Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore
I knew nothing about making a movie, and I wish I could tell you some cool story about how I started shooting films when I was six on my dad's 8mm Bell & Howell, or that I went to NYU film school with Spike Lee, and that Martin Scorsese was my teacher. All I knew, all I did, was go to the movies. And I mean go. In a good week I would try to see at least four or five films at the local multiplex (in other words, everything that opened that weekend). If I was lucky, I'd get to borrow the car and head down to Ann Arbor to one of the half-dozen film societies that showed a classic or foreign movie every night. A really special Friday night would mean a trip to the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts. On the rare occasion, I went on a foreign journey to Chicago because I couldn't wait the month or two for the film to open in Michigan.
And then there was that insane, pure batshit-crazy, spurof-the-moment "Get in the car! I refuse to see Apocalypse Now in Flint because it does not have the new surround sound stereo and the ending that Coppola wanted!" The studio would play that version only in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. And so I drove the three hundred miles to Toronto so I could see the alternate ending.
I looooved the movies.
I always did. Like most kids of my era, my first films were Bambi and Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson and The Alamo. But the first movie I remember having a strong reaction to was PT 109, the story of John F. Kennedy in World War II. It had everything an eight-year-old boy could want: action, suspense — but in this case, the story of a hero who initially screwed up and ran his boat into the path of a Japanese destroyer. Yet he didn't let his mistake defeat him. He saved his crew and found a way to get them all back to safety. He was a rich boy, and probably could have gotten out of being on the front lines, but he wasn't that kind of American. Even at eight, I got that.
I came of age as a teenager when the great films of the late sixties and early seventies blasted their way onto the screen. Out were the stiff, formulaic movies of the aging studio system, overblown fare such as Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Dolittle. In were Easy Rider and The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and The Last Picture Show, Deliverance and Taxi Driver, Nashville, and Harold and Maude.
At seventeen, I saw Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and then I saw everything else by Kubrick, and after that there was no looking back. I was hooked on the potential and the power of cinema. I took two Introduction to Cinema classes as a freshman in college, and the professor, Dr. Gene Parola, had us watch all the greats, starting with M and Metropolis and landing on Blow-Up and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? My friend, Jeff Gibbs, took both classes with me, and we would spend hours afterward dissecting every nuance of these movies. Two years later I opened my own "art house" in Flint where, for just two nights a week, I would show everything by Truffaut, Bergman, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, Herzog, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Buñuel, Fellini, Kubrick, and all the masters of cinema. Each film would get four showings, and I would spend my Friday and Saturday evenings watching all four shows. On the first viewing I would sit close and enjoy the experience. On the following three screenings, I would sit in the back and study them, sometimes taking notes. This became my one-room, one-student film school.
I did not like documentaries, and so I rarely went to see them. Documentaries felt like medicine, like castor oil — something I was supposed to watch because they were good for me. But most were boring and predictable, even when I agreed with the politics. If I wanted to listen to a political speech, why would I go to a movie? I'd attend a rally or a candidates' debate. If I wanted to hear a sermon, I would go to church. When I went to the movies I wanted to be surprised, lifted, crushed; I wanted to laugh my ass off and I wanted a good cry; and when I left the theater afterward, I wanted to glide out onto the street as if I were walking on air. I wanted to feel exhilarated. I wanted all my assumptions challenged. I wanted to go somewhere I had never gone before, and I didn't want the movie to end because I didn't want to go back to where I was. I wanted sex without love and love without sex, and if I got the two together then I wanted to believe I would have that, too, and forever. I wanted to rock and be rocked and five days later I wanted that film ricocheting around in my head so madly that goddammit I had to go see it again, right now, tonight, clear the decks, nothing else matters.
And I felt none of that when I went to see a documentary. Of course, it was rare, rare, rare that a documentary would play in a movie theater in Flint, let alone any other place in the state. But when it did, and when it was constructed as a movie first and as a documentary second, then it would fuck me up in ways that no work of fiction could. I sat in the Flint Cinema on Dort Highway and saw the devastating Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds — and to this day I have seen no finer nonfiction film. Another time I drove to Ann Arbor and saw something I didn't know was possible — a humorous film about a depressing subject, The Atomic Café. In Detroit, at the Art Institute, I saw the cinema verité classics by
D. A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), and Richard Leacock and Robert Drew (Primary), and the radical work of Emile d'Antonio (Point of Order). Later, I would see the films of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) and an outrageously experimental nonfiction film with Barbie dolls by a young Todd Haynes called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. And one day, without the use of any substances, long after I had dropped out of college, while collecting $98 a week on unemployment after being fired during Labor Day week by a rich liberal, and having just spent the scariest weekend of my life in Acapulco — my mind brought all these films and filmmakers together and gave me an idea unlike anything that I had seen before, a film that began to unspool in my head and simply started to project itself onto my imaginary screen in my frontal lobe. I was broke, depressed, shunned, and three thousand miles from home. I was on Mount Parnassus in San Francisco living under a giant microwave telecommunications tower, and I wanted to leave and go back home and make a movie! It was nuts, I knew it, but the bus had already pulled out of the station and there was no turning it around, no going back. I did not have a day of film school in me, let alone much of any college schooling at all. I didn't care. I had my idea. And I had a new friend. His name was Kevin Rafferty.
