insights on what
to expect at the
TC Film Festival
Lunch with Michael Moore tends to be a communal experience; every few minutes a bedazzled fan approaches his table to ask for his autograph or to offer cheers for his new film, Sicko, and for telling it like it is during the course of his legendary career.
Moore is riding high these days, buoyed by the success of Sicko and the fabulous reception the Traverse City Film Festival has had. The festival is now going into its third year. We now have over 3,000 members of the Friends of the Traverse City Film Festival and thats way beyond what we ever thought wed have, he says over a light lunch of tomato soup at LAmical in downtown Traverse City.
Our lunch is the result of a phone call the Express got on a recent Thursday morning with the news that Moore was available within two hours for an interview. Staffers Robert Downes, Rick Coates, George Foster and Katie Huston scrambled to throw some questions together for the Oscar-winning director and resident of Torch Lake. Heres what we came up with:
NE: How is Sicko doing at the box office?
Moore: I just found out that it was the fifth largest opening documentary of all time. My goal is to defeat Bowling for Colombine.
NE: (Commenting on Moores baseball cap) You wear a lot of hats putting on the Film Festival -- how many baseball caps do you own?
Moore: I have boxes filled with thousands that people have given me. Ive got 18 years worth of hats since filming Roger and Me. Ive started giving them away for charity and school auctions.
NE: Whats going to be the sleeper film hit of the festival this year?
Moore: Its probably going to be the shortest film in the festival at 54 minutes. Please Vote for Me is about the first election ever held in a school in China. Its all about these 10-year-old students who know nothing about democracy or America, but it doesnt take long before their attack ads start. You see these 10-year-old kids backstabbing the way we do in politics here, and its both hilarious and frightening.
Also, The Fever of 57, is a documentary that I was surprised by. This October is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union. I always thought that people were scared by this event, but it turns out a lot of Americans watched the satellite from their front lawns and felt it was a step forward for man. It was only on the fourth day after launching that Lyndon B. Johnson went on TV and radio and said the satellite could have bombs and missiles on it. Within days, the public went to being terrified of it, and, ironically, it was Johnson and the Democrats who were responsible for this fear and paranoia.
NE: How do you pick the films for the festival?
Moore: I start in September and begin watching a new crop of films. I prefer to see them on the big screen because I think they play better there than on a TV set. I probably watch 160-170 for my selection of films. And Deb Lake (Film Festival coordinator) saw 60-700 at Tribeca and Sundance. Then there are the films I saw in Cannes. Between us, we probably saw 300 films last year.
NE: Do you ever feel that a film is too edgy for Northern Michigan?
Moore: I saw the early screenings of Little Miss Sunshine last year and made the mistake of being too cognizant of the ruckus from the first year of the festival (when a far-right group tried to wreck the event), so to that end, I thought that maybe the film was too edgy for Traverse City, but it turned out to be a big national hit. So now we just focus on finding the best films that we can and let that be our guide.
When were making a film selection, we have to decide: should we choose crowdpleasers or the absolute best films we can find? Weve decided we should just show the best films, no matter where theyre from, like Tuyas Marriage, which is set in Mongolia and won the best film of the year at the Berlin Film Festival. I was approached to show something with some big Hollywood stars in it, but the film wasnt that good.
NE: Youve gotten great reviews for Sicko on Fox News (the conservative network frequently trashes Moore). Do you feel youre less controversial now than in the past?
Moore: I got lucky -- it turns out I was right (on the war in Iraq) and I could have been wrong. Im not a weapons inspector, but when I stood up on the Oscar stage four years ago and said there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I didnt know for sure, but I had a feeling.
NE: You went through a tough time for that.
Moore: I went through a lot of verbal and physical assaults everywhere I went in the country and whenever I walked down the street. In Fort Lauderdale, a guy took the lid off his Starbucks cup and threw scalding coffee on me.
NE: Theres also the claim that some locals dumped manure in your driveway, with people bragging about it in the bars around Bellaire.
Moore: The day after the Oscars, someone left a load of crap four feet high. But people remember now that I was one of the few public persons who stood up and spoke the truth about a horrible war and being led into a quagmire. When I spoke out, only 20 percent of the people in the country agreed with what I was saying. Today, 70 percent of the people agree.
