Laura: Good afternoon everyone. I want to thank you for joining us at our panel on the new political documentary. As a preamble to our discussion this afternoon I want to thank Rock the Vote and The November 2nd Campaign because it’s really important, it doesn’t matter what side you are on, it’s important to vote. So if you haven’t had a chance to register, there’s a booth downstairs they would love to sign you up.
As you know, the last several months, the screens have been filled with really interesting documentaries that have received a lot of airplay, print play, a lot of discussion. And it is our pleasure this afternoon to welcome some people who were involved in those very documentaries. They are very, very busy people and we’re just delighted to have them with us this afternoon, and they’re going to show you some clips, talk about their films, take your questions.
And to get the afternoon going I would now like to introduce our moderator, Pat Aufderheide. She is a professor at American University. She is also the director of the Center for Social Media. She was here in 2002 and she led a great seminar that we held at ShortsFest on filmmaker response to 9/11. Please join me in welcoming Pat Aufderheide.
PA: Thank you, Laura. And thank you all for coming. You are really a wonderful community of filmgoers to be with. All right, we’re going to spend a couple of hours together, and I’m going to introduce you to some amazing people I’d like to spend a few minutes kind of setting the scene for you, and then ask each filmmaker to show you a really short clip that illustrates something interesting about the challenges they faced in making these films about very hot political subjects. And then I’d like to begin a conversation with them and with you.
So let me just go back to the scene setting. As you know, and as Laura just mentioned, politically charged documentaries have been very big news lately. You saw Fahrenheit 9/11‘s box office bonanza–absolutely broke all records for a documentary. You saw brand new ways of distributing films. Robert Greenwald’s “Un” series: Unprecedented, Uncovered, Outfoxed. You’ve seen the way that the powerful have taken these films very personally. McDonald’s actually paid for ads to attack Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. There have been charges that these films trigger campaign finance issues, and there have been threats to take them to the Federal Elections Commission. And we’ve seen films that were not originally made with an intent to directly affect an election, being caught up in this great new interest for watching political films, and Control Room is an example of that.
This interest has really brought to the fore what people expect of documentary. And it’s triggered a conversation that I’ve been having more and more, and that I believe we’re going to have today: What is it that we expect from a documentary and of documentarians? What do we think that is? What a great place this is now to ask these four different people to think about that with us: Julia Bacha, who edited Control Room, Jeff Gibbs, producer and composer of Fahrenheit 9/11, Robert Greenwald, the director and producer of Outfoxed, Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me.
Very, very different films and filmmakers. Very different approaches. What do they have in common? They are all documentary filmmakers and they share with other indie documentary filmmakers a passion to express a point-of-view. They strategize how to make that point-of-view interesting, how to make it persuasive to an audience. And if they are documentary filmmakers, what is that? What is this form?
This form is as old as film itself, and it’s a form that’s been morphing ever since. As you can see, it’s a big and sort of sloppy word… if you can flip the cable channels and the majority of time you’re coming up with something that could be called a documentary, it’s a very wide range. You can have something, if you look back in history, something that is a visual poem, like Joris Ivens’famous film Rain, which was a film he made about a rainy day in Amsterdam, and it became famous as one of the great film poems. You can have something that is highly politically-charged, Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera, made in order to celebrate the Soviet Revolution. Actually it wasn’t terribly popular with the Soviet audience, but it was really popular with artists everywhere. You can have something as romantic and as nostalgic as Nanook of the North. And each of these films has descendents.
What are documentaries not? Is there anything that would not be documentaries? Well, they’re not fiction; they didn’t make the stuff up. They’re not public affairs news shows either. They’re not entertainment, even though they’re entertaining. They’re the audio-visual equivalent of an essay. They’re an argument, and they show you something, the look and feel of something. And that something is point-of-view. So docs make a claim to be telling you something honest about something real–something honest about something real. Not that they are not unbiased; they certainly have a perspective. But they are honest. Louie Menand recently wrote an article in The New Yorker, and he put this so beautifully that I thought I would just share these three sentences with you. He said:
“Whatever you think of Michael Moore’s immensely satisfying film about the awful Bush administration and its policies, and reasonable people can disagree of course, one thing that cannot be said is that it is an outlaw from a documentary tradition. ‘The documentary tradition’ sounds like a grand phrase, but it includes everything from Nanook of the North to Girls Gone Wild. And there’s no doubt that it’s an eclectic form. The documentary section shelves Michael Moore next to National Geographic, films about bad presidents next to movies about butterflies, bodybuilders and Eskimos. These films do have one thing in common, though: they share with you things you what was not intended for you to see.”
And among the many, many kinds of films in that general category, there is a long and honorable tradition of social and political documentary made by people who take a firm position and show you the ground on which they’re standing. And let me just remind you of some for the wonderful films we have in that tradition: Harlan County, USA made on the side of the coal miners; The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophül’s film that made the French take a very hard look at their claims that everyone that they knew had somehow been in the resistance during World War II; Shoah, which explored not how the Holocaust could happen, but exactly how it did–especially those guys who agreed to run the trains. Think of The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ film that freed a man condemned to die. Or The Murder of Emmett Till, which re-opened this murder case, which was moribund, and has never been solved. So all of these are engaged, political films that stand as great films in the history of documentary.
You can look around, but what I don’t think you can find is an objective documentary tradition. So there are plenty of docs that are not social and political. There are nature docs and you can have the history of furniture making. There are not any docs that are not informed by ideology and ideas. A film about dolphins takes a stand about what you should care about when you care about dolphins.
I think that sometimes controversy settles on whether a documentary is balanced and whether it’s true for very interested reasons, simply in order to discredit them. And I think for several of the films made by filmmakers on this panel, we have seen the politics of response go immediately into motion once they have been out. At the same time, even though we know that’s true, I think everyone in the audience also has the same question. And it only gets louder, this question, the more stuff that starts coming out. What can we trust it? Who can we trust? Should we trust an independent voice that doesn’t come with a brand name to carry some legitimacy with it? Why should we trust i This question of trust is a real core issue for documentary because documentary is a film that shows you the inside of a point of view.
So that’s the issue I think we’re addressing today with these filmmakers, and we’re going to hear their stories. What we’re going to do is first, launch this discussion with a very short viewing. We’ve asked each of the filmmakers to choose a two-minute clip, and to talk to us very briefly about it. The first person we’re going to do that with is Robert Greenwald.
[Robert Greenwald joins Pat on stage. Audience applauds. Pat and Robert take their seats and house lights go down. Two-minute clip from Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism is played, featuring Bill O’Reilly denying that he says “shut up” and then clips of O’Reilly telling guests, “shut up.” Clip is followed by applause from audience.]
PA: Tell us why you picked that clip to show us. What kind of problems did it pose for you to get that?
RG: Well, I picked that clip because I wanted to have a pleasant afternoon, and there are other clips that are not as pleasant. That particular clip was indicative of many things that I tried to accomplish with the film. First of all and most importantly was, it is film, and we’re using clips from Fox to tell the story. So from the beginning, I conceived of the idea to make it as filmic as possible, if you will.
And I had a series of categories that we were looking at. I had monitors all over the country watching Fox News, and they had these eight or nine things to look for. One general category that we had when we began, was these sort of interruptions–it was actually called “bullying the guests” was the original category that this then became. And the monitors would find different things and then send it to us. Two things that emerged from this in the course of the editing, which I thought were particularly interesting. One is that we did not go into this knowing that O’Reilly had said, “I never said shut up,” and then having all these wonderful examples of it. But the more that we worked on the film, the more upset we became with parts of O’Reilly’s behavior. It’s really hard to watch it on a consistent basis. And then, somebody found in an old interview that he’d said this, and said, “Boy, I wonder if that’s accurate,” and we started going through the thousands of clips that we’d broken out. And the editor came to me and said, “You know, we may have something here,” we’d originally had two. Well, then we were like, possessed, to find the rest of them. We did Lexis-Nexis searches and we asked all the monitors to keep looking and built the rest of it into sequence you saw.
