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SXSW '07 Interview: "Manufacturing Dissent" Directors Debbie Melnyk & Rick Caine
by Erik Childress

The “Manufacturing Dissent" Pitch: Wow.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

DEBBIE & RICK: We were just coming off of another film, Citizen Black, a look at right wing press baron Conrad Black while his media empire was crumbling around him amid fraud allegations. And we kicked around the idea of taking a look at Michael Moore. We wanted to profile someone we admired, we love his films and thought it was courageous to speak out against the Iraq war at the Oscars just days after it had begun. So from then until just last night we've been working our butts off.

My colleague, Nick Digilio at WGN Radio, has said for years that he agrees with Michael Moore’s politics but he hates that he’s on his team. Is that the primary sentiment of the film?

DEBBIE & RICK: I would say to your friend Nick you don't have to either believe, or believe in Michael Moore to maintain your leftist ideals.

Journalism has clearly taken a downward spiral over the years. Is it fair game for the dirty tricks of one side of politics or any story to be used on the other side as an attack for the truth?

DEBBIE & RICK: Look no further than the language we use to indicate how much journalism has been debased over the years. Remember when reporters were reporters and not investigative reporters (isn't that what all reporters are supposed to do?) It's deeply hypocritical to use the same tactics that you criticize others for. If you think fearmongering, for instance, is a bad thing then one ought not to use it.

There’s a moment in Bowling for Columbine that we’ve talked about for years where Moore pulls the Broadcast News single camera trick when he has Charlton Heston walking back inside and then they cut to him holding the picture of the slain child. That’s something that isn’t addressed in the film. Did anyone in your journeys ever share this assumption or did you feel you just had enough to get across the point that Moore manipulates the images to fit the facts and make it more “entertaining?”

DEBBIE & RICK: Yeah we knew about this, we've worked in TV too and others told the story in interviews. But our rough cut came in at over three hours and we knew nobody would want to see a three hour movie about Moore.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

DEBBIE & RICK: We're SXSW virgins, be gentle with us please! We've been to a couple of film fests with previous films. Fests are generally cool because the tough work is done and you get to catch up with others and their work. We're also going to play bongoes with Matthew McConaughey, and listen to Iggy and the Stooges, Pete Townsend and hopefully discover some really cool largely unknown bands.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?

RICK: I wanted to be an oceanographer but it turns out I'm a pasty Irish/American and I burn just thinking about the sun, and I get seasick real easy so that didn't work out.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?

DEBBIE & RICK: Got pissed off, picked up a camera and started shooting. Our first doc was titled Junket Whore and it examines the parasitic relationship between the entertainment press and the Hollywood publicity machine.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

DEBBIE & RICK: Never really watched the Muppets but as I get older I relate more and more to Hank Hill on King of the Hill. I even have a friend whose speech is almost totally incomprehensible. He's Quebeqois so we try not to hold that against him. When we stand in the laneway drinking beer we freeze to death. Peeing on each others hands works pretty well though.

For every attack there’s a counterattack. Moore attacks Bush. Christopher Hitchens attacks Moore. Our own Chris Parry goes after Hitchens. Where does it end? And how is the average American supposed to find the truth? It’s easy to criticize John & Jane Doe for not reading a book, a newspaper or working to find the truth, but how else are they going to find it if they’re only hearing one side over and over whether it be Fox News or Michael Moore?

DEBBIE & RICK: You're right it's a mess out there. I have no idea what the solution to this is. Debate is healthy. How to find the truth? By seeking different sources of media. Get yourself informed. Do yourself a favor, if you're a rightie, read Harpers or Mother Jones, if you're a leftie read National Review or The Spectator. And keep reading other mainstream newspapers and magazines (the web is great for this most are free), still our best single source of reliable information. You start to figure out the slant once you've read them for awhile and soon can read between the lines. It's OK to consume media that challenges our preconceived notions. A well functoning democracy is dependent on a well informed electorate.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

DEBBIE & RICK: No we were in the moment and overwhelmed by the work.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

DEBBIE & RICK: Never give up and get more money upfront for the films so you don't have to stay in dingy motels that are short sheeted and infested with bugs.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

DEBBIE & RICK: Warren Beatty - Reds, Crumb - Terry Zwigoff, Woody Allen - Annie Hall, and yes Michael Moore.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?

