The making of the ‘New York Times’ documentary about Christine Quinn
On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 12, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her top political strategist, Josh Isay, had lunch with three journalists from The New York Times at Plein Sud, the airy French brasserie in the bottom of Tribeca's Smyth Hotel, a few blocks from City Hall.
The journalists—including Carolyn Ryan, who was metro editor at the time, and Rick Berke, who'd just been named to a senior video content role—were there to pitch Quinn on a documentary about her historic mayoral candidacy.
The Times saw a compelling story in Quinn. If she won, the feature would provide a behind-the-scenes portrait of New York's first female, openly gay mayor; if she lost, it would make for a great narrative about the heir apparent who fell from favor.
Quinn's camp seemed interested, but they didn't follow through right away. In fact the Times had to keep pushing for months. At one point, sensing defeat, they almost decided to throw in the towel and call it a day.
But in early August, around the time of rival candidate Anthony Weiner's very public self-destruction, Quinn finally gave the Times what it wanted: unprecedented access to her daily life along the trail, on the condition that the Times not release any of the footage until she was either out of the race or sitting pretty in Gracie Mansion.
The result is a half-hour film, "Hers to Lose: Inside Christine Quinn's Bid for Mayor," that the Times is promoting today as the second installment in a new "Times Documentary" series.
"I'm hoping it will have a universal appeal, because it really shows people what it's like to run for office, what you're up against and how that's compounded when you're in New York City," said Berke, who was appointed senior editor and director of video content in February as part of an expansion of the Times' web-video strategy.
"With the scrum of the press, it can be unforgiving, and it's also compounded when you're a woman and when you're openly gay," he said. "All these things made it really tough for her. [The documentary] also shows a candidate's unique relationship with her spouse [Kim Catullo], and I can't think of many other films that have captured that dynamic in the way this one does."
In filming Quinn, a team of Times videographers led by Brent McDonald trailed the candidate five days a week for a month. About half of that time was spent at public events, but Quinn also was required to invite the videographers into as many private moments as possible—debate prep, scenes inside her home on the morning of the primary, inside her hotel room as the returns were coming in later that night, and so on.
In a brief phone interview Wednesday evening as the Times was preparing to roll out a trailer for "Hers to Lose" on its homepage, Berke described some of the film's most powerful moments.
"You see how devastated she is when she's confronted by hecklers," he said. "There's one scene when a guy says, 'I will never forgive you for your vote on term limits.' In another, she's confronted by hecklers outside her apartment, and you can see the distress on her face as she goes into her van." Also poignant, Berke said: "On election night in her hotel room when she's comforted by her wife before she concedes."
Asked before the film's debut if there were any concerns about how Quinn would be portrayed, Mike Morey, who served as her communications director during the campaign, said, "Our hope is that it provides an accurate and fair examination of the campaign and what goes into running for mayor of New York."
Morey also shed some light on why Quinn agreed to such an intimate exercise.
"The New York Times is the paper of record for the city. After the presidency, mayor of New York is arguably the most high-profile job in America," he said. "We agreed to participate because we felt that it could provide a window for New Yorkers to see what it really means to run a campaign of this magnitude and all of the effort, emotion, and energy that gets brought to it."
Here's a trailer for the film: