Getting Back to Abnormal filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian and Paul Stekler discuss the making of their film.
Louis Alvarez: Well we didn’t want to make a post-Katrina movie. We wanted to make a post-post-Katrina movie. Obviously a lot of the filmmakers have made their films and moved on. And we thought that would be a good time to come in and see, how is the city kind of getting back to normal or in this case, abnormal?
Andrew Kolker: Many of the films that were made just post-Katrina were made by people who were not really familiar with the inner workings of the city. And I think that given the fact that three of us started our careers there and lived there for quite a while, we felt that we could bring a different kind of perspective, more of an insider perspective to the ways and means of the city, and to give a look at the city that people would just generally not get.
Part of what happened with the Storm and people call Katrina, the Storm. That’s what they call it now — no one actually uses the word, Katrina — is that the cultural cards as it were got thrown up into the air. And they kind of fell down in a different way. Some of it was very similar to what was there before the storm. There’s still music, there’s still great food, et cetera. But on the other hand, things changed a little bit. And we wanted to show a little bit about how the city had opened up and that there had been some changes. A lot of new people have come in, et cetera, et cetera. But yet in terms of the big themes of the movie, race and politics, largely the city is still the way it was. Very tribal. Very set in its ways.
Peter Odabashian: Part of what happens in black majority cities, especially southern ones and especially New Orleans, is there’s a directness and a frankness about race that you don’t find in New York. There’s open discussions of, “You should vote for this person, because they’re black.” You know it’s like it’s your obligation and to do that because there should be black representation on the city council. And that’s discussed quite openly. And I think that’s another aspect of the film where black versus white becomes an aspect of the public discussion.
Alvarez: The thing about Louisiana — New Orleans, certainly — and Louisiana in general, is politics is a spectator sport. Everybody is engaged with it. Doesn’t matter whether they’re rich or poor, Democrat or Republican. Conservative, liberal. Everybody follows things.
In a place like New Orleans everybody knows their representatives personally. And it’s not about red state-blue state conservative-liberal divides in New Orleans, particularly. It’s really about personality and tribalism and whether you grew up on one side of a particular street or another. And we like that because it becomes very anthropological when you make a film about things like that. It’s part of the culture. It’s just like you were making a movie about gumbo, you’re making a movie about New Orleans politics. And a lot of the same things come into play.
Alvarez: When we first went down with the idea of making this movie, we were reading the headlines every day and there was a huge scandal going on with a city council member who allegedly had written inflammatory emails, with racial slurs. And we said, this is kind of an interesting story. It’s a very New Orleans story, it’s black versus white, everybody’s got a position on it. And the council member was Stacy Head. And we went to talk to her and she was not only surprisingly welcoming to a camera, but she also didn’t really seem to have the ability to edit herself the way most politicians do. And of course, documentary filmmakers immediately go, oh, here’s our star. So that’s how we found Stacy. And she did get a little more professional as the filming went on and learned not to quite shoot off her mouth quite as much as she had. But she’s great and we like her a lot, personally.
Barbara Lacen-Keller is the woman who answered the phone when we called. And we walked in, excited to meet Stacy and there was this woman who was equally incredible as a documentary subject. It was really incredibly lucky that they both happened to find each other and then we found both of them.
Paul Stekler: You always hope in a documentary film that you have good characters. And I think for us to have two Hall of Fame characters, who actually have a relationship that’s revealed in the film so that you learn something about them and at the end you understand what their relationship is like and how it relates to the larger story, is really gold you know. And we were just incredibly lucky to meet Barbara and Stacy.
Odabashian: One of my surprises about the film — and we actually went down there to show it to Stacy and Barbara — they were together when they saw it. And they kept embracing, like during the film. And it really brought home that it’s really kind of this odd love story about a very odd couple. For us, that felt really sweet. And it was a nice aspect of a film that maybe has some hard edges in some sense, but it’s also about this unique relationship, really.
Kolker: Our films often don’t have really strong narratives. And we often have to create the narrative in a sense. And so that kind of requires then that the characters that populate our movies, they have to go through some kind of a change. There has to be some kind of a conflict. There has to be something which where you can see them grow or you can see them change, so that at the beginning and at the end you have a different or hopefully a better and more encompassing understanding of those characters.
