the vulture transcript

Michael Moore Won’t Give Up on America

The filmmaker on Fahrenheit 11/9, what he learned from Steve Bannon, and his own mortality.

Photo: Platon / Trunk Archive
Photo: Platon / Trunk Archive

Michael Moore is in two modes tonight. In this particular moment, he’s on CNN jousting with Chris Cuomo, who’s tanned and ready with opinions and pointed fingers. It’s Tuesday night and they’re discussing the just-breaking news that Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when he was 17, would not testify in front of the Senate until the FBI opened an investigation. Moore tries to pierce through Cuomo’s cable-speak to remind him that it’s not just about partisan politics, but sexual assault. It’s the public persona Moore can turn on, whether it’s onstage at the Toronto International Film Festival introducing his latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, to a sold-out audience, or as the firebrand who said we lived in “fictitious times” amid boos during his Oscars acceptance speech just days after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

And then there’s the Michael Moore sitting in the greenroom of CNN, a Detroit Tigers cap on his head, alternating between sips of a creamy coffee and Coca-Cola. He’s coming from Chris Matthews’s show at MSNBC, and he’ll wake up early the next morning to do Morning Joe before flying out to L.A. He’s tired, but this is the work, and he’ll keep moving forward. In this moment between television appearances, he’s still and ruminative, more prone to digressive thoughts and feelings. When I ask him questions, he takes his time and speaks slowly and deliberately. He thinks about his mortality a lot.

We talk before and after he does Cuomo’s show to discuss his latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, which has been widely hailed as his best work in years. It’s ostensibly about the election of Donald Trump, but really, it’s an unflinching indictment of a much larger corrupt political system that created him (including the Democratic Party). But the conversation of politics and filmmaking often goes to surprising and vulnerable places: We discuss how Steve Bannon affected the film, the Flint water crisis, critiquing President Obama, and a personal revelation he had after an attempt on his life.

Michael Moore: That was not the interview I thought I was going to have out there.

With Cuomo?
I’ve haven’t really been watching cable news all day, but I did see [Christine Blasey Ford] saying that she thought she was going to die, and I teared up. I felt every woman watching that right now knows this feeling at some point in their life. Not every, but most women have had to fucking deal with this. And I want it to end, so I was happy to go where he went.

It was interesting watching you try to cut through his rhetoric.
I wanted to see if I could get him to admit a few things, and he finally admitted, yeah, actually what she wants to do is the thing that should be done, even if it is what the Democrats want to do. He knows the baggage he has to carry as a Cuomo, so he tries to play it very much down the line. Maybe sometimes he goes overboard to give the Republicans a fair shot. What can you say? He works out. That’s what I learned sitting next to him. This motherfucker works out.

How do you feel about doing press even though you also criticize it?
Well, I’m also part of it. I had my own newspaper for ten years in Flint, The Flint Voice. We just did it locally, and then we did it statewide. I consider these films a piece of journalism — more the op-ed page, but still: My opinion based on the facts that I discover that I want to share with the public. So I actually like doing it. I haven’t done that much of it for this because it’s really just been a week since [the] Toronto [Film Festival]. It’s still fresh for me. If I was doing this for the next month and it ends up being the same ten questions, then it’s a little grueling.

Fahrenheit 11/9 felt more restrained to me than your other work. During the premiere in Toronto, you said you weren’t interested in telling jokes. I’d like to hear about tamping down the humor and having fewer aesthetic flourishes. Fahrenheit 9/11 had more of a free-wheeling agitprop style; Fahrenheit 11/9 feels much more contained.
I began making it [Fahrenheit 11/9] as if I wasn’t going to make any other films. The America I used to know, which was not a perfect place, did allow you a certain freedom of the press and as an artist. What if that were to end? Two weeks ago, Trump, in one of his tweets, said they need to consider whether NBC should have a license now because he didn’t like what was on the air that day. Wow. That’s not going after a little socialist publication. He actually believes he has the power to make something like that happen. You really have to assume the worst. If you don’t get up every single day with the knowledge that he’s going to be a two-term president and embrace that, then he will become a two-term president and maybe later. He may not leave. We don’t know. We’re in such uncharted waters here. I’m not the first to state the obvious, but the sooner we are rid of him, the better, and we are going to rue the day we did not act faster to make that happen. So as a filmmaker, I’m making this with a sense of urgency; I’m making it as if I may not be able to make another one of these. And that’s not paranoia — history has shown us that otherwise liberal democracies can turn, and they can turn quickly.

