In June 2011, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D–New York, was caught in a sexting scandal. His initial response was to prevaricate, then to apologize, and finally to resign from Congress. Two years later, when memories of the New York Post’s penis-pun headlines had faded, Weiner attempted a comeback, staging a bid to become mayor of New York City. His campaign began well. Although he was forced to endure constant questioning about the earlier scandal, he took an early lead in the polls. And then on July 23, 2013, an Arizona-based “gossip and nudies site” revealed that Weiner had been exchanging explicit photos and having sexual phone conversations with women long after he claimed to have ceased such behavior. Weiner continued his campaign, but he received less than 5 percent of the vote and placed fifth in the Democratic primary.
The ups and downs of that turbulent race were captured by filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, who were given remarkable access behind the scenes of the campaign and to Weiner’s home life with his wife, Huma Abedin. Their film, Weiner, is out Friday. As part of a discussion that can be heard on the latest DoubleX Gabfest podcast, we spoke with Kriegman and Steinberg about Weiner’s motivations, his marriage, and his political future. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
Hanna Rosin: Why do you think they gave you so much access?
Steinberg: That’s a question we wondered about and that we posed directly to Anthony at the end of the film. He says that he wanted to be viewed as the full person he was and not as a punch line. That was certainly our intention going into this film. Anthony—and Huma—had both been reduced to caricatures and punch lines, and our hope was to show a more complex and nuanced portrait.
Rosin: I think that most people who have seen the film come away liking him more, but it’s hard to explain why. I think it might be because you see him as a fuller human being at the end of the film.
Kriegman: Some of the back story to how we came to the story: I was Anthony Weiner’s chief of staff when he was in Congress. After I left politics and moved into filmmaking and started working with Elyse, after Anthony resigned from Congress, I started a conversation with him about the possibility of making a documentary and telling his story. That’s a conversation that went on over the course of a couple of years of he and I going back and forth. The motivation was very much to take someone who had been reduced to one thing—to this scandal, to this punch line—and give people an opportunity to see him as the full person that he is.
June Thomas: Once you’d started to make the film, were there any points where either Anthony or Huma asked to stop the project? As the film progresses, things do get more and more awkward.
Kriegman: When they agreed to allow us to make this documentary, it was very clear that if there was ever a moment when they wanted us to turn off the camera or something that they didn’t want us to film, we would of course respect that boundary. There’s a couple of moments like that in the film, where they ask me to leave the room or turn off the camera. It’s a little counterintuitive, but that motivation to have a more human version of his story told, in some ways that became even more pronounced after the campaign took a turn for the worse and the scandal resurfaced, because that was the point where it seemed that the scandal might—and really did—come back and overshadow everything else.
Thomas: To me, the scene that’s most powerful is when he’s in a Jewish bakery, it’s Rosh Hashanah, he’s campaigning, things are going well, and then he ends up getting into what we’ve seen before—maybe he’s weak, maybe he can’t stop himself from responding—but he gets into it with a guy, and someone says: “Why did he do that? He could’ve just walked away!” But you replay things, and we didn’t hear it first time around, and who knows who did hear it, but one of the guys said, “Married to an Arab.” He’s responding to that. He’s defending Huma. But he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t make any reference to that, which is really powerful. But also it kind of complicates things.
Kriegman: Yeah, that was definitely a loaded moment, both in the film and in reality. It was toward the end of the campaign. I think in some ways he acknowledges that he was frayed at the edges at that point. But you’re right, I think he was defending his wife. We talk about these qualities that on one side serve him well as a politician and on the other side can lead him to trouble. He had a political persona that involved being scrappy and tough and having no fear or concern about mixing it up with people, and it played out in that way in that moment.
Rosin: You included one pure domestic scene of [Weiner and Abedin] standing, actually rather far apart from each other, in the kitchen, talking about the ingredients of pasta sauce. It was just a small slice of domesticity. Why did you include that scene, and what did you want it to convey?
Elyse Steinberg: Just as Anthony was reduced to a caricature and a punch line, so was she. Our hope with this film is that viewers get to see a different side of Huma that they haven’t seen before. She’s a person who’s been guessed about endlessly. Here you get to see a more complete picture of her. As a wife, a mother, a person with a really important job. You get to see that human side of her, just talking about pasta sauce and putting her kid to bed. We see celebrity scandals and meltdowns all the time, but we rarely get the opportunity to be in the room while it happens.
Rosin: You never see her break down. She’s very composed, even when you guys are behind the scenes with her in some very uncomfortable moments. That was notable. This is an intrusive documentary, but you don’t come out of it feeling icky.
Kriegman: I’m glad to hear you feel that way.
Rosin: Do you think he’ll go back in politics? If this film turns out to be sympathetic, [and] people feel sympathetically toward him, do you think that makes it more of an option for him?
Kriegman: I don’t know. He had his second chance, which obviously did not go well for him. I think he has said publicly that he recognizes that probably his political life is over. Then again, it’s hard to predict anything in our politics these days, so who knows?