Kevin was a documentary filmmaker. He made The Atomic Café, a smart, funny film, in the early 1980s. He and his brother Pierce, and friend Jayne Loader, put together ninety minutes of scenes and clips from the archives of the U.S. government, defense contractors, and the television networks of the Cold War era. With no narration, they strung the footage together in such a way that made the arms race and fear of the Red Menace look exactly like the madness that it was. Footage showing how you could survive an atomic attack in your basement or at school, by ducking and covering your head under your desk, said more about the stupidity of the two superpowers than any political speech or op-ed. The effect was both hilarious and debilitating — and when you came out of the theater you were certain of two things: (1) never, ever believe at face value anything a government or corporation tells you; and (2) these Rafferty brothers are not only great filmmakers, they proved to me that a documentary could be both funny and profound.
Ronald Reagan had been president for just a year when The Atomic Café came out. The American and Russian people were tired of spending billions on the Cold War, and this movie hit that raw nerve. It became a big hit on college campuses and among those who loved good movies. When the political history of an era is written, the honest recorders of that history will write about the impact that the culture had on the political changes that took place and how it shaped the times. (You can't tell the story of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras without mentioning the impact of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Harry Belafonte.) I would like to now say, for the record, that for every "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" there was also a "Born in the U.S.A." and an Atomic Café. Art has a searing impact in a thousand simple, unnoticed ways. This work by Kevin and his brother and friends had that kind of impact on me.
Flint was the Forgotten City in the 1980s. Once a vibrant, thriving metropolitan area that was the birthplace of the world's largest, richest company — General Motors — it was now an evil science experiment for the rich. Question: Can we increase our profits by eliminating the jobs of the people who not only build our cars but also buy them? The answer was yes — if you kept the rest of the country working so they could buy your cars. What the mad scientists didn't count on was that those car workers would not only stop buying the cars once they were jobless, they would also stop buying televisions, dishwashers, clock radios, and shoes. This in turn would cause the businesses which made those items to either go under or make their products elsewhere. Eventually, those who had the remaining jobs would have to try to buy the cheapest stuff possible with their drastically reduced wages, and in order for manufacturers to keep that stuff cheap, it would have to be made by fifteen-year-olds in China.
Few foresaw how the taking of just one itsy-bitsy little thread and pulling it out of the middle-class fabric would soon unravel the entire tapestry, leaving everyone struggling in a dog-eat-dog existence, a weekly battle to keep one's head simply above water. On one level, it was pure political genius, because the electorate, so consumed with its own personal survival, would never be able to find the time or energy to politically organize the workplace, the neighborhood, or the town to revolt against the mad scientists and politicians who had engineered their demise.
In the 1980s, though, it was just that first tiny thread that was being removed — but it was coming out of the place where I lived: Flint, Michigan. The official unemployment rate hit 29 percent. This should have been the canary in the American coal mine. Instead, few noticed. Sure, there were those who cared about our plight and sought to tell its story. There was a solid BBC story about Flint being the jobless capital of America, and then there was the...ah...the...um... Well, OK, that was about it. The BBC. From five thousand miles away. Not many others came to Flint to tell our story. They were too busy talking about the Reagan Revolution and how great it was that some people were prospering with the trickle-down economy. And they were right. Those who did well in the '80s did very well, and, frankly, there weren't that many places that looked like Flint, Michigan. Other than the steel towns of the Ohio Valley that had their comeuppance a few years earlier, and the textile mills in the northeast a few years before that, the country was still doing pretty well, a middle class still existed, and nobody paid much attention to the grimy, gritty towns that built their cars. The Brits from the BBC knew what a town on its knees looked like, and their DNA allowed them to not mince many words as to the cause of what was going on when they did their piece on Flint. But who saw that? Oh well, tallyho! Out of sight, out of mind. If you lived in Tampa, in Denver, in Houston, in Seattle, in Vegas, in Charlotte, in Orange County, in New York, Flint's fate would never be yours! You were doing great and you would continue to do great. Yes, of course, poor Flint. Poor, poor Flint. Pity. Pity. Tsk-tsk.
One day in 1984, I was sitting at my desk at the Flint Voice and there was a knock on the door. Two men who did not look like they were from these parts were standing on the porch, peering through my screen door to see if anyone was home.
"Hi there," I said. "Can I help you?"
"Sure," said the taller one with the accent. "Is this the Flint Voice?"
"Sure is," I said. "C'mon in."
The two of them walked in.
"My name is Ron Shelton," the American one said. "I'm a screenwriter. I wrote Under Fire. It came out last year."
