For the past few months, Roche has been working in New Orleans with actor, artist, musician, and satirist Harry Shearer on The Big Uneasy, a feature documentary that exposes engineering failures as the true cause of the Katrina tragedy and how it could have been prevented.
With The Big Uneasy set to screen for one day only on Monday, August 30th at 7:00pm & 9:30pm at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, I reached out to Tom to talk politics, docs, music, radio and the importance of the French article "le."
This has been quite a year for you—first you win the Atlanta Film Festival audience prize with your passion project about Atlanta icon Alley Pat, and then you disappear for a few months to an editing suite in New Orleans to work with Harry Shearer on this post Katrina doc The Big Uneasy How did you come to get involved in this project?
I edited Unwigged and Unplugged, a concert DVD of the Spinal Tap guys in their street clothes doing acoustic metal last summer. A flawless and hilarious DVD that didn't get much notice. Do yourself a favor and rent it... or do Harry a favor and buy it. Now Harry's wife Judith Owen is an exquisite singer, and when he called me up in November with an editing project I thought it would be a DVD of her music. Instead, he talked about how Pres. Obama had just come to New Orleans and said Katrina was a natural disaster. Arrgh! You just don't say that in NO - and this left Harry fuming enough to propose a serious documentary about this man-made disaster. By February 1 shooting and editing began, and we wrapped the edit late July. So it's pretty up to the minute for a feature movie.
The trailer for The Big Uneasy
It's been said that a documentary comes together in the editing room. How involved were you in creating this project? How collaborative was the process?
Very collaborative. Harry's done all sorts of things - all the way back to being a child actor on Jack Benny's radio show. But he'd not done a documentary before, or shall we say a non-mockumentary before. But he knew just what he wanted and just how to proceed, like he'd done a hundred. Yet if I had a better idea we went with that. And he'd graciously step back if an idea of his wasn't working out. He'd make a lousy Republican president.
As an Atlantan who loves New Orleans I knew a fair amount about the Katrina tragedy, but Harry, he'd been there and knew volumes. So after we shot 25 hours of interviews, it fell to me to do the big cut. I asked Harry what if I sit in the edit suite alone for a few weeks and take this hugely complex story and I simply explain it to me. Then I took that 2.5 hr cut to him and we began trimming and cutting any and all redundancies till we got to 90 mins. Well 94.
You've worked with Harry Shearer before. Tell us about how you came to know him, and the history of your relationship with Mr. Shearer.
Harry has done a terrific public radio show for decades no one in Atlanta knows about called LeShow, full of news and music and multi-layered satire bits Firesign Theatre style but where he does all the voices. I recommended the podcast. In the 80's he briefly had a contest or something where people would send him inane uses if the French article le, such as le handbag or le dog kennel. Driving thru Panama City strip mall, I snapped a photo of a storefront Le Discount Seafood and mailed it off. We kept in touch ever since.
Both you and Mr. Shearer are huge fans of music—and music is the lifeblood of New Orleans. How important is music to this project? What music did you listen to while editing the film? How did the musical rhythms of New Orleans affect your editorial decisions?
Music is very important in The Big Uneasy. Note that to tell the story Harry interviewed zero politicians, zero gadflies, just doctors and scientists and engineers. Just the facts ma'am as Sgt. Joe Friday would say. So that can get a little dry unless you get creative, and music helps with both momentum, and applying the brakes too. Now that I have lived there, right in the French Quarter, for 5 months, I really get it. I get the river. Get how the river flows and the music flows and the party flows and the people's psyche flows. It’s gentle and powerful at the same time and tricky to explain. I had on WWOZ all the time. This New Orleans FM station I came to realize, is one of the most fun and diverse and interesting sources of music in the world. In the world. Then almost every night Harry would have some recommended band and after awhile I had discovered stuff on my own to turn him onto. Then even after the gigs we'd stay up late and edit. A movie doesn't just happen. It was a ton of work.
What is unique about Mr. Shearer's take on New Orleans? What new perspective does The Big Uneasy shine on the Post-Katrina saga? What surprised you most about the footage? What is the most important thing you want an audience to take away from this screening?
Lest we forget, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is Sunday, when 1,830 of our neighbors lost their lives. While over 200 deaths were reported in Mississippi where the storm hit with just under Category 4 fury, over 1,000 perished in New Orleans where the storm was only a Category 1. The Big Uneasy is the definitive investigation into why, for New Orleans, this catastrophe was a man made disaster, not a natural one.
You were so moved by a screening at the ATLFF that you offered to assist filmmaker Jeremy Dean master certain technical components of his doc Dare Not Walk Alone. Discuss the importance of politics, point of view, and emotions in documentary filmmaking.
That could take an hour and I have a plane to catch, the New Orleans premiere is just a day away. The short of it is you don't want to do a documentary unless you have a corner on the story, unless you own the story, as CNN would say. Dare Not Walk Alone was radical re-writing of the civil rights history canon. Jeremy unearthed so much amazing stuff all black St Augustinians knew about, yet the word had never gotten out nationally about the terrible shit that went down there in the 1960's. Same thing with my Alley Pat movie. Everybody on the Southside of Atlanta knew this brilliant radio genius and all around raconteur named Alley Pat, yet no one on the Northside of town knew him at all. The story was mine for the taking. And when it came in 1st place at the ATL film fest, they were applauding Alley Pat, not me, and that's great. I just showed up with his story, not mine.
Harry Shearer provides voices for numerous characters on "The Simpsons" including newsman Kent Brockman
For The Big Uneasy , Harry Shearer patiently waited for CNN or NBC or “60 Minutes” to tell the amazing Katrina real deal real story. The Times-Picayune had been covering it for 3 years, the story all New Orleans knew about that no one knew nationally. C'mon network guys, there's a story here! You are journalists! Hello?!? Take a break from Balloon Boy and tell the world! And the mainstream national media just totally dropped the ball. So Harry stepped up to the plate, and frankly it wasn't that difficult. He had the story all to himself, and while that was cool, its odd that a satirist has to be the one to tell us the whole truth.
How did politics, point of view, and emotion impact editorial decisions for The Big Uneasy?
This isn’t a black / white thing, a Republican/Democrat thing. People drowned in their own living rooms by the hundreds. Our fellow Americans. The Army Corps of Engineers was responsible. Period. Their own investigations show this, investigations they tried to whitewash or suppress. And no one, no one in the Corps was fired, demoted or had their wrists slapped. However the people in our film, the independent investigators who wouldn't toe the line, who offered hard proof to rebut the Corps' attempt at cover up, they lost their jobs, or were blacklisted, or were otherwise thrown out on the street. The Big Uneasy gives these heroes a voice. Of course to be journalistically fair, the Army Corps get to have their say too in the film. We gave them plenty of rope.
The Big Uneasy will screen for ONE DAY ONLY on Monday, August 30th at 7:00pm & 9:30pm at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Follow the The Big Uneasy channel on YouTube.
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