Politics

Inside the scandal: A Q&A with “Weiner” documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

Sean McGing/Sundance Selects

In just a few short years, Anthony Weiner went from congressman to national punchline to New York City mayoral candidate. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were along for the last part of the ride, recording just about every part of Weiner’s unsuccessful comeback to electoral politics in 2013. Their documentary, “Weiner,” comes out on May 20. Kriegman and Steinberg talked to City & State’s Jeff Coltin to discuss making the pitch, working with Huma and what it’s like to watch 400 hours of footage.

City & State: It’s the first line in the movie, and Anthony Weiner says, "I can't believe they're making a documentary about my scandal?" How did you convince him to do this?

Josh Kriegman: The backstory is I actually met Anthony when I worked for him in Congress. I worked in politics and was his district chief of staff in Congress for a couple of years. I got to know him well through that work, and I left politics and moved into filmmaking and Anthony and I stayed in touch over the years. I started working with Elyse and when Anthony resigned from Congress, we of course knew that his story would be a pretty remarkable one to tell. I had known him well and knew what a dynamic and sort of fascinating character he is, and so I started a conversation with him that really went on over the course of a couple years about the possibility of making a feature documentary. We went back and forth about it—really sort of to the point where it looked like he was intrigued but probably wasn’t going to go for it—and then the morning that he announced he was going to run for Mayor, he actually texted me early that morning and said, “I’m running, I’m with my staff at home, do you want to come with a camera?” And I, of course, said yes. I literally ran over and started shooting, as you saw in the film, from the day he announced he was running to the end of the election.

Elyse Steinberg: As for why Anthony allowed us to film, it’s a question we pose in the film and wondered about as well. Anthony does give us an answer in the end, when he said he wanted to be viewed as the full person that he was and not as a punchline. And that was our intention with this film; wanting to show a complex and nuanced portrait of a person who had just been reduced to a caricature and a punchline.

C&S: One of my favorite parts was the intro. Two minutes of Weiner on the House floor fighting for the 9/11 healthcare bill looking combative, passionate, loved by his fans. Why decide to start out that movie with that footage?

JK: That’s one of the moments that Anthony was most well-known for. It was important for us in the filming of his story to really establish his talent and his success as a politician—to really establish what kind of politician he was and what kind of a fighter and firebrand he was. What we were really excited about, of course, was the vérité experience of following him through the campaign, but we had a lot of work to do in terms of the setup of the story because we obviously had this backstory that we needed to convey. And it started with him rising to prominence as a fairly well-known Congressman who was becoming kind of a progressive hero prior to his scandal.

C&S: Most of the time, Weiner seemed open to the cameras, while his wife, Huma Abedin, generally seems unhappy with their presence. Did her disdain ever make filming difficult?

ES: Well Huma is obviously more reserved and quiet than Anthony, and what you see in in the film is what we saw in the film. But I think just as Anthony was reduced to a caricature and a punchline, so was she, and I think she shared some of his desires of wanting a more fair and complete story told. And you can see in the film that judgment that was placed against her. So our hope with this film is to show what’s it’s like for these two people to be at the center of a media firestorm and to show them beyond the headlines, show them as a relatable couple living in New York, raising a kid, but in front of a bank of cameras.

CS: There’s another scene where you really show the tedium of making calls and asking for contributions - what's the equivalent tedium of movie making?

JK: One of the realities of documentary filmmaking nowadays is that there’s no cost to shooting. Unlike when you had to use very expensive film. Inevitably one of the big challenges is dealing with—well in our case we had 400 hours of footage. And we watched all of it and worked through it. Watching that many hours of footage back in real time, inevitably there’s some kind of tedium in going through it all. That’s often a fairly challenging part of the process.

CS: What took so long? The race ended in September 2013 and it’s now being released 32 months later.

ES: Typically for independent documentaries, three years is somewhat standard. For us, the challenges were trying to go through this footage and we had 400 hours of material and we wanted to look through it all and craft a story. And also fundraising challenges. But this was our goal. We wanted it to come out in 2016 to apply for festivals. We didn’t’ know where we’d get in, but this was a goal we set for ourselves.

JK: It’s definitely a process. I think we edited for nine months full time—which is actually a fairly reasonable amount of time to be editing. And prior to that we had to raise the funds and work through the footage. It was just a process of working through it all. 

The documentary's directors, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. (Tony Cenicola/New York Times) 

CS: Were there high-fives among the documentary team when the news came out that he had continued sexting after he had apologized and left Congress? Is that when you knew, wow, we have a real story on our hands?

JK: Certainly not high fives. I think as storytellers, as filmmakers, we know what makes an exciting story, and we knew that we were in a remarkable place able to watch this event as it unfolded. We were pretty excited about the film prior to the scandal breaking out. For the first half of the campaign as you see in the film, it was a remarkable comeback story, and for much of the filming that’s the story that we thought we might be capturing, which also was dramatic in a different sort of way. I think that we knew Anthony was an exciting character from the get-go, no matter what happened, and we were thrilled to be able to follow it through to the end.

CS: Were there negotiations during the filming? When Weiner was prepping his speech for the media when the second sexting allegations dropped, all the other reporters were kept waiting in another room, but you were allowed with a camera in the room with him! Was it just understood that you were following him around no matter what?

JK: It was understood that, if he did want me to turn off the camera at any time, of course, I would. And later in that scene, he does eventually ask me to leave and of course I do. The process of filming was showing up, being there and capturing as much as we could. There are definitely moments like that where, he asked everybody to leave the room and I was left in there, as you see in the film. There were moments where I was thinking to myself, I can’t believe I’m here. That was the nature of being in that kind of circumstance.

CS: Did you see a generational divide, between the older generation who were disgusted by his behavior and the younger generation who were more OK with sexting?

JK: Our intention wasn’t really to answer that question. That would be a very different film, to pick apart, analyze his scandal and compare it. We were really much more interested in witnessing it as it unfolded. Ultimately, it was a question for voters. And voters weren’t happy with it.

CS: If Weiner ran again for office, would you vote for him?

JK: I think I’d have to see. There’s qualities of Anthony’s that are just incredible. He has these extraordinary talents, undeniably. He’s incredibly smart and driven. He’s the kind of person who sees a problem and kind of refuses to rest if he knows how it could be solved. He obviously was very charismatic. He had tremendous talents, along with his flaws. He served his constituents well when he was in Congress, but of course he had his flaws, so I don’t know.

ES: I’d agree with Josh. I’d have to see. And I think that he absolutely has some amazing qualities. He really fought for his constituents and you get to see some amazing aspects to him. He also, like anybody, has some flaws and you can see those in our film as well. I’d have to think and see.

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