At the Produced By: New York conference this weekend in New York, Academy Award-winning documentarian Michael Moore took the stage to discuss filmmaking, the social impact of his own films and his new documentary “Where to Invade Next,” which will be released on December 23 (see teaser above).
Led by Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, the conversation remained light, but Moore wasn’t afraid to dig into important cultural issues as well as his own traumatic experiences being assaulted by people who who disagreed with his beliefs.
Of course, Moore’s films have tackled important and often difficult political and social issues America faces, from gun control (“Bowling for Columbine”) to healthcare (“Sicko”) to big banking (“Capitalism: A Love Story”). Moore said he is aware of the influence his films have had on viewers, but is nonetheless pushing to make even more of an impact.
“Every documentary filmmaker likes to feel that we’ve made a contribution,” said Moore. He pointed to the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality as the kind of concrete political change he’d like to see more of in his lifetime. “I want us believing that we can make the impossible happen, because I’ve seen us do it.”
Moore is certainly not known for keeping an objective distance from his subjects. The director makes his own presence in the story known, appearing in front of the camera and in voiceover throughout. When this subjectivity came up during the discussion, he defended the truthfulness of the facts cited in his films. Moore credited his team of thorough fact checkers and challenged anyone to “find something in these films that isn’t real.”
Moore suggested that “there’s no such thing as an objective documentary,” pointing out that even in the work of verité documentary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, choices are made throughout the shooting and editing process that come from the filmmaker’s point-of-view. “I’m just being upfront about it,” he explained.
The director also shied away from the “documentarian” label for non-fiction filmmakers (“you don’t call Scorsese a fictionatarian”) and said in his own films he puts entertainment first and politics second.
When the moderator noted his prescience in his Oscar speech in which he predicted there would be no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, the filmmaker remembered an accidental prediction he made about this year’s presidential race. In 1999, Moore directed the music video for Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” on Wall Street. The video delivers a message about wealth inequality and corporate corruption and Moore had a picket sign made for a background extra that read “Trump for President.” “I don’t think [Trump] is a fan of Rage Against the Machine,” joked Moore.
Moore credited some of his success to bullying the late Roger Ebert into attending the premiere of “Roger and Me” at Telluride in 1989. “Roger and Me” was scheduled to premiere in a tiny theater on opening night against Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,” and so the filmmaker was understandably worried that his film would be overlooked. When Moore spotted Ebert at the festival’s opening night dinner, he tried to persuade the critic to attend his premiere instead. Moore was surprised to see Ebert walking into the theater on opening night. “Don’t say a word,” he remembered the critic saying. “I’m only here because there was a crazy look in your eyes.” Ebert’s glowing review the next day put Moore on the fast track to stardom.
We need to support women’s voices.
Moore said that all of his films have came in on time and on or under budget, which he credits to his producing team. In particular, he credits the women on the team, noting that eight of the 11 producers on “Where to Invade Next” are women.
“Things are actually better with women at the table,” he said, encouraging filmmakers to support women’s voices in the industry. He joked about the traits that “fell off” men’s Y chromosome (“our volume control, our ability to ask for directions, any sense of aesthetic, something that would give our bodies shape and form”) in making a point about the male dominated point-of-view of the film industry as whole. “Women have stories to tell that are going to be different from guys,” he said about the industry’s general lack of female directors, “and we’re missing out.”
Filmmaking in the digital era
Moore credited his early experiences with the lengthy and expensive process of shooting on 16mm and editing on a Steenbeck machine with helping to develop his directorial style. He referenced the Sundance hit “Tangerine,” which was famously shot on iPhones, as proof that a good film can be made on anything.
His advice to young filmmakers shooting on a low budget is that “sound is more important than picture,” and professional quality sound is the place to spend money. “The audience will forgive the picture. But if the audience can’t hear it and it’s the sound of cable access, the film’s over in the mind of the audience. They don’t want to watch it,” he explained.
On the distribution end, Moore stood by the belief that most movies are meant to be viewed in a theater. “I think there are documentaries that are made for TV and the way you should view them is on television,” he said, “and then there are movies that are theatrical, documentaries that are theatrical and should be in theaters.” To view the former on a big screen and the latter on a small one would both be a mistake. “It’s not a movie if you’re seeing it on a TV screen, or a computer, or a phone.”
He explained, “if you’re watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on an iPhone, I’m here to say that’s not ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ I don’t think that’s a movie. I think a movie implies you’re seeing it in a theater in the dark with strangers.”
Moore contrasted the passivity of television versus the active act of going to a theater as a reason he tries to keep his movies off TV for a long as possible. The big screen and the collective viewing experience in a movie theater are the only way to watch some films, and he believes that collective viewing in particular is important in driving audiences toward social change. The director is no TV snob though, and talked about binge watching Netflix as well as his “Mr. Robot” addiction and his guilty pleasure of “The Bachelorette.”
The director also spoke up about his temporary retirement from filmmaking after “Capitalism: A Love Story.” After years of being blasted for his political views the filmmaker decided to take a step back until he started seeing the changes he was hoping to make. “I [was] tired of being the poster boy for Fox News,” he said, “tired of the bodyguards… I want to live like everyone else.” Moore spoke lightheartedly about the “half dozen” assaults on him after his Oscar speech and after “Fahrenheit 9/11.” In one incident, his security guard took a blade through the hand to protect Moore from a would-be attacker.
Ultimately, he returned to filmmaking, of course. “That cliche that life is short isn’t a cliche,” he said. “I’m in the final third of my life. I don’t have time to wait. … I want us believing that we can make the impossible happen.”