Dialogue: Michael Moore
Health care expose screens Out of CompetitionReview of "Sicko"
Michael Moore diagnoses the U.S. health care system in his latest nonfiction expose, "Sicko," from the Weinstein Co. Even before the film's world premiere here today, the U.S. Treasury Department notified Moore that it is investigating his possible violations of the U.S. trade embargo restricting travel to Cuba (Moore took ailing rescue workers suffering from the aftereffects of working at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 to the island country in March). Moore, speaking from New York before departing for Cannes, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the risks of tackling health care -- both in attacking the special interests and in crafting a film that challenges audiences who, this time around, are likely to be firmly in his corner.
The Hollywood Reporter: What is your response to the Treasury Department's investigation and its timing?
Moore: Why would they do it now? I have no idea. Were they just sitting around there and somebody said, "Hey, this is opening in Cannes next week. We have to do something." Are they that divorced from reality or the popular culture to know that isn't the right thing to do? I think maybe they thought, "We're going to chance it here to try to paint him with some Castro brush or whatever." I think when people see the film, there is going to have to be a lot of rewriting done on the initial stories that went out last week in terms of what really happens in the film and what we really did.
THR: But you did take a group of ailing rescue workers to Cuba?
Moore: I really want you to see it. I'll just pose a general question to you: What if the purpose of the trip wasn't to go to Cuba? What if we didn't intend to go to Cuba at all? To see people start to attack something they haven't seen, I wouldn't do that, because I think it would look ridiculous. But you'll see it (in the film). You'll see what we were really doing and what was really going on.
THR: You dealt with an HMO in your 1999 TV series "The Awful Truth." Has this film been incubating for a long time?
Moore: Yes. I actually shot the first scenes for it back in '99 and then the Columbine shooting happened, and I switched my attention to making "Bowling for Columbine." After "Columbine," I was going to go back to it. "Columbine" came out in the fall of '02, but just a month or two after that the drumbeat started for the war. That had an urgency to it I couldn't ignore, so I put off making it then. After "Fahrenheit," I said we really have to do this film. I don't think there is a bigger domestic issue that people think about.
THR: It looks as if you've had the title "Sicko" from the very start.
Moore: Oh, I've been that way since grade school. Whenever the nuns would have us write a poem or a short story or whatever, we had to have the title first. So I start with the title and go from there.
THR: Is the film more an analysis of what is wrong about the health care system or a prescription for what must be done to improve it?
Moore: Before we even started, I told the crew, the one thing we don't need to do or want to do is tell the American people something they already know, which is that the American health care system sucks. Nothing would be more boring than spending too much time pointing out the obvious. So it had to be so bad, so ridiculous, that a person sitting in the theater with all of their problems with their HMO would have to say, "OK, I thought I had it bad, but this is worse."
It's like my other films. "Bowling for Columbine" was not just about the Columbine shooting. It was a jumping-off point to discuss larger issues, as was "Fahrenheit 9/11," as was "Roger & Me." I start with this, but I then go into areas and places that perhaps one wouldn't expect me to go. I do spend a decent amount of time in the film exploring how it could be in this country.
THR: A number of presidential candidates have raised the subject of health care, but I'm not sure how many of them have offered actual plans.
Moore: So far none of them have -- on either side. People have to especially wary of the Democrats because some of them are actually using the words "universal health care." And if you look at the few of them that have some kind of plan, their idea of universal health care is to give our tax dollars to these private, billion-dollar insurance companies, the Aetnas and the Kaizers of the world. That is not the way to go. The private insurance companies spend upward of 20% or so of their budgets on administrative costs. I ask people this question: If private insurance companies spend 20% on red tape and overhead and all that, what do you think the government spends on Medicare and Medicaid? People said, oh, 30%, 40%, 50%. And then I say, it's 3%. I don't know if you have a mother or a grandmother in that age group. They may have complaints about Medicare because it is underfunded. But ask them if they really worry when they go to a doctor, if their check arrives in time in the case of Social Security. The government actually does a pretty good job at some things, and this is one thing it does well.
THR: Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who may be planning to run for president, has already attacked the film for being naive about Castro's Cuba.
