If Harry Shearer isn’t a household name, he really should be. The well-rounded entertainer has focused his talents on film, on radio, in music, and on television, among others. Among his many credits are roles in This is Spinal Tap, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons, for which he voices such popular characters as Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, and Principal Skinner. This evening (Monday, August 30th), Shearer’s latest directorial project, The Big Uneasy, a documentary about the truth behind the New Orleans catastrophe during Hurricane Katrina, engages a special one-night screening in theaters across the country on the five-year anniversary of the tragedy. Shearer was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to give his Five Favorite Films and talk about his film. Read on for the full interview!
To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II movie. To make a comedy about World War II in the middle of World War II is major league balls, and he pulls it off brilliantly. It’s Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It’s her last film; she’s amazingly funny. And Benny does this great trick of playing the character in the film and yet getting laughs off what you know about the Jack Benny character from out of the movie, without ever disrupting the flow of the story. Just a brilliant movie. Really well worth studying for how to direct a serious comedy about a serious subject, and yet be really funny.
Any Laurel & Hardy feature. My wife and I took a couple of Laurel & Hardy features over to a friend’s house in Fiji, out in the middle of nowhere, and he’s friends with the kids in the neighboring village. And these 8-10 year-old Fijian kids came in and watched Laurel & Hardy and laughed their heads off. It travels through time and space.
This is one that will never be in the list of really great movies, but there’s so many really good comedy performances in it, and it’s a comedy museum by itself of performers of this certain era and how great they were. It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite thing about It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which was, in its original release, pretty f***ing long, is that at least one of the versions that came out on home video, they released it with 20 extra minutes. So that would be It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. You have to add an extra “Mad” to it.
RT: So let’s talk about The Big Uneasy. Apart from the obvious – the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans – what prompted you to make this movie?
Harry Shearer: The fact that if you follow the news, you don’ know why this thing happened. It’s as simple as that. And I got fed up with the fact that I knew that the news coverage on the fifth anniversary was going to be, in so many ways, a rerun of the news coverage at the time. A lot of the same footage of suffering people, a lot of the same characters brought back for “Where Are They Now?” interviews. “What’s Ray Nagin doing now? What’s Mike Brown doing now?” But still, no real desire to ask or answer the question, “Why did this thing happen?”
The media became fixated on the idea that it was a hurricane story, and they’ve never let go of that. And it’s not a hurricane story. It was a hurricane story in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it was a hurricane story in South Louisiana, but it was a very different story in New Orleans. You can sum up that story the way one of the investigators we profile in the film, a distinguished engineering professor from UC Berkeley, summed it up: it’s the worst manmade engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl. Chernobyl is major leagues. We’re not talking Triple-A here.
The film is only being shown on Monday, August 30th, right?
Yes. I felt that, after this weeklong display of the problems with the news coverage, that it would be an appropriate night, Monday night, the fifth anniversary of when we really realized how bad the flooding was, to give people the opportunity to see the answers to the question “why.” We follow the course of two of the lead investigators in each of these two investigations from the moment that they first had their doubts about the official explanations, through being in the muck to their findings to what happened to them as a result of going public. And we do the same thing with a third person who was a whistleblower from inside the US Army Corps of Engineers.
What are you hoping people will get out of this film?
Well, I hope that, you know, after five years, people will understand why this happened, which was basically that we, as federal taxpayers, through our congress, thought we were buying a system to protect New Orleans from hurricanes, and instead bought a system that almost destroyed New Orleans. And it maybe that it was bold to expect it would be done better at the time, not just for New Orleans, not just the New Orleans story. This agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, is supposedly protecting more than a hundred cities with levee systems like the ones they built for New Orleans. Sacramento is one of them, and the prognosis isn’t good.
With all of your time with your radio show and your work on TV and the movies that you do, how did you find time to make this?
I just cleared everything away. I mean, I still did my radio show, I still did The Simpsons. You know, this was done on a very accelerated schedule for a normal documentary, and I just went balls-out, night and day. I had an editor who was willing to commit to that same kind of schedule and a great New Orleans crew and a great cinematographer from Los Angeles. People just bought into the idea that this was worth doing and therefore we had to do everything we could to get it done.
This is the first documentary that you’ve filmed. I know that you’ve done the faux documentaries before. Did you have to leave behind some of your instincts as a…
Oh, you leave behind that whole side of your personality that fools around. When you’re doing comedy, you have to be irresponsible, and when you’re doing this you have to be totally responsible.
Was it hard to play it straight through the whole production?
No, you know, I mean look. You don’t play it straight. The sound man who worked on our crew said he’s never had more fun on a shoot in his life, because, you know, when you’re dealing with very serious stuff, when the camera’s not rolling, you tend to try to release the tension and have fun, keep people enjoying their job. There was plenty of time for that, but I knew I had very little time to get this right. I had to be focused on communicating a pretty complicated story to as wide an audience as possible in a comprehensible and yet not trivial manner. So all the brainpower was focused in that direction.
As someone who listens to your show, I’d like to know: do you think we’ll see you going the route that Al Franken has gone? Will we see “Vote for Harry?”
I’m going to guarantee you no. And this isn’t a politician’s guarantee, this is a human being’s guarantee. No f***ing way. But, you know, I didn’t go the way Al Franken went in the comedy business either.
The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer’s truth-seeking documentary about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans, will play for one night on Monday, August 30th, at select theaters. For more information on the film, see the official page for The Big Uneasy, and for theaters and showtimes in your area, click HERE.