Andrew Napier On ‘Mad As Hell’: There Were Many Aspects of the Film Cenk Wasn’t Happy With
Andrew Napier’s Mad As Hell follows YouTube news personality Cenk Uygur’s unique rise through the media ranks, from local access host, to radio personality, to YouTube star, to MSNBC host, and back again to YouTube after a controversial falling-out with the cable juggernaut. A larger-than-life, loudly opinionated pundit in the vein of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, Uygur’s passion, ambition, and opportunism is immeasurable, and his online news show, The Young Turks (TYT), is the number one news channel on YouTube with well over 1 billion views. His road to success was one of constant struggle, however, and Napier’s film gives an insider’s look into TYT and Uygur’s fight to change the social consciousness on their terms.
We recently spoke to Napier about the film’s unique release strategy; how he found the heart of the film; the candidness and skepticism of Cenk’s employees and friends; his reaction to the film’s negative criticism; his experience filming while working at TYT; Uygur being uncomfortable with his portrayal; his future project about balls; and much more.
Mad As Hell is available now on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and other streaming and on demand platforms. For more info, visit MadAsHellFilm.com.
You’ve been promoting this film for a few months now. How’s that been going?
We’ve been doing crowd-sourced screenings with the fans, touring around and generating a lot of buzz by having the film play for one night in each major city across the country. It’s played in about 30 different cities leading up to this release where it’s now available on demand. We’ve kind of mixed a non-traditional release with a traditional release, with the objective of making the fans happy and being able to give them the theater experience, but also trying to use the traditional model to reach out to people who have never heard of The Young Turks, but still might be interested in the story.
How did you come up with this hybrid strategy?
The idea came to me at Hot Docs. Before Hot Docs I had shown the film to the cast and crew and our Indiegogo backers, and there was such a great energy in the room. It was almost like a Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of thing. We did a few different screenings at Hot Docs, and at some of them a lot of the people had never heard of TYT or Cenk, and they liked the film for different reasons. I have a built-in fan base for the film, so I’m lucky in that sense, but when somebody who’s never heard of TYT connects with the film, that means so much more. We also did a school screening for middle school and high school students, and it was packed, over 500 students. I’ve never had a better audience, and the Q&A was incredible. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to reward the fans by giving them that Rocky Horror experience in the theater, but I also wanted to reach the people that had never heard of TYT and give them an experience of their own.
It was around the time of Hot Docs when Gathr Films approached me, which is this company that does these “on demand” theatrical screenings, which are kind of like Kickstarter screenings at each theater. Any fan can request their own screening in their town, and if they hit a certain number, the screening happens and everyone gets charged. If they don’t hit the number, no one gets charged. We did that method, and we were very successful. It was phenomenal…so rewarding. Then we opened with Oscilloscope for the traditional release, and it’s been great.
I went into the film thinking it would be a character piece on Cenk, and it is, but what was really interesting was his relationship with mainstream media and the difficulties he faced when trying to make that transition to MSNBC.
The movie is Cenk’s story, but through his story, there’s a lot more in there. That’s one of the things I struggled with when making the film. Is it a bio piece? An American dream story? A look into the corruption of media and politics? It’s all over the place in these different themes, and ultimately, I had to make a decision to go one way or the other. At the core, it’s the story of Cenk Uygur. That’s why I decided to make this movie. He’s such an over-the-top character, and I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. The movie is about all of those things, but all of those things through his story. We’ve gotten a lot of criticism from critics about how the film is too much about Cenk, but that’s what the film is! It’s not a look at the entire media landscape as a whole. Cenk is the heart of the story for me.
What I liked about the movie was that the interviews weren’t with any “yes men” Cenk may or may not have in his circle. Many of the interviewees express some strong skepticism about his vision.
