The Last Patriot Standing
The Minnesota-based director of Michael Moore Hates America has received a number of death threats since his website announced the project to partisan peace lovers a year ago. So the only thing I can tell you about the circumstances of my meeting last week with Michael Wilson, the doc's understandably reclusive 28-year-old perpetrator, is that it took place at a sports bar somewhere in the northern suburbs. And that Wilson ordered cheese sticks and a "short" Long Island iced tea, which turned out to be rather tall.
That drink isn't the only thing that has been super-sized for this latest, libertarian contestant in the election-year indie-doc sweepstakes. His Mastercard is bursting at the seams, the result of a $200,000 budget not fully covered by the former online porn mogul who invested in the movie after stumbling on Wilson's michaelmoorehatesamerica.com, which has registered millions of hits. Other "big boys," Wilson reports, have been bidding to distribute his digital-video production in a hundred cities and projecting grosses in the mid-seven figures--not counting sales of a DVD that would be out in time for holiday shopping. (A mid-October screening has been scheduled at the SMMASH Film Festival in Excelsior--though Wilson says he'd like to have a "red-carpet" premiere in the metro before then.)
So is Wilson's admittedly Moore-esque film, which documents his unsuccessful attempt to interview the man behind Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, really worth its distinction as the most hotly anticipated indie ever made by a Minnesota director? Alas, the critic can't say. At press time for this article, I still haven't seen Michael Moore Hates America--not because Wilson is unwilling to show it to me, but because he's been more than a little busy. Just a week before his sold-out world premiere in Dallas (the tickets were snapped up in a single day), Wilson is still scrambling to finish the movie's color correction and sound mix with the help of producers Chris Ohlsen, Curt Johnson, and Carr Hagerman. (The critic, meanwhile, is scrambling to get a review on page 63 of this issue--even if it means flying down to Bushville.)
The boyish, Missouri-born Wilson, who wrote marketing materials for a Minnesota accounting firm after graduating from St. Cloud State in 2001, is being asked to show ID for that tall Long Island--two days before leaving town for interviews with the McLaughlin Group and the BBC. His other job at the moment is getting over a nasty head cold.
City Pages: Your world premiere in Dallas is a big deal. It's at the American Film Renaissance Festival--the "conservative Cannes," they're calling it--on the weekend of September 11. What do you expect?
Michael Wilson: Here's the thing that cracks me up about this flick: Everyone perceives it to be this right-wing conservative rant, and it's just not. When that [news] gets out, it's gonna shock people. People see the title--Michael Moore Hates America--and they freak out. They think, "Well, obviously this guy is some nut job who's trying to destroy Michael Moore." And that's not what the movie is about.
CP: What is it about?
Wilson: Basically, I made this movie because I wanted to stick up for my mom. Remember that scene in Bowling for Columbine where [Moore] tells you about Tamarla Owens? That she was in Michigan's Welfare to Work program, that she had to work two full-time jobs, that she had to travel by bus to get to them, and that she couldn't spend enough quality time with her six-year-old kid, so [her kid] acted out and shot a little girl? It was a national story. But no one in the media went, "Hey, wait a minute--what about this other stuff?" The other stuff was that the kid was living in a crack house because his mother had moved them there; that the gun was stolen; that the gun was traded to the kid's uncle for drugs; that the mother had been in trouble for child abuse and drug abuse; that the kid was extremely aggressive because he had learned in that environment that violence was the answer. Moore ignored all of that. He just cut right to what he wanted for his movie: Welfare to Work--bad. 'Cause Mom can't spend enough time with her kid.
CP: And that offended you.
Wilson: On a very personal level. My mom worked two full-time jobs when I was growing up--and she went to school full-time. And I never shot anybody, you know? We were poor. I grew up in Missouri in a house that was right between the projects and the trailer court. My mom worked really long hours, but she put her job as a mother first, you know? And to me, that's what you do as a parent: You make choices, you're accountable. And [Owens's] accountability is something that Michael Moore just took away. He said, "Nope--you don't have this. It's not your responsibility. Don't worry about it." I started looking at the rest of [Moore's] work, and I discovered that it's a really common theme: He sees America as this shithole full of rich guys and dark, shadowy figures--a place where the chips are always stacked against you. And to me that's the antithesis of America. I see America as a place where anything is possible--because of my mom's hard work and ambition, her drive, her success.
