Rewind: The Making Of Fahrenheit 9/11

April 3, 2016
With Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next in cinemas on April 7, we take a look back at the making of the controversial director’s infamous argument starter, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Michael Moore met George W. Bush once. “A few years ago, I ran into him,” Moore told FilmInk in 2004. “He said that I should go and find real work. ‘Go and find real work, Mike!’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll go and call my dad and see if he can get me an oil company or a baseball team.’ Of all the people to tell me to find ‘real work’…he’s never had a real job in his life!”

Michael Moore, however, did find real work, and it eventually made him Public Enemy #1, not only for corporate America, but also for the second-generation, slack-jawed politician who once notoriously lorded over it. In 1989’s Roger & Me, Michael Moore exposed the ills of big business, and with 2002’s Oscar winning Bowling For Columbine, which questioned America’s culture of fear and guns, he broke worldwide box office records. His television show, The Awful Truth, and his series of biting, satirical books have been equally successful. Moore attacked America’s seriously ill health care system in 2007’s Sicko, and launched another salvo at corporate America with 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. In his latest doco, Where To Invade Next, the director playfully “invades” a number of nations to see what they have to offer when it comes to solving the many problems of the US.

Michael Moore’s most essential work, however, remains 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the doco that he made directly at the expense of the President who once mocked him. With this film, Moore launched a one-man mission to highlight the wrongs in American society, pointing the finger firmly at President George W. Bush and his administration. With its theatrical and home entertainment release timed before the US elections, it’s an understatement to say that the film ruffled Bush’s political feathers. Even his dad, the former president, came out of the woodwork, complaining that the nasty Mr. Moore was picking on his son. He blasted Moore as a “slime ball” in The New York Daily News, claiming that the documentary was “a vicious personal attack on our son.”

While Moore has never been a straightforward Democrat supporter, his aim was pure and simple when the towers went down on September 11: get George W. Bush out of office. When FilmInk met Michael Moore in London, prior to the start of production on Fahrenheit 9/11, his final words echoed his intent: “I have to rally the American people to the polls, to make sure that Bush does not return. That is my mission. I shall not fail!” The first part of the mission – the release of his 2003 book Dude, Where’s My Country? – was a major success, with the book spending 25 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (six of them at number one), and selling millions worldwide. The second part, Fahrenheit 9/11, was essentially a more up-to-date visual representation of the book’s themes, with plenty of extras, according to Moore. “You will see things in this film that you have not seen before,” the Michigan-born director said at The Cannes Film Festival. “We have footage, because I’ve been able to sneak crews into Iraq without them knowing that it was Michael Moore shooting. They [Bush’s government] are totally fucked!”

The premise arose in Moore’s mind on September 11, 2001. “My wife and I had been stranded in LA on September 11, and our daughter was back in New York,” recalled Moore. “We couldn’t find her for five hours, and then we drove home 3,000 miles. Six weeks later, I read this article in The New Yorker that said 24 members of the Bin Laden family were living in the US at the time, and that The White House approved flights to fly around the country and pick them up, and then a few days later allowed them to fly out of the country. It just pissed me off that I had to drive 3,000 miles, while the Bin Ladens had a private chartered jet!” Moore began to dig a little bit more. “They offered the $25 million reward for Osama Bin Laden,” says Moore. “We were having a hard time funding this film, so I decided to try and find him, so we could maybe fund five films! That didn’t work…”

