One of the year’s best documentaries is Brad Lichtenstein’s “As Goes Janesville,” a remarkably even-handed portrait of the financial crisis and its impact on working-class Americans. The closing of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin dismantles the lives of longtime employees, who are forced to either return to school (like the plucky Cindy Deegan) or relocate to a different plant (like Gayle Listenbee and Angela Hodges) while leaving their families behind. Mary Willmer, Community President of BMO Harris Bank, champions entrepreneurial ventures and enthusiastically supports the efforts of the controversial initiative “Rock County 5.0,” as well as the governorship of Scott Walker (who Lichtenstein caught on camera delivering his now-infamous “divide and conquer” line).
Lichtenstein spoke with Indie Outlook about his efforts to bring a human face to the national discourse while creating a film that is truly fair and balanced.
Q: Tell me about your company, 371 Productions.
A: I started 371 when I moved to Wisconsin. I grew up in Atlanta, but I was living in New York since college, and I worked at a film company there called Lumiere Productions. I worked on a film about the history of the Religious Right, a series about local news and I also made my first feature, “Ghosts of Attica.” Then when I moved to Wisconsin in 2003, I started 371 and made a film called “Almost Home,” which is a feature doc about people who live and work in a nursing home. I was also teaching film at UW-Milwaukee, and started a documentary center called docUWM. We put students in the role of producers and directors, and we would match them to clients or raise money and have them do documentaries for television. They produced a couple hours of TV that were distributed to some of the public stations. I ran that center for five years and in 2008, I left so I could focus on filmmaking full-time. That’s when I immediately started the Janesville project.
That same year, I participated in the Bay Area Video Coalition Producers Institute, and it changed my life. It’s a competitive program where they select some filmmakers and projects and take them to an institute in San Francisco that has been leading our industry in technological outreach. It helps you think about your project not just in terms of the story alone, but in a transmedia context. Ever since I went through that, I’ve stopped thinking about making films in the narrow sense of making a film, which is still a heck of a lot to do in itself. [laughs] I’ve always thought about outreach and engagement, and when I was at Lumiere, we did those sorts of projects. For the last four or five years, we’ve been doing workshops around the country with “Almost Home.” There are two major engagements linked to “Janesville.” One is a face-to-face community engagement project called “BizLab,” where we’re building partnerships between business and labor and civic groups and trying to have the difficult discussions that the people fail to have in the “Janesville” film. The project allows them to talk about developing an economy at the same time as they talk about wages and jobs. “BizVizz” is born out of the issue of corporate transparency that gets raised by the subplot in “Janesville” about the recruitment of Shine Medical Technologies [a risky startup company supported by Rock County 5.0 as a potential job creator].
Q: What inspired you to set the film in Janesville?
A: I wanted to tell a story about the economy. As a filmmaker, you have to look at the marketplace and see what stories are already in the works. I knew that there were some films out there that were trying to either dissect the financial crisis and help us understand it or were chronicling the fall of America’s economy from different perspectives. I felt like there was room for and a necessity to have someone tell the story about the reinvention of a community and the personal reinvention that people undergo when they have such a dramatic, life-changing experience like losing a job. That’s what drew me to find a story like that. My wife is from Janesville, and part of the reason why we moved from New York to Wisconsin is we have family out here. My wife and I have been together for 17 years, and over the years, I’ve visited Janesville and gotten to know the community. I already knew [Democratic State Senator] Tim Cullen because my father-in-law had introduced me to him years ago. My father-in-law and Paul Ryan’s late father were law partners, so I knew the Ryans already. In fact, one of the first people I talked to in town was Tobin Ryan, who is Paul’s older brother. He’s a venture capitalist kind of guy.
