Michael Moore on His Movie, ‘Where to Invade Next’
Art and Experience: It’s been almost 13 years since the bombastic film documentarian Michael Moore was booed at the Oscars for slamming the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He promptly found his Oscar statue keyed (he’d won for “Bowling for Columbine”), and became the target of attempted assaults, death threats and a few truckloads of manure dumped at his Michigan home.
This year, Mr. Moore, 61, whose “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time, returns with a kinder, gentler film, “Where to Invade Next,” opening on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, and being released nationally in February. (The film has already been shortlisted for the Oscar for best documentary feature.) In it, Mr. Moore travels to three continents to “steal” good ideas from foreign lands and bring them back to the United States, including France’s gourmet school lunches and Finland’s successful, and homework-free, public education system.
Mr. Moore recently spoke about the film’s origins (it began with a 1970s backpacking trip) and why he thinks Democrats are like Chihuahuas. Following are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. This film seems unlikely to tick people off.
A.I don’t know, maybe Fox News is going to do a whole thing on me wanting our third-graders to be fed lamb skewers and French cheese. No, I don’t think they can be so mad at me. I’m not making a policy film, I’m making a human film. I’m showing the humanism of how they decide to treat their children in Finland and how the French do not poison their children at lunch. If enough people leave all stirred up, if just 10 percent of them go to the next PTA meeting and say, “Hey, why don’t we start doing lunch differently and get local farmers and do this?” that is going to motivate people to do something.
Q. Was the idea for this film cooking for a long time?
A. Since I was 19. Since I got a Youth Hostel card and Eurail Pass. Each country I went to with my backpack and my little tent, I’d keep saying, “That’s such a good idea, how come we don’t do that?” Then I was hiking in Sweden and busted my foot and had to go to the emergency room and they fixed it. And I’m so nervous because my Blue Cross from the U.S. wasn’t going to cover me. I don’t have any money on me. “They go, ‘O.K., goodbye.” “What? That’s it? Don’t I owe you anything?” “‘No. It’s all free here.” “But I’m not a Swede.” “It doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t believe it. I was gobsmacked.
Q. “Bowling for Columbine” was 13 years ago and look what’s happened with guns; “Fahrenheit 9/11” 11 years ago, yet the United States is still involved in conflicts. Do you ever despair?
A. I’m of two minds about this. I’m frustrated constantly and often wondering why bother making these movies. When “Bowling for Columbine” came out, there was not a weekly or even a monthly occurrence of school shootings; it was still pretty rare. There’s that sense of you make these films in the hopes that things will get better and they don’t. But I made a film called “The Big One.” I got Phil Knight to talk to me, the head of Nike. I said, “Do you realize there’s 12-year-olds working in your factories in Indonesia?” After the movie came out he changed it to 18 years old. I introduced this idea of the 99 percent and the 1 percent [in] “Capitalism: A Love Story,” that was in ’09. Two years later, Occupy Wall Street. I think if you talk to any of the young people, that was one of those things that helped trigger the movement and gave it a lexicon. The ball is being moved down the field.
Q. And with your new movie, do you think America would ever adopt some of these very progressive —
A. Absolutely. Instead of being 10 years or 20 years ahead of the curve of some of these things, I think I’m right on the curve. I think people are already there. The war on drugs isn’t working, we have Jim Crow in our prisons, no paid maternity leave. It’s down to us and Papua New Guinea [without guaranteed paid maternity leave for mothers]. Come on. This is going to happen under the new president.
Q. Who’s going to win to the elections?
A. Whoever has a D beside their name in parentheses. Seriously, I tell people, “Vote for who you think is the best candidate in the primaries, because on the Democratic side that’s who’s going to win.” All you need to understand is one statistic — I think it’s 81 percent of the country is either female, people of color or young voters between the ages of 18 and 35. [He arrived at that figure by crunching recent census numbers; of course not all those people vote.] The three groups that the Republicans have targeted for “Who can we turn off to everything we believe in?” Liberals and Democrats are [like] one of those little dogs that shake all the time.
A. Chihuahuas. They’re like, “Oh, they’re going to win, what’s going to happen?” The only way the Democrats can lose this is if they stay home. We don’t have the courage of our convictions the way that the right and the conservatives do. It’s something you have to admire about them. They’re up on Election Day at 6 in the morning, ready to go do their duty, and we’re like, “I don’t know, Bernie didn’t go for the Brady Bill, or Hillary voted for the war.”
Q. Was one reason for not doing this film earlier that there were mightier topics to tackle on the way?
A. At the end of “Capitalism: A Love Story,” I said, “This is my last film unless you, the viewers, get up off the couch and get involved and do something because I’m not just going to keep making these movies about these issues and spend my time being the poster boy on Fox News.” After my Oscar speech and I got booed off the stage, somebody at the [Transportation Security Administration] keyed the Oscar. I got home, I live in a rural area in northern Michigan, some guys had a dump truck full of horse manure and built an almost four-foot wall across our driveway with the manure and then taped signs on all the trees along the road saying “Move to Cuba,” “Get the hell out of here,” just nutty stuff like that. Then I went through five years of a number of physical assaults on me, a couple of those were actually attempts to kill me, and then the attempt to blow up my house by this guy who had a fertilizer bomb, à la Oklahoma City.
Q. Do you avoid some topics that you would otherwise tackle were it not for the death threats?
A. No, no, no, no. Oh, no. “Bowling for Columbine” was a lot about how our fear is what motivates us to get these guns, and it puts us in a discombobulated state. I just decided one day that I made it to 50, I’ve lived a good life, I’ve been a good son, a good husband, a good father. I think people will say I made a contribution. My conscience is clear. What more could one ask for? And so if it ends tonight, then it ends tonight. It’s going to end some night. I’d rather it not end tonight. But I can’t live in this constant state of fear that the hate machine that exists on talk radio and on Fox News whips up.
Q. Do you not do some things that are inflammatory in order to stay out of the line of fire?
A. I’m not trying to inflame people by saying everybody should have health care, or that we need to stop school shootings. What are my political positions in my films? That G.M shouldn’t be moving jobs to third-world countries and exploiting them while destroying the middle class of this country? If that’s inflammatory, we’re in deep trouble, yet for so long I was considered a radical. Things are getting better. I love this country, I can’t stand what I see, and I ain’t going anywhere. I believe that I’m in the majority now. I believe that the majority of Americans, with few exceptions, believe the things I believe.