The other part of it that we talked about before a little bit was, for those of you who are documentary filmmakers, we got these clips not by asking Fox’s permission–you can imagine how happy they would be to license them to us–but we got them under the basis of something called Fair Use. We have a wonderful lawyer and a team of lawyers who worked with us pro bono, or we would never have been able to make the film otherwise. And they have this category called Fair Use, which is if you are only able to tell this story using these clips, then you are entitled to use them because it’s a Fair Use. You aren’t taking them for some other purpose, that the only way to do this clearly with the – you know, seeing it all, hearing it all and… seeing their faces up there–is a Fair Use. So these two things came together–sort of a creative desire to use the techniques of Fox–edit them together and give a sample to people who don’t always watch Fox News, as well as on the legal front, are being protected and guided by these really great men and women who said, “You’re allowed to do this, and here’s the reason why.”
Pat: Thank you. Okay, I think we’re ready to view the next clip. And that would be Julia Bacha. [Audience applause.] We’re going to show a clip from a film that Julia edited, Control Room.
[A two-minute clip is played, showing the translator at the satellite news service at work. Audience applause.]
PA: …the control room of al-Jazeera at the time of the Iraqi invasion. Julia tell us something about why you chose that clip to show us, what does it show us about the challenge of making that film?
JB: Well, one of the things, the main thing we wanted to do with the film was expose a little bit about al-Jazeera to the public, mostly the American public… European as well, but Europeans know a little bit more about it. Because during the war al-Jazeera was demonized to such a point that people started thinking that it was Osama bin Laden’s or at best, was Saddam Hussein’s television. And so we were like, well what is the way to do this? And instead of telling them, “This is what it is; this is not what it is,” we thought it would be better to just have a camera there following these people around in this sort of like cinema verité tradition, let the people then choose and decide what they thought about it. Like let’s see these people, let’s see the al-Jazeera journalists [at work.] And we were, you know, in a sense, very lucky to get this sort of a sequence. When you are there 24 hours a day, things happen, you know they have to choose the stories they’re going to show. They have to choose the stories they are not going to show. And then to show who are these people without telling you who they are.
The other part of it was, how are we going to put this in perspective, the work they are doing? And it was very convenient that Central Command, which was the American Coalition Media Center was 10 miles away from al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, so we got access to that as well. And then the premise of the movie becomes both a cinema-verité experience inside al-Jazeera and inside Central Command, and then with you being able to be there, which–there is no other way the public would have access to that–without being told, “Think about it.” Which I think is a great thing about cinema verité, because, of course, there’s a point of view, and you’re coming from a certain perspective when you start to do this, but it gets the people to think about these matters instead of giving the thing all chewed up for them and already all thought about.
PA: Thank you, Julia.
JB: You’re Welcome. [Audience applause.]
PA: And now we’d like to go to Jeff Gibbs, producer and composer of Fahrenheit 9/11. [Applause. Clip Plays, showing Iraqis going about peaceable daily life before the invasion.]
PA: Jeff, I think of all the films that have come out, Fahrenheit 9/11 has probably been under the most frontal attack for not being fair or not being balanced… and what did you want to show us about facing the challenge of speaking to an audience about these issues in this clip?
JG: Well, I probably wanted to show this clip because I think attacking and killing people based on a lie is the worst atrocity of our time. And the only thing I’ll say about November 2nd is the only way we can show that we want to make up for that is by exercising our right to vote.
