Chris Smith, Collapse
Ex-LAPD Detective, investigative journalist, 9/11 truther, foreteller of the coming apocalypse — these are just some of the roles Michael C. Ruppert has inhabited in his fascinating life, one that versatile filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) has chosen to examine in his newest film Collapse. It is a return to documentary films for Smith, who has oscillated between disparate narrative and documentary work with a rare deftness. His most recent film The Pool (2007), a naturalistic narrative which Smith photographed himself, tracks a rural teenager working in a Panjim hotel to support his family who becomes obsessed with a swimming pool in the opulent Goan hills and the mysterious family who owns it. His newest picture couldn’t have less in common with that film. Reminiscent if Errol Morris’ work, Collapse is a chilling look at the mind and opinions of a man often labeled a conspiracy theorist and nut job who first came to notice as a whistle blower on the CIA’s alleged involvement with drug traffiking in the 1970s and 80s. In Smith’s film heoffers lucid and persuasive analysis of the ways in which the realization of time worn concepts like peak oil and climate change and the unquestioned acceptance of fractional reserve banking and fiat currency are pushing our overpopulated world toward unimaginable catastrophes of famine and deindustrialization.
Smith, a native Midwesterner who now lives in London, entered the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Graduate Film Program in 1995 after shooting his feature debut American Job (1996). Chris met Mark Borchardt while editing that film and quickly began filming a documentary about the making of Mark’s psychological thriller Coven (2000). Both American Job and American Movie (2000), his sublime chronicle of Borchardt’s quixotic filmmaking ambitions, played at the Sundance Film Festival, and American Movie won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, after which Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film and Borchardt became a minor celebrity, with segments of The David Letterman Show and bit parts in myriad B films.
Collapse opens on Friday in Manhattan, November 13th in Los Angeles and on Video on Demand via Cinetic FilmBuff.
Filmmaker: When did Michael Ruppert first come to your attention? When in the process of making the documentary you set out to make about the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling did you decide to focus on Ruppert’s opinions and ideas instead?
Smith: We’d heard about him four or five years ago. He was doing some lectures and I had seen the videos of them on YouTube. I knew about him for a long time. I had heard the story about his alleged recruitment by the CIA to get involved in drug trafficking in the 70s. We were finishing our last film The Pool and researching different projects. We had contacted him to talk about that and possibly working on something. We set up a meeting at his house. When we got there he had literally just finished his newest book. Or at least, he was very close to finishing it. This was in February of 2009. He was consumed with this idea of collapse which he saw happening all around him. It was something he had talked about for many years. All the things he thought were going to happen in the near future were starting happen. He was just obsessed with where we were at this point in history. We went over there intending to talk about his personal history and the experiences he had had. He said that he was just focusing on what was happening now. He talked for two or three hours. He hadn’t done any press or interviews for a couple years. He just had so much energy. He was bursting at the seams. We left there scratching our heads. He had so many other things on his mind then going back and delving into what had happened to him in the 1970s.
We went away and two or three weeks later wrote him and email with a proposal for an idea, which was to just do an interview based on this book and what he sees happening around us. It was such a fascinating monologue. That’s really where it started. We were planning on it being a very short, interim project, where we would film for a couple days and cut something together quick, then maybe throw up what we’d done on YouTube or just give it to him. We didn’t really plan to make it the next film we were working on. It’s just one of those things were once we started filming, it just sort of evolved into what it is now. We filmed the bulk of the movie over two days and then we did three additional days of shooting over the few weeks that followed to clarify a few things, but for the most part the movie was shot in March over the course of the first two days.
Filmmaker: Although he’s incredibly persuasive, was there any point in which you thought about expanding the scope of the film outside of Michael’s point of view?
