Mayor Ed Koch, who ruled New York from 1978 to 1989, is the subject of a documentary that came out the day he died, Feb. 1, 2013. This was a bad break for director Neil Barsky, because no one would have promoted the film more tirelessly than Koch. He loved being the center of attention. He also was used to dealing with the press, and he liked seeing his quotes in print.
“Koch,” which is as much a historical study of the city as it is a portrait of the man and his legacy, has made $168,000 so far at the box office. It’s now playing in 11 theaters in New York and Long Island. It opened in New Jersey last Friday and will open in Los Angeles and additional cities March 1. (The DVD will be released later this month.)
I met Koch at an Academy Awards screening party in 2004. It was a gathering of old Hollywood glamour at Le Cirque 2000 hosted by Arlene Dahl. It turned out Koch was a movie nerd, and he was as blunt about criticizing films as he was about everything else.
The party was a mix of glitz, glamour and kitsch. Next to the buffet stood a six-foot Oscar. I looked for a celeb to interview and spotted Joan Collins at the other side of the room. Before I could make a beeline to the “Dynasty” diva, Koch was standing in front of me.
“Maybe you want my take on ‘Passion’?” he asked me.
If you knew Koch, you knew this wasn’t a question.
He’d just seen “The Passion of Christ,” and he was on a tear.
”I think Mel Gibson should get the Leni Riefenstahl Award for what he did,” Mr. Koch said. He added that the movie would “cause pogroms in Europe.”
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but it was a quintessential Koch comment.
Nearly a decade later, I attended the premiere of “Koch” at the Museum of Modern Art, just days before the former mayor’s death. While the movie was being screened for political elites like aspiring mayor Christine Quinn, I sat with the director, Neil Barsky, and asked him questions about how he made the film and particularly how he got the notoriously controlling man to relinquish control of his own narrative.
Here are highlights:
Paula Schwartz: What inspired you to make the film?
Neil Barsky: I’m a New Yorker. I was a young reporter in my 20’s when Ed Koch was mayor … New York could have gone many different directions. We were on the edge of bankruptcy and people were fleeing. When I was growing up cities only got worse, and somehow New York got better. So for one thing I wanted to try to figure out how that happened … it (also) became clear that Ed Koch at 86 is a pretty interesting guy. I didn’t think we were going to do much cinéma vérité originally. I didn’t think it was going to be a very contemporary film, but it turns out we learned so much about him by just following him around with his family, with his friends, going home alone, meeting people on the street, arguing on the street, so he’s a complex character. He’s a great character, and New York’s a great story.
Between my political ideals of showing how New York became the way it was and my interest in Koch as a guy, which came later, I thought it would be a good movie. The other thing is the 80’s were such an amazing time that people don’t quite grasp that right now; there was an AIDS epidemic, there was arson, there was abandonment in the Bronx, there was graffiti. It was a totally different city, and so I also wanted to recreate that a little bit for posterity and also again to help us all understand how we got to the city that we have now.
PS: Did you change your mind about Koch as you progressed into the film?
NB: No. He was more interesting, but I didn’t change my mind politically. When I started, I felt that for all the good that he did, and he did amazing things, I felt his relationship with the African-American community was more than wanting. I think that he was very contentious, and I think he made matters a lot worse. I remember when I was living here, and I felt that even as I learned more that could have been avoided. He just loved to fight and engage in battles, and in a way, that was really destructive. I felt that then. I feel that now. I felt the corruption scandals — he had some culpability — but was not directly involved. He wasn’t a corrupt man. He was a very honest man.
PS: The Donald Manes scandal – where the Queens borough president was accused of kickback schemes beginning in 1986 that finally ended with his suicide — pretty much ended Koch’s hopes for a fourth term as mayor.
NB: It helped end his hopes for a fourth term, but I think race ended it. I think actually (it was) his bad relationship with the African-American community.
PS: Why did he want to help you with this film? What control did he have over this documentary?
