Toward the end of Koch’s post-screening Q&A on Tuesday, an audience member asked director Neil Barsky about Edward Koch’s health. Barsky revealed that the former mayor of New York City and subject of his film had been hospitalized and was being treated for congestive heart failure. Early this morning, only days after the screening, Koch passed away at 88 years old.
It is a fitting memorial that Koch, a documentary about the mayor’s life and career, screened at Stranger Than Fiction on Tuesday and opens in limited theatrical release today. The film is filled with recent interviews and archival footage of Koch, underscoring the fact that he lived for the camera. In addition to the unflinching exploration of Koch’s celebrated and controversial political career, the film offers a rare glimpse into the personal life of the famously private mayor. Koch was masterful in his ability to construct his public image, and the documentary highlights the stark differences between the man’s public persona and private reality, exposing the nuances that have made him a fascinating figure for over 30 years.
Below is the full conversation between Barsky and STF’s Thom Powers.
Stranger Than Fiction: Neil, can you talk about your background as a journalist, and what drew you to this story?
Neil Barsky: I was a journalist until I was in my mid-30s, and then I went to Wall Street and retired in ’09. I had nothing to do and wanted to return to journalism, which is my first love, my passion, what I hope will be on my tombstone, so I explored a whole lot of things: newspapers, magazines, etc. And I realized that the one form of journalism that has increased in its impact and reach is documentary film. You can change a conversation with a good documentary. It’s so powerful. So I decided to do this.
I’d made a documentary when I was a kid. When I was in high school, there was the Boston busing crisis. A bunch of high school friends and I interviewed white kids from South Boston, black kids from Roxbury, and I guess I got the bug. I really feel that the documentaries that I like – the good, non-polemical ones that really reveal – are so impactful. And so, you know, I decided that that would be what I wanted to pursue.
As for this documentary – I’m a New Yorker and I was a reporter in my 20s when Ed Koch was mayor, and I feel very strongly that the New York we live in today, the seeds of that New York were planted under Koch. For better and worse. But I think mostly for better. And not withstanding all of his issues, all of the things that we don’t like about him, his legacy is very powerful, and probably more than any other living person. And that’s what we try to show in this film. Plus, New York in the 1980s was amazing. And my children don’t know about the South Bronx, they don’t know about graffiti, they don’t know about crack, or AIDS, or homelessness in the same way that we did. So I also wanted to bring that world back, for better and worse. It was complicated. We bit off maybe a little more than we could chew, but that was where we came from.
STF: In the lobby, we were talking about recent films like The Central Park Five and How to Survive a Plague, where Koch comes off as an adversary. I wonder how you see him in respect to that history.
Barsky: You know, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and we obviously wrestled with the gay issue, and we wrestled with the AIDS issue. We didn’t wrestle with the race issue as much because I kind of knew where I was coming from there. But we had to decide how we would link them all. And I don’t know if the film does link them all perfectly, but what I came to conclude is that you can argue about what he did with AIDS – he was too slow, etc. – but the city caught up pretty quickly, spent a lot of money, and there were a lot of very progressive people in his administration. The same is true for housing. But I think there reason there’s so much animosity towards Koch among various communities is not how much money he spent, or what his policies were, but this is a guy that did not know how to show empathy. He did not know how to feel people’s pain. He was the opposite of Bill Clinton. And Bill Clinton, in How to Survive a Plague, he says “I feel your pain.” You would never in a million years hear Koch say that. He would give them the finger. And psychologists among us could try to determine this, but he could not empathize with the homeless, with people suffering from AIDS, with black people who felt their health care was being robbed from them. So I think we could have an honest debate about his policies, and I would actually be more supportive than the filmmakers of How to Survive a Plague and Central Park Five, but I think what pisses people off is that, as dynamic and charismatic as he could be, he could not reach people. He could not feel their pain. He didn’t feel his own pain. And so, you know, that’s the way he was mayor. And I think when the subway strike hit, and he had to go to Washington – that was perfect for the city. But when the city’s in pain, and when he had to be the mayor of all the people, he wasn’t as good. It’s complicated. I would argue with them about policy, but not about his sympathy for people who were suffering.
STF: He comes across in this film and other places as someone who’s eager to engage, someone who’s charismatic, so in that sense he makes a terrific documentary subject. But he’s also someone who stonewalls very effectively. And I wonder what the challenges were for you, dealing with him as a subject?
Barsky: This is my first movie, which is hard enough, but, clearly, I would go to these interviews with him and say, “We’ve got nothing. I’ve seen that story on YouTube. I’ve heard all these stories.” And so I felt that we couldn’t break him, you know? And I don’t mean only the gay issue. All issues. He’s manipulating you. Most filmmakers and journalists are manipulating their subjects, but that wasn’t the case here. But when our editor, Juliet Weber, joined us, she said, “That’s fine. He reveals himself by not revealing himself.”
So once I realized that, I was pretty happy, because I think when he does this stoic, “Life is good, I have no complaints,” he’s revealing himself in his own way. So I was frustrated, but after I had another set of eyes on the film, I realized, “Well, you know, things happen by mistake, which is probably the best way.” So I think it worked out okay, but would I have liked it to be like Bill Cunningham New York? Bill Cunningham was a great film about an ’80s closeted guy who was representing fashion, and there was a moment when he sort of reveals himself, and we didn’t have that. And I said, “Ugh, I want that Bill Cunningham moment!” But eventually I realized that Koch reveals much more, or as much, in the way he answers his questions. So I was okay with it. But while we were doing the film, we were frustrated. And then somebody, I think it was my producer, Jenny, said, “You gotta steer into the skid.” You know, when you’re skidding on the ice? You can’t go against it; you have to go with it. And then once we started doing that in the editing room, I think it worked out okay.
