Michael Moore on making ‘Capitalism’, capital, and social commentary
Michael Moore is one of the most important, and polarizing, figures in contemporary filmmaking. He helped turn documentaries into blockbuster business, and put politics front and center in his films. Previously, Moore tackled corporate greed, school shootings, 9/11, the Iraq war, and America’s healthcare system, offering plenty of powerful facts amidst the spectacle of his singular personal hijinks. His latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, was released in theaters late last year; sort of combining threads of all of his previous efforts into one encyclopedic chronicle of the ways in which the United States lost its way, Moore offered his grandest, most ambitious film to date, and it arrives on DVD next week with continued relevance as our country continues to suffer through one of the worst economic times in American history.
Hollywood News spoke to Moore earlier this week via telephone to discuss the film. In addition to talking about the origins of Capitalism, he addressed criticisms of his own capitalistic tendencies, and reflected on the challenges of becoming a filmmaker whose projects can sometimes be obscured or dismissed because of his public persona.
Hollywood News: What was your original idea for Capitalism, and how did you shape it into a narrative?
Michael Moore: Well, I’ve probably been thinking about this movie for 20 years because it’s ultimately why I made Roger & Me 20 years ago. But it’s not a movie about General Motors or Flint, Michigan, it was a movie about economic restrictions that at that time I thought was unfair, unjust and not democratic, and included a system by which companies like General Motors could just fly out of control and do a lot of harm to the country. That’s what I thought 20 years ago, and then I made a number of films about different subjects, whether it was healthcare, the Iraq war, and I just felt like 20 years later, I’m tired. I just want to get right to the core of the problem here. Part of the problem is that this economic system is set up so that the richest one percent control more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined. Tell me how [that happens] in a democracy that is called a free society where everybody has a say in what’s going on.
Hollywood News: Forgive me if this is a mischaracterization of how you might describe your films, but as more of an advocate than the conventional perception audiences have of an objective documentarian, you’ve cultivated a persona. How do you make sure that your message isn’t lost in that perception of who you are, or is that a consideration at all?
Moore: It’s hard to do it because we live in sort of a [tabloid] magazine culture and celebrities are so dominant in the way we do things. Whatever happened to just doing things for doing things’ sake? Now you’ve got to answer to the stars. I’ve dealt with it first and foremost by presenting the facts, make sure they’re well-researched, and then use the facts to present an argument. When I was in high school I won the top debate award in the state, and that’s all you had to do; you had to be able to argue both sides of the subject matter, and so I tried to instill that [in my films]. Let me say this though; this is what you’re asking, when I read or hear things about my work or whatever. I am first and foremost a filmmaker. I am not a political activist; in fact, I don’t even like the term political activist because it’s redundant. The fact that I’m a citizen of a democracy should imply that I’m a political activist, as are you, and everybody else. So if we aren’t active, the democracy doesn’t exist. So I am first and foremost a filmmaker. When I put out a movie, I’m not sitting there telling everybody how we’re going to change or save the world. I say to myself, follow them into the theater and i want you to put yourself in an invisible theater seat. Anytime you shoot something or do something in the editing room, I want you to imagine that you’re in a theater watching this. I want you to think about the people who are having to get a babysitter, spend a lot of money getting to the theater, going out to have dinner, and then they get ripped off on popcorn and sodapop and everything, so the very least you can give them is two great hours of entertainment. So I’m really trying to make a film where at the end of the film, they’re looking at each other going wow, I haven’t seen that before! And they’re still talking about on the way home. Isn’t that what ever filmmaker wants? I hope so.
Hollywood News: I think as a component of that persona, audiences expect you to hold companies’ feet to the fire, so to speak. How do you balance investigating something and indulging the showmanship, if you will, of doing something like putting police tape around Wall Street as you did towards the end of the film?
