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“I know that 20 percent over on the far-right are lost souls and we’re never gonna get them, but there’s a lot of people in the middle — the mushy middle — and I’d like to hold my hand out to them,” the legendary documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tells me as we sit down to discuss his life, work and latest doc, Where to Invade Next — a film about the way America stacks up, or doesn’t, with other countries around the world — on the tenth episode of the Awards Chatter podcast.
The Oscar winner continues, “I said to the distributor: ‘Is there a way where we could work this where I go on Fox News and I say, ‘Come see this movie’? Seriously. ‘You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to walk out of the theater becoming a Democrat. Just be honest, after you leave the film, and admit a couple of things: number one, that I love this country, and number two, that I care about my fellow Americans.’ I said, ‘What if we offer a money-back guarantee? If you think this movie is just awful and that I’m not being true to myself or to this country or whatever, send me your stub and I’ll reimburse you.’ They’re talking about it. I even said to them, ‘Take it out of my pay.’ ”
(You can play the full conversation above or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Shannon, Ridley Scott, F. Gary Gray, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Ian McKellen, Brie Larson and Sarah Silverman — on iTunes.)
For over a quarter-century, Moore, 61, has been making muckraking docs. Over the course of our conversation, we talk about the root of his interest in politics and his sense of humor, two hallmarks of his work. We also touch upon his major films: 1989’s Roger & Me, his directorial debut, in which he took on GM for closing factories in his hometown of Flint, Mich.; 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, a film about gun violence, which brought him a best documentary feature Oscar (he gave a controversial acceptance speech); 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he took on a sitting president, which became and remains the highest-grossing doc of all-time (“It wasn’t a fatal blow to the [George W.] Bush campaign, but it essentially was mortally-wounding”); 2007’s Sicko, a look at the U.S. health care system, which brought him his second Oscar nom; and 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which dissected our way of life, and which was his only film released during the Obama Administration prior to Where to Invade Next.
Since then, Moore says he has focused on other things: writing what he regards as his “best book,” a memoir comprised of 24 short stories from his life; helping to revitalize downtown communities in Michigan; and operating a couple of cinemas and film festivals. Additionally, he’s dealt with some personal issues — “My father died a year-and-a-half ago, I went through a divorce, I mean, I go through what everybody goes through.” But one should not take his absence from the screen as a sign that he’s been content with the way things are going in America, he emphasizes.
Over the course of our conversation, we talk about the remarkable degree to which the documentary genre — which he “generally didn’t like” as a kid — has evolved during the course of the last quarter-century, in no small part because of his influence. “I set out to do something that totally upended the way a documentary could or should be made and what it could be about,” he says in reference to Roger & Me, which employed humor, played with chronology and featured its filmmaker front-and-center. “I was vilified by the old school — it was like I was the worst thing, and they came after me in a very harsh way.” Oscar voters didn’t even bother to finish watching the film, he recalls with amazement: “They turned the projector off 10 minutes into Roger & Me. They didn’t want to watch another frame of it. It was stunning. It had already set the box-office record for a traditional documentary, but they weren’t even interested enough to watch it.”
(It wasn’t until 13 years later that Moore was invited to join the Academy. In 2001, the Academy created a documentary-specific branch, and from 2010-2013 Moore served as one of its three reps on the Board of Governors. He led an effort to open up post-noms Oscar voting for docs to all members of the Academy, not just those who could prove they’d seen all five nominees. Some argue this was self-serving, since high-profile docs like his own would be more likely to be seen than others, but he views things differently. “I wanted to bring democracy to our branch and to the larger Academy,” he says. “It’s always better to have more people getting to have a say. You’re going to have a better decision as a result of that.”)
We also talk about two of the things that have helped to make Moore the most famous documentary filmmaker in history: his iconic look to his controversial worldview.
