August 1, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Michael Moore's ready to bust loose from documentaries

Filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore may have made his last documentary with "Capitalism: A Love Story." (Douglas Tesner / Traverse City Record-Eagle)

Traverse City -- Michael Moore, by far the most successful documentary filmmaker of all time, is thinking of getting out of the business of making documentaries.

Not right away. He's got the sure-to-be-controversial "Capitalism: A Love Story" due in theaters Oct. 2. But after that?

"While I've been making this film I've been thinking that maybe this will be my last documentary," says the Flint native, who filmed and starred in such hits as "Sicko," "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." "Or maybe for a while."

Those three films make up half of the top six documentaries ever made, according to boxofficemojo.com. "Fahrenheit 9/11" is handily the highest earning documentary ever, with a domestic take of $119 million.

But now Moore's looking to branch out as a director.

"I have been working on two screenplays over the last couple of years," he says. "One's a comedy, one's a mystery, and I really want to do this."

Moore, 55, is sitting in the driver's seat of a dark green van, parked behind the Old Opera House here on Friday afternoon. He's both frazzled and buzzed.

He's just come from a public panel discussion with the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council, a cheerleading affair for the Michigan Film Incentives law and for the growth of the local film industry.

The discussion was part of the Traverse City Film Festival, celebrating its fifth year, which Moore created and which seems to grow exponentially each summer.

His wife, Kathy, is on the phone. He has to meet her for lunch and arrange some movie tickets for her folks.

Oh, and he has to deliver his first cut of "Capitalism: A Love Story" to the studio later that night.

If the movie does turn out to be his last documentary, some fans are sure to be disappointed.

"It would leave us with a big loss if he stopped making documentary films," says Ruth Daniels, vice president for marketing for Detroit-area Emagine theaters, who remembers showing Moore's films dating back to 1989's "Roger & Me."

"His documentaries do make quite a bit of money and he's paved the way for documentary movies to become mainstream," she says. "It will leave a void."

For now, though, Moore is caught up in the enthusiasm of the festival, which ends Sunday.

"This has been the best festival yet, certainly the smoothest run, the largest crowds," Moore says.

At the panel discussion, Moore said the festival had 37 percent more sponsors this year and advance ticket sales were up 25 percent, despite Michigan's economic woes.

Over the past five years, Moore said, the festival has sold a quarter-million movie tickets, and while he's happy the crowds keep coming, he's intent on keeping commercialism to a minimum.

Sponsorships are kept low-key, no commercials run before films, and industry wheeler-dealers -- agents, buyers, distributors -- don't make their way to Traverse City, although many of the filmmakers do.

"My goal is to keep it as a festival for movie lovers. The fact that you can park your car and walk to all the venues, it has a real communal feel here," Moore says. "You don't want this to be Park City (home to Utah's far more crowded and industry-oriented Sundance Film Festival)."

Unlike many cultural events, the festival seems to be wholly embraced by the town it's in. Many of the moviegoers are local and more than 1,000 people volunteer at the festival.

Moore is working full time in northern Michigan now, although his perspective certainly hasn't mellowed. In "Capitalism," the director -- who has explored America's health care system, its propensity for gun violence and its journey to war in Iraq -- is taking on nothing less than the American economic system.

"I thought, why don't I just go for it and go right to the source of the problem -- an economic system that is unfair, it's unjust and it's not democratic. And now we've learned it doesn't work," he says.

"This issue informs all my other movies. I started thinking if I can only make one more movie -- I started thinking this of course during the Bush years -- what would that movie be? And this is the movie."

From his first film, 1989's "Roger & Me," in which Moore roasted General Motors, his sense of humor and strong point of view have outraged many critics while drawing huge audiences.

Moore says "objectivity is a nonsensical concept that's really been misused" and that his approach to documentaries is to make sure they're good, informative, entertaining movies first.

"The term documentary got pigeonholed a long time ago, and 20 years ago when I made 'Roger & Me,' I guess my hope was to bust loose through that strict structure and perception of what a documentary should be and allow it to be everything any other work of nonfiction can be," he says. "A nonfiction book can be a book of both fact and opinion, it can be just fact, it can be just opinion."

"Humor is OK in a documentary. Before me, I was told it had to be castor oil. No, you're making a movie; you're making a piece of entertainment. You're asking someone to leave the house on a Friday night to go to a movie."

But time's a-wasting and Moore has to dash off into his busy day. To pick up his wife. Pick up his in-laws. Grab some lunch. And then go finish what may be the last documentary he ever makes.

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