How Karina Longworth Is Reimagining Classic Hollywood—and the Podcast—in ‘You Must Remember This’

“I have consciously tried to refocus my attention away from being a film critic and toward being a film historian.”

Scott Porch | Longreads | March 2015 | 14 minutes (3,624 words)

 

Almost a year ago, former LA Weekly film writer Karina Longworth began producing You Must Remember This, a podcast about the inner worlds of Hollywood icons of the past and present. The characters and stories range from familiar, to unknown, to just plain weird. (Episode 2 is about a Frank Sinatra space opera that you never knew existed.) Longworth, 34, has also written for publications including Grantland about everything from the history of the Super Mario Bros. movie to the stories of Harvey Weinstein’s ruthlessness in the editing room.

We recently talked by phone about her interest in the stories of classic Hollywood, the unique format of podcasting, and how her roles as a journalist, critic, and historian have informed her storytelling.


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Why did you leave LA Weekly ?

There were a lot of reasons. I would say that in general I was really burned out. I had not a clinical breakdown but sort of a stress meltdown. In the middle of 2012, sort of right after the Cannes Film Festival, there was a new editor in chief at LA Weekly, and I basically went to her. I wrote down everything work-related that I did for a week, and it ended up that I had worked 65 hours that week. And I was just like, I can’t do this anymore.

I had been the film editor and the film critic, and her solution to that problem was to demote me [laughs]—to take away some of my editorial responsibilities. I tried that for a few months and found that I was still having a lot of problems feeling enthusiastic about my work. I don’t think I’m cut out to be the type of film critic—and, really, I don’t know how you’d be any other type of film critic—who sees every movie and has an opinion about them. I was seeing on average seven movies a week. As a person who is very interested in contemporary film, there are probably 25 to 30 movies in a year that I am legitimately, personally interested in. And so I was obviously seeing quite a few more films than that.

I found it very overwhelming. And I just wasn’t satisfied. I felt like there had to be different ways to talk about movies—there had to be different ways to get audiences engaged.

Is it still the job of most film critics today to see basically every movie?

I think so. There’s a difference, I guess, between people who are sort of in more traditional, mainstream institutions like newspaper and whatever magazines are left. That’s different than people who are bloggers. The majority of film critics I know at this point sort of cobble together a living by writing for five or six different online outlets, so the demands of the job depend on what you can figure out how to get paid for.

I felt like I was supposed to be seeing everything and that it was expected of me as a film critic at one of the few newspapers that are paid attention to that I had an opinion about everything. And not just movies that were being widely released — all foreign films, documentaries, independent films. I was supposed to go to every film festival, and the film festivals as I got older were something that burned me out as well.

If you’re talking to people who are freelancing at five or six different places and you were burned out from what you were doing at LA Weekly, did you have some concern about going from the frying pan to the fire?

I don’t think I ever really thought that I was going to make a living cobbling together stuff as a freelance critic. The first thing I did was write a book, and before that book had even been released I got an offer to work on another book. I’ve taught. I’ve barely done any freelance work at all over the last two years.

These were the two Phaidon books?

No, one of them was a book published by Phaidon about Meryl Streep [Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor, published Jan. 6, 2014], and then the other one is a book called Hollywood Frame by Frame, which was commissioned by a publisher named ILIX in Britain [published in the UK in June 2014] and it was released in America [in Sept. 2014] by Princeton Architectural Press.

How do you feel about print journalism now with some distance from it?

I feel really good about what I’m doing and I don’t feel any resentment over what I’m not doing, or what I was not able to do as a journalist. If anything, over the past couple of months, editors have reached out to me with interesting ideas and assignments, which I’ve largely turned down because I have my plate full with the podcast, and because the podcast forces me to have my head in the past, which makes it difficult for me to switch gears and think analytically about the present. But that’s my problem, not anyone else’s.

And even a year ago when I was starting the podcast, it was really out of frustration with a teaching job that I was ill-suited for, more than frustration with journalism and the opportunities available for me in that field.

Did you come at the idea for the podcast emulating something else — doing an audio version of a documentary or an audiobook? Where did the idea come from?

Well, it actually goes back a long ways. For college, I went to art school and studied experimental film and video with the idea of making nontraditional, nonfiction films. As much as work can evolve when you’re like 19, 20, 21, my work kind of evolved into making these video diaries, these sort of poetic video diaries about the movies I was watching, the culture I was taking in, and what it meant to me, and incorporating historical information. My thesis film when I graduated was sort of a fictionalized biography of the relationship between Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra.

I was inspired by people like Chris Marker and Mark Rappaport but was also kind of inventing my own style. It was very full of my own voice, most of it with me writing a script and reading it and using found footage for the images. This was like 2002, 2003. It was pre-YouTube. That stuff didn’t really fit into the art world. Because I was using so much stolen material, it wasn’t appropriate for film festivals.