Of his iconic “unkempt” appearance — baseball cap, glasses, casual clothes, messy hair — he cracks, “If you were to come to Flint with me, I mean, this is how we look, other than that I’m quite thin for the midwest.” He adds more seriously, “If I knew any of this was gonna happen — if I knew Roger & Me was gonna take off — first of all, Weight Watchers is in every town! If a fairy godmother had shown up and said, ‘In six months you will be on David Letterman—’ I’d have had six months to get it together. It just kind of exploded in Telluride — I was still making $98 from unemployment and we were selling T-shirts on the corner to play for my [crew’s] plane tickets … At that point, it was kind of like, ‘People like who I am,’ I think, ‘so there’s no reason to change and I’ll just live my life and be happy.’ “
Of becoming a controversial figure loved by liberals and hated by conservatives, he says, “It was jarring. I was surprised.” He adds, though, “What I learned to do after a couple of movies was to realize that there are two Michael Moores. There’s the real me — the one you’re talking to right now and the one my friends and family are with every day — and then there’s the fictional version that’s been created by Fox News and the right-wing media. And I came to actually enjoy reading things about me that were just completely made up because it was just funny.” (He also dishes, for the first time, on a prank he committed with George Clooney to mislead people about his net worth.)
In spite of his recognizability, Moore somehow managed to make Where to Invade Next all over the world, with a crew of 10 others, without anyone in Hollywood ever finding out about it until he announced, in September 2015, that it would be premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival — “No easy task during the era of social media,” he points out.
Some have dogged him for making a doc that argues America is inferior to other countries and premiering it in another country on the anniversary of 9/11. The common refrain from his haters is that if these other countries are so great, he should relocate to them. Moore laughs and counters, “My love for America is so great that I want to point out that we have fallen behind — we are not number one anymore in much of anything that matters, where it’s education, health care, infrastructure.” He adds, “I’m upset as an American — I want us to be as good as them or better, but we’re not, and that’s the truth.”
Eyebrows were raised when Moore’s film was acquired for U.S. exhibition by the least likely of distributors, a new operation run by ex-Radius chiefs Jason Janego and Tom Quinn in partnership with Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League. “They’re brand new, they don’t even have a name yet and we’re six weeks away from the New York/LA release of the movie,” Moore acknowledges with a laugh. “I am on them.” He notes, “We had wonderful offers from studios, from well-known distributors, from people I’ve worked with before — this was a real roll of the dice … They [Janego, Quinn and League] are betting their ranch on this, I am counting on them and we’ll see what happens. It’s the old thing of high-risk, high-reward.”
(Rumors have abounded that the film was courted for a day-and-date release by streaming services Netflix and Amazon — but Moore sounds like a man who wouldn’t have made his film available to them for any amount of money: “This is going to get distributed theatrically. It’s very important. I made this for you to sit in a room with a hundred other people, in the dark, and see it on a big screen.”)
Moore is extremely displeased that Where to Invade Next has been given an R-rating by the MPAA. “We’re gonna appeal it,” he says. “They’ve come up with awful reasons — I mean, they gave it an R-rating for violence. The violence is the New York City police killing a man! That’s on the evening news! At 6:30 it’s okay for TV but I can’t have it in a movie? It’s gotta be R-rated? I mean, that’s just absolutely ridiculous … And if we get stuck with the R, then I’ll do what I always do: encourage teenagers to, by any means necessary, get yourself into a theater.”
Some have remarked that this film is less “angry” than Moore’s earlier output, and if that’s the case, perhaps it’s because Moore himself is less angry than he’s been in the past. “I am in the majority,” he marvels. “That’s why Obama’s been elected twice, we have gay marriage, we have — I mean, it’s a different country now. The things that I believed in and have spoken about for 25-plus years are now accepted and it’s the way it is.”
While that gratifies him, he emphasizes that he is a filmmaker, not a politician, and that he therefore takes at least as much pleasure in the strides he has helped documentaries and fellow doc filmmakers to make. As he puts it, “One of the things I’m most proud of — more so than the Oscar or the Palme d’Or or whatever — is that I was able to kick the door open and to get other people in that door to make their documentary films. Non-fiction should be as broad as fiction. Non-fiction is just the vehicle we’re in, and you should be able to drive that car where you want to drive it.”
He continues, “Before Roger & Me, there were like seven or eight documentaries that had grossed more than a million dollars at the box-office in the history of film. There’s been I think 129 documentaries since Roger & Me that have grossed more than a million dollars. The public liked [what they saw], people saw that and then others started thinking in different ways.” He adds, “What I hope will be part of my own legacy is that I’ve helped others who didn’t have a voice to be able to make their films and to get their films seen.”
Where to Invade Next is being distributed in the U.S. by a company not yet named. Awards voters are being asked to consider it for best documentary feature.
Note: Moore also spoke at-length about the recent comments made by Quentin Tarantino accusing police of being “murderers.” Click here to read more about the thoughts he expressed.
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