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TIFF: Michael Moore Celebrates 25 Years of ‘Roger & Me,’ Wants to Draw Blood in Next Project (Q&A)

Michael Moore discusses how his ‘anti-documentary’ ‘Roger & Me’ has made a prolific impact in its genre, and why with his next film, he’s looking to draw blood.

Roger & Me Photo

Publicity still of ‘Roger & Me.’ (Photo: TIFF)

With a new Blu-ray and a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Michael Moore is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Roger & Me, which cast the then-unknown filmmaker as a regular Joe trying to buttonhole the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, in hopes of saving his Michigan hometown from plant closures and massive layoffs. G.M. hasn’t weathered the subsequent quarter-century well, what with its near-catastrophic failure, government bailout, and recent lawsuits charging it deliberately ignored fatal defects in its automobiles, but Roger & Me has held up well, as has the populist form of documentary it brought to wider audiences than ever before. 

Before its Toronto screening, Moore sat down this week to talk about how documentaries have changed over the last 25 years, why Roger & Me is “the anti-documentary,” and why with his next film, he’s looking to draw blood. Roger & Me had a major effect on the way documentaries were seen, and subsequently made. 

How do you look back on the last 25 years of documentary films? 

It’s one of the things I actually feel good about. All the studios were bidding on Roger & Me, and they were offering millions of dollars, a five-picture deal and so on, and all I kept asking was, ‘How many theaters will you put it in?’ Nobody would answer the question, and then, finally, Warners figured out, ‘That’s what he wants.’ They put it in 800 theaters, which for a documentary in 1989 was unheard-of. They put it in 1300 eventually. So I knew that my movie would be seen by the mass public, not just the art-house crowd — not just people who agreed with me, but, you know, normal people, people who were curious. 

It was the same way that Fahrenheit 9/11 quadrupled that. These were not people who went to see documentaries in a movie theater, ever. But they came to this. I think for these last 25 years, it’s great to see more and more documentaries in theaters. I’m happy if I helped to kick that door open. Somebody showed me last year that before 1989, there were nine documentaries in history that had grossed $1 million or more; after Roger & Me, it was 119. There’s a clear moment there. 

It’s capitalism in action: Once documentaries started making money, studios got interested. 

Yeah, but they didn’t know Roger & Me would make money. They had to trust their gut. I think Warners was kind of cocky then — the first Batman had just made a gazillion dollars, and they were like, ‘What kind of good can we do with this Batman money?’ 

Given that documentaries were not mass-audience propositions in 1989, what made you think making one was the right way to get your message out? 

I didn’t think that at all. I liked the movies, I liked going to the movies, I didn’t know how to make a movie, I didn’t go to school to make movies, but I thought I could make one. And then about halfway through it, I realized, ‘This is not the typical documentary. This is the anti-documentary.’ I didn’t really like documentaries. I thought they were boring, I thought they were like medicine, or I’d be watching a documentary, and I’d think, ‘I already agreed with this — why am I watching it? I’m not learning anything.’ 

So I knew that this was going do be different, and I knew probably it was going to upset some people, particularly the old school of documentary filmmakers, and some critics, who felt that by using humor, I was trivializing the importance of the subject. But I didn’t let that deter me.