Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert have been making social issue documentaries for decades. But the Dayton, Ohio-based filmmaking duo (and couple) got the shock of their careers at Sundance this year, when they learned that Barack and Michelle Obama had seen their latest film, American Factory, and wanted it to be the first release from the former president and the first lady’s new Netflix-based production company, Higher Ground.
Bognar and Reichert had been nominated for an Oscar for their short 2009 documentary The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, about the shuttering of an auto plant in Dayton. When China-based auto-glass manufacturing company Fuyao purchased that factory in 2014, Bognar and Reichert returned with their cameras to document what they hoped would be an historic story about capitalism, globalization and a co-mingling of wildly different cultures.
Bognar and Reichert spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on August 21, the day their film premiered on the streaming service, about their extraordinary access to a factory in revolt, their hopes for Chinese distribution and the “surreal” experience of being the Obamas’ first Hollywood project. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Before you went to Sundance, did you have any idea that this would be a film that the Obamas were interested in?
STEVE BOGNAR: We didn’t know the Obamas had a production company.
JULIA REICHERT: You know how it is. You go into Sundance, you’re exhausted, you’re bleary-eyed. You get on the plane and you don’t even know if your film’s going to be recognized or anything. Then we had the pitch meeting with Netflix, which was amazing, because there were probably 20 people in the room. This is not what we expected at all. When we went around the room it was like, “Okay, here’s our marketing people, here’s our PR people, here’s our awards people, here’s our these people and that people.” [Netflix vice president of independent film and documentary features] Lisa Nishimura pitched us very intensively, very smartly. But, what made our jaws drop on the ground was when she said, “I want to call on our collaborators from Higher Ground.”
BOGNAR: [Higher Ground co-heads] Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis.
REICHERT: And they started talking about how, “The president and the first lady saw your film a few days ago,” — they probably saw lots of films — “and they want to embrace it, they want to elevate it.” When they said, “The president and first lady,” we were sort of like, who are they talking about?
BOGNAR: We don’t exactly know how [the Obamas] saw it or who sent it to them, but it doesn’t matter. It was surreal.
REICHERT: When we left that room, our heads were spinning. We didn’t immediately want to take the Netflix offer. To be honest it was the lowest, and also we were not sure about Netflix at that time. We learned more about it and warmed to the idea, but we had offers from a number of other companies, good, good pitches.
BOGNAR: Netflix talked about what they had done with Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th. How over 1000 community screenings had happened in churches, schools, community centers. And Netflix makes it easy now to download a hard file of the film onto a laptop and then you can show it anywhere, anytime, you don’t even need the internet connection. That really appealed to us, because doing impact and outreach and engagement stuff with our movies has been a pillar of what we do.
May I ask what Netflix paid you for it?
BOGNAR: No, we’re not allowed to say.
RECIHART: Really? Okay. It was not a big ticket price. But they did put money into the engagement campaign, which was great.
You live in Dayton, and you started documenting this plant when it was a GM factory that was closing. What drew you to cover that?
BOGNAR: That GM plant was an iconic place of employment for our whole community. It’s one of the core engines for building a middle class in Dayton, Ohio. Generations of people worked there, moms and grandmas and grandfathers. You could make $60,000, $70,000 a year working those factory jobs. It was also a multiracial middle class, because the workforce in those factories was very diverse. When it was announced it was going to close, it was like a neutron bomb going off in town. And we just had an instinct we had to get down there. We started going to the local bar right next to the factory and talking to people and getting a feel. We suddenly started feeling like, “There’s a story here.”
The access you got to the factory once it was under Chinese ownership was extraordinary, even as things were going wrong left and right. How did you build your relationship with the man who is a key figure in this film, Fuyao Glass’s Chairman Cao Dewang?
RECIHERT: The suggestion of making the film came from business leaders who had brought the plant to Dayton. They thought, “You know, this is going to be historic. A Chinese entrepreneur billionaire coming to blue-collar America and offering us jobs, this should be documented.” They knew we had made The Last Truck, which they really liked. They showed it to the chairman and he agreed. He said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He doesn’t speak any English. I really give him a lot of credit for agreeing to let us film, over almost three years, with five cameras. Things got rough. Not everybody looks good. The people he hired, things he did that didn’t look good; firing executives and so forth. But, you know, he never said to us, “It’s time to stop, you guys have enough, it’s been a year, it’s been two years.” Even when the union battle got quite hot. He’s kind of a maverick. He’s a practicing Buddhist, and he’s also a heavy duty capitalist. He wants to make profit. He’s going to push people until they do. You know, it’s a complicated world, and he’s a complicated guy. We tried to represent that.
