The documentary Weiner, an inside look at once-disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s doomed, scandal-plagued run for mayor of New York City, opens with a quote from Mashall McLuhan, the communication theory philosopher best known for coining the phrase, “The medium is the message.” That famous line is loaded enough for a man who saw his political future crumble in the wake of a sexting scandal; surely you recall the downfall of a one Carlos Danger, perhaps our first public figure whose reputation was destroyed through Twitter.
But co-directors Josh Kriegman, who worked for Weiner in Congress, and Elyse Steinberg selected another of McLuhan’s one-liners to open their film: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”
Working in Weiner’s favor in politics, one might think, is the fact that name recognition is half the battle. But that’s a little like saying it worked in Barack Obama’s favor to have a middle name like “Hussein.” Because once you get caught tweeting dick pics from your public Twitter account, a name like Weiner is just one more obstacle between you and the political office you seek.
Kriegman and Steinberg have an incredible amount of access, even to Weiner’s famously press-averse wife, Hillary Clinton right-hand Huma Abedin. It is amazing to think that, at no point during the proceedings, Weiner thought it would be in his best interest to shut the whole project down. At the beginning of filming, the scandal was in his rearview; Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 and entered the New York City mayoral race in April 2013. But that July, the scandal broke again: more pictures, more problems. Weiner refused to drop out of the race and finished in fifth place with only 4.9 percent of the vote, miles behind the victor, Bill DeBlasio, a man who eats pizza with a fork.
Through it all, though, Kriegman and Steinberg are there: As Abedin says more with a single, pained facial expression than Weiner can say with an entire press conference; as campaign staffers commit borderline mutiny while telling Weiner how betrayed they feel by his dishonesty; as brash, ballsy New Yorkers stop Weiner on the street to commend him, ream him out, or, on occasion, ask him if he’s someone they’re supposed to know. It might be hard to believe there are parts of Weiner we haven’t seen, but Weiner is an intimate, close-up look at a campaign, and couple, in crisis. Not to mention, the film (like the source material) is hilarious in an absurd, better-than-fiction way. You just can’t make this stuff up.
ThinkProgress sat down with Kriegman and Steinberg at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C. to discuss the making of the film, the theatricality of modern political news coverage, and why this particular scandal — which raises weird, uncomfortable questions about what constitutes infidelity and “normal” behavior — is so endlessly interesting to the American public.
Where did you find that McLuhan quote? Did you have it in mind from the get-go?JK: It was something that came to the film fairly late in the process. The credit goes to our editor, Eli Dupree. Eli is a really brilliant guy who also has an incredible sense of humor. He brought that quote to us and we all felt that it worked on a number of levels. It really captured these different pieces of the story so well.
Why do you think this scandal — which, as political scandals go, is fairly innocuous; it’s a sexless sex scandal — is so endlessly compelling to people?JK: It’s a good question. It’s one we don’t necessarily know the answer to. Obviously, there are a lot of different ways to approach the story, and we decided to approach it from a vérité angle, to be with Anthony as he goes through this, rather than to bring in experts to dissect it. That said, there’s a couple things that separate Anthony’s scandal from others, one being his name, which he acknowledges in the film. That’s definitely part of it.
Also, pictures: There’s a certain reality that I think people forget about what it means to actually have pictures in the world, and how that changes the size and significance of a sex scandal in politics. People debate this, but one of the ways that Anthony’s scandal was a little bit different from others is, some of what he was doing for a lot of people, especially older voters, the behavior was not just wrong — everyone understood that it was wrong — but it kind of crossed over into maybe deviant or weird. There was a sense that it was not something people were as familiar with. Which might not be as true as the younger generation gets older. I think it happened at a certain point in time when all these factors came together to make it a big story.
He, of course, talks about this, and you ask him about this: That the same kind of compulsion that would make you engage in that sort of behavior is what makes him a politician. I wonder about this all the time: Could anyone run for office today who the average person would even like? Because you have to be so attention-seeking.ES: One of the things that we do think is, this film provides a look at what it means to be a politician today. Anthony talks about how maybe some of the same things that made him a successful politician contributed to some of his problems and struggles. He talks about how politicians crave attention, and he acknowledges that, and that he thrived in a world of transactional relationships, which I think served him well as a politician. But on the flip side, you also have those same behaviors making him somewhat divorced from his emotions, and allowing him to engage in these online affairs as if he’s playing a video game. As he says, it’s hard for him to have normal relationships. So, you’re absolutely right: Our film speaks to, what does it mean to be a politician and what are we asking of our politicians these days?
MTVNPlayerEdit descriptionmedia.mtvnservices.comJK: He actually poses the question in an interesting way. He acknowledges that the cause and effect isn’t necessarily so clear. Was it his years in politics that made him this way, having a harder time connecting on a deeper level? Or did he go into politics originally because he already was this way?
How did working on the film affect the way that you think about politics and politicians?ES: I didn’t know Anthony prior to working on this film like Josh did. So in terms of Anthony, I had preconceived notions of him that were much like the audience. It was what I read in the headlines. But when I met him, I realized how much more of a complex and human person he was who couldn’t be summed up in tweets and soundbites. But I also got a look at our politics today, and you get a look at the theatrics involved, the spectacle involved, and how much political news coverage is defined by entertainment and spectacle. And we don’t have to look very far to see that playing out now with Donald Trump.
JK: We all kind of know, in the abstract, how much of what comes through the media is this reductive flurry of soundbites, headlines, and tweets. But to actually experience that, to experience the public and private at the same time, especially in a scandal situation like this, is really striking. And I think that’s part of what people respond to when they’re watching the movie.
