When Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s 2005 book Freakonomics debuted, the notion that standard economic analysis could explain social trends and phenomena like baby names and institutionalized cheating was at times nearly as startling as the findings themselves. But the work done by Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Dubner, a New York-based journalist, became a two-year bestseller, an ongoing New York Times blog and now—what else?—a movie.
Chad Troutwine, who produced the 2006 anthology Paris je t’aime, won a bidding war to option Freakonomics into a feature-length documentary, but with winning the rights to adapt the book came the challenge of making the right kind of movie. Troutwine told me that never envisioned Freaknomics the movie as anything other than an anthology. To get it made, he lined up a Murderers’ Row of documentarians: Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame; Alex Gibney, whose Taxi to the Dark Side won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight); and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp). In Freakonomics each director tackles a subject covered by Levitt and Dubner, but in four very distinct styles.
Freakonomics opened last Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Troutwine and I spoke in Georgetown last Monday. Here’s the first part of what became a pretty lengthy conversation:
CP: You’ve got four short documentaries by four very accomplished and very different filmmakers. As the entire package came together was there any kind of unifying theme that emerged?
CT: There were a couple things. I thought the book was so successful without a unifying theme beyond this idea that people respond to incentives, and that the way Levitt looks at sociological phenomena through the lens of the tools of an economist — regression analysis and that kind of thing — could yield really amazing answers. Sometimes surprising. Sometimes the kind of thing that debunk conventional wisdom. So it was really no more unified than that and I thought our film could be the same way. In fact, I actually went out of my way to make sure our filmmakers had a different style. I didn’t want filmmakers that had the same style. There had been other anthology projects that it was hard to tell who was who. There was a project on HBO about addiction that was really good. But you couldn’t tell them apart — Jarecki, Scorsese — I couldn’t tell who was who. That is not the case with our film. If you know our filmmakers you know within two minutes who made each segment. And I wanted that.
CP: And this is not to take away from the topicality of what he was doing, but Morgan Spurlock (whose segment “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” analyzes patterns in baby names), his stuff tends to be very humored.
CT: He goes for a laugh, it’s very populist and I thought that was good. The thing I’ll say about this is that Morgan is very smart, but he believes that these ideas are important but you’re going to reach a broader audience by getting them to laugh. He wants to entertain in that way. He did it with a little bit of a chuckle but I think he meant it when he said, “Look” — and he threw in his extra-folksy West Virginia accent — “your ears open wider when you’re smiling.” And he’s educated and very bright, but I think he believes that, so it’s not an accident. I knew what I would get with Morgan. He described exactly what he wanted to do and I thought that material lent itself to that kind of approach, but I wouldn’t have wanted the entire film to be like that. Just like I wouldn’t have wanted it to be exactly like any of the other segments.
CP: The segment that follows [Spurlock’s] I think are as different as any two segments get between all four, because Alex Gibney’s (“Pure Corruption,” an analysis of cheating among sumo wrestlers) is very dark.
CT: That’s right. And beautiful. When we were at Silverdocs, I think I said or he said, his focus on the sumo wrestlers coming together in the introduction was almost pornographic. But it was beautiful. The cinematography in his segment is rich and as beautiful as anything he’s ever done. And it’s a serious subject matter, so I thought tonally that was OK. It’s a challenge to wrench an audience from one direction to another, but I think the interstitial material helped us navigate those waters and I think it keeps people engaged.
CP: Taking a step back, this movie’s — and Freakonomics the book’s — topics are very microeconomic topics. And these days when people talk about the economy the debate is very macro-focused. Are you hoping to bridge the gap here?
CT: What I see is that it’s the tools of the trade of an economist applied to a sociological phenomenon that is the real hallmark of what Steve Levitt does and what Stephen Dubner helped popularize. So I embrace that. It’s not that I’m not interested in currency fluctuations or if we’ve truly emerged from a depressed economy. I think all those things are really interesting. On the other hand, what I think Freakonomics does, even though it is microeconomic at its core, can have very profound impacts on what we do because it allows us to make better decisions. In that way, I think it’s more far-reaching. For example, all the parenting material from the book and from our film can allow people to make better decisions as parents. I think for businesspeople if we better understand the data instead of just using our gut or intuition, maybe we become more successful entreprenuers. I think our policymakers can still learn to evaluate the data before they make choices. So if the goal is child literacy we can look at what Illinois did, which was well-intentioned — send a book to every second-grader — ultimately failed. In the homes where it was needed most the book just became a part of the furniture. Things that work are like a large program in Texas that created a contest that inspired kids to read over the summer. For whatever reason, they found the magic formula, and that really does move the needle. Looking back over what we have in over 40 years of data from the Chicago schools, it’s in those instances where you can inspire children to read, that you can get them to stay in school longer, to obtain higher levels of literacy, go to college and usually become better citizens. Again, that’s what I think Levitt does even though in a quiet way it can have very big results. The scale is huge.
CP: In the segment on the Chicago Heights school the results were more mixed. You have one student who was told about the contest and the payouts for good grades and kept slipping while the other one really did take off.
CT: And in a way they were perfect examples of what we found broadly in that experiment. The kids who are very far away from C’s, who were making failing grades and D’s, consistently tended not to improve much even with a financial incentive. It was the kids who were hovering around Cs and Ds who were able to pull it together and just make it over the line to make Cs and Bs. We had that in Urail and Kevin (respectively, a student who met the higher academic standards with financial incentives and one who did not), but it was mostly a failed experiment. But doing the experiment was a success. Now we know. It was pretty blunt: Cash. Can we bribe kids to go to class and make better grades. And it turned out, at least at that age (ninth-graders), not so much. We moved the needle a little bit, but not by much. You probably heard them mention—
CP: Maybe they should have started earlier?
CT: I think some people may have misunderstood. It’s not creating little baby incentives for three- and four-year-olds. It’s incentivizing the parents to be more involved. I think that’s one of the things that Levitt learned. When parents get involved, there are more meaningful improvements.
CP: It seems that the takeaway from each segment is that we’re all just destined to be victims of our own shitty decisions.
CT: [Laughs.] In a lot of ways that’s absolutely a conclusion. This is not in the film, but I know they wouldn’t mind me saying this—and privately Levitt and Dubner and I have talked about this—but we don’t think if you had offered Kevin $1 million that he could have pulled his grades up to Cs in that circumstance. He was just no longer wired to be able to do that. But what’s tragic is that he was also actually really bright, he could no longer apply it to academics in any way. Even with that clever mind. And you could see little bits of his artistic genius.
CP: He definitely shows some creativity, but it comes off as kind of silly and wasteful when he walks around saying, “I made a tattoo gun out of a toothbrush.” It’s clever but he was very much missing the point of what was going on.
CT: That’s right. And this leads to asking all kinds of other questions and I don’t want to get too far afield here, but it could very easily lead to questions of “is that OK? Should we just embrace or abandon this idea that everyone needs to graduate from high school and go to college?” And then you get in to all kinds of things that Levitt and Dubner are simply unfrayed. I call them intellectual and academic referees. They don’t choose sides, but they love provocative questions. They love to stir it up. That’s what’s so great about Levitt in his quiet way. He’s kind of an incendiary figure, he really is a bit of a muckraker. But he doesn’t just do it because he likes controversy. He’s just unafraid and I think that’s attractive.
Tomorrow: We discuss Why We Fight director Eugene Jarecki‘s contribution looking at the relationship between legalized abortion and crime statistics since 1973 and why Troutwine prefers the anthological format in filmmaking.