Director Michael Moore arrives at Toronto's Elgin Theatre for a Q&A session and a screening of clips from his unfinished documentaries Sicko and The Great '04 Slacker Uprising. (Jim Ross/Getty Images)
There’s an anxious burble in the red-carpeted front corridor of Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. The Toronto International Film Festival’s presentation of Guy Maddin’s silent feature Brand Upon the Brain! started 40 minutes behind schedule and has run well past its planned stop time. Meanwhile, the crowd for the evening’s next event has gathered along the length of the corridor and into the lobby. The people up front have pressed close to the theatre’s interior doors. Hundreds more are waiting outside on Yonge Street. They’ve come for a two-hour Mavericks discussion with the populist, polarizing documentary director Michael Moore. He has agreed to impart the secrets of his past and prospects of his future with Toronto’s film lovers.
TIFF has been a good friend to Moore, and vice versa, since its 1989 premiere of his documentary debut, Roger & Me. For this year’s festival, the Michigan-born, Oscar-winning director (Bowling for Columbine) has agreed to break a personal rule by showing footage from two works in progress: Sicko and The Great ’04 Slacker Uprising. The first probes health-insurance practices in the United States and abroad. The second is a summary of Moore’s 60-day, 60-city voter-registration tour during the lead-up to America’s 2004 presidential election. (His guy lost.)
As Moore steps through the Elgin’s front door he is immediately caught by a thicket of coiffed and tailored TV talkers. Each waits a turn for a few moments of his attention. He looks happy to give it to them.
Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most mega moguls, strides through the corridor toward Moore. His Weinstein Company is backing Sicko for a major release next summer. Moore still has two microphones left to address, so Weinstein pulls up short and rocks sideways on his feet, sumo-style, until the director is able to greet him with a warm hug. The men are almost the same size, which is a recent development for Moore; later, he will brag about losing 60 pounds since beginning work on Sicko.
Now, director Larry Charles — Moore’s friend and the host of his Mavericks appearance — steps forward to say hello. Less than 24 hours ago, Charles’s comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was supposed to be the first Midnight Madness offering of TIFF 2006. When a projector malfunction delayed and then ultimately halted the screening, Charles and Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen entertained their fans with an impromptu Q&A session. Moore was seated in the crowd; he hopped out of his chair to join them.
At last, Brand Upon the Brain! is over. Charles and Weinstein walk farther inside the Elgin together. Moore hangs back to sign autographs and shake hands. He beams for several dozen cellphone and digital camera snapshots.
Inside the theatre some 30 minutes later, Charles strides on stage and introduces Moore to Toronto for the second time in as many nights. “Ladies and gentleman, the American saint, the American visionary, the American prophet ... Michael Moore!” A standing ovation confirms this reporter’s suspicion: the left are in the house.
The directors settle into two chairs near a small table. Charles, a former staff writer for Seinfeld, looks not unlike Cosmo Kramer’s older, hipper brother. He has longish greying hair and a wilder, better version of Mel Gibson’s beard. Also, he has accessorized his loose-fitting suit with Chuck Taylor high-tops and a fedora. Moore in person looks the same as Moore on screen: brown leather coat, nondescript black pants and shirt, white sneakers and navy Detroit Tigers ballcap. All steak, no sizzle.
To open the discussion, Charles asks for the story behind Moore’s acceptance speech at the 2003 Oscars. The U.S. had invaded Iraq just days before the awards show. When Bowling for Columbine won for best documentary, Moore says he struggled with the question of whether or not he should use the opportunity to speak out against his government. At the last second, he decided that he should, and famously blasted George W. Bush as a “fictitious president” who had sent America to war “for fictitious reasons.”
