What The Hell Has Harry Shearer So Angry?August 31, 2011

What The Hell Has Harry Shearer So Angry?


On Demand Weekly's VOD Spotlight highlights stories from the On Demand industry. Chris Claro interviews actor turned director Harry Shearer about his film THE  BIG UNEASY (FilmBuff). Read our review of the film too here.


What The Hell Has Harry Shearer So Angry?
On Demand Weekly’s Chris Claro talks to a funny man about a serious documentary.

For comedy aficionados, Harry Shearer’s name was familiar long before “The Simpsons.” Though he broke through as a child actor in the late 50s on “Leave it to Beaver,” it was the 70s and 80s when Shearer started to make an impact on the world of funny. From writing films and albums with Albert Brooks to two stints as a regular on “Saturday Night Live,” to his creation of the indelible Derek Smalls, one third of Spinal Tap, Shearer’s comedy has always both wickedly funny and shrewdly observant.


Harry Shearer / THE BIG UNEASY (FilmBuff)

Now, with 23 seasons as a cast member of “The Simpsons” to his name, Shearer has headed in yet another direction, as a documentarian, with his new film, THE BIG UNEASY, currently on demand. A study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Shearer’s film examines the obfuscations of the Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of the levee breaches, and the whistleblowers who tried to stand up for their city.

Shearer has been a resident of New Orleans since 1997 his love for the city was a primary motivator in making the film. “My wife and I got a house in the French Quarter in 2006. New Orleans is a place that, if you talk its language, it speaks to you in very seductive tones.”

THE BIG UNEASY arose out of Shearer’s impatience with the perception that Katrina was a natural disaster, rather than one that resulted from outdated engineering and bottlenecks of bureaucracy. “I had a long fuse and a short fuse that moved me to make the film,” says Shearer. “The long fuse was that my property wasn’t damaged so I had the good fortune to have the energy and time to pay attention all this stuff. I was blogging about it in the Huffington Post and interviewing local people on my radio show and getting increasingly frustrated with the failure of the national media to pick up on the story.”



“This was one of the two major news stories of the first decade of this century,” says Shearer. “It would be nice if people actually understood what happened. Unfortunately, the national news providers didn’t see that as their job, so a guy from the comedy world had to come in to do the work.”


Shearer’s outrage at the portrayal of his adopted home as a shell of its former self suffuses THE BIG UNEASY with a palpable heartbeat. The film offers a forum both for the investigators who attempt to uncover the misdeeds of the Army Corps of Engineers and the people of New Orleans, who continue to rebuild, almost six years after Katrina hit.

“There’s nobody in town who was untouched by the flood,” Shearer says.
“It wasn’t limited to a small part of New Orleans, it was the entire city. You have no idea who’s walking around with this tape running in their head of finding their mom or dad drowned in the attic. That’s just ever-present.”



Despite the undercurrent of tragedy that pervades THE BIG UNEASY, Shearer sought to imbue the film with a sense of promise and a nod to the resilience of New Orleanians, including one who says she knows the Corps of Engineers won’t repeat their mistakes. “I put that in there because it’s an up note,” says Shearer, but he had other motives as well. “In the fullness of time, as has happened, I hoped that some people from the Corps of Engineers would see that woman saying ‘we have faith in the Corps that they won’t screw up again.’”

Though Shearer appears in THE BIG UNEASY, he does so only sporadically, as a guide for the audience. “I didn’t want to upstage the people in the film,” he says. “I didn’t want people thinking ‘what’s a guy from “The Simpsons” doing telling me about engineering?’ So I walked folks into the depths of the story and said ‘ok, now you’re swimming.’”

As an entertainer, Shearer was intent on making THE BIG UNEASY a “movie” as opposed to a “film.” “I wanted it to look great,” he relates, “so I hired Arlene Nelson as cinematographer who has already won a festival award for her work on THE BIG UNEASY.”

Nelson’s HD camerawork brings out the natural beauty of New Orleans and its environs. “We shot on HD,” Shearer says, “because you may never end up showing it on film.” Due to the availability of exhibition through VOD and DVD, “it may always exist in a digital realm, since making prints and transfers costs so much.”

Shearer, who was mining the airwaves for media treasures with one of the first consumer satellite dishes almost thirty years ago, is hyper aware of the fact that most of us our consuming our video digitally, so he appreciates the opportunity presented to him by alternate methods of distribution. “There’s a nice sweet spot where everybody who sees on demand or on DVD is going to see, pretty much, the best version of the film,” says Shearer.


The filmmaker is also aware that DVD and VOD will give him a chance to reach the largest audience. “The two words I said to my team during the production process were ‘maximum eyeballs.’ Not ‘maximum money.’ When you’re trying to undo five years of systematic misinformation, you’ve got to reach everybody that you can.”

With a penetrating point of view, an accessible voice, and a forward-thinking attitude about reaching an audience, Harry Shearer gains instant credibility as a documentarian with THE BIG UNEASY. For an entertaining and enlightening look at a dead-serious subject, grab it on demand.


- Chris Claro


Chris Claro is a contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. He is a former Director of Promotion for Sundance Channel and now works as a writer, producer, and media educator. He is a regular contributor to dvdverdict.com and contributor to the Eyes and Ears section of huffingtonpost.com


Look for THE BIG UNEASY (FilmBuff) under your cable system's Movie On Demand section.

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