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‘Weiner’ Filmmakers on Documenting a Sex Scandal

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg on capturing mayoral candidate’s implosion: “Is there a private sphere in public life anymore, especially in politics?”

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg on capturing mayoral candidate's implosion: "Is there a private sphere in public life anymore, especially in politics?"

On a February day in 2011, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner stood before hundreds of Planned Parenthood supporters gathered in lower Manhattan to fight legislative attacks on the health-care provider’s family-planning services. “My name is Anthony Weiner, and I stand for women!” he boomed, tongue firmly in cheek. The crowd — mostly women — went wild.

Just a few months later, Weiner accidentally tweeted a picture of his briefs-clad junk to the world, leading to revelations that he had been sending sexually explicit messages and images to women supporters. His Congressional career tanked, and his “weiner” jokes suddenly seemed, in retrospect, quite a bit creepier.

That would be a lot for any politician to come back from, but the former representative’s charm, and his genuine political savvy, helped convince many people he deserved a second chance. Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg were there to document that period, from his mayoral campaign’s promising beginnings through its unraveling, thanks to a mid-campaign revelation that he had sexted more women, for longer than anyone previously realised, using the codename “Carlos Danger.” The duo started out making a film about the comeback of a politician, and ended up making a film about his downfall.

The result, entitled Weiner (which recently premiered at Sundance and will screen at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival), gives audiences a rare ringside seat to the imploding of a political campaign. It’s a delicious train wreck, yes, but there’s more to the film than schadenfreude. The documentary also offers an intimate look at what it was like for Weiner’s wife — longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin — to negotiate her own emotions and career in the midst of the crisis. Both of them come across as interesting, complex figures who are oh-so-very human, in ways both good and bad.

Rolling Stone recently chatted with Kriegman and Steinberg about how they got such incredible access to the campaign and family, the psychology of politicians caught with their pants down, and the role the media plays in our world today.

How did you come to be on the campaign trail with Anthony Weiner as his career went down in flames?
Josh: I was Anthony’s chief of staff for a couple of years while he was in Congress, and then I left politics and moved into filmmaking. He and I stayed in touch, and when he got caught up in his scandal and resigned [from Congress], Elyse and I immediately thought this story would be an amazing one to tell. So I started a conversation with him that lasted a couple of years, going back and forth about whether he would be comfortable with us filming. He seemed intrigued, but he was thinking about running for mayor, and we thought maybe he wouldn’t go for it.

Then the morning that he announced he was running for mayor, in 2013, I got a text from him saying, “I’m in the race. I’m with my staff in my apartment. Do you want to come with a camera and film for this documentary?” I ran over with a camera and texted Elyse on the way and said, “It looks like he’s going to let us make this.” We were [shooting] from the day he announced he was running for mayor all the way through to the end of the election.

The scope and focus of the project obviously changed as you were making it. What film did you initially set out to make?
Elyse: Unlike Josh, I didn’t know Anthony prior to this film. I just knew what had been in the headlines. So in that way, I was much like the audience; I knew the caricature version of Anthony. But he’s a much more nuanced human being, and that was our intention with this film: to take someone who had been reduced to a punch line, and show a more complex version of him. It’s been said that those who are the most exposed are the least revealed, and I think that certainly was the case here. We see these scandals and celebrity meltdowns and media firestorms happen all the time, but we wanted to show what it’s like to be in the room — to show the humanity behind the headlines.

Did Anthony or Huma ever ask you to stop filming? How did you negotiate things after the scandal broke?
Josh: One of the ground rules going in was that if they ever wanted me to stop filming, I would respect that. And there are a couple moments in the film where you see them do that — they ask us to turn off the camera and leave the room. But we were obviously eager to capture as much of the story as we could, and they cooperated with us doing that throughout.

The question that naturally comes up is: Why would they allow you to film all of this? Our intention — of capturing a more human and nuanced version of the story than the one that, say, played out in the headlines of the New York Post — was part of the reasoning for Anthony wanting us to film him. He was hoping for a different version of his story that could be told.

For the first six weeks or so of his campaign, things were going really well, he was defying expectations, he rose to number one in the polls. And then when things changed and the campaign took a different direction, we were eager to keep capturing how it all unfolded. I think for Anthony that initial motivation of wanting a fairer shake, or a more complete documentation of the reality of what was happening in the headlines as the scandal overtook everything — I think that impulse in some ways became more pronounced. So he was comfortable allowing us to document the whole story.

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Anthony Weiner with Huma Abedin during a July 23, 2013, news conference. Michael Appleton/The NY Times/Redux

Do you think it also had anything to do with his attention-seeking nature? In a self-reflective moment in the film, he says one of the qualities that may have contributed to him sending sexually explicit messages and images to women is the same quality that made him go into politics in the first place.
Josh: One of the more interesting things about Anthony is that some of the qualities in his character that made him so successful as a politician were the same qualities that ultimately contributed to his undoing. He says in the film at one point that the same constitution that led him to do the dumb thing in the first place allowed him to weather the [ensuing scandal] without gutting him. It’s the classic Greek tragic flaw: His strengths were his weaknesses.

Elyse: He can be so self-aware, and then so blind. He even talks about it, at the end of the film — he says he has this incredible ability to fuck things up.

