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He’s America’s most successful documentarian and one of the few on the left who predicted the 2016 election upset. Now, as Moore readies his anticipated polemic ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ for its Toronto film festival debut, he takes aim at Trump (and Nancy Pelosi … and Harvey Weinstein …) and those actually responsible for the president’s rapid rise to power (hint: Gwen Stefani).
The first time Michael Moore encountered Donald Trump, the filmmaker uncharacteristically held his tongue. The two had been booked as guests in 1998 on Roseanne Barr’s afternoon talk show, The Roseanne Show, taping at New York’s Tavern on the Green. Trump’s The Art of the Deal had been published in 1987 while Moore had already earned a reputation as a cheeky provocateur out to puncture capitalism’s balloon with his 1989 doc Roger & Me, and so when Trump spotted Moore, he threatened to walk. One of the show’s producers pulled Moore aside: Could he convince the skittish real estate developer to stay? Agreeing to help, Moore introduced himself to Trump and promised he’d keep the chatter light. “We did the show. I did not bring up anything political, financial, anything that would have upset him,” Moore recalls, settling into a chair in the conference room of his Manhattan production offices on a recent late-August night. “It wasn’t until I saw him running for president that I realized I’d been played. That he got his way. And I thought, ‘Wow, he manipulated that whole situation. This guy is not stupid.’ Lesson learned.”
This time out, as Moore, 64, readies his newest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, which will kick off the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6, he’s not holding back. “Trump is our Frankenstein and we are Dr. Frankenstein,” he declares. “We have helped to create a situation that has allowed us to end up with Trump. The dumbing down of our society through the media, the lack of education through poor schools, allows for a dumbed-down electorate, and for him to be able to actually get 63 million votes.” In the opening moments of his new film, as the comedy curdles into horror, Moore asks bluntly, “How the fuck did this happen?”
The movie comes at a key moment for both Moore and the republic. His 2004 anti-Bush diatribe, Fahrenheit 9/11, remains the top-grossing documentary of all time domestically (with $222.4 million worldwide), but his last major film, 2016’s Where to Invade Next, got only a perfunctory release. He’s looking to ride the current boom in documentary film and a crescendo of anti-Trump fervor to turn his new movie into a come-to-Jesus moment for depressed progressives and a rallying cry for insurgent politicians lining up for the midterms. Moore’s not prepared to say a Democratic takeback of the House, let alone the Senate, is a fait accompli, but he predicts, “There’s going to be a tsunami of voters — especially women, young people and people of color. If there are candidates worth voting for, there will be a shellacking the likes of which the Republicans have never seen.”
As for 2020, Moore adds, “As things stand right now, everybody should operate as if it’s a two-term Trump,” but if the Dems are to unseat him, “we need beloved figures running. Say what you want about Trump, but tens of millions watched his show. We need Tom Hanks, Oprah, Michelle Obama. Who would not vote for Michelle Obama?”
Fahrenheit 11/9 — its title reworks that of his biggest hit by referencing the actual date when the 2016 election was called, in the early morning hours — may start with Trump, but it then ranges across a larger panorama, from the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to the growing resistance movement as exemplified by the striking West Virginia school teachers and the Parkland, Florida, students who organized the March for Our Lives in Washington. “If people think this is Michael Moore’s Trump film and that they’re going to get two hours of Trump, Trump, Trump, I’m sorry but I’m not going to give you a simplistic film like that,” Moore says. “Yes, I will show you some stuff about Trump that you haven’t seen, but if you’re coming to see the pee tape, you’re going to the wrong movie.”
Thom Powers, Toronto’s documentary programmer, who saw a first cut in July and immediately booked it as the festival’s opening-night doc, says, “Michael has a real skill for subverting audiences’ expectations,” promising them laughs and then delivering a thoughtful, impassioned analysis. Onscreen, Moore’s persona as a shambling, quixotic everyman (“I don’t play a character, that’s who I am,” he insists) may make him an easy target for the right-wing outrage machine led by Fox News (“Bring it on,” he dares them), and he still occasionally resorts to stunts like spraying the mansion of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder with contaminated Flint water, but, Powers continues, “Michael’s work has grown to be less about confrontational stunts and more the work of someone who has thought long and hard about American politics.” In effect, Moore has become a public intellectual for the modern media age — where literary lions like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal once worked the talk show circuit while mixing it up in the political arena, Moore, though he has eight books to his credit, primarily uses film and social media (he has 6 million Twitter followers) to inject himself into the national debate.