We shook hands. "Um, yes, I, I loved the movie," I said, a bit startled and thinking, Is this guy lost?
"And I'm Roger Donaldson," the Aussie said.
I knew him, too. "Uh, you didn't make Smash Palace?"I asked.
"That didn't play here, did it?" he asked, perplexed that there would be someone in Flint who had seen his indie film from New Zealand.
"No, I drive to Ann Arbor a lot," I replied.
I was trying to collect myself. What were these guys* doing in my office? In Flint, Michigan? Not exactly Hollywood. I was in a bit of shock, but trying to stay cool.
"Well, you're probably wondering what we are doing at the Flint Voice," Donaldson said.
"Not really," I responded with a straight face. "Writers and directors pass through here all the time. Last week Costa-Gavras stopped by with Klaus Kinski." He laughed. I offered them each a chair and they took a seat.
"I'm writing a screenplay," Shelton said, "a sort of a modern-day version of The Grapes of Wrath. We've heard about the hard times Flint has been having, about the many people who've lost their jobs and have had to pack up everything and leave the state. So, the story follows a family who loses everything here in Flint and throws together what's left into the truck and heads to Texas in search of work."
"And when they get to Texas," Donaldson added, "they are treated the way the Joads were treated when they got to California."
I sat and looked at them and, goddammit, if I just didn't want to get up and hug them right there. Somebody — from Hollywood, no less — wanted to tell our story! I thought we'd been ignored, forgotten. Not so.
"So the reason we stopped by to see you is that we're collecting information and stories and research, and someone mentioned you would be a good person to talk to. And that your paper was really the only paper in town covering this story from the side of the workers."
"Well, I don't know what to say," I remarked, trying to find the right words and be cool at the same time. "First off, thank you. I can't believe you are actually here and give a shit. That means a helluva lot."
"We do give a shit," Donaldson said. "We think there really is this shift taking place in America, where those with the money want to turn the clock back to a time when everybody else has to scrape and scrap and beg for the crumbs. And we think that this will make for a powerful movie."
They talked to me for an hour, asking me to tell them some stories about life in Flint and what would I do if I were them to keep the story "authentic." I spoke a mile a minute, sharing everything I could think of and giving them my advice as to what I thought would make for a good movie. They took notes and seemed very pleased.
"We'd like to get a bunch of back copies of your paper and take them with us," Shelton said as we were wrapping up. "And we'd also like to subscribe to it. Can I pay for a subscription?" (I made sure to frame this subscription slip and hang it on my wall.)
"We'll be in touch if there's anything else we need," Donaldson said. "We're going to do the drive from Flint to Texas, scouting along the way. Thanks for your time. We'll be in touch."
They left as they came in, and I got on the phone and called everyone I knew. "Hollywood was just here!" I shouted into the phone a dozen times that day. I just couldn't believe the randomness of this encounter — and the fact that Flint was going to star in a movie, a real movie!
Around that same time, Nina Rosenblum, the documentary filmmaker from New York City, was making a number of trips to Flint. She, too, decided that Flint was a worthy subject for a film — and in her case, a documentary. I and others spent a lot of time with her, and she seemed ready to put our story down on film. This was exhilarating; we were glad that we were no longer going to be ignored. The movie people had shown up!
For whatever reason, neither film got made and, as fate would have it, I would soon leave Flint myself. Within a month of having made my move to California for the dream job of a lifetime, I was sitting in San Francisco both without a dream or a job and collecting unemployment. Dejected, I returned home to Flint to think about what course my life should take. Should I try to restart the Flint Voice? Should I run for office, like maybe mayor of Flint? Maybe I could get a job . . . well, there was nowhere to get a job.
When I wanted to be alone in those jobless days in late 1986, I would head to downtown Flint, which was like a ghost town within a ghost town. I would take a newspaper or a book or my legal pad into Windmill Place, a failed urban renewal project designed by the people who built the South Street Seaport in New York City. They promised to do for Flint what they had done for the Lower East Side of New York. But, alas, the Flint River was not the East River, and a few other things were missing, too. Nonetheless, a half-dozen restaurants struggled to stay open inside the food court that was empty for most of the day. My next-door neighbor from childhood worked behind the counter of the bakery in Windmill Place. I would go in there and she would warm up a chocolate croissant for me. The Chinese take-out place a few counters down made a mean moo goo gai pan, and that was what I was enjoying a few minutes before noon on Thursday, November 6, 1986, when, on the overhead TV screen in this desolate food court, the regularly scheduled program was interrupted by a live feed from the world headquarters of the General Motors Corporation in Detroit. Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors, was standing before a podium, and he had an important announcement to make:
"Today, we are announcing the closing of eleven of our older plants. We will eliminate nearly thirty thousand jobs, with the largest cuts happening at our Flint facilities, where nearly ten thousand of these thirty thousand jobs will be eliminated."
I looked at this man on the TV screen, and I thought, You motherfucking cocksucking son of a bitch. You're a fucking terrorist. You're going to kill another ten thousand jobs here after you've already killed twenty thousand others in Flint? Really? REALLY?
I had forgotten about my moo goo gai pan. I calmed down and thought: I need to do something. Now. What could I do? I had an unemployment check in my pocket. I had a high school degree. I had about a quarter tank of gas in the car.
And then the idea came to me.
I walked over to the one working pay phone and called my friend Ben Hamper. Ben was the autoworker/writer I had put on the cover of Mother Jones before they fired me.
"Did you just see Roger Smith on TV?" I asked.
"Yeah. More of the same," Ben replied.
"I can't take this anymore. I have to do something. I'm going to make a movie."
"A movie?" Ben asked, a bit surprised. "You mean like a home video or something like we did for your going-away party?"
"No. A real movie. A documentary. About how they've fucking destroyed Flint."
"Why not just write a story about it somewhere, like in a magazine or something? I dunno."
"I'm done with magazines and newspapers. I need a break. They don't want me anyway. A movie seems better."
"But how you gonna make a movie when you don't know how to make a movie?"
"I've seen a lot of movies."
"Yes, you've seen a lot of movies."
"I've seen everything."
"No one will dispute that. I don't know anyone who goes to as many movies as you. What'd you see last night?"
"Jumpin' Jack Flash. No, wait — that was the night before. It was Soul Man."
"Jesus, why do you waste your time on such crap?"
"You're missing the point. I think I've seen enough movies to figure out how to make one. And I can make this movie. And I know someone who can help me."
My next call was to Kevin Rafferty.
"I'd like to come to New York and talk to you about something."
"Can't you just tell me over the phone?"
"No, I want to do it in person. You around this week?"
"OK. I can be in the city by tomorrow night."
I borrowed my parents' car and drove the twelve hours to New York. I met Kevin in a bar in Greenwich Village.
"I want to make a movie," I said to him straight up. "I want to make a documentary on Flint and GM. But I don't know the first thing about how to do that. And I was wondering if you could help me."
Asking Kevin Rafferty for help was a crazy move; yes, he was an award-winning documentary filmmaker, but he was clearly broke. It was like me asking a homeless guy to dig a quarter out of his pocket cause I wanted a latte. I had no idea what Kevin's situation was financially, but suffice it to say that I looked like I was dressed by Saks Fifth Avenue compared to Kevin. With him it was always the same torn black T-shirt, the same plaid shirt over it, the same worn-out loafers. Making documentaries made no one any money, even if you made great ones like Kevin. His mop of red hair looked like he cut it himself. Understandable, considering his chosen low-paying profession. He was tall and lanky, the latter a condition I assumed to be the result of not having the money to eat three solids a day. I was glad to be taking him out for a meal, even if it was in a bar I couldn't afford. His one luxury seemed to be the constant stream of cigarettes he was smoking, the brand of which was unfamiliar to me.
"Well, that sounds like a great idea," he responded, making that the first time anyone had said they liked my outrageous plan. "What would you need me to do?"
"Well, for starters," I said timidly, "you could show me how the 16mm camera works."
"I could come to Flint and shoot some of it for you," Kevin said out of nowhere. I wanted him to repeat that, but I was afraid if he did, it might turn out that he had actually said, I'll have another Heineken, please, from the tap.
"Really?" I asked, fingers crossed.
"Sure. I could bring my equipment, and maybe some of my crew would come. I think even Anne Bohlen [his codirector on their American Nazi film, Blood in the Face] might come."
This was way beyond what I was expecting, and, if truth be told, I was really thinking a "good luck" and "see you next time" would be all I'd get.
"Wow," I said, my face feeling flush, "that would be so incredible. I mean, I wasn't expecting that, but . . ."
"No, it would be fun. And I can show you what you need to know. I could give you a week of my time."
A whole week? In Flint?
"Kevin, I'd be happy with whatever you could do. Do you think you can teach me this stuff in a week?"
"It doesn't take long to know how the equipment works. The most important part about making a movie is what's in your head, your ideas, and then the beats and rhythms it moves to. Knowing how to say more with less. Having a sharp eye. Listening for the stuff happening between the lines. Having some balls. I watched you when we came to Michigan. You'll do fine."
At some point it dawned on me that I would have to pay him for his time, plus his crew and equipment. I was on the public dole, so I was hoping for a little mercy.
"Of course, you know, I'll pay you for this," I said. "Maybe we can work out something?"
"Not necessary," he replied. "You did us a big favor with our film and we didn't pay you. So we'll return the favor. You don't have to pay us anything."
The table did not break when my jaw hit it.
"Um, wow — I don't know what to say. Thank you. Thank you so much. I've had nothing but one door after another shut in my face for the past two months. This is really beyond necessary. I can't thank you enough."
I wanted to break down right there, but I was in New York sitting at a table in the Village with a top filmmaker, and I wanted to act as cool as possible. So I smiled. A big smile.
