Interview: Harry Shearer, Actor/ Activist/ Documentarian

by Joshua Goldfond

Harry Shearer is a legendary performer and comedic talent whose career has spanned over five decades. He has worked in radio, television, music and film, earning widespread critical and popular acclaim, numerous Emmy and Grammy nominations, and his own Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is a veteran of dozens of films and television programs, including the 1984 cult hit This Is Spinal Tap, but is most famous for his work on the iconic animated sitcom, The Simpsons. For over 22 years he has voiced a truly staggering array of characters, including Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Kent Brockman, Rainier Wolfcastle, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders and Dr. Hibbert.

In the aftermath of New Orleans’ devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina, Shearer used his celebrity to become a vocal advocate for the city he had been in love with since 1988. In 2010, he directed the The Big Uneasy, a powerful and disquieting documentary that dismantles the notion that the city’s flooding was an unavoidable consequence of “natural disaster”. Through historical research and whistleblower interviews, the film turns its scrutiny to the powerful Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who were responsible for building the faulty levees that failed during the storm. It is found to be an organization beset by widespread incompetence and corruption, whose poorly conceived boondoggles often cause environmental damage which is then exacerbated by even more expensive and problematic solutions. Nevertheless, each year sees millions of dollars in federal funds granted to USACE-linked contractors around the nation, who keep the cycle going by funneling a portion back to their earnings back to legislators through gifts and campaign contributions.

The Big Uneasy features the participation of numerous New Orleans residents, including actors Wendell Pierce, John Goodman and Brad Pitt. It has been screened at festivals around the world and has won numerous accolades, although many figures of influence in the American government and media have frustratingly chosen to downplay or ignore its thesis.

Shearer spoke with The Oculus Online in early March of 2012.

I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about your own relationship with New Orleans. What first brought you to the city, and what has kept you there?

Both are relatively easy to answer.   I came here for Jazzfest one weekend in 1988, and discovered not only a remarkable event, but a remarkable city encircling it.   What’s kept me coming back, beyond the music, the food, the culture of a 300-year old place, is the nature of community, which mediates how people behave toward and with each other.   It’s like nowhere else in this country.

When did you first have the idea of creating a documentary about Katrina? How did you find the overall experience of your directorial debut?

First of all, nomenclature.   Katrina was a hurricane.   I made a documentary about what caused the flooding, which definitely was not a hurricane.   I had been growing increasingly frustrated with mainstream media’s ability to ignore the growing public record of evidence about the causation of the disaster, and I’d done interviews on my radio program with the investigators (Drs. Bea and Van Heerden) as well as the whistleblower from the Corps.   But I never thought of making a film until October 2009, when President Obama held a town hall in New Orleans and referred to the flooding as a “natural disaster”.   That was the moment when I realized that radio, and blogging about the subject in HuffPo (which I was doing fairly frequently), were not enough to impinge on the now-ossified narrative of “natural disaster, city below sea level”.  I asked myself what could impinge, and the answer was a feature-length documentary.

What has been the overall reaction to the documentary? Has there been any backlash from the Army Corps of Engineers, or have they been largely quiet on the matter? Have there been any new developments with the film’s three protagonists? 

The main reaction has been a rigorous effort by the NY-DC-based media, including NPR and HBO, to ignore the story (HBO: “We’ve done New Orleans”).  The Corps has been basically quiescent, though Corps officials and members have been observed to show up at several of the screenings, particularly in DC and Sacramento. Dr. Van Heerden is pursuing his wrongful dismissal lawsuit against LSU, buoyed by a finding last year from the AAUP’s investigating committee that his firing was indeed retaliation for his public criticism of the Corps and compromised academic freedom at the “university”.  Dr. Bea tells me he’s found a medical solution for his vocal cords and is teaching again.  And Maria Garzino is still working at the Corps office in Los Angeles.

In addition to the environmental and personal toll brought by the hurricane, the event also exposed ugly corruption at the heart of the city’s police department. In particular, the Danziger Bridge Shootings and the death of Henry Glover. Has the post-Katrina era brought any sort of civic reform or transparency to local law enforcement and government?

Major bottom-up reform in many areas of government–i.e., reform of the levee boards, reform of the tax-assessor system, ouster of the previous DA.   As for the NOPD, citizen-backed reform doesn’t seem possible there, but the national Justice Department has moved in to try to put together a consent decree for changed practices similar to what they imposed on LAPD after the Rampart Street (LA) debacle.   In this case, DOJ was invited into town by the Mayor.

How would you characterize the general mood of the city in early 2012? Is it optimistic? Despairing? Do most people feel that they have received sufficient support from the nation and the government, or do they feel forgotten? 

Yes.  All of the above.  Depending on class and area.  Great outpouring of entrepreneurial energy.  Continuing problem with police shootings of (black) citizens.  Slow kinda progress in schools.  Vibrant art and music scenes.  Seriously bustling restaurant industry.  Major year for big events–Sugar Bowl, BCS, Men’s Final Four, Super Bowl.  Serious state-imposed cutbacks in mental-health budget.  Continued delay in replacing Charity Hospital, which should have been repaired immediately.

To what extent has the culture of the city changed in the aftermath of Katrina? Has the widespread emigration increased gentrification? Are many displaced families coming back?

People are coming back all the time.  And new people, drawn by entrepreneurial opportunity, are coming in.  NOLA culture is nothing but resilient, having absorbed almost constant waves of newcomers over the centuries.   A legendary port town, after all, with her legs spread wide.   So, the culture seems intact, if evolving–many new Carnival krewes and sub-krewes and quasi-krewes springing up, all partaking of the essence of Carnival spirit–non-commercial, upending of the social order, beauty, changed identity.

Near the end of your documentary, you discuss the pair of options being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers for the revamping of the city’s levees. You also examine a so-called “Third Option”, which featured a more ecologically-minded approach designed by Amsterdam engineers. Do you think that Americans have a more difficult time embracing ecological solutions to urban development, and if so, can this be changed? It seems like the standard solutions always involve brute mechanization.

The Dutch approach will happen over the Corps’ dead body.   I don’t blame “Americans”, I blame the organization we’ve inherited.   When you explain the principles the Dutch, through long periods of trial and error, have come upon, Americans have no trouble in understanding them.

On a more upbeat note, I was wondering if there were any off-the-beaten spots that you would suggest to NOLA visitors. Anyone can find Bourbon Street, but what else in the city’s arts/history/culture would you recommend to a first-time visitor?

Frenchmen Street for its profusion of music clubs of all types.   Julia Street for its galleries.   The Contemporary Arts Center and Ogden Museum, across the street from each other, for a great swath of what’s interesting in regional art. And the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme for a glimpse of the Mardi Gras Indian culture.

Do you have any other projects coming up that you’d care to mention? Would you ever consider directing anything again?

I’m always up for directing, but I don’t think I’ll do another film that challenges the dominant media narrative of a major news event.   I’m currently exec-producing/co-writing/starring in a project for British TV (Sky Arts) about the more interesting conversations on the Nixon tapes, and I’m finishing up a record of songs with major guest artists performing on it.   And my video “art” piece, “Silent Echo Chamber”, is still touring the country, I think currently at a museum in Knoxville.

For more information on The Big Uneasy, please check its website at www.TheBigUneasy.com. The film is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix. 

Information on Harry Shearer’s numerous projects can be found on his website, www.HarryShearer.com.

He can be followed on Twitter: @theHarryShearer.