Lunch With Michael Moore

Thursday, September 11, 1997

A Director Who's Not Afraid to Weigh in on Fashion
Globe and Mail, Inc.
By Jan Wong

Michael Moore peers out from under his baseball cap. "What kind of place is this?" he asks, checking the lump under his menu. "Oh. It's a cloth-napkin place."

A drive-through is more his style, but his publicist has snookered us into meeting at Bistro 990, chi-chi heart of Toronto International Film Festival territory. "Wendy's is my favourite," agrees Moore, 43, an autoworker's son and the rumpled star of Roger & Me, the original "stalkumentary" and the biggest-grossing documentary in history.

Moore's 6-foot-3 bulk sticks out in the festival's cocaine-and-champagne crowd. He hates the taste of alcohol, has never smoked a joint and has been with the same woman for 17 years. Nor does he air-kiss.

Until the 1990s, he never earned more than $15,000 (U.S.) a year. On his first plane ride, at 19, to visit his cousin Pat in Washington, he tried to pay for his tray lunch. "The stewardess didn't laugh at me too hard."

Bistro 990 offers caviar, ceviche of octopus, spaghettini. "Is that like spaghetti?" he asks the hovering waiter.

Yes, but thinner, he's told.

"Don't worry," I say unkindly. "They give you more."

At 270 pounds, Moore figures he's 70 pounds overweight. A decade ago, when he was out of work and depressed, "I just sat and watched TV, and ate and ate and ate." In his junk-food haze, he dreamed up the idea of documenting the devastation in his home town of Flint, Mich., after General Motors Corp. shut two auto plants.

Friends gave him a crash course in filmmaking. Camera in tow — and still on the dole — Moore slyly and doggedly pursued GM chairman Roger Smith. To finance the documentary, he sold his house and ran weekly bingo games. When his Honda died, "I pushed it over to the side, took the plates off, and walked away." Roger & Me eventually grossed $8-million. His film at this year's festival is The Big One, hailed by critics as a bitingly funny look at the "Flintization" of the rest of the U.S.

Moore likes Canadian audiences. "You don't need an interpreter for satire or irony. You say the same thing to an American, and they punch you in the nose." Canadians, he says, accounted for one-fourth of fan mail to TV Nation, his comic-investigative show that is, for the moment, off the air.

Moore, the class clown, never graduated from college. At 18, he became Michigan's youngest elected official, and was instrumental in sacking his high-school civics teacher. Later, he founded his own weekly in Flint, then edited Mother Jones, the radical magazine based in San Francisco, until he was himself fired over an ideological dispute.

During the Vietnam War, Moore plotted his escape 90 kilometres north to Sarnia, Ontario. He drew a safely high draft number - 283 - and stayed in Flint.

Moore still follows events here, even if his fellow Americans don't. In New York, during a speech to the American Library Association, he asked if anyone could name the Prime Minister of Canada. Embarrassed silence. From the back, a small voice said, "But we could look it up."

"I even know about Mike Harris, even if I don't know what spaghettini is," says Moore.

He sold Roger & Me to Warner Bros. for $3-million. Warner didn't pay the most, but it agreed to Moore's unusual conditions:

  • Wide distribution — in 800 theatres nation-wide;
  • 50,000 free tickets to unemployed Americans;
  • A 30-city tour for four Flint residents to show the film free in church basements and union halls;
  • Two years rent to four Flint families whose evictions were depicted in the film.

"So they would have time to get on their feet," says Moore, a Catholic who still occasionally attends mass.

After paying $1-million in taxes ("that's okay, I should"), he gave $1-million to struggling filmmakers, battered-women centres, AIDS organizations and homeless shelters. He spent the last $1-million creating Dog Eat Dog Films, his own production company.

Moore, his wife and their 16-year-old daughter now live in New York in a fancy building where fellow residents hire others to walk their dogs. But they spend each summer in Flint.

At lunch, Moore is literally wearing a blue collar (along with jeans, jogging shoes and a dark jacket.) What did he wear to the black-tie gala the previous evening? "This. Same. But a clean shirt," he says, yanking his lapel. A Burberry label flashes by.

Burberry ? On a man who claims to shop at K mart? Moore chuckles, but says nothing. When pressed, he confesses he has no idea what I'm getting at.

"I just laughed so you wouldn't know I didn't know," he says. As with free airline meals, Moore doesn't know about this snooty British brand, which charges five times the norm for its trenchcoats and hires Lord Snowdon to photograph its glossy ads.

"It's British?" Moore looks as if he's going to be sick all over his spaghettini. He's sized himself out of K mart, he says. "I got it at Rochester Big and Tall Shop. As God is my witness, I don't know Burberry."

Moore hasn't weighed himself in a month. "But I must be losing weight," he says hopefully, noting that his book, Downsize This!, isn't a diet book. (It's a brutally funny look at contemporary American society.)

He shows me his belt. "My pants are loose. 'I'm down to the last notch,' he says as he orders a slice of apple pie and ice cream," says Moore, taking the words right out of my pen.

He frowns when dessert arrives. "Can I have a normal-size scoop?" he asks the waiter. The waiter, who knows Moore is a famous director, rushes back with two more scoops. Moore protests weakly, chuckles, and polishes it all off.