You ask Anthony on camera, “Why are you letting us film this?” It seems like he has this possibly naive but possibly beautiful belief that the world could still get a complex portrait of him. That there’s room in everybody’s bandwidth for that. What are your thoughts on his willingness, not just to invite you in the room but on his willingness to let you stay there when the scandal re-breaks?JK: I think you’re exactly right in how you describe it. He had had this experience through the course of the original scandal, and his entire career, life, and identity, wiped out and replaced with this joke, this punchline. Opening up his campaign and his life to a documentary when he ran for mayor, I think he realized there might be some value in documenting a more complete version of his story, and the campaign might again get sucked into the caricature. So having a documentary version of the story could really show something more complete. I think that’s why he let us in.
ES: It’s a complicated question. It’s one we wondered about and one we posed to Anthony. But you’re right: You do still wonder about it. I think it was natural to let Josh keep on filming, and I do think that there was a hope that this film, that a different version of the story could be told than the one that was playing out in the New York Post. I think showing those human moments — you see them judging and ridiculing Anthony, and then you see Anthony putting his son to sleep. That was one of our intentions: To show that contrast.
He is the only talking head interview that you have. Was that by necessity, because Huma was not about that, or did you want anyone else to do that direct-to-camera interview?JK: Our access to Huma is what we were able to capture during the campaign. But there also was a thematic choice. We could have gone to experts and pundits and talking heads and tried to analyze and explain the story in a very different way. But ultimately, we decided we wanted to stay with Anthony through this. So the only sit-down interview we did for the film was with him.
What was really surprising to you while you were filming?JK: At one point, I was expecting him to drop out of the race. It was such an intense experience, to be there with him. The avalanche of ridicule and judgment that fell on him after the scandal broke a second time, I wasn’t sure that he would want to keep going, or be able to. So to witness him making that decision, it was a little bit surprising, and I think a lot of people saw that and found it unrelatable — why is he continuing on? — but there’s also an admirable quality. He’s not going to step aside because this embarrassing thing happened. He had something he was really fighting for. It was striking to watch that play out in real time.
MTVNPlayerEdit descriptionmedia.mtvnservices.comI would have thought that New Yorkers would be amped about the brazenness — even of the scandal. To kind of say, “Yeah, I did that,” and go with it. The way that people seem to, on the other side of the aisle, be embracing how absurd Trump has been.JK: Well, they were, for the first six weeks. A lot of pundits were thinking, he can’t get away with this. New Yorkers aren’t going to forgive him two years after the scandal. These pictures are out there; he’s not going to be able to be a viable candidate. And six weeks later, he was at the top of the polls and people thought: He could be mayor! Wow, New Yorkers really can get past some of what happened here and consider him again as a real, viable politician. But when revelations came out again, and there was a sense of another round, people couldn’t deal with it.
As an audience member, I felt complicit, and I’m curious if you did, too, in what seemed to be Huma’s obvious discomfort with being observed on any level — which is interesting, for someone who has chosen public service as her life — she seems to not enjoy being watched, even when she’s giving a speech. It’s not that she doesn’t want you guys to be there; she doesn’t want anyone to be there. Is that how you interpreted it, too?ES: Just as Anthony was reduced to a caricature and a punchline, so was Huma. In our film, you see her as a wife, a mother, a person with a really important job. But she’s much more quiet and reserved than Anthony. They’re almost opposite personality types. I do think that she shared some of his desire of wanting a more fair and complete story told. When she was at the press conference, she said: This is between us. And she was in his campaign ad, at the conference, and she’s a political professional herself.
What do you think about the whole role of what political spouses are supposed to do? Even when their significant other is not in trouble, but especially when they are?ES: One of the things we’re excited about, in terms of telling this story with Huma, is you get to see the judgment that is placed upon her and placed upon women at the center of this. Huma, along with many other women, have husbands who have done something wrong or embarrassing, and they were criticized for staying the marriage, staying at the press conference. Our hope in this film is to question those judgments. Shouldn’t a woman be allowed to make her own decisions without judgment? Why should women have to be judged because of decisions made by their flawed husbands? There’s a natural tendency to question those judgments.
It’s sort of a tragic thing happening in his personal and professional life, but also, it’s hilarious. How did you think about balancing the inherent humor and absurdity in this situation, choosing which late night and Daily Show bits to include, and if at any point you thought: That’s one joke too many for what we’re trying to do.JK: It was definitely something we knew, going in, it was something we wanted to balance. There’s a kind of comedy that’s inherent in the whole situation. And also, Anthony himself is a very funny guy. So we knew we wanted the film to have that energy and to reflect the humor of Anthony. But we didn’t want to just pile on. We wanted to get into the humanity of what was going on.
One scene I wanted to ask you about: After he goes on a news show, and he’s watching the clip back at home, and he thinks that he nailed it. And Huma tells him, no, that’s so embarrassing, how can you not see how embarrassing that is? Can you talk about how you structure that scene in the film and what you were thinking about when you shot it?ES: One of the things, big picture, is that difference between the public and private story: So you see, in the beginning, Anthony is having an argument with Lawrence O’Donnell, and you see that on television. But in our footage, then you see a side angle, and you see that he’s actually alone in the room, as if talking to himself. And I think that speaks to a different story, and showing the humanity behind the headlines, literally. Seeing two different versions of the story. And when he goes home, he and his wife get to look at the material and see what it means to be just a relatable couple, looking and experiencing a media firestorm. Our hope is to show the humanity behind it all.