It’s hard to imagine how Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s “Weiner” even exists – though not the why, because who doesn’t love a no-holds-barred inside look at the downfall of a failed American politician? – as the new documentary (and bonafide Sundance sensation) closely chronicles the (second) implosion of ruined political animal Anthony Weiner from inside the closed ranks of his own home and campaign. Kriegman and Steinberg’s film picks up in the midst of Weiner’s 2013 campaign for New York City mayor (he had previously run in 2003, long before his name was tainted by any whiff of scandal), with the former congressman eager to not only jump back into the political world, but to remind people of all the good he was capable of doing in the process.
Weiner’s world crumbled around him just two years earlier, thanks to a sexting scandal that revealed that the Democratic representative had being engaged in extra-curricular activities with a variety of women he met online. The subsequent scandal and massive media outcry led to Weiner resigning from Congress (after initially, and vehemently, denying the story earlier, a theme that holds true in “Weiner”), and Kriegman and Steinberg’s film introduces us to a man desperate to get back on top, no matter what it takes.
Most viewers already know the story of what followed and how, in the middle of what looked to be a successful bid for a second chance, still more allegations of impropriety were lobbed at Weiner (including the introduction of Sydney Leathers to the cultural lexicon), effectively shutting down not just his mayoral dreams but any hopes he had of ever coming back.
And Kriegman and Steinberg were there for all of it. The first question we asked the directing duo when Indiewire sat down with the filmmakers last week: “How did this get made?”
An Inside Job (Kind Of)
Kriegman, who has known Weiner for years, explained: “I actually met Anthony while working in politics. I was his chief of staff for a couple of years while he was in Congress. Then I left politics and started working in filmmaking with Elyse and then Anthony got caught up in his sexting scandal and resigned.”
The budding filmmaker instantly knew that his old boss had a hell of a story to tell. “We knew that if we were able to tell his story it would be a really fascinating one,” Kriegman said. “He and I started talking about the possibility of doing a documentary. That was a conversation that went on over the course of a couple of years, going back and forth, just working out the possibility of whether he’d be comfortable with it.”
Despite years of chatting about the
possibility of a documentary, when Weiner was finally ready to tell his story,
he gave Kriegman and Steinberg pretty much the bare minimum of lead time.
Kriegman remembered, “The morning that he announced he was running for
mayor he actually sent me a text early that morning saying, ‘I’m running for
mayor. I’m home with my staff. If you want to come with a camera and film you
Kriegman sprang into action: “I
said okay and I leaped out of bed, grabbed a camera, texted Elyse as I was running
to the subway, like, ‘Looks like he’s going to let us make this documentary,’
then showed up and started shooting.”
The pair filmed from the day he
announced his campaign until the (very bitter) end.
Not A Punchline
But why was Weiner so eager to go on
Steinberg was philosophical when
answering the question. “I think this question about why they let us film
is a central question. It’s a question that we wondered about ourselves and
it’s a question that you see we pose in the film,” she said.
She continued, “Anthony does
give us an answer at the end when he says that he wanted to be viewed as the
full person that he was and not as a punchline. That was our intention with the
film, to show a more complex portrait of a person who had just been reduced to a caricature
and a punchline.”
Despite the second wave of allegations that came out during the film –
initially one imagined as a comeback story, and one that took a pretty snappy
left turn into something very different as the pair filmed – even Steinberg thinks
she walked away from the experience with a brand new appreciation for her
“I didn’t know Anthony prior to
working on this film. All I knew was what I had read in the headlines and, in
that way I was much like the audience,” she admitted. “By meeting
Anthony and looking through the footage, I realized my preconceptions of him
did not match the reality of who he was. Going into this, I think we did think
that this could be a remarkable comeback story. Then of course things took an
She continued, “What really
stayed the same throughout the film, even though the story changed, was that our
intentions stayed the same. In fact, it only intensified after the second
scandal broke. You just saw a different version being played out in, let’s say,
The New York Post than the one that we were seeing.”
“I think that that difference
between what was publicly being shown and what privately we saw that was the
hopes that we were trying to get across with this film. You see celebrity
meltdowns all the time and sex scandals, but you rarely get the opportunity to
be in the room while it happens, to spend time with Anthony and to get a
different side. A different perspective,” Steinberg added.
“A More Complete Story”
Kriegman agrees, and also thinks that
such clarification was always on Weiner’s mind. “Having a camera in the
room to capture a more complete story was part of his motivation for wanting us
to continue to film,” he said.
Being able to show, if not the truth
of the situation, but another side of it, was paramount to both the filmmakers
and their subject. “I think that that one of the things that we were most
excited to work with in the course of constructing the film was really
juxtaposing the public story that plays out in the headlines and the sound
bites and the cable news bits and the reality,” Kriegman said.
“We do that actually quite
directly in the film. You see commentators talking about, opining, or judging
their marriage and Huma’s role and everything else. Then you see the two of
them at home putting their son to sleep,” he continued. “The idea is
to really raise questions about the kinds of judgments that we make through
these very small little bits of information that we get in our modern media
these days, and how different that is from the nuance and complexity of what is
actually in reality going on.”
“Reduced to a Caricature”
And that’s another thing that
“Weiner” does so well: Give a human face to Weiner’s wife, Huma
Abedin, a higher-up in Hillary Clinton’s organization and oft-maligned public
figure who has suffered both personally and privately.
Steinberg said, “The thing that
we were most excited about was to show a different side of Huma. She’s been
guessed about endlessly and she also had been just reduced to a caricature.
There’s a lot of judgment against her.”
While the film provides a window into
the world of Weiner and Abedin, it also doesn’t shy away from shining a light
directly on to some of the more wild incidents that marked Weiner’s ill-fated
“In the context of the campaign
and the scandal, there were a lot of hectic moments. I think one of the crazier
moments for me filming was on the morning that the scandal resurfaced and I was
in the room shooting with Anthony and Huma and Anthony’s staff, and then at
some point Anthony asks his staff to leave the room but he doesn’t ask me to
leave the room,” Kriegman remembered.
“I stay and I’m just filming
Anthony and Huma, just together trying to figure out how to manage the fallout
of this thing. It was definitely one of those moments where the thought
obviously came through my head of, ‘I can’t believe that I’m here right now’
and trying to stay as unobtrusive as possible,” he added.
No More Chances
Given how his last campaign played
out, it doesn’t seem likely that Weiner would get back into politics, an
assessment that both Kriegman and Steinberg agree with.
When asked if they ever got the sense
that Weiner would run again, Kriegman responded that the answer might be in the
“I think in some ways he
obviously sort of took a second chance and that didn’t go well. He has said he
thinks realistically there probably isn’t much of a political future for
himself. He has tremendous talents,” he said. “If we’ve learned
nothing else this political cycle about our politics, it’s just how unpredictable
the whole thing is.”
“Weiner” opens in limited release this Friday, May 20.