Freakonomics Q&A at Silverdocs
June 21, 2010
The 8th annual AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival & Conference opened in Silver Spring, Maryland on Monday evening with a special screening of the film Freakonomics, based on Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Exposes the Hidden Side of Everything. The film features work by a “dream team” of documentary filmmakers, including Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Darkside), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Seth Gordon (King of Kong).
The production team allowed each director free reign to develop his or her story with few parameters or constraints. The result is a group of seemingly disparate short films – about everything from sumo wrestlers to high school freshman on the verge of failing out of school – each with its own unique visual style and voice, unified by the themes of the book and knit together with author interviews and playful animation. Magnolia Pictures has acquired domestic distribution rights to the film.
BBC host and NPR commentator Alvin Hall moderated a post-screening panel featuring the film’s Executive Producer Chad Troutwine as well as filmmakers Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. Here are some of the highlights:
AH: Since much of the film focuses on incentives, what were some of the incentives for you in deciding to do this film?
RG: Well this is how we make our living, so there was a financial incentive.
HE: And it was also about taking on the impossible and trying to make it work.
CT: I had invested in other films but had always dreamed of doing this film. It was material I was really passionate about. And when it came time to make the movie, I wanted the best filmmakers of all time. And my goal was to reach not the only the audience that had read the book, but the audiences that had “almost” read the book. It was a challenge from a filmmaking point of view, which was part of the fun, and I felt if we succeeded, the movie could really do well financially.
AH: [to Chad Troutwine] How did you decide who would do which piece?
CT: They decided for me…And the immense respect I had for all of these filmmakers made it easy to just trust them and let them go with it. After some initial meetings, each filmmaker had the choice to follow their own course.
AH: [to Alex Gibney] What about sumo wrestlers pulled you in? [Gibney’s piece explored how statistics can be used to show evidence of cheating in sumo wrestling.]
AG: I had spent time in Japan and loved sumo for some peculiar reason. I was intrigued by the investigative method [Levitt and Dubner] used – how can you tell when there’s cheating? And I was fascinated about this notion of purity vs. corruption and the idea that many times purity masks corruption and creates a façade. We played with color and black and white images in the film to underscore the ideas of artifice vs. truth and that behind the façade is another world and that’s what the numbers give you.
AH: Heidi and Rachel what about Urail? [One of the main kids featured in their segment exploring whether scholastic achievement in teens can be “bought.”]
RG: We’ve done a lot of films with young people or teens as subjects and they’re hilarious and fun and truth-tellers. They’re usually more honest than adults.
HE: We were hoping this experience would produce miracles, but both [of the main characters] were doing so badly, we weren’t sure who was going to make it. We were worried both wouldn’t.
AH: [to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady] Did you ever lose faith?
RG: No. We had such good characters that were fun to watch. Honestly, I didn’t think the experiment was going to work, but I knew we’d have a good story no matter what.
AH: [to Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady] Yours is the only story not actually in the book…
HE: The content of the book didn’t speak to our skills and interests. We prefer to follow stories with no punch line and you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. We called Levitt and asked what he was working on and he told us about this experiment with the economics department at University of Chicago to pay kids to get good grades and we were like ‘say what??’ – we thought it would be perfect for us, and Levitt agreed. While the story is not actually in the book, it’s all about the power of incentives [a major theme of the book.]
AH: [to Alex Gibney] How did translating the ideas from a book to film change how you presented the material?
AG: Well I think some really good movies are made from awful books, but this was a challenge because this was a good book. Purity and competition had nothing to do with that chapter – the book was trying to see if cheating was hard wired, but I wanted to see how corruption could prosper under the façade of purity. And we figured if we didn’t do something different, what was the point? The idea to link the Japanese story to the U.S. economic crisis came because we were doing the film at the time that all of these banks were collapsing and the heads of these institutions were leaving in disgrace. The financial crisis was a good way to look at it. These Wall Street guys were people we were supposed to revere, but in the end it turned out to be a façade. Much like those in the world of sumo, these men wanted to convince us they were glorious people. And I didn’t want people to perceive that cheating and corruption was something particular to Japan or Japanese culture. This is a human problem.
AH: [to Chad Troutwine] What’s your takeaway from doing this project?
CT: Freakonomics is a wonderful opportunity to ask questions – not to seek definite answers. It’s not the Oracle of Delphi but the chance to move toward a greater truth and to strike a balance between enlightenment and entertainment.