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Elston Gunn interviews the producer of MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA! - bet you weren't expecting this, were you'

Hey folks, Harry here... betcha didn't expect to see this given Top Story treatment didja? Well, as with all things - you have to take a look at all sides. Sure, I love Michael Moore's films, but can admit that he takes liberties, same as I can with FOX NEWS and the Bush Administration in general. It's all how you spin it, how you let your message out. My main reason for not intensively covering this film, had more to do with the fact that I was waiting to see what the documentary became. With Producer Curt Johnson, producer of the Academy Award winning Documentary Short THOTH, the project began to go from being something that resembled a low budget publicity grab, and had a chance at being a legitimate documentary. It seems, rather than being the hatchet job that the title might indicate, there's something quite a bit more at work here... Check out the excellent interview that Elston gave... Here ya go...


by Elston Gunn

It's the bottom of the ninth/bases loaded in the 2004 election season. And with one month to go, the polls are telling us it's a close game. Most everyone will agree the "fans" have never been more divided (hey, that could almost be a Yogi Berra-ism). Out in right field you have your Rush Limbaughs, your Sean Hannitys, your Ann Coulters; left field sees your Al Frankens, your Paul Begalas and, of course... your Michael Moores. Trying to pitch down the middle is an indie documentary entitled, believe it or not, MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA. In a nutshell, it's about how director Mike Wilson didn't like some of the things Moore was trying to tell Americans and his journey to get to the bottom of it. Yeah, it's a curveball title, indeed, but don't let that fool you. Sure, Moore is taken to task for things he has said, scenes he has filmed and points he has tried to illustrate. That said, what's really at the heart of this film is the idea there are actually multiple sides to every story and according to documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles: "in oversimplification, you lose the truth."

The film, which has its Hollywood premiere this week, has been previously mentioned on this site (Click Here). At that point, however, the project was far from finished. Producer Curt Johnson (Oscar-winning THOTH) was tapped to come aboard, rewrite and co-produce the project. The result is a film that doesn't really try to shut Moore up so much as to get people to start talking, discussing, debating, forming their own opinions. Johnson agreed to answer a few questions for AICN.

[ELSTON GUNN]: How did you get involved with this project?

[CURT JOHNSON]: A friend in LA mentioned it to me last May, and when he told me the title I thought he'd been smoking crystal or drinking again. Since I had pushed back filming for my other project WEST MEMPHIS THREE so I could coerce Don Murphy to produce it with me, he said that it might be something interesting for me to work on.

I knew a lot of people were going to think I was crazy and had gone Republican for getting involved. But, I thought it could be a great opportunity to work on a project that could get people to really think for themselves and realize that it's not always the best thing to get all your information from just one source.

[EG]: Did you expect it to be pro-Bush before you saw any footage? I think it's quite non-partisan.

[CJ]: All I had seen was the trailer and then 12 minutes of rough rough footage before I came up to Minneapolis and I really didn't know what to expect. That was one of the things I had questioned the director about to make sure that this wasn't going to be a pro-Bush film. I've been lucky to work with some great documentary filmmakers and it's stuck with me to just take an objective viewpoint on your subject and that's what I wanted to do with this one. Luckily all my liberal friends and the liberal media have been very surprised that it is very non-partisan and a very balanced and true documentary. That's been the biggest compliment to know that I did my job in shaping and putting the film together as a whole.

I think my best moment was sending it to Don Murphy, who I always call my Godfather and has taught me so much since I've gotten to know him, so he could see that his time wasn't wasted. (Interestingly enough his nickname for me is Cujo...)

[EG]: In the film Mike Wilson chases down Michael Moore for an interview, not unlike Moore himself in ROGER & ME. In fact, "the hunter becomes the hunted" is even mentioned. Do you wish you would_ve gotten the one-on-one interview with Moore? What would you have asked him?

[CJ]: It definitely would have been interesting if he had agreed to do the interview. I thought he was a great sport in playing along with "The Daily Show" when they covered us in a segment.

I would have rather just had the people from the bank and Sgt. Peter Damon with me so they could ask him why he portrayed them as he did in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FAHRENHEIT 9/11. I do like what Michael Moore does in getting people questioning things, but what bothered me was seeing what he did to Jan Jacobson and Mike from the bank. These were just everyday people who trusted him to treat them fairly and the way they wound up being portrayed just wasn't cool.

[EG]: In the film you have one person saying that Moore exhibits classic signs of being a narcissist, another says his Oscar should be taken away like the Grammys were taken away from Milli Vanilli, another says Moore's achilles heel is that he can't take criticism. Do you think these opinions reflect a large majority of the population? Moore is pretty popular right now but it seems this backlash was inevitable.

