May 19, 2016
Je Suis Carlos Danger: Talking to Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman about Weiner
Back in 2004, Howard Dean came in third in the Iowa caucuses. As one does early in a presidential race (or what used to be early), Dean gave an enthusiastic speech to his supporters—which he capped off with a spastic, nerdy “yeahhh!” This “yeahhh!” got played on a loop by many media outlets, was lampooned on Saturday Night Live, and no doubt contributed to his decline in the primaries. Yet to look at that same “yeahhh!” from another angle, one where you could see the crowd, his energy was totally appropriate and not at all creepy. Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s documentary Weiner, which opens May 20, operates under a similar principle, offering a different perspective to the fall of a politician in the social media age. Anthony Weiner, a political wunderkind from Brooklyn who served seven terms for New York’s 9th congressional district, accidentally tweeted a photo of his erection (in boxers, thankfully) on May 27, 2011. Weiner initially claimed he was hacked, then copped to it, and then resigned. Nevertheless, when he ran for New York City mayor in 2013, he led by a wide margin in the polls—until, of course, a second sexting scandal broke involving a 23-year-old woman named Sydney Leathers. (Before we get too carried away with jokes about surnames, also remember that Weiner used the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.”) Kriegman (who lives in Park Slope) and Steinberg (Brooklyn Heights) follow Weiner’s mayoral run from start to (gut-wrenching) finish, and show his old-school New York attitude, commitment to issues, and home life. Far from laughing at the candidate, the film shows what it’s like to be inside a media firestorm, and pulls the mask off many manufactured moments—often by simply shooting from a second angle.
Brooklyn Magazine: How did you initially become involved in the project?
Josh Kriegman: I was Anthony’s chief of staff while he was in Congress. When I left politics and started doing nonfiction film projects with Elyse, Anthony and I stayed in touch. When he got caught up in his sexting scandal and resigned, we immediately thought that telling his story could be amazing. So I started this conversation with him about doing a documentary, and this back and forth between us went on over the course of a couple of years—what that would look like, whether he’d be comfortable. It got to the point as he was gearing up to run for mayor where he wasn’t going to go for it, and then the morning that he announced he was running for mayor, I got a text message from him saying “Hey I’m in,” and something along the lines of, “I’m at home all day with my staff if you want to come over with a camera.” And as you can see in the film, we filmed from the day he announced all the way through to the end of the election.
When you first started this project, what did you envision this project to be? Obviously, what happened during the filming completely changed its course.
Kriegman: I think that when we started, there was a real sense of having no idea of what was going to happen. We were excited about doing a character-driven documentary and this obviously fit the bill. Having known Anthony, I knew that he was a really dynamic and interesting guy. In terms of the election, we had no idea how it was going to unfold. And for the first six weeks or so, he very quickly surged in the polls and was winning. And there was a real sense of, “Wow! this guy could win, this guy could be mayor long after the scandal.” From a filmmaking perspective this was shaping up to be an incredible comeback story. And then of course, things changed course. And then we followed. We stayed with it and were still interested throughout, in documenting the story. The intention from the beginning was to take someone who had been reduced to a punchline and to tell a more complete story, something more nuanced and complex and human and capture his whole persona beyond just what played out in the headlines. That intention stayed throughout. That actually became more pronounced as the scandal broke again.
How many cameras did you guys have? There’s a seamless integration of the media’s coverage with what you’re actually shooting, and sometimes it’s not immediately apparent what’s what until further into the scene.
Kriegman: We began with myself and a cameraperson, Sean McKing, who is a close colleague of ours and an excellent cinematographer. But it quickly became clear that there wasn’t enough room to have more than just myself. So I ended up shooting almost all of it on my own. Because, you know, there’s one seat in the car next to him. It was a very crowded, hectic environment.
Elyse Steinberg: We did have certain events—election night, or some campaigning, debates—where we would have other cameras. Josh stayed with Anthony, and then other camera crews went to other parts of the event.
Specifically I’m thinking of election night and the part with Ms. Leathers—so there was someone there from you filming her?
Steinberg: Yes, we had another camera. I was outside McDonald’s with them and Josh was with Anthony.
Kriegman: It was election night, so we figured—
Steinberg: —You never know!
Kriegman: —We added another camera, and then of course Sydney emerged, and it was very clear she was going to be part of that story.
Steinberg: You can anticipate that something is going to happen. Sometimes it worked out, and other times there wasn’t much to capture.
Did you ever consider interviewing Sydney? That’s easily the saddest part of the documentary, because it’s not just that Sydney doesn’t understand that Anthony is a real person, but that she’s just doing what everyone in the media wants her to do. They’re manipulating her and she doesn’t really realize it.
Steinberg: Yeah. Absolutely. I think for us the film was sticking with Anthony, having this being a character-driven verité doc sticking with him, and she appears from his vantage point and what she’s doing to his campaign. So we talked about it, but we decided as a creative choice not to.
Kriegman: She has a really interesting story of her own, but we really felt like there wasn’t space to get into it.
You do include that interview with her, from her porno…
Steinberg: Which was released during the campaign. We decided to only use what was in that interview.
On that same topic, there’s this great moment where Anthony gets into a fight at this bagel store in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Why did you choose to reveal that the man who started the argument used a racial slur in a Daily Show clip, rather than in the footage you shot? It completely changes the impact.
Kriegman: We were excited to show the way the media narrative flipped. “Anthony’s losing it,” “He’s having a meltdown,” and then you add in this one little piece of information—which most of the media actually missed—and it becomes a totally different story. That was a major intention of the film, to play with and look at the way in which these narratives are constructed and presented, and then compare them to the reality. This was an instance where you could actually see, almost in real-time, the way the narrative transformed based on new facts.
