Hi Film Folk,
Today sees the UK release of Michael Moore’s new documentary Where to Invade Next.
So today we bring you an In Conversation about his inspiration for the film and his documentary shooting process.
What were the origins of this project?
It really started when I was 19 years old. I had just dropped out of college and I got Eurail pass and a youth hostel card and spent a couple months traveling around Europe. I was in Sweden and I broke my toe, and somebody sent me to a clinic. Not much you can do with a broken toe, but they did what they could, and I went to pay the bill, and there was no bill. And I didn’t understand it. Seriously, I had never heard of such a thing. And so they explained to me how their healthcare system worked, and all through Europe I just kept running into little things like that, thinking, “That’s such a good idea! Why don’t we do that?”
My original idea was to go and invade other countries and steal things — other than oil. And I would do it without firing a shot.
I had three rules: (1) don’t shoot anybody; (2) don’t take any oil; and (3) bring something back home that we can use. It became clear to us once we were invading these countries that it would be much better if I made a movie about America without ever shooting a single frame of this movie in America. What would that movie look like? I liked the challenge of that.
How did you select the countries to invade?
Part of it was just getting out of the United States and traveling. Traveling and paying attention.
A few years ago, I was on the street corner in Washington, DC and this woman comes up to me and says, “We are number one, in education,” and she was the Education Minister of Finland and she handed me a book about Finland – one hundred things that Finland does right. And she told me about how Finland’s schools got rid of homework, and I just thought, ‘I’m getting punkedright now.’
We had a production meeting before we left with my field producers and crew and I asked did they know this particular thing? Had they read this, had they heard about that? And even though I have some very smart people – smarter than me – who work on the films; a couple of them went to Harvard, one went to Cornell, another to Dartmouth.
And even though we all read three papers a day, most of the stuff in this movie we didn’t know. So, I thought if that were the case, it would be fresh for an audience. I like to go to movies and learn and experience things I don’t already know.
How are you able to preserve the elements of surprise and spontaneity in your films when they require such deliberate planning?
I don’t want to act. I want my reactions to be real. You can’t ask the people you’re interviewing to do or say something a second time. They are not actors, then they try to act, and the audience knows it, it sucks. We’ve seen too many documentaries like that. So it has to happen in the moment, and it has to happen with me in the moment, too. And that’s why sometimes if I say something and it’s funny, it’s funny, and sometimes it’s not so funny. But it’s just what I said.
So I’m not trying to go for, “Hey, writers, get me a funnier line.” I don’t think, “Geez wouldn’t it be cool if I took a can of Coke in and sat it down on the lunch table to see what the kids do.” It was like, “I want a fucking Coke.” And there’s no vending machines in the school. So a production assistant had to run into town and get me a Coke. And it’s just sitting there – so what happens then just happens.
The scene at the Berlin Wall, it was absolutely not planned to be in the film. It was only because Rod Birleson, who was the executive producer of the film, and who also had gotten a Eurail card and a youth hostel card – we’ve been friends since I was 17 –he was there, we were in Berlin, and mostly just for nostalgia, we thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have just for our scrapbook, let’s shoot some video of us at the wall, 26 years later, from that night we were there accidentally in Berlin. Why don’t we go down there and take some pictures and we’ll just walk along, and reminisce, and we’ll give this to the grandkids someday.’
Sometimes the best stuff is the stuff I don’t plan out. And the research that my field producer’s do, I have them tell me only the basics. I don’t want to know the details. So for instance, when the Italian couple says to me that they get their honeymoon paid for, 15 days, and you see my reaction, that’s real! I’m hearing that for the first time. Even though my producers may have known that, they didn’t share it with me.
Talk about your decision to pick the flowers, not the weeds..
The mainstream media does a really good job telling us night after night how all the rest of the world is just so bad, they pay so much in taxes, and it’s just awful. And look, a lot of it is awful — and you get to watch it and read about it on television, in the papers, online. But every few years, I’ll ask for two hours of your time to present the other version. The other truths about what goes on.
If you want to know why I didn’t point out Italy’s high unemployment rate, my answer to you is that I went there to pick the flowers and not the weeds. Other people can pick the weeds, but I wanted to show—especially my fellow Americans, but certainly people around the world—the contrast between the two.
I wanted to say to Americans that we trust the level of your intelligence and experience, you already know the truth, you already know everything, you don’t need to go and watch another documentary to tell you how fucked up this thing is, or that thing is. We need to get off our asses and do something, and get inspired by what we could be.
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