Brow Beat

Slow Burn’s Leon Neyfakh on Bringing His Watergate Series to Television

And what he thinks about Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Leon Neyfakh sits in a chair in front of a credenza and old-fashioned TV.
Leon Neyfakh hosts a new TV adaptation of Season 1 of Slow Burn, premiering Sunday on Epix.
Epix

Slow Burn is coming to the small screen. The first season of Slate’s award-winning podcast, covering the Watergate scandal, has been adapted into a TV docuseries, premiering Sunday on Epix. Leon Neyfakh hosts once again, this time adapting his telling of the Watergate story with the production company Left/Right. The new series adds visuals to the storylines and characters that listeners will remember from the podcast, but also introduces some new threads that Neyfakh says he didn’t get to the first time around.

We caught up with Neyfakh, who now hosts the Luminary podcast Fiasco, about the adaptation process, what Slow Burn fans can expect out of the new series, and his thoughts on Donald Trump’s impeachment.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Slate CEO Dan Check and Slate podcasts editorial director Gabriel Roth served as executive producers on the TV series.

Slate: What’s the difference between Slow Burn the TV show and Slow Burn the podcast?

Neyfakh: There are a bunch of plots that we kind of left on the table when we were making the podcast because we wanted to keep things as straightforward as possible, and in many cases that meant setting aside certain strands of the story that would have been hard to fit into our framework. The main thing I’m thinking of is our decision [when making the podcast] to stay out of the White House for the most part, like we barely got into the mechanics of the operation that led to the Watergate burglary. We didn’t talk that much about who made which choice during the cover-up. We didn’t really talk to people in the White House that much. That was something that we got to do for the TV show, and I was really happy to round out the narrative with that extra layer. The podcast was so focused on what it was like to live through [Watergate] that we were approaching almost the social history of the scandal, and that’s very much reflected in the TV show as well, but we were able to get inside the scandal too, which I was very happy about.

And it’s really different seeing these people’s faces. For instance, for me, I just associated Martha Mitchell with her voice. Of course, I was aware that she had this very iconic image too, but that’s obviously not something that we could really telegraph in the podcast other than to describe her. To see photos and videos of her, which the team at Left/Right uncovered, it really elevates the Martha Mitchell experience. You understand why she was so magnetic and why she played so well on TV. She was a real star. She is just, like, an amazing-looking person, with her hair and her makeup and her clothing, it’s just a real pleasure to be able to see her.

One of the first new threads I noticed in the TV series is one that includes J. Edgar Hoover. Were these storylines stuff that you knowingly left out of the podcast, or things that you discovered as you were researching for the TV show?

The Hoover stuff was quite new to me, actually. I was aware, obviously, that he died, and I was aware that he was extremely powerful. I just didn’t really connect the dots between his death and Watergate; I didn’t come to the realization that had Hoover not died when he did, he might have been able to stop the Watergate burglary from happening. That is something that came across to me once I had talked with the producers at Left/Right and saw again how these pieces of the story that I had put together in my mind in a certain way, that cause and effect, which is a big focus of the show—figuring out the cause and effect between parts of the story—I didn’t appreciate that cause and effect until we talked about how Hoover’s death might fit into the narrative.

The TV series features some of the voices we heard on the podcast, plus some new names. Who were you most excited to get for the new series?

We got one of the Watergate burglars [Eugenio R. Martínez], which is amazing. One of the things we love doing in our podcasts, and that’s true for Fiasco as well, is finding people who were principal actors who are there in the room when it happened—someone like Linda Tripp from Season 2—but then also talking to people on the periphery who saw the events unfold from a slightly different perspective. My favorite thing is to find someone who ends up being both. So one of the Watergate burglars, that’s as close as you can get to the bone. At the same time, he was kind of a peripheral figure; he was given a job, and he did it.

Another person we interviewed for the TV show that we did not get to talk to for the podcast was Roger Stone, who got his start as a dirty trickster and political operative under the Nixon administration. We do have these sorts of cameos from people who had not even become what they would become later on. I’m not positive at what stage in his prosecution that interview with Roger Stone was filmed, but he just feels like such a weird throughline, connecting these different parts of our history. It was a real thrill to get someone that acutely in the news to talk about this phase of his life, that he’s associated with, but, you know, it’s not the main thing people think about him right now.

Did you originally try to get him for the podcast?

I don’t remember. I’m sure we did try, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Do you think he did this interview because he was aware of what Slow Burn was?

Honestly, I think it was probably that he was going to be on TV.

So having made these two seasons about what it was like to live through separate instances of impeachment, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about living through one yourself—the Trump impeachment, of course. Were you surprised by how that all rolled out?

Yeah. I mean, there was a sort of rhythm to what was happening during the Mueller investigation and a certain set of expectations that people had for what role the independent counsel’s office was going to have in whatever happens next, and I think those expectations were informed by the Nixon story. We were led to believe that the independent counsel—who in the Nixon case was Archibald Cox—was going to be the one to bring the thing home and reveal everything that needed to be revealed and force everything into the light. And Mueller did that to a certain extent with the Russia interference and the election, but I think no one could have predicted that that would sort of peter out the way it did and end with a sort of thumbnail version of the same scandal in which the president solicited foreign interference in the election from a different foreign country in a totally different context. I feel like the Ukraine story, which obviously led to the impeachment, is kind of a mini version of the Russia story in a way—a more easily comprehensible one and one that really puts the president at the wheel in the sense that he’s the one who’s calling the president of Ukraine and requesting his help. I think no one could have predicted that there was going to be this sort of epilogue that ended up being more consequential than everything that came before.