Moore (right) onstage during the Q&A session with moderator Larry Charles. (Jim Ross/Getty Images)
Charles presses on, wanting to know about the speech’s fallout. Part of Moore’s answer reveals an Oscars tradition. After exiting side-stage with their trophies, he says, winners are met by two young interns who each pose a one-word question: “The girl goes, ‘Champagne?’ She has a little flute of champagne. And the boy goes, ‘Breathmint?’ ” (Which is actually two words, but let’s give the man his moment.) Moore, however, says he heard a third — unique — word after Columbine won. “A stagehand ran over and got right in my face, right in my ear, and he goes, ‘Asshole!’ ”
This news brings peals of laughter forth from the Elgin’s crowd. Moore continues. Two years after the Oscars, he was approached again by a stagehand after making an appearance on The Tonight Show. It was the same guy from the Oscars, but this time he had come to apologize. He now believed that Moore was right to question the war. “‘You didn’t do anything wrong,’” Moore says he told the man. “'All you did was believe the president of the United States.’”
A whistle-stop tour of Moore’s youth follows. A nun at his Catholic school tried to skip him ahead from Grade 1 to 2, but his mother forbade it. In grades 4 and 6 he published his own school newspapers, but the administration shut him down both times. He wrote a play for his Grade 8 Christmas pageant describing a “national rat convention” that was set in the school’s gymnasium. When the administration quashed the script, his classmates boycotted the pageant.
Moore describes leaving home to attend seminary school when he was 13, and then quitting at the end of his first year. Sitting among the female members of the school’s co-ed orchestra had led him to reject the notion of celibacy as God’s will. A few laughs later, he moves on to his experience becoming the first 18-year-old in American history to be elected to public office. (School board trustee. He was ousted in a recall election within two years).
Charles teases out a laundry list of juicy anecdotes from Moore’s career: one of Roger & Me’s cinematographers, Kevin Rafferty, is G.W. Bush’s first cousin; Moore revived character actor G.D. Spradlin from a near-fatal stroke on the set of Canadian Bacon (1994) by screaming at him; in 2004, Time magazine wanted to make Moore its co-Person of the Year with Mel Gibson. When Gibson decided against being associated with Moore, Time ditched both of them and instead chose Bush by himself.
When it comes time to play the session’s first clip, Moore and Charles step offstage. The title sequence of The Great ’04 Slacker Uprising fills the screen. It shows a montage of John Kerry footage matched with a rendition of When Johnny Comes Marching Home that sounds ... awful. Something is amiss with the theatre’s audio system; the speakers snap and pop with distortions.
Moore cuts the clip short and shuffles back to his seat. He won’t let the film play as it sounds. Charles worries that Borat’s bad karma is lingering. (TIFF has rescheduled that film to follow this session. Right now there’s another massive crowd outside waiting to get in.)
After more discussion — including Charles goading Moore into sharing the embarrassing tale of his first-ever pedicure — they attempt a second clip from Slacker Uprising. The sound problems persist. Moore and Charles amble back to the stage. It would resemble a vaudeville bit if they both didn’t look crushed. Charles sighs the opening lines of O Canada under his breath.
The mezzanine begins to buzz: many in the crowd have come here for a first look at Sicko, assuming that it will be as ambitious and controversial as Bowling for Columbine or 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11. What happens if its clips fail, too?
Moore seems ambivalent. With Charles’s prompting, he reveals several roadblocks during Sicko’s production. He’s discovered that health insurers have created training videos to instruct their employees how to handle him and his crew should they arrive at their premises. One corporation hired a psychological profiler to suggest strategies for deflecting his inquiries. (No. 1: Compliment his weight loss; he enjoys talking about it. No. 2: Ask him about any Detroit sports team.) The project stalled for months because every film needs insurance, and Moore could find no insurer that was willing to cover Sicko.
How did he defeat that obstacle, Charles wants to know. Moore won’t say, because he’s convinced that there are representatives of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries seated among the crowd. They are eager, he believes, to glean any hint of Sicko that they can, and then use that information to learn how they might discredit it.
Thom Powers, TIFF’s documentary programmer, crosses the stage to whisper assurances that the sound problems have been corrected; the projectionist is ready to proceed with Sicko. Moore nods his consent.
This time, the audio works as it should. The clip plays to perfection. So do the two others that follow it. And they are excellent.
Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
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