Rolling into this election year, Michael Moore was in a fighting mood. The 62-year-old director of the highest-grossing documentary of all time, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, had a presidential candidate (Bernie Sanders) he believed in, and several (the entire GOP slate) that he was itching to take down. There was a toxic-water crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan—the setting and subject of his debut film, 1989’s Roger and Me—and by January he was calling for the arrest of the state’s governor, Rick Snyder.
Perhaps most importantly he was ready to release Where to Invade Next, his first film since 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story, with a plan to hit the TV and press publicity circuit harder than ever—part promotion, part political crusade. The American left’s foremost provocateur was back.
Then, less than a week before Where to Invade Next opened in theaters, it all came crashing down. Admitted to a New York hospital on Jan. 31, he spent a week in intensive care, forcing the cancellation of his promo tour. Exact details were hard to come by at the time, and though Moore was in good spirits when he posted a Facebook update shortly after, his admission that “trying to get back to just breathing is enough of a burden” didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his health.
He says now that he understands why fans were worried about him.
“I was worried about me,” he tells me from an “undisclosed location” while on an overseas trip. “But I’m fine now. I got pneumonia. I didn’t get it checked out as soon as I should have, and ended up in the hospital with it. Don’t ever do that.”
While he was out of commission, his film hit theaters with less than the typical amount of fanfare for a Michael Moore documentary (though of course it did extremely well in Santa Cruz). However, it’s one of his best. Whereas his films like 2002’s Bowling for Columbine and 2007’s Sicko took deadly serious topics and found some humor (and a lot of outrage) in them, Where to Invade Next inverts the paradigm, taking an absurdly funny premise—that Michael Moore himself is going to “invade” several European countries to steal their good ideas—and finding the hard truths about American life inside of it.
While stretching geographically, Moore also stretches emotionally, and Where to Invade Next is more pensive and philosophical than anything he’s done before. Sure, there’s outrage to be had over what isn’t being done in the U.S., but there’s also joy and genuine wonder in the way he celebrates what is being accomplished elsewhere. It’s a shame that, so far, this is probably his least-seen film since his 2002 breakthrough into the mainstream.
So you can understand why Moore feels like he’s got some catching up to do. If his to-do list from last week—over the course of which he declared the GOP a “dead party” and wrote a letter to President Barack Obama berating him for what Moore sees as a dismal and shortsighted response from the president to the Flint crisis—is any indication, he’s jumped right on it. On Saturday, May 14, he’ll continue making up for lost time when he speaks at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
What relevance do you think your new film has to the presidential election, and how much will you be discussing your support for Bernie Sanders at the Santa Cruz event?
Well, we’re in the craziest election year of anyone’s life—no matter what your age. So I’m going to try to make some sense out of it, if that’s actually possible. Which I think it is. I’m concerned about what’s happening, and what’s going to be happening in November. I have a lot of thoughts, based on the movie I just made, about Bernie’s whole platform. None of it’s new, it’s all being done in dozens of other countries and everybody’s happy. That doesn’t mean those countries don’t have their own problems, but they aren’t problems with seeing a doctor when you get sick, they aren’t the problems of being in a debtor’s prison once you leave college, they aren’t the problems of getting daycare for your kids, or maternity leave when you have a kid, or on and on and on and on. Hillary and others have said he’s all pie in the sky, it’s all up-in-the-air stuff. Actually no, it’s all happening on Planet Earth, as we speak. And I have the proof. I have a two-hour piece of evidence.
What inspired the premise of ‘Where to Invade Next’—parodying the idea of U.S. imperialism and using it for positive social change?
The ideas in the film started coming to me when I was 19 and I got a youth hostel card and a Eurail pass, and I went to Europe with a backpack. I spent the summer seeing something different than the United States, and I was kind of amazed. I kept thinking “why don’t we do this?” or “why don’t we do that?” And every trip I’ve taken since, I have the same feeling.
When did you decide to turn that into a movie?
Oh, a long time ago. For as long as I’ve been a filmmaker, I’ve thought about it. And I’ve done it at different times in Sicko and other films, I’ve shown people what it’s like in other countries. I live in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population never leaves home. So it’s very easy to fool Americans, ’cause they haven’t seen it. Using the idea of U.S. imperialism, that’s just my frustration with a decade-plus of this country butting its nose where it’s not wanted. And I thought “What if we did a different kind of invasion? What if we invaded not to kill people, but just to steal some good ideas?”
I thought the idea you chose for each country was interesting. Many of them were not the ones people would probably expect, like in France. I mean, if Michael Moore is going to talk about something good in France, no one thinks it’s going to be school lunches.