Kevin took me over to his edit room which was in (and I will be polite here) some back-alley location you have to walk on 4 x 12s to get there. It was in a basement on MacDougal Street. The place looked like the kind of room where a cheap Chinese restaurant might store its garbage, or maybe a dead body. No, strike that — no one would do this to the deceased, not here, no matter how rotten they were or who they owed money to.
He saw the look on my face and said that the owner of the building did some deal with him that didn't cost him that much to put his Steenbeck editing machine down in the basement. In addition to the Steenbeck, there was what he called a "rewind table," a few "trim bins," and stacks and stacks of developed film. He turned the machine on and showed me some of the scenes from the Nazi film he was working on. It was cool to see the things he had shot in Michigan, and even weirder to hear my voice and see my mug on this little screen. Other than my parents' home movies, this was the first time I'd ever seen myself in a film. I hated it and I loved it.
"You made a lot of this possible," Kevin said. "All your best stuff will be in here."
I went back to Flint and started to think about what I would shoot. I had to get back to San Francisco where my wife was packing us up to move to Washington, D.C., where we both had found jobs. We arrived in D.C. in January 1987, and while I was happy to have the work and the income, my thoughts were on the movie I wanted to make.
I got word that the UAW in Flint was going to hold a rally on February 11 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike. I thought this might be a good place to start shooting. I called Kevin to see what he thought about that.
"Good plan," he said. "I'll get everybody together, we'll bring all the equipment with us, and I'll go buy the film and put it on my credit card. You can pay me back when we get there."
I wanted to say, You have a credit card?! but I didn't want to offend him. I was just glad that he had one.
"Thanks," I said.
"It's about $200 for a ten-minute roll of Kodak. I'll bring about sixty rolls. That'll be about $12,000. Can you handle that?"
"Um, yeah," I said, lying.
"Good. You don't have to develop the film right away, but it's best if you do. That'll cost you about $12,000 more to do the developing and sound transfers."
I had some money saved from my four-month job in San Francisco, but that would not be enough. I would have to sell the building that was the office for the Flint Voice. It was a four-bedroom house with a yard in a nice part of town.
The depressed economy in Flint would get me a whopping $27,000 for it. I was all set.
Kevin, Anne, and the others arrived from New York the day before the first shoot was to begin. A friend offered his home as a place for them to stay. We met that night in his house and invited a few Flint people over to discuss ideas for the movie. Everybody had a good idea about what this movie should be. I was getting a little overwhelmed and Kevin motioned me to step outside so he could have a smoke — and a talk.
"Movies are definitely a collaborative process," he said to me outside in the cold. "But they are not a democracy. This is your movie. You don't hold meetings and have discussions. We shoot your ideas. We just need to get out there tomorrow and start shooting."
Kevin's philosophy was to just film whatever happens, cinema verité style.
"I do have an outline of the things I'd like to get," I said, pulling the list out of my pocket.
"I don't use shot lists," he said. "I just shoot. But this is your movie, so we'll do it your way." He did not like my idea of having a little bit of a plan, but he was willing to go along. "Let's just call this meeting to an end and get some sleep and get to work in the morning," he said as his cigarette concluded.
"Roger," I said — which reminded me of the title that I had come up with for the film. I decided to wait for another time to tell him. I figured he wouldn't think much of titling something before you knew what you had.
But I knew what I had. I'd been living it for thirty years, all the while taking notes in my head. I'd been writing about Flint and GM for over a decade. I was already operating at 24 frames per second, even though I had not yet encountered a woman who raised bunnies to sell for "pets or meat," or a deputy sheriff who evicted people from their homes on Christmas Eve, or a future Miss America parading down Flint's main street on top of a convertible and waving at the boarded-up stores, or the elite of Flint dressing up at a party like the Great Gatsby and missing the irony, or one tourism scheme after another to convince people to spend their vacations in Flint. And I was yet to meet a man named Roger Smith.
None of that was known to me as the very first roll of film made its way through the sprockets of Kevin's Aaton 16mm camera on that cold February day in 1987. We filmed the Sit-Down Strike remembrance, and we shot thirty other scenes in the next seven days. The plasma center where the unemployed sold their blood, the free cheese line, the GM flak who said GM was only in the business to make money and not to help out its hometown. We filmed from sunup to long after dusk.
I watched what Kevin and Anne did as they pointed out things to me about how it's sometimes the little moments that you grab with your camera or microphone that tell the bigger story. They talked about how, with only ten minutes of film in the camera (after which you would have to stop and reload, thus shutting the shoot down for a few minutes), you had to operate as a sort of on-the-set editor and do it all in your head. This discipline would not only save you from wasting film, it would force you to think about what exactly it was, this story you were trying to tell. They did not see the ten-minute restriction as an impediment; they saw it as a creative benefit.