CP: You and Moore have some things in common, right?
Wilson: We come from similar backgrounds: blue collar families in the Midwest, somewhat apolitical parents. I actually discovered lots of similarities [between us] once I started digging into it. I wondered, How is it that we can see America so differently? My goal, at least initially, was to try to get Michael Moore to sit down with me for 45 minutes over a couple of beers. I thought it would be funny to borrow his own strategy on Roger & Me. I started asking him for an interview. And he ignored me. So I had to start talking to other people about their visions of America, about their visions of Michael Moore.
CP: Why do you think he ignored you? Because you weren't a celebrity?
Wilson: I think he ignored me because of the title [of the film].
CP: Where did it come from?
Wilson: The title was always meant to be satiric; it wasn't some thesis that I set out to prove. I started researching [Moore's] inaccuracies, looking at a lot of anti-Moore websites. And what I found was that the people who were criticizing him were being just as shrill and obnoxious as he was being onstage at the Oscars. Everywhere I went, it was, "Michael Moore hates America, Michael Moore hates America." And I just thought that was fascinating. I taped an interview with David Horowitz [founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture], who's about as right-wing as you can get. He says [in the film], "I'm a Michael Moore-hater: Michael Moore hates America, and I hate Michael Moore. The enemies of America are my enemies--and those are the fans of Michael Moore." And I went, Holy shit! That's exactly what I'm talking about! As a nation, we've become shrill--a bunch of shouters.
CP: Your own website hasn't lacked for shrillness on occasion.
Wilson: Uh-huh [laughs]. Give me a specific example.
CP: There's that posting from a week ago about your feud with Disinfopedia. You wrote, "Hey, Disinfopedia assholes...I'd like to make it clear that if you write that the [Michael Moore] screening [in D.C.] is for the vast, right-wing conspiracy or other similar shit, I'm going to bring the full might and power of our fan base raining down on you...fuckers."
Wilson: Yeah [laughs]. I guess that's just me defending myself against people who are lying. And you're right: That post is shrill. I'm not above raising my voice. At the same time, I've never gone after Disinfopedia: I've never said it's a bad or evil website. But they went after us. They've written dishonest things about some people involved in [producing] the film--called them "pornographers." And then they make changes to those posts on their site, which is supposed to be an "open source." They delete things. I called Sheldon Rampton, who's the head of the Center for Media and Democracy [which administers the site], and I said, "Look, just admit it: Your site is 'open' and 'free' to the people who agree with you."
CP: At times you've come across as a kind of media watchdog.
Wilson: One of the things that bothers me about Michael Moore in particular is his lack of integrity in terms of how he approaches his subjects--whether it's through an ambush or by misleading people in order to get what he wants for his movie. So I decided early on to be really up-front with everyone about the title of the movie. And I think it freaked [Moore] out. No matter what I said to try to communicate what this film was really about, he didn't buy into it. I went to hear him speak at the University of Minnesota about a year ago. I introduced myself during the Q&A, and he got really angry; he was practically screaming at me. "Everything I do is because I love America. It's people like you that hate America." I'm thinking, Look, man--I'm introducing myself. I'm telling you what I'm doing, I'm trying to ask you for an interview. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt, assuming that maybe your filterers haven't let you see my requests. And instantly, that shrillness came out of him.
CP: No shortage of the shrill these days, two months before the election. How do you assess the tenor of the debate?
Wilson: Let me put it this way: America is at its best when we [represent] the widest possible spectrum of political ideology. We're passionate in America. We argue like crazy--like a family. We say, "We should raise taxes on the very wealthy, 'cause they can afford it." And at the same time we go, "You know what? It's my money. Fuck you. Who are you to take it away?" And there's everything in between--on every issue, whether it's Iraq, health care, social security. It's great when we all come to the conversation honestly, when we're not trying to bend the facts and mislead each other. But you see so much deception on the right and the left--and too little in between. I say, Let's move the conversation forward.
