Harry Shearer has a resumé as an actor, writer and musician large enough to fill several careers—even if you don’t know his name or his long-running radio program Le Show, you know him as part of the rock-parody group Spinal Tap, or as the voice of half the population of Springfield on The Simpsons, including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns and Smithers.
But Shearer takes on a more serious side when he explores the problems faced by New Orleans residents post-Hurricane Katrina in his new documentary The Big Uneasy, which opens exclusively at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill today. THE INDEPENDENT got Shearer on the phone in Los Angeles to discuss his new project, and his unique perspective on the entertainment industry.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I’d like to start by asking about your history with New Orleans, and how you came to make this film.
Harry Shearer: Like a lot of folks, I was first drawn to the city to attend the Jazz Fest. And like a lot of people, I fell in love with the city, and flew back two more times that year, and found excuses to come back as often as possible, until my wife and I got a place here in the late 1990s.
I wasn’t here when the city flooded—I was off making a movie—but as soon as the movie wrapped, I was back here for the aftermath, which was just like what was depicted in (the HBO series) Treme, but worse. I got to read and see the media coverage day by day about the two investigations into what had happened.
Ultimately, I got to talk to the people behind the investigations on my radio show, along with a whistleblower from the Army Corps of Engineers and some other folks. I blogged on the subject on The Huffington Post and tried to bridge the gap between what we in the city knew and what the rest of the country was learning through their media.
It came to a head in October 2009, when President Obama came to New Orleans and held a town hall meeting and told a room full of people who were devoted to him and who had voted for him that the flooding was a natural disaster.
And I realized, “Well, radio and blogging are great, but something more needs to be done, because this is an indication that the reality about what happened here has not reached the vast majority of Americans, including the President of the United States.” And that’s when I decided to make the film.
What would you like to see happen as a result of your film?
Well, first of all, I’d like to see people understand what actually happened here. That’d be a big step one. Secondly, I’d like to raise people’s awareness about the Army Corps of Engineers, which not only does work here but all over the country. While it’s probably worse here in New Orleans, it’s the same technique all over the country, which is why a hundred cities have been told, “Oops, your levee protection isn’t as good as it should have been,” including Sacramento and Dallas. And ultimately that there would be some political desire to deal with water issues in a century that’s going to have a lot of them.
You’ve worked in a number of media, but never a nonfiction documentary. What were some of the challenges in this?
Well, filmmaking is filmmaking. So much of the process is the same no matter what you’re doing: You’re assembling a crew, and constructing plans B and C and D and L in case A falls through, and working with an editor and a composer and so forth. Though there’s no actors, obviously.
The biggest challenge was I wanted people talking directly to the camera, not an off-camera interviewer. For people who are not actors, that’s asking a lot. I’m talking to them, but they have to look at the camera, so that’s a sort of split process actors are used to, but non-actors are not. So I had to work carefully to create a relaxed atmosphere to let them tell their stories the way I wanted, but in a coherent and compelling way.
I don’t set myself up as any sort of expert with this film. I just put the camera in front of people who know what they’re talking about—who did the work, the investigations, the testing—and show what I learned. But there’s a reason why the film stands as a factual document. I’m just the person who rented the camera.
Do you see yourself doing more films like this in the future?
I hope not! (laughs) I like fooling around too much. But I could not not make this film. It was compelling, and I wanted to share this information, and I had the resources.
To go back to your previous question—another challenge was dealing with the national new media, who have gotten this so wrong, and that’s been profoundly frustrating and aggravating. This is the real story about what happened to New Orleans, and why it could happen to your city next, and we know they’d rather spend more time on a congressman’s penis than anything else, and I’m not even talking about the commercial media, I’m including places like NPR.
In many cases, to get this out there, I’ve gone to cities where the film is opening to get it some attention and overcome that handicap from the national media. That’s one thing I’d think of before I did a documentary film again. You’re not doing an independent documentary to get rich; you’re doing it because you have information you think people should know. Sorry I can’t make it to your area; my lack of clones prevents me from coming to Chapel Hill.
You’re at a point in your career where you’re working on a wide variety of projects, and have the resources, as you mentioned, to do a film like this. Did you ever anticipate that you’d be in this position, or that you’d have such a surge in your career once you reached your 40s and 50s?
Oh, that was part of the plan. It really was. I’ve been in show business since the age of 7, so I never liked the idea of having your major success in your twenties and then sitting around and going, “Where did they all go?” So I had to endure the fact that a lot of folks where temporarily speeding up and getting ahead of me, and have the patience to believe that my way of doing things was going to pay off for me.
You know, you take gambles in life. I could have been wrong, I could have not gotten a lucky break, or a couple of lucky breaks, and I wouldn’t be where I am. But if you don’t bet on yourself, forget about betting on anything else.
This business thrives on the outsize sense of self from those who are in it. The best way to indicate you believe in yourself is to not at like you’re desperate for every piece of work you could possibly do, regardless of whether it’s embarrassing or humiliating, but to try to do work that you think is up to your standards of what you think are good.
I admit I’ve been in some stuff that wasn’t that good, but fortunately, most of it was pretty obscure, and people didn’t even know it happened, which is a good way to be. (laughs)
I got out of show business when I went to college, and when I came back, my attitude was, “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.” And when you think that, you want to have a strategy that makes it possible to be doing work that you enjoy, and that you can be proud of for the rest of your life, as much as possible.
There are certain people who earn creative freedom just by making scads of money for studios, and I was never going to do that. So I had to figure out other strategies for carving out that space for myself.
It seems like there are more opportunities for entertainers to have success in different roles at this point.
Oh, I don’t know if there’s any more or less of that. The dissolving, in a certain way, of the control that certain parts of some of the big companies—most notably in the record business—has opened up some more opportunities for people to just do their stuff. I mean, I made a couple of Grammy-nominated records that I would never have been allowed to make if I’d just gone to a major record company and said, “Can I have a deal?”
The fact of the matter is that making films has been easier and easier and easier technologically, but—and this is a huge but—it has gotten easier to make things, it is not easier to distribute things, unless you want to give them away. If you want to make a film, for example, you’re still going through a few pipelines, and there you’ll face some of the bullshit you didn’t encounter up until that point.
If you want to make a living recording music, you’ll find yourself dealing with three or four companies, as opposed to eight or nine in the old days. The Internet has blown a lot of the old ways to smithereens, but the old distribution structures are still pretty robust. They’re quaking a little bit, you know, and you’re seeing strange people trying to poke holes in the structure, most recently Glenn Beck. We’ll see how that goes.
Though it does seem like now things catch on more quickly than ever before through this newer distribution.
Well…yeah and no. The most egregious example of the opposite of that is the only show in television history that ever debuted at number one, and this was in the 1970s—Laverne & Shirley. You can’t catch on faster than that!
So yeah, we think things are happening faster now, but strange things have always caught fire in strange ways. The audience for that debut probably dwarfed the audience for anything anywhere now. I know that because a couple friends of mine were in that show, and I was around, and I was like, “Are you kidding me ?!” Because that was supposed to be like a six-week gig, and it debuts at number one! And that was in the era of three networks and 120 million viewers, so if you debuted at number one, you were being watched willy-nilly by 40 million people.
For more on The Big Uneasy, visit www.thebiguneasy.com or www.varsityonfranklin.com.