Michael and Us:
An Interview with Michael Moore
by Dan Georgakas and Barbara Saltz
Michael Moore first came to public attention in 1972, when, as an eighteen-year-old, he won election to the Flint School Board, becoming the youngest person in the country to serve in public office. Four years later, Moore founded The Flint Voice (later The Michigan Voice), an alternative newspaper characterized by in-your-face satire and political exposÚs. Moore augmented his newspaper work by producing and hosting a weekly radio show called Radio Free Flint, and, in 1985, became a commentator on National Public Radio. A year later he closed The Michigan Voice to take on the editorship of Mother Jones, only to be fired within five months when he disapproved of an article he thought unfairly critical of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Moore returned to Michigan, which was in the midst of an economic slump that hit Flint especially hard. Moore, who felt the auto industry was responsible for most of Flint's problems, began to work on a satiric film which used Roger Smith, the head of General Motors, as a symbol of corporate indifference.
To get the film going, Moore had to sell his house and use all the money he had won in a lawsuit against Mother Jones. By the time the $260,000 film was completed, Moore was deeply in debt. The happy ending to his risk-taking was that Roger & Me, an unconventional satire by a novice filmmaker, became the highest-grossing nonconcert documentary film in American history. From that time on, Moore has constantly been accused of being a hypocrite who has made a fortune by exposing the economic desperation of his neighbors in Flint. Moore's response has been that a considerable portion of his profits have gone into the Center for Alternative Media, a foundation he created following the unprecedented success of his first film.
As a follow-up to Roger & Me, Moore made a short feature titled Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint, which was selected for the New York, Toronto, and Telluride Festivals. In 1994, he wrote, produced, and directed the comedy feature Canadian Bacon, which starred the late John Candy. Like this year's Wag the Dog, Moore's film featured a fictional war created by an American president to distract the public from his political shenanigans. Critical and public reception was indifferent.
Moore returned to his brand of documentary satire in 1995, but in a new medium, television. He made eight episodes of TV Nation for NBC, serving as host, writer, director, and executive producer. The show took on national and international stories in Moore's muckraking comedic style. A recurring character in later episodes was Crackers, the Corporate Crime Chicken, who investigated corporate crimes brought to his attention by the public. TV Nation won an Emmy in 1995 and a second nomination in 1996. Due to its hard-hitting politics, despite good ratings, the series had has trouble staying on the air.
In 1996, Moore published Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American, a sassy attack on corporate culture that spent a month on The New York Times best-seller list and five months on Time magazine's business best-seller list. As Moore made a multicity tour to promote his book, he became aware of a new American phenomenon, the exporting of jobs by corporations who were already making the best profits ever in their history. Moore began shooting video in each of the cities involved in his book tour. From that improvised and impromptu initiative has emerged The Big One, a feature film in the same trenchant mode as Roger & Me. Filled with Moore's trademark provocations of authority, The Big One also spits out data about American corporations.
We learn, for example, that the largest employer in America is Manpower, Inc., an agency for temporary workers and that American corporate profits are up 250 percent since 1991, while American wages have been stagnant. We also discover that Nike corporation pays Michael Jordan more for his endorsement of its shoes than it pays all of its 30,000 workers in Indonesia, who make ninety-nine percent of the shoes sold in America. The concluding segments of The Big One feature the encounters between Moore and Nike Chairman Phil Knight. Moore implores Knight to visit Indonesia with him to investigate working conditions and to consider bringing even five hundred jobs back to America. Knight's response and demeanor are a chilling comment on how corporate executives regard the American worker.
On the eve of the opening of The Big One in New York City, Cineaste engaged Moore in a conversation about the sources of his humor, some particulars regarding his new film, and critiques of his work raised not by the right, which is to be expected, but by various factions of the left. Recently, for example, Moore has been severely attacked by columnist Alexander Cockburn and others as a cultural fake who uses a working-class facade to mask his limited grasp of political and esthetic theory. Moore, in turn, has criticized progressives for engaging in a discourse whose style and content is contemptuous of the average American.
Joining in the discussion was Kathleen Glynn, Moore's wife and the producer of The Big One. Glynn was also the coproducer of Canadian Bacon, producer for TV Nation, and part of the team which created Roger & Me.--Dan Georgakas and Barbara Saltz
Cineaste: In terms of filmmaking, do you see yourself as an organizer, a muckraker, or a humorist with politics?
Michael Moore: I think of myself mostly as overweight. If I could organize anything, I'd organize myself back to the weight I was before I lost my job in 1986. When you lose your job, you sort of stop taking care of yourself. Some people turn to drink, I turned to the chocolate croissant. But croissants aside, I think my work involves all of what you asked but I don't want to separate them. The daily living is part of the art and the art reflects the politics and all of it is bound together.
