The time was nine months after Hurricane Katrina and the place was Tulane University. The university was holding a three-day conference called "Rebirth: People, Places and Culture in New Orleans." A keynote address by Brian Williams, managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News — which bills itself as "the largest single daily source of news in America" — had just ended and the scheduled Q&A session had begun. Harry Shearer, noted satirist, writer, actor, radio host, part-time resident and full-time defender of all things New Orleans, stepped up to the mic to ask a question he had "rehearsed all night," as he tells it.
"I know Brian a little, and I wanted the question to be the appropriate blend of challenging and non-antagonistic," Shearer says. "So I got up and I said, 'We know you're smart, and we know you care because you were in the Superdome for two nights during the worst of it. So please, can you explain why a regular viewer of your broadcast, now nine months later, still doesn't know why New Orleans flooded?' He did a little introductory stuff, most of which was complimentary, and then he said, 'Honestly, we just feel that the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience.'" A look of bewilderment flashes across Shearer's face. "The 'Information Age' is a misnomer," he says. "These people are trafficking in video emoticons. That's what 'the news' is."
Fast forward three-and-a-half years or so, and Shearer is in London watching President Barack Obama's town hall meeting in New Orleans on television. The president refers to Katrina as a "natural disaster" while making a larger point. "A firebomb went off in my head," Shearer recalls with a laugh. He realized the "messaging war" about what happened in the days and weeks after the storm was being lost. "At that moment I decided: What's a more effective way of getting this across than a documentary? And who here in the room with me could do that? Oh, nobody. Must be me, then. A couple of minutes later, I realized it had to be done for the fifth anniversary of the storm."
The result of those epiphanies is The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer's harrowing feature-length exploration of what really caused the catastrophic federal levee failures in New Orleans. The local premiere will take place on Aug. 26 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The film debuts nationwide in some 200 theaters on Aug. 30, including a screening at the Prytania Theatre in the Garden District and another at The Theatres at Canal Place. After the Prytania screening, Shearer will participate in a Q&A session.
Shearer is probably best known for his still-active career in comedy. Some remember him from his two stints on Saturday Night Live during the show's early heyday. Others know him mainly through his ongoing work as the voice of many characters on The Simpsons, including world-class villain Mr. Burns. For some of us he'll always be Derek Smalls, the hilarious-yet-somehow-poignant bass player from This is Spinal Tap, the brilliant satire (and fake documentary) Shearer co-created and co-wrote. But Shearer began his career as a journalist. He currently blogs on The Huffington Post, and — most important — hosts a syndicated news-analysis public radio program, Le Show. It was his work on Le Show that led most directly to his latest career shift to serious documentarian.
"That was my head start," Shearer says of Le Show. Several lead investigators into the levee failures had already appeared on Le Show and figure prominently in The Big Uneasy, especially Dr. Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, and Dr. Robert Bea, professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. "I'd interviewed all these people on the radio, read all their books and sort of steeped myself in this stuff," Shearer says. But he never saw himself as any kind of investigative journalist. "All the work had been done. The modern word for my role is 'aggregator' — someone who's followed this closely enough, and has enough of it stuck in his head to make connections, draw a coherent thread, and organize the material for a moviegoing audience without trivializing it, dumbing it down, or making an educational film."
While Shearer says he felt no pressure to try to bring humor into The Big Uneasy — "I just didn't know how to do that," he says — he was well aware that this was his one shot at correcting what he calls "four-and-a-half years of media misinformation. I had to make sure there wasn't a spare frame. I was determined not to leave anything valuable on the floor. The stuff that you see in lots of documentaries that's meant to tart them up — the eye candy that distracts you momentarily — I didn't have time for that. Yet I still had to make it attractive and somewhat pleasurable."
Shearer says he'd seen a lot of great documentaries over the years, and he recently made his own series of five documentary-style pieces, Crescent City Stories, for the website My Damn Channel. But he had to go back to a time that preceded today's entrenched media malaise to find inspiration for The Big Uneasy. "I think everybody has a template they follow as they do something like this. In my mind I thought — pretentiously enough — what if CBS were still doing CBS Reports, like they used to do in the early days of television? They did great documentaries, and they'd spend a year on a subject. God forbid I should be doing it as well as that."
Making The Big Uneasy is, in itself, an act of media criticism. But the film is necessarily about the Army Corps of Engineers. Funded and therefore controlled by Congress almost entirely through "earmarks" — commonly referred to as "pork barrel" projects when someone else is getting the funds — the Corps' decades of willful mismanagement and neglect lie at the center of The Big Uneasy. Shearer is proud to point out, though, that there are no politicians in his film. "Why would you go to a politician to find out what the facts of the story are? My basic M.O. was that I didn't want anything said on film by anyone who didn't provably know what they were talking about. There's no narrator telling you what to think. I make a few appearances just for connective tissue, but I don't describe what happened."
But what can anyone reasonably expect to achieve with a documentary in 2010? "In the documentary world there's a phrase: 'call to action.' You've got them angry, so what do you want them to do? But I can't tell the audience what to do," Shearer says. "It would trivialize things to put a call to action in there." Instead, he has focused on simply getting out the word. "I think about one thing, and that's getting the maximum number of eyeballs in front of the screen as possible. That's been my mantra from the start. The point is to impact the national conversation, to change the nation's awareness of what happened here and why."
Even arranging a one-night nationwide debut for The Big Uneasy proved a significant challenge. The first distribution company Shearer worked with decided very late in the game that the oil disaster in the gulf — not the flooding of New Orleans — should be the focus of an associated live event then planned for the night of the film's debut. Shearer chose to scrap those plans and work with another distribution company instead. "It's been like pushing a very big rock up a very big hill," Shearer says, but the technical and logistical details for the debut are finally in place.
If Shearer has his way, the nationwide debut will only mark the beginning for The Big Uneasy. "Hopefully we can drive enough people to theaters to get word-of-mouth going, and then we'll start going to colleges, film festivals — wherever we can show it." Shearer financed the film himself because he didn't have time to enlist outside investors if he was going meet his self-imposed deadline of the fifth anniversary of the storm. But this arrangement also gives Shearer the chance to set his own priorities for the entire project. "I don't care how much money it takes in. If it comes to that, we'll give it away," Shearer says. "Ultimately we have to get people to see the film."
Holding to that fifth-anniversary deadline was not just a matter of commemorating the disaster in New Orleans. Shearer fervently believes the milestone constitutes a one-time chance to change the accepted narrative of what happened in the storm while the media is finally paying attention again. "Doing everything possible to get the film seen means enlisting the media," Shearer says. "But if they had told the story in the first place, I wouldn't have had to make the film. There's your irony."
So how might Fox News, for example, frame its coverage of The Big Uneasy? "Mr. Burns unloads on the Corps," Shearer says with a laugh. "But I'm not knocking that. I'd be an idiot to say, 'Don't use my celebrity connections in other fields to bring attention to this.'
"If Mr. Burns can lure people into seeing the film, then that's the way it will be."
• The Big Uneasy will be shown simultaneously around the country in dozens of theaters on Monday, Aug. 30, including New Orleans' Prytania Theater and The Theatres at Canal Place. Shearer will appear at a Q&A after the 7:30 p.m. screening at the Prytania. For more information, visit the film's website at www.thebiguneasy.com.