When I first started thinking about the film, the GM plant was slated for closure, but not as quickly as it ended up happening. I thought, “This is a huge story that General Motors, the world’s largest corporation, is in the throes of going bankrupt.” A couple months after the planet closed, I went down and started meeting people. I was trying to get access to a committee consisting of Democrats and Republicans that were trying to convince GM to put a new product into their plant and reopen it. Tennessee, Michigan and Wisconsin were all competing for the Chevy Cruze and Michigan got it. I met a lot of people there, and talking to them was part of the casting process. The [success] of a character-driven film really depends on the quality of the characters. I met Cindy [Deegan] early on, and she blew me away. She was the picture of resilience and she was already enrolled in school when I met her. She was helping everyone with their homework, and telling everyone in the room how to get reimbursed for their gas mileage when they go to school.
Q: What makes this film a perfect fit for the Kartemquin brand is its even-handed approach to the subject matter.
A: When I was at Lumiere, we always talked about making films that offered the audience multiple ways into the story. We wanted to challenge people’s assumptions, and the way you do that is not through a polemic. You need to give people an opportunity to connect with the characters. If they end up connecting with a character that they disagree with politically, then they get challenged. You can’t dismiss them because they’re human like you. With Mary, the audiences keep saying that they disagree with her politics but they really love her and how determined she is. At one of the screenings, there was one guy who said, “I’m an unabashed Communist, and I was completely taken with Mary. I can’t believe it, but I actually like her.” Then I feel like we’ve done our job. My mode of filmmaking totally fits with Kartemquin. When I moved out to Milwaukee, it was hard to leave behind the documentary community in New York. The film community in Milwaukee is extremely supportive, but it’s small and it isn’t experienced with making documentaries at a national level. I very deliberately set out to meet the Kartemquin folks.
Q: How did you want this film to enhance the national conversation regarding the economy?
A: Most of the conversations that we have about the economy in our national discourse these days are focused on the GDP or unemployment numbers. There’s a problem with that. When the economy crashed, many people lost their jobs. We told those stories for a hot minute, and then it was over. What I hope comes through in this film is that the ramifications of those job losses continue to effect families for years and years, maybe a generation. Gayle [Listenbee] and Angie [Hodges] are dealing with a separation from their family that is not going away. Gayle says that she’s going to miss all of [her son] Spencer’s years in school. My kids are now in 2nd and 5th grade. If I left now and couldn’t come back until 2016, I would miss all of my [eldest son’s] middle school years. These are the issues that are being neglected when we think about job loss.
As for the story about Shine Medical, I hope it makes people understand that economic development is a really challenging game. You might agree with Mary and feel like the risk is worth it, or you might find that the risk is not worth it as evidenced by the lack of transparency. When people hear that Hewlett Packard is opening up a data center in Muskegon, Michigan, most of them might think that it’s a great job opportunity, but do we really know what happened to lead to that decision? How much money in state or local subsidy was put up? How transparent was the process, how much do those jobs pay, how willing is the company to actually make an investment that isn’t going to be temporary? This film deals with all of these questions and I hope will ultimately help people understand these issues a lot more in-depth.
It’s different from a polemical film. “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is one of my favorite investigative documentaries of all time. They’re trying to set the record straight on what happened at Enron. My film doesn’t really do that. It is trying to humanize the stories of our economic crisis in a way that helps people connect to them and talk about them. What I’ve been trying to do out in the world and through “BizLab” is help people understand that the political polarization that we’re experiencing right now doesn’t help solve our economic crisis at all.
Q: What makes the Shine Medical scene so troubling is the way in which the legislation is pushed through with little to no regard for the risk factor. When city council member Yuri Rashkin attempts to voice his opinion that Shine may not be a worthy venture, he’s silenced.
