“The Yes Men Are Revolting,” the third film by the titular activist pranksters, shows them taking on the establishment in new and creative ways as they cope with middle age. Once again, they’re impersonating corporate executives and staging bold hoaxes in order to draw international attention to corporate crimes against the environment. But just how do they manage to pull off these stunts? And capture them on film?
Indiewire recently spoke to the Yes Men (who go by the “stage” names Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichibaum) and Laura Nix, who directed and produced the film, which opened theatrically on June 12 at the IFC Center in NY after premiering on VOD and across all digital platforms on June 9.
How do you know that I really am a legitimate journalist, and that I’m not setting you up for some sort of prank?
Andy Bichibaum (AB): Because I can’t bring myself to have that kind of hope for my life. I’m not that optimistic that somebody would do that [laughs].
In addition to pulling off these hoaxes, you are also filming them. How much do you plan that element in advance?
AB: It depends how much advance notice we have, and whether we know where we’re going. A lot of the things we did in this film were filmed in a kind of catch-as-catch-can kind of way. And the process would often take quite a while because from the beginning to the end could be a matter of months. So we would shoot whenever we could. Sometimes with our cell phones, sometimes with a camera, sometimes a friend would be there. And then the action itself sometimes would be filmed by somebody who was a dedicated filmmaker or videographer, but sometimes it would just be somebody we kind of trained on the spot who did a fine job of it. And sometimes it would be a combination of both.
How much time do you spend planning to film the action, compared to the action itself?
Mike Bonnano (MB): Filming the action is usually actually fairly straightforward. It’s a craft, there’s a lot of people who know how to do it. The actions themselves take a lot more time. With the actions, it’s thinking about the entire story. I would say that the actions are, in a sense, not separate from the filmmaking, in that you’re always making a story when you’re making an action. We’re thinking about how it plays out in the newspaper, and on television, and then in a movie. So for the filming, it becomes fairly straightforward. We usually film in normal observational doc style.
Occasionally, we don’t have any money and then it’s a challenge because if we can’t hire a professional, then we’re using all these amateurs, friends who are holding a camera, or just people from our mailing list. And in that case, it’s often just about convincing them that they should not always point the camera at what they think is the action.
Overall the filmmaking part of it, is a challenge. But it’s a bigger challenge to make the overarching narrative of the film than it is to think about how to shoot the individual actions.
Can you talk about the challenge of creating a narrative out of the film?
Laura Nix (LN): When you’re making a political argument you basically are crafting a narrative, so it was crucial to have our film tell a structured story. I’ve known the Yes Men a long time, I went to both college and graduate school with Mike, and I was around when he and Andy started working together. So it was really important to me for them to be revealed as more fully developed characters this time around. This film has multiple narratives on both personal and political levels, and each Yes Man needed to have his own character arc. What was most challenging was figuring out when and how all those narratives would intersect.
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How does it work to have three directors? I imagine there are pros and cons to that arrangement.
MB: It helps to have three because you have majority. If there’s a deadlock, you can move along still. It’s always collaboration. It can be tough, it can be easy, it can be exciting and energizing. It can also be something that is a struggle, and we’ve been through all of it. We’ve been working on this film for quite some time, as we did with each of our films, and so it’s always like cooking with somebody else. You might want a little more salt than they do [laughs]. Usually what we do is we have a struggle over the salt shaker. And then we end up wrestling on the floor in the oil, and all that.
LN: The pro of having three directors is you can divide up responsibilities. The con is it can take longer to reach consensus and it’s slower to move forward. The process was pretty organic, but I’d say we each had areas of focus.
We all participated in post, but I spent more time in the edit room, with a special focus on creating the arc of the Yes Men’s personal story. They needed someone with an outside perspective to create and work with that material. I also spent a lot of time developing how to structure the climate story, how the climate story would interweave with the personal material, and strategizing how to shoot the actions.
As far as the logistics involved in pulling off a prank without giving it away, how does that work?
AB: It’s less of a challenge than you might think. We still tell people not to talk about it more than they have to, but it’s not really a news story until it happens. There was one occasion when a news outlet tried to figure out what we were going to do. We ended up having to mislead them, to steer them off the path. But, generally, nobody cares until it’s done. So, even if a journalist figures out that we were planning this, I doubt that they would write about it. They might ask for an exclusive, so that they can talk about it after the fact or when we’re doing it, but I doubt they would reveal it before we did it, it just wouldn’t be news.