There were a couple of professors who were interested in what I was doing, but for the most part I didn’t have anyone encouraging me. I applied to graduate school with these films—but not to be an artist, to go to graduate school to be an academic. I got into the NYU cinema studies program, and I decided to give up on the creative aspect of it and just become a writer.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become frustrated with the options available for my experience and my skill set. It got to the point earlier [in 2014] that the primary work I was doing was teaching, and I just feeling very frustrated. I decided that I had to do something, so I had a spring break from teaching and decided to make a pilot for something.

I knew I wanted to take advantage of the fact that you can make audio work now as a podcast and that there are channels where people can find it and pay attention to it. So I did what I used to do when I was making videos in college except cutting out the visual element, so I made a pilot in my 10-day spring break. Most of the feedback was positive, so I kept doing it. After a few months, I decided to stop doing anything else.

You called your first episode a pilot, which is interesting. Did you think you would take it to somebody and say, Do you want this? Do you want to pay for 12 more of these?

I wasn’t thinking I was ready for that at the beginning. Certainly for the first few episodes, I was still teaching myself the technology. In fact, the first piece of press I got was when the AV Club wrote about it in their Podmass feature, which is something I had aspired to, but I didn’t think it would happen on the third episode. It was at that point I realized that people were paying attention and I had to take it seriously.

I had long-term aspirations of making a few of these on my own and reaching out to somebody for financial support, but the things that happened along those lines happened way quicker than I thought. I definitely didn’t think that the pilot — that single episode — would be enough to get people to underwrite me.

How did it progress from there?

I started getting some press. There was a little piece in Entertainment Weekly in June, and then some people reached out from American Public Media who were trying to start a podcast network.

[American Public Media launched its podcast network—which is called Infinite Guest—in August 2014.]

How does that work—you own your show and they’re a distributor?

In terms of production, I still do everything myself. They facilitate signing up sponsors, they host the files on their server, and distribute the show on their iTunes channel.

How is the show doing as far as the number of people who listen to it?

We’re often in the top 10 or 20 on iTunes for film and TV podcasts. Serial was kind of a flash point where it was getting these enormous numbers and revealing the world of podcasts to people who had never really thought about them before. I don’t think my show will ever be that big. Old movies are a niche subject, and I’m approaching it with a niche style.

What’s your technical setup?

I record and edit in GarageBand, I have a microphone that goes to an Avid Mbox, and I built a hokey recording booth out of folding screens and foam. I record and edit everything in my house. There’s a possibility in the future—working with American Public Media—that I would start recording in a studio. They have offered that, and I’ve turned it down at this point.

As soon as I finish a script, I want to start recording because the emotional aspect of it is fresh for me. Sometimes that’s at nine in the morning, and sometimes that’s at 10 at night. It would be difficult for me at this point to stick to a weekly recording schedule.

Do you do multiple episodes at a time or take one all the way through before you start another one?

Sometimes I’m researching ahead and have multiple books on my Kindle that I’m reading all at once. But once I sit down to write a script, I’m working on that episode all the way through.

How long do you spend on a typical episode?

The research can vary quite a bit from just a few days to a month. Once I actually start compiling all of my notes and writing a script, the script-writing process usually takes two or three days. The recording takes a couple of hours, and the editing takes about 12 hours over two days.

Are most of the topics things where you have an institutional knowledge and the research is to tack down the details, or are you getting into a lot of new territory?

It varies a lot from topic to topic. Judy Garland is somebody I wrote about as an undergrad and as a graduate student, so when I did an episode about her, I knew already a lot of the information. That episode dealt specifically with her death and the Stonewall riots that happened the night of her funeral, and I didn’t know any of the Stonewall stuff until I sat down to make that podcast episode.

The episode about Raquel Welch came about because I had to do a small amount of research about the poster for One Million Years B.C. for my Hollywood Frame by Frame book, and I realized that she had what I thought was a pretty fascinating life and career. I researched her completely from scratch when I did the podcast episode; I really knew nothing about her besides what I researched about that poster.

Did you decide fairly early that you wanted to have other people do character voices?

Yes. In fact, I wish I could do it more often, but because it’s just me sometimes it’s difficult to find people for the podcast and coordinate getting them over to my house to record in the timeframe that I have. One thing I really want to do is talk about cinema in a cinematic way, and for me that includes dramatizations.

How do you direct the voices? What do you tell people that you want?

It depends. In the Judy Garland episode where somebody is reading from a book, that’s different than when I have somebody do a line-reading that’s a quote from Montgomery Clift. Generally, I have in my head what I think it should sound like, and I try to talk to the actors about where the person is in their life—where they’re at emotionally and in their career and to understand the person in the moment.

Do you arc the episodes to get from beginning to end in a particular way?

I try to. One of the things I try to do when I’m writing the script is to try to create an emotional narrative. One of the things I get frustrated about when I do research is that a lot of the biographies are needlessly comprehensive when what’s interesting to people is the arc of somebody’s life—how they become what it is that we think of them and how that has friction with who they really are.

In the Lena Horne episode, did you decide to use a lot of archival audio because you had it available to use, or was it some reason specific to Lena Horne?

I found some audio that was pretty amazing that I wanted to use, and there have been cases where I have mixed archival audio with either me or somebody else doing an impression of that person. In this case, that didn’t seem like the right thing to do—partially because her voice is so distinctive that any impression would not be very good.