Cineaste: To be more specific, what we had in mind is that at the end of the film, it looks like Philip Knight, the CEO of Nike, may actually agree to bring 500 jobs back to America. You seem to think that's going to happen and you want it to happen. This is not about raising consciousness. At that point, the film itself has become a direct political intervention.
Moore: I didn't think he would call me back a second time if he wasn't planning to do something. I mean, Nike is among the most savvy of all companies when it comes to marketing. They aim to replace Coca-Cola as the most recognized international corporation. I thought I'd been called back to film a segment that would enhance their corporate image. To me, that was the smart thing for Nike to do. I wondered if I was doing the right thing in allowing them to use my film to draw attention away from their labor practices in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.
Kathleen Glynn: But ultimately it would have made Michael very happy. Five hundred people in Flint would have jobs.
Moore: That's right. I'm some sort of weird optimist. I was actually going to be responsible for getting a factory to move back to Flint. Nike could still do that, but, as of now, they blew a good opportunity. Miramax is going to have postcards in all the theaters where this plays. People will be able to sign them and send them to Nike. The campaign is called: Just Build It. We also wonder if some competitor might one up Nike and build. Of course, this doesn't resolve the problem that the Nikes of this world get to decide who works and who doesn't, which teenagers in which countries get exploited.
Cineaste: So are you aiming to agitate a mass audience?
Moore: Absolutely, This is not an art-house film. We want people to be entertained by the comedy and perhaps get some cathartic pleasure in feeling that this is one for our side, that this sticks it to the man. But I hope it's an audience that will want to do something when it leaves the theater, whatever that something might be.
Cineaste: The Big One strikes us as much angrier than Roger & Me. That film had obvious personal resonance. The site was local, the industry very specific. Elements of lament and nostalgia were part of the film's appeal. The Big One takes on the entire corporate culture as it now exists nationally and even internationally. It's just as funny, maybe funnier, but it hits harder.
Moore: I'm glad you think so. The best comedians used to be the people who were the angriest. Their humor was the flip side of their anger. Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl. I think in silent films, in particular, the laughter usually involved sticking it to the man. The tramp getting over on the cop or fat cat. That's because Chaplin himself was a very political person. He was very angry at social conditions and used his humor as a means to communicate his anger. You don't have much of that these days. I would rather people leave the theater angry than depressed. If you're depressed, you can become paralyzed. You don't want to go out and do anything to affect social change. If the humor can help the anger come to the surface, I'm pleased.
Cineaste: The Big One is definitely an Us vs. Them film. We're sure critics on the left as well as on the right will say the film is too simplistic. How do you respond?
Moore: I hear this all the time. The people who complain that I'm being too simplistic have usually spent too many years in school. They didn't complete their degree in the allocated time and they have been thinking about things a little too much. They forget that some things are quite simple. Let me spell it out--Murder: bad. Feeding children: good. Some of the left intelligentsia want to complicate matters because in part they love to hear themselves talk and in part they love the mental mastur- bation that goes on regarding theory. While I am not opposed to philosophical discussion, I don't believe in reincarnation. I think this is the only time we have. We're here for a short time. I want to see change in my lifetime. I don't have time to sit around and chin flap.
In the film, I point out that we live in a democracy. We can pass any law we want. We can control those companies. We can pass laws to prevent them moving their profits from Detroit to Mexico City. We're so beat up we think only they can pass laws for their economic interests. For a lot of people on the left this just turns into cynicism and defeatism. You have to remember that our politics were not defined by going to Ann Arbor, Berkeley, or Madison. They were defined by living in the hometown of the world's largest corporation and living in an environment created by the corporate culture that dominated that town. All of our feelings and politics result from that experience. We are not the only ones to feel this way. Millions of people have that kind of experience but they do not have access to media.
Cineaste: Workers in your films often say silly things and act in a stupid or petty manner. You do not put them on a pedestal and you do not idealize working-class struggle. Some of your critics consider this patronizing and mean-spirited.
Moore: Well, Woody Allen can attack Jewish mothers but, if Spike Lee did it, people would ask what he was doing. If you are African American you can use certain words casually that would be wrong for a white person to say. I don't know the social psychology of that, but you can joke about your own. That's human nature. Pauline Kael took us to task for making fun of working people in Roger & Me. But they are us. All the people in that film wanted to be in the sequel. We were not NYU grad students in film on location. A lot of those people lived down the street from us. We were not laughing at those people. We were laughing along with them. We think people like us are funny. I would say that people who are bothered by the fact that they are laughing at those working-class people ought to investigate what is motivating their reaction.