[CJ]: Actually, I would hate for this film to create a Michael Moore backlash. I hope people watching this film question us and check into everything we're saying before making up their minds on him.

For me, it's just to point out to people that before taking everything he says as gospel, they might want to look a little closer into what he's saying to see just what is accurate and what isn't before jumping to his conclusions. In all my films, I just want to get the point across that everyone should think for themselves and make their opinions and ideas based on fact and not just something they heard. One example would be when I got countless phone calls from my liberal LA friends asking me to hold this film off until after the elections because they heard it was pro-Bush. When I pointed out that if they were asked to hold off their film projects, they would be screaming First Amendment and after they saw this film, it was clear they had bought into the hearsay. That made me realize why I was pushing so hard for the message of this film.

In the process of making this film, I quickly learned that, no, Michael Moore isn't one to take criticism very well.

[EG]: How odd was it that while Wilson was on the phone to a reporter, Moore beeped in to the reporter to badmouth and try to discredit your project?

[CJ]: That was a really funny moment actually. Chris Ohlsen had just finished interviewing the people from the bank and one of them was in the car when Paul Bond at "The Hollywood Reporter" called to say that Moore said we were defrauding people of money and the film wasn't real, etc. At that point, I had just signed on to produce so that caused a lot of press coverage and Moore was getting inundated with calls about the film, and I think he just was having one of those days and went off.

That's what I love about making documentaries since you never know what will happen next, and it's kind of cool to let the audience watch this unfold, and then later where Michael Moore says he's never heard of the film.

[EG]: There is a scene where college students are in line to see Moore speak and some didn't really seem to care whether or not he might have fabricated movie scenes or stretched some facts. Do you think it's good to have a rabble-rouser who isn't afraid to question authority even if some of his methods are questionable?

[CJ]: I think we will always need people to question authority, but if those people are saying they are the voice of the majority of America, I would want to make sure my voice was being truthful. Moore reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey from THE FOUNTAINHEAD in being able to preach exactly what the masses want to hear, and he's amazing at it. I just don't agree with swaying things and taking things out of context to serve your needs. If you're making a movie, that's fine, but as a documentary filmmaker, I do believe we have a responsibility to be truthful and objective on our subjects. Most people do believe that the word "documentary" means truth and fact, and Sarah Kernochan, who I was lucky enough to work with on THOTH taught me that you don't have to stage events to make a good one.

I noticed a lot of people saying the same thing that they didn't care if Moore was honest or not, his message was what they believed, so it was okay. It wasn't just college kids, it was people from all walks of life and ages saying that.

[EG]: I thought the film would challenge and refute a long laundry list of things Moore says to be fact in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FAHRENHEIT 9/11 but, really, it challenges his ideals and intentions. Was that the plan from the beginning?

[CJ]: Like with most documentaries the story really doesn't gel until you start looking at the raw footage, and, for me, I felt it was necessary to point out and refute some of the misconceptions in Moore's films. But what I also felt strongly about was to also show how easy it is to fall into those trappings. This is shown when the director tells one person he's doing a film about the American Dream and my fellow producer Chris Ohlsen is onscreen stating that he'll walk off the project unless he admits what he's done.

I also thought it was only fair to let some of the people from Moore's film to be able to set the record straight. I also felt it was important that they got to see how we cut their interview footage before this went to final picture lock so they could breathe a little easier and know they were being treated fairly.

[EG]: However, I do think the bank employees' segment was interesting. That alone will probably cause a lot of folks to question Moore's role in capturing the "truth" on camera.

[CJ]: I was really lucky that my friend Dan Lyons from Forbes magazine was helpful in getting me in touch with the Bank people. I had actually not seen BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE before working on this project and after hearing their story and watching the film, I knew I had made the right choice in coming on to produce this project. I was impressed that they didn't spew all this venom about him, but just were very matter of fact.

[EG]: I think the film opens up needed discourse on documentary or journalism ethics. It would not be out of place to see it in a festival alongside THE INSIDER or ABSENCE OF MALICE -- especially with Mike Wilson's ethics called into question at one point in the film. Pretty timely, too, considering "60 Minutes" in the news recently, though, actually, that kind of struggle has been going on for generations. Maybe Moore should be considered a maker of "filmed essays?"

[CJ]: That was very important to show the audience that inside view of how difficult it is to make a fair and balanced documentary. There are so many times when you're watching a 5-hour interview and the people are just rambling and you wish you could have just told them what to say and be done with it.

I think after FAHRENHEIT and Moore putting himself into the Academy category of Best Film, he's being honest in saying that his film is an Op-Ed and not objective. I give him credit for that, and I hope he continues with his films. They are entertaining, and I thought his opening and closing of FAHRENHEIT were brilliant.