It’s midnight as Moore, sipping on a Burger King soda, holds forth during a break in the film’s final editing. The later the hour grows, the more energized he seems to become. With the movie’s debut just two weeks away, the offices are buzzing with activity. Other staffers are gearing up for the return of TV Nation, his satirical news show, which originally ran for two seasons (first on NBC, then Fox) in the mid-’90s and is coming to the airwaves on TBS later this year.
While Moore frequently bursts into incredulous laughter at the absurdities in which America finds itself, he is also deadly serious about the dire state of the nation. He was one of the few who warned of a possible Trump victory, accurately predicting in July 2016 during one of his many visits to Bill Maher’s Real Time that the upstart candidate could take Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The audience booed, but Moore shook it off — after all, he’d been jeered before, most famously during his 2003 Oscar victory speech for his anti-gun doc Bowling for Columbine, when he excoriated George W. Bush for launching the Iraq War. Moore had been in England in the weeks before Brexit passed and saw how the polls and media misread the anger behind that vote, and he’d also seen how lawn signs for Trump vastly outnumbered those for Hillary Clinton in his home state of Michigan. “Michael is one of the few liberals who truly understands the Trump voter,” Maher says. “Having been with Michael in lots of places and seen how people react to him, there is literally no one more beloved by working men and women. As his Trump prediction shows, it would be great if for once people listened to him before it was too late.”
Still, Moore wasn’t quite prepared for his election-night predictions coming true. “I just felt, ‘What is wrong with me that I could not communicate to people that he was going to win these three or four states and that we had to get out en masse?’ It really bothered me.” Afterward, he returned to his home in Traverse City, Michigan, where he spends half his time. Over the next few months, he took long walks, mulling over recent events. Now single — he and his wife of 22 years, Kathy Glynn, divorced in 2014 — he counts the buddies he grew up with as among his best friends. With whatever free time he has, he hits one of the two movie theaters he owns and helps program in Traverse City, where each August he hosts a film festival, which this year attracted the likes of Dick Cavett and Jane Fonda.
The son of a Flint, Michigan, assembly-line worker and a secretary, Moore has long family ties to the labor movement, and, after dropping out of the University of Michigan – Flint and working briefly in the alternative press, he found his voice with his first documentary, 1989’s Roger & Me. In his very personal look at the plight of the autoworkers, Moore, dressed in what would become his trademark cap and rumpled jacket, set out to confront Roger Smith, then the CEO of General Motors. After its rousing Toronto Film Festival debut, Warner Bros. offered $3 million for the film, and Moore, who’d been struggling on unemployment, embarked on a career as a cinematic polemist, bringing his buoyantly acerbic take to hot-button issues like gun control (2002’s Columbine), the Iraq War (2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11), health care (2007’s Sicko) and the social safety net (2015’s Where to Invade Next).
Fahrenheit 11/9 is his attempt to fully understand the forces that fueled Trump’s rise. Moore, being a humorist at heart, can’t resist starting with a mordant joke or two. Yes, he acknowledges factors like Russian President Vladimir Putin and former FBI head James Comey, but asserts that the person most responsible for the Trump presidency is … Gwen Stefani. “You hadn’t heard that before, have you?” Moore asks, delighted with the audacity of the claim.
Moore posits that when Trump realized Stefani’s performance fees as a coach on The Voicewere larger than his own on The Apprentice, he staged his now-infamous Trump Tower campaign announcement to prove his popularity to NBC, which aired both shows. Says Moore, “He’d been talking about running for president since 1988, but he didn’t really want to be president. There’s no penthouse in the White House. And he doesn’t want to live in a black city. He was trying to pit NBC against another network, but it just went off the rails.” After Trump’s accusation that Mexico was sending rapists across the border, NBC cut ties with him. But Trump, suddenly finding himself cheered on by massive crowds and an indulgent media, figured why not make a serious run for the highest office in the land?
