Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Brian Friedman was interviewed by Will Johnston. New Olreanian Brian Friedman has been a journalist for The Gambit, NolaVie, ViaNolaVie, and various other publications. He also created and directed the film, King of New Orleans. In this interview, Johnston and Friedman discuss muckraking in journalism, and how our presses need to push themselves to lean into research and really check their sources (*cough, Meredith McIver).
Who: Brian Friedman
What: Filmmaker, writer, and journalist
A Quotable Quote: “There’s this expression that I like that says, there are two kinds of people in the world, ‘there are people that write and then people that are lucky enough not to have to.’ So, it [The King of New Orleans] really was something I had to do.”
What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story? What do you make of these topics’ relations to your own experiences?
BF: As an arts and entertainment based reporter I get a lot of assignments from friends and things they’re interested in. I’m a little bit of a homebody, so I let my friends tell me what’s really going on out there and stuff that’s cool. But other than that, it’s really just a gut feeling or if I can help a nonprofit that I think is doing good work get some notoriety or help an artist who’s up-and-coming get a little attention, then that’s something I want to do. I’m really interested in the process of an artist. What’s their daily routine? Do they spend hours at it a day or just a little bit of time but every day?
Otherwise, I enjoy quirky stories. I grew up with a girl whose house got hit by a meteor when she was in high school, so I brought in her dad to talk about that incident. Anything that just makes me say, ‘oh, wow,’ I’m going to be interested in.
When following your subjects, how do you take notes? Are there ways journalists can be too invasive when gathering information?
BF: I have always brought a recorder with me, and that’s my main way of getting the information. I used to carry a notebook with me and realized I was only using it as a prop. I was just looking at it because I can’t listen and write at the same time, so ultimately, I just started bringing the recorder. You do run a little bit of risk, if something happens — if your recorder breaks that day. But in 15 years of being a reporter, I’ve never had that happen. Obviously, I don’t put the recorder right in their face, but I just try and talk to them like I would with anyone. I’m interested, inquisitive, and I try to keep it conversational and ultimately let them do most of the work.
How do you define alternative and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting your definition?
BF: Wow alternative? You mean alternative media?
BF: I think we’re still in the middle of upheaval in terms of the press and the business model. And so, I’m not sure you can really call anything alternative because everything still seems like [it’s] in the state of flux. Reporters are still losing their jobs all over the country. I feel like until that stops happening it’s not even worth classifying what’s alternative. We need to work on the business model first.
I did some research on your work and what you have written about and definitely the thing that really stuck out to me was The King of New Orleans. What was your main inspiration for the movie?
BF: Well, I could talk for an hour about this. There’s this expression that I like that says, there are two kinds of people in the world, ‘there are people that write and then people that are lucky enough not to have to.’ So, it [The King of New Orleans] really was something I had to do.
The main character, Larry Shirt, was someone who is based on a real person; although, he’s a cab driver in Boston where I met him. I met him at sort of a really great time in my college career and then at the very end of college where everything kind of turned around and was awful. I hadn’t even graduated. I’d failed a class so, I’d have to come back later. But my last cab ride to the airport who should pick me up, but the same cab driver and that theme of synchronicity is something that is throughout the whole movie. But it was really just one of those lucky things where I was almost given this great character. The first time I met him, I remember I used to carry a notebook around with me and I was writing down stuff from our conversation and some of the writing is literally from that conversation, and then to just have him show up again, that moment, it kind of gave me chills. I was like, ‘I have to write about this.’
Yet, it still took a very long time.
It started as a screenplay, then it became a novel, but then I realized I don’t really read a lot of novels, so I decided I’m going to shoot for the stars and try to make a movie. I was just lucky to have grown up with a guy named Chike Ozah who directed Kanye West’s first music video, before Kanye went nuts. I knew if he [Ozah] shot it [The King of New Orleans], it would look terrific, and he wanted to do it, so it’s just a great collaboration. Very low budget and we were lucky enough to go to some film fests and win a couple. It has easily been the greatest experience of my life, everything surrounding it, even the challenges.
I had one question I was going to ask you, but I guess I kind of want to know what were some like the biggest challenges you faced?
BF: For reporting or the movie?
BF: Any time you’re going to make a movie the first challenge you’re going to face is getting enough money, and so I wrote it in an attempt to make it as cheap as possible. Most of it does take place in the cab. I’d say 75%, and so the budget was a hundred thousand dollars, which is a lot but, relative to other movies, it was not expensive at all.
The other challenge was finding the second lead actor. For the main character, someone read the script and said, ‘You want Dave Jensen.’ I said, ‘ok,’ and the moment I met Dave Jensen I was like wow, ‘this is the guy; I can’t believe how much this guy embodies the character and his performance was amazing.’ He won best actor at a couple film fests, and it was so easy that we thought it was going to be that easy casting all the roles.
