Capitalism: A Comedy: The Yes Men Put a Funny Face on Activism
The Yes Men Fix the World chronicles the audacious pranks of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who pass themselves off as representatives of Dow Chemical Company, Exxon and Halliburton, appearing at industry conferences and, remarkably, on the BBC--all in an effort to expose the impact of capitalism on society and the environment. In between their jaw-dropping activities, they interview economists and others at free-market think tanks to examine the underpinnings of capitalism. And connecting all of these episodes are humorous, scripted scenes with the Yes Men, mostly shot in various locations in upstate New York. Bichlbaum and Bonanno directed the 90-minute documentary with Kurt Engfehr (co-producer and editor of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine). The film had its television broadcast premiere on HBO in July and opens in theaters this month through Shadow Distribution. Documentary interviewed Bichlbaum at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.
Documentary: Why did you decide to have the television broadcast on HBO before the theatrical release?
Andy Bichlbaum: HBO said, "If we can show it first, we'll give you a lot of money, and if we show it afterwards, we won't give you very much money."
D: How much money did they give you?
AB: $400,000. We're making a calculation. Nobody really knows how these things work. We're just figuring, Well, we'll try it and have fun with it.
D: The 2003 documentary The Yes Men was directed by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price. What prompted you and Mike Bonanno to make your own documentary?
AB: Well, after that experience, which was great and easy because all we had to do was do these actions, we kept getting invitations for things and we kind of moved in this more concrete direction. The first thing that happened was that one of our friends at Greenpeace suggested [that we do] the same sort of thing, but around the Bhopal issue, and try to make Dow take responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. [In 1984 Union Carbide, now owned by Dow, released tons of toxic chemicals in the air, killing thousands of people.] And that's when we set up the Dow [web]site, got invited on the BBC and so on. When we got invited on the BBC, we realized we had a whole other movie. And for one reason or another, we just decided to do it ourselves.
With The Yes Men, we had a lot of input; we talked a lot with them. So we thought, Why not throw it together ourselves? We didn't realize what an absolutely crazy, murderous process making a movie is. I'm not sure we would have done it if we had; I wouldn't have done it. But I'm really glad that we did. We decided that in addition to documenting actions and our own thing in it, we would primarily go and talk to victims and bring awareness of these struggles and link the actions to the struggles really directly. So we would go to India after appearing on the BBC. We would go to New Orleans to do a thing about New Orleans. Everything that we do, we wanted to document it a lot and cast it against this backdrop and interview the bad guys as well. So there was a very ambitious plan, a lot of things that we wanted to do very specifically, so we thought, Well, we better just make it ourselves.
D: So you started filming when you got the invitation to appear on the BBC as a representative of Dow.
AB: Yes, that was the first one. We got promised a bunch of money by Arte France right then. They said, "We'll help you make this movie. We'll give you $200,000." And I thought that sounded really great, but then it turned out we couldn't really access that money. They didn't trust us until we had a complete finished film in the can and could say, "Here's the film, we've done it." But they still wouldn't give us the money until we had licenses for everything. It was a really horrible experience. We had to jump through so many hoops. We wasted weeks and weeks of time that we could have spent making the movie, trying to access this money. It was just really stupid. So for somebody who wants to make a movie, I would say, Don't waste your time looking for money. Just make it and then you'll be happy. You'll own the film afterwards.
If we had kept those rights in France and Germany, we would have been able to sell to broadcasters and do a theatrical [release] in those countries. We would have made a lot more money than we made with this "fake" production money.
D: So they thought because you were first-time filmmakers, you wouldn't work out?
AB: Yeah, nothing could make them trust us. It's a really corrupt funding system in France, in Europe and in the US. We didn't do that much better in the US either, with funds we were promised. The one exception was in Britain. The Channel 4 Brit Doc Foundation gave us $100,000; they actually delivered half of it two weeks after they promised it to us, and the rest incrementally. So they enabled [the film] to be made.
D: What was Arte's role?