But I do put the art ahead of the politics — and people might be surprised to hear me say that because I’m such a political person. But first, you have to make a great film. Otherwise, who’s going to pay any attention to the politics?

Something that struck me, for instance, was that you’re less present as a physical figure in this film than other ones. You exist mostly in voice-over. Was that a conscious decision?
It’s been a conscious decision since Roger & Me. In Roger & Me, we timed it at ten minutes. And I’ve kept it pretty much in that zone. That’s because I’ve known since making my first film that a little bit of me goes a long way. I don’t really want to dominate the aesthetic of what I’m trying to present. I certainly don’t want to dominate the message.

We used to have a sign that said, “When in doubt, cut me out.” That was kind of a mandate for me. “Should we put him in there?” If you’re not sure, then I favor less of me. Some of that could just be my own — geez, I don’t want to say this, because no one’s going to believe it — but I’m really kind of a shy person.

I understand that. There’s a persona, right?
Yeah, but I haven’t worked at creating that. What you see is what you get here. I actually do go around wearing this Tigers hat. I’m dressed like this every day of my life. What happened, too, is that when I won the Oscar, and they were starting to boo me, I got mad and so I let loose. It was a very strange, out-of-body experience for me to be that Arrgghh! A lot of people maybe hadn’t seen me before — that’s their first impression of me. I felt bad about that for a long time, and then I realized over the years the people at home were happy. It was the fourth night of the war. Everybody was keeping silent, and then the primal scream in the form of me was on a billion-watched broadcast.

Does that moment strike you as quaint now? Because I assume if that happened now …
You don’t have to assume it, you’ve already seen it with Meryl Streep, with Oprah. At the Oscar luncheon for the nominees, they used to give everybody a very strict warning: Do not go political. Do not say anything other than about the movie. And then at the lunch they used to show all the people that got booed. And if you want this to happen to you, just bring up something political. It is weird to watch now. Now, I hear the cheers. And now, I can see on the main floor, where all the actors and directors and nominees are, nobody’s booing me. It’s all coming from way up top, where the sponsors are given tickets; it’s their people. So I know that it was much more well received than it sounded like in the room.

But that is me, though. Or it used to be me. People think I must be looking for trouble, or I’m out there trying to stir the pot. I don’t even want to do this show! I don’t know if you’ve watched this prime-time show, but [Cuomo’s] like, Arrgghh! I’m gonna fight ya! What about you, Michael Moore? What about you?! Okay, what about me? Why are you talking to me that way?

Were there any turning points for you while making Fahrenheit 11/9?
I tried to get Steve Bannon to let me film him. I wanted to ask him some basic questions about how he pulled off the election for Trump. He finally agreed to sit down with me, and after he talked to me, he [would] decide whether or not he would go on camera. That’s fine. So he came over to our production office.

Like a pre-interview?
Like a pre-interview.

Was it recorded?
Nope. I didn’t record it, and told him I’m not secretly recording anything here, and I didn’t.

What I really want to know is, How did you do this? He said, “Look, it’s very simple — we go for the head wound and your side has pillow fights. The head wound will always win over the pillow fight.” And that seemed so true and so honest, because liberals and Democrats are constantly about compromising. Never about having real health care that’s universal like in other countries; half-measures like Obamacare. I knew what he said was true.

How did that change the film?
The next day I said, we’re gonna watch the film and we’re gonna put the pillow-fight filter up on the screen. Anything that seems like a pillow fight: Out. Anywhere where we’re pulling our punches or trying to sound liberal? Out. Very quick example: We’re watching the film and it says most networks are run by men. I stopped the film and I said, “They’re all run by men. I know who runs the big three and the three cable news networks. Not a single woman. Why did I say most?” Well, you know, just in case. Shut the fuck up. No network is run by a woman. Fucking period. This is how Trump won. Just fucking say it. I could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Fucking A, right. One of many times you did not tell a lie.

So that’s what we did. His conversation with me was a turning point. He said, “We’re at war. You guys don’t know that yet. You’re not at war. We’re already at war.” And I said to the staff, “We better go off to war now. And let’s figure out how we can do that with our art form.” Because art can be a very powerful weapon. Satire can be a very powerful weapon. We all need to act like we’re in the French Resistance and the tanks are 20 miles outside of Paris. Like I show in the film, The Jewish Weekly in Frankfurt, front-page editorial: Everybody calm down. It’s not that bad. Don’t be paranoid. Yes, Hitler’s a nutcase, but come on, we’re Germans, and we’re a democracy, and everything’s going to be okay because we’ve got a constitution. I don’t want to be in that situation where we didn’t pay attention to what was going on.

