said) and the need for “David Lynch-style” brain hobbies like woodworking. There was fanboy talk about Daft Punk and the Safdie Brothers, and a good-natured attempt to undo Mr. Hill’s confusion about “black pills” and “red pills.” (“Which one is the one where you’re getting the truth?” Mr. Hill asked. “It’s the red pill,” Mr. Rothweiler said.)
The group also shared a moment of appreciation for the actress-director Dasha Nekrasova, who had a recurring role on last season’s “Succession” and, with Anna Khachiyan, hosts the “Red Scare” podcast. “She scares me,” Mr. Hill said. To the Ion Pack, she’s a friend of the pod.
But the most Ion Pack moment during this afternoon chat between the hosts and Mr. Hill came when the pair brought up a predicament that they’ve talked about, regularly, from their first episode on: how to find one’s way as a creative entity in the world, with or without recognition.
The podcasters were seeking Mr. Hill’s advice on the debate that’s consumed them since they first put on the masks: Should they drop the anonymous bit and put faces to their unexpectedly successful project? The acceptance of the Ion Pack as an influential, and entropic, force has left Mr. Rothweiler, 31, and Mr. Pawley, 30, wondering if it’s time to join the scene they’ve alternately championed and criticized. In other words, should they pursue a career in earnest?
I knew Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley had been considering revealing their identities more widely for several months. When I learned that they decided to lose their masks on the call with Mr. Hill, I asked if I could sit in and write about it for The New York Times. They agreed.
“I think you’re overthinking the chess behind of all of this,” Mr. Hill said after some back and forth. “It should literally just be what you think you are. If at that moment you feel like being a clown, be a clown. If at that moment you feel like being serious, be serious.”
Mr. Rothweiler said: “Maybe part of us wanting to take the mask off is a feeling that we want to be roasted.”
Mr. Pawley added, “Exactly. We’re very roastable.”
“It’s cool to have people that are putting their money where their mouth is,” Mr. Hill said. “But now you guys are going to have to make some stuff.”
“We’re too sincere-pilled to act like we’re Banksy or something,” Mr. Rothweiler said a week after the conversation with Mr. Hill, while sitting on an antique chaise longue in a corner of their studio space, normally reserved for guests of the pod.
Those guests are drawn mostly from indie cinema circles, and have recently included the filmmakers Rick Alverson (“The Mountain”), Tim Heidecker, Janicza Bravo (“Zola”) and John Wilson (“How to With John Wilson”); the playwright and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play” and “Zola”); and the actresses Annie Hamilton and Sarah Sherman (“Saturday Night Live”).
Across from Mr. Rothweiler was Mr. Pawley, wearing a nearly indistinguishable variant of Mr. Rothweiler’s own outfit: leather jacket, dark shirt and leather ankle boots.
“It was an exciting thing to be anonymous, to break free from the trappings of our identity or whatever. But now, it seems like the most exciting thing to do is to have the pressure on us,” Mr. Pawley said.
Mr. Rothweiler said that it was starting to feel “dishonest.” “It’s stunting the growth,” he said.
The project can seem a little like an art-school concept, playing with notions of identity and our relationship to it. (The pair claim that they were one inspiration for Kanye West’s masked era.)
Lucien Smith, a painter, met Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley in 2019 while organizing a film screening hosted by the Ion Pack in conjunction with his art platform, Serving the People. The event was crowded, he recalled, with many attendees gathering to catch a glimpse of the mysterious duo behind the Instagram account tweaking famous filmmakers and downtown personalities.
“I called them the ‘Fight Club’ of indie cinema,” Mr. Smith said. “They serve your food. They work in your theater. They serve you drinks. They could be anyone.”
Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley are much more like candid observers, and curious students, of a strange moment in cultural production — one in which almost anyone can make content, or call themselves a “creative,” but where very few can forge a living as one. What they’ve created is an informal hype machine for the music and films and people working a few degrees outside the usual channels of fame and recognition.