AB: They're our broadcaster. They're putting it on French TV and German TV. They haven't been willing to move that so we could also do a theatrical. And they weren't willing to give us any money until the film was completely finished. So really, we got pretty much screwed by that whole deal by taking their help. After the film was finished, they gave a lot of money to do the color correction and all that stuff. But what we really needed the money for was to make the film, not to do the color correction. [laughs] About $60,000 went to the French producer, so we ended up with about half the money that was promised. We would have ended up with a lot more if we'd just kept the rights and sold it to a broadcaster like them, who would have paid that much, and a theatrical company. Live and learn.
D: So how were you able to fund it if you didn't get any initial financing?
AB: Well, our day jobs; we both teach at universities. And we would also write to our mailing list and say, "Help! Send us a little money we need to build a prop or something." There are those Survivaballs; we got them built from $5,000 from our mailing list. The movie was really, really cheap to make--up until the point when we had to finish it and do all the processing and post-production.
D: When did you actually start shooting?
AB: In 2004, when we did this BBC thing. We just went ourselves. Mike shot. I went in, [and appeared on the BBC]. We did some follow-up, some vérité. The 2003 film is all vérité; there's no narrator. It's all Mike facing the camera saying things. With this one, we decided we wouldn't bother with that. We would just film what happened and we'd think of the "glue" and how to hold it together afterwards. We were kind of aware of a plot in our heads as we were going along and we angled towards the deep issues we wanted to talk about in the film.
D: When did you decide when you would put in these stylized, humorous, transitional scenes?
AB: That was the idea of Kurt Engfehr, our co-director. We were wrestling together with him on how to build this film--how to make it, actually. Kurt had the brilliant idea: Let's go to "Absurdland." It doesn't matter that we don't have any footage of you guys thinking. We'll just recreate it in this completely stupid environment.
So we went underwater. We went to broken-down factories. We even shot some Bollywood in India. We just made these completely preposterous locations our mental home, and it's kind of truer than what really did happen because we can show ourselves doing these things; it's clowning. The main thing that that communicates, besides the plot elements, is that it's not rocket science. Here are these two bumbling guys living in this dilapidated warehouse, supposedly having these ideas, and you can see our thought processes and it's not very complicated.
We filmed for weeks in Absurdland and did all kinds of crazy things. But that's how we decided to tie it together--by creating a comic book version of our thinking because it's very simple thoughts that lead from one to the next. The main thing was to say, OK, we do this thing on the BBC, the stock tanks because of this thing [and] there's this whole system that prevents companies from doing the right thing. So how bad can that get, you know? Oh, global warming, and then the end of the world and these corporations, and then they'll lead us right into the wall gleefully. So everything we filmed after that was about that. The conferences were about how bad things could get and what we could do about it. And then finally there's the end--Let's change things, with the New York Times action. So the plot is really simple; we just had to plug in these things to make it work.
D: How many different Absurdland scenarios did you come up with?
AB: Dozens. All kinds of stuff. We're actually going to make a whole separate movie just from those. We'll work on that later. We're working on distribution and outreach for the film right now. We decided we would do it ourselves because we weren't so happy with the way United Artists distributed The Yes Men. They had a lot of muscle and they had a lot of money, but they didn't really listen to us and they ended up doing some really dorky promotion that didn't help the movie. So we decided, Well, we just spent five years making this thing; we should also distribute it.
D: How are you distributing it?
AB: We've teamed up with really smart people like Shadow Distribution, which did The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and some other great films. They're really dedicated and they work hard. And we've got a publicist here [in the Bay Area], Karen Larsen. In New York, we've got a run at the Film Forum in October. We got a big outreach grant from FACT. Juliette Timsit saw the film and saw the potential for activist involvement in it. So we've got an outreach coordinator. We're talking to activist groups around the country to make it effective for them and get people to theaters and somehow have those audiences be motivated to join up with these activist groups.
D: So that's your goal: to try to get audiences be active themselves?
AB: Yeah, that's the whole purpose of the film, really. And of course that's the purpose of all activist groups--to get people involved with what they're doing locally. There are reasons to be active everywhere in the country, everywhere in the world. And there are a lot of groups working on those issues. All they need is more people. We hope that people will go see the film because it's funny, and will then join a group afterwards when they're motivated to do something.
Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California.