Moore does offer some begrudging respect for Trump’s skills as a showman. In American Dharma, one of several political documentaries also debuting in Toronto, Moore’s fellow documentarian Errol Morris positions alt-right firebrand Steve Bannon as the architect of Trump’s victory. Moore doesn’t dispute that — although he notes that Bannon didn’t join the Trump train until August 2016 — but likens it to Colonel Tom Parker coming aboard to steer the career of Elvis Presley. “Trump knew how to play Elvis, and Bannon knew how to play the Colonel,” he says. “One can’t work without the other. Nobody is ever going to vote for Steve Bannon, but Trump can’t do this on his own.”
Moore also credits Trump for outflanking rival Clinton on the left by trumpeting his opposition to the Iraq War — even if he exaggerated how early he’d actually voiced it — while also threatening to tax hedge-fund guys. “He hates Wall Street because they hate him,” Moore says. “He has never been let into the billionaires’ club. He is treated like a mook from Queens.” Moore contends that Trump’s positions, which the president abandoned once he got into office, helped suppress the vote for the Democratic candidate.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is at its most provocative when it veers away from Trump’s ascension to recount Adolf Hitler’s rise, with an emphasis on how the media in the 1930s, from The New York Times to the Jewish press, normalized the Fuhrer. Moore insists he isn’t making a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler but rather making “a serious point about fascism,” he explains. “It comes from a book, Friendly Fascism, by a philosopher named Bertram Gross. He talks about how the fascism of the 21st century would not be like the fascism of the 20th century. It would not come with concentration camps and swastikas, but with a TV show and a smiley face. The fascists of the 21st century will convince the people to go against their own interests by using television and branding. I don’t think we should be afraid to call this out for what it is.”
Moore doesn’t spare Trump’s Democratic opposition, either. He faults Bill Clinton for realigning the party with corporate interests, and the congressional leadership of Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi for failing to get their act together. Moore stumped for Hillary in 2016 but he still sees himself as an outsider whom the establishment Dems view warily. “They come to me when they can use me, because the people who follow me are just the number of votes that they need to get put over the top,” he complains. “But otherwise — Nancy Pelosi and the party infrastructure, they see me as a huge threat.”
Asked to cite an example, Moore pauses, almost censors himself, and then begins to recount one particularly nagging slight. Back after the 2004 election, as he tells it, he organized a dinner in New York with then-comedian Al Franken and his wife, Susan Sarandon and her then-partner, Tim Robbins, Bob Balaban and a few other Hollywood leftists. The purpose was to convince Franken to return to his home state of Minnesota and run for the Senate. Franken heard Moore out, and a few days afterward called back to say he’d decided to do it.
“I was so excited,” Moore says. And when, a few months later, Franken called to ask him to serve as a fundraiser, Moore readily agreed. “There’s just one problem,” Franken said, according to Moore. Instead of sending any checks directly to his campaign, could Moore send them to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, because — here Moore imitates Franken — “it won’t look good when it comes out that Michael Moore and his lefty friends are contributing to my election.” Moore says his heart sank, he didn’t send a check, and it was nearly a decade before the two talked, when they bumped into each other at the Academy’s 2012 Governors Awards honoring documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. (Franken did not respond to a request for comment.)
By contrast, the renegade filmmaker has been embraced by the newer generation of insurgent politicos, like Bronx, New York, congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Detroit congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib, who are featured in his film. Without any support from her local political establishment in her successful primary bid, Tlaib had no reservations about welcoming Moore’s support, saying, “You get a sense of strength from him as someone who hasn’t sold out and who still believes in change.” And, during the course of filming, he joined her in door-to-door canvassing. “Though it wasn’t as productive as we’d hoped,” she says. “We planned to hit 15 to 20 doors, but we did about three since the first door we knocked on, the whole family came out to meet Michael.”
