Anthony Weiner made headlines for a lot of unseemly reasons in 2015, but it started with a documentary. When “Weiner” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, it was an instant sensation. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provide a jarring closeup on the scandal-ridden congressman’s ill-fated mayoral campaign, which started as a tale of redemption and climaxed in embarrassment, with Weiner’s sexting addiction stifling his momentum.
More than that, the movie — currently on the shortlist for the best documentary Oscar — gained in relevance as the year continued, with Hillary Clinton aide and Weiner spouse Huma Abedin separating from her husband in the midst of Clinton’s presidential campaign as more allegations came to light. Later, news of an FBI investigation into Weiner’s emails led to a public letter from FBI director James Comey that many believe to have played a key role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
While Kriegman and Steinberg achieved a remarkable window into a political saga that continues to reverberate, they weren’t the first ones. Chris Hegedus and cinema verite pioneer D.A. Pennebaker’s Oscar-nominated 1993 film “The War Room” tracks the rise of another charismatic politician on the campaign trail: Bill Clinton. Whereas “Weiner” focuses on the candidate’s ongoing struggles, “The War Room” branches out to Clinton’s hardworking campaign team, presenting the unflappable campaign strategist James Carville as its hero. Both movies present riveting and intimate portraits of the way a campaign operates from moment to moment — and both have continued to evolve with time.
The connection between “Weiner” and “The War Room” is hardly a coincidence. Kriegman was a student in a documentary class taught by Hegedus and Pennebaker at Yale, drawing inspiration from their work when he launched his own filmmaking career following a stint in politics. After a recent lunch to support the awards campaign for “Weiner,” the directors of both films sat down with IndieWire to discuss the comparisons between their projects and how they landed the access that makes both movies such engaging experiences.
CHRIS HEGEDUS: We didn’t know until the last minute who was going to win. In “The War Room,” you see all these obstacles coming up. The media said he was going to lose just three days before the vote. It was the same thing with Weiner — you didn’t know if he was going to win the election or implode in some other scandal. As a filmmaker, you just have to go along with it. It was worse for us, because for us, it would’ve been a film about the staff of the losing candidate. With “Weiner,” they actually got the losing candidate. Nobody would watch the losing staff of the losing candidate in a film.
D.A. PENNEBAKER: We had a good character in James Carville, and that makes a big difference. You can make a film about winning an election and if nobody cares who wins, it’s not going to move anybody.
ELYSE STEINBERG: When Carville comes on, you just want to watch him nonstop. He’s so dynamic and smart. Anthony Weiner was obviously different in many ways, but he’s also one of these people that you just can’t help but watch. He takes up all the oxygen in the room.
PENNEBAKER: When we first went to see Carville, we thought we were going to make a film about the governor of Arkansas. Homemade filmmakers aren’t really welcome around a guy who’s running for president. It’s the 6 o’clock news that counts. We had met Carville before when he was in New York. We went down to see him in this cavernous office in Little Rock that looked like a basketball court. He was sitting there with these little things stuck to his face. I said to Chris, “What’s wrong with his face?” Then we realized it was Bubble Yum. He was chewing bubble gum and was blowing bubbles that would pop in his face. We had to wonder what the rules of cinema verite say about Bubble Yum. Do you tell him about it?
CH: It was real documentary theology. But, really, there were boundaries everywhere. In some ways, we called the film “The War Room” because then nobody could fault us for not hanging around Clinton or any of the other important people. They didn’t really want us there. But George Stephanopoulos and James wanted us in the war room. We couldn’t wander around the campaign a whole lot.
JK: Why do you think they wanted you there?
CH: When we went to see James and seal the whole deal about making a film with him, we showed him certain films. One of them was a film that Ricky Leacock had made called “Campaign Manager,” about this Republican campaign manager who had engineered the whole Goldwater takeover. Carville saw him as another political operative. It was interesting, and he thought there was some history there so maybe somebody would be interested in that — if not the political process. That’s why he decided to let us in.
JK: Anthony had obviously seen “The War Room” and had some sense of what a political documentary looks like. But our conversation was more about the circumstances of his life, what he’d be comfortable with, than parallels.
ES: But I’ve read that when you guys approached Carville, you just said, “It’s up to you to decide if you’ll do it.” That was similar to our approach. He knew we wanted to do a documentary that went behind the scenes of this campaign and capture its nuances. Ultimately, when Weiner announced that he was running, he sent a text to Josh saying, “OK, come. I’m ready.”
JK: One of the great differences with “The War Room” is that Anthony was already such a public figure, with this media relationship and being on camera. But your movie, along with the campaign, really made them.
CH: I think that’s true for a lot of our films. A character says, “Why should I do this?” and the answer is, “Because you want to.” If things are going well, they’re glad to let you in; if they’re not, they’re like, “Why on earth did I allow these people in?”