CP: Do you see yourself as a journalist? Documentary film, after all, is a kind of journalism.
Wilson: I have such a disagreement with you about that [laughs]. I don't think documentary film is anything like journalism. I run into so many people who refer to Michael Moore as a journalist. That kills me. I think it does journalists a big disservice. To me, Michael Moore is a filmmaker--a very talented filmmaker. When you walk into a Michael Moore movie, you have to understand what he's doing. And that's all my film is about. It's about saying, "Here's what he's doing to you. Be aware of it."
CP: So it's criticism then. You're a film critic.
Wilson: Maybe, yeah. I'm certainly not a documentary filmmaker--not by any stretch. At St. Cloud, I wrote my senior thesis on why I thought [St. Cloud State] should have a screenwriting program. I was inspired by Kevin Smith--I continue to be inspired by him. [Michael Moore Hates America] was just something I was really passionate about. I saw Bowling for Columbine and thought, Someone needs to look at this, and nobody will--so I guess I'm gonna do it. I surrounded myself with a lot of really amazing people who've worked on documentaries.
CP: What do you think about the current spate of documentaries?
Wilson: My friend Penn Jillette said it really well. He says, "You go to see Spider-Man 2 and you know it's fiction; you go to see a documentary and you're in this gray area." You're seeing things presented to you as fact, but the film is a construct of someone's mind--as much as Spider-Man 2 is. Or at least that's how [documentary film] is nowadays. You look at guys like Albert Maysles [Salesman], who's sort of the godfather of documentary filmmakers: He'd follow [his subjects], let the camera roll, and let the chips fall where they may. He didn't lie to people or take advantage of them. Michael Moore's films aren't documentaries; they're polemics.
CP: Wouldn't you say that your film is a polemic?
Wilson: Sure--although I like to think there's a lot more honesty in my film. You can never get rid of bias completely: Everyone on the planet has it to some degree. You watch the news and you see [TV reporters] trying to cover their stories in the most objective way they can--being human beings who are prone to bias. You expect the news to have some objectivity; you expect it to be truthful. You at least expect to hear both sides of the story.
CP: Are you saying that network TV news, with its obligation to be objective or at least appear objective, is more honest than, say, Michael Moore's films?
Wilson: You know John Stossel? He does these op-ed pieces on 20/20. I asked him, "Why do you think it is that [Moore] can get away with so much more than you can?" He said, "There's not a lot of difference. I do op-ed reporting and so does he. The difference is that I have a lot of overseers: There are people who'll fire me if I don't do the right thing, if I don't get the facts right." Michael Moore calls his own shots. Period.
CP: What if the shot-calling overseer at the network is Rupert Murdoch? Or Ted Turner?
Wilson: I don't buy the argument that the media is conservative--or that it's liberal, either. It's not like they have a Morning Liberal Meeting at NBC or the New York Times. I think the media has traditionally had a liberal slant, but I don't think it's by design. You talk to journalism students and none of them will tell you they're there because they want to report the news. They'll say it's because they want to make a difference. It's an idealistic point of view--a traditionally liberal point of view. So as a journalist in the newsroom, you're surrounded by those kinds of people. I believe in the free market, so I think that what Fox News does is great. Because it's an alternative. And CNN is an alternative to Fox, and NBC is an alternative to CNN, and so on. It works: You surf for your news, you get different perspectives, and then you make up your mind. That's what America is. I believe in letting people make their own choices.
CP: You're eager to get your film out before the election. What do you see as the connection between the two?
Wilson: On the plus side, there's a big market for the film now--because of the election. But whatever happens with the election will change Michael Moore's film, which then changes my film. And that sucks, because I'm trying to make something that's fairly timeless, you know? I want people to look at it in five years and still get what it was about.
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