Interview: Michael Moore on Republican Hugs, Profound Movies, and the Traverse City Film Festival

by Jane Boursaw on July 26, 2010

traverse-city-film-festival-michael-moore-1 The 6th Annual Traverse City Film Festival runs this week from Tuesday, July 27 through Sunday, August 1, in Traverse City, Michigan (my home town!).

The film festival just gets better and better each year. It not only brings hundreds of great movies to northern Michigan that we wouldn’t otherwise see on the big screen here, but it’s had a tremendous boost on our local economy, as well.

This year’s festival promises filmgoers another round of “Just Great Movies,” including 80 feature films and 40 short films representing more than 25 countries. The late John Hughes will be honored with the festival’s annual Michigan Filmmakers Award, and Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classic, will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for their 30 years of work.

Other highlights include panels and Q&A sessions with filmmakers, a tribute to The Beatles in honor of the 40th anniversary of their breakup, a salute to Cuban film, two U.S. premieres from past favorites Sabina Guzzanti (‘Draquila – Italy Trembles’) and Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda (‘Czech Dream’), as well as a new Film Forum Series and the return of Film Industry Panels and the TCFF Film School. For a full schedule of events and more info, visit the Traverse City Film Festival’s official site.

For a story for Variety, I caught up with founder Michael Moore, who talked about the festival’s beginnings, restoring the downtown State Theatre, and how Republicans actually hug him on the street now.

Read the full interview after the jump…

Jane Boursaw: I interviewed you for Northern Express the first year of the film festival. So how do you think it’s going after six years? Is it where you hoped it would be at this point?

Michael Moore: I knew it would do well. People like going to the movies, and they like seeing a good movie, which is rarer and rarer these days. That first year, there were those who tried to shut it down. Had they been successful or had I just decided I don’t need this grief, there wouldn’t have been six years of a festival that brings five to ten million dollars every summer into the community and has created a level of film enthusiasm in this rural area that is unusual. It’s also allowed for the State Theater to be re-opened, which has kept downtown alive during a depressed economic time.

When I think back to the haters and if they had succeeded in stopping this, oh boy, it would have been a much larger loss for the community than any of us realized at the time.

Jane: Maybe because you love ‘just great movies’ like the rest of us.

traverse-city-film-festival-1 Michael: Yeah, but I can get that in New York or L.A. or Flint or Ann Arbor or Detroit or any other number of highly more welcoming places than the hostility I had to initially endure. But what I said to myself was that these people have been mislead by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and I know they are good people at their core and I know they have good hearts and if they just get to meet me and know me, they’ll realize they’ve been lied to about who I am.

If anything, it had this sort of bonus effect of showing up the right for the dishonest bunch they are, and the town has only become more liberal and progressive in the process. I don’t mean that in just the political sense, how the town voted for Obama and how Benzie County and Manistee County voted for Obama. I mean, I’m sure this is just for your blog, because the people in L.A. reading Variety aren’t going to understand what this means. You and I know what it means.

Jane: Right, we actually live here and know what the film festival has brought to the local economy and culture.

Michael: But I’m not talking about it just in that sense. I’m talking about it in a more open-minded sense, that there’s a lot going on now in the area, whether it’s the whole issue of how can we grow more locally produced food, how can we support each other, how can we bring other people to town, authors and this and that and whatever. Before the film festival, there was the Cherry Festival and that was it. Now there’s like a festival every week, you know? And it’s become such a livable place; the quality of life here is so incredibly nice. So, it’s had all this ripple effect that’s been good for people’s spirits during an otherwise depressed time.

Jane: Well, and I think it kind of put you in a little better light, too. Like you said, you had a lot of detractors that first year of the film festival.

Michael: They were misguided and misled people who once they chose to love instead of hate, felt like better people and aspired to better things. The fact that I didn’t give up on them when I could have very easily just shut it down and said adios. Someday, I’ll try and figure out why I didn’t.

Jane: A lot of people are happy that you persevered.

Michael: [That first year] there were signs tacked on all the trees in our yard, “Get out of here”, “Go back to Flint, Commie, we don’t want you here.” And they spread horse manure all over our home.

Jane: Oh, I remember it was really awful.

Michael: That was the welcome that we got. So again, there would have been no shame, and nobody would have blamed me for saying, “Why am I with these people,” you know?

Jane: How is it after six years? Are you still getting heat for it?

