Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentaries — Really Powerful & Entertaining Documentaries

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

Flickr Com­mons Image by Nico­las Genin

You don’t rile up as many peo­ple as Michael Moore has with­out mas­ter­ing the art of but­ton push­ing. Clint East­wood threat­ened to kill him (alleged­ly). Christo­pher Hitchens, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of many Iraq war sup­port­ers, called his work “dis­hon­est and dem­a­gog­ic.” And the State Department—opponents of both social­ized health­care and the Cuban government—attempted to dis­cred­it Moore with lies about his film Sicko. Those are some pow­er­ful ene­mies, espe­cial­ly for a “come­di­an and a pop­ulist” whose only weapons are cam­eras, micro­phones, and best­selling top­i­cal rants. On the oth­er hand, Moore inspires mil­lions of reg­u­lar folks. As far back as 2004, a pro­file in The New York­er described the simul­ta­ne­ous­ly angry and jovial doc­u­men­tar­i­an as “a polit­i­cal hero” to mil­lions who “revere” him.

How does a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er cre­ate such pas­sion? Moore, writes The New York­er, inten­tion­al­ly pro­vokes; but he is also “exquis­ite­ly sen­si­tive to his audience’s mood and response. The harsh­ness of his com­e­dy, the pro­por­tion of com­e­dy to polit­i­cal anger, the flat­tery or mock­ery of the audi­ence, the num­ber and type of swear­words he uses….” All care­ful­ly con­trolled. And all of it adds up to some­thing more than doc­u­men­tary. Moore treats the term almost as a pejo­ra­tive, as he told an audi­ence in his keynote speech at the 2014 Toron­to Inter­na­tion­al Film Festival’s Doc Con­fer­ence. Typ­i­cal doc­u­men­tar­i­ans, Moore said, “sound like a scold. Like you’re Moth­er Supe­ri­or with a wood­en ruler in your hand.”

Some crit­ics of Moore make this very charge against him. Nonethe­less, his abil­i­ty to move peo­ple, both in the­aters and live audi­ences, to tears, peals of laugh­ter, and fits of rage, speaks of much more than humor­less moral­ism. Doc­u­men­tar­i­ans, Moore says in the 13-point “man­i­festo” of his speech, should aspire to more. Hence his first rule, which he derives part­ly from Fight Club. Below it, see abridg­ments of the oth­er twelve guide­lines, and read Moore’s speech in its entire­ty at Indiewire. If he repeats him­self, and he does, a lot, I sup­pose it’s because he feels the point is impor­tant enough to dri­ve home many times:

1. The first rule of doc­u­men­taries is: Don’t make a doc­u­men­tary — make a MOVIE.

…the audi­ence, the peo­ple who’ve worked hard all week — it’s Fri­day night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be tak­en some­where. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even chal­lenge them to think — but damn it, they don’t want to be lec­tured, they don’t want to see our invis­i­ble wag­ging fin­ger pop­ping out of the screen. They want to be enter­tained.

2. Don’t tell me shit I already know.

Oh, I see — you made the movie because there are so many peo­ple who DON’T know about genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied foods. And you’re right. There are. And they just can’t wait to give up their Sat­ur­day to learn about it

3. The mod­ern doc­u­men­tary sad­ly has mor­phed into what looks like a col­lege lec­ture, the col­lege lec­ture mode of telling a sto­ry.

That has to stop. We have to invent a dif­fer­ent way, a dif­fer­ent kind of mod­el.

4. I don’t like Cas­tor Oil…. Too many of your doc­u­men­taries feel like med­i­cine.

The peo­ple don’t want med­i­cine. If they need med­i­cine, they go to the doc­tor. They don’t want med­i­cine in the movie the­aters. They want Goobers, they want pop­corn, and they want to see a great movie.

5. The Left is bor­ing.

…we’ve lost our sense of humor and we need to be less bor­ing. We used to be fun­ny. The Left was fun­ny in the 60s, and then we got real­ly too damn seri­ous. I don’t think it did us any good.

6. Why don’t more of your films go after the real vil­lains — and I mean the REAL vil­lains?

Why aren’t you nam­ing names? Why don’t we have more doc­u­men­taries that are going after cor­po­ra­tions by name? Why don’t we have more doc­u­men­taries going after the Koch Broth­ers and nam­ing them by name?

7. I think it’s impor­tant to make your films per­son­al.

I don’t mean to put your­self nec­es­sar­i­ly in the film or in front of the cam­era. Some of you, the cam­era does not like you. Do not go in front of the cam­era. And I would count myself as one of those. … But peo­ple want to hear the voice of a per­son. The vast major­i­ty of these doc­u­men­tary films that have had the most suc­cess are the ones with a per­son­al voice.

8. Point your cam­eras at the cam­eras.

Show the peo­ple why the main­stream media isn’t telling them what is going on.      

9. Books and TV have non­fic­tion fig­ured out. Peo­ple love to watch Stew­art and Col­bert. Why don’t you make films that come from that same spir­it? 

Why would­n’t you want the same huge audi­ence they have? Why is it that the Amer­i­can audi­ence says, I love non­fic­tion books and I love non­fic­tion TV — but there’s no way you’re drag­ging me into a non­fic­tion movie! Yet, they want the truth AND they want to be enter­tained. Yes, repeat after me, they want to be enter­tained!

10. As much as pos­si­ble, try to film only the peo­ple who dis­agree with you.

That is what is real­ly inter­est­ing. We learn so much more by you train­ing your cam­era on the guy from Exxon or Gen­er­al Motors and get­ting him to just blab on.

11. The audi­ence is part of the film.

While you are film­ing a scene for your doc­u­men­tary, are you get­ting mad at what you are see­ing? Are you cry­ing? Are you crack­ing up so much that you are afraid that the micro­phone is going to pick it up? If that is hap­pen­ing while you are film­ing it, then there is a very good chance that’s how the audi­ence is going to respond, too. Trust that. You are the audi­ence, too.

12. Less is more. You already know that one.

Edit. Cut. Make it short­er. Say it with few­er words. Few­er scenes. Don’t think your shit smells like per­fume. It does­n’t.

13. Final­ly… Sound is more impor­tant than pic­ture.

Pay your sound woman or sound man the same as you pay the DP, espe­cial­ly now with doc­u­men­taries. Sound car­ries the sto­ry. It’s true in a fic­tion film, too.

So there you have it aspir­ing film­mak­ers. Should you to wish to gal­va­nize, polar­ize, move, and inspire your audi­ence as you tell them the truth (as you see it), you’d do well to take a few point­ers from Michael Moore. Polit­i­cal differences—and homi­ci­dal urges—aside, even par­tic­u­lar­ly right-lean­ing doc­u­men­tary direc­tors might con­sid­er tak­ing a few pages from Moore’s play­book. A few media per­son­al­i­ties, it seems, already have, at least when it comes to defin­ing their pur­pose. One last time, with feel­ing, for the TL;DR crowd: “Yes, repeat after me, [audi­ences] want to be enter­tained! If you can’t accept that you are an enter­tain­er with your truth, then please get out of the busi­ness.”

via Indiewire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michael Moore Tells Wis­con­sin Teach­ers “Amer­i­ca Isn’t Broke”

Bowl­ing for Columbine: It’s Online and 10 Years Lat­er the School Mas­sacres Con­tin­ue. Have You Had Enough?!

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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