Smith: Ultimately I was interested in making a character study about a guy who’s dedicated his life to these issues. He’s spent thirty years coming up with this theory. To me, the film was about who he is and how he ended up here and the effect that this process has had on his life. I personally wasn’t interested in making a movie about energy or sustainability or food or overpopulation or economics. There are so many of those films that have come out over the last couple of years. I find that they can feel somewhat educational. I find Michael to be an incredibly entertaining person. His philosophy, the way he looks at the world, is more unique than anyone I’ve ever met. That was what we wanted to focus on, on him. We wanted to make a character study as opposed to an issue driven movie. The issues are there and for you to understand him I think you have to understand why he thinks these things are going to happen and what his theory is.
The thing that is fascinating about Michael is that he sort of takes a step back from all these various issues and ties everything together. I think to do a fair and fully informed movie that analyzes every one of those issues from every angle would be impossible. The amount of material necessary could never fit into a feature film. At least how I would want to do it. So what was most intriguing was Michael; he’s whom we wanted to make a movie about.
Filmmaker: How challenging was it to edit Michael’s expansive analysis and find supplemental footage to illustrate his points?
Smith: The amount of information that’s swimming in Michael’s head is incomprehensible. He came into this basement with no notes. He didn’t know any of the questions we were going to ask him. We basically just started talking. For us the challenge became to cull that down. We’d jump from topic to topic and then come back to things. Making something that seemed cohesive was challenging, more so because the way the film was shot than Michael himself. We followed the energy in the conversation to wherever it would lead us as opposed to saying, “let’s talk about each one of these things in a compartmentalized way”. Ultimately, that’s how we had to structure the film, but we let it be a much more loose, organic process while we where shooting. That’s what allowed Michael to be himself, to allow his train of thought to flow and work tangentially through these various topics. I think that’s where he’s the strongest.
Filmmaker: For being such a self-contained film, you worked with two cinematographers, including the great Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven, Lightning Over Water). For a film about one man and his opinions, it had a very dynamic style. How did you come up with the visual design?
Smith: The first three days we shot with a cinematographer named Max Malkin. He’s incredibly talented. I talked to him before we started filming. We talked about a few ideas, weather we should shoot on a stage or somewhere else. Max was talking about some apocalyptic café, playing off the idea of the collapse, but we ultimately decided to go with the basement of an abandoned meat packing plant in downtown Los Angeles. It gave the feeling of an interrogation, the sense of being let in on some secret information about how things really work. It ties into Mike’s history and mystique, the dealings with the CIA and that world. We wanted a look that complemented that feel. It should look and feel like its taking place at four in the morning while everyone else is sleeping. So we set it up with Max and then the last two days of shooting, Ed came in and did those. So it looks very similar. Ed is an incredible cinematographer and he loved the way the first three days were shot, so he basically went in and matched that.
What was nice about both of those DPs is that when you are working with people that are so talented, they’re not just running a camera they’re also thinking about the film’s subject matter and what you’re trying to achieve thematically. They both contributed greatly not just in capturing a look, but in effecting the content of the piece as well.
Filmmaker: You move between the worlds of narrative and documentary, tackling vastly dissimilar topics, with what seems like relative ease.
Smith: When looking at new projects I always work intuitively. I always assume whatever interests me might be interesting to someone else. When this came about, I thought it was interesting because it was so different from anything I had ever done before and I thought it was challenging from a formalistic point of view to see if you could make something interesting from just this guy talking. To be honest, after we did The Yes Men film, I had personally told myself I was going to quit doing documentaries. I had started in narrative filmmaking back in 1996 when my first film American Job went to Sundance. I had never actually planned to make documentary films. I always liked them but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. At the time that I was planning to work of new projects however, the documentary subjects I had at my disposal just seemed more interesting. So that’s how I ended up making American Movie, Home Movie and The Yes Men. After The Yes Men, we went to India and made The Pool. From there I was writing and researching narrative projects when we met with Michael and it was one of those things that, it was too good to pass up. It was right there. You have to follow your instinct at that point, weather you want to do another documentary or narrative or what have you. At a certain point you just look at what’s been presented to you in terms of opportunities and kind of go with it. I’m hoping this is the last one, but you don’t know.
Filmmaker: How have audience responded to the film so far? Has its near apocalyptic message been the catalyst for naysayers?
