While books and articles are often adapted for film and television, popular podcasts served to inspire some of 2022’s hit series. Here, the creators of Gaslit and WeCrashed discuss how they used the audio material as a springboard for shows that examine relationships.
Julia Roberts and Sean Penn in Starz’s Gaslit PHOTO COURTESY OF STARZ
“I’ve been a Nixon geek since I was a kid growing up in small-town Texas, so I already thought I knew all there was to know about the time period,” says Robbie Pickering, a writer and director behind series Mr. Robot and Search Party, and 2011 film Natural Selection. Pickering’s latest project, the Starz political thriller Gaslit, draws from the Slate Slow Burn podcast hosted by Leon Neyfakh—the second season of which, featuring Linda Tripp, informed aspects of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story on Bill Clinton, according to Deadline. Season 1, on the 1970s Watergate scandal, introduces audiences to Martha Mitchell (played by Julia Roberts)—the outspoken wife of Nixon’s attorney general John N. Mitchell (Sean Penn), who first publicly implicated Nixon.
“Martha Mitchell was always relegated as a kind of tragic footnote in the story of Watergate, nothing more,” says Pickering, who created the show directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic) and produced by Sam Esmail (Homecoming, Mr. Robot). “What Leon really did that was extraordinary to me was to center Martha in the story—to give this remarkable, complicated, troubled and ultimately heroic woman her deserved spotlight.” For years, Pickering had sought to explore the people surrounding Nixon and the culture of complicity he inspired, and he now had the perfect entry point.
However, from the beginning, he knew that Gaslit couldn’t be a straightforward adaptation of the podcast. “Leon built Slow Burn really as a series of portraits: The first episode is about Martha, the second is about Wright Patman and his doomed Watergate committee, and so on,” Pickering says. “This type of approach works for a podcast or documentary series, but what really drives a television series is an exploration of themes through the vehicle of engaging character relationships. Complicated character dynamics lead to great scenes.” Pickering used the podcast as a creative springboard and also looked to books such as Martha’s biography by Winzola McLendon and Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years by Jay Anthony Lukas to identify the character relationships that would drive the narrative.
Slow Burn podcast host Leon Neyfakh. PORTRAIT BY ERIC KORENMAN
“I already knew about Martha and her imprisonment at the Newporter Inn, but what the podcast did was to really refocus my attention on that particular event and how it affected Martha’s marriage to John Mitchell, who was her soulmate as well as Nixon’s best friend,” says Pickering. “That gave me the jumping-off point to really go my own way with the narrative and differentiate it from the podcast by delving deeper into Martha’s marriage and juxtaposing it with the burgeoning youthful love between John (Dan Stevens) and Mo Dean (Betty Gilpin). Both relationships play out against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal and serve as an exploration of how complicity can both tear people apart and bind them together.”
Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin as John and Mo Dean PHOTO COURTESY OF STARZ
From the moment she stepped into character, Roberts had a clear vision of how to play the role. “She brought a canniness to Martha, an intelligence toward how she is perceived,” Pickering says. “Martha was very aware of the spotlight and cultivated it, using it to her advantage. There’s a way to play Martha as purely brash and bombastic that actually would have flattened her out as a character, and Julia had the wisdom and ability to control that and employ it strategically.” Roberts also exudes the same natural likability: “If you watch clips of the real Martha, she’s undeniably charming. She’ll put a smile on your face just talking to reporters as she walks through an airport, and I think that shines through.”
That the Nixon administration’s campaign against Martha Mitchell 50 years ago was so successful it erased her from history inspired Pickering to share other untold stories—such as that of Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard who first raised the alarm about the break-in, and Martha Mitchell’s biographer McLendon. “The Watergate story has always been told as this serious, tragic tale of government corruption—which it absolutely is—but it’s also a story of corrupt government buffoons stumbling their way into a national crisis and then absolutely destroying the few people who were brave enough to call them out on it,” says Pickering, who brought this material out of the ’70s by portraying these characters’ human flaws. “The Slow Burn podcast really endeavored to make the characters and the events in Watergate feel human and relatable. … I tried to bring that same level of relatability to the screen in Gaslit.”
Roberts plays Martha Mitchell, Attorney General John N. Mitchell’s wife. PHOTO COURTESY OF STARZ
The Wondery podcast WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork hosted by David Brown served as the basis for Apple TV+ series WeCrashed. Co-founded by charismatic, Israeli-born entrepreneur Adam Neumann (played by Jared Leto) in 2010 to provide shared coworking spaces, the startup was valued at $47 billion prior to its failed IPO filing and the ousting of its cultlike leader. “Almost everything in the podcast was new to me,” says Drew Crevello, a former film studio executive at Warner Bros. and Fox, who wrote and created the show with Emmy-nominated writer and producer Lee Eisenberg (The Office). “Like most people, I only had a very cursory understanding of the WeWork story from the few headlines and news stories I had seen in the fall of 2019. So I listened to the podcast with rapt fascination because it was really a story I had not heard before, and certainly not with these colorful details.”
Eisenberg thought the Wondery podcast provided them with an excellent overview of the story. “But the thing that Drew and I were most interested in—and what we felt was the core—was the relationship between Adam and Rebekah,” says Eisenberg. Anne Hathaway portrays Rebekah Neumann (nee Paltrow; Gwyneth’s cousin)—Neumann’s wife and the mother of his six children, who served as WeWork’s chief brand and impact officer. “We both love rise-and-fall stories, but what we’d never seen was a love story at the center of it. Everyone would, of course, acknowledge that there’s no WeWork without Adam, but what we quickly realized was that there would also not be WeWork without Rebekah.”
Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in Apple TV series WeCrashed PHOTO COURTESY OF APPLE TV
The podcast was an invaluable start to their research. “We also read every article that existed on Adam and Rebekah, watched every interview they did and hired a researcher who connected with former employees, prospective investors, even college friends,” says Eisenberg. “It’s been so heartening hearing from people that know Adam and Rebekah and who have now seen the show that our portrayal of them is a fair one.”
Leto and Hathaway brought passion and nuance to these depictions. “Their level of preparation challenged us as writers and made every aspect of the show, from the wardrobe to the set design to the props, an extension of character,” Eisenberg says. “But, most of all, they both approached their characters from a place of empathy. They weren’t interested in caricature or taking easy swipes. They wanted to understand them, to see what made them the successes that they became, but also those chinks in the armor that led to their fall.”
Crevello also looked to recognize the larger forces at play. “It’s too easy—and lets too many people off the hook—to blame this massive loss of shareholder value and the collateral damage suffered by so many employees on just two individuals,” he says, noting that while the Neumanns were “absolutely culpable,” other players contributed. “One of the oft-repeated stories about WeWork’s rise is about how Adam gave [Korean Japanese billionaire] Masayoshi Son a 12-minute tour of a WeWork and scored a $4.4 billion investment. But what about the flip side of that? Who offers someone $4.4 billion after 12 minutes?”
Through their research, Eisenberg and Crevello strived to truly understand Adam and Rebekah Neumann—“to gain some insight into what they were thinking, doing and feeling as these dramatic events unfolded,” Crevello says. “The podcast laid out for us the big events in the story. It was our job to explore the spaces between these moments.”