But that’s kind of incumbent upon us. When you’re making films that don’t have like really strong narratives — okay, this one has an election, election’s great because it’s like yeah, okay, beginning, middle, end, win, win, loss. Whatever. And that was great to have. Our movie has lots of other scenes in it though that don’t relate specifically to Stacy and Barbara. And that mosaic, the way in which we had to tie all that stuff together also has to affect how you perceive those characters as well. So it’s a kind of a complicated mix and we spent entirely too much time editing them to make them work.
Odabashian: The real challenge was we always wanted to keep New Orleans as the central character in some way. So that meant not making it a movie about one character. You know, trying to keep it open all the time, trying to keep it about a cultural sort of portrait of the city.
Stekler: If it makes any sense, this seems to be a story about an election, but it’s not. The election is in service of understanding New Orleans with the other side stories. We did not set out to make a political story. Actually, in many ways, we didn’t want to. But these characters just were the best metaphors and the best characters for understanding what we really wanted to do, which was to get people to understand New Orleans.
Obviously New Orleans was incredibly impacted by the federal government’s response and non-response with Katrina. So it’s rebuilding itself. It’s rebuilding itself through federal policy in housing projects. That housing project story that we have in the story is completely predicated on federal policies. It’s very complex in that if you knock down the old projects, there’s a reason to do that, but at the same time, if you rebuild them the way they are, there’s not enough room for all the people that used to live there. So New Orleans, even though it’s different, it’s part of the United States. At least a little bit.
Alvarez: One of the things that happened after Katrina was a sort of a national narrative about what happened was put into place, especially by the national media. And it was very kind of constricting. One of the big things was that oh, New Orleans essentially was a city that was victimized by bad federal political decisions and things like that, after the storm. While there’s a lot of truth to that, part of the way New Orleans is… they have a kind of a self-destructive streak, which is part of the other side of like, “laissez le bon temps rouler–let’s have a good time” is to not take care of the stuff that they’re supposed to take care of. And we have people in our film who talk about that.
Part of what we tried to do with the film was… that’s the New Orleans perspective, because people in New Orleans know that they aren’t necessarily the best… that governance is not the best thing that they do in their lives. It’s not super well run, it never has been. They’ve accepted a lot of corruption and jokers running things. And it really made a difference after Katrina. There’s a little bit of a morning after hangover. So it’s not all George W. Bush’s fault that New Orleans suffered as much as it did. And we wanted to try to, you know, without saying that directly, we wanted to kind of point people in that direction.
Odabashian: I think one other thing is that dysfunction isn’t necessarily the goal in New Orleans. And there’s an embrace of other things that are more important in life. You know food and music, your day to day lifestyle. So having a train that runs efficiently or having a good school system even, you know aren’t the only things people measure their lives by in New Orleans. And they’re proud of that I think that [they] don’t have the usual list of priorities. [They] have a different set of priorities, basically to enjoy life.
Alvarez: One of the most exciting things about New Orleans today is that there’s been this huge influx over the last few years of college educated, upper middle class kids coming from the other places who came to help after Katrina, fell in love with the city, fell in love with the lifestyle and the culture and have stayed and are using their kind of creative energy to help the city achieve some of its dreams. Everything like putting in bike lanes to affordable housing. There’s a lot of you know economic work, there’s a lot of stuff about politics, but it’s invigorated the city.
Stekler: I think one of the cooler things, at least for us is when we go down there and we see all these young kids that are there, quite frankly, especially when we look at the young filmmakers, I kind of see ourselves 30 years ago.
They’re there, they’re transplants. They come down there, they love the place, its incredible history, incredible music. Just all these cultural things that they’re discovering and they’re putting it on film. And it’s kind of like there’s a cycle. I think New Orleans has always been like that, it’s always attracted people that are looking for something different. And it’s just amazing that it keeps recycling itself over and over.
Alvarez: Stacy Head has become a very disciplined politician. She’s really attacked a government waste and budgetary corruption and things like that, which is a very good platform to run on in New Orleans, because people were really fed up with paying a lot of money in taxes and not getting anything in their services. So I think she’s got a good shot.
Stekler: I think that Stacy was reelected to the city council at large with over 60%, a landslide. She set herself up as the main challenger to Mitch Landrieu. She’s got plenty of African American allies, including people that are on the city council right now. And she’s a much better politician than she was when we filmed her. If I was going to put some money down, I’d be betting on Stacy for mayor in 2018.