Cineaste: Many people on the left seem to have trouble with humor. To use one of your examples, they might say that if Woody Allen takes so many jabs at Jewish culture, maybe deep down he is a self-hating Jew. In like manner, they might speculate that deep down you don't personally identify with the working class anymore and that maybe you even despise it.
Moore: Well, back in the l960s we were the ones with a good sense of humor and the right was uptight. A shift started somewhere, perhaps with Rush Limbaugh and P.J. O'Rourke. The right wing is now seen as having humor. But it's often mean-spirited. No, that's too generous. The right has honed the skill of ridicule to a point of genuine cruelty. And the left is so deadly serious. I think it is because the left has cut loose from the working class.
In order to survive its situation, the working class must develop a sense of humor. To laugh alleviates part of the pain. When people get upset about laughter, I think it indicates that they don't have any pain to alleviate. If you are not way down the toilet, you may not feel much need to laugh and you may not un- derstand why others treat weighty events in a trivial manner, by making comedy of it.
Cineaste: Would you like to respond to Alexander Cockburn's recent criticism?
Moore: I couldn't read it. I heard about it. He saved my life at one time and I will never be able to forget that. I was at the lowest point in my life. I'd been fired from the editorship of Mother Jones and essentially he took care of me. He got me out of my funk. He got me going. That led to the making, within weeks, of Roger & Me. So I really owe him. I will never speak ill of him. I was stung that he had written something attacking me. Only he can speak to whatever set that off. Alex says so many important things that need to be said that I would hate for any- body who was a fan of my work to dismiss what Alex Cockburn has to say because of a bizarre personal thing he was feeling toward me. I never had a bad word with him in my life. Someday I hope to talk to him about this.
Cineaste: Leaving his specific criticism aside, a theme in the criticism of your work is that your persona has become too large. Your films are not really about the working class but about Mich- ael Moore. For in- stance, we've heard people state that when you hug the unemployed woman in The Big One it's like you're some kind of Mother Teresa of the left.
Glynn: We debated that scene so much. We'd leave it in and then take it out. We cut it different ways. Should Michael ask her if he could hug her? I never thought he should ask. We should just cut to it. Michael wanted to keep it in to show he was asking her permission. She stands there and cries. She says she has just lost her job and doesn't know how she can support herself and her parents. She's devastated. But when she walks away she turns and says, "Tell the people of Flint, good luck." Because she gets it. She's near the end of her rope and she still wants to cheer up her side.
Cineaste: She has just bought a book with the little money she has.
Glynn: Yes, she has had the will to go down to that bookstore to figure out what is happening to her. She is not going to give up.
Moore: That's why we left it in. I wanted other people to see that even if they lost their job, if everything was going into the crapper, they must not give up. We're all going to support each other. Every single night on that tour I had someone come up to me who had just lost their job. It was very hard on me. In l989 we turned in soda bottles so we could go to a matinee movie.
Cineaste: Your critics will say you are just hustling books. Barbara Lowenstein, a top New York literary agent, was at the press screening we attended and her first reaction, when the lights went up, was that you were going to sell a lot of books.
Moore: I hope she's right.
Glynn: I've been told it was self-serving for us to put in a segment showing that Downsize This! had hit The New York Times Best-Seller List. That's like saying that if you are videotaping the birth of one of your babies, it is self-serving.
Moore: I wanted to show that there are millions and millions of people who share our per- spective. A small symbol of that is that a book like mine could become a best-seller. And the film is about a book tour. I honestly didn't care that this was happening to me, Michael Moore. I wanted people to know that something is happening in this country. When was the last time a left-wing book was on The New York Times Best-Seller List?
Glynn: Michael was already on the road when the idea for the film came to him. He called and I said, "No, this is nuts. You are on a book tour. You are way too busy to shoot a film." No way. Next thing I know I was out buying two digicams [digital betacam cameras--ed.] and put- ting a film crew together.
Cineaste: The film shows you plugging a computer into the cigarette lighter outlet of your van in order to get data on the next town. What did that actually involve?
Moore: We signed up on Lexus/Nexus and used that to find out about the town we were going to, the companies in that town, recent articles, all that kind of stuff. We also went to the Internet. We'd type in what we thought were key words. For instance, with Milwaukee, we started with the name of beer companies. Then on Nexus we'd get ar- ticles about layoffs and profits. We'd also go to the company's Web site. That was usually good for learning what the CEO makes. We didn't know about Johnson Controls in Milwaukee until we got there. I was on a morning news show and a bulletin said they were shutting down. So we just threw that segment together in a matter of hours. We had checks and other gimmicks made out with the name left blank. We'd fill them out as needed.