DEBBIE & RICK: Mostly too busy working to watch other films for inspiration. Saw a doc recently The Bridge about suicide jumpers at one of our favorite natonal parks. Interesting filmmaking about a really challenging and uncomfortable subject.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?

DEBBIE & RICK: Karl Rove.

One of the things that I think works so well about your film is your decision to separate yourself from whatever your own politics may be. Because of filmmakers like Michael Moore, documentaries have become more "statement" than just a mere laying out of the facts. Whether he's dishonest or not shouldn't be about whether those questioning him are Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative or whatever. Isn't the most refreshing moment in a film when those who have been presented to you as the bad guy does a complete 180 when presented with the undeniable truth and isn't that the problem with American politics in that more politicians aren't having those moments and standing up for it?

DEBBIE & RICK: The problem is people who are willing to lie for the cause on both sides.

I think the moment where the documentary really comes into focus is late in the film when you are denied the unalienable right that Moore himself acknowledges so vociferously backstage at the Oscars. At the end of the day, left or right, black or white – doesn’t everything come back to the amendment that started it all?

DEBBIE & RICK: The film is an inadvertent statement on freedom of speech. BTW freedom of speech applies to more than just Americans.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

DEBBIE & RICK: We're not interested in re-makes, or prequels or sequels. Do something original and someone else can waste their life trying to make it better.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...

DEBBIE: A go-go dancer.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)

DEBBIE & RICK: I don't like actors, I'd rather work with the small dog. So what actor would you like me to kill to do that?

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”

DEBBIE & RICK: No we haven't made it yet. I'd say I've made it when my Mom returns my phone calls.

Moore is often criticized for putting himself into his own documentaries and yet you are there throughout Manufacturing Dissent and even narrate it. How would you answer your own critics?

DEBBIE & RICK: We didn't criticize Moore for putting himself in his documentaries. We started out to make a typical bio about Moore and after a few months it morphed into the first person narrative. Sometimes showing the process of making the film can reveal its own sort of truth. We've also made observational documentaries which have no narration and neither of us appear.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

DEBBIE & RICK: I read 'em. But I know what you mean there's some weird inverse relationship between how bad the reviews are and how much money a film makes.

There’s a clip in the film that shows quotes from bad review of Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon. In the interest of full disclosure, one of them is credited to us here at eFilmCritic. If we post a positive review of Manufacturing Dissent do we feed into the one-dimensional argument that one hand washes the other? Isn’t that something we have to disclose even if it’s completely nonchalant and arbitrary? I was surprised as probably the next writer at the site will be at the inclusion.

DEBBIE & RICK: We never got this connection till you just pointed it out. Would you like to recuse yourself from reviewing this film?

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

DEBBIE & RICK: Haven't had to deal with this for docs. And come to think of it there's a great doc in there somewhere about product placement.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?

DEBBIE & RICK: Doesn't apply to our docs to date although if we were shooting a sex scene for a doc we'd hope the camera wouldn't influence the course of events. Sounds like the solution is to not sign a contract that obliges a certain rating.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

DEBBIE & RICK: We think film is collaborative and there's a whole army of unheralded workers who make this all happen. And the lower the budget generally the more indebted you are to more people who make it all happen.

Having made this film, how do you go into Moore’s next film about the health care industry, Sicko?

DEBBIE & RICK: With popcorn and my health card from Canada.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

DEBBIE & RICK: We make films not marketing slogans. Although I'm told Columbia Pictures David Manning said "This film [Manufacturing Dissent] is better than sliced bread." How ya gonna argue with that?

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originally posted: 03/23/07 05:30:28
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Latest Features in the
South by Southwest Film Festival 2007 Series

SXSW 2007: What Went Down

SXSW '07 Interview: "Manufacturing Dissent" Directors Debbie Melnyk & Rick Caine

SXSW '07 Interview: "Itty Bitty Titty Committee" Director Jamie Babbit

Eric D. Snider's 2007 SXSW Diary

SXSW '07 Interview: "Borderland" Director Zev Berman


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