Michael: Are you kidding? There isn’t a day that goes by where a dozen Republicans don’t stop me on the street and shake my hand or give me a hug. That’s what it’s like six years later. Last month, the downtown businesses gave me their award. I’m invited over to the Rotary lunch to sing songs with them. That’s what it’s like.

Jane: Who would have thought?

Michael: Well, but you see, that has always been my belief, and it’s been that way ever since I decided to go to the seminary in ninth grade. I do believe people are good at their core and they want to be good. People don’t want to live with hate and bitterness and anger, and if they get a chance after treated that way, there is a chance they will come around. So, it’s been great. It’s been great for the town, it’s been great for the art cinema, it’s been great for the filmmakers who have a chance to come here because they’re told that we’re just in the fly-over zone, that nobody ever comes here and why should we care about Traverse City, Michigan. And they leave here thinking this is the best town and the best film town they’ve been to.

lebanon-pa-poster Jane: I just talked to Ben Hickernell, from ‘Lebanon, Pa.’ He is so psyched to be coming here.

Michael: Oh, that is so nice.

Jane: So, you’re calling this a celebration of the art of cinema. More so than years past?

Michael: Well, I’m calling it an incendiary celebration. Here’s the way I look at it; we’ve never held a Traverse City Film Festival during peace time. Every film festival has been during wartime. We’ve never held a Traverse City Film Festival during a time of economic prosperity. We’ve only held a film festival when there has been double-digit unemployment. So, in past eras, these are the times when the movies have really spoken to people’s souls, have inspired them, have comforted them, have given them an escape, have produced new ideas. The films that came out during the great Depression and during the Vietnam War era, films that really were bold and brave. Where are these films these days? We rarely get to see them from the Hollywood machine.

The money has really dried up since the crash. They only really want to spend money on sure bets; people don’t want to take risks. So, we’re missing out on an American art form that could really speak to the country right now in profound ways. So, I am on a search, and have been this past year, for a group of movies to show at the festival that meet that criteria. Sadly, I have had to look outside the country to find the best examples of that. Of the 80-plus films we’re showing this year, there aren’t more than a half-dozen or so American independent feature films because I just couldn’t find them. They don’t exist. That is sad. But they exist in Korea and France and Denmark and Germany and Italy and Russia.

Jane: And that’s because the distributors and studios aren’t willing to take a chance on those types of films in America? Ben Hickernell was telling me that he spent several years making ‘Lebanon, Pa.,’ and now he’s trying to get some buzz going with the hopes that a distributor will pick it up.

Michael: Yes, it’s a real crime that a film like ‘Lebanon, Pa.’ doesn’t have a distributor, but his film is very layered, it’s a great story, and any mainstream audience would love it. And yet, there are some plot-twists in the film that you haven’t seen in an American feature film because he broke some taboos that you’re not supposed to break. It’s not an experimental film, it’s not a politically charged film or whatever; it’s a nice story, but within the story, he does a couple of subversive things that you just sit there and you go wow … wow, I haven’t seen that in a film, that’s something. So good on him.

So, why is it? The easy answer is because, as Americans we don’t know how to do jack anymore. I mean, it took us 85 days to plug a seven-inch hole down at the ocean bed. Seven inches; we couldn’t do that, huh? I mean, we can’t figure out how to extract ourselves from two wars, we can’t even get anybody on the phone anymore, you know?

We rebuilt the State Theatre here in six weeks; everything, the theater had no balcony. While we were doing that, I watched a subcontractor take three weeks to lay 30 feet of brick; you know, those places where you can walk across the street and cars are supposed to stop? They’re like brick pavers. The city had hired it out because, of course, we don’t like the government getting involved and doing things anymore, so they privatize things. We rebuilt a 1940s movie palace in six weeks.

I would tell the contractor that I’m glad we’re getting to watch this, because we are the opposite of this. This is what America has become. What me and my two brothers-in-law used to do on a Saturday afternoon with a six-pack of beer, we’d lay 30 feet of brick; now they can’t get it done in three weeks.

Jane: It costs way more too.

Michael: Oh, that’s the point. That’s the point, of course.

Jane: Is the State Theater still a work in progress, or is it pretty much where you want it to be? I think it’s beautiful; I used to go there as a kid.

Michael: It’s been a hit from day one. We have never spent a day in the red during this economic depression here in Michigan and, as you know, we’ve been in the top ten grossing theaters for more than half the weeks we’ve been open, for the movie that’s being shown that week. For about 35 of the weeks we’ve been open in these two-and-a-half years, we’ve been the number one grossing theater for the movie that we’re  showing.