People always make jokes about when Season 30 of Slow Burn is going to come out about the Trump administration. I don’t think it’s a good idea now—maybe in 30 years—but I have thought about how we would do it. One of the challenges would be spending however many episodes on Mueller and Russia and then pivoting to this totally separate thing that ends up being the thing that drives the plot to its conclusion. Or whatever phase we’re in now—it’s obviously not a conclusion since he’s gotten acquitted.

But from a narrative point of view, it doesn’t follow any of the rules. Andrew [Parsons, producer of Slow Burn’s first two seasons, now working on Fiasco] and I came to the conclusion that for anyone who is listening to Slow Burn Season 1 for reassurance that the system works and that everything would be fine because one time in the past it worked out that way, that was the wrong way to listen to the show. Because, as I think we demonstrated in each episode, there were so many ways in which things were circumstantial. Things fell into place for the story to unfold as it did; it didn’t have to go that way, and there were certainly points at which it could have gone the other way. So there’s probably a lesson in that: History may repeat but not in all its particulars, and it’s not going to go the same way the second time as in the first.

The thing about you making this Season 30 of Slow Burn about the Trump impeachment, though, is that you actually lived through it, and part of the reason why you even visited the Watergate scandal in the first place was because you wanted to know what it was like to live through something like that, right?

Totally. And part of my instinct for why it would be a good idea to wait quite a long time [for the Trump story] is that I think you need a little distance for it to get the effect that we are always striving to achieve, like with Watergate or the Clinton impeachment, or the 2000 election or Iran-Contra [in Fiasco]. There’s a certain dislocation that happens with time that focuses your attention on different elements than maybe you were inclined to focus on when you were actually living through it. Things look important or pivotal in retrospect that maybe didn’t present themselves as such in real time. And so I think it’ll be a while before I think we can trace the cause and effect driving this story forward.

And another thing is that you get used to stuff. You know, we’ve gotten used to so much, and someone in 2015 would have been shocked to learn of everything we’ve gotten used to since 2016.

Right, and I feel like there are so many people or scandals that we thought were going to be important but now aren’t anymore—kind of like Martha Mitchell.

Yeah, there’s so many bit players in the Trump administration. People often tweet me: Who’s the Martha Mitchell in the Trump story? And they kind of all are, because at the end of the day, [Trump] is the only one that people are going to remember. In the first episode of Slow Burn, we use Anthony Scaramucci as the example, and yeah, now he’ll be a footnote, if that. At the time, it felt like the only story that mattered for those 10 days that he was on the scene. And I think capturing that at a later point, when you know just how insignificant his role was, will be kind of revelatory. It’ll instantly show where the country was in a way that will feel surprising and illogical in a way, right?

Can you tell us more about what’s new with Fiasco?

We made Season 1 last year; it was about the 2000 election and the Florida recount. Season 2, which premiered on Feb. 6, is about Iran-Contra, which is the other major presidential scandal that happened between Watergate and Clinton, in 1986–1987. Iran-Contra is different from the other stories we’ve told because unlike Watergate, unlike Clinton-Lewinsky, there isn’t as much conventional wisdom about it, there’s not as much common knowledge about it. People aren’t as clear on the details. They don’t even have necessarily a bare-bones understanding of what happened, or what was going on with Iran, or even who the Contras were, and, most of all, how those two things were related. And insofar as our approach to these other stories has been to latch onto the things that people do remember, the things that will be familiar, and kind of use them as tent poles across which we thread more unfamiliar stuff and storylines that will be new to people, with Iran-Contra, we’re assuming no knowledge. We’re assuming people are coming to the show with the level of knowledge that we had when we started working on it, which was basically zero.

And that’s a new kind of thing. With the past podcasts we were dealing with people who were quite famous—you know, Woodward-and-Bernstein type characters—who we made the decision to deemphasize just because people were already so familiar with them and associated them so closely with Watergate. With Iran-Contra, there aren’t those people, really. There are people who are central to the plot—and I guess you can take that to mean both meanings of the word—people like John Poindexter or Bud McFarlane. These are well-known people in certain circles and political buffs know who they are, but they’re not celebrities, they’re not like folk heroes or villains along the lines of Linda Tripp. And so I think rendering them as “characters” is sort of a different challenge. You’re not pushing against any preconceived notions that people might have, which is a different approach to what we tried to do with someone like Tripp.

And so we tried to do with Iran-Contra what we have done in the past, which is capture what it was like to live through it, but also because so much of Iran-Contra happened behind closed doors before everything got exposed, half of this season is about stuff that was not public, that was not being processed by society in real time. And so in that way, it’s a little different. We’re really telling this story of these foreign policy initiatives and then pivoting to the public reaction about halfway through—which I guess is pretty similar to the Clinton season in a way; I think we roughly had the same breakdown.

Are there plans for a Season 3?

There are. We’re starting production, but I’m not saying what it’s about yet.