Moore: I didn't know he'd been appointed the official spokesperson against the film. What I worry about is that he would just say something without having seen it. Right now, we've had almost six years of a president who didn't read the briefing papers that were given to him. If (Thompson) is thinking of running for president and making comments about things he hasn't seen, I hope he sees the film so he won't look ridiculous again.
THR: Have you completed a final cut of the film?
Moore: Oh, yeah, I'm just back in New York today putting the front titles on. It's all done.
THR: Is it true you took a copy out of the country once the U.S. government announced the investigation to assure you'd be able to bring it to Cannes?
Moore: We made a digital master duplicate of the film and immediately got it to another country, where if we needed to we could make a negative from that to bring a print to Cannes. At this point, I don't put anything past these people if they're jumping out of the gate so fast. I haven't said a word about this film. I've talked to nobody before today about this movie, literally nobody. I wasn't going to say a peep until I got to Cannes. They started this, and I think that somehow by making some sort of example of me, that helps them with a certain community in terms of voters. I don't know what the thinking is here. They were fairly wounded by "Fahrenheit," and eventually the American public came to agree with my position. I'm not going to take any chance, I guess.
THR: And yet while "Columbine" was controversial with gun owners and "Fahrenheit" certainly divided audiences, I would think that in criticizing the health care industry you're actually in step with the majority of Americans. So, in a sense, has this film been prematurely labeled "controversial"?
Moore: I agree. At least the attacks on "Fahrenheit" happened after the film came out. Why the attacks beforehand? Well, let's take a look at how much the pharmaceutical companies and the HMOs gave Fred Thompson when he was a senator. They are the single biggest force now in terms of these campaign contributions. In the film, we name politicians who take the most from them. Some of it will be surprising. I think this is really about the money, and so the attacks are going to come from people who are funded by the big pharmaceutical companies, big insurance, the hospital corporations, etc. I don't think they are going to be happy with this movie. It's not because I'm doing some sort of "60 Minutes" expose. I think it's going to be because of how millions of people are going to feel when they leave the theater. I have a feeling that having been entertained, I hope, for a couple of hours, they're also going to be fairly angry and not wanting to put up with it anymore. And my partner in eliciting that anger is the health care industry because they've put people through the wringer. And I'm confident that's not going to continue once people say that they've had enough.
Don't let me off the hook, though. I want you to like this as a movie because I really focused on the art of this, and I'm trying to make a movie that I want people to come to on a Friday night and have a "quote" good time. On some level, this target is way too easy. It's one thing to come out against the war when only 20% of the country agrees with you that we were being lied to about weapons of mass destruction. But on the (problems with the health care system), as a filmmaker, I shouldn't get a bye here. In some ways for me this was more difficult because it lacked the challenge -- I knew going into it that the majority of viewers would be with me on the issue -- so then the challenge became how do I take this issue and go to a different level with it so that people's heads will spin in the way that they spun while watching "Columbine" or "Fahrenheit."
THR: Premiering the film in Cannes must feel like returning to your second home.
Moore: Yes, it's the festival for world cinema. I'm honored to have been part of it. They took a risk with "Bowling for Columbine," saying that nonfiction films should be considered on the same level as fiction films. And then with "Fahrenheit," by winning the Palme d'Or, I think Cannes is a special place for me as a filmmaker. It's been a bit of a good luck charm. "Bowling" went on to set the boxoffice record for a documentary, and then "Fahrenheit" topped that record, and we're opening "Sicko" the same last week in June as "Fahrenheit."
Nationality: American; born: April 23, 1954
Selected filmography: "Roger & Me," 1989; "Canadian Bacon," 1995; "The Big One," 1997; "Bowling for Columbine," 2002; "Fahrenheit 9/11," 2004
Notable awards: IDA Award, "Roger & Me," 1990; Best documentary feature Academy Award, best foreign film Cesar Award, best documentary Independent Spirit Award, "Bowling for Columbine," 2003; Freedom of Speech Award, U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, 2003; Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, "Fahrenheit 9/11," 2004; Outstanding directorial achievement in documentary film DGA Award, 2005