LN: The Yes Men have pulled off actions for so long, and they’re so good at it, that they often downplay the effort that goes into them. Some of the actions were actually quite simple, like the Occupy Wall Street action, which only needed men’s thrift store suits, pizza boxes, markers, and a camera person. But many of the others, like the polar bear gift presentation, the Shell party and the final action with the defense contractors, were much more complex, requiring elaborate logistics and a special shooting strategy for each one.
Can you talk about the shooting strategy?
LN: Most of the time we shot on small HD cameras, using a one-man band approach, so the camera person was also doing sound. Sometimes we used hidden cameras. Occasionally, we wanted it to appear that legitimate press were covering the event, so we got a hold of the biggest camera we could plus a burly guy operating it to look like a network news cameraman.
On the last action in the film we told the conference organizers we were broadcasting it live through a satellite news truck, and had to make up all kinds of nonsense about why we had to park “our sat van” so far away, due to interference from the radio waves from the Pentagon. We also told them the wireless mic transmitters on the backs of the cameras were actually the satellite transmitters. I still can’t believe they went for that.
What were some of the other logistics? For instance, how did they prepare to impersonate people?
LN: If the Yes Men were impersonating people, sometimes it required only a suit. Other times more was needed to pull it off, like fake websites, temporary phone numbers, false email addresses, business cards, etc.
Did you also have to cast extras?
LN: In order to fool people in the room into believing it’s a real event, and to satisfy story elements for the camera, we often cast people as speakers, party guests, journalists, conference attendees, and even corporate-branded musclemen. Sometimes this necessitated hair, makeup and costuming.
Sometimes the event already existed, like the Homeland Security conference, which meant figuring out how to be accepted and scheduled as a speaker, and required fabricated communication sustained for months about the upcoming engagement. In other actions, like the Shell party, the event was created from scratch, including renting the Seattle Space Needle, hiring caterers, and creating props like a custom-made ice sculpture and beverage dispenser.
Now that The Yes Men are recognizable, is it more challenging to pull it off? Or do people not put it together?
AB: They don’t put it together, usually. They just don’t. It is I guess a bit surprising, but not really. When we go to these conferences, there are just so many of them around the country and around the world, they’re happening al the time. And it’s a big money-making business. There’s just a lot of people in these, and they don’t seem to be the same people who watch our film often [laughs.] We have occasionally been recognized during actions though, maybe three or four times. And usually people come up to us and ask us for DVDs, or tell us they thought it was really funny or whatever.
Can you give us some insider tips for documenting an action or an event?
AB: Mike and I were in a hotel recently where there were all these corporate conferences going on in the hotel, and we just thought, “wow, we could crash like three of these in one morning and document it. What would that take?” We realized that all we need is a total of three cell phones. You need one person filming the intervention, where you walk into the room and lean on the glass if there’s a reception and make the announcement. You need another person using a cellphone to film the reactions of people in the room. And you should always be on those people reacting, and never actually film the person doing the intervention because it’s the reactions that are the most priceless, and that make it funny and make people laugh.
Unless you’re a fantastically great actor, the intervention itself is not necessarily going to be that amazing. If you watch Michael Moore or Borat, they always show the reactions pretty prominently. The third camera would just be an audio recorder that you keep in your pocket. Sound is the thing that documentarians of actions neglect. The image can be shaky and weird, but the sound has to be really good. And there are some examples of actions that have gotten huge publicity and have gotten on the biggest shows that have really crappy video, but they have great sound. So, that’s all you need!
MB: Another thing is just to have some tenacity. Like, when you think it failed, it may be recoverable. All the time, we think that the gig is up. When you do something like this, you always feel paranoid. But your paranoia usually is just that. At least from our perspective, we found that if you just keep going, you’ll go there. The other thing is to not shy away from conflict.
A lot of people think “isn’t it going to ruin everything if they find out who you really are?” In fact, it’s sort of the opposite, that makes the film better when they find out who you really are. Because there’s a conflict that’s fun to watch, that’s unpredictable. And you really do feel the stakes of the actions. What we’ve found from years of doing this, is that we could get away with it and nobody would really know the difference. It’s satirical intervention, and nobody objects. In a way, the action sort of falls short of being action. It’s interesting, it’s fascinating. It’s not what we come to expect from a movie.