This summer marks the sixth year of the Traverse City Film Festival, and I thought it’d be fun to hark back to the origins of the festival, how it got started, and how founder Michael Moore rallied people far and wide to get involved.
Since I live in Traverse City, the film festival has been a joy for me since it began in 2005. It’s always exciting to see the lineup of great films every year – films that might never grace our area in northern Michigan if not for the film festival.
And as guest Patton Oswalt said last year, the Traverse City Film Festival is laid-back and fun, with a more relaxed atmosphere than some film festivals. “You guys are in your own little magic bubble up here, with gentle cherry mist and fudge,” said Oswalt to the crowd who came to see his film ‘Big Fan.’ “Do you have leprechauns massage your feet for you?" Why, yes. We do. That’s how we like it here in Traverse City, Patton. Relaxed.
Follow me after the jump for the interview I did with Michael Moore back in 2005. And look for my upcoming interview with him in the next week or so. We’ll see how he thinks the festival is doing after six years.
More after the jump…
Interview with Michael Moore, published in Northern Express, July 14, 2005:
Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore is making headlines again — only this time as the organizer of the Traverse City Film Festival. How does he feel about corporate Hollywood? Will he promote his political views at the festival? And is he really as bad as Fox News makes him out to be? Read on and find out.
Jane: Why did you decide to start the Traverse City Film Festival?
Michael: Well, I live here. I like to go to the movies, and I like to see good movies. Too many of the movies that Hollywood is putting out are not the kind of movies that I and millions of others want to see. There’s a lot of stories recently about how attendance at movie theaters is at a 20-year low. People have stopped going to the movies, and there’s a reason for that – the movies aren’t very good. How many times do you walk out of a movie going, that sure was a waste of two hours and $7.50.
The cinema is a wonderful, incredible art form, and it’s one of the few indigenous art forms that we’ve given the world. But it’s slowly dying as a result of corporate Hollywood only caring about the lowest common denominator and what they believe to be the bottom line. But even the bottom line isn’t working for them, because they’re not making any money. You’d think they’d want to stop making all these remakes and sequels and movies of old TV shows and all these dumb comedies that are an insult even to teenagers.
Is that one of the reasons why it’s hard for filmmakers to get funding through even the big studios these days?
It’s still hard to get funding, but digital technology has made it possible for anyone to make their own movie. Before, you used to need hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. Now you need a digital video camera. We’re showing movies in the film festival that were made for under $30,000 and have received some of the best reviews of the year. So it’s not about how much money is spent; it’s about the idea and the execution of that idea.
What’s difficult now is getting the distribution. Once you make the movie, how do you get it seen by the public? That’s one of the big reasons we wanted to do this film festival – to give the public a chance to see some really great movies that might otherwise not come to Traverse City. Fortunately, there’s the Bay Theater and the “Beyond the Bay” film series (in Suttons Bay, Michigan) and other things that have cropped up here, because people are desperate to see good movies.
You’re using the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City as one of the locations, and volunteers have been helping to renovate it. Talk about that.
About 50 volunteers helped to renovate it, including an electrician, a plumber, and carpet installers and others who donated their services. It’s been really wonderful.
Was preserving the theater in your plan all along?
Yes, it was. We were told at the very beginning, don’t even think about it, but generally, my attitude in life is to “always” think about it, whatever “it” is. At least that’s what the nuns taught me. We used to have these little workbooks in Catholic school called “Think and Do.” You couldn’t just Think, you had to actually Do. I remember coming up here in the summer and going to movies at the State Theatre. It’s a beautiful old movie palace, and these places should not be torn down or destroyed or cut up into little mini theaters.
Will there be other movies shown there throughout the year now?
My hope is that if the film festival is successful, if people come down and support the films, then the chance of this being the spark that’s needed to get the State Theatre open on a regular basis is going to be very good.
How will this film festival differ from those of Sundance, Toronto, Telluride or Tribeca? Will you be featuring more documentaries?
