Larger-than-life and a true embodiment of New York’s audacious spirit, former NYC mayor Ed Koch lived his life in the public eye. With the bulk of his three-term career encompassing the turbulent 1980s, Koch went head-to-head with issues such as race relations, the AIDS crisis and the crack epidemic – drumming up controversy along the way while still maintaining his likable if outspoken persona.
Koch passed away on Feb. 1 of this year at the age of 88 – the day a new documentary about his life, simply entitled “Koch,” opened in New York. Helmed by first-time director Neil Barsky, the film takes a hard yet affectionate look at the ex-mayor’s personal and political struggles, painting an intimate portrait of his complex legacy.
Ahead of the film’s release at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale this weekend, the East Valley Tribune caught up with Barsky to discuss the making of “Koch” and what surprised him most about the man himself.
Q: So to begin with, what prompted you to pursue a documentary about Ed Koch?
A: I was a newspaper reporter in my 20’s when Ed Koch was mayor in the '80s and at the time, New York’s future was pretty bleak. Conditions in general were expected to only get worse and never get better, and the Northeast kind of seemed to be in permanent decline. As of today, New York is sort of a recovered international city and I kind of came to believe that the seeds in New York’s recovery were really planted under Ed Koch.
I wanted to do a movie that explained how contemporary New York came to be. I thought that the story of New York in the '80s, which was such a colorful time – and not necessarily a good time, with crack and AIDS and really a lot plagues – I thought that would be a good way to tell the story, through his administration. As we started shooting, which was in the fall of 2010, it quickly became clear that he was pretty compelling as a story in itself today – as an 85-year-old guy trying to stay relevant. He was incredibly funny, incredibly sharp even at that age, highly energetic, and still had a lot of bite in him.
It turned out that we had two movies: one was this sort of full and raw eyes of New York in this colorful period through the career of Ed Koch, and the second was sort of a contemporary story of an octogenarian – the ex-mayor – as he tried to stay relevant in the world. Good movies are really based on good stories and good characters, even documentaries. I thought that New York was a good story and Ed Koch was a great character.
Q: How long did it take you to make this film, in terms of interviews and collecting all the old footage that’s used?
A: We started working on it in the summer of 2010, started shooting in the fall and pretty much started editing in mid-2011. It was pretty much two years from beginning to end, not including the distribution phase which is this but the movie’s been done for awhile. So I’d probably say about 2 years. Since it’s my first film, if we had planned a little bit it probably would’ve taken less time, but most films have some bumps in the road along the way. It was a 2-year project and you know, maybe a little longer than we expected.
Q: Koch was very public about many aspects of his life, but in the time you spent with him, what did you find to be some of the most surprising things that you learned – in terms of him as a person or his illustrious career?
A: Well I studied a lot before we talked to him and his life is kind of an open book; his career was all done in front of the cameras. I can’t say in terms of political things – housing or AIDS or race relations – that we learned a lot of dramatic new stuff. I think what was most surprising was getting to know him personally in the movie, you know, getting the camera really up close to him and seeing how he lives and how he’d interact with his family, his friends, the public. He had an incredible relationship with the public.
This was a guy who never had a lifetime companion; he went home alone every night. In many ways, the public was his family. There was this whole subtext of his very peculiar personal life and I found that more surprising. We started out doing a mostly historic movie and ending up doing a really compelling, contemporary movie with universal themes: loneliness, legacy, mortality…he talked about all these things. He became, I think, in the course of us shooting, a very three-dimensional guy.
Q: He sadly passed away from congestive heart failure on the day “Koch” opened in New York. What was that day like for you, and what were his feelings on the finished film, if he indeed got a chance to see it?
A: Well, you know, it was a very weird day to be sure. We had been planning this for 6 months and a lot of work had gone into it, a lot of excitement. I was hoping that he would be my partner in promoting it, so it was a very sad day but also a very crazy day because so much attention was being paid to the movie because he died. There were a lot of mixed feelings.
He did get to see the film several times – you know, we had screenings, film festivals and the like. He saw it for the first time in July (2012) before it was totally finished. He came to our offices with Diane Coffey, who was his chief-of-staff, and we watched him watch the film; we were very nervous. I think he was very relieved. He said, “I’m going to take the reel with me to my grave.” I think he felt very worried – because we had taken so long – that we would finish the film after he did die and it would be negative for his legacy. He was very relieved, and I know that he was really worried that he would die before the film was finished and he’d never get to see it.
I think over time he came to understand that even though the film isn’t entirely positive about him – it’s a very full balanced look at his 12 years, good and bad. I think he realized that only that kind of film would ever get watched and you needed a warts-and-all film to have any credibility at all. Ultimately, the film did honor his legacy.
There were things he took issue with. I think he felt we were a little tough on him in respect to race relations. There was a scene in the movie where he came home alone at night after a long night of campaigning and we show him alone, walking down the hall. It’s a very dramatic scene and I think he didn’t like that very much; I think he felt maybe a little vulnerable. He didn’t like everything but I think he saw it as a very fun, interesting, funny movie that ultimately was honest and ultimately was very affectionate toward him, but not in every way.
Q: I find it pretty interesting how “Koch,” “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Central Park Five” all came out within roughly 6 months of each other – all showing Koch during controversial moments in his career. Do you think of these films as companion pieces in any way or have thoughts on how he’s portrayed in the other documentaries?
A: Well we all portray him a little differently but he doesn’t figure that much – I mean, he’s in them all. We deal with the two issues that are in those films: the AIDS plague and race relations. We don’t deal with the Central Park jogger, per se, but I think anyone watching our film would come to the conclusion that his poor relationship with the African-American community was why he lost in his fourth race. We also show that the gay community had a lot of resentment and animosity toward him in how he dealt with the AIDS crisis. It’s more complicated because he actually had a very strong gay civil rights record; he was pro-civil rights for gays and things like that.
You’re right and I do think it’s very interesting; maybe we’ll all get together one day and be on a panel. It just shows how seminal the '80s were in New York; so many high-profile crimes and obviously you had the AIDS tragedy and the crack epidemic, you had arson. It was a very different time, a much more tumultuous time than it is in New York today.
“Koch” opens at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale on Friday. For more information about the film, visit www.kochthemovie.com.