One of the claims made was that it wasn’t fair to show the happy Iraqis as human beings, that we should be showing the atrocities. Well, maybe it would be fair and balanced to show the atrocities but I think we already know about the atrocities of Saddam Hussein. What we don’t know, is seeing people from the middle east and Iraq living their lives and being happy. And when we were cutting the film, Iraq–as horrible as it was–the bombings and the casualties weren’t hitting me like they should, and I realized a couple of our producers had been there just before the war and had footage. And we needed to see what the real human beings, you know, were like that we attacked. [Applause.] I think part of our contribution is having two hours to tell you what you’re not seeing in the rest of the media–the liberal, left, right, whatever it is, I mean–They’ve all got the same clips of Bush. Did you see some of the same expressions of Bush that you saw in the debate? Isn’t that stunning? And they don’t show us the angry Bush, the confused Bush, the over-controlled Bush. That footage is available to all the networks–every single bit of that footage–but they never chose to show that to you. So, to me we’re just balancing out the things that you don’t see.
PA: Got it. The things you were not intended to see.
JG: The other reason I wanted to show this, is–we’re talking about the art of filmmaking, we spent so much effort to bring out the sound to that section because that’s an important part of how you experience a film; I think the sound in these films is extremely important in moving documentaries up the next level.
PA: Can you give us any one example in that section that we just saw of some of the problems you faced in getting the sound right?
JG: Just–you know, well, we actually brought the guys from from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to help mix the sound for this. So we were up all night, night after night just doing the sound editing for this.
PA: Great. Well, thank you, Jeff. And finally, our last panelist, Morgan Spurlock, is the one person on the panel who has not made a film that is directly about issues that are on top of the election agenda. But nonetheless, on issues that affect us every single day. Morgan? [Clip from Super Size Me follows, in which Spurlock shows elementary school children pictures of famous figures including Jesus and George Washington, and after scattered recognition children can all identify Ronald McDonald. Applause.] …Why’d you decide to do it that way? What’d you want to show us about that clip?
MS: A couple things that are in that clip… much like you and I were talking about earlier, you know, this is an issue that really isn’t in the forefront of a lot of our minds. You know, fast food and obesity, to get that correlation and that link is not something people really talk about, and especially in a war year, it’s something that’s kind of been overshaded in a lot of ways. And for me, to really make it an important issue–to make people start to think about it–you just have to connect it to something people care about in a lot of ways. And for me I think the reason this clip is important, is because it really starts to show you where it starts; it starts to show you the insidiousness of the marketing, the way they target kids, and, you know, where it begins. Where does the first step of this education–or mis-education– of children start, that leads them down this path? And that really does begin with young children.
The other thing that I think this clip really shows, is how important it was for me to really make humor a part of the film. You know, nobody likes to be told what to do; I don’t like to be told what to do. Just ask my vegan girlfriend. And so for me, from the very beginning, it was important to create a movie that not only provided a vast amount of information and really made people start to think, but also, on a level, didn’t preach to them, was entertaining. You know, like the Mary Poppins song, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” That was kind of our goal from the beginning–to create something that would provide a balance for the viewer.
PA: Well, thank you very much. [Audience applauds.]
MS: Thank you.
PA: What we’d like to do now is invite all our panelists up here to join us for a discussion. [Other panelists return to take seats on stage.] You’ve seen each other’s clips and you’ve really faced very different challenges, but let’s talk a little bit about the ethics that you, yourself, think about as you’re working through the material. And the question of, as you say, Morgan, reaching an audience–“spoonful of sugar,” making sure it’s entertaining for people–but also, that you feel that this is a fair representation of what you really want to say.
MS: I think from the beginning, whenever you create a film, especially a film like any of these on the panel that really bring up some very important issues, as a filmmaker I think the most important thing is to make sure you create a project that is built on a foundation of fact and on a foundation of truth. And for us from the very beginning we were doing a vast amount of research. Just like Robert, we had a team of lawyers who were helping us make sure that there was nothing libelous that was coming out in the project–nothing that could be deemed slanderous in any way. We needed to be sure that everything that was backed up by a vast amount of documented material that would show that everything that we talked about in the film is true, and that would provide very little room for question. Because you know once you create a film that’s based in this matter, it’s kind of hard to refute the truth, it’s kind of hard to argue with things that you can provide documentation for.