No, but we are featuring a good number of them, simply because some of the best films of recent years have been documentaries. They’re are no longer the kinds of films you were forced to watch in 5th grade science class. They’re exciting, entertaining movies, so I’m personally very happy and thrilled to be part of this movement of more people making documentaries and more people going to see them. But this film festival has everything from romantic comedies to thrillers to documentaries. It’s a good mix.
‘Roger and Me’ was probably the first documentary that was shown in mainstream shopping mall cinemas. Because that film set a record and did so well at the time, it opened the door for other documentaries to be shown in regular movie theaters. But when I set out to make my first movie, my thought wasn’t, hey, let’s go make a documentary. It was hey, let’s go make a movie.
That’s always been my overriding thought – to make a piece of art that’s also entertaining for people to go see on a Friday or Saturday night and eat popcorn. They don’t want to feel like the movie is medicine – that ‘you must watch this, this is good for you.’ So I’ve encouraged filmmakers to make documentaries that have strong characters and a compelling narrative story, just like any good movie.
And it’s from real life, which is where some of the best stories come from.
Yes, it’s right from real life. Some of my stories, you wouldn’t believe if they “weren’t” real, because they’re so absurd.
Are you going to try and keep your political agenda out of the film festival?
I read this letter to the editor in the Record-Eagle yesterday and it said, ‘What do you mean Michael Moore isn’t going to make this a political event? Michael Moore IS a political event.’ It’s so hilarious.
I guess that’s how people see you, though.
Really? You don’t think they first think of me as an Oscar-winning filmmaker, or a filmmaker who three times now has set a box office record with three separate documentaries? You don’t think they think that first?
Or, how about, the top-selling non-fiction author for the last three years. No author has spent more weeks on “The New York Times” hardcover list than the person you’re speaking to. But I don’t think that’s the first thought that pops into peoples’ heads, is it? Michael Moore, America’s biggest selling author…
No, I don’t think so.
But that would be true, yet truth and fact are often two separate things. Look, I don’t change who I am for anything or anybody. I’m a person who is very grounded in who I am and what my beliefs are. To me, everything is political. If you can’t swim up at Bay Harbor this week because of the pollution in the lake, I think that’s political. Nobody ever asks the Cherry Festival this question, and really, what could be more political than an industrial association?
Here’s a political question I’d like to ask. How is it that a manufacturing organization, which is what the Cherry Festival is — to support the cherry growers, right? – how is it that they’re allowed to use a public street for a parade and then charge the very people in the community to use their own street? And all in the promotion of a business interest? I think everything is political, in that sense.
Now, are we going to be signing up people for the Democratic Party or the Green Party at films? No. Will we be performing a lesbian marriage? No. It’s illegal now in Michigan anyway. We live in a great country, and one of the great things about living in a democracy is that we should encourage people TO be political. Our problem is that people have been apathetic or apolitical for too long. That’s gotta stop.
But no, this film festival is being put together by a group of people who love going to the movies and want to bring great films to Traverse City. This isn’t a recruiting rally for the Democratic party, although that wouldn’t be a bad thing and Traverse City definitely should have that, considering John Kerry won the city. But that’s not this month’s work. This month’s work is to allow people to see great films.
You join the ranks of other filmmakers – like Robert Redford and Robert DeNiro – who are founding film festivals. Is this a growing trend? Why are filmmakers getting into the film festival business?
As filmmakers, we want to preserve this art form and bring good movies to people. And if we have to bypass the distribution of corporate Hollywood, because corporate Hollywood doesn’t want to distribute smart, intelligent films that respect the intelligence of the audience, then we’ll do that ourselves.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects, ‘Sicko,’ and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11-1/2’?
No. I don’t talk about them while I’m making them. I only talk about them when they’re done.
Can you say when they’ll be released?
No. That’s the funny thing with a documentary – you just never know when it’s done, because you’re not following a script.
