Podcasts as a medium have steadily been picking up popularity, growing in reach from a select few die-hard fans to millions of listeners. A particular spike in interest over the last few years has been in podcasts that unravel facts of the world around us. Be it the all-encompassing, long-form interview of 'The Joe Rogan Experience' or Neil DeGrasse Tyson's panel show discussion on the mysteries of the universe, 'Star Talk Radio', podcasts that ask interesting questions are all the rage in today's streaming era.
One podcast that has the knack for asking the right questions and putting the story under a magnifying glass is 'What Really Happened?', which kicked off its second season earlier this September. The show is hosted by award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks, best known for MTV's innovative 'World of Jenks', HBO's immersive look at assisted living facilities, ' Room 335', and the ESPN 30 for 30 short 'Posterized.'
With 'What Really Happened?', Jenks adapted to the podcast medium, which he found new and challenging as a documentarian who usually dealt with visual storytelling, but it's a format that works perfectly for the show. Through the hour-long episodes, Jenks picks pivotal moments in history and pop-culture; moments and stories that have been obscured by the collective public consciousness over time.
From the curious story of King John the Good of France who was wiped out from the pages of history, to the sudden disappearance of Dave Chappelle from the public eye, to the statistical anomaly of musicians dying at the age of 27 and joining the 'Forever 27 Club' and everything in between, Jenks takes a close look at these moments as he separates fact from myth and attempts to get to the bottom of things.
The show mixes up the narrative with pre-recorded interviews and features a wide range of distinguished personalities from colorful backgrounds. Some of the interviewees include Andrew Stanton, the director of Disney's highly unexpected big-budget, box-office flop 'John Carter', 'Story Seminar' guru Robert McKee, Jimi Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross and former CIA officer Michael Sellars, among others.
A new episode of the podcast airs every Wednesday via Apple Music and the show is produced by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's Seven Bucks Productions in association with Cadence13. The first season premiered last October and during the season, Jenks took a closer look into a range of fascinating subjects including Princess Diana's death, Chris Christie's Bridgegate scandal, Michael Jordan's early retirement and Britney Spears' infamous 2007 meltdown.
The current season is ongoing and last Wednesday, Jenks discussed the story behind the San Antonio Spurs star Kahwi Leonard and his sudden fallout with the team in the episode 'Kahwi Leonard: The Really Shy Superstar'.
I had the chance to catch up with Jenks via email for a brief chat about how he goes about researching for such a show with such wide-reaching topics, adapting to the medium of the podcast, the hurdles and challenges of setting off on a rogue investigation, interesting guests on the show, audiences calling in to fact-check his research, and more. Read the full interview below:
Congratulations on season 2 of ‘What Really Happened?’ Like the first season, your list of topics is as eclectic as it is interesting. How do you go about picking your subjects?
It’s actually pretty simple and one, of many reasons, I love the process of making this podcast. Throughout the year I keep a fairly giant list. People on social media, co-workers, friends and family all will suggest different topics. And then I am always keeping my eyes open; it’s impossible not to. I think the best part of it all is I can go to Cadence13 as we prep and say, ‘Here are the topics’. And I’ve never once heard, ‘well, we can’t do that’. It’s always a ton of support.
How long does it roughly take for you to put an episode together - from research to setting up interviews to recording and post-production?
Months and months. Some episodes I am on a tight deadline so it’s a pretty short turnaround but something like our 'Secret Sonic War' episode took 6 or so months. From King John II’s exclusion from the pages of history to Dave Chappelle’s exit from stardom to the 27 Club and Boris Yeltsin, you cover a lot of gripping stories this season.
Was there any topic that you skirted on but had to leave out of the final set? Can we expect a special episode sometime later?
I am always open to it! We did that last year when I realized 1 of the 2 men in prison for murder was innocent of murder. Another incredible feature of podcasts. I can walk in one day and say ‘we need to do a special episode’. And off we go. I am used to cable TV or film where you can’t just decide that you want to do an entirely new episode or story.
You must get this a lot, but as a documentarian who worked with the medium of film, what was the challenge in adapting to the format of a podcast?
When starting to work on podcasts, I knew I had 50 percent less to work with to tell the story - visuals are obviously gone. So, 50 percent of the tools in my toolbox are now gone. I can’t tell you somebody is sad or happy just by seeing their face. I need to explain it in a way that explains the emotion properly. I need to be careful with music as that now plays an even larger part to the creative. Ultimately, it’s storytelling and this reminds me of camp fire storytelling which couldn’t be a greater, while also simple, challenge.
How did the series come about? How did Dwayne Johnson get into the mix?
I was talking to Seven Bucks Productions (DJ, Dany Garcia, and Brian Gewirtz) about a documentary on what our first episode of Season 1 was about - Muhammad Ali talking a guy (or did he?) out of committing suicide. Of course, DJ and his team think big. And they, along with WME, thought this could be one episode to something larger. They knew I Ioved telling stories and thought podcasting was the most authentic way to do that.
For your third episode, ‘The Anatomy of a Box Office Flop’, which I particularly enjoyed, you finally got filmmaker Andrew Stanton to discuss John Carter. How did you get him on board and how’d he finally have the time to address the topic?
I read all of the John Carter of Mars books, Princess of Mars, etc, I watched the film 2-3 times and the director’s commentary version. I also watched Andrew Stanton’s other films. And then I reached out with all of this information in mind. I think reaching out and showing this respect played a part in letting me to fly out and speak with him for 2 hours.
You also interview many distinguished personalities as you explore What Really Happened in each episode. Who did you particularly have an interesting time interviewing this season?
I found Michael Sellars, ex-CIA and hardcore fan of John Carter, to be fascinating. Here’s a guy who was interrogated by the Soviet Union, helped lead a coup in Indonesia, puts his life on the line, and who knew - had a love for John Carter. So much so that upon retirement from the CIA he wrote an entire book on why the film flopped. Once you get to know people, you really uncover some awesome layers.
In this era of ‘alternative facts’ and information overload, how do you connect the dots to separate the fact from fiction?
Facts haven’t changed. And like you said, information is everywhere. I think it’s going to take some time (years) for us to grip how to digest, understand/process, and discuss all of this information. With more information, comes more ways to manipulate it. So, I do my best, and certainly not perfectly, to make sure every word I say is backed up by facts, otherwise, I make a point of saying ‘this is an opinion’. But after directing ‘dream/killer’ and befriending Ryan Ferguson, I know facts are the foundation and if ignored, the whole thing loses, as it should, legitimacy.
Hypothetically, if you had the chance to revive one person from the pages of history and ask him/her a few questions, who would it be?
Winston Churchill. We did an episode on him last year, 'Black Dog,' and I think his mental health, his relationship with alcohol, and the love of his life (his wife) were very human and despite being the most written about person after Jesus (so they say)…overlooked.
You also encourage listeners to call in with inputs and leads. Do you get callers pitching conspiracy theories sometimes? What’s the most interesting call you’ve got?
Michael Rappaport randomly called and left a message, his #, etc. He was REALLY nice on the message. I keep meaning to reach back out to him. I’ve been surprised that we actually don’t get a ton of messages with conspiracy theories. I am always impressed with just how smart our listeners are. 'The 27 Club' was one I wanted to do but the interest listeners showed was a big reason we did an episode on that topic for Season 2.
Can we expect a third season of 'What Really Happened?' Anything else that you’ve got on your plate in the near future?
I am working on a documentary about a band. Been working on it for 3 or 4 years and will be for quite some time. It’ll likely be a film that spans 15 years or so…we got some time for that one.
Apple music subscribers can listen to 'What Really Happened?' here. New episodes air every Wednesday.