Leon Neyfakh speaks slowly and deliberately, as if concerned about the slipperiness of the words he uses. His voice is deep, a little gravelly, and well-suited for a Dashiell Hammett joint. In other words, he sounds exactly like he does when he narrates Slow Burn, the spectacular audio documentary from Slate that returned for its second season last week.
After spending its debut season unpacking the Nixon-era Watergate scandal, Neyfakh and his team now turn their eye toward an infamous period in more recent political history: the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As before, they are motivated by a deceptive simple question: How did it feel like to live through a massive historical moment? “I want to get into the minds of the people who followed the scandal, and talked about it, and argued about it,” Neyfakh narrates in the opening chapter of the new season. “I want to excavate the ideas that swirled around the Clinton saga. Ideas about sex and power and privacy and character, and I want to consider how those ideas changed since the 1990s.”
He asks: “Are we more enlightened now? Or is there something we’re not appreciating about what it was like to live through this story in real time?”
Vulture reached out to Neyfakh to talk about the process behind the new season: how they decided on the story, how they approached the production, and how they’re breaking down a historical event that’s so close to the present.
Step 1: Choosing the Right Scandal
In hindsight, the Slow Burn team’s decision to pursue the Clinton impeachment as a follow-up to Watergate seems like a no-brainer. In reality, however, the move wasn’t always so straightforward. Neyfakh was mildly apprehensive about taking on another presidential political scandal that, on its surface, bore a lot of superficial similarities with Watergate. “I thought, ‘Wasn’t that a little too obvious?’” he said. “Did we want to box ourselves into being a show about impeachments?”
He was also nervous about diving into a subject that’s been thrust back into the spotlight — between the ongoing narratives around the #MeToo movement and the 20th anniversary of the impeachment coming up in December — and that, as a result, many people have been thinking a lot about. “I was sort of allergic to the idea of being part of the dog pile,” he said.
In the end, two things turned Neyfakh around. The first came during the preliminary research process, when the team kept encountering details they’d never heard before and that kept them wanting to know more. Neyfakh compared it to the first season’s rediscovery of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell who was kidnapped, drugged, and locked up in a hotel room in an attempt to stop her from leaking the conspiracy to the public — and who has since been largely overlooked by history. “It was when we stumbled onto Martha’s story that we really began to understand what were doing with Slow Burn,” he said. With the Monica Lewinsky scandal that contributed to Clinton’s impeachment, that detail came in the form of the reason Lewinsky had the occasion to cross paths with the president in the first place: The government had shut down due to a fight over the budget, leaving most White House workers furloughed and interns needing to step up. “That sort of tickled me, as someone who is constantly amused to find out how random history is and how little coincidences can drive events in seismic ways,” Neyfakh said.
The second thing that convinced the team to take on the scandal was significantly simpler: sheer competitive spirit. “We knew we were going to be pissed if somebody else did it,” Neyfakh said. “So I guess my vanity was part of the motivation.”
Step 2: Reporting, Reporting, Reporting
At the beginning, there is research. Lots and lots of it. The Slow Burn team started its process by going through as much material on the Clinton impeachment that they could — books, documentaries, historical accounts, archival tape — with an eye toward sketching a broad sense of the timeline and the various subplots in play, particularly the ones that they were not immediately familiar with. Among the books that Neyfakh pointed out as especially helpful: Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue and Jeffrey Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy.
Those sketches, in turn, serve as the foundation for how Neyfakh and his team — which includes producer Andrew Parsons, part-time researcher Madeline Kaplan, and editors Gabriel Roth and Josh Levin — structure the way the season is laid out. “Using that rough timeline, we’re able to break it out into an outline where we begin to get a feel for how individual episodes can begin and end, where the cliffhangers are, and what are the major themes we’d want to explore,” Neyfakh said.
They then carved out and categorized a list of the various major characters, and using that list, they set out a reporting plan based on a number of narrative questions: Which of these characters will feel familiar to listeners? Which won’t? What ideas will each of these characters express? What’s interesting or unique about them? With each character, the team prioritized pushing past the obvious assumptions or caricatures of those people, taking pains to illustrate their individual complexities beyond what’s been broadly recalled in the cultural memory.
There were some core differences in the reporting process between the first and second seasons. For one thing, Neyfakh argues that there was a lot more plot in the Clinton impeachment saga: more scandals, more disputes about the facts, more active characters. But the principal complicating factor lay in the fact that the impeachment scandal was so much more recent, which meant that many potential interviewees were still very much professionally active. “In some cases, that translated to interviews that were more emotional, more urgent,” Neyfakh said. “Because the events happened in 1998 — 20 years ago, when many of these people were roughly the same people as they are now — it still doesn’t feel like ancient history to some of them. It also meant we had a harder time getting certain people to sit down with us, and I think that’s partly a function of Clinton’s legacy just being distinctly unsettled right now.”
Step 3: Finding the Sound
“I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to talking about sound,” Neyfakh admitted. “But we did know we wanted to use music more deliberately this season.” Much of that work leans on producer Andrew Parsons, whose aesthetic sense largely guides the feel of the season. They commissioned a new theme song from Peter Silberman of the band The Antlers, and worked with the band Wet on some episode scoring needs.
To figure out how they would convey the sound of the Clinton impeachment saga, the Slow Burn team began by working with the rest of the Slate newsroom to put together a mood board collecting what people feel when they think about the ’90s. The exercise generated a number of useful memory artifacts: the NBC breaking-news sound cue, MTV, Nirvana, Wag the Dog, and perhaps most evocatively, the sound of flickering cameras. “It wasn’t necessarily an exercise that could intuitively translate into a note we can use,” said Neyfakh. “But having the mood board certainly guided our instincts.”
For Neyfakh, scripting is a balancing act between narration, interviews, and archival tape, all of which are grounded in the storytelling sensibilities he’s spent a career cultivating. His earlier years remains influential over the way he thinks about the show. “All my instincts about what makes a good story comes from my time working at the New York Observer, where I covered the publishing industry under Peter Kaplan,” Neyfakh said. “The paper as a whole was like this running novel populated by outrageous characters, ongoing subplots, and great ideas. But first and foremostly, you have to be entertaining, and you have to able to move people to think and feel things.”
Step 4: Balancing Past With Present
Part of Slow Burn’s appeal lies in how the stories it pursues — first with Watergate, now with the Clinton impeachment saga — collapses time between those historical moments and the present, and how it uses prominent past episodes as a lens to derive some deeper about what’s happening right now. But the way Neyfakh tells it, the team prefers to keep some distance from drawing too thick or too direct a line across history. “In a lot of our interviews, everyone always wants to bring up Trump, and talk about Trump, and how things compare to Trump,” he said. “And yes, I suspect people will hear some echoes with the current moment. But as with the first season, we’re exercising restraint on that kind of stuff.”
In similar form, Neyfakh and the Slow Burn team hope to limit any sense of judgment in hindsight. “I didn’t want to make a show that makes big pronouncements about whether Clinton was good or bad, or anything like that,” he said. “There is a lot of guilt and anger right now, partly among liberals about how Lewinsky was treated in the press and basically thrown under the bus. That guilt and anger is understandable, and I think we address the question adequately in the show, but I just want to figure out what people were feeling at the time, what drove them.”