RG: Yeah. We had a very similar process. In going and looking at Fox News, which nobody had ever done before–which I was shocked to find out–I wanted to use a series of techniques to make the case, not just one thing, and not do it the way Fox News would do it, which is to have somebody screaming at you, saying this is the way it is. So we used four different techniques. Iinterestingly, in their various attacks on me and the film, Fox has never responded to the substance, it’s only been things around the edges. So besides our own monitoring, we actually commissioned a study for the movie done by FAIR, and they watched Brit Hume for 25 weeks, and they just monitored who the guests were: 80% Republican, 20% Democrat; and it’s a primary news show. We got these memos that were sent out, that a source inside Fox News was gracious enough to get to me. They were 15 memos that go to the editors, writers, producers, telling them how to interpret events politically. And then I had nine former employees from Fox News, talk about the political direction that they were given, and I had the clips themselves. So I felt having these four categories put me on very strong ground in terms of the attacks I expected.
PA: Well, Jeff, I know that you guys–
JG: We went through the same thing. We had several researchers, full-time, then we had our own fact-checkers, and Miramax had fact-checkers, and the attorneys went through it. And the same thing with the attacks. They’re attacking the things around the edges and the message, but they don’t really attack the facts in the film.
PA: Julia, you were dealing with a very, very misunderstood, or even unknown subject.
JB: Yeah, I think Control Room is a little bit different from these other three movies because it was a lot about being there, just shooting, you know what’s going on, and then going through the footage and finding compelling, interesting characters that we felt like then, through some research would exemplify what al-Jazeera is and what it wants to represent. But it wasn’t a direct attack–you know it wasn’t so much about McDonald’s is bad for you, or Bush is bad for you, or Fox News is bad for you, it was more about, you know, let’s be there…
MS: I agree with all three of those. [Audience laughter.]
JB: I agree completely, too. Well, maybe ours was al-Jazeera is good for you. You know? And so in that way, it was more of an experience of finding a way to get the viewer into our characters as we follow them and into a story that could show them that some of the perceptions and some of the propaganda that they’ve heard about al-Jazeera were not true. And some of the stuff that came from Central Command, which is where all of the western media was located, being fed by Brooks and their people, was not quite correct. One thing that they were very upset and disappointed a little bit about, was we wanted to get more of the American journalists’ point-of-view, but the American journalists had all signed contracts with their channels that they wouldn’t speak to anyone, that they couldn’t talk. So we got David Shuster from ABC and Tom Mintier, who I think were very brave, especially Tom, who I after, especially, after the Lynch case came along, got really mad and just decided to speak out a little. But it was hard. That’s why they don’t have such a prominent presence in the movie–they really were very reluctant to speak.
PA: Well, so, let me get this straight. Everybody here has verified and re-verified their facts. Lawyers are making a very good business here out of making sure that everything is not only true, but also is not litigate-able. These films all establish well-known things actually: Fox is not fair and balanced, McDonald’s is not a healthy diet, the four core ideas in Fahrenheit about the Bush administration, al-Jazeera’s characterization… Why does it take an independent filmmaker working with few resources, starting from zero basically, to do this?
MS: Because the media will never tell you.
PA: Talk to us a little bit about why it takes four courageous people like you on stage to do this.
MS: This is something I’ve spoken to a few people about. Especially in the world we live in today, we live in a world where documentary film, independent documentary film has truly become the last bastion of free speech. It really has. [Audience applauds.]
I’ve been traveling around the world promoting this film now, and no matter what country we go to, there’s a newspaper, TV station, radio or magazine that won’t talk to me, that won’t do a story about the film, simply because McDonald’s is one of their biggest sponsors. McDonald’s has called them and threatens them, and says we’re going to pull away our advertising if you talk about him or this movie and slowly but surely, they walk away. This is a company that sells burgers and fries that has that kind of power, so you have to ask yourself what else are we not getting?
