The Director's Chair Interviews

Michael Moore's ongoing crusade against corporate greed won him an audience with big, bad Nike
by Ian Hodder

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Pity the poor PR people dispatched when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore charges, cameras rolling, into their polished corporate lobbies. Unable to laugh at his engaging brattiness, these hapless flacks must politely push Moore toward the door while defending corporate downsizing in an era of record profits. The look on their faces—a fascinating blend of fear, frustration and "I hear what you're saying, bro"—expresses the potency of the big-picture questions Moore poses in his latest film, The Big One.

Moore began asking too many questions as a kid growing up in Flint, Michigan, where his parents built cars for General Motors. In high school, the mischievous lad campaigned for—and won—a seat on the local school board. It was perhaps Moore's last establishment gig. He went on to found the alternative newspaper Michigan Voice, which he edited for a decade, and moved into filmmaking in the mid-eighties. He spent three years creating the acclaimed documentary Roger & Me (1989), which skewered GM and then chairman Roger Smith for massive layoffs.
Roger & Me went on to become the most commercially successful non-musical documentary ever, and it made Moore a millionaire. Some critics have charged that his working-class pleas have rung hollow since he made the fortune, but supporters point out that Moore took the money and used it to keep railing against big business. Follow-up projects included the Emmy-winning but short-lived TV Nation (1994-95) series, the John Candy comedy feature Canadian Bacon (1994), and the best-selling book Downsize This! (1996). During the publicity tour for Downsize This! Moore dragged along a camera crew and patched together the footage that became The Big One.

In the film, Moore hops from company to company in search of answers, and finds plenty of irony. His first stop is Centralia, Illinois, where workers are losing their jobs at a candy factory that makes—of all things—Pay Day bars. He goes on to visit a sizable chunk of the Fortune 500, and requests audiences with the execs who have made decisions to downsize. Of course, none of Moore's camera-shy targets wants to chat, with the curious exception of Nike chief Phil Knight—who now rues the day he met the filmmaker.

This is a pretty posh hotel. Are you staying here at the Four Seasons?

Nothing but the best for the man who wants to bring them all down. Don't you love the irony of that? But on the other hand, I think, should I try and create this [working-class] facade—and have you come out to the Travelodge?

Did you ever feel sorry for the PR people you pestered during the filming of The Big One?

Look—they're workers too. The CEO won't come down and talk to me, so they've got to deal with me. So, I do feel bad for them on one level. On another level, they're the good Germans. And I gotta tell you something: Most of them are former journalists who saw they could make three times the money in PR. And every day, they sit in those cozy little offices and get softball questions from the mainstream press. For one lousy day out of their lives, some overweight guy in a ball cap comes into the lobby and asks a simple question: How do you defend the position that the company just made a record profit and laid off ten thousand people? They know it's indefensible; they're not stupid.

Where does your relationship now stand with Nike CEO Phil Knight?

Deep tongue kissing.

Seriously.

Nike is very upset at this film. They got ahold of a bootleg copy and called and said, "We'd like to meet with you." I thought they were going to tell me they're going to build the factory in Flint, where I challenged them to build one. Instead, their director of public relations flies to New York and takes me out to breakfast. I sit down at the table and he says to me, "What would it take to have two scenes removed from the movie?" And I kind of freaked out. I didn't even want to hear what the offer was. I just said, "Well, I'm not taking anything out of the movie. I'll add a scene. I'll add a scene of you building that factory in Flint."

What scenes does Nike want out?

He said Phil was upset at two things in the movie where he felt he misspoke himself and he wanted to clear up. The thing about the fourteen-year-olds he didn't care were working [in Nike factories in Indonesia]. He said the age is actually sixteen, something Phil had already told me in the second interview. The second thing was, "In five years, one of those poor little Indonesians is going to be your landlord." They sort of figured out there's some subtle racism in that statement, and they wanted it out.

What made Nike invite you over in the first place?

I have no idea. Maybe Phil just thought he was a hip, groovy guy. Maybe his wife told him to.

Distinguish between capitalism and greed. Is it safe to assume that on some level, you think capitalism is okay?

No, not really. I think our economic system is unfair and unjust and it's not democratic and it has to change. When I say that last line in the film, "One evil empire down, one to go," our system is the one that's got to go. Now, don't ask me what to replace it with because I don't know. I wish somebody would invent a system that takes the best things of capitalism and socialism and puts them together. The things from capitalism that encourage individuality and creativity and ingenuity, and those things from socialism that say no one shall be left behind. Why can't we have that? Why do they have to be at odds?

 So that's my point. I throw it out there. Some kid in some Ph.D. economics thing is going to go, "Hmmm." I'm trying to create a spark so that people smarter than me can figure it out and get going with it. Don't depend on the Phil Knights to do this.

What's a worker's best defense against downsizing?

I'll give you one that I learned from those Pay Day [candy bar] people: Don't do too good of a job. Because you'll make your company too profitable and it becomes an attractive takeover target and it'll get bought out and they'll consolidate and throw a number of people out of work. Just keep the company solvent, but don't make it too profitable.

What did you think of the Academy Awards?

I would love to write about the working-class theme that exists in all five nominated Best Films. Each of those films was about the working class fighting the ruling class. Think about it: Titanic, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets—[Helen Hunt] gets a huge applause in any theater when she says, "F-ck the HMOs." I've seen it twice and the theater always erupts into applause.

You listen to a lot of music while you travel. What's your favorite girl group?

Right now, my favorite female singers are all the ones who won't shave their armpits: Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Ani DiFranco. I think this is a great trend. I have never understood the shaving of the armpit. Our body is like an ecosystem. The land has natural wetlands and swamps because you need areas to cleanse and get the toxins out—and under your arms is one of those areas. Toxins are released in that part of the body and hair sort of filters it out.

Mainly, I'm just trying to get to the bathroom in the morning. I said to my wife, "You do not have to put on any makeup for me. You do not have to shave for me. You don't have to do any of that stuff for me because I think you're fine just the way you are. And I will try to get other men to cop the same attitude."

What are you working on next?

I'm writing a fiction film, which Channel 4 Films in Britain is producing. [Moore refuses to divulge the topic.] Channel 4 is also going to finance sixteen brand-new episodes of TV Nation, which will be called something else. I think it will be on PBS here. My wife and I have written a book called Adventures in a TV Nation, about our experiences on the show and how we did the stories. That'll come out this summer. And I'm doing a sitcom pilot for CBS this spring. I'll be shocked if it gets on the air. It stars Jim Belushi; it's called Better Days and it's about a town where nobody has a job. It's a comedy—very political, a little like All in the Family.

What are some of the movies that have inspired you?

One of my favorite films is A Clockwork Orange. And my favorite nonfiction film is Hearts and Minds. It's the best documentary about Vietnam. It won the Academy Award in 1975. Other favorite films are Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Spinal Tap, Life of Brian, Taxi Driver, Wild Strawberries.

What do you like about Wild Strawberries?

It's about this man who's about to die and is reflecting back on his life. It's a question we should all ask ourselves: How would we judge our lives? Or to twist it into the Irish Catholic thing I was brought up in: We will be judged by how we treat the least among us. Bill Gates ain't taking that bag of loot with him to heaven.

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