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In The Big One, Michael Moore’s third feature, he crisscrosses the country uncovering corporate greed even as he hawks his own book, the best-selling Downsize This. Rick Berg talks with the director about salesmanship, British television and the infamous "Toto Effect."

Nike CEO Phil Knight and Michael Moore in The Big One

Somewhere between shameless self-promotion and effective political empowerment lies Michael Moore’s new documentary, The Big One. During the 1996 book tour sponsored by Random House for his bestseller Downsize This: Random Threats From an Unarmed American, Moore and a camera crew chronicled a series of stories about lost jobs coupled incongruously with record corporate profits in the cities Moore travelled to. The result is as biting as Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me.

Nine years later, Moore’s ability to unmask power in an entertaining manner is still apparent. With his innocuous demeanor, Moore manages to get into several corporations, and with his gift for irony, clearly underscores the greed that drives these companies. His coup in The Big One, though, is Nike; Moore bests the company’s president in a series of awkward on-screen interviews. Rick Berg spoke with Moore about his new film as the filmmaker made his way through the morning traffic from Coldwater Canyon to Santa Monica.


Filmmaker: It’s clear from seeing the cameramen in several shots of The Big One that you shot on video, but it looks great — what did you do?

Michael Moore: Well, we’ve been experimenting the last couple of months with various processes to find a way for it to look just like film. Miramax actually put up a significant amount of money to find the best way to do that. What we ended up with is Sony High Definition. We took the video footage that we shot, transferred it through the high definition process, and then we went directly to a 35mm negative.

Filmmaker: Where did you get the money for the film?

Moore: Well, I was halfway through the book tour when the film started — I had no intention of making a film, but I had already gone to 20 of 47 cities on the tour, and I was seeing all these things going on in the country, plus all these bizarre things happening to me on the tour. So I called my wife one night — she is the film’s producer as well as the producer of [Moore’s TV show] "TV Nation" — and told her we should do something. So we decided overnight to do it. We put a call in to the BBC, which had partially funded "TV Nation," and they said they would back it. But we didn’t know for how much, so we just started shooting and putting it on the credit cards. We didn’t see any money from the BBC for months. We have probably $80,000 racked up on about three or four different credit cards.

Filmmaker: Isn’t the BBC an odd outfit to get money from for something like this anyway? Not Channel Four?

Moore: You’re absolutely right. The only reason we got the funds from the BBC was because the person, Michael Jackson, who was running the BBC had Channel Four sensibilities. And lo and behold, he recently became the head of Channel Four.

Filmmaker: Will it show on British TV?

Moore: It was originally intended for British TV, but it will have a theatrical release. In general, we’ve found that it’s much easier for some projects to get funding from Europe, in part because Europeans are not satirically illiterate, and they’re not afraid of politics. They actually like to discuss what’s going on in the world. They have an understanding of the differences between classes. They don’t try to say we’re all middle class.

Filmmaker: Do you start the film in Centralia for a reason? There was an old strike in Centralia, and I wondered if your intent was to bring some of this repressed labor history back...

Moore: I didn’t know about that strike. But I think what I’m trying to do is encourage people to think about the power that they have. Everyone needs to realize that there’s more of us than there are of them. So the point of this kind of filmmaking is what I call the Toto Effect: There’s the big bad Wizard of Oz that everyone’s frightened of, but when Toto pulls back the curtain, he reveals the tiny little man operating the controls. And the little man is shouting "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" So the point of this filmmaking is that we want people to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. We live in a democracy and change can occur should we choose to exercise this option.

Filmmaker: But are you talking about options other than voting in candidates?

Moore: Absolutely. I’m talking about the resurgence in the union movement. I’m talking about educating consumers and consumer boycotts. Whatever methods are necessary to effect change in a nonviolent way.

Filmmaker: With Phil Knight, the head of Nike, it’s very apparent that you’ve pulled back the curtain. In some ways I was embarrassed for you.

Moore: Because?

Filmmaker: You are asking, pleading with the corporate head to open a factory, and he’s just standing there. He can’t respond to your charges initially, and then he can’t respond later when you show him the videotape from Flint of the workers saying they will happily make shoes for Nike.

Moore: I went to Flint because I was insulted by his saying that Americans don’t want to make shoes, and I wanted to prove him wrong. So I gathered 500 people who said they would make shoes. When I went back, I honestly thought he would never allow me back in there, on camera, to show him the footage unless he was going to use the moment to make Nike look good. So I went out there with a sense of hope, and I was honestly surprised when he said that Flint was nowhere on his radar screen for a factory.

Filmmaker: And then at the end of the film...

Moore: When I ask if it bothers him that he has 12-year-olds working in his factory, and he says that they’re not 12, they’re 14...

Filmmaker: Or asking him to make a statement that American industry does have some kind of heart...

Moore: I was giving him one last chance to have the final word. And he sat there stone-faced, staring at me.

Filmmaker: Has he seen any of this?

Moore: They obtained a bootleg of the film.

Filmmaker: Have you heard from him?

Moore: Oh, yes. I have. Their director of public relations called me a few months ago and asked me if I would meet with him. So we had breakfast in New York. I sat down at the table, and he said, "What would it take to have a couple of scenes removed from the film?" I said, "What?" And he said, "Phil’s really upset about a couple of things that he said, and he’d like to have them removed." I said, "There’s nothing you can do. I’m not taking anything out of the film." I said, "I will add a scene at the end of the film. I’ll add a scene of you breaking ground for that factory. You’ve got a few months. Miramax isn’t releasing this until April."

Filmmaker: It seemed to me absolutely remarkable that none of those people — from the Pay Day candy bar factory to the CEO of Pillsbury — had a way to respond to you.

Moore: And especially Nike, considering they’re probably the most savvy marketing company in the world — they have virtually replaced the Coca Cola symbol worldwide as the most recognizable logo. That they’ve been that brilliant in dominating the market, but that they haven’t figured out how to manipulate this is amazing. And the odd thing is, they initiated it. I didn’t go looking for him. He called me.

Filmmaker: Who is your audience? When you’re thinking about showing your films, who are you thinking about?

Moore: Warner Bros. put Roger & Me in 1,300 theaters, and virtually no arthouses. It played all across the country in shopping malls, which is actually what I intended for it to do. And Miramax has the same idea for The Big One. It will roll out into theaters that don’t normally run documentaries. But to answer your question, there are two audiences for the film: one audience is the people from where I came from. Basically I want to give people 90 minutes of cathartic experience where they can feel like there’s a film that’s on our side, a film that’s an answer to the "economic miracle" we keep hearing about, and the film can act as a voice for them. And the humor in the film is part of that catharsis. And the second audience is that audience that comes from money or is relatively comfortable. For people who have money and a good heart, I want to encourage them to do the right thing and think about these issues so we don’t leave behind a large segment of our population as we dance through this party Wall Street is throwing. For the other half with money, the half that doesn’t have a heart, I want the film to be a warning to them. Those kids dancing outside Borders in the film — they’re not going to be very happy that they didn’t get their shot at having the so-called American dream. And they’re going to do something about it. And these people are already scared. I walk into a lobby of a corporation’s headquarters and all hell breaks loose. And I’m just a guy, a non-violent guy. I’m no threat.


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