Regardless of whether the camera was on or off, former New York mayor Ed Koch talked politics, says Neil Barsky, director of the documentary Koch.
That says everything. Koch, who ran New York from 1978 to 1989, adored the attention and understood the theatrics behind politics, but couldn’t find the off switch. The lights were always on.
As Barsky shows in his thoughtful and thorough film, Koch’s passions – namely New York and his own schmoozing influence – consumed him. When Koch died in February at age 88, he lived alone and had been a lifelong bachelor.
Barsky talked to Film Racket about why New York embraced the boisterous mayor, the difference between the public and private Koch, and the challenges of having your movie’s star die just as publicity is starting. (Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity and space.)
Film Racket: As you’ve promoted this film throughout the nation, what has been the general view of Ed Koch?
Neil Barksy: I’d say there have been cases where people liked Ed Koch when they went in, and liked him less at the end of the movie. There are cases where people like him more. The film tries to honor his legacy and his contribution to New York. He’s clearly a very colorful political figure. I think, ultimately, it’s an affectionate film, but because we deal with so many of the difficult issues he confronted and didn’t always do so well with — racial issues, the AIDS crisis — and because he was so brash and in your face, I think some people were more turned off.
I think there’s Ed Koch the person, and Ed Koch the mayor. Again, he was a polarizing figure when he was mayor, but I think most people would see the film and have to concede that he made a huge contribution to the New York of today.
Film Racket: The film serves as a reminder of a different kind of politician: one whose lack of polish was his polish. We don’t see that approach in politics too often today, save for maybe Chris Christie. Why is that?
Neil Barsky: First of all, Koch was the quintessential street politician. Back then, if you wanted to reach the greatest number of people — you didn’t have social media, TV was very restrictive and expensive — you’d get on the street corner, put a mic in our hand, and say, “I’m Ed Koch. I’m running for mayor,” and shake as many hands as you could. He was masterful at that. He was masterful at that in 1977, and we show in 2010 when he was campaigning — he still had the touch.
So that’s a lost art. Additionally, I think, especially when he ran he was such an underdog in 1977, I think he had this attitude that is unlike other politicians — I would even say including Chris Christie — where he saw it as a complete virtue to tell the truth, even if he alienated people. But because he had such humor and because he came onto the scene when New York was struggling so much and really needed to hear the truth, because people were concerned: Is New York ever going to be a world-class city again? It really worked for him in the beginning of his administration, for most of his administration. Toward the end, it didn’t.
The reason I would distinguish him from Chris Christie is that he loses his temper. Koch never lost his temper. Koch was always in control… There was no one like Ed Koch, and it was because of his humor, this disarming sense of humor he had. He could get away with a lot more. And I also think there was never a question of his commitment to the city and to the job. He never disappeared. He was always there.
Film Racket: Koch, even when he was out of the spotlight, still fed on the public. That was his life.
Neil Barsky: There was really no public vs. private Ed Koch. The private Ed Koch was Ed Koch. He was the most approachable public figure I’ve ever seen. You walk down the street with him, people want to talk to him and he’s so receptive. He’s almost looking for them to say hello. When we could go out to eat, he wouldn’t want to sit in the front. He thrived on his engagement with the public, always did. Like Joyce [Purnick, who’s interviewed in the film] said, that’s where he got his oxygen.
Film Racket: Forget about whether he was gay or straight, is that why he never had a private life with a family or some kind of companionship?
Neil Barsky: Yes. I think he made a choice — and, frankly, it probably is relevant whether he was gay or straight, because he might not have made this choice if he was straight. Whatever, we don’t really know. But he definitely made a choice that he wanted to stay in the public eye and at the price, maybe, of having a lifetime partner. Are those realities related? I would say probably. Your interpretation is as good as mine.
Film Racket: Ed Koch was so dependent on the public, it seems like a documentary was going to happen one way or another. But how did you, as a debut filmmaker, get the gig?
Neil Barsky: I approached him. You don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s a rule of mine. If you’re a journalist, you know that. I had been at The Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. And then in the ’90s, I went to Wall Street. I was in finance for about 15 years and managed a hedge fund. So, I had come to appreciate over the years—more than when he was mayor — what a big impact he had had on the city. I approached Diane Coffey, his chief of staff. I told her more or less where I thought the movie would come out, and she said, “Let’s meet.” I met with him and in five minutes he said, “OK, let’s do it.”
I think he felt I’d be honest and fair. I suspect that would be important. I really feel that the best documentaries are honest documentaries. They’re not polemics, they don’t hit you over the head. They show and they don’t tell. And I think, hopefully, that was the kind of journalist I was. That was the kind of film I wanted to make. In other words, I will show you Ed Koch and you will figure out if you like him or not, or if you agree with him on this issue or that issue.
Film Racket: I know he generally liked the movie, but one scene he had an issue with was when he’s returning home alone from the New York gubernatorial election. Did he think the movie was a fair portrait?
Neil Barsky: He and Diane Coffey came to our office in July of 2012 to see it. My heart was kind of in my throat as we watched them watch the movie. And he said, “I will take the reel with me to my grave.” At that point, he really liked it. And he did like it. He loved the attention. He loved that it honored his legacy. He understood that he would have to take his lumps. Over time, he gave interviews and he didn’t think we were fair with respect to race. And he didn’t like that [returning home] scene. I completely expected he would not like that scene.
This was a guy who never felt sorry for himself, and could never bear somebody feeling sorry for him or him looking weak in any way or vulnerable. I think maybe that’s how he interpreted the scene. In my opinion, it’s not saying he’s lonely; it’s saying he’s alone. He certainly was surrounded by love in his life: family, friends, etc. We weren’t trying to be heavy-handed about it, but there is something about somebody who virtually every night of his adult life would go home alone. And we wanted to show that.
Film Racket: Koch died the day your film premiered in New York. To ask a clichéd question, how did you feel when you heard that he had passed?
Neil Barsky: I’ll separate my personal feelings from my professional feelings: It was an exciting day. It was interesting. It was totally a setback for the film, despite what people think. This was one of the best interviewers, one of the best promoters of all-time. He would have been on Jon Stewart and David Letterman and everything, so that was unfortunate.
From a personal perspective, this will sound weird, but I really felt bad for Ed Koch. I never knew anyone who enjoyed being himself as much as Ed Koch, who enjoyed his life. We can say he was alone, he was this, he was that. He loved being Ed Koch. He liked to laugh at himself. He really did love New York City and his impact on it. And he led an amazing life.
Now, his friends would say – and I’ve seen them since – that they were relieved that he passed because they didn’t want him to suffer. And that’s a factor: He didn’t suffer. My own reaction was like, “I feel bad for the guy.” Because what’s more fun than being Ed Koch in the city of New York?