"Imagine if we had an hour's worth of film in the camera and film was as cheap as paper," someone on the crew observed. "We'd just get lazy and shoot everything. Wouldn't have to think about it while shooting. Worry about it later!"
"I want to go down to GM headquarters and see if Roger Smith will speak to us," I told Kevin. "Are you up for that?"
"Are you kidding?" he said with his typical droll, sarcastic voice. "I was wondering when things were going to get interesting."
And so we drove down to Detroit and entered the lobby of General Motors. I went straight to the elevator and hit the button. The doors opened and we went inside. I pushed the button for the fourteenth floor, where Smith's office was. The button wouldn't light up. I kept pushing but nothing happened. The doors wouldn't shut. And that was when a security guard asked us to step outside. He was a polite, older man and he told us to hang on while he called someone. He came back and said that we needed an appointment, and to come back when we had one.
For the next two-plus years I tried to get that appointment. And when I couldn't, I made numerous trips to Detroit to just show up and see what would happen. The search for Roger, to get him to come to Flint so I could show him the damage his decisions had caused, became the thread of the movie. But the real mission of the film had nothing to do with Smith or GM or even Flint. I wanted to make an angry comedy about an economic system that I believed to be unfair and unjust. And not democratic. I hoped that would come through.
Our week with Kevin was up. I thanked him profusely for all that he and Anne and the others did to give me my start.
He said he would help in any way he could, just give him a call. I showed him an application I had received to apply for a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. I asked him if he could help me fill it out, as I assumed this was something he had to do all the time.
"What do I put in this box here," I asked him, pointing to the line that asked for my "occupation."
"Filmmaker," he said without missing a beat.
"I'm not a filmmaker," I responded. "I haven't made a film."
"I'm sorry," he replied curtly. "You write down that you're a filmmaker. You were a filmmaker the second that film started rolling through this camera."
And so I wrote "filmmaker." And for the next two and a half years, I made a film. There would be over a dozen more shoots. Kevin connected me to friends of his in the documentary community, most importantly to a couple from San Francisco, Chris Beaver and Judy Irving. They, too, came to Flint and shot for me for a week. The rest of the time it was just me, my wife, and a few friends (plus a cameraman or two from Detroit) bumbling around with the equipment, trying my best to make a movie. There were never more than four of us in the car as we drove from shoot to shoot. Left on our own, we would constantly screw up the camera and the sound recorder — so many times in fact that by the end of shooting in 1989, only about 10 percent of the footage we shot was usable.
I was having a hard time staying above water financially and so the film lab, DuArt in New York, said I could defer payment until I was done. It was run by an old lefty, and he liked seeing the footage as I shipped it in. I heard about an event in New York where distributors and funders came together to look at films in progress. If you paid them a fee, you could show them fifteen minutes of what you had. But none of my footage had been edited together because, well, I didn't know how to edit. Again, Kevin to the rescue.
"I'll put a reel together for you," he said. "When can you come to New York?"
"Whenever you say," I said.
Three weeks later I revisited his editing "suite" in the Village. I sat down and watched the fifteen minutes of my movie he had put together. I was blown away. It looked like a movie! He showed me how the Steenbeck worked. He showed me his editing system and how I could create my own. I spent hours watching him as he worked on his Nazi film, how he made decisions, how he knew just how long to hold a scene and when to get out. He did not believe in narration, or himself being on camera, or using music.
One day in the edit room, I asked him how he learned how to do all this.
"Well, I got a film degree."
"From what film school?"
"I didn't really go to film school," he said.
"So where did you go?"
He paused. "Harvard."
"The Harvard?" I asked, dumbfounded.
"Yes, that Harvard," he answered, not wanting to.
"Shit. I mean, wow. Cool."
How on earth did this guy get into Harvard? I didn't want to pry, especially into matters like how the hell could he afford it. After all, Harvard has scholarships, too. Not everyone who goes there is rich. Don't be a bigot! One thing was clear: the dude was smart, very smart, and so that was clearly his ticket.
I set up an edit room in Washington, D.C., and hired a close friend from Flint and a local woman from suburban Maryland to be my editors, even though neither of them had ever edited a movie. So the three of us taught ourselves, with Kevin's guidance, how to edit a movie. Our edit room was a cut above the ambience of Kevin's, yet we did have our own cockroach-and-rodent problem. We had a room on the ninth floor of a dilapidated building on the corner of Pennsylvania and Twenty-first Street, about four blocks from the White House. There was a Roy Rogers burger joint next door to us, and the exhaust from that spewed into our edit room on a daily basis (that alone should have made the three of us vegans on the spot, had such a thing existed in those days).
Bit by bit, we figured out how to put the movie together. My two friends became amazing editors. The film was funny and it was sad. We stopped making a "documentary" and decided to make a film we'd take a date to on a Friday night. It would have a point of view, but not the point of view of the rigid, unfunny Left. I felt no need to fake the sort of "objectivity" that other journalists deceitfully hid behind. And I could sit there in our cramped edit room and see an imaginary audience in a big dark theater howling, cheering, hissing, and leaving the movie house ready to rumble.
