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How to Make a Guerrilla Documentary

The New York Times Magazine, July 11, 2004

Outfoxed movie posterThe offices of Robert Greenwald Productions occupy a slightly rundown, horseshoe-shaped building in Los Angeles, just down the street from Culver Studios, the legendary movie facility where ”Gone With the Wind” and ”Citizen Kane” were filmed. Back in the day, the R.G.P. building, then a motel, was used by studio executives for liaisons with starlets and mistresses. Though no longer a Hollywood love nest, it still has a whiff of the illicit about it — and still operates in the shadow of several corporate studios.

Robert Greenwald, a 58-year-old film producer and director with a number of commercially respectable B-list movies under his belt, has always tried to imbue his work with a left-leaning political sensibility. R.G.P. has been involved in the making of some 50 movies, including ”Steal This Movie,” a 2000 film based on the life of the radical activist (and Greenwald’s friend) Abbie Hoffman, and ”Crooked E,” a satirical TV movie about Enron’s collapse that CBS broadcast last year. Greenwald is presumably the only director in Hollywood to adorn his workspace with a quotation from Walt Whitman’s ”Leaves of Grass”: ”The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”

One morning in late May, I visited Greenwald at his studio to watch the making of his latest documentary, ”Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” which will have its premiere this Tuesday at the New School University in New York. Over the past couple of years, Greenwald has developed a ”guerrilla” method of documentary filmmaking, creating timely political films on short schedules and small budgets and then promoting and selling them on DVD through partnerships with grass-roots political organizations like The process, in addition to being swift, allows him to avoid the problems of risk-averse studios and finicky distributors. His 2003 film ”Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War,” a documentary that was critical of the Bush administration’s drive to war, took only four and a half months from conception to completion, coming out on DVD last November as public doubts about the war began to grow.

”Outfoxed” has been made in secret. The film is an obsessively researched expose of the ways in which Fox News, as Greenwald sees it, distorts its coverage to serve the conservative political agenda of its owner, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. It features interviews with former Fox employees, leaked policy memos written by Fox executives and extensive footage from Fox News, which Greenwald is using without the network’s permission. The result is an unwavering argument against Fox News that combines the leftist partisan vigor of a Michael Moore film with the sober tone and delivery of a PBS special. A large portion of the film’s $300,000 budget came in the form of contributions in the range of $80,000 from both MoveOn and the Center for American Progress, the liberal policy organization founded by John Podesta, the former chief of staff for Bill Clinton; Greenwald, who is not looking to earn any money from the project, provided the rest.

A week after its New School premiere, the film will be shown throughout the country in hundreds of small local screenings, arranged by MoveOn, where people will be able to watch and discuss it. Though the existence of ”Outfoxed” has been quietly publicized, its particular nature and content have been closely guarded for fear, Greenwald says, that Fox would try to stop the film’s release by filing a copyright-infringement lawsuit. Nobody has ever made a critical documentary about a media company that uses as much footage without permission as Greenwald has, and the legal precedents governing the ”fair use” of such material, while theoretically strong, are not well established in case law. He has retained the services of several intellectual-property lawyers and experts to help him navigate the ambiguous legal terrain. (A Fox News representative, in response to several phone calls, said that no one in the legal department was available to comment on copyright issues.)

If Greenwald is lucky, Fox will be gun-shy, having earned nothing but public chiding when it brought a trademark lawsuit last year against Al Franken, whose book ”Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” ironically appropriated Fox News’s signature phrase ”fair and balanced.” (The judge dismissed the suit as ”wholly without merit.”) But if Fox does sue, the fate of Greenwald’s film is uncertain. Dennis Reiff, an insurance broker who has helped underwrite legally sensitive documentaries like Michael Moore’s ”Fahrenheit 9/11” and Morgan Spurlock’s ”Super Size Me,” says that typically ”even the mere threat of a lawsuit can stop a documentary in its tracks.” Greenwald is optimistic but guarded. ”I want to make a great film,” he says. ”But I’d like to do so without losing my house and spending the rest of my life in court.”

A visitor to Greenwald’s office could be forgiven for thinking that he had stumbled across a dot-com startup. It is a 24-hour-a-day operation, crammed with computers, monitors, cables, digital recorders, DVD-burners and high-bandwidth Internet lines. One morning when I arrived, a group of bleary-eyed filmmakers were finishing up their night’s work and putting on a fresh pot of coffee for the day-shift editors, who were just trickling in.

”Outfoxed” was made in an unusually collaborative fashion. In January, Greenwald rigged up a dozen DVD recorders and programmed them to record Fox News 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about six months. After scrutinizing the initial footage, Greenwald and a team of researchers compiled a list of what they saw as Fox’s telltale themes and techniques: stories questioning the patriotism of liberals; relentlessly upbeat reports on Iraq; belligerent hosts who scream at noncompliant guests. Greenwald planned for the list’s categories eventually to become organizing sections of the film. As he envisioned it, the film clips grouped by theme, together with voice-overs and commentary, would lay bare Fox’s tactics, frame by frame.