NB: He had no control. The only thing he asked and stipulated was that he would see a cut before we locked, which he did in July. He asked for no changes, and we made no changes. He had no control, but I think he did it because I’m a pretty candid guy, and I sort of told him where I was coming from and I’d been a reporter. I was over in finance – I left the Wall Street Journal in 1993 – in Wall Street and managed a hedge fund for about 10 years after that … He loves a camera, and I also think he realized that the only way anyone would ever see a film about Ed Koch is if it was honest, with his warts and all. There are not a lot of public figures — I could be wrong — who would give a documentary filmmaker entre into his or her life without any controls. It’s a little rare.
PS: Did he want you to take anything out? I read he stopped talking to you over an issue he had with the film.
NB: No, he never asked to have anything taken out … He stopped talking to me because we had promised to show him a cut, a rough cut, but, of course, the film took so long so I said ‘Let’s wait ‘til we’re closer,’ and I think he got a little suspicious that we were going to, I don’t know, stab him in the back or something. So there was a period when he sort of went radio silence with us. But once he saw the final cut, I think he realized that while he didn’t like all of it, that it was an honest depiction of his world.
PS: Did he express any regret about anything revealed about him?
NB: No, not at first. He said, “I will take the reel with – not that I have a reel – me to the grave,” so it was very sweet. Subsequently, he expressed differences in how he depicted certain things. Race. The closing of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980. But again, I think he understands — because he’s been in the public eye long enough — that you have to do a three dimensional movie. You just can’t do a hagiography, so I think he tolerated things that he didn’t necessarily like.
PS: My favorite part in the film is when Koch called Andrew Cuomo a schmuck after he went to the Governor’s election headquarters to congratulate him on just being elected governor and Cuomo turned him away. Did he have a problem with his outburst being in the film?
NB: He didn’t have any objections to that at all. Diane Coffey, his chief of staff, who was with us when he saw it, she had objections because she tried to look out for him. But he said it, he meant it, and he rarely took things back.
PS: Neither Andrew nor Mario Cuomo was interviewed in the film. Did you try to get them on film?
NB: We tried to interview Governor Cuomo, and he declined.
PS: There’s the perception now that Koch didn’t do enough about the AIDS crisis that began while he was in office. You also seem to say that in the film.
NB: What we said was that there was a perception he didn’t do enough fast enough, and there’s no question the administration was slow to recognize the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. I think the city caught up pretty quickly in terms of its spending in 85, 86, 87.
PS: For which you credit Koch?
NB: Yes, as the mayor, also because of Act Up. I think the city caught up but it was slow … we don’t say this, but some people in the movie say this, they point out that it wasn’t because he was a closeted gay guy and that he was afraid to take on a gay issue, because he was out there with gay civil rights. One of the first things he did in 1977 was sign an executive order, which banned the city from discriminating against people for sexual orientation. He had a Civil Rights Bill passed in the City Council in ’86, so he was out there in gay civil rights. But yes, I think he was somewhat slow in addressing the AIDS crisis.
He said he wished he’d done more. But more than what the city did or didn’t do, I think the issue might be that he never expressed a true emotional connection with the suffering of people … whether it was gays or homeless people, and I think that was partly responsible for the animosity towards him.
PS: There are lots of scenes of his private life and with his sister and nieces and nephews. You spent a lot of time investigating his sexual orientation. Why?
NB: I don’t know that we investigated it. We never asked anybody. I think it’s relevant to his biography. But we never asked him. What we asked him on camera was, “Did you ever feel, if you were gay, that you could use your orientation to really help people, to change people’s lives?” Because that was the perception of the gay community, ‘like God, wouldn’t it be great if we had a gay mayor that would come out.’ I didn’t ask him if he was gay. It’s sort of not the point, but I asked him hypothetically, which showed, was trying to show him, what he could have done if he was gay and came out, but he grew up in a very different generation.
In 1977, if you were gay you could not be mayor of New York. It was pretty clear. It was a choice you had to make.