[EG]: Albert Maysles was great. I think he should be featured in more films offering nuggets of wisdom.

[CJ]: Talking and screening this film for Albert Maysles was my highlight. That was my total geek moment, calling him up to ask for the interview. He's the reason why I started doing documentaries in the first place, and it was great to tell him that in person. Both he and Penn Jillette are the "Yodas" of the film, and I was lucky enough to spend a long day with him just talking about whatever. The only other documentary guy I'd be interested in meeting is Morgan Spurlock since I really liked SUPER SIZE ME and hope he wins the Oscar this year.

[EG]: Maysles's reaction to the title of the film was definitely one of my favorite moments. I didn't expect the response he gave.

[CJ]: That's such a great moment since the director gets caught once again. Chris Ohlsen is the true moral compass of the film, and when you listen closely, you can tell he's really putting it to the director to be honest with Albert. How could you not since this man is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers?

[EG]: One might expect Penn Jillette to be strictly comic relief but he had a few insightful things to say, bringing up the Dylan lyric "Fearing not that I'd become my enemy in the instant that I preach" and also explaining how it's impossible to be 100% objective in documentaries.

[CJ]: When I first saw his interview, that quote really stuck out to me and is a true defining thing in the film. I liked the juxtaposition of Penn sounding a little cynical about that and Albert Maysles saying that you can be true. I have to side with Albert on that since we were able to pull it off in this film...even with that title.

[EG]: How were you able to get Sgt. Peter Damon's participation? His moment in the film is the most memorable. Here you have a wounded soldier who says he doesn't regret he went into the armed forces, doesn't appreciate being in F 9/11 in the context in which he appeared, but believes in and will defend Moore's right to make his film. This is obviously a person who truly thinks for himself.

[CJ]: As Don Murphy has told many people, I'm a persistent fucker and don't take no for an answer. With Sgt. Peter Damon, a friend of mine at the NY Daily News had told me about him, but didn't know how to reach him since his number was unlisted. So, I had my assistant look up every Damon in his hometown and then just called everyone until I got his brother and then sent a copy of THOTH to them so they could see an example of my work.

After I had screened a rough assemblage of the film, I knew we needed something powerful that dealt with the troops and that did it. I was working to set up an interview with Tommy Franks but after I saw Damon's interview that's all we needed. The guy's incredible. He lost both arms in the war, but he's not about to take charity or have anyone feel sorry for him. I've gotten to know Peter and his wife well, and I wish there were more people with their integrity like that out there.

[EG]: A segment of the film is spent on people from Flint who have created opportunities for themselves. These are the more "human" moments of the film. I loved the sandwich maker who says "Optimism breeds optimism" and then that value is put to test moments later.

[CJ]: That's another point of why I love making documentaries because you just don't know what's around the corner as that segment proves. Just that look in his eyes at the end says it all. Even after being shaken up like that, he still had that amazing optimistic outlook. At 36, I feel like I sometimes am naive with my optimism and hopefulness and seeing this array of people who share it was great.

[EG]: What do you want this film to achieve?

[CJ]: Taking this film from where it was and what it's become is my greatest achievement. Seriously. I just want people to see it and realize that the title actually means something else. And getting that message of thinking for yourself is just so important to me, and having people 'get it' is all that I want. We're actually getting really good solid reviews from both the liberal and conservative press. That's exciting in creating something that both sides agree is good. How often can you get the right and left to agree on something?

[EG]: Do you have any plans for a screening in Flint?

[CJ]: There are quite a few screenings being planned, and I'm assuming that would be on the list.

[EG]: Is it true proceeds from the film's profits will be donated to charity?

[CJ]: That I do not know. I'm putting the money I make from this film into "Homes for Our Troops" which is an organization Sgt. Peter Damon turned me onto. They raise money for veterans to make sure they have a home, and that it's made to accomodate them if they've been paralyzed or harmed.

[EG]: What other projects do you have coming up?

[CJ]: We'll be shooting WEST MEMPHIS THREE in March 2005 and I've just started working a project that's in the vein of STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN for Minneapolis. I'm excited to get to work with people like Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum and other great names in music from the area. Levi Seucer, Jr. who used to write and produce for Prince is producing with myself and Bob Ashmun on this. They'll both be released in theaters next fall as we're getting distribution locked up now.

People have gotten a little confused since I'm all over the board with my projects, but I'm starting to get a lot of interesting stuff coming at me. We'll be working on the Tommy Morrison THE DUKE movie next fall, and then it'll be my version of a family movie after that.

For more information on MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA (including trailers, press and more), visit the film's official website at MichaelMooreHatesAmerica.Com

Elston Gunn

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