Anybody who follows the news has likely seen more of sext-loving former congressman Anthony Weiner than they would prefer, so it’s difficult to imagine there would be anything further on the subject worth watching. But the documentary film Weiner from directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg offers a compelling take on the portion of the politician’s career after his first sexting scandal—from his effective PR rehabilitation and entry into the New York mayoral race to his humiliating and mostly self-imposed second downfall. The history of politics is full of similar stories, but it’s quite rare for an audience to get to see the person at the center of the controversy reacting to events as they occur.
We see all this because of the incredible access Weiner gave the filmmaking team, in part because Kriegman had worked previously with the candidate as an advisor before becoming a documentarian, and in part because Weiner wanted to present himself as more than just the late-night punch line he’d become.
His wife, Hillary Clinton political aide Huma Abedin, agreed for similar reasons. And while shooting began when things were going well, the two allowed filming to continue almost uninterrupted when the political picture became less rosy for the candidate.
“When we started,” says Kriegman, who shot primarily alone with a single Sony PMW-EX1 and an on-camera boom mic, “we had no idea how this was going to go. From our perspective as filmmakers, it looked like an exciting comeback story. Then the whole thing went in another direction, and we were there to document all this from an unusual vantage point even as things got very intense.”
For Steinberg, who was frequently absent from the shoots, the footage itself (ultimately there would be 400 hours of it) was her introduction to the real person she’d only known from the headlines.
Neither filmmaker started with preconceived notions about how they might structure a documentary out of the material, but Steinberg was quickly fascinated by the difference between how events unfolded in TV interviews and news reports and how the situation appeared to the candidate himself. “As much as Anthony was ridiculed and reduced to a character type, what I realized was that he’s much more complex as a person.”
Once Weiner dropped out of the mayoral race, the filmmakers knew they had the elements of a complete story, though a very different one than they’d anticipated. The two worked from New York with Los Angeles-based editor Eli Despres, shaping the 400 hours of material and found footage into a fast-moving narrative. They worked in Apple Final Cut Pro 7 with mirrored drives so they could send project files back and forth every day over the nine-month editing schedule.
“Sometimes the best films start out with very different expectations from what they become,” Kriegman observes, appreciating the technology that permits people like him to start making a movie with almost no upfront costs.
“Some of the most interesting documentaries today start out entirely as a leap of faith.”