Filmmakers Seth Kramer, Jeremy Newberger, and Daniel A. Miller: the men behind Evocateur.
by Justin Tucker
For a short time in the late 1980s, The Morton Downey Jr. Show was one of the most provocative talk-shows on television. Downey’s angry, coarse style of conservatism was a hit with audiences, who cheered as his guests bickered, brawled or were kicked off the set. For better or worse, he set the stage for other personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Springer and Glenn Beck.
Filmmakers Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger took it upon themselves to discover who Morton Downey, Jr. really was and why his show was able to resonate so well with audiences in the waning years of the Reagan administration. Their findings are now presented in the thought-provoking and incredibly entertaining documentary Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, which premieres on CNN beginning August 20th.
Ahead of its cable news debut, I was able to chat with co-director Jeremy Newberger about why Mort is an important figure in television history and how his legacy is still being felt today. Below is a slightly edited transcript of our exchange.
UR Chicago: Long before you became a filmmaker, how much were you like the other teenage boys that partially made up Mort’s rowdy audience?
Jeremy Newberger: I was in high school in 87 and 88, the years that The Morton Downey Jr. Show was on the air, and it was really popular amongst my peer group. It was on at 11, the hour you were irresponsibly still awake when you had school the next day. It was a guy pretty much chain smoking, which was something we were all experimenting with at the time. And it was the arguments that you were having with your friends about mundane things, but instead it was the topics of the day.
Whether it was the big prime case, like Tawana Brawley that was happening, or it was Israel and Palestinians, or abortion. It was the kind of thing that your social studies teacher would politely bring up as a debate topic in class, but on The Morton Downey Jr. Show, it was screaming, it was arguing, sometimes it was fistfights.
I think I perfectly represent the people in the film you see who were in that audience. The one caveat was I did not have a car, so I could not make it to Secaucus, New Jersey, to go to a taping. So, this film is almost one big answer to my inability to attend the show.
UR: Why did the story of Morton Downey, Jr. have to be told?
JN: My partners Dan and Seth and I had just come back from Sundance for another film we did called The Linguists. We were looking for a next show topic, and when we were at lunch one day we had this epiphany that all three of us watched Morton Downey, Jr.
Thinking about it, Mort was a conservative appealing to the blue collar. He was against rock ‘n’ roll music. He was against [violent horror] films. It was just strange to us to think back on what he first stood for, which was really far from where we find ourselves now as adults. We thought it would be some therapeutic mission to find out what was appealing about the show to us when we were that age.
The discovery process from investigating led us to see that it’s a looped phenomenon. Every couple of years, a new Mort comes on the scene, appeals to this anger... If it’s done right with the right theatrics it's like a magnetic force that pulls you in to watch it. If you need an example, right now look no further than our good billionaire, Donald Trump.
UR: One of the appealing the things about the film is that it utilizes unconventional documentary techniques. Why did you choose to use things like animation?
JN: Part of the Morton Downey, Jr. story deals with things that weren’t caught on camera. [These are] stories from his confidants, his best friend, his daughter. We wanted a way to not recreate, but illustrate what those moments were. We thought if we did it with animation, we could turn them also into parables where Mort’s anger can be manifested by a creature, whether it’s a minotaur or a dragon; it gave us license play with some of the emotions that Morton Downey, Jr. had.
It was also a nod by us to that era. The animation was very purposely in the style of those 80s rock ‘n’ roll animated films like Heavy Metal or The Wall. It was purposely in that style to take you back to that time period...and to be much in the circus and have as much theatrics as the show did.
UR: What was your process for finding interview subjects? Which subject was the most surprising or provided the most interesting insight?
JN: What we set out to do was to go back in time to 1987 to 1989, and we went through The Morton Downey Jr. Show tapes looking to see who was still relevant, who was still alive, who made an impact on the show. There were some people that we spoke to who were recurring characters on the show. Whether it was attorney Alan Dershowitz, attorney Gloria Allred, Guardian Angel Curtis Sliwa — there were people that were so prominently featured on the show that we had to talk with them because we had to figure out why they were on the show or what it meant to them or how it helped launch their career.
Some people said, “Yes, certainly, I can look back at that and share with you.” And others didn’t want any part of remembering or revisiting that time. [He chuckles.] Maybe they don’t look so fondly on it. It was our mission to talk to people who made the show, the people who went to the show as an audience, and the people who were on the show. Those were the first three groups of people we were looking to talk to.
Then as we pulled back a little bit [and] learned a little more about Morton Downey, we wanted to talk with...other talk show hosts of the era. That’s why you see people like Richard Bey and Sally Jessy Raphael.
UR: How did your perception of Mort change as you made the film?
JN: I was able to connect the dots between the appeal of Mort to an adolescent and his appeal to me now that I have forty-plus years on me. I think when I was a kid, I liked the maniac who unpredictably was going to throw someone off the show. It had the theatrics of [professional wrestling], which I also watched as a kid.
Now as an adult, I see his theatrics as entertainment. If you’re a political junkie who watches cable or reads articles about political fighting, there’s something to this day that is interesting about how these media types interact. As a dissection of media, I found it really interesting from that perspective.
UR: You have explored dying languages and rude talk-show hosts. What’s next for Ironbound Films?
JN: We’re putting the finishing touches on a film called The Anthropologist. This is more of a science road-trip film, but it analyzes climate change through the prism of anthropology.
Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie premieres on August 20th at 8 PM CST on CNN. Check local listings.