DP: Carville and Stephanopoulos were very loyal.
CH: But our access to Bill Clinton was extremely limited. It was just not possible. He had a real country preacher personality, where he’d come up to you, shake your hand…
DP: As soon as he saw the camera, he’d come over.
CH: But things were really controlled by the three networks — and CNN, which had just come on the scene — so the Clinton campaign didn’t really see any use for a documentary filmmaker talking to Bill Clinton. Documentaries weren’t very big things then. It was more interesting to them for a news reporter or a guy doing a portrait book.
CH: We were around Hillary a lot, even though we didn’t film much with her. I remember when we first started to film, I saw Hillary and thought what a truly incredible person was. She was really dynamic. When she’d speak, people would almost wonder why she wasn’t running. She had that. Then of course she got shut down with that whole “baking cookies” incident, which was really sad to see. A lot of people of her generation — my generation — felt that that was what we were trying to get away from, and thought she’d put a lid on it. But instead, she had to play the game.
ES: It’s a similar situation for women in politics now. There are different standards placed upon them. There was definitely a parallel with the harsh judgement that was placed uptown Huma Abedin for being a woman at the center of this political scandal. She was blamed for mistakes being made by Anthony. She chose to be at his press conference, she chose to support him, and we did sort of feel like we wanted to question the judgement of the film and go beyond them.
CH: One of the interesting things about both “Weiner” and “The War Room” is that they’re living creatures. They change as time changes things. We’re always watching them in different ways. That’s most apparent with “Weiner,” because of the news stories that have come out since the film came out. With “The War Room,” that happened over a longer stretch of time. If you watched it when it first came out, people would have one impression of Bill Clinton, then the Gennifer Flowers issue came up, and then you can watch the part of the movie where he lies about having sex with her. You watch things differently as times go on and that’s what makes documentaries so vital.
ES: I feel the same way about your film. Watching it recently was so different from what I saw when I watched it a few years ago. There’s something exciting about that.
DP: We went back 20 years later for “Return of the War Room.” It was kind of interesting because everyone was ready to be with us. We’d become a part of their family. I wanted to see the story about [Bush campaign manager] Mary Matalin continued, so we spent a lot of time with her and James.
ES: It’s so funny that they weren’t used to documentaries when you filmed “The War Room,” and yet for our film, there was this desire for a documentary to get beyond the noise. There was this feeling that only in a documentary can you spend 90 minutes or so with a subject. In the age of cable news and Twitter, the ability for a documentary to just stay with a story and have that length of time is so rare.
Pennebaker Hegedus Films
CH: That’s a great point. Things have really evolved. There were barely any theaters that showed “The War Room.” The networks didn’t show independent documentaries. We tried to give the film to PBS, but because it was much more journalistic, there were these questions of fairness — like, if they were going to show a film about Bill Clinton, they’d need something on the Republicans as well. Bill Clinton’s the President of the United States at this point. Can you just show this because it’s history? It was a no.
DP: There was this problem with “Don’t Look Back.” We made it very fast and I knew there was an audience out there for it because when Bob Dylan performed, there was a huge audience. But when I showed it to some distributors in New York, they said, “That’s pretty ratty looking.” No one was interested. Then this guy came along who distributed porn films. He said, “I love it. It looks like a porn film, but it’s not.” He put us in a theater in San Francisco and it ran there for a year.
JK: I remember how during your class at Yale, you’d talk about this impulse to try and control the story. One of the great things about the verite style of filmmaking is about letting go of that. When you showed us your first film, “Baby,” you talked about filming your daughter at the zoo when she was three years old.
DP: She wanted to make the film her way.
JK: And I thought, yes, I want to do that.
ES: I agree. I had been doing documentaries for PBS and had never done a verite film. I really wanted to follow a character. Josh said, I really want to do that, too. Even prior to getting access to Weiner, we were watching “The War Room.” We were excited by the idea of following a character’s journey without any sort of judgement; the audience could have this visceral experience. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction.
CH: I think of all this on a very personal level, whether we’re talking about Weiner or Clinton or Trump. For a lot of different stories we’ve done, you have these people who get to a certain point of power in their lives and they almost self-destruct. That’s human nature, which is what your’e watching unfold in these stories. Part of it is empathetic; part of it is Shakespearean.
JK: There’s a kind of self-selection process to the way people put themselves into these situations. Rewatching “The War Room,” I could feel the difference of how much the process has been enveloped by media storytelling. In ’93, it was less refined. Things have really accelerated since then. Everything is filtered through the lens of media. There’s no relief from that. It’s fascinating to think about the way the process has become so sensationalized and entertainment-driven. The conversation is just ruled by questions of entertainment and sensationalism.