Robert Greenwald

Rupert Murdoch, George W. Bush and Al Franken “star” in Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Here is a scene in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, that may be more shocking than anything you saw in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s the clip of the interview in which the Fox News Network’s bully-in-chief, Bill O’Reilly, verbally pummels Jeremy Glick, whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, for pointing out the connections between the current and past Bush administrations to Osama bin Laden and his extended family. It can hardly even be called an “interview,” since O’Reilly barely allows Glick to speak, insults his patriotism, pretends to know more about the young man’s father than Glick does and finally ends up raging like a lunatic. The next day, O’Reilly lies about the interview to his viewers, describing Glick—who, for the most part, sat stoically shaking his head—as being “out of control.”

It’s scenes like this, and the current appetite for anti-Bush documentaries, that have helped propel Outfoxed from its original Internet-based distribution game plan into multiplexes around the country. The documentary is Greenwald’s third in the last two years. In 2002 he produced Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election and last year he produced and directed Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the War on Iraq. These films, along with Outfoxed, share the same shoestring style: lots of talking heads shot with whatever crews and cameras were available at the time, a liberal use of existing footage from local and national news and computer-generated graphics with bits of pop music playing in the background. The production value may lack imagination, but Greenwald compensates with an innovative distribution method. He has bypassed traditional studios in order to get his films out quickly, partnering with online activist organizations like MoveOn.org, working with local progressive groups to organize house parties and regional screenings and selling directly over the Internet at affordable prices. And now, the start-up independent production and distribution company Cinema Libre is boldly taking the film into theaters.

Greenwald has more than 50 films to his credit. Many of them—like The Burning Bed (about an abused wife) and Steal This Movie (about Abbie Hoffman)—lean toward social issues and activism. MM caught up with Greenwald while he was on the road promoting his most recent project.

Rustin Thompson (MM): Your last three pictures depict the Bush administration and its strangling of democracy in this country. What is your goal for these films?

Robert Greenwald (RG): What I find is that we’re living in an extraordinary time in the life of our country and that we have all of these critically important issues coming together. We have war, we have civil liberties, we have education, we have health care. So politics, in the broadest sense, are playing a real, vital role in people’s lives. It’s not a parlor game. It’s not abstract. It’s very visceral. And to be able to make films on subjects that people are not only passionate about, but are life and death issues for them, allows me to be right in the middle of the decision-making process. And there is a third one of the “Un” movies coming out, Unconstitutional: Civil Liberties after 9/11.

MM: Are the films making a difference?

RG: You know, I did The Burning Bed and laws got changed as a result. I did a film for Amnesty International, which they said helped make a difference. With these films it’s a larger issue. A year ago, 70 or 80 percent of our country thought the war was a terrific victory and they were in favor of it; now it’s less than 50 percent—and falling. The shift has come about partly because of the tragedy that is the Iraq War and partly because people are speaking out. This includes books and it includes films. I think that I and many others are offering people alternative ways to look at the information. That is changing people’s opinions.

MM: What’s your strategy for getting these films out of the tent of the converted and into that of the undecided?

RG: Going into movie theaters with Outfoxed and Uncovered, which is this extraordinary opportunity we’ve been given by Cinema Libre, is one of the great ways to do that. You don’t ask what your political affiliation is when you go up to the box office in a movie theater. We went into two theaters with Outfoxed as an experiment and then eight to 10 and now 20 or 30 or 50—and that’s because the film is playing and people are responding. With Outfoxed particularly, because it’s about a bully, going to a movie theater and laughing at a bully is one of the great pleasures. If you pick up The Village Voice, we have an innovative ad campaign where we’re quoting the Fox quotes about the film… you know, with O’Reilly calling me a smear merchant.

MM: I wasn’t laughing at Bill O’Reilly. I was appalled. Especially at the way he berated Jeremy Glick.

RG: That’s the section you want to kill him on. I’ve seen it 50 times and I want to strangle him every time. But there are sections like the “Shut Up” section that draw a huge laugh, and “Kerry is French” draws a huge laugh.

MM: The New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, printed a review of Outfoxed saying you employed the same unfair and unbalanced tactics you accuse Fox News of—that there are no interviews with current Fox employees, that you didn’t allow them to tell their side of the story. What’s your response?

RG: (laughs) Really… I didn’t hear that. Let me see… I didn’t allow Fox News to tell their side of the story. Let me get this straight: They have Fox News Network on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in which they’re telling us every day what they think, and my little documentary didn’t give them time? It’s hard to respond to that seriously.

I didn’t want to talk to Fox before I finished because they would have gotten lawyers to stop me, and then they whined, “He didn’t ask us for a comment.” So we went and asked them for a comment and you know what they said? “No comment.”

Then we said ‘Let’s show the film on Fox News and we’ll have a good debate afterwards.’ No comment. We’ve said to O’Reilly, ‘Come debate us. Come to a neutral ground and we’ll have a debate about it.’ No comment.               

MM: There are deep divisions in this country. Pundits and news analysts have divided us into The Blue and The Red states, which carries echoes of the Civil War—The Blue and The Gray. Are we now in a civil war in this country, a civil war of ideology?

RG: The Bush administration has intensified and exacerbated divisions in a terrible and politically manipulative fashion.
I don’t think we’d be seeing that with other administrations, because I don’t think it’s who we are as a country. I think people on both sides are not happy with this extraordinarily blatant manipulation of people’s emotions for partisan gain.

MM: Your last three films were shot and edited quickly and cheaply, and packaged and sold over the Internet with a similar style of talking heads, existing footage and graphics. Was there an “a ha” moment for you after the 2000 election when you hit upon this quick-draw method of production and distribution?

“The production value may lack imagination, but Greenwald compensates with an innovative distribution method. He has bypassed traditional studios in order to get the films out quickly…”

RG: No, I separate production from distribution. The production stuff is pretty clear. We have technology that can drive costs radically down. I can do these for $300,000 or $400,000. Sometimes I’m not even in the room when I interview people. With Outfoxed we had millions and millions of dollars in production value—it happened to come from Fox News (laughs)—but with the former employees we shot in the best way we could in the shortest amount of time.

We cut on Final Cut Pro. We had so much material we had a day shift of three editors and a complete night shift. We connected three Final Cut Pros so all the editors could get access to all of the material. It was quite an extraordinary undertaking. On the behind-the-scenes segment on the Outfoxed DVD we show the system of how we had 10 or 12 DVD players on timers recording Fox News 24 hours a day.

The breakthrough was in distribution, where I evolved the system, beginning with Unpreced­ented, of a combination of Internet access, screenings around the country and online help. MoveOn.org sold 25,000 DVDs of Uncovered in three days when they thought they would sell 1,000. So we said, ‘Wow, we’re on to something!’

With Outfoxed, it went even further. We integrated the activist groups working for media reform with the Internet and screenings around the country to create an even stronger model. Ironically in both cases, Uncovered and Outfoxed, we have theatrical distribution, which I never expected.

MM: With Outfoxed in theaters, how did you deal with the issues of copyright of the Fox News clips?

RG: I believe it is my absolute right under Fair Use to use these clips, and so far nobody has challenged that right, legally.

MM: If Kerry wins the election, are you going to move onto something less political or will there still be no shortage of targets out there?

RG: There is no shortage of targets. But I’ve done 53, 54 films that are non-documentaries. I do both and I love the balance of being able to do both. There won’t be a shortage of subjects, no matter who’s president. MM