By Betsy Rothstein - 09/19/06 12:00 AM EDT
This week, 20 Questions profiles Ivy Meeropol, the filmmaker who made The Hill reality show for The Sundance Channel, which follows the lives of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and his aides.
The new Sundance show that you created, The Hill, is a big hit. Did you expect it to do so well?
“It’s a hit? I’m thrilled to hear that. It can be a tricky thing, trying to make the legislative process fun and entertaining without dumbing it down.”
How hard was it to convince Wexler to allow you to film him and his aides day in and day out?
“Congressman Wexler was the easiest one of the group to convince, mainly because he knew the show would be more focused on his staff. He also quickly embraced my pitch that this was a great way to pull the curtain back on Congress. He was not afraid to show what goes on.”
“I worked for Wexler’s predecessor, and was acquainted with Wexler and some of his staff. They were more willing to trust me, a former staffer, than if I’d been a complete stranger. Wexler was a perfect Congressman to follow because he is so engaged with his staff. He’s also somewhat of a maverick Democrat so we get to follow not only the fight against the Republican leadership but also, at times, the struggle with his own leadership.”
How much time did you spend with him and his staff?
“Let’s just say I became part of the furniture. We filmed roughly 250 hours of footage and I was with them on and off from Spring 2004 until late Fall 2005.”
Did they ever get on your nerves, creative differences as they say?
“No, I was routinely grateful for the access they were giving me. If anyone got on anyone’s nerves it was me!”
“I love the scene where Todd, the new guy, is telling Eric and Jonathan about all of the issues he’d like to handle and finally Eric says “Here’s how it works: You get the crappy issues.”
Any tense moments in filming?
“It was very tense when Wexler was making the tough decision on how to vote (in Nov. 2005) on the Republican response to Murtha’s resolution [to redeploy troops out of Iraq]. At first, the staff and Wexler weren’t even sure they wanted us in the room but we persevered. As a result, it’s one of the most revealing and powerful episodes.”
Cost to make ?
“Under a million.”
Some say Wexler shouldn’t have allowed this. What do you say to naysayers?
“What are they trying to hide?”
Which character is your favorite?
“I love all of my children equally.”
The talk is that aide Haley Soifer is ridiculously idealistic and spokeswoman Lale Mamaux is too aggressive. Do you agree?
“I love both Haley’s idealism and Lale’s aggressiveness. They are both essential character traits for “fighting the good fight.”
Did you want tension on the set?
“There is no drama without conflict so in that sense, yes. But I also care very much about the staff and Congressman so I didn’t enjoy seeing them upset. They’re pretty resilient though, and what could seem like a major fight would be over before it started.”
Did they try to get their dirty hands on the editing?
“They watched rough cuts with great interest and some alarm but never tried to change the direction I was going.”
Do you have more or less respect for congressional staff since you’ve made the film?
“Even more respect.”
From what you’ve seen, what’s wrong with Congress?
“Nothing that a major campaign finance reform law couldn’t fix but pertaining to The Hill, I would say members need to really engage with their staff more, use them to challenge their own positions.”
You worked for former Rep. Harry Johnston (R-Fla.). Your position?
What nationality is Meeropol?
Did you enjoy being a Hill aide?
“I loved the job and I made this show in part to entice young people to enter politics via the same route.”
Have things changed much?
“The pay seems to be better.”
HBO broadcast your 2004 documentary, “Heir to Execution.” What’s next?
“A film based on the true story of an American soldier used as a guinea pig by the U.S. military in the LSD experiments of the 1950s.”