Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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April 4th, 2013 3:55 PM

Roger Ebert and 'Roger & Me'

Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore

I had shown a cut of [Roger & Me] to three film festival selection committees — Telluride, Toronto, and New York. They all liked it and accepted it to be shown at each of their festivals in September 1989. I had also shown an early rough cut of the movie to my two sisters. They sat with me in our parents' home and watched it. They said nice things to me and encouraged me to keep working on it. What they didn't tell me (until years later) was that they were mortified about how poorly put together they thought the film was. They spoke quietly to one another — "What should we say to him? How can we let him down easy?" —but they couldn't find a way. They didn't want to burst my bubble as I seemed so excited about what the final film would look like. So they said nothing. But they did make a pact with each other to be there at the first film festival screening so that I wouldn't be alone in my moment of public humiliation.

The first festival turned out to be in Telluride, Colorado, over Labor Day weekend. The festival paid my way (as I was truly broke by then). Some of my crew got out there and back on the money they'd raise by hawking handmade silk-screened T-shirts and buttons of the movie's logo on the streets of Telluride.

The week before the festival I went into a panic that I had picked the wrong title for the film. I called up the festival organizer, Bill Pence, and told him that I was changing the name of the film to Bad Day in Buick City.

"No, you are not," he said quite forcefully into the phone. "The name of this film is the one you gave it — Roger & Me — and that's the perfect name. You're not changing it.

Besides, we already sent the program guide to the printer." I was bummed out but afraid to say anything else. I hung up the phone.

When I arrived in Telluride and was handed the program guide, I noticed something awful: the festival had decided to schedule my opening at the same time as their big opening night gala film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover by the British director Peter Greenaway. The opening gala film would be held in the town's historic Opera House. My film would have its "world premiere" in Masons Hall down at the other end of town. Masons Hall! Was I supposed to feel good about this? Like, be thankful it's not the Kiwanis? Or, God forbid, the Elks Lodge? I tried to see all the positives in that. Well, I mean, after all, who was I? No one here knew me, I had never made a movie, and, let's be honest: it was a documentary! So I guess I understood why its opening was being buried. Oh well.

Before the Telluride Opening Night Gala, the town blocks off the main street and throws an opening night party for all the filmmakers and passholders to the festival. My sisters and their husbands and kids had driven all the way from San Diego — they were following through on their promise to each other to be there in Telluride to catch me when I fell. My crew and I showed up to the party early and availed ourselves of the free food (while selling more buttons and T-shirts). It was then that I spotted the film critic, Roger Ebert, who, along with his TV co-host Gene Siskel, were the most well-known film critics in the country. I decided to approach him and invite him to my movie.

"Hi," I said. "My name is Michael Moore. I'm from Flint, Michigan, and I have a film here in the festival. It's called Roger & Me. And I'd really love for you to see it!"

"I am going to see it — tomorrow at noon at the Nugget Theater," Ebert responded, as he reached for another hors d'oeuvre. I was impressed that he already knew about me!

"Well, it's going to have its world premiere tonight, in about an hour, at Masons Hall. I'd love for you to be there."

"Thank you, but I have tickets for the opening night gala at the Opera House."

"That's what I figured, but I think you should be at the very first screening of my movie. I think you'll really like it. And you can say you saw it here first!"

"Like I said, I have tickets to the opening. I've already spent something like eight hundred dollars for them."

"But Roger," I pleaded, using his first name as if we knew each other, something that he clearly didn't like. "I just know you will want to be at the premiere of this. You haven't seen anything like it. It's about the Midwest where we're both from. It —"

He cut me off.

"Listen," he said pointedly, "I said I would see it tomorrow and I will, and that is that. And now if you'll excuse me." And with that, he walked away from me, perturbed, annoyed, maybe even pissed: Who was this jerkoff from Flint bugging the shit out of me?

I felt like an idiot. Now, I'd be lucky if he even came tomorrow, let alone end up liking the movie. Why did I have to slide into that stalker voice? Oh, the desperation that was painted like a billboard across my face!

One of my buddies who worked on the film, Rod Birleson, tried to console me. "Don't worry, Mike. He said he'd come tomorrow and he will. He probably appreciated your enthusiasm."

"Yeah," I said. "The enthusiasm of a serial killer."

The street party was drawing to a close, and the well-heeled were heading into the Opera House for the gala. The rest of us wandered down to the end of Main Street, to where the Order of Masons meet, to unspool our masterpiece.

Remarkably, when we got to the "theater," even though we were put up against the opening night film, the place was packed.

About five minutes before showtime, I looked out the window of the hall and saw a lone figure, a stout man, waddling down the street toward Masons Hall. It was none other than Roger Ebert. He walked in the door and saw his stalker standing there.

"Don't say a word," he ordered, putting his hand up and averting his eyes from mine. "I'm here. That's all that needs to be said."

"But —" I said, disobeying him — and being cut off by him in the same instant.

"I'm only here because there was this strange look in your eyes, a look that told me maybe I better be there. So here I am." He went into the theater and took the last available seat, three rows from the back. No pressure now.

I went in and took my seat in the last row. My sisters had positioned themselves on each side of my seat so they could both sit directly next to me, to comfort me in their role as the good sisters that they were (and are), to be there for me in my moment of impending embarrassment and failure. The lights in Masons Hall began to dim, and as the theater went dark, Anne and Veronica each grabbed a hand of mine and held it tightly. All would be well, no matter what.

At that moment, the music began and the title of the film appeared on the screen...

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