Interview: Weiner directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg
Matthew Turner | On 24, Aug 2016Reading time: 8 mins
Many politicians have seen their careers careen off the tracks, but few instances have been captured so completely on film as the incisive and painfully funny Weiner. With unprecedented access to Anthony Weiner, his family, and his campaign team as they mount his New York City mayoral campaign, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary charts his impending political meltdown.
What begins as an unexpected comeback from a disgraced ex-congressman takes a sharp turn, once Weiner is forced to admit to new sexting allegations. As the media descends and rips apart his every move, Weiner tries desperately to forge ahead, but the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage halts his political aspirations dead in their tracks.
We sit down with Kriegman and Steinberg to talk politics, comedy and when to stop filming.
What a fantastic story. How did your connection with Anthony come about?
Josh Kriegman (JK): I met Anthony working for him in politics, as his Chief of Staff, when he was in Congress. And I worked for him for a couple of years, that was years before his scandal and his resignation, and then after he resigned – at that point I had already gotten out of politics and was in filmmaking with Elyse – so it was after he resigned that I started the conversation with him about the possibility of making a documentary, and it was a couple of years later, when he ran for Mayor of New York that he agreed to let us in, and it was exciting.
So you were already filming Anthony’s campaign when the second scandal hit. Given that you were, at that point, filming what was supposed to be a redemption story, what were your reactions when the scandal broke?
Elyse Steinberg (ES): Going in, we didn’t know what would happen – we knew it would be exciting, but we didn’t know what would happen, and as you were saying, six weeks in, he was the top of the polls, and he defied all expectations, people thought it was a joke for him to even enter the race, we thought we were going to have a remarkable comeback story, maybe one of the greatest comeback stories of recent American political history, and then things took an unexpected turn, in a different direction, when the sexting broke. We were surprised, but our intention with this film, which was to take somebody who had just been reduced to a caricature and a punchline, and offer a human story, that was the intention at the beginning of the film and it actually only intensified after the scandal broke, because he just became such a caricature, and we were able to show the human story behind that.
Were you worried that he might just say, ‘Okay, no more movie…’
JK: Well, one of the ground rules when we started it was if ever there was a time that he wanted me to stop shooting, that was, of course, a boundary that I would respect and you see a couple of moments like that throughout the film. So that was part of the dynamic. But I think, as Elyse was saying, this idea of taking somebody who had been so much reduced to a caricature and showing him as a more complete person, this was, I think, part of his motivation for wanting us to document, from the beginning, in the first place, and after the scandal broke for the second time, in some ways that motivation became more pronounced, because it was clear that the whole story was going to get over-written again by this appetite for a little salacious political scandal.
Is that your reading or is that what he said? Because there’s that punchline, where you ask him why he let you film this…
ES: At one point, it was something we wondered about, and we knew that audiences would be wondering about it and it’s a question that we posed to Anthony, and Anthony answers that he did regret letting us film, but he hoped that he would be seen as a whole person, not as a punchline. And that was our intention with this film, and I think that that was the reason that we were allowed to continue to film. Or at least one of the reasons – I can’t speak for him.
Do you think that was naivety on his part? Or was he deliberately trying to be duplicitous?
JK: Well, he got into the Mayor’s race hoping to get past the scandal and hoping that he was talking about it in a way that would allow people to see him again as a politician. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way and he was the first to acknowledge that he made mistakes in the way that he talked about it and he under-estimated how it would play out and all of that, but I think it was very genuine, his interest in presenting himself as a politician again, getting back into public service and public life. I think he was genuinely interested in having us there to document the whole story.
The film is very generous towards him, so he must have been someone that you enjoyed working with. How do you see him?
JK: I think that we see him as a really complex person who has flaws that we are all well aware of, but also has these incredible talents and strengths – certainly, when I was working for him, I saw all sides of him and saw him as a really multi-faceted and dynamic human being, who’s incredibly smart and funny and driven, so he has all these qualities and we were really hoping to capture.
Does he like the film? Because there’s that clip where he likes watching himself embarrass himself, in a strange way.
JK: As far as we know, he hasn’t seen it yet. So, we offered to show it to him many many months ago, before the film was even finished and he didn’t want to see it, he declined to watch it then and he hasn’t wanted to see it since.
Where is he now? What kind of figure is he today, culturally? Are you still in touch?
At the end of the film, you see a couple of clips of him, he’s still a pundit, a little bit, on TV and elsewhere, but he’s largely doing the lion’s share of parenting, actually, while his wife, Huma, is now the vice-chair of Hillary’s campaign, and travelling around a lot with Hillary, so he’s focussed primarily on raising their son and being a dad. And they’re going about their lives – Huma’s working hard, Anthony’s raising their son Jordan, and they’re moving on.
What was your deal when it came to filming Huma?
Obviously the relationship was with Anthony and primarily the film is through him and the campaign experience, but she’s a part of this story as well, she was in Anthony’s ad when he was running his campaign, she was at the press conference, she was supporting him in the campaign and involved and you get to see that. She’s more quiet and reserved than Anthony, so you see that as well. I think especially about why did she allow us to film, I can’t speak for her but I do think that, as I was saying, while she is more quiet and reserved, I think that she shared some of his desire of wanting a more fair and complete story told. She had been reduced and judged just as much as he and, in some cases, even more and you see that judgement against her and the way she was criticised for staying in the marriage. Our hope with this film is to question those judgements.
In the film, Anthony has to make a choice between his wife wanting to work for Hillary and abandoning him, or sticking with him and abandoning Hillary. Was that a real choice? Did you want that to be ambiguous?
ES: I think that one of the things that you see, there is definitely tension towards the very end of the campaign, between Anthony and Huma, about how much she wanted to appear in public, did she want to appear in those ads, and we captured some of that. Of course, three years later, they’re still together, but in terms of that, we have a clip of a reporter race-walking with Anthony, and one of the things that we were trying to show is some of the salacious nature of media right now where it becomes these binary questions: Is Anthony a bad guy or a good guy? These sort of easy narratives and reductive stories that define political conversation, and we wanted to point to that and our hope with this film is to question that and go beyond it and it just speaks to our sensationalism in terms of how political coverage is done right now.
Weiner is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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