A: Right. When I constructed that scene in the editing room, I was trying to reconstruct the experience that I had [at the vote]. Even Tim Cullen, who ends up being in opposition to Rock County 5.0, felt like there didn’t need to be more transparency. Yet what I was seeing was all of this collusion. I approached every city council member and asked if I could film them when they were talking with [Shine Medical CEO] Greg Piefer, because I knew that he was lobbying each of them, either in small groups or individually. I could tell that the Rock County 5.0 people knew that I was making these requests because I would get a call back where they were like, “We’ve decided how we could do this for you.” So I knew I was being spun, and I went and filmed one of these [staged scenes]. It was with the woman who interrupted Yuri Rashkin. She staged a conversation with Greg Piefer for me, while trying to display the notion that Shine Medical was a good thing to invest in and that the concerns about risk were misplaced and that the public had nothing to worry about. They also had an open house where they said, “Please come learn about Shine Medical and ask all of your questions,” but the truth is that there was not a framework in which there could be dissent or discussion. It was entirely created as artifice by the company.
Rock County 5.0 had been dodgy with me anyway during the two-and-a-half years of filming. I told them over and over that I had to film them actually meeting with a company and courting them. I kept trying to figure out how I could get into these meetings, and then I met Greg at the business banquet where Walker stands under that giant “Wisconsin is Open for Business” sign and the protestors are outside. I just asked Greg on the spot, “I’m doing this PBS documentary, can I just film with you tomorrow?” I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to spin me, and I ended up going over to his place three days later. He’s a good guy, but the facts are the facts. It’s an incredibly risky venture. Thank god the city manager of Janesville felt compelled to speak honestly when the camera was on. Otherwise, I don’t think I would’ve gotten anyone of any authority to definitively say how risky it was.
Q: How did the footage you shot of Governor Walker’s “divide and conquer” line enter the national conversation?
A: I shot that in January or February of 2011. I was upstairs waiting for the governor like everyone else, and [Rock County co-chair] Diane [Hendricks] said that she wanted to go down and greet him. I asked if I could come along, and she said, “Sure.” What you see in the film is a big chunk of it. The entire scene that I shot is about six minutes. The substantive part is about four-and-a-half minutes. They talk about collective bargaining, tort reform and reigning in the administrative code. I cut together a trailer to use for fundraising purposes. I always promise my subjects that they will get to see a rough cut before the public sees anything. I scheduled the screening in April. If you’ve done your job of accurately reflecting who the people really are, then the subjects won’t have a problem with it. Mary was a little concerned–she was a little jumpy about a lot of things–but she didn’t bring up anything about the “divide and conquer” line. She was more concerned about the name of her bank being disclosed, which I refused to change. I don’t give my subjects editorial control anyway.
After the April screening, I started showing some clips in anticipation of our November broadcast. We got our website up, and I started showing some clips to labor groups and university groups, and I included the scene that had the “divide and conquer” clip. People started talking about it and two reporters got wind of it. We decided to work with a reporter in Milwaukee because he was local. There was already a relationship between him and our outreach director, so we thought that we could trust him. We wanted him to embargo the story until we were ready for it to go out, and the reason was that we needed to complete the process of getting our errors and omissions insurance squared away. That meant we needed to go through our rights clearances and examine all of the material in the film to make sure that it wasn’t susceptible to a libel lawsuit or any of the other issues that would potentially come up. Our agreement with the reporter was that before we released the trailer on our website, we would give him a head start and let him release the article. In return, he agreed to give me time before he published the article to call all of the principle characters and let them know about the news story coming out.
Given that there was so much delay in the process, which was my fault, we ended up being right in the middle of the recall election. I didn’t realize that it was going to happen, but here we were with this really incendiary clip. Suddenly the Barrett campaign was making a big deal out of it, which meant that we needed to ask them to explicitly put on their website that we don’t endorse them in any way. An AP reporter called, and once that happened, it was on the front page of the Huffington Post all day, and that led to MSNBC shows having it on every night for a week. That was crazy, and that has been the most challenging thing for me because it soured my relationship with Mary and Rock County 5.0. We’ve not had a cordial relationship since, and we’re only just now starting to talk again through Facebook. It’s unfortunate because I really want Mary to be a part of this discussion that’s been happening all over the country. So many people already have a judgment about the film based on that clip and they just assume that it’s an anti-Walker, partisan film.
Q: That’ll change once people see the film.
A: The more we can get people to watch it, the better.