Well, as a filmmaker I like to make movies that are the kind I like to go see. And when I go see a movie, I don’t like to know in advance what I’m about to see. Including while I’m watching the movie—if I can figure out what’s going to happen 10 minutes from now, I’m instantly bored. I know the audience will think I might go to France for something else. So part of it is my fun I’m having with the audience and their expectations. Part of it is we didn’t do a lot of research for this film, we just kind of went over there. A lot of it was things we discovered in the moment. When you see the look on my face when that Italian couple told me they get 15 days for their honeymoon? That what-the-fuck look on my face? That’s a real look. I didn’t know that until they told me on camera.
They look equally surprised when you tell them how employment works here, after they’ve just said it’s every Italian’s dream to come to America.
I didn’t know about it till they told me that, and it was just heartbreaking standing there listening to it, because I know as a parent—every parent knows—that if you are going to move somewhere, more important than the walk-in closets or how many bathrooms the house has is “How good is the school my kids are going to go to?” [The Finnish] mean it, they really mean it. I mean, they really mean it. It is critical to them that every school is of the same quality, no matter if it’s in a poor neighborhood, a rich neighborhood, whatever. Then again, when I say “poor” and “rich” in countries in Europe, their income inequality is not as wide as ours.
Bernie Sanders has referenced Finland when defending his proposal to make college tuition free at public universities.
When the [Finnish] education minister told me that thing about no tuition, the law—that applies to colleges, too. So there are no private colleges to speak of. So I said, “You mean you don’t have a Harvard?” And she said, “Yes, we do have a Harvard. We have 19 Harvards. We have 19 public universities.” I said, “C’mon, though, cut the bullshit. You can’t tell me that the person who’s going to the University of Helsinki is getting the same education as the person going to the University of …”—and then I just made up “Lapland,” you know, where the reindeer are? And she looks at me and goes, “I am a graduate of the University of Lapland. And I am the Minister of Education.” It was like, oh my god. So … they mean it.
I wonder what she’d think of our public education system.
When I watch the movie with an audience, the most sniffles I hear from people tearing up is during the Finland scene of the movie. Because we know our kids are getting screwed.
Your past films have all been shot in the U.S. What was it like filming internationally?
I had more fun making this movie probably than any other film. We decided right from the beginning that we were going to make a film not about other countries, but about ourselves. And my challenge to the crew was, “Let’s see if we can tell a story about the U.S. without shooting a single frame of film in the U.S.” Because after doing this for 25 years, as an individual this has to be interesting to me, too. I have to get excited about it, and I’m not looking to do the same old thing. I want to do something that’s more challenging. So I thought, what if we did this where we have a little bit of archival footage, of U.S. prisons or whatever, but we will not ourselves shoot through our cameras a single frame in the United States of America. But the entire film is clearly about the United States of America. On some level, I don’t give a rat’s ass about Finland and their education system. I care deeply that we have sunk so low, and maybe we can learn something from them.
In 1989, you were documenting devastation in Flint, Michigan in your first film, Roger & Me. Almost three decades later, the situation there is even worse—thanks to the toxic water crisis. You’ve been following this closely, what do you think needs to be done?
There are now 11 documentaries that have been made about me by the right wing. One of these days I’m going to have a little film festival of just the anti-Michael Moore films.
Well, people are still being poisoned. They need to remove and replace all the pipes now. That’s a big job, and Obama should be sending in the Army Corps of Engineers to do it—and he isn’t. He announced today that he’s going to go to Flint next week. I wrote a very angry post about that and put it on Facebook a couple of hours ago.
Over the course of your career, the biggest change seems to have been that while you started out as an outsider trying to get access to the powerful, you yourself have become powerful, at least in terms of cultural influence. People make movies about you now. What’s it been like for you on a personal level to experience that shift?
It’s been interesting. Mostly I see the humor in it. There are now 11 documentaries that have been made about me by the right wing. One of these days I’m going to have a little film festival of just the anti-Michael Moore films. I think that’d be pretty funny. And there’s probably been at least half a dozen books written. Look, I’m one of the few people on the left who have crossed over to have a wide mainstream audience, in Middle America especially. We on the left are usually confined to the Church of the Left, which if it’s a movie theatre, it’s, you know, the Film Forum. If it’s a town it’s Santa Cruz. I mean, right? So they don’t make 11 movies about Noam Chomsky—and they should, because he’s a dangerous man because he puts out a lot of truth. But his audience does not go to movies at the supermall in Hays, Kansas.
Michael Moore will speak at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $33-$53.75, call 420-5260 or go to santacruztickets.com.