Neil Barsky’s first feature-length film as a director is a documentary on one of the most enigmatic politicians in New York history: Mayor Ed Koch, who is remembered as both plucky and cowardly, a man willing to fight for what he believed in but unsure how to have a conversation about his disagreements. Yesterday, as “Koch” was set to debut in New York, news came that the former mayor died at 88 of heart failure. In their obituary for the mayor, The New York Times describes him by saying the late mayor is “as opinionated as a Flatbush cabby, as loud as the scrums on 42nd Street, as pugnacious as a West Side reform Democrat mother.
Indiewire chatted with Barsky yesterday, as he was headed to do Q&A’s at the film’s opening night screenings in New York, about his experience making the film and dealing with the man.
The film is in New York now at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas; the film will play at several Jewish festivals in the near future and opens in Los Angeles, Portland, DC, and Miami in the coming weeks.
What brought you to telling the story of Ed Koch?
I was a New Yorker. I was a reporter in my twenties. I think the 1980’s was a critical turning point for New York. This is the fall and rise of New York. Ed Koch himself was a great character. He was funny, he was mean. His personal life was always speculated about. When we started filming him in 2010 and 2011, he had a lot more going on than I could have ever imagined. It ended up being a much more personal look at him than I ever could have expected. He had an interesting life a very full life and a lonely life.
And how open was he as a documentary subject?
As Joyce Purnick says in the film, “He’s lived his life in the public.” We spent a lot of private time with him, he doesn’t change that much. He’s very used to dealing with the press. There were certain things he wouldn’t explore, but you reveal yourself when you don’t reveal himself. I don’t think he wanted to do anything but control his own narrative. But he gave us complete access to his life. How many public figures give doc filmmakers free reign? The only thing we agreed to was to show him a cut of the film before we showed it to others. We showed him to him in July. He didn’t ask for changes, and we didn’t make any changes.
Did he give you an idea of what he had a problem with?
The main thing he took with issue with was how we depicted his relationship with the black community. I felt it was important to show it honeslty. He endlessly fought with black leaders through his mayoralty. I think he felt we were too harsh. I also think there was a very up close and personal scene which he might have regretted. On Election night 2010, when Andrew Cuomo was elected governor. Ed was surrounded by admirers. We see his friends peel off and he’s driving home alone. We follow him into his building, his elevator. We see him open the door, close the door, the lock and the chain. It’s a powerful scene, we wanted to show how he goes home every day of the life. I think he thought we were trying to show him as old — I think we thought that scene was too intimate.
So he showed up to promote the film at festivals in the Hamptons an at Lincoln Center. How did people respond and what was that like for him?
He loved it. People responded very well to the film — it’s an affectionate documenatary. When people respond well to the film, people were responding well to him. He enjoyed it immensely.
Why is Ed’s story important to tell now for you?
I think he’s not only an interesting character, I think he showed what government can do when it’s well managed. He wasn’t too liberal, but he gave 5.8 million dollars to rehabilitate neighborhoods. He used government in a way that helped the city. We have people now saying government should get out of the way or how government is the solution. It was not inevitable that New York would discover. Detroit and Baltimore never came back, but New York did. Cities got better. When I was growing up, cities only got worse. Sixties, seventies, eighties. From the end of WWII to the 1980’s — losing population and losing jobs — it was interesting to see how a city got its groove back.
And what do you think about the film now, in just the few hours that you’ve known of his passing?
In his passing, it was a total shock and a jolt. He talks a lot about death in the film, he visits his cemetary where he’s bought a tombstone. All of those scenes now have a more macabre feeling. As reality changes, the film changes.
What are you noticing about how he’s being remembered in public?
I’ve gotten tons and tons of condolences messages as if he was a member of – we had a healthy professional relationship. It’s very rare for a person to stay in the public eye in 35 years in New York. What I’m seeing is — we grow up with people — he was so public, and related so well to the public, people will mourn him more than other politicians that they feel more distant from.
How will Ed be remembered?
He was heavily flawed. His best qualities were sometimes his worst qualities, there are times when you’re mayor when you’re supposed to be a unifier, and he wasn’t as good at that. He fought with his critics often to the point of uselessness. I think you can see a lack of empathy when in fact his policies were incredibly . The gay community has a lot of animus with him about his response to the AIDS crisis. The resentment comes from the fact that he never chose to be a leader at this. He never conveyed a sense of the human suffering. While he had a certain warmth and humor, and sometimes he had a detachment.
He had a great life, no regrets. He was internationally known, he walked down the street of New York. He did leave a very full life. On the other hand, he was not the most introspective person in the world. Maybe that was helpful for him. His personal life was the source of endless speculation. What was interesting for me wasn’t that he was gay or straight; what was interesting to me was that he was alone.