‘Cause the fact is you’re not getting a lot, or what you do get is a very watered down version of the truth, because the tentacles of the corporations and the ties they have with the media conglomerates run deep. And it’s the buddy system, and they’re going to you know, watch each others’ backs and what you’ll get is a very bland version of what’s really happening around the world. And so with this world of free speech that we live in, you know we live in this fantastic place where it’s freedom of speech, so long as it’s okay with the sponsor. And that’s not a very free world.
PA: Well, Robert, you’ve actually worked in the heart of Hollywood very, very successfully. Why do you think it took a brand new production and distribution mode to get the points that you’ve made in your last four documentary films?
RG: Well, sponsors don’t get to be sponsors by being courageous. It’s not what they’re in the business of doing, taking chances. They want equal opportunity for everybody to love them. By the way, just a side note, which I must say, which is one of the reasons, and I know this is totally non-partisan, but for the liberals and progressives in the audience, we’ve been asleep at the wheel in not complaining more, because sponsors really can be affected. And I can tell you, a letter a phone call, I mean it really, really makes a difference.
But because the media, as we were just saying, is essentially a profit-making media, and even PBS now is getting the hell beat out of it by the Republicans in Washington, there’s very little room for these kinds of voices to come out. By the way, I think it’s the books and the documentary films now… the two together have been in the leadership of getting these other ideas out there. And unfortunately the bigger the corporations, the more interests they have, and the more conservative they have, in the larger sense of not wanting to upset the apple cart.
MS: And unfortunately most people in America don’t want to read books, so movies tend to be a great outlet for a lot of people.
PA: Jeff, did you have a comment you want to make?
JG: Yeah, my feeling lately, as depressing as it sounds, we don’t have a left-wing media, we have no media in some ways in this country. It was so depressing after the war, and that was part of our motivation of making the film, to sit there and try and find news about what was actually happening to the people of Iraq, and you couldn’t get it. You know, Saturday, you turn on NPR and you’ve got Car Talk and Pep Talk and Dr. Zorba and… I’m listening, and it’s like, I love all those shows, Prairie Home Companion, but here’s my liberal network, and then there’s something brought to you by Archer Daniels Midland–what the hell is that on the liberal network? You know, in favor of genetically engineered food. It’s totally depressing. And then, we get some news from NPR and the BBC is on locally.
But then, after doing this movie I went back to Traverse City in Michigan, and the local folks are telling me that they have a Mideast: Just Peace film series on Palestinian issues, and the local NPR station would not run their community announcement on the community bulletin board because it was political. They had raised money to try and get Amy Goodman on their local college station. The college intervened and refused to allow Amy Goodman to be on the local station.
With Fahrenheit, media would be called after the film came out and be told and threatened, and hopefully Michael will reveal some of these stories sometime. And journalists would apologize to him after he appeared on the show where they attacked him. Mel Gibson was going to fund Fahrenheit 9/11; he got word that he would never visit the White House again. Disney, refused to distribute the film, despite the fact–who’s on Disney?
RG: Rush Limbaugh…
JG: Rush Limbaugh. So they can have Rush Limbaugh every day of the week spewing hate, but they can’t have our $500 million that they would have earned if they would have kept the film. [Audience laughter and applause.]
MS: And you wonder why Eisner’s losing his job.
JG: But the last thing I’ll say about that is, we still underestimate the power of Fox and thank you so much for all, everyone’s work here because–we call it Hate Radio and Hate TV. You know when I walk around cities with Michael, when there’s been something on Hate Radio or Hate TV, on O’Reilly or Limbaugh, you can see it that afternoon. People come up to Michael, and they’re angry and hateful. And if we don’t take back the media, it doesn’t matter who wins the election, we’re in big, big trouble.
PA: This sudden focus on documentary is fascinating to me, as someone has who has been writing about documentaries for more than two decades, It’s sort of a dowdy and unfashionable corner of the film world, comparatively speaking. Suddenly it’s glamorous. Suddenly it’s interesting.
JG: You all feel more glamorous? [Panelists laugh.]