Moore’s first attempt to make a Trump doc hit a wall. In May 2017, Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob announced in Cannes that, having backed the first Fahrenheit, they were reteaming with Moore on a new film. Their relationship was complicated: In the wake of the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore sued the Weinsteins in 2011 for $2.7 million in profits he claimed he was owed. (The suit was settled out of court.) But then, as Moore was gearing up to begin filming that August, the Weinsteins’ commitment — a reported $2 million — failed to materialize. “Of course, now we know what the problem was,” says Moore. Five weeks later, The New York Times published its first story with allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s long history of predatory sexual abuse. “We laid off everybody and had to bury the film.” Moore says he was unaware himself of Weinstein’s behavior: “Harvey being the evil genius that he is, found a way so that people did not know, but eventually people like him don’t get away with it. And that’s going to be true of Trump, too.”
In retrospect, Moore says, he’s glad that first effort was abandoned because it would have focused on the early, chaotic days of the administration. “Ha-ha, we got a doofus in the White House and don’t worry because he’s not going to be able to get anything done. Well, that film should have been buried,” Moore admits. “Because now we know what Trump really is and all the promises he’s kept to his class.” But doesn’t Moore, a self-made man whose wealth has been estimated at as much as $50 million, belong to the same one percent who’ve benefited from Trump’s tax cuts? “It depends on what year you ask me,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, no. This year, I probably will.” But he adds, “My class is the class I was raised in. I have trespassed into the one percent, and I’m here to do damage.”
When Fahrenheit 11/9 started up again, on a $4 million to $5 million budget with private financing, it had a new focus: the rising resistance, presented as evidence of Moore’s belief that the vast majority of Americans support a progressive agenda, even if Democrats have been ineffective at translating that into electoral wins. Faced with what Carl Deal, one of the film’s producers, calls “a fucking carnival of scandals with Donald Trump,” the biggest challenge Moore and his team faced was not losing focus. Explains Deal, “We wanted to cover what was happening week to week and respond to it, day to day, tweet to tweet, but you also didn’t want that to control the conversation that we are trying to have with this film. We didn’t want to respond to what Donald Trump was saying day to day but to understand why he was saying it and what it really means for the rest of us. I have never seen Michael on such a clear mission to wake people up.”
For the movie’s release, Moore is partnering with Tom Ortenberg, the former CEO of Open Road Films, who is launching a new company, Briarcliff Entertainment. During an earlier stint at Lionsgate, Ortenberg worked with Moore on the release of the first Fahrenheit, and he says, “Fahrenheit 9/11 certainly benefited from a moment in time — if you opposed the war and you opposed Bush, one way to vote was to buy a ticket. And Fahrenheit 11/9 also comes at a specific moment in time. If you oppose Trump and you oppose the Trump agenda, one way to express that is to buy a ticket.” AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford, who plans to launch foreign sales once the movie debuts, says, “Awareness among foreign distributors is already sky-high. Michael is definitely a brand as a filmmaker and as a philosopher.”
But is Moore prepared for the inevitable 6 a.m. Trump tweetstorm once the movie opens? Curiously, he notes, he hasn’t been on the receiving end of many of the president’s attacks. Last summer, Moore took his anti-Trump campaign to Broadway, appearing in a one-man show, The Terms of My Surrender, in which he held forth on the issues of the day. Trump, taking notice, lobbed a tweet: “While not at all presidential I must point out that the Sloppy Michael Moore Show on Broadway was a TOTAL BOMB and was forced to close. Sad!” The show had actually played its scheduled 100 performances, and Moore tweeted, “You must have my smash hit of a Broadway show confused with your presidency — which IS a total bomb and WILL indeed close early. NOT SAD.”
But Moore also has a theory. While shooting the film, he made a clandestine trip to Mar-a-Lago and, as a hidden camera followed him, planned to ask to meet with Don Jr. and Trump himself, if he was there. But as he approached the club’s dining room, a number of guests recognized and surrounded him, eager to say hello to a visiting celebrity. He actually lasted about 15 minutes before security escorted him out.
“But even until the very end, I was not given the bum’s rush. The Trump Organization had made a decision to tread lightly,” he says. He notes that Trump has claimed, falsely, on Fox News that the two have had dinner together in the past. “I’ll tell you why I think that is,” Moore says. “He knows that his base and my base have a lot of crossover in Middle America. And to go after me in any way that would upset people who might vote for him in the so-called white working class, a lot of those guys might go, ‘Why are you fucking with him? He’s also on our side, fighting for us.'”