Documenting Moore

Michael Moore discusses how he became a filmmaker.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Moore at First Time Fest Stand Alone: "And the other film I saw at that time was a film made with Barbie Dolls. It's called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story."
Michael Moore at First Time Fest Stand Alone: "And the other film I saw at that time was a film made with Barbie Dolls. It's called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Moore in a seated Stand Alone with Director of Programming David Schwartz discussed how he got into filmmaking through his immersion in the cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini and sneaking in to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

David Schwartz to Michael Moore: "And Kubrick? You said Clockwork Orange was a favorite."
David Schwartz to Michael Moore: "And Kubrick? You said Clockwork Orange was a favorite." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

This year's First Time Fest First Exposure series includes Julie Taymor's Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming - Salesman directed by Charlotte Zwerin, Albert and David Maysles - James Toback's Fingers starring Harvey Keitel - David Lynch's Eraserhead with DP Frederick Elmes in person - Kelly Reichardt's River Of Grass - Peter Bogdanovich's Targets with Boris Karloff, and Moore's Roger And Me, influenced by Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Ross McElwee's Sherman's March.

Taymor will also be honored with the John Huston Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema at the Closing Night Awards Ceremony for the films in competition with my fellow jurors Stephanie Zacharek and Nicholas Haden-Guest in attendance on April 7 at 42West.

Michael Moore: My grandfather loved the movies and my parents always took us kids to the movies and when I could drive at age 16 I'd go to Ann Arbor [Michigan] and watch all the Kurosawa and Bergman and Truffaut and Fellini and everything else.

David Schwartz: And Kubrick? You said Clockwork Orange was a favorite.

Michael Moore on the First Time Fest red carpet: "I saw a film called Sherman's March. The filmmaker put himself in the film."
Michael Moore on the First Time Fest red carpet: "I saw a film called Sherman's March. The filmmaker put himself in the film." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MM: Yes. That I had to sneak into because it was an x-rated film when it came out and I was 17 years old. Yes, definitely Stanley Kubrick. I went to three or four movies a week so I had billions of frames of film in my head and I thought I understood what the rhythms were and I knew what I liked. And I knew that I didn't like documentaries. They were boring and you'd watch them in school. As a kid I watched a lot of [National] Film Board of Canada stuff because we were close to Canada. There are only so many nature films you can watch about otters. I really found them quite boring.

Then I saw a documentary in the early Eighties called Atomic Cafe. It was a humorous film of the end of the world - using all found footage. Then, just as I started making Roger And Me I saw two films that had a huge impact on me while I was editing the movie in Washington DC. That's where I cut Roger And Me. We were on Pennsylvania Avenue about four blocks from the White House above a Roy Rogers restaurant, with the stench of Roy Rogers all day long… I saw a film called Sherman's March (Ross McElwee 1985). The filmmaker put himself in the film. As he's going to each city that Sherman burned, he would run into an old girlfriend and people. It was just so funny and engaging.

And the other film I saw at that time was a film made with Barbie Dolls. It's called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988). It was the first film that Todd Haynes made [Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud (1985) was actually his first]. It's hard to find it because the Carpenter family went after them and Mattel who makes Barbie, they couldn't get the rights to it. Again what a bizarre funny film about what is really a sad story about a woman who becomes anorexic and dies. Those two films at the time.

Michael Moore with Director of Programming David Schwartz and Festival Producer Mitch Levine: "I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it wasn't for the Bush family."
Michael Moore with Director of Programming David Schwartz and Festival Producer Mitch Levine: "I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it wasn't for the Bush family." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Plus, over at AFI [American Film Institute] at the Kennedy Center I went to see a Japanese documentary called The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara 1987). Again a film you haven't seen much here in the US. Basically, the documentary filmmaker and this ex Japanese soldier from World War II go on this mission to find out what happened to his buddies on this Island. And they go from place to place and finally a colonel just says to him in a very arrogant sort of way, "we ate your friend." The officers decided to kill the draftees and eat them. And in this interview the guy just lunges toward the colonel and they're both like 80 years old and starts to beat the crap out of him. And then the camera sort of went down. It was so strange and funny and serious. It's a tough mix to put together but you can do it.

DS: You worked as a journalist. When did it occur to you to make films?

MM: I lost my job. Sitting around not doing much and I heard on TV that they were laying off another 30.000 people throughout General Motors. They'd already laid off about 20.000 in Flint. I just thought I should do something about this. So I called up Kevin Rafferty, the Atomic Cafe guy, and he showed me how to make a movie. He let me come to New York and he showed me then how to edit. He had a Steenbeck on MacDougal Street. I learned how to edit there in his basement. We were finishing the film, editing the film in [Washington] DC, and it was January of 1989. It was the day of the first Bush being inaugurated. So we walk over to the mall to watch the inauguration.

1982  Director Tommy Oliver with First Time Fest juror Anne-Katrin Titze.
1982 Director Tommy Oliver with First Time Fest juror Anne-Katrin Titze. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

There was a big screen and up on the screen I thought I saw Kevin Rafferty pass by behind the scene. There's Kevin, and I thought no way this could be Kevin. He had a nice winter coat on and Kevin was like the MacDougal Street guy, you know holes in his jeans and the same flannel shirt every day. So a couple of days later, I called him up and said "Were you at the inauguration? I could swear I saw you up on the stage." He goes,"Yeah, that was me." I said, "Are you kidding? Were you making a documentary? How did you get up there?" He said: "No, I wasn't making a documentary… well, you see, my uncle is the President of the United States." I had no idea! Kevin is teaching me to be a filmmaker and he is Bush's nephew and [George] W's first cousin. It just blew me away.

President Bush number 1, the elected one, he asked for a print of the film to be sent to Camp David. There was a family reunion or something like that and they wanted to watch the film that Kevin shot. They watched Roger And Me at Camp David. I called [Kevin] later and heard that the projectionist or someone said that it got pretty quiet in there. Except there was this one family member who laughed hysterically throughout the film…. I asked "who was laughing?" He said "I got a cousin with a little problem." I had never heard of any of these people before, I mean, W or whatever, so… I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it wasn't for the Bush family.

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