There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the first part of our conversation, Freakonomics producer Chad Troutwine spoke at length about the inspiration he got from Steven J. Levitt and Stephen Dubner‘s 2005 book of the same name. We discussed the segments directed by Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.
The remaining section of Freakonomics is “Cause and Effect,” a look at the relationship between the legalization of abortion and crime statistics since the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. Troutwine knew ahead of the film’s release that Eugene Jarecki‘ssegment adapting that part of Levitt and Dubner’s research would be the most controversial but that Jarecki, the director of Why We Fight and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, would be up to the challenge. Troutwine also talked more about what attracted him to Freaknomics, why he makes anthologies and how the whole project came together.
CP: We haven’t talked about Eugene Jarecki’s film yet, which is pretty jarring. What was the reaction that you got to what he did in that segment?
CT: Because the very idea that the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade led to a reduction in crime was a settled idea from work that Levitt had done even before Freakonomics was published, I had a good sense there would be some fallout, and that there would be some groups really on both sides of the choice issue, some people who are really pro-life who believe that it is a tacit endorsement of abortion. And there are others who are fervent defenders of choice who believe it’s a kind of elitist approach that some parents are more justified in having children than others. There are groups on both sides who were really troubled by what Levitt discovered. I knew this going in. What was great about this was that the very first conversation I had with Eugene Jarecki was a phone call, and within five minutes he perfectly laid out a sketch of exactly what he wanted the segment to look like. He said, “Chad, I see this as a parallel to the experience George Bailey had in It’s a Wonderful Life.” We had the opportunity to see what things would be like had these children been born because there was no Roe v. Wade. Why he thought it made more sense to do it as an animated segment as opposed to using archival footage? It’s just such a hot-button issue he thought that would slightly defuse it. Take a little personality out of it by using these animated figures. I think it’s beautiful-looking.
CP: It’s very striking. Jarecki’s work tends to be very heavy on the visuals. It’s another example of letting the directors be themselves in their artistic vision.
CT: And I think he makes a very fair point. [Levitt’s] wording is that no matter how you feel about the issue there is, to date, an unimpeachable connection between the legalization and availability of abortion and the drop in crime. No matter how you feel about it politically, it’s just hard to argue. So people who are pro-life have to accept the position that there will be more unwanted children and unless there are other ways to combat it, everything being equal, we’ll have more crime. And people who are pro-choice have to acknowledge that this is suggesting that there are some parents who aren’t ready for parenthood and their children are far more likely to commit crimes, which is counter to the sensibility that a lot of people have about equality.
CP: It’s a hard debate just to wade into. Certainly Jarecki’s trying to defuse it, but it’s still a pretty tough debate to take on.
CP: There are two other chapters in Freakonomics the book that didn’t make it into the movie. Did you settle on these four at the outset? Did you say, “I’m doing abortion, incentivizing grades, baby names and sumo wrestling” or was there any debate of doing the other two?
CT: Here’s how it all played out: I attached Morgan Spurlock first. We met socially as I finished optioning the book—I was close but I hadn’t yet signed on the dotted line. But he was on my list and I had an opportunity to approach him and say, “Hey, I’m going to option Freakonomics, but I’m going to do it as an anthology film.” I was an executive producer on Paris je t’aime. And it was kismet. He really liked Paris je t’aime and he really loved the book Freakonomics, so it was perfect. To his immense credit and my good fortune, he said, “I’m in.” That made it easier to go to whom I contacted next—Alex Gibney. I also went to Errol Morris. Errol passed. We had a couple people pass, but not many. But then we put together our team very quickly. Alex suggested Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. I had already seen Jesus Camp and loved it. It mostly takes place in the town next to my hometown. It’s in Lee’s Summit, Mo. and I’m from Independence, Mo. I thought they did a brilliant job, so that was easy. Morgan suggested Eugene, but I hadn’t yet seen The Trials of Henry Kissinger, only Why We Fight. I knew he was smart, so that really worked out perfectly. There was a time when we were going to have a fifth segment and there was a bunch of things that didn’t make it into the movie. The bagel man who inspired the pay-what-you-want screenings would have been great. We didn’t really give big treatment to real estate agents. We had a director attached to maybe cover it about how real estate agents are like the Ku Klux Klan. We did talk about real estate agents, but we didn’t compare them to the Klan. The bribery experiment was new. That emerged after the book was published.
CP: That ended up being a very interesting experiment. Grady and Ewing direct documentaries about kids very well.
