‘Weiner’ Filmmakers: “Anthony Declined A Number Of Offers To Watch It” – Q&A
Who hasn’t heard about–and possibly laughed at–the scandalous mess surrounding politician Anthony Weiner and his penchant for tweeting personal photos? However, when Weiner began campaigning to be Mayor of New York, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg saw an opportunity to make a documentary about redemption and resurgence. They could not have foreseen firstly, how well Weiner’s campaign would go, then secondly, how yet more inappropriate pictures would annihilate his career while they were mid-shoot. It’s a testament to their ability to remain truly open-minded documentarians that they turned on a dime and produced the film Weiner–a film so funny and moving, insightful and complex that it recently won a Critics’ Choice award for Best First Documentary.
Obviously, one wonders, “Why did Anthony Weiner agree to do this film?” Josh, you were once his chief of staff, so you were well trusted, but overall, what do you think his motivation was in letting you shoot him?
Josh Kriegman: I was his chief of staff for a couple of years working in politics and got to know him through that work, and then stayed in touch after I left politics. It was after his [first] scandal and his resignation that we approached him with this idea of making a documentary. It was really a conversation that we had over the course of a couple of years, going back and forth.
Elyse Steinberg: It’s a question that we certainly had and a question that we knew the viewers were having. We directly asked Anthony in the film towards the end, “Why did you allow us to film this?” At the very end of the film he says, “I don’t regret letting you guys film me, I just wanted to be viewed as the full person that I was instead of a punch line.” I think that Anthony did see the value of having a more complete story told than the one that was playing out in the tabloids.
Your film shows the kind of entertainment reality TV scenario we now have with politics. During the recent presidential election, did you feel some satisfaction that you’d managed to make a clear portrayal of just how skewed that machine can be?
Josh Kriegman: Well, I think we have been stung, along with many others in the world, with the way that events have unfolded and the way things have played out, but you’re right. We’ve always seen our film as being about much more than Anthony and that one mayoral election in New York City in 2013. We’ve always seen the film as being about our politics and how much our political conversation today is driven by entertainment, and spectacle, and sensationalism. Of course, I think that that’s really what we’re seeing playing out in our politics today.
What conversations did you have with Anthony about ground rules for filming?
Josh Kriegman: The ground rule going in was that if there ever was a time where he wanted us to stop filming, or to leave the room, or turn the camera off, of course we respected those boundaries. We included a couple of those moments in the film itself where he asked us to leave the room. That was certainly the understanding throughout. It was about four months of filming, pretty much nonstop and we ended up with about 400 hours of footage.
There’s an amazing moment where he asks his staff members to leave the room, but you’re allowed to continue filming when he’s with Huma Abedin.
Josh Kriegman: It was certainly one of those moments where I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here right now.” It was a very tense moment on the morning when the second scandal broke in the middle of the election. It was a very human moment and I think that we, as filmmakers, throughout the story, really were interested in getting beyond the headlines. We don’t usually get to be in the room.
Presumably you must have wondered whether you would have the plug pulled on you any minute. How did you handle that uncertainty?
Elyse Steinberg: I think it’s one of the exciting things about being documentary filmmaker, especially filmmakers who want to do a barricaded story where you’re there capturing events as they unfold. That was something that Josh and I both set out to do. I had been working at PBS for many years and I had never done a character-driven, barricade documentary. Josh and I shared that passion and we set out to do that. Anthony is such a compelling character and we were going on a journey, his election, that also had a very natural story arc. Six weeks into the campaign, he was at the top of the polls and could have been mayor. It’s one of those thrilling things about being a documentary filmmaker that you get to be a part of an event as it’s unfolding.
Josh Kriegman: I would add also, I think you’re absolutely right that it’s a risky pick. It’s a tricky dynamic, following along in a story like this where there’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of difficulty, and figuring out and navigating the dynamic of trying to capture as much as you possibly can can be really challenging and really tricky. When we started out, we didn’t have funding for the filming. It was a pretty risky thing to embark on.
Have you had a sense of what Anthony and Huma think of the film at all?
Josh Kriegman: Well, Anthony has claimed, up until as recently as this summer, not to have seen it yet. We offered to show it to them actually before the film was finished, before we premiered in Sundance last year or earlier, the beginning of this year. They didn’t want to see it. Anthony declined a number of offers to watch it and made a choice to keep his distance from the film, which was certainly a choice that we respected.
In the film, you see the softness between Anthony and Huma, while the media’s trying to portray them as this couple who are at each other’s throats.
Elyse Steinberg: I think you’re absolutely right. One of the things that we wanted to do was show a different side of Huma. You see the judgment that was placed upon her and in some ways, even more than Anthony, she was criticized for being at the press conference. She was criticized for staying in the marriage and you really get a different side of her. You see her as a wife, you see her as a mother. What we wanted to do was really highlight that judgment that was placed against her. I think there is a certain natural tendency to judge and we wanted to really go beyond that. She’s obviously much more quiet and reserved than Anthony. I can’t think for her, but I do think she shared some of his desire of wanting a more fair and complete story told.