Fahrenheit 9/11 showcased a series of governmental screw-ups that would make even President Nixon blush. Moore started with Bush’s dubious and now infamous election “win”, and then moved on to expose the ties between the Bush presidential family and several powerful Saudi dynasties, including the Bin Ladens. Bush’s military service records were also dug up. Then there’s the Iraqi war. Moore showed that recruitment drives were blatantly focused on young African-Americans, while insider footage that he smuggled out of Iraq shows US troops ridiculing Iraqis, as well as soldiers admitting their disillusionment, and concluding that the war had been unjust. The most symbolic segment of the film, however, remains the video footage of a dazed and perplexed looking President Bush staying put for nearly seven minutes at a Florida elementary school on the morning of September 11, continuing to read a copy of My Pet Goat to schoolchildren even after an aide has told him that a second plane has struck The Twin Towers.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was plagued with problems, kicking off with its initial production, and moving right through to eventual release fractures with its original distributor, Disney, who had planned to distribute the film through its off-shoot company, Miramax. Rumours soon started to circulate that Disney didn’t want to release the film in an election year because they were worried that Florida Governor Jeb Bush (George’s little brother) would enforce certain tax cuts on their theme parks. The chief exec of Walt Disney, Michael D. Eisner, defended Disney’s decision in a letter to The New York Times, who Eisner had claimed had accused Disney of “cowardice and censorship” in not distributing the film. Eisner wrote: “The First Amendment does not say that The New York Times must print every article presented to it or that The Walt Disney Company must distribute every movie. If a government entity had blocked Mr. Moore’s film from being released, that would have violated The First Amendment, and we would have quickly signed up to join any protest. In the case of Fahrenheit 9/11, we chose a path that was right for the company and its stakeholders. We would hope that The Times would recognise that The Walt Disney Company has the same right of freedom of expression that it is advocating for Mr. Moore.”

The documentary was ultimately dropped by Disney, and Moore then embarked on an eleventh hour search for a distributor in the US, with the joint team of Lions Gate and IFC Films eventually picking it up. Then as the film neared release, Moore claimed that a Republican backed PR firm had formed a fake grass roots front group called “Move America Forward” to harass and intimidate US theatre owners into not showing Fahrenheit 9/11. “The greatest flaw of capitalism is that they will sell you the rope to hang themselves with,” Moore said of the Disney decision. “Greed ultimately wins out in our system. Bowling For Columbine was made for $3 to $4 million, and it brought in $120 million worldwide, so this is a no-brainer. Clearly, with the attention that this film has already received, it continues to be a no-brainer. There’s tens of millions of dollars to be made here in pure profit. So the way that I’ve always been able to survive is that because the media conglomerates – who may disagree with me politically – have always been able to turn their head away from that because I’ve always made them money. That’s why Rupert Murdoch was, at first, willing to publish my books – because they made money. He doesn’t agree with anything that I stand for. But they’re not like us – that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Their God is the bottom line. They don’t really think politically. This runs against what I’ve always believed: that money will always make them suck it in, and go, ‘Dammit, we can’t stand the politics here but…’ The executive who saw the film on April 23, and made his report back to Mr. Eisner, said ‘The potential of this film to have an impact on the election is much larger than they first thought.’ That is scarier, and it’s worse for their personal pocket books if our side wins. So every effort will be made to stop it.”

All of that controversy was used to great effect by supreme self-publicist Michael Moore, who got a PR bonfire burning nicely for The Cannes Film Festival in 2004, where the film premiered. “I’ve given up on reading anything about me,” Moore later said of the headlines that flared up during Cannes. “Because it’s not about me anymore, but something they call Michael Moore. Just to preserve my own sanity, I have just separated it. What I care about is what my family and friends feel about what I say and do. When this whole Disney-Miramax thing broke, I couldn’t understand if it was just laziness or an in-bred cynicism that exists now in the entertainment press. The easy analysis was ‘That’s just Harvey and Mike out for a headline.’ No filmmaker wants to hear six weeks before their film is to be released that their distributor isn’t going to distribute their film.”

Poster (1)Fahrenheit 9/11 ending up winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the prestigious top prize at the festival. Some members of the press claimed that it was merely a case of too many intellectual, anti-American lefties on the jury. “Bullshit”, said tyro filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, the president of the Cannes jury. “All that mattered was the reels of film. I told Michael Moore that we all agreed that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the best feature in competition.” Moore’s response, according to Tarantino, was “that means more to me than anything. If I wanted to make political statements, I would have run for office. I want to make movies.”

With the French seal of approval, Moore was clearly excited by the tremors that he felt his film would cause upon its US release. “What’s going to be shocking to Americans is that there are many things that they will have not have seen before,” Moore told FilmInk at Cannes in 2004. “You’ve not seen footage and photographs outside the prisons. This occurred in the field. This occurred outside the prison walls. That is disgraceful.” The director alluded to the cover up by the mainstream US media of the footage that Fahrenheit 9/11 showcased. “If the freelancers that I was using found what they found, with our limited resources, you have to ask a question of the American media,” Moore said. “They’re there every single day. That’s many networks with millions of dollars invested in the coverage – why haven’t we seen this footage before?”

