‘Koch’ director Neil Barsky speaks candidly about honoring Mayor Koch
By Angela Barbuti
In a sad twist of fate, former mayor Ed Koch died on the same day that a documentary on his life premieres in theaters. The late mayor will undoubtedly be immortalized though this touching and powerful film. The Twitter page of @KochTheMovie wrote, “It is with great sadness that we announce that Mayor Ed Koch passed away this morning. He will be greatly missed.”
When Neil Barsky filmed Koch, he realized that the former mayor was still quite relevant to New York City life. Ed Koch gave the director carte-blanche access to his life. Cameras followed the Mayor as he made breakfast at his Greenwich Village apartment, celebrated Yom Kippur with his family, and even visited his already-designed tombstone. The film also revisits a passionate young Koch at subway entrances, uttering his famous catchphrase, “How’m I doing?” when the city was not doing so well. The images of New York in the late seventies and early eighties, showing graffiti-ridden subways and a dimly-lit Times Square, bring us back to a time when New York wasn’t the bustling city it is today. We learn that it was Koch who had a major role in the transformation. Most recently, he was recognized for his service by having the Queensboro Bridge named in his honor. One of the last scenes of the film shows Koch riding over the newly-renamed bridge, telling his friend, “I think we need more lights on my bridge.” Barsky, who knows Koch loved being in the public eye, said in reply, “He was obviously kidding…a little.”
We talked to Barsky, just before the Mayor’s death, about the making of Koch the documentary and his time spent with Koch the man.
You were a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, and a hedge fund manager. You then decided to make your first film. Why did you choose Koch as your first subject?
I was a young reporter in my twenties when he was in office, so I have a very strong memory of what New York was like back then. I feel that he was mayor at a critical period for New York. History is not inevitable; in other words, New York could have turned out very differently. He came at a time when New York was on the ropes. I felt he was a very significant figure in New York history. I wanted to recreate the city in the eighties because it was so different from today. I also felt that he, as a personality, was so interesting.
What surprised you most about him?
He turned out, when we started shooting, to be much more compelling as a contemporary character. I thought originally it was going to be a historical movie. He opened himself up in that respect and that was a pleasant surprise. There are not a lot of public figures who would give the filmmaker carte blanche. He had no restrictions on us. We had no deals. The only thing I agreed to was that we’d show it to him before we locked the film. We showed it to him in July. He asked for no changes. I think he understood that for it to be a good movie, it had to be balanced.
What did you want to convey to viewers about Koch?
We want to just paint an honest portrait. As I said, I want people to understand how the seeds of New York’s revival today were really planted under Koch. I don’t think people totally appreciate that. As for Koch the person, I wanted to show him as three-dimensionally as we could and let the viewer decide. Some people watch it and like him less. Some people watch and like him more.
What is one improvement Koch made that people may forget as they walk around our city?
Well the main thing is the 5 billion dollars spent on rehabilitating the housing stock, and the rebuilding of neighborhoods. The second thing is the cleanup of Times Square, which people think was done under Dinkins and Giuliani- and it was, but it was conceived, litigated, and funded originally under Koch.
In your opinion, what were his biggest contributions?
One is that he restored the morale of the city. I think people who follow his career would acknowledge that. And once he righted the fiscal shift, he turned around and was able to invest 5 billion dollars in housing. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. And that was a massive, successful program.
How did you get all that old footage?
We had people working on the archival. We got clips from ABC, CBS, NBC, Library of Congress, and LaGuardia College. So much of Koch’s administration was filmed. It’s New York. There’s so much media here. If we were doing it about Akron, Ohio, there’d be a lot less. We had two women, Amilca Palmer and Lindsey Megrue, who were in charge of the archival, and they were pretty tireless. There’s a way of doing it. It’s not like we were the first people who ever tried to unearth this stuff. We worked hard and pretty much got everything we wanted.
The Mayor was mad because you didn’t want to show him clips during the filming.
Yes, I didn’t want to show him anything until it was over. We took so long, frankly, that he got impatient and wary of what we were doing. He was upset with me for a while, and then we showed it to him in July of 2012 and he wasn’t upset.
He didn’t want anything changed?
It’s not that he liked everything. There are things there that he doesn’t like. He had said publicly that he thinks our treatment of him and racial issues was too harsh.
All the places that you visited with him were so meaningful. The cemetery scene was crazy, where Koch goes to visit his actual tombstone at Trinity Cemetery.
That is a crazy scene, and that’s a crazy thing that he’s done. I mean, who does that? It’s one of the quirks of Ed Koch. He does things his way, no question.
You were even invited into his apartment.
We wanted to see how a guy who is the ex-Mayor of New York, who was [nearly 88 years old, lived]. And a lot of it is being an older person and seeing the medication on the table, and newspapers on the floor. He [lived] very modestly.
At the end of this film, I wished I could have been Mayor Koch’s friend.
By the end you want to be his friend, because you see him weak and strong. You see all sides of him, the good and the bad.
Koch opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center
To learn more about the film, visit www.kochthemovie.com
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