PA: And it’s changed a lot in the last few years with new cable channels… but it’s really astonishing what you guys with your films have done to call attention to the whole medium. And so, I remember talking to Jehane Noujaim, the director of Control Room, last January at Sundance, and thinking, “Gee, I really hope this film gets an audience. I hope I won’t have to sneak a preview to friends who I really want to see it.” And then, of course, in the excitement of this summer, Control Room goes into 400 theaters, so finally, I can tell my friends about it. Very, very exciting. I’d like to talk a little bit about new opportunities of distribution. And I’d also like to talk about what happens when right-wingers figure out how to make documentaries now that their popular.
RG: I attribute this to Michael Moore’s solution to the unemployment problem. He has a bunch of untalented right-wingers making documentaries about Michael Moore now… in am effort to solve unemployment because Bush isn’t solving unemployment.
I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. Part of it is because the right wing has outlets, in other words–
PA: If you had Fox then…?
RG: If we had Fox News and we had Hate Radio, some of what we’re talking about might have gone out that way. We don’t have those outlets, so our energy and our drive and our passion and our creativity goes into these films. And the other thing, and it’s no secret, the media, even if it were politically neutral, is a thirty-second, sound-byte media. Well, we’re living in this extraordinary time now; I mean look at the issues that we all, as citizens are struggling with. Terrorism. Clearly, we can’t just go around bombing countries. Well, there’s got to be a hell of a discussion and a debate about that. 30-seconds? I don’t think so. Healthcare? Michael’s next film. 46? 47 million Americans without healthcare. Thirty-second sound-byte? I don’t think so. Out-sourcing jobs? You know, what are we going to do? Build bigger and bigger barriers? So, I think it makes even more of a need for these kind of films and more on a going-forward basis, because people need information and views that they can sink their teeth into.
JG: The other thing that’s exciting is… we shot Fahrenheit 9/11 in 16mm and mostly HD, but here are four films shot with mini DV cameras and archival footage. I mean, that’s amazingly accessible now to everyone to be able to use a camera. I don’t know about Control Room…
JB: Yeah, I was very surprised and very excited about the prospect of–you know, it was all shot on a Sony PD150, which was bought in Doha. It was the only camera available there. It was bought and we started shooting, and then back to Cairo. And then, we have two laptops. It’s a 12-inch Mac laptop and a 15-inch Mac laptop; no extra screens. And there you go; it’s all your creativity, and this small technology allows you to do this amazing thing that then can reach, as Control Room did, a very big and eager audience. And I think this is something that might change a little bit, because if the media is a lot about profiting, and there is a lot of demand for that kind of information which these documentaries are showing–how is that going to affect the media? I mean, is the media going to respond to exactly the opportunity to get–you know–$400 million. These films are going to become now popular and money-giving. Michael Moore says, “They are giving me the rope that I’m going to hang them with.” And I think that’s true.
PA: Morgan is trying to get a word in edgewise.
MS: Yeah, I know, I think the fantastic thing about technology now is that it’s really leveled the playing field in every way. And I think that what’s happened is if you have a good idea and a camera and a computer, you can make a movie, and not only make a movie but make a movie that can effect change that can get out there and be seen by a mass audience in a way that’s never been possible. I guarantee you the minute that Michael’s movie opened, its opening weekend and suddenly opening weekend it made 25 million dollars, every studio in California was clearing their slate and saying, “okay what documentaries are we going to make now?” Because here is a movie that was made for $6 million, that in its opening weekend made $25 million, you know and now has made 118 in the U.S., $250 million worldwide so far. You know, suddenly people are seeing dollar signs and that will fuel this creative energy, in some ways, but for me, I think you have to be careful not to get into bed with the wrong people.
