'Weiner' directors talk about making a deep, resonant documentary about a man with a funny name
The 2013 mayoral primary in New York City was supposed to mark the political comeback of ex-representative Anthony Weiner, who had resigned from congress two years earlier due to a sexting scandal. Weiner, in the hopes of documenting his remarkable second act (at one point he led in the polls) hired a onetime aid named Josh Kriegman to film his campaign. Things didn’t turn out quite as planned.
What resulted was not a victory for Weiner — he finished fifth in the primary, with less than 5 percent of the vote — but instead an extraordinary new documentary that’s not simply about the doomed campaign of a guy with an ironic name.
Weiner, which won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is about hubris, public shame, ambition, and flaming self-destruction. Kriegman and his co-director Elyse Steinberg sat down with EW to discuss their film, which opens in theaters this weekend and will be available via on-demand services starting May 26 (so that you can squirm from the comfort of your own home).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At Sundance this year, Weiner won the top documentary prize over movies about climate change and autism and ALS. I’m glad that the jury saw that your film was actually about something other than a well-documented tabloid scandal.
Elyse Steinberg: Yeah, we were thrilled. One of the things that was so exciting for us was that after our premiere we could tell from people’s reactions and everybody got the larger themes. It’s about American politics and media. And it was resonating. And it was just perfectly times to where our country is now.
Josh Kriegman: Anthony and Donald Trump are very different people with very different opinions. But they both seem to understand what’s become a fundamental truth about American politics, which is that to have a voice in the conversation, you have to find a way to put on a show. And the public, as we can all see, obviously love it.
There’s a moment in the film where Anthony has lost the election and he looks into the camera and says something like, “This documentary is going to be one more contribution to the punchline.” Props to you both for leaving that in, because he’s really indicting us in the audience for laughing at him.
Kriegman: Yeah, he ventures the idea that the forces of entertainment gravity will suck the film into the same vortex as everything else.
But tell me why he’s wrong about that.
Kriegman: Well, obviously, we really do think that the film is about more than just Anthony’s story and his scandal and the campaign. We hope that it gives an opportunity to raise questions about the nature of our politics — and how so much of our politics is driven by spectacle and appetite for entertainment and sensationalism. And you see that play out in Anthony’s campaign. He’s trying desperately to talk about issues and he can’t.
That’s true. You even show regular people on the street, yelling at the media to focus on the issues.
Steinberg: Yes, there’s a woman from the Bronx in the film who says, “We don’t care about his issues, we have real problems!” And she represented a certain constituency who really felt like it was not relevant to the question of what he could do in office.
Kriegman: And directly to what Anthony says, about the entertainment vortex, I think this film is about taking somebody who was very much reduced to a punchline or a caricature — and we get to spend 96 minutes with him and with his wife and in their whole circumstance. And a lot of people have walked away from the film recognizing that its so much more nuanced and complicated than the story you’ve seen on cable news. That’s the hope — that the movie feels like a deeper look at this person as a real human being.
Were there touchstones for you, like Frederick Wiseman or D.A. Pennebaker? Weiner certainly reminds me of The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Kriegman: There were those exact touchstones. I was turned on to the idea of making documentaries after meeting Pennebaker in college. I took a course with him and really became familiar with the documentaries beyond the mainstream, the classics like Primary and Crisis and, of course, The War Room. That was a genre, specifically political vérité, which was very exciting to me. It’s an extraordinary thrill that we’ve made a movie her that fits into that canon of films.
Steinberg: We were looking at those films and thinking about them all the time.
You said there was 400 hours of footage shot during the course of his campaign. Can you name parts that were really difficult to lose in the editing process?
Kriegman: There were a lot of little gems. There were a ton of interactions which more revealed Anthony’s humor and his rapport with this staff, but they didn’t really serve the story or the narrative. Inevitably in the process we had to kill some darlings.
Steinberg: But one of the great things about the story is that an election has a natural arc to it, so that helped us in the editing process for sure. And we had our main character. We didn’t have to go looking for him.
What are both of your opinions as to whether Anthony Weiner should have resigned from congress in 2011?
Kriegman: I don’t know. He has said that it was a personal choice that he made.
Steinberg: I don’t know that either of us have a strong opinion about that.
Kriegman: it would have been interesting to see how voters would have responded if he stayed in office.
His congressional seat did go to a Republican, before it was changed all together due to redistricting.
Kriegman: That’s right. And you know there were voters in his district who wanted him out and there were voters who were very upset to see him go.
The film made me think a lot about the influence of social media. I mean, there was pictorial evidence of Weiner’s underpants bulge because he accidentally tweeted it — but the pictorial evidence is what ruined him. If there had been Twitter in the ’90s, would Bill Clinton have survived his presidency?
Steinberg: It’s a good question.
Kriegman: There’s no doubt that having photos changes people’s judgment of the thing. But it’s one of those questions that we’ll never know.
Steinberg: One of the things that’s been exciting for us is that there’s been a range of reactions to Anthony. That was our goal going in. We wanted to show a wide range, including the reactions of us, all of us, as consumers of his scandal. I mean, of course the photos changes how we see it. The goal was to show these different forces at work.
Have there been audiences who thought you were too easy on him?
Steinberg: I don’t think we’ve gotten much of that one.
Kriegman: The range encompasses every possible reaction. And this is part of what’s so interesting about Anthony’s story. There was a similar range of reactions to the actual scandal. There are some people who walk away from the film judging him more harshly that there are other people who walk away with the opposite feeling.
What’s been your relationship with him during the three years since the filming was finished?
Kriegman: We’ve spoken. A number of months ago, we offered to show him the film, before we were even totally finished editing it. And he didn’t want to see it. And he hasn’t wanted to see it. He has said that he’s not eager to relive it.
I think if he wanted to see it, that would reinforce some of the caricature of him, wouldn’t it? That he’s someone who in some strange way enjoys being humiliated.
Kriegman: [pauses] Well, he’s still living his life. Huma, his wife, is working for the Hillary Clinton campaign and traveling. And he’s doing the lion’s share of parenting, which he loves. And as he says in the film, “No one got cancer, no one died.” There is obviously something tragic in the story, but he’s still around.
Steinberg: Right, I mean, that’s the story. That someone who did have a great degree of talent was ultimately unsuccessful in translating that through his job.
Kriegman: But life goes on. And he’s the first to acknowledge that.