Michael Wilson Interview
Writer/director Michael Wilson is in a very unusual place: he is in the midst of a heated bidding war for his first film… and he isn’t close to being done with it yet. These are the benefits of making a documentary called Michael Moore Hates America. Chris Neumer talks to the not-quite-yet rookie filmmaker to get this one-of-a-kind story.
CHRIS NEUMER: I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 prior to it coming out and I also saw The Passion of the Christ earlier this year. I don’t know if many people would connect these two films, but I did.
MICHAEL WILSON: I think a lot of people have, actually.
CHRIS NEUMER: Have they? I haven’t read anything about that. After Fahrenheit 9/11, I turned to the person I was with and I said how can I judge this movie? How in the world do I judge this movie? The only thing I can say is I agree with it or I don’t agree with it. And it’s the same with the Passion, it’s either like, “Praise Jesus,” or not.
MICHAEL WILSON: It was interesting for me because I am an atheist and I looked at it in a completely different way than a lot of members of the audience I think do. As a documentary filmmaker, I looked at it cinematically. In Fahrenheit, I watched it from a completely different perspective. I have been working on this Michael Moore project for a year and a half. I’ve seen how goes. There’s never actually anything like, “Oh, that’s a lie.” Like the Unical example, Moore said, “We went to Afghanistan because of Unical.” You know, it’s interesting, we went to Afghanistan and it’s interesting but what does Michael Moore show you? I mean it’s like the pipeline and Unical.
CHRIS NEUMER: Okay.
MICHAEL WILSON: You know Unical signed a contract to build a big natural gas pipeline but Michael Moore gives you the impression that it’s not Unical who built it. Unical hasn’t been involved in those negotiations for years. It’s not true! But he never says that Unical didn’t get the contract because then he’d be lying and then he’d be sued.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, true. He did that even in Columbine. You know that was my problem with that film. I enjoyed the film, but I remember there was an example, specifically, he’s asking why Canada has such a lower rate of violence and someone says oh there’s less black people there. So then he goes over to Windsor and shows you black people walking around and then a half hour later he talks to them and of course it turns out they’re just people visiting from America.
MICHAEL WILSON: Even beyond that, right now we’re editing the scene in bowling where he walks into the bank and we’re in Traverse City at that bank, talking to Jan, the lady who is playing the teller role. I kept hearing, “Oh, that was fake, that was fake.” So I went back and watched Bowling. And he asks her, how many guns do you have, and she says three hundred guns and I thought there’s probably nothing to this but I went anyway. What she told me was that that was the beginning of the quote. She said, “We have three hundred guns in the vault.” What she went on to say was that they were 200 miles away in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at a firearm dealer’s.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s not in the bank vault.
MICHAEL WILSON: Right, it’s not in the bank vault. And that’s a prime example of how he creates what he wants you to walk out with.
CHRIS NEUMER: Does it genuinely, I don’t want to say anger, but does it just disgust you as an up and coming documentary filmmaker to see somebody using these filmmaking techniques?
MICHAEL WILSON: It angers me as an American. And here’s why, I love the debate–I am not a Republican or a Democrat- am a Libertarian and I love America. And I am willing to have that debate as an American. But he comes to the table and manipulates the conversation in a way that–he’s really brilliant at creating a false impression. He manipulates that beautiful thing which is our dialogue in America. And manipulating that conversation is what offends me.
CHRIS NEUMER: This brings up an interesting debate. We could bring up Richard Rorty and his views on absolute truth. The tagline on your documentary is that it tells the truth about a great nation. Do find that hard to live up to?
MICHAEL WILSON: It’s impossible to live up to. What I’m doing with my film is showing you how it’s done. You know, Penn and Teller are brilliant at that. They will do a magic trick. And then they’ll go back and do it again under glass or out in the open so that you can see how the trick is done. Sometimes, that’s more amazing than the trick itself. I mean, go see Fahrenheit. But go in armed with that information and know that what gets recorded, that’s the truth. Not the part that gets manipulated by Moore. When I say this is “the truth about a great nation” I’m talking about the alternative truth to what Michael Moore talks about.
CHRIS NEUMER: Okay… Wow, now we’re sort of, uh, talking about finding the alternative truth? It’s a good thing I’m not stoned and thinking about this.
MICHAEL WILSON: The alternative truth is for me that, yeah we have our problems and Michael Moore loves to acknowledge them and Michael Moore loves to show you those and I am willing to go to Flint, Michigan and there are really crappy parts that looks like bombed out areas of Afghanistan, but then you can go across town and see that young entrepreneurs that are willing to put the town on their shoulders and not wait for GM to stroll in. And that’s what I am saying that I’m willing to concede that Michael Moore is right on some things.
CHRIS NEUMER: So yours is a glass that is half or 4/5 full and Michael Moore‘s is 1/5 full?