What did you think of The New Yorker controversy where David Remnick invited Steve Bannon to be the headliner of The New Yorker Festival, and then canceled soon after there was a backlash?
Like liberals do. If you wanted him to come you should have him come. Well, people didn’t like it when we invited him and so we thought it would be best not to have him come. Here’s the thing: How about not invite him in the first place? He’s got plenty of conferences he can speak at. You invited him, why not have the courage of your convictions and then continue to have them?
You know, what you look like is a weenie. David Remnick wrote an editorial in The New Yorker saying we should go to war in Iraq. But they even did that in a weenie way because Rick Hertzberg wrote the anti-war editorial a few weeks before the war and then Remnick wrote the pro-war. Oh, brother. That’s what you have to admire about the other side. They’re like, “This is what we believe in. Fuck you.” We believe a fertilized egg is a human being and should be given a driver’s license 16 years after that egg was fertilized. They believe that stuff. Not our side: Well, maybe, I don’t know …

What were you hoping to accomplish with Bannon?
Well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. What kind of truths am I going to remove from him and let people see? Also, let his own people see. Let some of those people, especially the 8 million Obama voters that voted for Trump, see what was really going on here. In the pre-interview, he decided at the end [it was] not a good idea for him to go on camera. Which again proved his smarts to me more, because he probably shouldn’t do that, and he knew that. So I give him credit for that.

The film is an indictment of the Democratic Party, and it was clear what you were aiming at wasn’t simply Trump, but the larger system that created him. Do you think the Democratic Party is salvageable?
No, I don’t want to salvage it. I want to bury the existing Democratic Party, and I want to have it resurrected by the people. They call themselves the Party of the People. Let’s bring the people in, and let’s let them be the party. Over two-thirds of the electorate of this country is either female, people of color, between the ages of 18 and 35, or a combination of the three. America does not look like me, and yet whenever we talk about the “real America” or the “working class” — the working class is black and brown and young and female. “Trump won the working class.” Well, first of all, that’s a lie. You look at any of the studies, Hillary won. The people earning less than $30,000 a year, she won that vote. And he won the people that earn more than $60,000 a year. So my hope, what I have of it, is in the fact that America is no longer me, a middle-aged white guy who’s mad.

That anger is something we can still use, though.
Yes, because my anger is not “Get off my lawn!” My anger is that I don’t think the world should be structured so that I, as a white guy with some privilege, can just walk in and out of the door as easily as I do. Every year, about 4 million teenagers become adults. That’s 11,000 a day. They’re not joining the Republican Party. They believe climate change is real. They believe they’re inheriting a difficult world that we’ve left them. And they are going to be radically involved politically because it is their only hope.

You spotlight a number of populist movements in the film like the teachers’ strike in West Virginia. Was there a reason why you didn’t have Black Lives Matter in it?
They’re in there. Their protests are in there. And of course, [Colin] Kaepernick, which gets the loudest cheer of every screening I’ve been at.

Right. I guess what I meant was, did you ever consider creating a stand-alone section?
No. I’m not a patronizing liberal going, “And now here’s the black section of the film.” It’s integrated throughout the entire movie. For instance, I’m going to bring back my TV show, TV Nation. It’s gonna start in November on TBS. I think what they’re planning is an hour block. The first half-hour is Samantha Bee’s show, and the second half-hour is my show. We’re hiring right now, and I’ve told the producer, in terms of correspondents I’m going to hire to be on my show, that I will not have one black correspondent on the show. There’s either going to be zero, or there’s gonna be two, three, four, or five. There’s no more tokenism. I’m sick of this. I’m not participating in it.

Part of that is because I was born in the city of Flint. This is a black city. Detroit [was] a black city through most of my life. So the politics, the art, the culture, the music, the Motown, the Aretha, all of that is in me. My uncle was in the sit-down strike that founded the United Auto Workers. If you study the history of the UAW, they’re one of the first unions that insisted on integration. Black workers had to work in the foundry, the heavy furnaces, and did the worst work. They, by sometime in the 1940s, said, “No, no. Everybody’s gonna work everywhere, regardless of race.” So my dad and his brothers worked side-by-side with everybody. And when you have a situation like that, it’s hard to hate. First city of a size of 100,000 in the country with a black mayor. Floyd McCree, 1966. First city in the country to pass an open housing ordinance that made racial discrimination in housing illegal, also in the ’60s. That started in Flint.