NE: Are you supporting Al Gore in 2008?
Moore: Im not endorsing anyone now, but I am encouraging him to run because we need someone to lead the political debate. Hes been right about the war and has been concerned about global warming for decades. And hes been right on about health issues.
NE: What should be the focus on health care in the next election?
Moore: We need to hear the candidates say that theyll remove the profit aspect from health care. A doctor should never have to ask an insurance man if he can treat a patient.
ON FACT CHECKING:
NE: What about the latest controversy with CNN disputing some of the facts in Sicko? Are they just nitpicking?
Moore: The thing with the CNN people is they relied on some old figures they had from 2003 and 2004 to claim there were errors in my film. But I had two years of work into the film and used the latest 2006 and 2007 figures. They throw things up there so fast because they have to fill the news every 24 hours and they dont have the research staff that I have.
For instance, I was offered the same file on George Bushs National Guard service that brought down 60 Minutes and Dan Rather. Now, youd think that Michael Moore would just run with that right away, like that would be red meat for me. Wrong. We needed back-up on this and another source. So, they went to Dan Rather instead and brought down CBS News.
My point is that I have a solid fact-checking staff. When the media tries to bring me down, its with some made-up issue, because they know theyd lose the debate otherwise.
Another example of the fact-checking my staff does was the time we heard that the bin Laden family had dinner with the Bush family (before 9/11). I said we needed a photo or another person to vouch for having had dinner with the Bushes and bin Ladens or its not going to be in the movie (Fahrenheit 9/11). No one could produce anything, so we didnt include the story in the film.
NE: So, with even Fox News praising your new film, do you feel like youre more accepted these days?
Moore: I think that critics just liked my film. But Ive also tested the film with Republicans and found that it placed very well with them.
I have one story about a guy that runs the biggest anti-Michael Moore website on the Internet who was going to have to shut it down because he couldnt pay his wifes health care bills. I thought that was wrong that his First Amendment right to free speech was going to be harmed because of his familys health care problems, so I sent him a check (anonymously) for $12,000 to pay for his health insurance for a year. I put that in the film and then called him up the day before it came out because I didnt want him to be blindsided. Were all Americans and we all have to find common ground -- we sink or swim together.
And 15 minutes after I called him, he put a message on his website thanking me. You dont hear about that in the media -- me doing an act of Christian kindness -- because it conflicts with the image the media has made of me.
NE: Do you have personal conflicts with some of the films you show?
Moore: Yes, Im An American Soldier is not an antiwar film, but I wouldnt exclude a film because I disagree with it. One of my favorite films last year was Thank You for Smoking, based on a book by Christopher Buckley, whos a Republican. I appreciate a good film and a good story no matter whos behind it.
NE: Are your worried the U.S. Treasury Department is going to go after you for going to Cuba with the 9/11 rescue workers (for the filming of Sicko).
Moore: No, I sent an explanation and said basically to take a hike. This will go to court in about a year and I expect to win. Plus, theyd have to go after the 9/11 rescue workers if they went after me.
NE: Where do you think the Film Festival will be 10 years from now?
Moore: Initially, we planned to show films in towns ranging from Northport to Petoskey, but after two years of this Ive realized theres something about having it in a small town with everybody walking between films and a sense of community and everybody talking about the films that we dont want to lose. Its why we go to films -- because we like to sit in a communal atmosphere in the dark and then talk about them.
I dont think that growing something larger is necessarily better. We dont want to contribute to sprawl in the area. The Film Festival has already put Traverse City on the map for people (movie stars and directors) whod never come here otherwise and theyre already telling people -- my God, this is one of the best places in the country. Well have more of that every year -- its good for the local economy and good for young people in the area with something that everyone can afford.
If you go to Sundance, youd see that over the years the film industry has taken over the town. You dont want that here -- you want to keep the small town atmosphere, and thats why independent filmmakers love it here. In terms of prestige, Id say were already one of the top 10 film festivals in the country; Ive got heads of studios calling me, asking if their new films can get in.