Once the list of categories was complete, Greenwald asked MoveOn to round up 10 volunteers, each of whom was assigned a particular time slot during the day to monitor Fox, so that the network’s news stories or commentaries were under observation virtually 24 hours a day. When a MoveOn volunteer would spot an example of footage that fit one of Greenwald’s categories, he would note the date and precise time and send the information in an e-mail message to Greenwald, who had an assistant code it and transfer it to a spreadsheet.

By May, Greenwald had received enough examples to construct a rough outline of the film. He then hired five editors — politically passionate filmmakers who can command up to $1,000 a day for TV commercials and movie trailers but who accepted $150 a day for the chance to work on the project. In the evenings, two editors would consult Greenwald’s spreadsheets and locate the flagged footage in his vast library of Fox News segments. During the day, the three other editors worked simultaneously on separate parts of the movie, stitching together a coherent narrative from the Fox clips as well as interviews that Greenwald conducted with former Fox employees (some of them disguised to protect their identities) and commentators like the former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite and the liberal media critics Mark Crispin Miller and Eric Alterman. At the end of each day, the editors posted their work on a secure Web site for Greenwald’s review.

It is not exactly earth-shattering, of course, to learn that Fox is more conservative than other news networks. What ”Outfoxed” does is detail the specific ways, both onscreen and behind the scenes, in which the network’s conservatism shapes its news and opinion programs. The most stinging blow that ”Outfoxed” delivers to Fox’s ”fair and balanced” claim comes in a segment of the film on the daily memos apparently sent to the entire Fox news operation by John Moody, Fox News’s senior vice president for news and editorial. The memos, which Greenwald says were provided by two unnamed employees at the network, set the agenda for how events will be covered. One memo, thought to have been circulated at Fox in April, instructs employees how to report on the increasing number of American fatalities in Iraq: ”Do not fall into the easy trap of mourning the loss of U.S. lives,” it reads. Another memo outlines the approach to covering the United States military’s siege on Falluja: ”It won’t be long before some people start to decry the use of ‘excessive force,”’ it says. ”We won’t be among that group.” A third, on the 9/11 Commission, is equally firm: ”The fact that former Clinton and both former and current Bush administration officials are testifying gives it a certain tension, but this is not ‘what did he know and when did he know it’ stuff,” it cautions. ”Do not turn this into Watergate.”

Greenwald is pleased with the finished product. ”I wanted to use Fox’s own words and images to show exactly what they do,” he says. ”Fox is a Republican, not merely a conservative, network.”

The walls and bookshelves of Greenwald’s office testify to his longstanding passion for liberal and left-wing causes: a photo of Coretta Scott King; a ”Free Leonard Peltier” poster; books by Robert McChesney, the left-leaning media critic. Greenwald got hooked on making documentaries in 2000, when two filmmakers, Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler, came to him with hundreds of hours of film they had shot during the Florida recount. With his help, they produced ”Unprecedented,” a 2002 documentary about how the Bush campaign prevailed in that contest.

Last year, Greenwald followed up that effort with ”Uncovered,” his critique of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq, which featured interviews with former intelligence analysts, weapons inspectors and Foreign Service officers. Once the film wrapped, Greenwald turned the traditional distribution model on its head. Rather than taking the time-consuming route of entering film festivals or courting theater distributors, he sold the DVD of ”Uncovered” through the Web sites of various left-liberal organizations: MoveOn, The Nation magazine, the Center for American Progress and the alternative-news Web sites AlterNet and BuzzFlash. After about 23,000 orders in the first two days, the courtyard of the R.G.P. building was filled with stacks of DVD’s waiting to be mailed out. When the number of orders hit 100,000, Greenwald enlisted a commercial distributor, which sold an additional 20,000 copies.

The populist MoveOn and the more centrist Center for American Progress collaborated with Greenwald on ”Uncovered.” Both sensed that film was becoming an important medium for disseminating their anti-Bush, antiwar messages — different though the organization’s politics are — and both provided financial support and helped spread the word. Podesta says that this kind of multimedia, multiorganization project is an effective way of reaching a younger demographic, which policy groups traditionally have difficulty courting. ”Given the choice between sponsoring a policy book that nobody reads and a documentary that sells 100,000 copies and is seen all over the country,” he says, ”I’ll opt for the latter.” In the first half of what Greenwald calls his ”upstairs-downstairs” distribution model, Podesta saw to it that every member of the United States Senate and House of Representatives was invited to a screening of ”Uncovered”; the Center for American Progress also sponsored additional screenings at other elite institutions in Washington and Cambridge, Mass.