MICHAEL WILSON: I don’t know if that is the best analogy because I am trying to do my best to–You know this is not a Rah-Rah, God Bless America, Pat-Ourselves-on-the-Ass kind of movie. My idea is to say, “Look, you are in control your life. You are running your life. There is no evil monolith or corporation, there is no Doctor Evil living below ground controlling your life. There is nothing stopping you. I mean, you have options, it doesn’t come to you, it takes a lot of work and at the same time, it’s possible.” Michael Moore has always created this feeling that the cards are stacked against you. I guess that’s the best way I can say it. It’s not a glass is half-full, glass is half-empty kind of thing. But I am optimistic and I think you’ll see in the film.
CHRIS NEUMER: I was also doing more research on this and I was surprised how many people had heard about your film. Do you think your film would have gotten as much press if the film was called something other than Michael Moore Hates America?
MICHAEL WILSON: Nope. I do not hide the fact that that has helped me, although it was not my intention. You know the film title emerged as I was doing research on the film and the people on the Right were being just as shrill as Michael Moore over on the Left by screaming, “Michael Moore hates America!” I didn’t provoke it. But I also didn’t run away from it. I’m not going to lie about that.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s great press.
MICHAEL WILSON: Well sure. That’s great press, but it’s also, like, there are people fired up on both sides. There are people who are like, “Michael Moore loves America” and they go to see the film to poke holes in it. And then there are people who hate Michael Moore, who say that Michael Moore hates America. I say you’re right, and then they’ll go see it. The reason I like that, it’s not so I can make a lot of money, but it’s that if I can get people on both sides to come see it that’s where I think I can have some kind of an impact. Even a small little impact.
CHRIS NEUMER: So you got the title from the shrill people on the Right shouting, “Michael Moore hates America.”
MICHAEL WILSON: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: You got the title from the Right. It’s almost like a quote from that side.
MICHAEL WILSON: Yeah, it’s like a shot at shrillness. It’s me taking a pot shot at shrillness.
CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask you this I did an interview years ago with Kasi Lemmons who did The Caveman’s Valentine and Eve’s Bayou. She told me she got her start making documentaries, but got out of it the minute she had the realization that whoever was putting up the money for the documentaries was controlling their content. Did you ever come into contact with this concept, with people asking you where you got the money for this?
MICHAEL WILSON: Oh, I come in contact with that every day. For over a year I sort of just scraped by, I said I am just gonna go and do this. I used all my savings and I just charged everything, charged up massive amounts of debt, to tell the truth. I went to conservative people first. I went to Republicans. I thought, “They hate Michael Moore! Maybe they’ll pay for it and they’ll help me get it finished.” Those people turned me down, though, they did tell me, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good idea, I hope someone pays for it.”
CHRIS NEUMER: (laughs)
MICHAEL WILSON: I don’t know that they know that that works. I don’t know… In the end, our only investor, out of Seattle, approached us through our website. He got that; he got it immediately. If anyone else had put forward the money, I couldn’t have been happier than with Brian. He got what I was trying to do. He understands what it’s all about, and ideologically we’re very similar.
CHRIS NEUMER: When you say ideologically similar, what do you mean?
MICHAEL WILSON: We’re both Libertarian and we’re both atheists. We both sort of understand. We both read. You know, we’ve both read the constitution and we both understand what America is all about, so basically we both know what America was determined to be when it was founded.
CHRIS NEUMER: Really? Based upon your views, your belief in honesty and a truth coming in public figures, do you include any reference in Michael Moore Hates America or make any connection specifically to what George Bush did leading up to Iraq?
MICHAEL WILSON: No, not really. Specifically, for the reason that, as silly as it sounds, I’m actually trying to make this film as apolitical as possible. What I mean by that is that most of what Michael Moore says about Bush is really based on pure hatred for Bush. Not all of it is based on fact. Even if I conceded something and said, “Hey, he’s right here, but he’s wrong here,” people would take it apart and say I was a Bush fan. So I am trying to sort of stay out of it. Although, there are a couple of things that I would like to say about Fahrenheit that will be sort of political.
CHRIS NEUMER: So, it’s more about his method of creation and selective omission, than the–
MICHAEL WILSON: Deceit by omission or by structuring something in such a way so to intentionally mislead his audience.
CHRIS NEUMER: You’re focusing more on that than the actual topic that Moore’s misleading them about.
MICHAEL WILSON: It’s not so much about his politics. Even if he would go all the way to socialist/communist and live in that area, that would be perfectly valid to me. I believe in diverse ideas. I believe in the whole spectrum of people’s ideologies. So it’s not so much about his politics, although it is sort of political. It’s really about telling people how he looks at that stuff. The closest I get to making it overtly political is that I frame what he says in my own experience.
CHRIS NEUMER: And when you say ‘your experience’, do you mean making a documentary or growing up in the Midwest?
MICHAEL WILSON: Um, all of that. The film is about all of that. Much like Roger and Me is about him searching for something. This is about me making a documentary about Michael Moore, so you take the journey through my eyes. You suffer along with me. Like the day that I lost my job, my producer was there. When I lost my job, that’s what I meant that Michael Moore and I are from the same
CHRIS NEUMER: Sort of a first-person documentary.