How much of your crew spoke Chinese?
BOGNAR: We were filming over a year when we realized we were missing a huge part of the story, because you couldn’t really talk to the Chinese folks who had moved to Dayton. We started realizing we gotta find some filmmakers who are Chinese and who can come on board. Eventually we met two women who became our actual co-producers, Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang. And they started coming to Ohio every month. Then when we went to China, they also both were there with us. They made a huge difference because they’re the ones who built the relationships with all the Chinese folk.
Netflix is in 190 countries, but China isn’t one of them, yet. Do you think Fuyao wants people to be able to see it in China, particularly now that it’s got the imprimatur of the Obamas?
BOGNAR: The chairman offered to help us take it to China. What we heard is that so many things are on hold now because of new censorship laws and President Xi has got his really conservative kind of tack on this kind of stuff. We had hoped that Netflix could make some kind of deal with Tencent, as a sub-distribution type of thing to get the film in China. But, what we have been hearing is that all that’s on hold, not just with documentaries, but with fiction features and everything. But if Netflix is in Hong Kong and Taiwan and throughout southeast Asian communities where there’s a lot of Chinese expats all over, millions of Chinese people will see it.
REICHERT: And we’re hoping that it will get invited to a film festival over there and we’ll gradually get the film seen in China.
One thing the surprise of the 2016 election made clear was how little the American media really understood what was happening in the Midwest and in the kind of community you were documenting. How did that election’s timing figure into this film?
BOGNAR: In the spring of 2015, our governor then, John Kasich, was the last rival to Trump for the nomination. And Kasich had helped get Fuyao to Ohio, a company where we were filming. So he had a rally in the factory that we film. A few days later, Trump had a rally at the Dayton airport where he makes fun of how to pronounce Kasich’s name. And he also says things against China. We thought, “Oh, this is really interesting.” There were workers in the plant who were pro-Trump and there were workers in the plant who were anti-Trump, or pro-Hillary.
REICHERT: Trump kept saying, “China is taking our jobs or stealing our jobs.” Which was kind of funny, because of course here in Ohio were two thousand jobs that Chinese entrepreneurs had been responsible for. And not just in Ohio, that’s true all over the south and Midwest. There are lots of Chinese-owned businesses and plants or factories and so forth. But in the editing room, we realized we were not telling a topical story. It’s really about globalization, the tectonic plates that are shifting in the world, both economic and cultural, how that plays out in regular people’s lives. That was the heart of our story. It wasn’t tariffs, it wasn’t trade wars, it wasn’t the political climate.
One of the things Michelle Obama said to you in a video conversation Netflix released was that she liked that your film wasn’t editorializing. She liked that you let the people in the movie speak for themselves.
REICHERT: They call their company Higher Ground, and I think it really is appropriate for what we made in this very divisive time. We tried to take the higher ground, to respect and listen to all the different points of view. You know, everybody has their stakes. Everybody is facing something hard. Everybody has a hard job, whether you’re the owner, the manager, the Chinese worker, the American blue-collar worker. And we tried to listen to everybody, and I think they believe in that. Plus, they’ve both written great books, right?
BOGNAR: They know the power of story.
When was the first time you actually interacted with the Obamas themselves?
REICHERT: When we filmed that conversation in July. It was in D.C. at a restaurant. It was like a real film shoot. They had makeup people. We talked for like 45 minutes. They were wonderful. They put everybody at ease right away. Steve has learned how to imitate the president. You say what he said. He probably won’t do it right now.
BOGNAR: I’m not going to do it right now.
I can already tell which one of you is more reserved, and which one of you is not.
BOGNAR: And Julia, you shouldn’t advertise that, you should not advertise that. Julia’s great. Because, first of all she’s been interviewing people for 50 years. So, rather than we all sit down and someone says, “Roll camera, action.” We are sitting down and Julia starts asking the president and the first lady, “Hey, why did you guys want to create Higher Ground?” You know? And we’re off to the races. The Obamas would actually make great documentary filmmakers. Because you just want to talk to them.