|Moore the Merrier||1995 Copyright Film Threat|
|Dominic Griffin||December 1995|
Firebrand filmmaker Michael Moore on why Canadian Bacon took so long to make it to
the big screen and why TV Nation had to jump networks in order to continue tweaking
the US nipple.
On the eve of starting production of Canadian Bacon, Michael Moore's feature
film debut, he sat his cast and crew down to watch Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
"What this movie was in the '60s," he told the gathered masses, "is what we should aspire
to with this film." Moore had already written a letter to Kubrick telling him how much
Bacon was inspired by Strangelove, and Kubrick had reciprocated the gesture by writing
back explaining his admiration for Moore's debut, the acclaimed satirical documentary
Roger & Me.|
By all accounts, the screening of Dr. Strangelove went off without a hitch. Conversely, getting Canadian Bacon from script to screen was about as smooth going as a porcupine's ass. In retrospect, it seems a small miracle that Canadian Bacon even made it into production, and an even bigger miracle that the film was completed at all.
While still in high school at age 18 in Flint, Michigan, Michael Moore ran for the school board so he could "fire the principal." After winning, said principal was "reassigned." Just four years later, Moore founded and edited The Flint Voice (later to become the Michigan Voice), a premier alternative newspaper. In 1989, he took his film Roger & Me and embarked on the festival circuit, winning awards at Toronto, Vancouver, Berlin and Chicago. Come the end of the year, it made it onto nearly every critic's ten best list, and in the interim had become the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Using profits from the film, Moore established the Center for Alternative Media, a foundation dedicated to supporting independent filmmakers and social action groups. To date, the foundation has dispersed over $400,000 in grants.
Its follow-up, a shorter non-fiction film titled Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint, was invited back to many festivals, as well as eventually broadcast on PBS. Yet it was criticized at the time by many for exploiting the same cast of eccentrics Roger & Me had so painstakingly endeared to his audience, and by 1991, it appeared as if he might have missed his window, and another first-time filmmaker been left in the dust.
But Moore was keeping busy writing and developing. The first fruits of his time out of the public eye arrived last year on NBC in the form of TV Nation. Taking a cue from his own documentary style, TV Nation tackled current events like no other (with humor), and was adored by the critics. Newsday called it "a masterpiece." TV Guide awarded it a 10, Matt Roush from USA Today compared it to Late Night with David Letterman and the Wall Street Journal said it was, "That rarest of species--a television program both funny and important."
So Moore the TV showman was back. But what happened to Moore the independent filmmaker? He was trying to make a film but it wasn't going easy. Of course, his tenacious attitude and his complete inability to kiss good ass wasn't helping much.
Closing night at Sundance in 1991, the Gulf War was in full swing. America was on its third day of bombing Baghdad, and Moore was more than a little perturbed. Always against violence--he proudly relates that he filed as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War--he asked the host that evening, John Sayles, to propose to the audience a resolution denouncing the bombing. Sayles was systematically booed down.
"At the time," notes Moore, "[President] Bush had a 90% approval rating. I understand why people got wrapped up in it 'cause Sadaam Hussein is a very bad guy who invaded Kuwait, so it's not like the situation with the Sandenistas, where our government was up to no good. But I felt at the time, this world is filled with really evil leaders, and we don't go and bomb the civilian population of those countries. So why this one? Well, economics, of course. I just feel that when we talk about human lives--especially civilian--that it better be for the right fucking reasons."
Convinced that many in the crowd didn't even know where Iraq was, Moore began to think, "Could the President just declare any country the new enemy and everyone would believe him--even if the country was Canada?" Hence, Canadian Bacon was born. In the film, the President of the United States (Alan Alda) is perhaps the nicest, most affable, most successful politician we've ever had in the White House. The Cold War is over, and America has persevered over all its enemies. Everything would appear to be perfect. But with no foes to do battle with, defense contractors have had to shut their doors, leaving many a disgruntled unemployed worker in their wake.
Facing reelection with the lowest approval ratings in history, the President has a problem. He needs to reopen military installations and distract the public's attention from the sagging economy. What he needs is another Cold War. With the help of his aide, Stu Smiley (Kevin Pollak) and his military leader, Gen. Dick Panzer (Rip Torn), America decides to go to war with Canada. But as the White House is trying to engage itself in a protracted diplomatic war, average citizen Bud B. Boomer (John Candy) and his gal Deputy Honey (Rhea Perlman) decide to take the situation into their own hands, and cross the border into Canada.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Yet despite a small but proven track record, Moore found it almost impossible to get people interested in his movie. And in this nebulous town called Hollywood, It wasn't surprising. Canadian Bacon portrays the President and his advisors not only as bumbling fools but also as callous bastards devoid of any feeling for the people who put them in power. Add to that dialogue like, "Mr. President, we can convince the American public of anything we want." And then the film had its main American characters endorsing and encouraging every possible Canadian stereotype.