The sections about the Flint water crisis are incredibly emotional. Did you ever consider making another documentary just on Flint?
No, I considered removing it from the film because it was too hard for me to sit in there every day and watch it. I had to watch this every day for months. I would break down and cry, and I would just say to myself, Look for [your] own mental stability, save this for another time. But I really believed that I saw Trump coming in ways other people didn’t, because I already saw the mini-Trump in Flint with Rick Snyder starting in 2011. But to make a separate film about Flint, no. I’ve made the film I’ve wanted to make about Flint and said what I wanted to say, and I tried to warn people about what I thought would be happening down the road. How many more times do people have to learn what happened, take away our jobs, destroy the economy, poison the water, bomb the city, and use it as a military exercise? Now I’ve heard they’re doing it in other poor majority black or brown cities, but they tried it there first. No protests. Nothing happened, wasn’t reported on the news.

Why was it important to take Obama to task for the water-drinking stunt he pulled in Flint, among other things?
I have to tell the truth. And it’s only your best friends that can tell you the truth. The people you are closest to, they will fucking tell you, “Dude, you’re fucking up here.” I’m not personally best friends with Obama, but in my fantasy world I am one of his closest friends because I love him so I’m the one who can tell him. Yes, you did all these great things, but you screwed up here. Even [John] Podesta, his main guy, couldn’t explain it to me. I don’t know who told him to do this, this was crazy. Why would you go there and drink the water?

When we had the U.S. premiere in Flint last week, when the Obama part began, there was grumbling in the audience because they lived through it and they feel like it was a knife in the heart because he was Barack Obama, for Chrissake. He was our president, he was the best president of our lifetime.

The film toggles between the optimism of organized efforts and the cynicism from the apathy that the Electoral College has produced. Why aren’t we organizing more? Do we still have faith in a broken system?
I hate seeing people give up, but I don’t blame them. I know why they give up. But I want to be that person that says, “We’re in the Matrix. I get it. Here’s a way out. I’m going to take you through the portal. We’re gonna get out of this alive, and then we’re going to build the world we wanna live in, and I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to help you do that.”

It seems like you anticipate a violent right-wing backlash if that happens.
It could happen. I think a lot of liberals are afraid of that. People were really afraid that if he had won the popular vote, and she’d won the Electoral College, how do you think Trump and his people would have handled that? If the right wing decides to turn to violence, I guess there’s enough faith in the system that it will be dealt with. If not, look, the fact that there’s more of us than there are of them is a big help. Personally, I’m a pacifist so I don’t believe in the use of any violence for any reason, and I believe I’m safer if I believe in no violence as opposed to violence.

Here’s the good news on behalf of liberals. We’re big believers in the concept that we were taught in government class: majority rule, minority rights. And you, hateful, hating white people are the minority now. But we’re going to make sure that when we have universal health care for everyone, we’re going to have it for you, too. And we’re going to make sure that you can breathe clean air and drink clean water. And we’re going to make sure you have a living wage. We’re not going to say, “Oh no, they don’t get a living wage because they’re haters.” No. All the good things we’re going to do for this country, you’re going to benefit from them, too. In doing that, enough of them will come along.

You have this a reputation as soothsayer and seeing things clearly. Do you feel like you have blind spots?
Can I have a second to think about it because it deserves an intelligent answer. Oh my God. Why don’t you do this? Define “blind spot” to me because I can answer this a whole bunch of different ways. Like when you say it to me, tell me what you mean. Things that I shun or turn away from?

No. I think we are all in some ways limited by our perspectives, and part of journalism and conversation itself, is about seeing outside of that. And sometimes we can sense where our blind spots exist.
What would be an example for you? Because you thought of this question, so you must have turned it on yourself at some point right?

I think a lot about what womanhood means in ways that are hard for me to understand even though I think, as a gay man, there’s a cultural stereotype that gay men identify with women more.
That you don’t even understand women.

