If you’ve heard anything at all about documentary filmmaking in the past two decades or so, you are almost certainly familiar with the name Michael Moore. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, Moore burst onto the nonfiction film scene in 1989 with Roger & Me, depicting the devastating effects of widespread layoffs in his hometown by General Motors, one of the area’s biggest employers. The influential film immediately sparked fierce controversy but nonetheless performed incredibly well at the box office, setting the tone for Moore’s career.
His relationship with the rest of the documentary filmmaking world and even the term documentary itself have been ambivalent from pretty much the word “go,” but his tremendous impact on the world of nonfiction filmmaking is undeniable, as is the political impact of his filmography, which includes such titles as Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and the satirical newsmagazine show TV Nation. In addition to having created what remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time (Fahrenheit 9/11), Moore has won an Academy Award (Bowling for Columbine), an Emmy (TV Nation), and the Palme d’Or (Fahrenheit 9/11).
Moore has now been on the scene for nearly three decades, and he’s learned quite a few lessons along the way. This week, ahead of the release of his latest feature, Fahrenheit 11/9, he sent us his list of 13 filmmaking tips, which he has shared in some form with the world before. We go into depth with about half of them.
“Don’t Make A Documentary. Make A Movie.”
One of the controversies surrounding Moore and his films has to do with their classification. Outspoken in his opinions and open in his political aims, Moore has always disregarded the traditional (and honestly, quite naive) ideal of the documentary as a vehicle of objective, utterly unbiased truth. As such, the classification of his films as documentaries has become the subject of recurring debate, and as mentioned earlier, his feelings on the matter are also mixed. When asked, he’s referred to his films as everything from “docucomedies” to “a documentary told with a narrative style” to “an op-ed piece.” As he elaborated in his 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Doc Conference Keynote:
“You’ve chosen this art form — the cinema, this incredible, wonderful art form, to tell your story. You didn’t have to do that. If you want to make a political speech, you can join a party, you can hold a rally. If you want to give a sermon, you can go to the seminary, you can be a preacher. If you want to give a lecture, you can be a teacher. But you’ve not chosen any of those professions. You have chosen to be filmmakers and to use the form of Cinema. So make a MOVIE. […] The audience, the people who’ve worked hard all week — it’s Friday night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think — but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.”
“Don’t Give A College Lecture”
While his critics on the political right have long accused Moore of being a mouthpiece for the Democratic party, Moore has never been shy about critiquing them, too — and one of his most commonly recurring complaints has to do with the political left’s tendency to over-theorize and get bogged down by theoretical concerns to the point where they never actually get around to taking action. For example, when responding to criticisms that he oversimplifies the issues at the heart of his films in a 1998 New Labor Forum interview, Moore had the following to say:
“The people who complain that I’m being too simplistic have usually spent too many years in school. They didn’t complete their degree in the allocated time and they have been thinking about things a little too much. They forget that some things are quite simple. Let me spell it out. Murder: bad. Feeding children: good. Some of the left intelligentsia want to complicate matters because in part they love to hear themselves talk and in part they love the mental masturbation that goes on regarding theory. […] I want to see change in my lifetime. I don’t have time to sit around and chin flap.”
“Go After The REAL Villians and Name Names”
Moore has never shied down from naming names, stirring controversy, or demanding answers, with the ambush-style interview being one of his signature techniques. In one of the most (in)famous Oscar acceptance speeches of all time, Moore picked up his trophy for Bowling for Columbine and gave a speech in which he publicly called out the president, criticizing, “Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you,” and proceeding to get booed off the stage. If you’ve never seen the speech, you can check it out below:
Note that while he might have gotten more or less heckled off the stage there, his speech is basically the thesis for his next film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which as mentioned before remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time. So there’s a lesson right there.
“Make Your Films Personal”
Starting with Roger & Me, Moore’s films have always been personal in at least two different ways: first, in that he takes on issues that matter to him and makes his opinions known, and second, in that he appears on screen in his movies. It’s the former that Moore notes as being of the utmost importance, elaborating in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview on his go-to piece of advice for film students:
“Make the film you want to make and then trust that out of a nation of 320 million, 319 million may hate what you have done. But if a million love it, just one million, and see it at your opening week at the box office, you will make $50 million. So fuck it. Just do what you want to do.”
“Books and TV Have Nonfiction Figured Out. Be Entertaining.”
Since his first documentary, Roger & Me, Moore has grasped a key concept: in order for a documentary film to not just be well-made or informative but succeed in a commercial sense, average moviegoers actually have to want to watch it. In other words, to draw a crowd, you have to be a crowdpleaser. In that first film, he felt he was doing something new not because other documentarians had not captured portraits of dying industrial towns across America, but because earlier attempts had been too depressing to stir people to action — or even entice all that much of an audience to begin with.
Armed with a particular knack for sharp-edged humor, Moore spent several years beating his own record for the highest-grossing documentary of all time, with 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 still holding the title, with over $119 million earned at the domestic box office alone. Regarding his trademark mix of anger and humor, Moore sees them as not merely two crucial elements of his success but opposite sides of the same coin, as told to Publishers Weekly back in 2003:
“You can’t have one without the other. The best humor comes out of anger, whether it’s George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Charlie Chaplin—these were very angry people. And from that anger came this incredible humor. If they weren’t upset about the state of the world, you wouldn’t have had the great humor that they gave you.”
“While Filming, Are You Getting Mad At What You See?”
While documentaries are typically regarded as a mentally stimulating, “brain food” type endeavor, Moore has always been adamant about the value of emotions in the nonfiction filmmaking process — anger in particular. While he often warns about the “paralyzing” effect of leaving an audience in despair, anger can work as a powerful motivator. Or, as Moore is quoted in a 2004 New Statesman article:
“My mantra in the editing room has been: We’ve got to make a movie where, on the way out of the theatre, people ask the ushers if they have any torches.”
The Whole List:
What We Learned
Whether you define movie-making success in terms of awards won, dollars earned, or political impact made, Moore’s achievements are remarkable. And with that, there’s one final lesson to be learned: when it comes to succeeding as a filmmaker, as long as you retain a critical mass of a fan base, as Moore has, it doesn’t matter how many people join your hate club. Let them hate you all the way to the bank.