Moore: I’ll tell you what the scene accomplished and I’ll tell you why I did it. I come from the working class and I’ve never forgotten that; even though I’ve done well, in my head I’m still in the working class. And I know the seething anger that exists of having to bust your ass your whole life, dreaming the American dream, and having it ripped off from you. So when I’m wrapping crime scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange, I’m not doing that as some little prank or stunt or joke, I’m doing it because I know that I’m being watched by thousands, maybe millions of people, in the theater or at home, and they don’t have the ability to do that. They don’t have the resources. They’re not given the forum; nobody’s doing a junket today with them where they get to talk to 20 media outlets. But I get that chance and I’m blessed to have that and I’m going to use every minute of it so that they can sincerely have a cathartic experience as a wrap that tape around the Stock Exchange. I know what they’re thinking and saying in the theater, the people where I come from. They’re going, “yes!” They’re going, “alright!”
And I’ll tell you, just to give an example of this, I didn’t have to wait until the movie came out to get that response. I was wrapping the crime scene tape around the block, which of course I clearly didn’t have a permit to do. The police started approaching me, and I see them coming and I’m thinking, aww, I’m going to get the crap beat out of me now. And they’re coming towards me and as they get closer, I say to them, “officers, it’s just a movie. We’re just having a little fun. I’ll get out of your way in a second and clean it up, don’t worry.” The cop comes up to me and goes, “it’s okay, Mike. These guys inside this building stole a billion dollars from our police pension fund. You just take all of the time you want.”
Hollywood News: Among the criticisms that people have lobbied at you, some have asked why you haven’t given more of your money away.
Moore: I do. I do to a very large extent. But I had a dear friend tell me one time that there’s a verse somewhere that says “it’s not charity if you announce it.” You’ll never see me send out a press release for what I’ve done. It’s enough that I’ve done it, and I know I’ve done it, and anybody who knows me knows that I [donate]. Look, I’ve been very blessed; I’m a documentary filmmaker, please keep that in mind, but for a documentary filmmaker I do really well. And because I do really well, I feel even more, a greater responsibility to do more. I have to do more. It’s demanded of me almost to do more, and I know it upsets the other side. They make the point all of the time – I’m a dangerous person with money in his hand because they don’t know what I’m going to do with it (laughs). I mean, I’m sitting here in my K-Mart bought sweats, and I got this shirt from a big & tall shop. I guess I’m pretty dangerous because I’m going to use [my money] to try and change this thing; I’m sick and tired of opening my mail each day and having to read letter after letter from people who have health insurance that won’t cover an operation for their child. I get letters like this every day, and after this movie, I get letters about people who are losing their homes – people who believed in the American dream. These are Republicans and conservatives now who call me, who believed all of the lies they were told, and so I have this burden that I personally feel to do something with this, and so I do.
Hollywood News: Given the prominence of your celebrity or your visibility, is that an essential part of the process for you to get your messages across, or is there a way that you can accomplish the same goals without putting yourself out there at all? The reason I ask is because if you tell some conservatives to watch one of your movies, they might say they don’t like you, and therefore choose not to watch the movie, regardless how accurate or important is what you have to say.
Moore: That’s not because of anything that I did. That’s because they’ve been told to say that, by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. They’re not mad at me. If they met me, they would probably like me. If they came up to me and said hi, I don’t agree with anything you say, I’d say, you know what? I bet you and I agree on more things than you think. I think you’d be pretty surprised because we have a lot of common ground. I believe that about all of us – that we have more in common than not. But people have been manipulated by a lot of hate, and it blows my mind the way that people [react to me]. I mean how many films of mine have they seen? Probably none, you know. But if they put the DVD of this movie in the DVD player, they’ll discover three things: Number one, Michael Moore loves this country. Number Two, Michael Moore is following his conscience and really cares about the things he cares about. And Number Three, I may not agree with them on anything politically, but the guy is kind of funny! They’ll have a few good laughs while watching the movie, at the very least. So I understand your question, and I will say this: I am keenly aware of this problem, I’m keely aware of how I’ve been victimized by it, and I have a sign in the editing room that says, “when in doubt, cut me out.” If you added up the total minutes of screen time that I spend on screen, I’m not actually up on screen for more than ten minutes. So a little bit of me goes a long way.