CT: Yes they do.
CP: And obviously Jesus Camp, the kids in which look very innocent and it ends up being one of the more frightening things that you’ll ever see.
CT: Part of their brilliance and talent is evidenced in the fact that the church group involved in Jesus Camp loves the way the movie turned out. They say, “This is exactly who we are.” Just as it was revelatory to everyone who didn’t imagine a world like that existed, people within that world think it’s fine. I don’t want to name names, but I’ve seen other documentaries where people will dig in to these worlds and it’s like they’re treating them like they’re zoo animals and it’s almost embarrassing. That’s part of the real subtle brilliance of Heidi and Rachel. We got a moment with the superintendent of schools in Chicago Heights—Glenn Gianetti— which is one of my favorite segments of the entire film. He’s got this classic Chicago accent and he has a kind of halting way of talking and he’s a totally sweet guy, but you’re not sure. Is it OK to have a bit of a laugh at him? It almost to me recalls something you see in a mockumentary or maybe even the tonality of Michael Scott in The Office. He’s a sweet guy, but he’s kind of a buffoon too.
CP: But when he first talks about this experiment, you don’t know if there are going to be any positive results or if the entire thing’s going to blow up.
CT: Right. And we got really lucky right there. Heidi and Rachel were following a handful of people there and we narrowed it down to about three, but we didn’t know how this would play out. We were pretty sure that Kevin wasn’t going to improve. Two things could have happened where it would have been a pretty different segment but we were committed to it and a couple of things could have happened but I don’t think it would have been nearly as good. Urail might not have gotten his grades up in that last month so both of them would have failed. In a way that would have been a little deceptive because the program was mildly successful, particularly for kids like Urail that were already on the cusp of making better grades.
CP: So do we all need to be a little more incentivized, or rather, do incentives always work?
CT: No. And think that’ the thing Levitt and Dubner would say. We always respond to incentives, but it’s extremely difficult—though not a waste of time—to create incentive schemes that work. That’s the point, a really big one. And to some it’s just a really cute moment in the film, but that’s one of the great things about Amanda, Levitt’s young daughter who he potty-trains. She defeats his well-intentioned and probably well-devised incentive scheme within three days. So, it doesn’t mean we need to quit. I think we need to keep coming up with ways to incentivize people, but this idea that we’re good at it, particularly big entities like governments? It’s usually a pretty abysmal failure. But I don’t want to be defeatist. They would say we need to keep asking questions and just being better informed will help us make better decisions. For example, it turns out that mild corporal punishment of children doesn’t really have that much of an impact on them. It’s all these other things that will impact whether the child will go on and lead a crime-free life or go to college. I hope no one would spank their child, but I think it’s better to know this evidence, because occasionally we’re surprised. When we first put this movie together, almost every distributor pushed us hard that they wanted a unifying theme. Sometimes life doesn’t always work that way, so I think it’s OK to keep asking these questions and occasionally we’ll stumble on these little things.
CP: Do you want to keep doing anthologies? What is it about that format that makes the filmmaking experience work for you?
CT: I think it’s an underused technique. I wish there were more. I think there are a lot of stories that would be better told in an anthological format. There have been some bad anthologies and I think that has scared some producers away from making them. I don’t think it works for every format, so I don’t think I’m going to be the guy who always does omnibus projects. In fact we’re already talking about Superfreakonomics. My guess is that we won’t do it as an anthology even though there’s a lot of really good stuff packed in there. One of the risks for a producer and director is if you care about what people think critically, they invite debate. So I think it’s very hard to make a kind of perfect little film when you have multiple chefs creating the meal. Instead you have people who talk about how much they loved one section, thought a couple we’re OK and they didn’t like one section. Almost everyone says that. They tended to pick different ones. It’s been great. When I survey audiences it’s almost one-fourth, one-fourth, one-fourth, one-fourth. I would hate to have one of my children more popular and more loved than the others.
CP: That’s probably a good result in the Freakonomics worldview anyway.
CP: Although they could probably give you some data that explains perfectly why you sequenced them the way you did.
CT: Of course. With Freakonomics I had three goals: One, I wanted to make a film that I was pleased with creatively. Two, something that was successful financially. I don’t have to get rich off of anything, but I’d like to get my money back and make a little bit more, and I’m not embarrassed about that. And three, I wanted to get Freakonomics out there. I wanted to get as many people as possible to see what Levitt does and see if we can become better decision-makers.