TIFF: Michael Moore Talks "Prankish" New Film, Donald Trump's Brain and Hillary Clinton in Office (Q&A)

Michael Moore TIFF H 2015

The director assesses the current political field from Bernie Sanders to Clinton, who, he predicts, if elected, could pull “a Pope Francis moment.”

In his new documentary, Where to Invade Next, which Michael Moore unveiled Thursday night at the Toronto Film Festival, the Oscar-winning director takes on a wealth of issues. Traveling through Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, the first-person, in-your-face filmmaker takes a look at how other countries are doing a better job of dealing with social issues than America is — whether it’s the humane treatment of workers in Italy, school children in Finland or even women’s health in Tunisia.

The film, which is genuinely funny, elicited lots of laughter and spontaneous applause at its premiere. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Moore talked about what he hopes to accomplish with his new film, in which he shows a kinder, gentler side of himself. The director, 61, also assessed the current political field from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton, who, he predicts, if elected, could pull “a Pope Francis moment.”

THR: Your new film argues that the kind of progressive social welfare programs you found in Europe are really built on American ideals. But how do you square that with the fact that lot of the ideas you champion — the importance of unions, health care, welfare — have been defined by the right as something bad?

Moore: The right understood how to get their message across, starting with people like Reagan. Let’s hire the General Electric spokesman. That’s what we need, a spokesman for the country. Last night at the Q&A, I brought up Meryl Streep [who has been arguing for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment], and did you hear the derisive reaction? That was the last thing people expected me to say. Or Patricia Arquette’s speech [at the last Oscars]. This is a problem with the left. That speech [Arquette gave] was inspiring. And millions of average people, middle Americans watched it, and women especially connected to it. I’m going to talk to Meryl about this. I’m sure she’s thought about it. So that’s my problem with my side of the fence. A lack of humor. Even Bernie [Sanders], he’s a crank and a grouch and he couldn’t understand why the black women who took the stage just wanted him to say, “Black lives matter.” What is so hard about saying that? Instead he goes, “Of course, they matter; of course, they matter.”

But of the current candidates, Sanders would seem the closest to ideals you talk about in the film?

Yes, but my ideals are also about being able to communicate, and that’s why somebody like Elizabeth Warren is a much more attractive candidate for me. Listen, I’m not knocking Bernie.  We share ideas, not on most things, but on many things. But I have to say this too about Hillary [Clinton]. I’ve started an essay I’ll post in a couple of weeks. Don’t sell Hillary short about what she may do as president.  I believe it’s very possible with her as president that we are going to have a Pope Francis moment.  That once in, remarkable, incredible things are going to be done. That’s not an endorsement. I’m just saying there is a way to go with this. I have my problems with her — she voted for the war, etc., etc. But I think she’s a good person. I think she has a sense of humor. I’ve only met her a couple of times, but she’s funny. Just from afar, she seems like a really great mom. And I think you can tell a lot about people about how they treat their kids.

How about Trump? Your film shows how the people of Norway got so disgusted with politicians that they elected a comedian. Isn’t that similar to what’s happening now?

Here’s the thing with Trump. The middle class has been sold right down the drain. I think that Bernie Sanders has tapped into that, and I think Trump has tapped into that. One of those people is not a hater. But I have to say Trump was amazing in that first debate where he tried to explain single-payer health care, why he was against Bush, why he came out against the Iraq War, why he believes the hedge fund guys should be taxed. It’s like that Hannibal Lecter movie, where he cuts open Ray Liotta’s brain, but Ray Liotta is still alive. If I could just go into Trump’s brain and fix a few things like his attitude toward 50 percent of the population and immigrants. We’ve seen throughout history when the people are hurting, demagogues can tap into that. But also, great healers and thinkers and people filled with love can tap into that and move the history of the race forward. And the truth of history is we do move forward and we do get better. I believe in the issues I raise in the film. I think there’s going to be a revolution of movements and new ideas in the next few years. And it’s not going to take long, and the Internet will speed it up. Obama is starting to release non-violent drug offenders from prison. If the other Obama could come out in the next few years, he could do an enormous amount of good and heal a lot of pain that exists. And I think he’s starting to do it. I believe at his core, we have a very intelligent person in the Oval Office, which is kind of rare. I just want him to go for it. And I want him to know he has the support of the majority of the American people.

You faked out expectations with the film — the title made it sound as if it would be about America’s perpetual war footing. But though you touch on that, it’s about a lot of other issues.

I hope nobody will be mad at me, and [audiences will] appreciate the prankish nature of it all. But in a way, it is [about America's war footing]. Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex. What’s hard to take is that because we didn’t heed his warning and we let it get away from us, all the countries that don’t spend 60 percent of their economy on so-called defense, spend the money on their people. So in a way, the perpetual war, the military industrial complex has resulted in the America we now have where we are not number one in probably anything anymore.

It’s also something of a comedy …

I knew it was funny but I didn’t know until last night just how funny. We chose to have no test screenings, so, literally, except for a few friends, people had not seen this movie. Especially with a comedy, you really do need to show it to an audience. Last night, there were a couple of times where they laughed so long and hard, you couldn’t hear the next line. That’s the pinnacle for anyone in comedy, but you really do want them to hear the next line, so I’m going to go back in and tweak that.

How about you yourself? Are you now playing the role of happy warrior?

I am happy. I have felt since Roger & Me that humor is a powerful vehicle through which to communicate. And in documentary [filmmaking], it is done so rarely, and I have advocated for this now for 24-plus years. Documentary filmmakers are afraid of humor sometimes and I wish they wouldn’t be. It’s a great way to communicate. Mark Twain knew that; Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx knew that. I remember Roger & Me, the hits I took. The old guard thought using humor trivialized the matter. And I thought the opposite. I put a lot of thought into the subversive nature of this film. And I guess it’s probably a good idea if some people don’t see the subversiveness going on, just like if you’re listening to the music I’ve lost you. The music should be hitting you on an emotional level, and not a cognitive level. That’s the trick of making a film. It’s a magic act, and you don’t want to show how the magic takes place.

But I’m still trying to come to grips with who and what and where I am in my life, because you look at me [when I refer to George W.] Bush [during one interview I'm conducting], I’m not angry, certainly not hateful. When I think of Bush, it doesn’t take anything away from what I feel was done in our name and with our tax dollars and the people we lost, but that I personally can come through that era and essentially laugh about — for me, personally, I just thought, wow, that feels good. That’s a positive step for me, because I think millions and millions of Americans are upset for various reasons about various things. But you can’t let that [feeling upset] paralyze you or make you angry or bitter because no good action will come from that. I don’t take anything away from any of the films I’ve done and hope they will be the classics that they are for the times [when] they were released. Sadly, Bowling for Columbine is still all too relevant. But there is no hot poker going into the audience’s eyes here [in the new film]. Yet, from talking to people who saw it last night — I had parents come up, anyone who has a child in public schools and they watched those scenes in Finland and France — [they] are sitting in their seat so upset. I’m not saying anything about their schools or the American education system. But this movie engages them as a participant in the movie: the fact that the audience felt involved, personally attached to what they were watching as opposed to sitting there for a Michael Moore lecture.