We were working 'round the clock in the edit room, trying to finish the film before the bill collectors shut me down. And then, on a cold morning in January 1989, a new president was to be inaugurated at noon that day. His name was George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan's vice president.
I couldn't think of a better way to spend the day, so I bundled up and headed over to the National Mall, where anyone from the public could watch the swearing-in of President Bush and Vice President J. Danforth Quayle. It was not very crowded, and I found a way to get closer to the Capitol steps than I thought would be possible. Looking up at the stage, at all the muckety-mucks sitting behind the new president, it was there that I saw Kevin Rafferty.
"Jesus," I thought, somewhat in shock. "I think that's Kevin up there!"
It did, in fact, look like him — but this guy was dressed up in a suit and tie and a fancy winter overcoat. There was no way this was him. Or if it was him, well, he's got a good gig for the day, filming an inauguration! But I didn't see any equipment.
A few days after the inauguration of the elder Bush as president of the United States, I tracked down Kevin at home. I had to know if that was him.
"Kevin," I said into the phone, "I was at Bush's inauguration the other day and I could have sworn I saw you up by the podium. Was that you?"
"You were there?" I pressed.
More silence, then a drag off his cigarette, then the exhaling of the smoke. "Yes, I was there."
"On the stage?"
Another drag. "Yes."
"Jeez! How cool! What the hell were you doing up there? How'd ya get in?"
"My uncle is the president of the United States."
"Hahaha. That's a good one. My uncle's Dan Quayle!"
"No. I'm not kidding," he interrupted. "My uncle is George Bush, the president. My mom and Barbara Bush are sisters. His four sons and his daughter are my first cousins. I'm a member of the family. That's why I was there."
I've had many things told to me over the years: personal things, shocking things, the kinds of things everyone gets to hear at some point or another from someone — "I'm gay." "I'm leaving you." "Only Austrians may depart this plane." — but nothing in life had prepared me for this piece of news. What Kevin was saying to me was that he had been working with me for nearly three years, first with me helping him with his movie, then him shooting my movie, then editing the first part of my movie — but, more important, being my mentor, my one and only teacher, a one-poorlydressed-man film school — and now he was telling me that his uncle was the President of the United Friggin' States of America??????????????????????????????????????????
My head was spinning.
"Look," he said, "I know you're probably pissed at me for not telling you. But try to look at it from my vantage point. Whenever someone finds out who I am, they immediately start acting different, treating me different, judging me, wanting something from me — you name it, it's a drag to have this around my neck. And frankly, I thought you knew. I thought I told you — or tried to tell you. But you wouldn't believe it. I thought Anne might have told you or someone had or you figured it out — but when it became clear to me that you didn't know, well, I liked it that way. Because right now, now that you know, you're sitting there thinking, He's one of those fucking Bushes!"
I jumped in. "No, no, none of that! I don't make those judgments. But Kevin — shit, man! You could have told me."
"Yeah, well, I thought I did."
"I mean, so during this whole time, your uncle was the vice president and now he's the president? What were you thinking whenever I said something negative about him or Reagan?"
"Nothing. I agreed with you. I don't share his politics. And to be honest, the family stuff is complicated. Personal. And I don't want to talk about it."**
"Sure, I get it. This is still fucking me up a bit. I'm just being honest. A member of the Bush family has been a significant part of not only making this movie but also teaching me how to be a filmmaker. Whew. Fuck. I mean, really, fuck!"
"Well, there you have it. Do with it as you will."
"This changes nothing, Kevin. Don't worry. And I'm glad you finally told me."
Seven months later I finished the film. I had shown a cut of it to three film festival selection committees — Telluride, Toronto, and New York. They all liked it and accepted it to be shown at each of their festivals in September 1989. I had also shown an early rough cut of the movie to my two sisters. They sat with me in our parents' home and watched it. They said nice things to me and encouraged me to keep working on it. What they didn't tell me (until years later) was that they were mortified about how poorly put together they thought the film was. They spoke quietly to one another — "What should we say to him? How can we let him down easy?" —but they couldn't find a way. They didn't want to burst my bubble as I seemed so excited about what the final film would look like. So they said nothing. But they did make a pact with each other to be there at the first film festival screening so that I wouldn't be alone in my moment of public humiliation.
The first festival turned out to be in Telluride, Colorado, over Labor Day weekend. The festival paid my way (as I was truly broke by then). Some of my crew got out there and back on the money they'd raise by hawking handmade silk-screened T-shirts and buttons of the movie's logo on the streets of Telluride.
The week before the festival I went into a panic that I had picked the wrong title for the film. I called up the festival organizer, Bill Pence, and told him that I was changing the name of the film to Bad Day in Buick City.
"No, you are not," he said quite forcefully into the phone. "The name of this film is the one you gave it — Roger & Me — and that's the perfect name. You're not changing it.