Since attending high school together in Philadelphia, Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley have been collaborators in some form, mostly starting bands and releasing music. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 2013, they moved to New York City to pursue those interests in Brooklyn.
But a recording project with friends generated little attention, and after a contentious recording session at LCD Soundsystem’s Brooklyn studio, Mr. Rothweiler changed course. He set out to make a feature film, now in its fifth year of production, while directing and editing small commercial projects to pay the rent.
Mr. Pawley was still recording music, sporadically forming bands and playing shows. At night, he managed an underground club in Bushwick that catered to the electronic community, before the pandemic lockdowns led to its permanent closure. In 2020, jobless, Mr. Pawley returned to his childhood home in Pennsylvania.
Living in different cities, with their projects suddenly halted or in jeopardy, the pair found a way to channel their energies: nightly phone calls holding forth about art and trends until the early morning hours.
Mr. Smith suggested that Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley record one of their conversations for his website. After some convincing, they reluctantly agreed and the episode quickly made the rounds on the internet. “People thought the Ion Pack was me, too, at one point,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley share the feeling that they arrived in New York just after the party ended. To support themselves, they cycled through freelance gigs (bartender, personal assistant, Airbnb host), living paycheck to paycheck, in box-size studio apartments in Brooklyn neighborhoods far from Manhattan. But they still felt compelled to do something creative; it just turned out to be social media and a podcast about other creative people.
According to Rebekah Sherman-Myntti, who owns a production company with Mr. Rothweiler that operates out of the same studio, the Ions haven’t been able to shake the outsider air that comes from failing to find a foothold in their respective creative fields. Nor, she said, would they want to shake it at this point.
“They both think the industries they’re a part of don’t really care about people who are just starting out,” Ms. Sherman-Myntti said. “Both are incredibly optimistic people, though. And they decided to make their own thing instead, which has manifested in this world they’ve created.”
Thanks to the podcast, which is behind a paywall on Patreon and starts at $5 a month to view episodes, Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley said they’re now experiencing their first taste of steady income since moving to the city. They declined to share subscriber numbers or their monthly earnings. (Their Instagram account has about 14,000 followers.)
“Let’s just say we’re still broke,” Mr. Rothweiler said, with a laugh.
In addition to the podcast, the Ion Pack have come to be known for shambolic, line-around-the-block parties in New York, Los Angeles and at Art Basel in Miami at impromptu venues. They have organized standing-room-only film screenings, become in-demand moderators, hosts at events promoting films including Ms. Nekrasova’s “The Scary of Sixty-First,” and involuntary recipients of bitter film-world gossip in their Instagram DMs.
“They remind me of what I imagine the early 1980s no-wave scene to be like,” said the director Eugene Kotlyarenko, who lives in Los Angeles. “Back when N.Y.C. was a place where music and film and art were all interacting in a single scene.”
The podcasters also oversee a Discord channel that they said has more than 800 “Packers.” This community, Mr. Pawley said, is mostly full of people in their 20s who are “creative and talented, but alienated.”
Mr. Rothweiler said, “They’re people who are exactly like us 10 years ago.”
With a profile picture of J.S. Bach, the Ion Pack began on Instagram by posting niche memes making fun of the often self-serious and protective film scene in New York. Among their earliest subjects of derision were the filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie (whom they mocked for how frequently the brothers wore Carhartt work wear) and Mr. Hill, who, at the time, was making his directorial debut with “mid90s.” They also took on the much-hyped film distributor A24. “A24 is just Disney Channel for advertising majors who went to Bard College,” one of their earliest memes reads.
But their initial antagonisms appeared to grow more broad, expanding to roast the clichés of being a New York “creative,” the kind who makes mood boards and “decks” instead of actual films.
“It was so brazen and unheard-of that it was a kind of turn-on,” said Ms. Bravo, the director, of the pair’s early Instagram days. “It was akin to putting a wet finger in an outlet.”
