We talk to Karina Longworth about the newest YMRT season, her upcoming book, and much more.
You Must Remember This is a film fan’s dream podcast, exploring buried stories of film history in Hollywood that are wildly entertaining and question what you think you know about your favorite stars. The woman behind the podcast is Karina Longworth, who produces, writes, and narrates the podcast. She created the show in 2014 as a passionate project, but it has grown into a renowned source of nonfiction storytelling, usually always in the Top 100 podcasts on iTunes.
Longworth has explored a wide range of topics pertaining to Hollywood in the span of four years on her podcast. Previous seasons have been about Charles Manson, legendary dead blondes of Hollywood, and moviemaking during World War II. The topic for this season has been kept a secret in the months it’s been since the short season about horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but Longworth let us in on the subject of the newest season, which premieres today!
As part of a two-part season, each episode for the next eleven weeks will tackle a famous story in the once-banned book Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. The reliability of the book’s depiction of some of Hollywood’s most legendary gossip and scandals will be brought into question, as Karina seeks out to find out if what was published in Hollywood Babylon holds some truth or is just another fabrication of Hollywood history. After the first eleven weeks, the show will go on a hiatus and return for a short season, similar to Bela & Boris, about an unrelated topic and then return to Hollywood Babylon towards the end of the year.
In addition to her new season of the podcast, Karina Longworth also has her fifth book coming out in November of this year about the many loves of Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes. Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood highlights Hughes’s impact on Hollywood unlike ever explored before, through the women he romanced and employed, sometimes simultaneously.
Below is the interview with Longworth about insights into the new season, the work that went into the podcast and her book, and film history in general.
What made you pick the topic for this season?
It’s always a challenge to find a new topic, to find something that can sustain my interest over a period of six to eight months that it takes to write. I have to find something that I think will have enough variety that a lot of people will be interested in it. In this case, I spent a really long time just reading a lot of different books. I was having a really hard time finding anything that could sustain a whole season. I don’t really even remember how I decided to do this specific idea. At some point, I realized that it could be an interesting way of using Hollywood Babylon to tell a lot of stories that people ask me to tell all the time, like the Fatty Arbuckle story and the William Desmond Taylor story while at the same time telling stories I’m a little bit more interested in like the lesser known stories. The throughline through it all could be talking about how false narratives or skewed narratives get created and how they stick.
Did any current events shape this season? It seems pretty timely.
I’ve talked about this before, especially when I was doing interviews about my Dead Blondes series, but I think that Hollywood invented “fake news.” It’s not a new thing and certainly with this nebulas definition of it that we are often talking about today. We all kind of refer to it as the process of insisting that the truth is what you want it to be rather than what the facts bear it out to be and so that has always been what Hollywood’s been trapped in. That’s why it’s difficult to say with 100% certainty that any fact about classic Hollywood is true. Yeah, I think it definitely has resonance with a lot of the issues happening in the politics and the media right now, but also Hollywood invented this stuff. Donald Trump didn’t invent this stuff.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the book that you have coming out in the fall. What made that come to fruition, that you wanted to write an entire book about Howard Hughes and everyone surrounded with him?
I’ve always wanted to do a very intensive research book and I signed up with an agent. We just had these conversations ways in which I could take something that I’d already done a podcast episode about or podcast season about and figure out a way to expand it. Just as my first exercise to try to do that, I wrote a proposal for a book about the women in Howard Hughes’s life. I immediately sold it, and then I had to write it. It’s turned into something that is not at all like a biography of Howard Hughes. It really is a portrait of what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood from the 1920s into the 1950s through the stories of about ten women that he was involved with.
That’s interesting because there have been so many books and movies about Howard Hughes, The Aviator and more recently Rules Don’t Apply. None of them really tell those stories about the women of his life.
Thank you. I think when I first sold the idea, it was not an obvious sell this way. There would’ve been more demand for me to say that it was lionizing this sexy guy, but over the past few years, my take on it has become more mainstream or of more interest to more people. It’s very specifically about questioning the idea that we’re supposed to celebrate this guy because he had sex with a lot of women. It’s questioning that be examining these women, where they were in their lives and careers before they met Howard Hughes, and how they becoming involved with him professionally and/or personally impacted their lives and careers.
How is preparing to write a book different from preparing to write a season or even an episode of your podcast?
With the podcast, even if I’m taking like six months to write a season, that’s still very little time. I can really only rely on previously published sources like other people’s books, magazine articles, and things that are relatively easy to find. With the book I’ve had about two and a half years to do the research, so a lot of it is based on primary documents–going to archives and reading correspondence, studio contracts, and legal depositions. It’s a really different research process, but hopefully, the storytelling is similar to what people like from the podcast. It’s just that it’s much denser with detail that might not be found in other places, in other books.
Did you get the opportunity to do deeper research because you already sold the book idea and you had more access to those resources? Or just because you had more time to find them?
No, anybody could access the stuff that I accessed, but people don’t because they don’t time. They don’t spend ten days in the Texas Attorney General’s office reading documents that were produced by the fight over who was going to have certain parts of his estate.
In a previous Q&A episode of the podcast, you talked about wanting to write about Marcia Lucas [George Lucas’s former wife] in the format of a historical fiction novel but put that aside because Rian was working on the latest Star Wars movie. Now that The Last Jedi is out of production, are you still interested in doing something like that or do you have another inkling to write a fiction novel about Hollywood?