That’s another source of criticism the film’s been getting, that we interview a lot of insiders and no outsiders. One of the reasons for that is that there weren’t any outsiders until recently. Nobody knew who he was! No notable people in the media world knew who he was. I was really worried about that. But I got really lucky in that the inside voices around Cenk are completely honest. Sure, some of them are his childhood friends, but they’ll tell you what they really think. One thing that I think a lot of people miss is that one of his own employees still, to this day, doubts him. There are some employees who don’t believe some of his things, and they were willing to come on camera and talk about that. If I were to make another movie, or make a trilogy–one movie’s not enough for Cenk [laughs]–I would try to get more outsiders, but the interviews in this movie are pretty candid.
You worked with TYT for a while, but you left the company before the film was completed, with full creative control, correct?
Yes. I started working for TYT in 2009. I moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin, where I was born and raised. Ever since I was seven or eight years old I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker. Back then I’d shoot these action movies with my friends, shooting Terminator 3 before there was Terminator 3. I still think my version was better than the actual film.
I believe you.
[laughs] I made these movies, and I wanted them to look like the films I saw in the theater, but they were terrible! It was just me and a bunch of kids in the basement, you know? My dad introduced me to Ken Burns and Errol Morris and documentary filmmaking, and he said, “You only need a camera and an idea.” I started making docs, and I continued with that through college in Madison. Through luck and connections I was able to go on the set of Inglorious Basterds and be an extra and a PA on set and really learn that world. I’d earned a scholarship to go to UW Madison, but I lost the scholarship when I took a semester off to do Inglorious Basterds.
My parents were bummed, and I drove to L.A. to pursue filmmaking. My dad was a fan of TYT. I saw the show and it just looked in desperate need of help. It was low-quality, technically. But Cenk was pretty fascinating. I got an internship there, and before I was actually hired I had coffee with Cenk and asked him if I could start filming for a possible documentary. He said, “I’ve always wanted a documentary made of me!” I changed the way TYT did everything–got them on HD, networked it, got them on Final Cut Pro–and they eventually hired me to produce the show. I did that for about three years, all while filming behind the scenes. Around 2011 I produced and was an assistant director on my friend Shawn Christensen’s short, Curfew, and that went on to win an Oscar. After that, more filmmaking opportunities came and I left TYT.
I didn’t really know what would happen with all the footage I’d been shooting, but when the MSNBC stuff happened, I knew I had a movie. I knew it would be so important not to let the subject of the film be in ownership of the film or have creative control. That would defeat the whole purpose, and that wasn’t how it was; it wasn’t a part of my job at TYT at all. If anything, people just didn’t believe the documentary would ever happen. Some of the reason people were so honest in the interviews was because none of them thought the film would get made! When I asked for ownership, they gave it to me, because they didn’t think anything would happen to it. When I felt the story had come full circle, I finished the film the way I wanted to with the help of an Indiegogo campaign.
What was Cenk’s reaction to the film?
At first I think he was just shocked it was finished! There were many aspects of the film Cenk wasn’t happy with. I laugh so hard when I see these reviews where critics tear it apart for being a fluff piece for Cenk, because man, was he uncomfortable with the film! He still is! There are so many things he wanted me to change, but I didn’t. I’ll be the first to admit it: Cenk and I are friends. But I wrote him an email saying that we had to separate our friendship and our history for the film. I had to portray him the way I think he was. It did feel like he got too close to the sun at MSNBC and he was drifting away and enjoying it. Ultimately I think he does the right thing and redeems himself. Some critics just bash Cenk and list all these things in the film that cause them to bash him, but then turn around and say that I worship him. I put all that stuff in there on purpose! If somebody can come away hating him or loving him, I think I’ve done my job. I’d like to think you could hate a character and still like a movie, you know? Nightcrawler was my favorite film of the year. You don’t have to like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character to like that film.
What projects do you have coming up?
Throughout the making of Mad As Hell I was working on a number of different projects, and I’m still doing that now. We recently released a film called The Past is a Grotesque Animal through Oscilloscope as well, which is about the band Of Montreal. Right now I’m producing and editing a feature documentary called Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play, and we just found out that we were accepted to world premiere at SXSW. We’re really looking forward to that. It’s about why we play with balls, why humanity and animals have this fascination with balls. It’s the complete opposite of what I’ve been working on: it’s following not a person, but an idea and a question. It’s absolutely fascinating and really special.