They insist that their posts weren’t driven by antagonism. “We’re huge fans of everyone we roast,” Mr. Rothweiler said.
Of the Safdies, Mr. Pawley said: “We were making fun of the fandom they had spawned. And the rich New York kids who worshiped them, wanted to be them.”
Mr. Kotlyarenko recalled the time that he was accused of being the Ion Pack. “Josh Safdie messaged me asking why I was trolling him so hard,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m not, but don’t you think it’s pretty funny?’”
Eric Kohn, the executive editor of IndieWire, refused an invite to come on the podcast. A 2017 article in which Mr. Kohn wrote that the Safdie brothers “hacked” their way into Hollywood with “guerrilla filmmaking” was an early Ion Pack meme and became something of a running joke.
Asked for comment, Mr. Kohn shrugged it off: “People have strange ways of funneling their enthusiasm about underground art culture on social media, and I learned a long time ago not to pay much attention to it.”
Mr. Pawley said, approvingly, “We think Eric’s sick, by the way.”
Their reputation for roasting and trolling tends to get the Ion Pack lumped in with young provocateurs like the “Red Scare” and “Wet Brain” podcasters, who have added to the perception that the Canal Street strip better known as Dimes Square is a haven for the politically disaffected.
Past “Ion Pod” guests have also included the filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer, who has released documentaries on online incel culture and is set to release a documentary on Alex Jones of Infowars. Another guest was the filmmaker Trevor Bazile, now deceased, who organized the New People’s Cinema film festival in New York City last October.
The festival, which billed itself as a “transgressive” event, drew scrutiny for its connection to the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who, according to recent reports in Buzzfeed and Vanity Fair, helped fund it.
Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley say they’ve never taken what have come to be mockingly known as “Thiel bucks” in some circles. However, they were asked to organize the festival originally, after being approached by Hadrian Belove, a film programmer whose production company Play Nice was a sponsor of the festival and is rumored to have some financial investment from Thiel Capital.
The pair declined Mr. Belove’s offer, though they had agreed to participate in a conversation with the filmmaker Larry Clark (“Kids”), who ultimately had to bow out for health reasons. (“NPC fest loves Ion Pack and tried hard to make something work — but after their guest canceled I think it was all too tenuous for them,” Mr. Belove wrote in a text message.)
The decision was less a politically motivated stance and more a gut feeling (“cursed” is the word Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley settled on). They rarely dwell on politics, preferring to fanboy.
“Their struggle with making work is what’s so relatable to listeners,” said Betsey Brown, an actress and filmmaker who is a regular listener, and occasional guest, of the pod.
Ms. Brown recently released a feature film, “Actors,” which she wrote, directed and stars in alongside her brother, Peter Vack, who is a close friend of Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley.
In February, the pair arranged for an “Actors” screening, followed by an Ion Pack-hosted Q. and A., at the Roxy Cinema in TriBeCa. The screening sold out, as did five additional screenings. The success of each event, which Ms. Brown described as “fueled with loving energy,” led her to ask Mr. Rothweiler and Mr. Pawley to distribute her film in North America.
In addition to working as a distributor, the pair have plans to produce Mr. Vack’s second feature film and a number of smaller projects including a film by the animator Tracey Todd; a Chinatown-focused TV show, directed by Kyle Brown and Zans Brady Krohn; and a show directed by the comedian Catherine Shannon.
Mr. Pawley’s recording project, the Life, is also set to release an album this year, and Mr. Rothweiler will debut his feature film, “Salamander Days,” which he directed with Ms. Sherman-Myntti.
“Our whole lives have been us taking ourselves too seriously, holding ourselves back,” Mr. Pawley said, “because we had such a specific plan of how we wanted to — —”
“Present everything,” Mr. Rothweiler cut in.
Mr. Pawley said: “It took rejecting our identity to finally be comfortable with ourselves or something.”