PA: I ‘d like to talk to a little bit about that because I think–and here, I will show my age– I’ve been through several cycles now where people have said, “Finally we have the technology and it will really level the playing field.” And it never levels the playing field. Not yet anyway. And so I’ve been really watching this time around, strategies, not just the technologies. Because I also teach in a film school. I can tell you beautiful and also awful things that are done with PD150s. So, we do think that the kind of creativity that’s added makes an enormous amount of difference. But, let’s talk a little bit about strategies by which we not only make but we find the audience. And I just want to kick that off with Robert, because I think what you’ve been doing with the “Un” series is such an interesting experiment.
RG: Well, I wish I could say I had this brilliant vision that I could then expound in a very pompous way to all of you, but I really kind of found my way into it, one step at a time, half luck and half desperation. The first movie that I produced, Unprecedented, about the Florida 2000 election, my fondest hope was that in five years some history student would find it on a shelf someplace. It never occurred to me that there would be any distribution of it ever, frankly. But, you know: those who don’t learn from history are forced to repeat it–so that was my goal to contribute so there would be a record of this tragedy.
And what happened was, we kept trying to finish the film and, even though I volunteered and had a lot of equipment, we needed some money, and as we would go around showing five or ten minutes of it to raise a little money, people said, “Well, what are you going to do with it?” And over time, it turned out there were political groups around the country–People for the American Way, the NAACP, most prominently–would say, “Well, when the film is ready we want to screen it.” So we finished it, and then we started screening it. And we said, “Wait a minute. This is interesting.” And then we set up a little website because people asked me, “How can we get copies?” And we’d be selling them in the lobby afterward; that was our primary distribution method for a while. And you know, we’d be like, “Oh my God! We made $500!” It was like victory one day; I’ll never forget. We had the dollar bills and, you know, you could get your hands on it. It was an amazing feeling. That was our highest grossing weekend. And a thrilling one, too.
So then we set up the website, and people started ordering it on the website. Hmmm, this is kind of interesting–but [we] didn’t really compute it. Then the next time, when I got the idea to do Uncovered, which happened last June, and I wanted to do it quickly, because the film is specifically about the fact that we were not given accurate reasons about the reason for going to war. It actually isn’t about the war itself. I wanted to get that out while the debate was still going on. So, I’m thinking to myself, “I gotta do this film quickly,” and having worked in Los Angeles, and having dealt with gatekeepers for many years, I knew that if I dealt with them my great great-grandchildren would be discussing what to do with the film. So I reached out to the people I knew, and it worked. Because one was MoveOn.org, who I’d done anti-war stuff with, and the other was Center for American Progress in D.C.. And I called them and I said, “A–I need a little money, and B–would you guys be the Paramount Studios and figure out a way for Center to put it on the screens, and MoveOn would put it on the internet.”
So they said, “Sure. Why not?” And then, emailing up and back– because as you know with MoveOn they never talk on the phones,I it’s all email–so the day before we were going to release Uncovered–and I did use my theatrical training because I put together MoveOn, Alternet, BuzzFlash, The Nation Institute, and we screened for the first time. And that was opening day with Uncovered, having used the Unprecedented model, so we now had an opening day. And I emailed Wes that day and said, “So what do you think? How many copies will we sell?” And he said, “Not bad. Maybe a thousand, maybe 1500.” And I said, “That’s pretty good. It’s a documentary.” And they were charging $29.95. Well, that Monday that Uncovered was offered to MoveOn members. In three days they raised a million dollars with that film for anti-Bush ads.
Then we realized–oh boy–we’re really on to something here. And then the house parties followed, three thousand people having house parties. So when it came time with Outfoxed, the escalation in my mind was–’cause the mistake I made with Uncovered, not having any idea it would be that successful, there was no political connection to the movie in the sense of organizing or in asking or saying, “Here’s what we would like you to do,” which, I don’t think the film can do but the organizations can do. So with Outfoxed from the beginning we were married, if you will, to the groups doing this incredible work in media reform. From day one, they knew about the film, and there were the plans where they would use it as a tool to get out into the world.
Now we had this sort of alternative strategy, and now that we had it, ironically, we found–a commercial distributor came to us who sells DVDs commercially, and we got theatrical distribution, but never having pursued them, they came our way.