By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 16, 2011 at 4:21AM
Pick of the Week: Harry Shearer's first documentary, "The Big Uneasy," on VOD
Beloved "mockumentarian" ("This is Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind") and voice-work titan ("The Simpsons") Harry Shearer, gets the inside story behind the New Orleans disaster in his first feature-length (and factual) documentary "The Big Uneasy."
The film finds Shearer speaking to the tireless investigators and experts (and one whistleblower) to discover that some of the same flawed methods responsible for the levee failure during Hurricane Katrina are being used in other cities across America.
indieWIRE talked with Shearer about his journalistic background, his love for New Orleans and bringing this film to a wider audience via VOD.
How did this project come about?
I'd been paying attention to all this stuff, spending a lot of time in New Orleans, interviewing people affected on my radio show and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that while many of us in New Orleans were aware of this stuff, the rest of the country and the national media did not.
It came to a boil in October 2009, when President Obama came to New Orleans for his first Presidential visit and held a town hall meeting where he referred to the flooding as a natural disaster. I realized he’s either pandering to ignorance or partaking in it. But in either case this has gone too far. I was blogging about this and I realized that it wasn’t enough to dissipate the miasma of information. I thought, what else can I do, but make a documentary film?
You’re kind of a new-age Renaissance man. This marks your first documentary film. Was this ambition always on your radar, or was this just a story that needed to be told in this format by you?
I never had any anticipation to do something like this. I just felt it needed to be done. Because I knew these people and I knew these people, I could get it done. I handled factual material because I spent time as a journalist in my ill-spent youth [he currently contributes regularly to The Huffington Post]. I had all the tools.
Where do you account this interest in factual reporting from? Not every actor has a journalistic background.
Just comes from reading newspapers, watching the news in the house I grew up. I was obsessed with it all.
Really since about 2003, I’ve been steering my radio show [KCRW's syndicated "Le Show"] in that direction. It started out as a satirical entertainment show. Around about the early part of 2003, just before the war started, it really struck me that the information we were getting in this country was startlingly different from the information being fed to Australia or Great Britain, especially regarding the supposed intelligence of [the situation in] Iraq. I thought, "Gee, I have access to this, I have access to a microphone, so I should put them together."
Did what you picked up on your mockumentary sets in any way translate into this venture?
No, personnel did. I hired the cinematographer I worked with in “A Mighty Wind.” I used the producer who had worked on all those films going back to “Spinal Tap,” Karen Murphy. Part of that team was working on this.
Those films, especially the early ones, were about the stuff I found irritating about certain types of documentaries. So they served as a road map of what not to do.
But no, all the technique and style questions of this film revolved around the question that really obsessed me, especially in the early stages of the project: I do not want to get in the way of the information. I don’t want people sitting there saying, “What’s this guy from ‘The Simpsons’ doing tell us about engineering?” I didn't want there ever to be any sentiment that I was fooling around.
Now you’re not from there, but you’re a resident in New Orleans.
I have a Louisiana driving license. It entitles you drive while drinking.
Why did you decide to buy a place in New Orleans?
Because we love it there. The life of the city, the culture of the city (I mean that in the largest possible sense) is just incredibly appealing. It’s an easy city to work in. It’s curative to be around people who do creative stuff, not because they’re hoping to become rich and famous, but because it’s something they do. It’s something my wife and I relate to.
How has the film gone over in there?
There was a one-night-only sneak preview on August 29 last year. It was held over in New Orleans for three weeks and came back to theaters this year. It made a big stir there. Partly because even though much of the material had been reported locally, this provided it in one convenient dose.
Have you encountered any naysayers.
No. I should say, Nay. The strongest I’ve heard has been some poo-poo'ings, not naysayings.
The film’s been playing to audiences for well over a year now. What do you hope the film does now that’s it’s accessible to a wider audience via VOD?
The goal of the film remains as it started out to be: Reach the maximum amount of eyeballs with the facts about what happened in New Orleans in 2005 and what’s been happening there since. This could happen in many other locations as well. There is a tiny bit of hope attached to that message. Which is that greater knowledge will lead to greater political will among the public.
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