Cineaste: You certainly demystify filmmaking.
Moore: Good. I want filmmaking in the hands of people like us who know squat about filmmaking. I don't want people intimidated by the technology. With video, you can shoot cheap. In the past few months, thanks to Miramax, we've been investigating how to transfer something shot in the crummiest video possible to high-quality film. We're transferring digitally to high definition and going straight to 35mm negative, eliminating the l6mm bump-up process. So The Big One looks like it was shot on film. Now if you want to shoot a 35mm film, you can spend ten grand a day on a low budget film and seventy grand a day on something as modest as Canadian Bacon. With the new technology you can spend a couple hundred dollars a day and have a real movie.
Cineaste: How do you come up with the gags? Do you have a writing team?
Moore: For TV Nation we did, but the idea for The Big One just grew out of events.
Glynn: Sometimes you look for something that's really bad and you pretend to agree with it. That gets things going. If someone is polluting a river, you say, "That's great. Now we don't have to waste public funds on trucks to haul stuff away and we don't have to recycle."
Cineaste: Who does that come from?
Moore: From both of us. Either of us. From anyone working with us. We are the product of Irish-Catholic homes where there is a tradition of a dark and cynical view of life that comes from an experience that predates our arrival in America.
Cineaste: What about the American sources of your humor?
Moore: I was mainly affected by the humor available to my generation--Monty Python, Mad magazine, National Lampoon, The Great American Dream Machine shown on PBS, and NBC's That Was the Week That Was.
Cineaste: When we walked into a press screening of your film, we were given a check for eighty cents. What was that all about?
Moore: We wanted to have all the critics, momentarily at least, feel what it's like to earn Mexican hourly wages. We gave out 2,000 at the Toronto Film Festival. About twenty were cashed. These were the cynics who weren't convinced the checks were real.
Cineaste: You give the impression of wanting to genuinely shake people up regarding economic realities in this country. That Nike guy, for example, came off as scary. He wasn't one of those capitalists who is going to fund public libraries. In trying to deal with him you were in a gray area but you were thinking it through like a person who wanted to get a result and not just settle for exposing him as a big shit.
Moore: I had to put up ten grand of my own money to get even a dime out of him. Ten grand for him is snot.
Cineaste: Ah, there you go again, striking yet another righteous pose.
Moore: All I know is that my critics don't come from the working class. We never get anyone who works in a factory ask why we are so simplistic, why we live in New York, why Disney distributes our film. The year we sold Roger & Me I was filling out an IRS form that showed I made twelve grand that year. We were determined that, if the film became successful and we got through the door, we were not going to shut the door behind us. That's why we set up a foundation and put half our money from Roger & Me into it. We've given out over half a million dollars in grants. We've helped fund seventy different organizations, from ACT-UP to The Black Filmmakers Foundation. We've put money into films such as The Panama Deception, A Perfect Candidate, and Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. This is who we are and where we come from. If that's posing, maybe more people should pose.
Cineaste: We understand that Miramax is giving half of its profits from The Big One.
Moore: You can't get out of the box being criticized once you go public. That's fair enough. But some wonderful things happen spontaneously. We were sitting behind Harvey Weinstein when he first saw the film. He kicked the seat when Knight wouldn't put the factory in Flint. He muttered, "That schmuck." As soon as it was over, he cornered me in the lobby and said he wanted to buy the film and would donate fifty percent of the profits. He didn't hold a conference with his public relations people. He was operating from the gut.
Look, the Weinstein brothers are working-class guys from Queens who went to SUNY-Buffalo for their education. In their success, they have not forgotten where they came from. The old crowd in Hollywood will never fully accept them. They will always be seen as a thorn in the ass. So our donation of profits from Roger & Me touched something in them and we can only hope that their generosity will inspire someone else. They have already provided $100,000, before the film even opens, for community organizations in Flint.
Cineaste: Will TV Nation ride again?
Moore: Yes, but under a different name. Channel 4 in England will fund it and we will go into production in the summer of l998. We are now looking for an American outlet, but we are fully funded. The Americans won't be risking a dime.
Glynn: We're hoping to be the first show that can claim to have been on every network.
Moore: We also have gotten a green light for a sitcom called Better Days. It is set in Wisconsin in a town where a factory has just closed and everyone is out of work. If this thing gets on the air, it will be the most subversive sitcom ever. It's part of the effort to reach a mass audience with some ideas that should not be limited to a niche on the left. Whether our critics believe it or not, we feel very privileged about what's happened to us. We don't take any of it for granted. We don't think we're someone who deserves this in the sense that it's owed to us.