So many questions for Karina Longworth—the badass Hollywood historian behind 'You Must Remember This'
A little over two years ago, film historian and journalist Karina Longworth debuted You Must Remember This, a podcast about the “secret and/or forgotten histories of 20th century Hollywood.” It’s a podcast that’s full of both vintage Hollywood gossip and surprising historical detail, as well as Longworth’s smart, well-measured analysis of the societal conventions and expectations of the time. She’s covered everything from Frank Sinatra’s little known 1970s space rock opera to the relationship between starlet Katharine Hepburn and millionaire playboy eccentric Howard Hughes. Longworth’s focus on the women of Hollywood is especially sharp, examining the sexist Hollywood culture that molded and dictated many stars’ careers.
For the past season of her podcast, Longworth has focused entirely on one story: the tale of cult leader Charles Manson and his many Hollywood connections. In ten parts, Longworth looks not just at the grisly murders done at Manson’s behest (though she does cover that,too), but at the society that molded Manson and the moment in late ’60s Hollywood that allowed Manson’s teachings to take hold. One episode looks at the relationship between Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, another examines the connection that movie star Doris Day, her son Terry Melcher, and Melcher’s then-girlfriend Candice Bergen, had with Manson’s family. Even if you aren’t someone previously interested in the intricacies of the Manson story, Longworth’s crystalline story-telling and meticulously executed research make the series just plan riveting. The last episode of Manson season drops next week. (Listen to it all here!) We caught up with Karina Longworth to talk about history, podcasting, and Hollywood.
Can you tell us your podcast origin story? How did it come together?
The podcast was born out of creative frustration. I’ve been a blogger, a print journalist, a film critic and a teacher, but after about ten years into my career, it felt like none of those spaces were allowing me to make a living doing what I love to do most—that is, diving deep into research on Hollywood history, and telling stories in ways that are colloquial and modern and personal—at least not without compromise. I was basically tired of doing what other people wanted me to do, and I decided I had to create something which, even if I made no money and made no one else happy, at the very least, I was pleasing myself. And then, weirdly, it’s become the most popular thing I’ve ever done!
One of the things that makes You Must Remember This so distinctive in the movie podcast world is how it’s almost entirely narrative rather than, say, a discussion format. Why did you decide to go that route?
I’m a big podcast listener, and I knew that there were already a lot of movie podcasts with that sort of talk radio format. That was never going to be what I was going to do, partially because it didn’t seem like there was a need for another show like that, and partially because I get really nervous having unscripted conversations that are recorded for posterity, so it just wouldn’t be fun for me to do that every week.
But also, this podcast is kind of a mutation of the work I did in art school as an undergraduate, which was inspired by experimental/non-fiction/essay filmmakers Chris Marker and Mark Rappaport. Back then, I was writing essays, recording myself reading them, and then editing together found footage films as visual accompaniment. When I initially thought of doing a podcast, I wanted to see if I could replicate that sort of cinematic way of talking about cinema, without a visual element.
How do you go about researching and putting together each episode?
Up until this point, basically, once I come up with an idea, I read enough to figure out what the story arc is—like, am I going to talk about a person’s entire life? Or just one period, one relationship, or one film—and once I know that, I try to read everything I can find that seems related to the specific story. I take notes when I read, and when I’m done with the research, I write a story based on the notes. Then I tweak the story a little bit to accommodate the fact that it’s going to be an all-audio experience.
So sometimes I’ll rewrite things a little bit to include punchlines or bits of emotional punctuation, and sometimes I know I have a film clip or an interview segment that I want to include, etc. Then I figure out if there are any roles that I want anyone else to play, and if so, I comb my network of friends, and sometimes my wider social network, to find an actor (or, in some instances, an “actor”). Then I record myself in my home office, and have the actor(s) record themselves and send me the audio. Then I edit the show in GarageBand—which is my least favorite part. I’m actually about to change the way I produce shows entirely starting with the next season, because this is just too much work for one person to do, so I’m going to bring in help with the research and the audio editing.
I have just been totally hooked on this season’s arc about Charlie Manson’s Hollywood. What made you want to tell that story?
I was home one night late last summer watching a Doris Day movie on TCM, and I casually googled her, and very quickly came across a note about how her son, Terry Melcher, believed that Charles Manson had sent his followers looking for him the night Sharon Tate was murdered. I desperately wanted to know more about that, and pretty soon I realized that there were a lot of Hollywood stories connected to Charles Manson. I knew I couldn’t fit them into one episode of the show, so it became a series.
Have there been difficulties in reporting out the Manson story?
It’s just been a long research process, because there isn’t any one book that had all of the information I wanted to know (in fact, if you look at the show notes for each episode, you’ll see that I’ve used a lot of sources). I’m really proud of the series, and I would love to compile the scripts into a book or something down at some point down the line, but after reading about murder (not to mention extreme sexism) for six months, I’m a little burned out!
Something that often strikes me as I’m listening to your show is how actually recent a lot of this history is. What is it about these stories that makes them slip out of the public consciousness?
That’s something that I’m curious about, and it definitely motivates me to want to explore these “forgotten” stories. I don’t know that I have a great, definitive answer, but I think there is something to the fact that information is so apparently easy to get nowadays. . .I think it’s easy to accumulate a lot of summary-level information about a lot of things, but often the detail and nuance of what really happened and why, gets lost.
Any hints as to what’s on deck for the next season?
Next season is all listener requests! I’ll be pulling topics from our forum where anybody can suggest episode ideas. You can find it here!
[Image via Twitter]