It felt like an interesting challenge to combine what I usually do with the material that I was able to get and see if I could help Lena tell her own story. The episode got really long [an hour vs. the usual 30 minutes], but the feedback I’ve gotten is that people liked hearing her voice and that the archival stuff was well used.

Not having a time slot or edit length to fit to, you have that latitude whenever you want it.

Yeah, I can make episodes as long as I want. It’s one of the great things about having a podcast.

Have you talked to your distributor or NPR about doing a two-minute version or a six-minute version of the show?

I haven’t figured out a way to make that work yet, but I haven’t really taken the time to sit down and craft a two-minute version of an episode. I probably could, but it’s just not something I have tried to do yet.

Have you tinkered any with doing something more like a documentary?

The work I did in art school was basically that, and I’ve thought about doing a live performance of the show and using some kind of slide show of video clips and still photos.

A lot of people are doing that. Jon Mooallem toured his book with a band.

A lot of podcasts are doing live shows. I’ve heard they’re very lucrative! I would need somebody to be a producer and help me figure out how to translate what I do into something that I could do with an audience, and I haven’t found the right person to help me with that because I have no budget.

One of the more emotional episodes was Carole Lombard, and you broke up a little bit in that episode. Why did you decide to keep the version that you recorded?

I didn’t plan to start crying when I was reading the script that I wrote. [Laughs.] There are definitely some stories more than others that I feel a personal connection to. I don’t really know why. There’s something about the idea of Clark Gable, cinema’s icon of masculinity, sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room drinking waiting for someone to confirm what he already knew, which is that his wife was dead. That just kind of destroys me.

I left it in because it felt really honest. I try to walk the line between trying to get as close to the truth as possible and telling it in a cinematic way with my personal stamp on it. It would have been dishonest to cut out the part where my voice broke.

Your voice on the podcast is a little different than the way you talk in conversation. What would you say you’re doing in the podcast?

I try to bring my voice down and make it slower. I’m a Valley Girl. I’ve never enjoyed the sound of my voice—especially when I’ve heard myself on the radio or in a soundbite—so I knew wanted to rein myself in like an unforgiving director of myself.

Are you talking to an audience of people who are interested in classic Hollywood or in tabloid stories? Who do you think is listening?

I haven’t thought about an audience at all. One of the things that I’m pretty specific about is that this is only interesting to me if I’m doing it for myself. One thing that gives me a headache about journalism right now is that all editors think about is how to get more clicks, how will something appeal to the largest number of people. I just can’t think about it. If I did, it wouldn’t be interesting anymore.

Is this sustainable as a way to make a living?

I don’t know yet.

Are you thinking about it as an adjunct to writing books or as the thing you want to spend most of your time on the next few years?

Right now, it’s the thing I spend most of my time on. I would like for it to lead to other things, but I wouldn’t want those other things to eclipse it. I would love to get involved with an organization like Turner Classic Movies. It’s hard for me to get bogged down in the financial potential of it. If I do, I’ll drive myself crazy and lose the enthusiasm for it.

Do you think of what you’re writing for the podcast as doing history or doing film, or is it closer to what you were writing when you were at LA Weekly?

I have consciously tried to refocus my attention away from being a film critic and toward being a film historian. I don’t consider myself a film critic anymore at all. I correct people if they refer to me as a film critic.

What’s in London? You said before the interview that you’re moving there soon.

My boyfriend is writing and directing a movie that’s going to shoot there, and I’m going to go back and forth between London and Los Angeles.

Who is he?

His name is Rian Johnson.

Your boyfriend is Rian Johnson?

Yep. [Laughs.]

[Rian Johnson is writing and directing the second episode in the new Star Wars trilogy. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, which is the first in the new trilogy, will premiere in December 2015.]

That is something I did not know before now.

It’s not a secret. [Laughs.] I don’t think we’ve ever done an interview about it, but we’re pretty open on social media about being a couple.

Are there things in London that you’ve thought about doing that are related to classic film?

Yeah, I’d like to get involved with the British Film Institute. I know that they have a really good research library. I’ve thought about doing a series of episodes called British Invasion about British people in Hollywood, and that’s definitely something I could research there. I’m also sort of not limited in terms geography because most of the research I do involves books that I can get almost anywhere.

The first 15 or 16 episodes of 2015 are about Hollywood stars in World War II. Even as we move to London while I’m working on those, that’s not going to change.

You’ve moved from journalism to history, and I wonder if you have noticed a difference between those two things that goes beyond subject matter.

I’m pretty new to the idea of thinking of myself as somebody who does history rather than somebody who does journalism, so it’s hard to say. I know how monetize journalism, and I haven’t substantially figured out how to monetize history yet.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Scott Porch is an attorney and writer in Savannah, Ga., and has contributed to The Daily Beast, Salon, Kirkus Reviews, Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic, and Huffington Post. He writes about American history, books, politics, and popular culture. Porch is a former reporter and editor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Find him on Twitter: @ScottPorch.