Smith: I find that the people that stick around and ask you questions are generally the people that like the film. I think the people that don’t like the film you generally don’t hear from. They’re critics and they write about it. Toronto for us was incredibly positive. We expected the film to be more controversial than it was just because of Michael’s nature and his extreme view on certain things. He really has conviction and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. There was some thought that his opinions would cause more controversy. What surprised us the most was that people who agreed with him wholeheartedly, as well as people who agreed with some of the things he said and people who didn’t agree with him, all really liked the film. I think that made us really happy, that people were able to enjoy the film regardless of how much they align themselves with his views.
Filmmaker: Has Michael seen the film?
Smith: He saw it right before we went to Toronto.
Filmmaker: What did he think of it?
Smith: We didn’t get into many specifics, but he told me he liked it. There are some things he takes issue with. Ultimately we were trying to make a film that was entertaining, that moved, that wasn’t just and educational exercise. So there’s little things, like in the clean coal section, where he wishes we had put in how clean coal doesn’t deal with the sludge or the toxic waste that’s produced, there’s technical things that he wishes could have been included, but ultimately he understood that it’s a movie and if people want to learn more about it they can read his book or they can go to any number of people who have written and talked about these subjects. So I think ultimately he loved the film, that it really captured him and that it was fair. I think he’s smart enough to realize that the stuff that’s critical of him is important to have in there so that people can make up there own mind about him and what they choose to believe about his message and what he’s trying to do. If it was a one sided portrayal of him I think he knows that would be something that wouldn’t be able to reach a wide audience, but beyond that, I think he understands that he’s a complicated person. I think that comes across in the film and he appreciates the work that was put in to make that come across. Its difficult when a film is about you. I’ve dealt with this one American Movie and on The Yes Men where, you become close with the people while making the film so you can see how it weighs on them because they’re so under a microscope. I think if you put any of us in front of a camera for twelve, fourteen hours, there’s going to be things in there you may or may not wish you had said, but they’re all part of what makes that person who they are and I think that’s what comes across.
Filmmaker: Have you noticed any difference in how people of various political persuasions have viewed the film? Has there been any split across ideological lines?
Smith: It wasn’t appealing to people on a partisan level. There have been a lot of Republicans and Democrats we’ve heard from, a lot of financial people who’ve responded to it. I think it appeals to everyone on a certain level who’s interested in any of these issues. Michael comes from a Republican family. His just the facts, straight-forward way of talking appeals to certain people. Yet, I think everyone takes what he says with a grain of salt. I think what we hope people will do is use the film as a catalyst to do some research and come up with there own well-informed opinions. There are many varied opinions on these subject matters. History teaches us that no one knows anything really, no one knows for sure what’s going to happen. I think to have least thought about some of these issues is not harmful. If anything, I think it could be positive. Regardless of your take on the material, I think the film is entertaining and you get to peer into someone’s life. I’ve always thought that’s what the best documentaries do; transport you into someone else’s world and you get to understand and live with them for a period. That’s all you can hope for.
Filmmaker: Are you planning on buying a farm?
Smith: No [Laughs]. I’m fairly optimistic. I don’t know why [Laughs]. Maybe I’ve hit the level of acceptance as a result of working on this project. I feel fairly at ease with everything. I know when we first starting working on this, there were a few nights where we were just staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours thinking about everything, but when you come to the other side you realize that regardless of weather these things will or will not happen, opening up your mind to think about these ideas to this degree and to the degree Michael thinks about them is really fascinating. The amount of time we spent on this film led us to really have to go through the mental process of taking in all this information. It’s been really interesting. The discussions we were having while making the film and the discussions we’ve had with people who’ve seen the film have all been really interesting and useful. I feel so well informed now that I feel like I can at least try to voice my opinion and vote appropriately when and if these issues become something we can have a say in. There are many well-informed, smart, educated people who fall on both sides of several of the issues Michael talks about. There are people that agree with him 100% and people who disagree with him 100%. So I hope we can open up a lot of debate.