Fahrenheit 9/11 scored more controversy when it was slapped with a restrictive R rating (which prevents those under seventeen from seeing the film unaccompanied) in America prior to its release date. Several jumped to the film’s defence, including former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who agreed to represent Moore in an appeal of the decision. “I’ve seen it three times, and I think that every American should see this film,” Cuomo told Newsday. Moore was typically blunt on the issue of the R rating. “It is sadly very possible that many 15 and 16-year-olds will be asked and recruited to serve in Iraq in the next couple of years.,” he said in 2004. “If they are old enough to be recruited and capable of being in combat and risking their lives, they certainly deserve the right to see what is going on in Iraq.”

When Fahrenheit 9/11 was eventually released, the level of vilification rose against Moore, with the internet swamped with sites and bloggers dedicated to analysing the validity of his work. Then came the anti-Michael Moore documentaries, like 2004’s Michael Moore Hates America and 2007’s Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore. Rather than taking offence, Moore sees these films more as an homage. “I need more of them,” he chuckled to FilmInk in 2007. “There are eleven or twelve anti-Michael Moore documentaries, funded by various sorts. Basically, there’s a cottage industry now of these films that attack me. I want to sponsor a film festival of anti-Michael Moore films, and hand out prizes.”

The depiction of the director in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s epic satire, Team America, meanwhile, is now notorious. The thing that Moore was most regularly accused of was being unpatriotic. “Unpatriotic?” he barked at the suggestion. “I’m just the opposite. I am the most patriotic American. I’m an American who loves his country and the people in it. I’m part of that vast majority of Americans who never voted for George W. Bush. Keep that one fact in mind! The majority never voted for him! It was the majority he never won! Anybody who says that about me, they’re the true un-Americans. Because only people who are un-American will cover up what has been going on in Iraq with this torture and abuse. What worse lie is there than to take the country to war based on a lie? To send young kids off to die for a lie, for oil, for the relationships that the Bush family has…I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think how much easier it would be to not do this. I’m boringly normal, if you knew me!”

And even in Australia, Fahrenheit 9/11 stirred up its own controversy. Hopscotch Films (now eOne), the Australian film distribution company who released the film locally, allegedly received threatening emails (mainly from the US) when they inked their local release deal. A spokeswoman for Hopscotch stated that the emails warned that if the company went ahead with its planned release of the movie, it would do so “at its own peril.”

In the end, did Michael Moore achieve his mission? Did the documentarian David help topple the politician Goliath? Did Fahrenheit 9/11 help get rid of George W. Bush? Well, it certainly didn’t achieve that goal explicitly, with Bush ultimately re-elected to office in 2004. “I hope that it influences people to leave the theatre and become good citizens, whatever that means,” Michael Moore declared at Cannes in 2004, months before his metaphorical “loss” to George W. Bush, who may have won the election, but now has a reputation and name only a few levels up from mud. “I’ll leave it up to other people to decide what kind of impact it will have on the election. I think this film will be like a mystery unraveling. It will be like Toto pulling the curtain back; people will be shocked and they’re going to be in awe, and I think that they will respond accordingly. The good thing about Americans is that once they’ve been given the information, they act accordingly, and from a good place.”

While the impact of Fahrenheit 9/11 remains a source of debate, the financial success of the film can’t be argued about, with the doco still sitting not-so-pretty as the highest grossing non-fiction feature film of all time. Michael Moore, meanwhile, is still out there, making documentaries about subjects that matter, but in a far more subdued and less fiery manner. He still has his critics, but many lauded the more measured approach of Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, while his latest doco, Where To Invade Next, sees Moore dropping his ambush tactics to create something “giddily optimistic”, according to The New York Times. Michael Moore is still out there fighting, but his days as an angry young man are likely over. “I made Roger & Me, a film about General Motors, to help stop more towns like Flint, Michigan from going under, and more towns went under,” the director told FilmInk in 2007. “I made Bowling For Columbine in the hope that school shootings and easy access to guns would stop – it continues. I made Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Iraq war continues. If you were me, wouldn’t you say that it’s time for something new? That it’s time for a different approach? I’m getting older and I would like to see change in my lifetime. I want to continue exploring roads that people are scared to go down. We have to go there if we’re going to be better people.”

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