I’m still interested in Marcia Lucas’s story and I wish that somebody would write it, but I’m not the right person to write it anymore. People would just think I was writing about myself. I don’t have the necessary distance to be able to do it in a way that would be honest. So, I hope that somebody would do that, but it can’t be me. I haven’t started any kind of fictionalized projects since I abandoned that project, but I have been exploring adapting episodes of the podcast for television. That might be something that I do, but nothing newsworthy to report yet.
You’ve had some pretty cool guests on previous seasons. Do you have any planned for this season?
Right now the plan for this season is that every episode there is an excerpt of the book Hollywood Babylon so that I can explain what was printed in that book and these are the allegations that I am going to deconstruct and try to figure out if they are true or not. In every episode, I am going to have somebody who is not me reading those excerpts. There are some prominent people involved, but people will just have to tune in to find out.
Film history is pretty vast and seemingly unending, but do you think you’ll ever run out of things to talk about on the podcast or do you think you can always look at everything in a new way like you are with your upcoming book?
I don’t think a person could ever run out of Hollywood stories to tell, but I might run out of stories that I’m interested in telling. Probably what is more likely to happen is that I will lose the energy to do this specific podcast, because it’s really hard. It’s been rewarding in a number of different ways, but I am really tired right now. I am trying to write the last few episodes of the season right now and getting everything ready for the episodes that will premiere on Tuesday. I haven’t been sleeping well and it’s really grueling work. I am very lucky that I get to do this thing that I invented and make a living off of it and that people like it. It’s still really hard. I haven’t really figured out a way of making it significantly easier from the research and writing point of view, so I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be able to do it. I say that all the time and then I do it again, so we’ll see.
That being said, are there any actors or stories about Hollywood that you have no interest in talking about on the podcast?
I would never say never, but I don’t really like doing stuff about people I know. That would be the only thing like I would never do anything about Carrie Fisher. Other than people that I’ve met in real life enough times where I would feel weird talking about them on the podcast, there’s nothing I would say never to.
Do you think you still look at the movies you talk about on the podcast in the same way that you did as a film critic or is that a different process?
Yeah, I would say it’s pretty different. The film criticism that I was doing for work was almost all reviews about new movies. You approach movies that haven’t been seen by anybody differently than you would approach movies that are historical objects. It’s not that different in terms of my process of watching something and taking notes about it. At the same time, it’s very different because when you’re reviewing something as a film critic you are trying to explain to somebody who doesn’t have any frame of reference what it’s gonna be like to watch this movie. When you’re talking about older movies sometimes you’re doing that because there are certain movies that people have probably never heard of before, and those are the ones that are most exciting to me. Sometimes you’re just trying to explain to people who know about Casablanca what Casablanca is, but at the same time, there are some people who maybe have heard of Casablanca but don’t know anything about it and you have to explain what it’s like. They are slightly different processes.
What would you tell people who are considering making a podcast about something they’re passionate about, but don’t know where to start?
I would say you let your passion guide you and if you’re enthusiastic about something and you’re able to communicate that enthusiasm, then you’ll find people who are enthusiastic about the same thing or that you can at least converse. I would also just say don’t get into the mindset that of like, I need to make a podcast that needs to sound like X or that I need to copy a model that has proven to exist. My experience professionally and with everything, as a consumer and as a maker of things, is that nothing works because it’s like something else that works. Things work because they’re good.
One thing I love about that podcast is that always recognize if there’s a problematic nature in the films that you talk about, such as race and gender. Why do you think that’s important to do when talking about classic or renowned movies?
It probably isn’t for a lot of people, but it’s just what I’m interested in. The tagline of the podcast is, “The secret and/or forgotten histories o Hollywood’s first century.” It’s a little tongue-and-cheek and a little facetious, but on another level, I do think looking at history from a women’s perspective is a version of history is rarely told. Most of Hollywood history is written from a perspective of there being great, complicated men. Even when you read a biography of a woman who is a great star, often times it’s written by a man and from a patriarchal perspective. So that’s something I’m able to do, is bring a different voice to those stories in a different way.
Just from people that I know and people my age, I think some people shy away from old movies because they don’t want to watch movies that may have been told that way. Do you think that there’s a way of getting past that in order to understand the significance of the movie at the time?
I was talking about film history as being patriarchal, in terms of the writing of history. Some of the actual films are much more complicated than that because they were made by so many different people. It may have a male director, but it may have a female writer or a female star who’s communicating something that’s distinct and is giving the audience information that goes against what may be the patriarchal point of view. There’s plenty of Hollywood films with gay subtext. The race stuff is trickier. One of the things I try to do is talk about why the screen was so segregated for so long. I would think that people would be able to hold multiple thoughts in their brain at the same time and not just boycott movies because white men made a lot of them.
Do you think talking about and understanding the history of a movie makes you understand that it’s, excuse the phrase but “black and white,” that you can like something while also question it at the same time?
Yeah, hopefully, that would help people to see that. It doesn’t seem that difficult for people to do that with something like painting. I don’t think there are a lot of people who are like, “Cancel Picasso.” They can both have in their brain, this is a person who was a womanizer that treated a lot of people in his life badly but at the same time played a very important role in the visual culture that was influential beyond people who just like paintings. Maybe there aren’t a lot of filmmakers that you can talk about on that level, but you can talk about the industry as a whole.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and get new episodes every Tuesday straight to your phone. You can preorder Longworth’s upcoming book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood here.