Kolker: Barbara’s an operative. Okay. She’s an operative. She’s like one of those people who loves the political process, she loves politics. She loves the people involved. She loves campaigning. She loves doing what you have to do to get the person elected that you want to get elected. For her, it’s about that. And of course she loves Stacy. The love affair is genuine between the two of them. And she’ll do anything for Stacy and she’ll do anything to get Stacy elected to wherever Stacy wants to go. Be that mayor or god knows. But as a politician herself, she greatly prefers to be in the background and trying to pull the levers a little bit.
Alvarez: It was important to us to show a scene where Barbara goes door to door, trying to convince black voters to support Stacy Head, which would not be their natural default vote. And you see what a consummate professional she is. She knows how to mix kind of the personal and the political and bring it together. And you could see that she is totally worth her weight in gold to any candidate she chooses to support.
Alvarez: There’s so many producers on this particular film we didn’t have to hire a crew.
Andy shoots, I do interviews. Peter edits. Paul’s really good at doing research. So between all of us, it’s completely you know a complete self-contained unit. We’ve all worked together a lot over the years. Some of us, like Andy and I, have worked closely together for 35 years. Paul, about every ten years we make a film with Paul. You know we sort of all know each other’s little quirks.
And we really know and love New Orleans. It really was a little bit like falling into a warm bath. And we had to go down there and shoot because you’d walk down the street and you’d greet somebody you knew and they would say, what are you doing? And you’d say oh we’re following Stacy Head. Oh, do you know about so and so and who and who? And that would lead off to another story. It was really kind of a pleasure.
Stekler: I think we bring a lot of recombinant strengths together, in terms of like knowledge of politics and being able to add humor. You know culture, knowledge and just it’s a really nice mix. And the good thing is we only make film every ten years so we get our recovery afterwards.
Kolker: Humor’s hard, though. Making funny movies is not easy. You know, a lot of comedians are depressives in real life. I mean we’re not, we’re not… a lot of filmmakers are too, yeah, I don’t think we are.
But making something that’s funny is not an easy thing to do. We spent an awful lot of time crafting this stuff, because a lot of it’s about timing as any comedian will tell you. But you know, we’d like to think that the way that we reach people is through any number of, any number of dramatic techniques, one of which is humor you know. And we’d like to use humor because people immediately come to our side… when we’re actually funny, when things aren’t just going to lay there. So it’s a technique, but it’s something that we’d honed through the years, that we realized how important it can be to maintain and maintain an audience.
Stekler: Thinking about this broadly, I mean you know some combination of the four of us have made films for POV in every one of your four decades. And they all have something in common. American Tongues back in ’88 or ’89, Louisiana Boys in ’92. Last Man Standing, it was 2004. And this film, Getting Back to Abnormal. And every film has humor and every film has its own challenge. And essentially that’s one of the beauties of being a filmmaker, you have this story or subject in front of you and the challenge is to make it something that an audience will like.
But for me the biggest epiphany and this is right around the time when I was working on Eyes On The Prize, which was, which was a big deal for me, but the epiphany was actually making Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics with Louie and Andy, because our film was falling apart. The story that we thought we had wasn’t there. And all of a sudden we had to throw everything up in the air and say, “How do we make a film out of this amazingly weird material?”
And it was funny. And it was completely different than anything I’d ever done before. And it said to me, “Oh you’re making a film here, you’re not making a thesis. You know that when you find something that’s different, you go with that. When you find something that works as opposed to what you had thought beforehand, that’s what makes a good film. That’s part of the beauty. No matter how you know interesting sometimes the dynamics of working with three other guys on a film is, that you learn something. When you stop learning, you probably should stop making films.
Alvarez: I would say the one thing that we’d like audiences to see in any of our movies is that there’s nuance. The world is not black and white, the world is made up of grays. Grays and many different colors. And when you see Getting Back to Abnormal, your mind is supposed to get kind of twisted around. You’re supposed to see that, “Oh, I thought they were good and they’re not so good, but they’re not bad.” That kind of complexity which is the human condition is I think the most interesting thing about life and that’s why we make films. We hope our audiences will come along on that ride.
Kolker: Specifically with this particular movie, we want our audience to feel as if at the end of having spent 90 minutes with us in our movie, that you’ve been to New Orleans, but you’ve had an experience with New Orleans that you typically would not have if you just dropped in. We’re showing you something and we’re showing you an aspect of the city, the culture, the kind of wonderful people who populate it. You would not have that opportunity if you hadn’t spent some time with us.