Anthony has told the press recently that he doesn’t want to see the film, and regrets participating in it. But he certainly didn’t seem to regret it at the time — he gave you incredible access, and sat down for an in-depth interview a few months after Election Day. Why do you think he had the change of heart? Was it about protecting Huma and her career?
Josh: We really don’t know. He says in the film, “I don’t regret letting you make the film.” We offered to show it to him almost six months ago, I think, even before we were finished with it — and he didn’t want to see it, and hasn’t wanted to see it. We’ve made a number of offers … I’m sure he’ll see it at some point, but we really don’t know how he’s going to feel about it. He has said he’s not eager to relive [that time], which is something that we can respect.

He’s also said Huma didn’t participate in the film, and that she must not be in it very much. But I know a lot of people came away from seeing the film thinking of Huma as the real star of it. She’s in it a ton. It seems hard to believe he didn’t know the cameras were in the room with Huma quite a bit.
Josh: I really don’t know. We can’t speak for them. But obviously they agreed to be in the film and participate in it.

In the past she’s tended to be more in the background, in her job with Hillary Clinton, and as Anthony’s spouse — but she’s a fascinating figure, and she comes across really well in the film. Are you proud that you were able to give people a glimpse of who she really is and what her experiences were in 2013?
Elyse: Just as Anthony was reduced to a punch line, so wasshe. She’s a wife, a mother, a person with a really important job — and you can really see the judgment that was placed upon her. Huma is one of many women whose husbands did something embarrassing or wrong, and they were criticized for staying in the marriage, for [standing by him] at the press conference. The film raises questions about those judgments: Shouldn’t a woman be able to make her own decisions without judgment? Why should they be judged for decisions made by their flawed husbands?

“Some of the qualities that made him so successful as a politician were the same qualities that ultimately contributed to his undoing. It’s the classic Greek tragic flaw: His strengths were his weaknesses.” — Josh Kriegman

You guys have talked a lot about how the movie is in large part about the media’s reaction to “Weinergate.” Do you think the media was unfair to him?
Josh: This is an important question. We wanted the film to go beyond just Anthony’s story and the New York City mayor’s race, and to look at these larger themes about our politics and our media — and, specifically, how much politics today is driven by spectacle, and by an appetite for entertainment and sensationalism. Some people have seen the film and said, “Oh, it’s the media’s fault.” But that’s not at all where we come down. There are a lot of different elements: The media plays a role in Anthony’s story; he plays a role; as consumers of the news, we all play a role. So it’s much too simple to say the media is somehow responsible for what happened.

You see a similar dynamic play out in our politics today — in terms of spectacle and entertainment and sensationalism, we have Donald Trump. And it’s the same questions: How much is the media responsible for the rise of Trump? These are really important questions that we don’t attempt to answer in our film so much as we hope to [raise them].

Elyse: When we’ve been showing this film, there have been a range of reactions. And that makes us happy. I made a documentary called The Trial of Saddam Hussein [in 2008] and it was a similar thing: You take a moment in time, and then you get to look at it two years later, with fresh eyes, and see the way in which it can be so relevant to today. Anthony and Trump are very different, politically and personally, but there are parallels — they both understood that in order to have a voice in today’s 24-hour news cycle, you need to put on a show.

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Weiner faces the media as new details about his sex scandal begins to eclipse his campaign. Sean McGing/Sundance Selects

Anthony clearly has a solid understanding of how the media and news cycles work — he brags about it a little in the film. Do you think that helped him during all this?
Josh: As you see in the film, he knew what it meant to do something that might go viral on YouTube, or to mix it up with Bill O’Reilly. He especially understood how to use social media and modern media to amplify his voice in a way that propelled him to be a substantial part of the conversation and advance his agenda. And, again, there is that parallel to someone like Donald Trump, who also knows how to use the media in this way.

In the course of Anthony’s scandal, he obviously didn’t want to talk about the scandal; I think he very genuinely wanted to get past it. But I also think he understood that the amount of media attention that was a result of the scandal was part of the dynamic of the race. I think in some ways voters were drawn to him because of this redemption narrative.

Another question the film raises is about whether political sex scandals (Bill Clinton’s and Eliot Spitzer’s come to mind) are a private matter between spouses, or whether they’re fair game for the public sphere because they indicate a politician shows poor judgment or has abused his power. Did you come away with a clear answer on that?
Josh: We came away thinking these are very interesting questions, but we certainly did not make the film with the intention of answering them. It’s a fascinating question: Is there a private sphere in public life anymore, especially in politics? I don’t think we have clear answers to those questions.

I think this all speaks to the fact that a lot of the qualities that are required to be successful in politics today, in some cases — and certainly in Anthony’s case — can lead to different kinds of pitfalls. He talks about how some of the same qualities that served him well in politics — his emotional constitution, his toughness, his fortitude — led him to do some of the things that ultimately undid him, without necessarily taking the emotional consequences, or the actual consequences, seriously.

Do you view political sex scandals differently now that you’ve had the rare opportunity to watch one unfold from the inside?
Elyse: With the film, you get a sense of what it means to be in the room as it happens. One of the things that was surprising to me was that you see a very public story, and the private story is different — there’s a discrepancy. The scene in the film [showing Anthony Weiner filming, via satellite, a particularly contentious segment with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell] for me embodies that experience: You see Anthony and Lawrence having an argument on cable television, and then you see the side angle, and Anthony is actually alone, screaming at an empty room. You forget that these are human beings; what they’re experiencing gets lost in the noise.

Josh: So much of the way that we come to understand these public figures and events is through this reductive flurry of sound bites and headlines and tweets and quick clips. The reality is almost always so much more complex than you might think it is. We got to see that and experience it firsthand, and the hope is that audience members also come away with that realisation.

‘Weiner’ features as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. Tickets and info available here.