For the second lead, who’s a character kind of based on me, we looked at two people and picked one guy and then shot the whole movie. Maybe we were oblivious because of the excitement of making a movie, but we didn’t realize that the kid playing me just wasn’t right. It’s funny because I was having that thought. I was like, ‘well, we kind of blew it because this guy just wasn’t right,’ and I thought, ‘well no one is going to want to fix it.’ Turns out everyone wanted to do the same thing. They wanted to re-shoot the scenes with a different actor. This time we brought in 15 actors, had a lengthy casting process, found the right kid for the role, re-shot every scene, which is about 30% of the movie and then got the movie we wanted to have. I think that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in terms of the perseverance because it could have been a so-so product because of the one actor. But, we got everyone back together for another maybe a week and a half, did everything again, and it was actually helpful because there were other little mistakes we might have made with the sound in certain respects. This time we could fix those, so it was a better movie that way as well. That was definitely the biggest challenge.
What sparked your interest in the Meredith McIver story? And what drove you to pursue the end of it?
BF: Where to even begin. There was so much. Leading up to the 2016 election that just seemed ridiculously wrong because of Trump obviously, but also the way that the press was covering him seemed wrong as well to me. He was getting away with a lot of things that other candidates would not get away with. For instance, his taxes. The networks could have said, ‘until you let people see your taxes we’re not going to have you to the debate.’ There are things that they could have held, or they could have called him on more of his BS. And nothing to me exemplified that more than the Meredith McIver situation.
This was the woman who came forward to accept responsibility for plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech from 2008 for Melania in 2016. First of all, that in itself is just nuts. Not only did the future first lady get busted for plagiarizing; she plagiarized the former first lady. You cannot come up with anything like that. So that was a ridiculous story, but the thing that jumped out at me first was the ridiculous ways that the Trump’s organization was trying to explain it. They sent Sean Spicer on cable TV with a My Little Pony toy box claiming that some of the words from Melania’s speech were on the box. That the words were so ubiquitous that, ‘Look they are on this.’ He literally had a My Little Pony toy.
This went on for like a day and a half and then finally this woman named Meredith McIver steps forward, and the thing that really jumped out when the story broke, was anytime anyone does anything in the news you see a picture of their face. This time, they didn’t show a picture of her face, they just showed a picture of the statement that she had written. I thought, ‘that’s kind of weird.’
Then Joy Reid on MSNBC, I don’t know if you ever watch her, but she tweeted, ‘serious question has anyone ever seen this woman?’ Because Trump has made up people before, John Miller and John Baron for example, to talk to the press. That’s when something clicked. I was like, okay, now there’s precedent and the more people started looking into the Meredith case, the harder it was to find her and the more weird stuff that starting popping up. Social media accounts popped up out of the blue that were clearly fake. Photo shopped pictures of her. I had someone that reached out to me that said they were on the campaign back in 2016 and they know about Meredith. They wanted to reach out, and then they got scared. They said ‘I’m concerned about what’s going to happen. I’m concerned about how they pressure people,’ and it just became clear that something was off about this whole story. Was she another John Miller or John Baron? I don’t know, but I do know that I called almost, no, I called every reporter that wrote a story about her. None of them spoke to her. None of them even laid eyes on her. I would speak to people at The New York Times and The Washington Post, and they would say things like, ‘Oh we tried to reach out to her, but it didn’t work out,’ and I was like, ‘That’s it?’
One person at the Associate Press said, “Well, you find her.” David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize was interested way back for a little while and then lost interest, but he told me something that sticks out. He said that the research department at The Washington Post just assumed she was real. Isn’t assuming something the exact opposite of doing research? I think it’s literally the opposite, and this is The Washington Post. I don’t know if you checked out the parade?
Yeah, I did.
I did that. A parade down 5th Avenue, I just thought someone would notice. It didn’t work and ultimately I guess I kind of gave up. I went after it harder than almost anyone, but even I couldn’t keep doing it.
But lately the issue has come back around with all the talk about Trump’s finances and his taxes based on what we were told about Meredith. She wrote his business emails for years. I talked to Mark Cuban. He communicated with Trump for 10 years through Meredith’s emails. He never spoke to her on the phone. He never met her, so I’m assuming a lot of other people were communicating with Trump through her, so this is somebody who I think Congress should talk to, and it’s someone who at least the press should lay eyes on.
Honestly, I still don’t know the hundred percent truth about her story; I know she didn’t write that speech, but I just know the press needs to look into it more. I knew that they blew it back then and it was symbolic of all the ways they blew it. They were too interested in access to the president and to Trump, too interested in ratings, too interested in their book deals, and too interested in both sides. They focused on Hillary’s emails way more than they should have. To me, Meredith is a symbol of all the ways that the media failed us in 2016, and I think we still should know the truth about it. I think it’s going to either tell us a lot about Trump if you can find her and if you can’t it’s going to tell us a lot about the press and how they failed us.
I saw you covered a lot of local stories for ViaNolaVie and The Gambit. Do you think that covering New Orleans has influenced or forced you to develop your writing in any specific way?
BF: I would answer that more in the sense of I think it’s just got a wealth of material. I’m not sure how much it has influenced me and my style. Maybe it’s spoiled me for writing for other places, especially in arts and entertainment. There is something around every corner, and it’s usually something pretty authentic with a lot of history and a lot of stories behind it. My dad is from Des Moines. Do I think that there are interesting stories in Des Moines? Absolutely? But I think a place like New Orleans has a lot of low-hanging fruit.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught at Tulane University by Kelley Crawford. The interview has been has been edited and reconfigured for publication.