Besides, we already sent the program guide to the printer." I was bummed out but afraid to say anything else. I hung up the phone.
When I arrived in Telluride and was handed the program guide, I noticed something awful: the festival had decided to schedule my opening at the same time as their big opening night gala film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover by the British director Peter Greenaway. The opening gala film would be held in the town's historic Opera House. My film would have its "world premiere" in Masons Hall down at the other end of town. Masons Hall! Was I supposed to feel good about this? Like, be thankful it's not the Kiwanis? Or, God forbid, the Elks Lodge? I tried to see all the positives in that. Well, I mean, after all, who was I? No one here knew me, I had never made a movie, and, let's be honest: it was a documentary! So I guess I understood why its opening was being buried. Oh well.
Before the Telluride Opening Night Gala, the town blocks off the main street and throws an opening night party for all the filmmakers and passholders to the festival. My sisters and their husbands and kids had driven all the way from San Diego — they were following through on their promise to each other to be there in Telluride to catch me when I fell. My crew and I showed up to the party early and availed ourselves of the free food (while selling more buttons and T-shirts). It was then that I spotted the film critic, Roger Ebert, who, along with his TV co-host Gene Siskel, were the most well-known film critics in the country. I decided to approach him and invite him to my movie.
"Hi," I said. "My name is Michael Moore. I'm from Flint, Michigan, and I have a film here in the festival. It's called Roger & Me. And I'd really love for you to see it!"
"I am going to see it — tomorrow at noon at the Nugget Theater," Ebert responded, as he reached for another hors d'oeuvre. I was impressed that he already knew about me!
"Well, it's going to have its world premiere tonight, in about an hour, at Masons Hall. I'd love for you to be there."
"Thank you, but I have tickets for the opening night gala at the Opera House."
"That's what I figured, but I think you should be at the very first screening of my movie. I think you'll really like it. And you can say you saw it here first!"
"Like I said, I have tickets to the opening. I've already spent something like eight hundred dollars for them."
"But Roger," I pleaded, using his first name as if we knew each other, something that he clearly didn't like. "I just know you will want to be at the premiere of this. You haven't seen anything like it. It's about the Midwest where we're both from. It —"
He cut me off.
"Listen," he said pointedly, "I said I would see it tomorrow and I will, and that is that. And now if you'll excuse me." And with that, he walked away from me, perturbed, annoyed, maybe even pissed: Who was this jerkoff from Flint bugging the shit out of me?
I felt like an idiot. Now, I'd be lucky if he even came tomorrow, let alone end up liking the movie. Why did I have to slide into that stalker voice? Oh, the desperation that was painted like a billboard across my face!
One of my buddies who worked on the film, Rod Birleson, tried to console me. "Don't worry, Mike. He said he'd come tomorrow and he will. He probably appreciated your enthusiasm."
"Yeah," I said. "The enthusiasm of a serial killer."
The street party was drawing to a close, and the well-heeled were heading into the Opera House for the gala. The rest of us wandered down to the end of Main Street, to where the Order of Masons meet, to unspool our masterpiece.
Remarkably, when we got to the "theater," even though we were put up against the opening night film, the place was packed.
About five minutes before showtime, I looked out the window of the hall and saw a lone figure, a stout man, waddling down the street toward Masons Hall. It was none other than Roger Ebert. He walked in the door and saw his stalker standing there.
"Don't say a word," he ordered, putting his hand up and averting his eyes from mine. "I'm here. That's all that needs to be said."
"But —" I said, disobeying him — and being cut off by him in the same instant.
"I'm only here because there was this strange look in your eyes, a look that told me maybe I better be there. So here I am." He went into the theater and took the last available seat, three rows from the back. No pressure now.
I went in and took my seat in the last row. My sisters had positioned themselves on each side of my seat so they could both sit directly next to me, to comfort me in their role as the good sisters that they were (and are), to be there for me in my moment of impending embarrassment and failure. The lights in Masons Hall began to dim, and as the theater went dark, Anne and Veronica each grabbed a hand of mine and held it tightly. All would be well, no matter what.
At that moment, the music began and the title of the film appeared on the screen...
* * * * *
* Ron Shelton would go on to write and direct Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump, and Roger Donaldson would direct the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty ("The Bounty") and the Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out.
** When the movie was released, the White House called the production office and asked if a print of the film could be sent up to Camp David for the weekend, as the president wanted to have a screening for the family of the movie Kev worked on. I tried to get invited to this, but that was not going to happen. I later asked Kevin if he'd heard anything. "I think they admired my camera work," he said in typical fashion. "Otherwise I guess it was pretty silent." I told him that someone from the studio heard that there was one family member who really loved it and was howling hysterically throughout. "Apparently it was one of Bush's sons," he said. And apparently the laughter may have had some pharmaceutical assistance (yes, his name was George, too). I told the studio rep, "It must be sad to be the son of the president and then end up never amounting to much?"
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