I first met Michael Moore back in the heady days when he made his name as a documentary filmmaker with 1989’s Roger and Me by putting himself into the story of the downsizing of the GM plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.
Moore changed the way documentaries are made, and soon other filmmakers, from Errol Morris and Alex Gibney to Kirby Dick, were inserting themselves into their films as well. Moore went on to win the Oscar for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine and to make Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and turned into the highest-grossing doc of all time: all three films are on Current TV’s list of “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die.” Moore also turned his laser gaze on the health industry with Oscar-nominated Sicko, which marked a turning point in doc filmmaker deals, and on Wall Street with Capitalism: A Love Story. For three years, Moore has also run the restored State Theater in his new home town, Traverse City, Michigan, which books art films only– and usually outperforms other first-run indie houses.
Now he’s alerting his more than 877,000 followers on Twitter (@mmflint) and 507,000 Facebook friends that he’s on the Here Comes Trouble Tour, using this collection of 12 stories from his life as a reason to appear with the likes of Tavis Smiley, Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher to expound on everything from President Obama’s debt-cutting plans and Wall Street protests to the untimely death of Troy Davis. Already opposed to the death penalty, Moore has asked that every copy of his book be removed from stores in Georgia, and for a total boycott on the state. And if that’s not possible, he said last week at a Writer’s Bloc Q and A that I moderated at the WGA Theater, he’ll give any profits from the state to charity. The podcast of our often uproarious talk is below.
The book reminds us of where Moore comes from–a working class Irish Catholic family in Flint, Michigan, where his Republican mom worked as a secretary, his Democratic father was an automotive assembly line worker in the GM factory, and his uncle was a labor activist. His grandfather Silas was a pioneer farmer whose solitary efforts to feed starving Indians suffering from measles brought a tear to my eye. When Moore was 11, the family visited Washington, D.C., where the kid got lost; he was found in the Senate elevator by Bobby Kennedy. Moore was an Eagle Scout, studied to be a priest but liked girls too much, was elected to the Davison school board at 18, dropped out of college to work at a Buick plant and later in journalism, including editing Mother Jones, where he was fired over a Sandanista article. Moore then sued the magazine and won a settlement, which provided seed money for his debut doc Roger and Me. Moore was partly inspired by the use of comedy in “duck-and-cover” doc The Atomic Cafe, directed by Kevin Rafferty, who became Moore’s mentor and taught him how to make films.
The book opens with a disturbing portrait of how Moore’s 2002 Oscar acceptance speech, given on the fifth day of the Iraq War, demonized him with the American right, turning him literally into a target overnight, forcing him to hire security guards and withdraw for a time from the public eye. “That was a rough night,” he says. The night before the Oscars he hung out at a party with Gore Vidal, George Clooney and others, who told him what to do with his speech. Robbins said he should say, “I’ve decided to give this up for Lent,” and leave the Oscar behind on the stage. (That wasn’t about to happen.) Penn said he should stand at the microphone for 45 seconds and say nothing. The first two words every Oscar-winner hears are “champagne?” and “breath mint?” reports Moore. He heard a third from a disgruntled stagehand: “asshole!”
The memoir serves in part to humanize and bring the conversation back to the real Michael Moore, as opposed to his outsized image in the conservative press. “If some of them would watch just one of my movies they would instantly know,” says Moore, “number 1, I love this country, number two, I’ve a heart, and number 3, they will laugh at some point. There is comedy and entertainment in these films.”
Moore told us one story that is not in the book: Moore was almost on the cover of Time as a Person of the Year, an honor he was supposed to share with Mel Gibson, the year both Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ came out. Both men agreed to be photographed together for the cover, and flew to L.A. But Gibson went to his church in Malibu and had an epiphany, says Moore. He refused to do the shoot: “He would not be moved by anyone, and it went away.” To add insult to injury, Time’s next choice got the award: George W. Bush.