MICHAEL WILSON: Yes, very much.
CHRIS NEUMER: Okay. Please take this in the spirit in which it is intended: do you ever feel that, you know, in this movie, you’re trying to get an interview with a Hollywood figure, do you ever feel that there is bad karma with turning interviews down?
MICHAEL WILSON: I try not to turn interviews down.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s sort of what I was asking.
MICHAEL WILSON: I really try not to. Right now, it is an extremely busy time, we’re sitting here in editing and people are working around me. I’ll do a bunch of these interviews today. It is very difficult, especially when you are in Michael Moore’s place, it’s very difficult to do some of the smaller publications. But, I mean, I think it’s important. I mean, those people care enough about what I am doing and are interested in what I am doing so I will do as much of that as I possibly can.
CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, if only you were a publicist!
MICHAEL WILSON: (laughs)
CHRIS NEUMER: Now, have you landed a distributor for the film yet?
MICHAEL WILSON: We recently had a bidding war a few weeks ago and went into negotiations with one of the companies. But we sort of just ended up walking away because [of some stuff].
CHRIS NEUMER: Anything that you can specifically comment on?
MICHAEL WILSON: Oh no. We told them they were still in the running and it’s all good; there’s no hard feelings, we just ended up walking away. We decided we’re going to open back up the negotiations next week. Because people were bidding based on a twelve-minute piece we cut for them, but people were interested enough. So hopefully they’ll be really interested in the full movie. And I am relatively sure that next week we’ll be done [with the film].
CHRIS NEUMER: As a documentary filmmaker, it’s gotta be nice to be at the front of a bidding war for your film.
MICHAEL WILSON: It surprised me. But you know my executive producer Curt Johnson has won a couple of Academy Awards?
CHRIS NEUMER: For what?
MICHAEL WILSON: One was Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. So he’s been through this before. People are fired up about this and there is a market for this. People who hate Michael Moore and people who love Michael Moore and people who are just kind of interested. So there’s a market and they want this film and, after I thought about it logically, Hollywood, they’re in it to make money and so am I.
CHRIS NEUMER: Can you talk about what the budget was for this?
MICHAEL WILSON: Sure. Well, I was actually given some advice not to talk about this. But it wasn’t much, it wasn’t six million like Fahrenheit. Low six figures, I guess.
CHRIS NEUMER: Low six figures. Well, I guess if it was on a credit card that has to say something about it This is your first film, correct?
MICHAEL WILSON: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: Has anything surprised you on the filmmaking side of things? Have there been any surprises budget-wise?
MICHAEL WILSON: Budget-wise, no. I had sort of come into filmmaking through the side door. I was a writer for this production company and I’ve always been passionate about filmmaking and I had gone and I would sort of go into the studio and crafted so I knew what things cost but this was my first feature. The only thing that really got us was travel expenses. Those sorts of things that just sort of cropped up. But if you buy the ticket the day before it’s gonna cost a thousand bucks.
CHRIS NEUMER: That will happen.
MICHAEL WILSON: For the most part we created a budget. Chris has been a filmmaker for sixteen years and this is what we’ve done.
CHRIS NEUMER: Then you know by proxy.
MICHAEL WILSON: Yeah, and people can say this is how you do this. First-time filmmakers have asked my advice and I’m like, “How can I give you advice?”
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s one of the smartest things a filmmaker can do. Not answer.
MICHAEL WILSON: Yeah, people ask me.
CHRIS NEUMER: And you tell them, “My first film isn’t even done yet!”
MICHAEL WILSON: I tell them just pick up a camera and start filming.
CHRIS NEUMER: I know you have heard a lot from the Right and a lot from the Left, but have you heard much from the middle?
MICHAEL WILSON: I think the middle is where most people come from. I think most people are Libertarian. You know they are ‘Right on the money’ and ‘Left on the sex’; they want the government out of their money and out of the bedroom. I think the middle is where most Americans are.
CHRIS NEUMER: I guess that viewpoint doesn’t generate enough ire to make it into the papers or into the 24-hour news cycle.
MICHAEL WILSON: All the screaming, I think people are generally sort of comfortable in the middle somewhere and comfortable being centrist.
CHRIS NEUMER: Well, can you give a brief background on your background and just two short sentences on how you first got the nugget on making this film?
MICHAEL WILSON: The short story is that I was defending my mommy. In Bowling for Columbine – I guess this will be longer than two sentences – you know, Moore did this thing about Kayla Rowan, who was this little 1st-grader that was shot, and the way that he approached that was that he said that the shooter’s mother was holding two jobs–
CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, the two jobs thing.
MICHAEL WILSON: The two jobs thing. That bugs the piss out of me because my mom worked two jobs and I didn’t shoot anybody. That mother, she was in trouble with the law; she was a lousy parent. But Moore wasn’t willing to explore that at all. He was more interested in pinning that on the hard-hearted people of Michigan. This is your responsibility as a parent and my mother was a great mother and she always put me first.
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