Audience: Did you have final cut of the movie, or did Koch?
Barsky: We had 100% final cut of the movie. We had 100% independence. He had one condition: when we started to make the movie, he said “I’d like to see it before you lock, and I will tell you what I think, and you can take it or leave it.” So we had 100% control of the movie.
Audience: ‘Cause City for Sale is not really a glamorous portrayal of him, so do you have a lot more footage of Wayne Barrett where…
Barsky: I have my point of view. Wayne’s seen the movie, loves the movie, but I think he would have a harsher view of the corruption scandal than I would. No question. I’ll tell you exactly where we depart. For those who don’t know, Wayne Barrett is a Village Voice writer, legend, great reporter, probably the most knowledgeable person on New York City politics alive, and I admire him and look up to him. And he wrote a book about corruption scandal, as the gentleman mentioned. And he says that the scandal started with the parking violations bureau, and then agency after agency had tentacles, and it went to the heart of the Koch administration. And I could tell you my opinion, and you could argue and Wayne could argue – but Wayne didn’t – but I argue that it didn’t go to the heart of the Koch administration. None of his close advisors were corrupt. And he was complicit, he was negligent, he was “guilty,” but I don’t agree with Wayne. And Wayne, frankly, saw the film and thought it was fine. If people think that he should be treated more harshly, it’s all there, so it’s okay. But in terms of the control of the movie, we had 100% control of the movie. Ed asked for no changes, and we made no changes.
Audience: The night that Koch was coming home from Andrew Cuomo’s victory party, when the camera records him going into his apartment by himself, I was impressed by the presence of the camera. I don’t know if it was you or the cameraperson that isolated him, but it’s clear in the elevator bank that he’s sinking in to this loneliness. And then to follow him home and stop – was that great instinct? Did you talk to him about it? How did that series of shots and sounds come about?
Barsky: I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question, because we’ve been in various Q&A’s and no one has asked me this. I was in the car with him coming home, with the cameraman in the front seat. We were talking, and there were silent periods, and that’s okay. And I knew I wanted to take him home. I knew I wanted exactly the shot we got. But I’m chicken!
So we got out of the car, and Ed said, “Okay?” I said, “Sure, we’re just gonna walk you in.” So we walked him in, and he said, “Okay?” I said, “Sure.” And he gets in the elevator, and I say, “I blew it.” But he had his mic on. So my sound guy said, “He forgot his mic!” And I said, “Perfect. Let’s go get his mic.” So the cameraman and the sound guy and I went in the elevator with him, just to get his mic. It’s a little weak on my part; I probably should have asked him directly, but if I had, he might’ve said no.
So we’re in the elevator, and then as you saw, that’s just what happens. We kept shooting. Our cameraman, Tom Hurwitz, is one of the great verité cameramen. He is ballsy, he’s fearless, he loves people to tell him he can’t do this, so there’s no way he was going to stop shooting. And, I will admit, when I heard that chain click, I said, “We have a great scene.” I felt okay, because we showed him with his friends, we showed him with his family, and then we showed that, ultimately, every night, he goes home alone. We didn’t just show him as a lonely guy; we showed the full flavor of his life.
I know he resents the scene. And when we showed him the film, I wasn’t worried that he wouldn’t like the race stuff or the gay stuff. I was worried that he would feel that we pitied him. And he didn’t say anything. But now I’m reading interviews, and he’s saying, “Oh, they tried to make me look like an old man.” He does resent that, because, as I said, he has no empathy for other people and none for himself. He has no self-pity. And so I think that was probably the thing that got his gander the most. But the way it happened was exactly as I’m saying. We wanted the shot, we didn’t quite get it, and then we forgot the mic, went into the elevator, and got the shot.
STF: It’s a good strategy for you filmmakers. (laughter) Forget the mic. (laughter)
Audience: Did Ed always have a cameraman around so that he would have film of every single thing that he did in his life?
Barsky: Almost. (laughter) Well, when he was mayor, he would hold eight press conferences a day. Michael Bloomberg is maybe the first mayor in the history of the city who doesn’t want press. All mayors want press. But Ed loved the press. So there was a vast amount of archival material available to us, yes. He didn’t have his own cameraman, but also, in the 80s, local news journalists were amazing. I mean, these were real journalists, which I’m not sure is the case today. So there was real reporting then, especially of the corruption scandal, and what would happen is Ed would have a VCR, and he would literally tape the evening news any time he was on. And he would store it, and then he would donate those tapes to LaGuardia College. By the time we got those tapes, they were third generation, so they were poor quality and sort of milky, so we had to go back to the original source and license it. But he was the one who basically catalogued a lot of his own material. (laughter)
Audience: Thank you for this film. How is Ed doing? He’s in the hospital, I understand. Have you heard anything?
Barsky: We had our premiere tonight, and he was supposed to come and obviously couldn’t make it. I spoke to him today. For people who don’t know, he’s in the hospital for the fourth time in six months. He has congestive heart failure, so it’s something that’s serious. I think people are worried. I mean, I talked to him, and he was very lucid. His mind is amazing. I mean, he’s 88 years old, but he’s incredibly sharp. But I would say that people close to him are concerned. I think during the day today he got better. He really wanted to be at the opening. There were a million cameras, and that’s his lifeblood. There’s a comment in the film by Wayne Barrett, which is now taking on some poignancy, when he says, “If you keep the camera on him, he’ll never die.” I won’t say he loves every part of the film, but he loves that there’s a film about him, and that has kept him. But I’m concerned. And I think the doctors are concerned.