MIAMI — Michael Moore was standing on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2004 when CNN’s Bill Hemmer jabbed a microphone in his face and said “I’ve heard people say they wish Michael Moore was dead.”
“I tried to recall if I’d ever heard a journalist ask anyone that question before on live television,” Moore writes in “Here Comes Trouble,” his collection of autobiographical short stories. “Dan Rather did not ask Saddam Hussein that question. I’m pretty sure Stone Phillips didn’t ask serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, either. Perhaps, maybe, Larry King asked Liza once — but I don’t think so.”
The tale has a happy ending: Moore confronted Hemmer after the cameras were turned off, and “within the year (Hemmer) would leave CNN and move to Fox News, where he should have been in the first place.” Only three pages into his book, Moore has already laid out the tone and content of the rest of what’s to follow.
Written in the same breezy, conversational style he has honed through his live performances and documentaries — laugh-out loud funny but also poignant and moving, self-aggrandizing but convincingly humble — “Here Comes Trouble” reveals a side of Moore you might have never known existed. The book draws on his life experiences from his birth in Flint, Mich., in 1954 to 1989, when at 35 he made his directorial debut with “Roger&Me” (he hounded Roger Ebert into seeing the film at the Telluride Film Festival — “I said I would see it tomorrow and I will, and that is that,” an exasperated Ebert snapped at him).
True to the book’s title, Moore makes trouble everywhere he goes, like Forrest Gump’s mischievous brother: He gets kicked out of seminary school, he creates a whirlwind of controversy for the Elks Club, he pushes the Flint school board to catch up with the times and he cheerfully rakes the local muck by founding an alternative newspaper. Along the way, there are cameos by some of the most iconic names of the 20th century, including John Lennon, Ronald Reagan and Kurt Vonnegut.
Many of the chapters in “Here Comes Trouble” also take sudden turns, delving into emotional subject matter — homophobia, suicide, a botched abortion, Vietnam and the death of his mother — that Moore handles with the candor and skill of a natural-born storyteller. The filmmaker has written wildly popular books in the past (including the best-sellers “Dude, Where’s My Country?” and “Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American.”) But he has never written one this heartfelt or engaging.
Reading “Here Comes Trouble,” you can practically hear Moore inside your head as if he was telling you these stories himself — a voice instantly familiar from his films (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”) and TV shows (“The Awful Truth.”)
“I wanted to write a very honest book in my authentic voice,” Moore said from New York. “It’s the most time I’ve spent on any book I’ve written, because it was so important to me that I do this right. I’ve wanted to write this book for some time, in part because there’s been a fictional character created by the name of Michael Moore by Fox News and AM Hate Radio. At first I found it humorous, hearing them describe this treacherous, treasonous person. But after a while, I realized that people actually listen and believe what they hear on these shows. People don’t really know who I am.”
Although Moore has always starred in his own films, he had never made himself the subject until now.
“My work is not about navel-gazing, so I never thought one of my priorities was to let people in on who I am or how I got to be the way I am,” he says. “But after President Obama was elected and inaugurated, I felt that a lot of the work I had done in the decade leading up to that election had culminated in getting the Republicans out of the White House and Congress,” Moore said. “The nation had moved toward my political place. When I accepted the Oscar for ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (four days after the start of the Iraq War) maybe 20 percent of the population opposed the war. Now more than 60 percent of people are against it. The needle had shifted to the things I had been working toward. So I thought this was the right time to write this book.”
That 2003 Oscar acceptance speech, during which Moore criticized President Bush, is one of the incidents recounted in depth in the book. As with many of the other stories in “Here Comes Trouble,” Moore hooks you with humor, revealing “the first two words every Oscar winner hears right after you win the Oscar and leave the stage come from two attractive young people in evening wear hired by the Academy to immediately greet you behind the curtain.”
On one side, a woman in a designer gown asks “Champagne?” On the other, a man in a smart tuxedo asks “Breath mint?” As Moore tells it, he got a bonus third word.
“An angry stagehand came right up to the side of my head, screaming as loud as he could in my ear: ‘A—hole!’”
The story is initially hilarious, but becomes less so as Moore reveals that the fallout didn’t end that night. Instead, it followed Moore and his wife home, ultimately reaching a frightening intensity of hate mail, death threats, trespassing and public confrontations with ordinary people.
“Why was none of this reported? Because all of us were so discombobulated by the start of this war that nobody was thinking straight, including me,” Moore says. “All people wanted to focus on was ‘How could he say that? We just sent our boys over there!’ And everyone went into that kind of mode. When my wife and I got home, there were signs nailed to our trees (GET OUT! MOVE TO CUBA! TRAITOR!) that had been there for days. It was a kind of personal purgatory that I had to suffer through for a while after that. I have not spoken of it or written about it until now.”
Littered throughout “Here Comes Trouble” are also the seeds that would eventually blossom and point Moore toward a career in filmmaking, from a chance visit to Flint by Hollywood fat cats Ron Shelton and Roger Donaldson, who were researching a film they never made, to Moore’s insistence on driving 300 miles to Toronto to see a movie. “Get in the car! I refuse to see ‘Apocalypse Now’ in Flint because it does not have the surround sound stereo and the ending that Coppola wanted!”
“Those seeds don’t sprout until I was 35 years old, but they were always there, building inside me,” Moore said. “But when I made ‘Capitalism: A Love Story,’ I said at the end of the movie that I wasn’t going to make another documentary until I saw the people rise up against Wall Street and corporate America. When that happened, I would be back in the fray. But until then, I had done my work for 20 years making films about those in power, and I was now going to do something else.”
Coincidentally, just as “Here Comes Trouble” hit bookstores, the Occupy Wall Street movement took over the news, and Moore had the uprising he had hoped for.
“The rebellion goes beyond the people who are camping out,” Moore said. “I saw a poll a couple of weeks ago that said 72 percent of the public believes taxes should be raised on the rich. Americans have never taken that position. We’ve always wanted the rich to do well, and we’ve been told that if we leave them alone they’ll do well for us. In my dad’s generation, that turned out to be true. The rich built factories and created jobs and allowed those of us in the working-class to have our own homes and go to college. But that social contract between wealth and labor is gone now.
“I’m very happy with the shift that’s taken place, both in terms of activism in the streets and in what the average American is feeling, like this whole movement to move money out of the big banks and into local banks and credit unions. But it also means I now have to make good on my promise. When I said I wasn’t going to make another documentary until people did something, I thought I would have a lot more time off! Unfortunately — I don’t know unfortunately for who yet — I will be back making a movie next year.”