Meanwhile, ”downstairs,” MoveOn alerted its 2.2 million members to the film and sponsored about 2,600 ”house parties” on the night that ”Uncovered” was released. From Anchorage to Boston, people plugged their ZIP code into MoveOn’s Web site, located the nearest party and watched and discussed the film with a few dozen of their fellow citizens.

Lawrence Konner, a screenwriter and producer whose production company, the Documentary Campaign, made ”Persons of Interest,” a film about Muslim detainees in the United States, says that ”Uncovered” ”demonstrated to the rest of us that there was a new way of marketing a documentary.” The film’s grass-roots success attracted a distributor, Cinema Libre, which took it to Cannes and sold it all over the world. A new version with additional material is scheduled for theatrical release in the United States on Aug. 13.

Greenwald’s office is now a veritable progressive-documentary incubator: future projects include a brief film for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and ”Unconstitutional,” a movie about post-9/11 civil liberties violations that is supported by the A.C.L.U. Some in the entertainment industry argue that the collaboration between Greenwald and his political partners promises a new paradigm — one in which Hollywood entertainers contribute their skills to a political cause rather than just their cash and left-leaning pieties. ”It used to be that the only time political people came to Hollywood was to go to parties and raise money,” says Julie Bergman Sender, who has produced films like ”G.I. Jane” and made short issue-advocacy films for political groups like America Coming Together, the grass-roots organization backed by George Soros. ”But now we’re showing them that we can do more than write checks.”

Jim Gilliam, a 26-year-old former dot-com executive and a producer of ”Outfoxed,” is enthusiastic about the way Greenwald’s projects meld grass-roots politics with the culture of the Internet. He predicts a future — augured by events like MoveOn’s competition for the best 30-second anti-Bush advertisement — in which young political filmmakers will be as likely to wield a camera phone as a digital camera. ”It won’t be long before people will be shooting and editing short documentaries that they’ll stream from their blogs,” he says. If the Internet, as media critics like Jon Katz have suggested, has resuscitated the fiery journalistic spirit of Thomas Paine, guerrilla documentaries offer to put that polemical attitude in the director’s chair.

Two weeks before production for ”Outfoxed” had to lock so that it would be ready for its July 13 premiere, the atmosphere at the meeting in Greenwald’s office was somewhat giddy, the staff burned out from late nights and seven-day workweeks. Greenwald lightened the mood by passing out ”Faux News Channel” T-shirts (”We Distort, You Comply”) that were sent to him by someone who wants to distribute ”Outfoxed.” Good news came over the speakerphone from a woman clearing rights for the movie: Eric Clapton had granted permission to use ”Layla” at no charge — his generosity said to be inspired by his dislike of Rupert Murdoch. (Don Henley, no stranger to liberal causes, has granted permission for ”Dirty Laundry” to accompany a sequence in the film on the birth of Fox News.)

”O.K., we have only 16 days, so what’s left?” Greenwald asked. It turned out to be a lot. Sound editing, color correction, mixing. Video was still being downloaded as the editors looked for material to fill narrative gaps in the film; many segments were still in rough shape. Then there was the fact that several major news organizations were unexpectedly refusing to license their clips. (Such licensing is ordinarily pro forma.) CBS wouldn’t sell Greenwald the clip of Richard Clarke’s appearance on ”60 Minutes,” explaining that it didn’t want to be associated with a controversial documentary about Murdoch. WGBH, the Boston PBS station, wouldn’t let Greenwald use excerpts from ”Frontline” for fear of looking too ”political,” it said.

Greenwald argues that this represents precisely the kind of corporate control of public information that he and his legal team want to challenge by strengthening the right to fair use — the legal principle that allows you to use copyrighted material without permission for purposes of commentary, criticism or parody. Despite the principle’s self-evident logic — consider the impossible position of a critic forbidden to quote from the book he is reviewing — it is murky in practice, and nowhere more so than in film. Part of the problem is that while a fair-use claim might stand a good chance of prevailing in court, as a practical matter the high costs of litigation force most filmmakers to simply remove the material in question.

The legal strategy for ”Outfoxed” was still being devised by Greenwald’s legal team, which includes the Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and Chris Sprigman, a fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. Lessig and Sprigman were deciding whether it would be most advantageous to go through the motions of asking Fox for permission (which it would very likely refuse), to release the film and wait to see whether Fox would sue or to ask a judge to rule on their claims right away by issuing a so-called declaratory judgment.

Glancing around the office, Greenwald took in the news of the various permission setbacks and other loose ends with a weary look. He made it clear to the staff that they would all be working on Memorial Day, and every day after that until June 21, when the film locked. ”Let’s just go out there and make the perfect movie,” he said as he sent the team back to their editing docks, ”and we’ll figure out what we’ll actually be able to use later on.”

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