With a new Blu-ray and a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Michael Moore is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Roger & Me, which cast the then-unknown filmmaker as a regular Joe trying to buttonhole the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, in hopes of saving his Michigan hometown from plant closures and massive layoffs. G.M. hasn't weathered the subsequent quarter-century well, what with its near-catastrophic failure, government bailout, and recent lawsuits charging it deliberately ignored fatal defects in its automobiles, but Roger & Me has held up well, as has the populist form of documentary it brought to wider audiences than ever before.
Before its Toronto screening, Moore sat down this week to talk about how documentaries have changed over the last 25 years, why Roger & Me is "the anti-documentary," and why with his next film, he's looking to draw blood. Roger & Me had a major effect on the way documentaries were seen, and subsequently made.
How do you look back on the last 25 years of documentary films?
It's one of the things I actually feel good about. All the studios were bidding on Roger & Me, and they were offering millions of dollars, a five-picture deal and so on, and all I kept asking was, 'How many theaters will you put it in?' Nobody would answer the question, and then, finally, Warners figured out, 'That's what he wants.' They put it in 800 theaters, which for a documentary in 1989 was unheard-of. They put it in 1300 eventually. So I knew that my movie would be seen by the mass public, not just the art-house crowd — not just people who agreed with me, but, you know, normal people, people who were curious.
It was the same way that Fahrenheit 9/11 quadrupled that. These were not people who went to see documentaries in a movie theater, ever. But they came to this. I think for these last 25 years, it's great to see more and more documentaries in theaters. I'm happy if I helped to kick that door open. Somebody showed me last year that before 1989, there were nine documentaries in history that had grossed $1 million or more; after Roger & Me, it was 119. There's a clear moment there.
It's capitalism in action: Once documentaries started making money, studios got interested.
Yeah, but they didn't know Roger & Me would make money. They had to trust their gut. I think Warners was kind of cocky then — the first Batman had just made a gazillion dollars, and they were like, 'What kind of good can we do with this Batman money?'
Given that documentaries were not mass-audience propositions in 1989, what made you think making one was the right way to get your message out?
I didn't think that at all. I liked the movies, I liked going to the movies, I didn't know how to make a movie, I didn't go to school to make movies, but I thought I could make one. And then about halfway through it, I realized, 'This is not the typical documentary. This is the anti-documentary.' I didn't really like documentaries. I thought they were boring, I thought they were like medicine, or I'd be watching a documentary, and I'd think, 'I already agreed with this — why am I watching it? I'm not learning anything.'
So I knew that this was going do be different, and I knew probably it was going to upset some people, particularly the old school of documentary filmmakers, and some critics, who felt that by using humor, I was trivializing the importance of the subject. But I didn't let that deter me.
You were criticized for intercutting events that didn't take place at the same time...
As if it's C-SPAN. As if no other documentary is edited. Of all the subjective decisions that go into a documentary, to say that it's "real life" is such BS. It's never been true. Even the verite movies, like Fred Wiseman, he's making decisions constantly about where he's going to film, what he's going to film. When he's in the edit room, the 600 hours that comes down to three hours — where's the other 597 go?
Wiseman's very clear that creation happens in the edit room. He says for him shooting a documentary is the notes for a novel, and editing is writing the novel.
That's a good way to put it. Exactly. No documentary filmmaker should try to pass themselves as objective, just as no journalist is objective. Even if you're just writing a story on a fire, the fact that the editor's going to decide if that's front page or page 23 — who's to say that's news? The US Open in New York this week, it's on the front page of the New York Times. Do you think there's a tennis match on the front page of the Flint Journal? Ever? Never! So what does that mean, then? Is tennis important or not important? Is it news, or not news? It's a subjective decision of either the people who are putting the paper out or the audience who's seeing it.
There was for a long time a resistance within the Oscars' governing body to recognizing documentaries that had some level of popular success: Roger & Me was a prominent case, as was Hoop Dreams, which was nominated for Best Editing but not Best Documentary. You've made moves as a member of the Academy's board of governors to change that. Do you feel you've made progress?
Well, it's going from trying to do it to doing it. I did it. It's changed. That won't happen again to a Hoop Dreams or a Roger & Me or a Shoah or a Paris Is Burning or a Brother's Keeper — you can go down a whole list. A crazy, crazy, crazy list. But it won't happen again, because I got them to let everybody vote. Documentaries are the only movies that everybody gets for free — not from the studios, but from the Academy. A lot of people saw documentaries in the last two years that never saw a documentary before. They saw Searching for Sugar Man, which is a documentary that plays like a movie — which is what documentaries should play like.
Did Roger & Me have the impact you wanted it to?
It had an initial impact on Flint. I put such a spotlight on GM that they didn't close any plants there for the next five years. So that was a good thing for Flint. It gave people a little breather to make a plan, or get out, or whatever. I think it got a lot of people thinking about documentary film in a different way, and it introduced a lot of people to the idea that you could actually talk about economics — the most boring subject you can take in school — but I made it in a way that people would be interested in it.
I think that young people stopped buying GM cars. It wasn't just my fault; GM didn't make a very good car, which was the main problem. But if you're asking the question 'Is Flint better off?' — we know the answer to that. Flint and Detroit are in horrible shape. I'm in a place now where I'm so upset about it now that with the next film [laughs] 'There will be blood.'
What can you say about the next film you're making?
Nothing. Other than that you'll like it.
Do you have a timeline for it?
You know, I really should do something that's out to the public next year. Cross your fingers.
What about Roger & Me as a piece of filmmaking? How does it look to you now? Looking back at anything you did 25 years ago can be an unnerving experience.
That's not how I feel. I saw Roger & Me a while ago, and I thought, 'I would not change a frame of that film.' Warners asked if I wanted to do a director's cut, and I said, 'I did it. That's the film.' I felt that way about all my films. I don't think there's anything I would change. I'm very proud of the work I've done. Now, I have the power and the financial ability to go back and change things, but I don't want to — and I want to move forward.
When did you know that Roger & Me was having an affect on audiences?
At the first screening to the public, at the Telluride Film Festival, September 1, 1989, 7 p.m. — no, 7:30. I knew when the title came up on the screen, and I don't know if it was the font choice, the color, or whatever, but there was giggling. So the next 90 minutes, I'm just going, 'Oh my God, wait'll they see this coming up.' But it's funny the first time you see it with an audience. I had no idea people would react that way to the bunny being killed. I knew when I was making it that people would like it. I didn't know how people were going to see it. But once I knew that they were going to see it, I knew that this was going to be fine.