"When I wrote it, I thought I'd have a hard time getting it made just because of what I was saying politically," says Moore, "I think I counted four dozen turndowns from various companies." But the he made his way to small but adventurous Propaganda Films, best known for their prolific music video division, but who had previously dabbled in feature films with Wild at Heart, The Blue Iguana, Truth or Dare, Kalifornia and a number of less successful efforts.
Moore had an inclination early on preproduction that Propaganda was not exactly in tune with his vision. A memo that was circulated throughout the company in order to perk up staff morale reminded employees that John Candy's Uncle Buck had grossed $60 million, making Canadian Bacon an "important film for Propaganda." Moore was not happy. "I was like, 'What did you do that for?'" he says. "This is not going to be Uncle Buck, and it's not going to gross $60 million!'"
But these problems were minute compared to what was going to happen once the initial shooting was done. As Moore was gearing up to do additional reshoots, John Candy died of a heart attack while on location in Mexico filming Wagons East. It was an especially hard blow for Michael. The usually upbeat and funny director, goes a little silent and seems genuinely affected when the subject comes up. "He died and ... he was really a good guy and he ... his earlier films, especially SCTV, he was a very funny guy. And I think what he liked about this film is he wanted to get back to doing something that had some substance to it. Something with an edge."
Canadian Bacon isn't dedicated to Candy, but rather to Moore's grandfather, "William J. Wall, a Canadian who came to America and loved going to the movies." Why not Candy?
"Because it's such a Hollywood thing to do, and when it does happen it always seems so disingenuous. The real dedication to John is my struggle after he died in getting this film out so his final work can be on the screen. He supported me all through this film and all through the hassles I had with the studio. He backed me every time. When he was alive, having his backing was significant. Once he died, I didn't have that support. I went on my own to make sure the film we wanted to make would get out there." To compensate for the enormous loss of Candy, Moore was forced to rewrite new scenes for the other actors.
In the spring of last year, reshoots began again, but as the old saying goes, "When it rains, it pours." "On the second take," remembers Moore of one scene, "one of the actors grabs me and brings me down to the ground." Rather than Rip Torn acting up (on the set of Maidstone, he once attacked director Norman Mailer with a ball-peen hammer, and got part of his ear bitten off for his trouble), this was instead actor G.D. Spradlin (memorable as the compromised senator in Godfather II) suffering a major cardiac arrest, and clutching for the nearest thing to break his fall. Spradlin took three months to recover, leaving Moore with more rewriting and reshooting.
By the time the film was completed and ready for its unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival, Moore and Propaganda's relationship had fully deteriorated. When asked if they're currently at odds, he snaps, "There's nothing to be at odds about. We don't talk!" Naturally the French critics loved it, even going so far as to applaud after the first screening. But despite its powerful performance in France, Propaganda didn't call to congratulate him. "You don't understand," laughs Moore. "There's blood on the tracks here. Trust me, there will be no phone calls." (Note: Propaganda declined to comment about Moore for this story.)
Perhaps Propaganda should have known better from the outset. A little peek into Moore's brief filmmaking history would have alerted them to the fact that Moore does pretty much whatever he wants. When Roger & Me first secured distribution, Moore was accused of anti-semitism. The director had insisted in his contract that the film would not play anywhere in the world where theaters were segregated.
"At the time," explains Moore, "It was geared toward South Africa, but the someone pointed out that theaters were segregated along the West Bank. So I said, 'Well, if that's the section where the film is supposed to play, then it's not.' Because I don't want it playing anywhere where people, because of their race or religion, are not allowed to go."
The anti-semitic charges continued when it was learned that Moore was planning a pro-PLO documentary. Alas, says Moore, this was another misconception. "It wasn't a documentary, but a political comedy I was trying to do. However, I'm pro-peace, and I think the Palestinian people have had a difficult time in achieving peace, and I feel they should have a country that exists peacefully side by side with Israel."
With Propaganda no longer associated with the film, the handling of Canadian Bacon has been given over to Polygram and Gramercy, which is okay by Moore. "I have a very good relationship with these people, and they've been very good to me and done everything I wanted so far." But the controversy surrounding Moore continues. It's no secret that he's had his detractors. Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) who worked on Canadian Bacon, isn't one of his biggest fans. In a separate interview, Wexler noted "the aw-shucks homespun character that Moore portrays is a complete falsification."
Moore is aghast to hear such comments from the wizened vet he considers a pal. But he realizes he's been accused of this before, mainly by the Village Voice. "It's a very classist thing to say," responds Moore. "Whenever someone with money--and Haskell had a nice upbringing--sees a blue-collar worker doing well for themselves, they always criticize them." Moore jokingly excuses himself for having a brain and the guts to stand up.
For Moore, despite the criticism and the arduous time he had bringing in Bacon, life really is sweet. "Look," he says, "I'm supposed to be building Buicks on an assembly line. I'm not a careerist." By way of explanation, Moore ends the conversation with a piece of advice: "Look, the few times in my life where I've gone after something or really tried hard for something 'cause I wanted it, it never happened. When you sit back and give up, that's when it actually happens."
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