How do you choose the topics of your documentaries?
Whatever will be a personal expression of how I feel about things, that will also work as a piece of entertainment. Again, I don’t want to give a lecture or a sermon.
It shouldn’t make it hard at all. It should be exactly who you are. If you’re an American, that’s how you should think. The biggest political films of the year are ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,’ ‘Batman Begins,’ and ‘Land of the Dead.’ These have very strong political messages, and they’ve become very popular. People like to think. People like to have a political discourse.
But don’t you think there’s a place for movies like ‘Herbie: Fully Loaded’?
But that’s one of the few G-rated movies to hit this area in a long time, so I was kind of happy to have a movie I could take my kids to see, without worrying about it.
There are two great G-rated movies that have come out this summer, and again, I ask the question, why aren’t they in Traverse City? ‘Deep Blue’ is a beautiful film about life under water that people of all ages would love to watch. There’s another G-rated film called ‘March of the Penguins.’
When people go to your movies, what do you want them to take away?
I want them to walk out with that exhilarating feeling we used to have with films like ‘The Graduate’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Raging Bull.’ We’d go, ‘Wow, that was something!’ That’s all but gone now, and my hope is that people will walk out of these movies here in Traverse City and go, ‘That was really incredible! Man, I haven’t seen anything like that in a long time! Let’s go have a beer and talk!’
Do you have a favorite filmmaker who influenced you when you started out?
Stanley Kubrik is probably my favorite filmmaker. What he did and what I do are different things, but the way he did it said that anything was possible. Let your mind go to the places it wants to go, and make great art for the people.
Even the scary places…
Those are the places you should visit first, because fear is a horrible, paralyzing force. And it sometimes forces groups of people and nations to do things they maybe shouldn’t do.
My favorite documentary of all time would be ‘Hearts and Minds,’ about the Vietnam war. Favorite documentary in this festival is probably ‘Grizzly Man,’ although the Enron film would be a close second.
Any advice for a young filmmaker starting out?
Follow your conscience. Follow your heart. Make a movie that you’re going to be happy with, not one that you think is going to get sold to Hollywood. Don’t ever make it for the money; make it because it’s the right thing to do. Also, sound is more important than picture. The audience will forgive you if a shot is a little bit out of focus or the camera’s moving around a little. They won’t forgive you if they can’t hear it.
Or if it hurts your ears.
Exactly. In learning how to make a movie, very little attention is paid to sound. You think that it’s visual art, that it’s all about the picture. But it’s the ear that’s really doing the work, in terms of following the story. And the eye is taking in the aesthetics, giving you a certain mood and feeling.
How do you keep from getting stressed out with so many projects underway? You sound kind of laid back for all you’ve got going on.
I think the last time I had a physical, my blood pressure was 115/65. It’s important to never lose your sense of humor, to laugh in the face of adversity. I really don’t take anything too seriously, and by not taking anything too seriously, I end up actually caring a lot more about the things that I need to care about.
Because you don’t worry about your adversaries?
Yeah, you don’t listen to what anybody says. It all just kind of rolls off your back. And you realize that there are two Michael Moores – there’s the real guy, who my friends and family know, and there’s the one created by Fox News. It’s a fictional character they’ve created, and they make up little stories about him, and you realize it’s just that. You sit back and go, ‘Boy, look at this guy they’ve created. He sounds like a really bad dude.’
What does it feel like to have your movie out in thousands of theaters, knowing that so many people are watching it, thinking about it, talking about it on Fox News … what goes through your mind once it’s released. It must be a thrill.
It is, but it’s also a very humbling feeling. A year ago at this time, when ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ was the number one movie at the box office, I remember feeling very blessed and very privileged to be able to do what I do. I don’t take any of it for granted. I consider myself to be a very lucky person, and whatever blessings I’m given through this, I have to spread around and share with others. All of that feels very good.
Images: Michael Moore; Jane Boursaw; Traverse City Film Festival