It’s been a huge success, and the interesting thing for Hollywood is the conventional wisdom that independent films, you know the more difficult films, documentaries, foreign movies, don’t play well out here. We’ve proven that in a rural area — that is not a progressive area, twice voted for Bush, Grand Traverse County, and then for McCain, where the nearest full-time art house is 250 miles away in Ann Arbor — that we’ve had the success and people have come out. Our largest grossing film this year is ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ – a two-and-a-half hour Swedish film with subtitles, a very complicated story-structure to follow, and no stars, in a placed called Traverse City, Michigan.

Jane: I had maybe a half-dozen people tell me I HAD to go see this movie, and I finally saw it and loved it. I can’t tell you how excited I am that the closing night film at the film festival is the second movie, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire.’ I came out of ‘Dragon Tattoo’ thinking man, where’s the next one? I want to see the next one RIGHT NOW.

Michael: Well, I was lucky to get it to close it out.

Jane: All the movies are great – I stood in line for tickets and I’ve got my favorites – but what are you hoping that people will absolutely go see? Anything, in particular?

Michael: Wow, it’s hard for me to pick. I’m excited that the Cuban films are selling out, and people are going to meet these Cuban filmmakers I’m flying in from Havana. No easy feat, let me tell you.

Jane: I bet. That’s very cool.

Michael: We’ve got some great foreign comedies like ‘The Infidel’ and ‘Heartbreaker.’ Some wonderful romantic films, all foreign, about love lost and love found: ‘Castaway on the Moon,’ ‘Will You Marry Us?,’ ‘Apart Together,’ ‘Cherry Blossoms.’ Some bold documentary filmmaking. We have films from Vietnam, Iran, Russia, all over the world, and filmmakers coming from those countries. A filmmaker from Jerusalem with one of the best films of the year, ‘Budrus.’ What did you like? What did you get tickets for?

Jane: I’ve got tickets for about 20 films, and I write reviews and blog about movies, so I’m always just thrilled to have them here. Definitely, ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire.’ I’m really excited to see ‘Farsan,’ ‘The Concert,’ ‘The Happy Poet.’ ‘Legacy’ looks awesome, and I’ve heard great things about ‘Please Give.’

Michael: That’s played in the larger cities, but it’s a film that would never have come here.

Jane: ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ is one of the top films I’m really looking forward to seeing. And my son and I will see ‘Tucker and Dale vs. Evil’ at the midnight movie. We’re still talking about ‘Dead Snow.’ It comes up in conversation every week or so.

Michael: I just want to go sit there. Just sit in the crowd.

Jane: I know, it’s such a thrill. One thing I wanted to mention was when Patton Oswalt was here last year for ‘Big Fan’ – he’s so hysterical – and he mentioned that the Traverse City Film Festival is so relaxed, compared to the frantic pace of Sundance and some of the other festivals. We’re kind of like that up here anyway, but out in the world, does our film festival have the persona of being really laid-back?

Michael: Yeah, the filmmakers love coming here because the stress level is way down. And sometimes at film festivals you’re just part of the chattel, you know? I know this having been to festivals all my life as a filmmaker, but here, you’re treated like kings and queens. The red carpet is rolled out from the airport to the time you leave. People are very friendly, you can have whatever you want, we let you bring whoever you want, and we pay for everything. You will never reach for your wallet while you are here. Somebody will take care of you and go wherever you want. You want to go fly-fishing? Fine. You want to go to The Dunes? Fine. Whatever you want to do.

Jane: I think Ben called it a working vacation or something along those lines.

Michael: I just think there is something very unique about a place like this that’s not necessarily considered a hotbed for foreign films, documentaries, indie films, and, in fact, it is.

Jane: Well, and it’s not like the film festival turned us all into movie lovers, you know? I mean, we were hungry for these types of films before, and the film festival just gave us what we wanted.

Michael: Absolutely, and that’s my point. There’s nothing special about Traverse City on that level; you could do this in Traverse Cities all across the country. The need is everywhere.

Images: Michael Moore; Jane Boursaw; Traverse City Film Festival; Amazon.com

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

sheryl July 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm

What an interesting, extensive interview. Thanks for all the great information and food for thought. And hope you enjoy your working vacation and all the goodies you will be seeing. Looking forward to reading all about the good and the bad.

megabizn August 14, 2010 at 4:17 am

I would like to exchange links with your site http://www.filmgecko.net
Is this possible?

Ronald Richard November 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Outstanding

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