It’s more important for me to be actively listening as opposed to defining that experience. That I identify with powerful women, for instance, is something that is about me, and isn’t necessarily a one-to-one translation. It’s been a process to see the contours of it.
I think what blind spots I may have come from the fear of my own … For myself, I have blocked out desire. Desire in the sense of letting myself go for something simply because it would bring joy, and that that in and of itself is good enough and pure. It’s not like it’s something that’s abstract to me. My wife and I separated in 2010; we started living apart and got divorced in 2014. Somewhere along the way, I came to the belief that my life would be spent alone. I didn’t like that because I believe that as much as we need to drink water every day, I don’t believe that you can go without intimacy. Real intimacy with another person, and that person could be male or female, whether you’re gay or straight or this or that. We all need the human touch.
I am so consumed with my work and my art, my politics, I’ve let that fall by the wayside. And I wonder how that has affected my perspective on things. Because If I wasn’t drinking water, we know what that would do to me. If I never saw sunlight, we know that what that would do to me. If I lack those things in my life that connect me to other human beings, how long am I for this world?

When did that become clear for you?
After that Oscar speech and Fahrenheit 9/11, I not only received a lot of death threats, I received a lot of death attempts. I had to have all this security around me — the studios want the security — because insurance companies are worried if something happens to me blah blah blah. I had to have three shifts of three guys, every day — nine guys — because of six different times when somebody with some sort of weapon tried to harm me. Fortunately, none of those were with a gun. Two were knives, two were clubs, one was a Starbucks coffee where I’m walking down the street in Fort Lauderdale, and a guy comes out of Starbucks dressed in a suit, sees me, face turns purple, takes the lid off the Starbucks and throws hot scalding coffee at my face. And then finally, there was an individual who decided to build a fertilizer bomb to blow up my house. While he was in the process of doing this, he was also cleaning his AK-47 and it went off accidentally. The neighbor heard it, called the cops. They came, they arrested him. His apartment [was] full of weapons, bomb-making materials, and a diary with his hit list on it. And the hit list was me at the top. And Janet Reno, Rosie O’Donnell, Hillary Clinton. He went to prison for a few years.

After that, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I let all the security go. I could not sleep in the house. If I was alone, or my wife was on a trip, I’d ask one of my parents to come stay with me for the week, or a friend. It was awful. I tried one night just to get to sleep and my heart was beating so loud, it was this ringing in my ears. I got to the point where I decided, Look, what are you so worried about? You’ve lived a good life. You’ve been a good son, you’ve been a good husband, you’ve been a good brother, you’ve been a good dad. I raised a good kid. Nobody will say I didn’t do anything, or make a contribution to the world. I’ve lived a fairly long life, so if it were to end tonight …

It’s gonna end for you some night. It may be tonight, it may not be tonight, but everybody’s going to go, including me. So what is this thing I’m so worried about? What is it that I haven’t done yet? I haven’t seen the Pyramids. And I just started laughing at how I was so consumed with wanting to live that I decided it was okay if I died tonight. If someone did come in to hurt me, Okay, so be it. That’s the way I go. From that moment on, by not caring whether I lived or died, I wanted to live and really felt like living. Not just wanted to live, but lived.

What did you do differently?
I started doing the things that I’ve always wanted to do, whether it was learn to play the guitar or go on these walks. I started to have these little goals. Like, I saw this thing in the Times’ travel section of the six highest peaks in New England, including Rhode Island, which is like 800 feet. I thought, “Wow, that’s a great goal for me.” So I started taking better care of myself. I lost 50, 60 pounds, and I’ve still got a ways to go. But I just thought, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna climb each of the six peaks. This is my new thing. So I’m trying to connect to that place in me that has desire, that searches for joy, that has intimacy with other people, where we share things, and we’re close, and we’re there for each other.

The films I’m making now are, I don’t want to say better, but they come more from that place of desire that I think we all have, or should have. I knew where the blinders were that I had on. And by accepting the fact that, “Okay, this isn’t gonna be easy for me, and yes, there are people who want to hurt me. That’s my cross to carry.” You probably have your cross, your burden. Everybody has something. Life isn’t easy. It’s a series of curveballs being thrown at our heads.

Man, none of this was supposed to have happened to me. Seriously, I am a person with a high-school education. I couldn’t afford to get health insurance. I was 35 years old when I first had health insurance. I had my first credit card at 34. I didn’t make my first movie to make any money. I just wanted people to see it. I got really lucky and am very blessed and fortunate.

Michael Moore on Fahrenheit 11/9 and What Bannon Taught Him