On the question of facts, there’s another scene late in the film, where he’s down to 10 percent in the polls or worse, and he goes to play hockey. He’s playing goalie, and the puck just keeps going in. Was that edited to illustrate the decline, or was the team really losing that night?
Kriegman: Obviously the scene was edited…
Time is often compressed in documentary!
Kriegman: It was an hour and a half of hockey or something, and we edited it into a scene. I think that they did end up losing that game. Part of what we like about the hockey moment is how different it feels. We’re used to seeing him on the trail and in the office. But it was a real thing that he was doing throughout the whole campaign, to continue to go play hockey late at night. He was still making time for that.
Steinberg: It’s always great when you can have your character do something that you don’t expect: He plays hockey!? It’s just a slice of life.
You don’t even have to speak to this, but both Huma and Anthony are in such good shape, but you never see them working out. You only ever see them eating crap food and you wonder: how do you do that?
Steinberg: You do see him on the bike!
Kriegman: I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in a campaign, but real life kind of halts.
Continuing on this idea of representation, there’s a part where iMessages between Anthony and a woman called Lisa are animated, like they’re happening in real time. Out of any part of what precipitated his fall, why did you choose to isolate that exchange? Because what they’re saying is so weird and goofy.
Steinberg: I think that’s exactly why we wanted to do it. It was just this innocent kind of exchange that’s happening. The easy was would’ve been to have the tawdry sexting, but we wanted to show that there was actually a little conversation that was happening. And then he also says, it started off playing a video game. You can see that it’s this innocent exchange that these two people are having and turn your expectations in terms of what these things are about. Some people, like my father-in-law talks about, “He’s like a flasher?” No! He’s having a relationship with these people, it was conversation that evolved. It was also nice to have this to compare with what the media chose to focus on, and start to feel a little icky at that point. It was also nice to have this to compare with what the media had—
—Like the dramatic reading on Bill Maher with Jane Lynch.
Steinberg: —Yes. You can see what they chose to focus on, and start to feel a little icky at that point.
Kriegman: I think we were interested in trying to give the audience a little bit of understanding, or a nod in that direction, of how it could be possible to get to the sex and things that people saw in the way that he describes, as starting out as not something that really seemed out of the ordinary to him, and then gradually progressing to what that was.
There are certain moments where you see Anthony ask “Why are you filming me?” or “I’ve never heard of a talking fly on the wall.” During filming, were there any points where he got really frustrated with it or threatened to pull the plug? What did he understand the film to be?
There really wasn’t that much—there’s a moment in the film where he asks, “Can you leave?” But he was on board throughout, and for the most part he was really open to me being there. In terms of his motivation for doing the documentary—and obviously this was something that we were wondering throughout the filming—he was thinking that there might be a different version of this story that could be told, other than the caricatured version that played out in the headlines and in the tabloids. And I think that was very true for him throughout. Even after the scandal breaks, in some ways that almost becomes more important at that point, because the scandal threatens to overshadow everything.
I think that one of the things about those moments, especially his “fly on the wall” comment, is that they also speak to Anthony’s humor. He is a really funny guy, and the interactions he has with Josh are great, and they reveal that ability to laugh in the face of everything, and that ability to interact with people and how he can be so charming. We wanted that to come through. It’s also something all documentary filmmakers will love. [Laughs]
I guess it’s a bigger question about documentary: how important is it to include self-reflective moments now that everyone has a camera in their pocket?
Steinberg: We wanted to include those moments throughout our film. We didn’t want Josh to be a character, fully, but there was this feeling that we’re here, we’re a part of it, and it’s a story about making a story as well.
Kriegman: It’s a nod to this meta-theme: obviously the film is about Anthony, but the media is also very much a character in the film, and our hope is that real questions are raised about how the media functions. So we didn’t want to make it about the filmmaking, but we wanted to acknowledge that there is a filmmaking process going on.
Some time has passed since the events recorded in the film happened. Do you feel that the environment has gotten worse, specifically in regards to judging someone solely by the worst thing—or something bad—they’ve done?
Steinberg: I think as Josh was talking about, the bigger hope for our movie—we were working about this for about three years. We didn’t know exactly when we would be finished and have it released, but we’re really excited for this film right now because it’s very relevant to our current presidential campaign. This is a film about how our politics today is being driven by entertainment and an appetite for spectacle, and you don’t need to look too far to see how that’s playing out with Trump. Anthony and Trump are very different personally and politically, but I think that they both understood how to put on a show and how being brash and having an air of authenticity gets votes and attention. It’s a moment that we’re in right now, and we’re hoping that our film can speak to how politics and media function.
Kriegman: I think Anthony would be the first to acknowledge that—and he’s talked about this—we live in this weird media moment in our politics where having a voice in the conversation has more to do with knowing how to put on a show than it used to. With the mechanisms of modern media, Anthony—and he knew this about himself—he knew how to pull the levels of YouTube and Twitter, and how to go toe-to-toe with conservative pundits on Fox News. He was really good at the theatrics of it all. And he was using that in the service of a real agenda that was principled and meaningful to him. He acknowledges that times have changed and his skill set fit in well with what politics has become, and how much it really is about spectacle. I think as Elyse was saying, it’s a really interesting parallel in some ways to Trump. You could argue you’ve never seen someone better at that than he is.
But also terrible! He’s such an amateur compared to someone like Anthony.
Kriegman: But wildly effective! We’re all kind of scratching our heads.
Speaking of relevance to this campaign, do you see a parallel between Huma’s story and Hillary’s story, especially considering her relationship with Huma?
Kriegman: There are obvious parallels, but it’s not what we feel that the film is about.
Steinberg: Yeah. It’s way more about Trump! [laughs]
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