Chris Smith’s “Collapse” is a feature-length interview with conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, a man whose ideas are often as scary as they are true. For many, Ruppert is saying what the rest of us are too afraid to think about. From the financial crisis, to international politics and global warming, Ruppert is candid about his apocalyptic view on humanity and the world. The film became an instant water cooler hit at Toronto; it opens this weekend in a limited release. After seeing “Collapse,” we had a few questions to ask Smith (“The Yes Men,” “American Movie”) on the making of his film. Our questions and his answers are below.
You explain at the beginning of your film that you originally went to Michael Ruppert looking for some information about the CIA’s link to drug trafficking, but that he was preoccupied with other things. What made you decide to make a film about Michael?
I’ve always been fascinated by outsiders, people who look at the world in an entirely different way than the rest of us. When we first contacted Michael it was to talk to him about his experiences with the CIA and drugs. When we went to his house it was clear he had other things on his mind. He had just finished his new book and was literally consumed with what he saw and still sees happening all around us – which is the collapse of industrialized civilization. We left his house, and after a few weeks figured out that that was the movie.
This film, unlike your others, feels very much influenced by Errol Morris. Is that conscious? What inspired the change in your documentary style for this film?
The other documentary films were very much about capturing events as they happened, so the style was really dictated by the situation. You basically try to be as unobtrusive as possible and collect as much footage as you can in an effort to capture the story as it happens.
Here it was really about filming a dialogue with Michael in a way that would sustain a feature length film. There wasn’t really a vérité aspect to this one. For editorial we needed to shoot in one location, one setting. I had a few discussions with Max Malkin, the cinematographer, about ways we could do the interview and in the end we decided it would be interesting to go outside of the studio environment and play off Michael’s alleged CIA recruitment. We wanted the film to feel like an interrogation, that you’re stuck in an unknown location getting let in on secret information. It was all an attempt to get the audience inside Michael’s head.
You took a break from documentary film to direct “The Pool.” What did you learn from making a fiction film?
I’m not sure I’d call it a break. For the past ten years I feel like I keep getting sidetracked from narrative films by documentary projects. I started in fiction with my first film, American Job. As I was finishing that film I met Mark Borchardt and started my first ‘side project’, which turned into American Movie. I got into a pattern where I’d think I’ll just do this small documentary project while researching and writing narrative ones, but they kept taking over.
Regardless, I feel like I learn from every film, fiction or non-fiction. You try to take that experience and roll it into the next so you make less mistakes than you did on the last one. It’s really about learning how to trust your instincts and make better decisions.
In many ways, the Yes Men and Michael Ruppert are similar. How do you think “Collapse” and “The Yes Men” differ in how you approached their subjects?
It was much harder to figure out how to tell Michael’s story. The Yes Men were out doing things – setting up events, preparing and executing stunts, so there was a lot to film and the story that unfolded naturally. With Michael it was in large part done in the preparation and the construction of the edit – where you decide to give information and how you lead the audience through the material.
What do you hope most people take from this film?
I hope people see the film and are entertained and engaged. It’s a very thought provoking film and I’m most excited about the debate and dialogue that the film seems to create. The Toronto Film Festival screenings were really encouraging as we found people really responded to the film regardless if they believed in all, some or none of what Michael had to say – which is what we were after. We wanted the film to stand on it’s own as an intriguing look at an individual. Michael truly lives outside the mainstream. He’s been criticized and ostracized for most of his life for trying to get across his message. The film is much more a character study of Michael than it is a full examination of the issues he presents. It’s about the theory he’s developed over thirty years, how he ended up here and the effects it’s had on his life.