With a title like American Made Movie, you might expect the new documentary from Vincent Vittorio and Nathaniel Thomas McGill to be a real flag-waving piece of patriotic propaganda. It’s not. While there is a goal or at least hope to change the country’s economy, it’s hardly a heavy handed issue film. It is a celebration of American manufacturing and both domestic small business owners and foreign corporations that are employing workers in the U.S., and it’s very positive and optimistic and features some easily digested history and economics for a general audience. Most attractively, it concentrates on human interest stories over unloading direct statements and arguments.
Earlier this week I chatted with Vittorio and McGill over phone about American Made Movie and what it does as a movie that entertains viewers but also could influence them as well. To start, I brought up another recent documentary involving some of the same issues affecting American manufacturing, a film that takes a very different approach by negatively focusing on a foreign country and free trade as a problem rather than looking positively in our own backyard for the solution.
Nonfics: Are you guys familiar with this other film, Death by China? I kind of think of American Made Movie as the glass half-full compliment to its glass half-empty approach to the issues.
Vincent Vittorio: I think it’s a much different film because it tries to play to an audience that is more about that protectionist mentality and more about the political issues of currency manipulation and things that our film doesn’t really go into. [American Made Movie is] more relating it to the consumer and not firing up a base people who have a strong political belief. It is more giving people an understanding that manufacturing is connected to everyone on a consumer level.
So would you not say this is a political film?
Nathaniel Thomas McGill: Overall with our films we try to take a more objective viewpoint. I don’t know if you can really call it objective, but it’s boiling down the issues to take the politics out of it. Media and news does such a good job of polarizing themselves today that we try to get to the core of the actual problems. We understand that there are views on the left, views on the right, views that are independent. If you look at the experts that we’ve got, they cover the gambit of where the viewpoints are coming from. On this issue you’ve got protectionists, you’ve got people who are free traders, but there are things that both agree on in terms of what the problems actually are. And then we’re focusing on the stories of the everyday Americans who are dealing with the issues, telling the actual American narrative as it is today, what it is like for manufacturers to compete in a global economy.
Vittorio: There is no way to separate yourself from the politics. It’s who’s in your film, it’s who your speakers are. Until you can get close enough to the issue to know what the filmmakers’ intentions are… I feel like any filmmaker has some sort of agenda because they’re trying to communicate a message through stories that are given to them. It’s that organic process of following it and seeing where it goes. While we had a clear idea of a film we were going to make, when you start getting into the filmmaking process you realize what’s important for the story and what’s going to reach a larger audience. We felt by pulling the politics — which Death by China kinda goes a little into — and taking out the trade debate, taking out the different policies that are still being decided on and manipulated, we’re making something that will relate to all consumers. If someone is a single mom or works in a factory or grocery store or anything, they can watch this and walk away with something.
McGill: Of course, the most important thing is the call to action in terms of what does the audience do. We really believe this is a film that can change the country, because if we can all just realize that we have this relationship to the things that we buy and the things that are made and that there are people behind our products — I don’t care what country they’re in — people will do what we saw done before in the organic food movement where they care about where their goods are coming from. Looking at their local communities, looking at their state, looking at their country, doing more of that is only going to positively affect the economy — which is really the question that every American has: what can we do about the situation we’re in with the economy?
Vittorio: The problem is, when you look at it from the outside you see patriotism and these iconic things, and it just sounds like overdone Americana that immediately makes it seem as if we’re making some GOP think tank film — which is a hard thing we have to come to grasp with But realize our film’s not doing that. Our intentions, even though we might be on some conservative talk radio thing, we’ve stayed pretty true to what this is. It’s about all Americans: liberals, conservatives, independents, everyone that has an understanding that the economy is not in a great place and how can we turn things around or how can we make things better. That’s what our goal was with this film. Take the politics out and make it more about people and the way in which we have a relationship to manufacturing.
You do seem to selectively focus on how a lot of foreign made stuff is bad quality, but what about the imports that are deemed better than American made products, such as in the automotive and electronics industries?
McGill: When we first approached [the subject matter], we started off very broad and then we had to come out with an hour and a half film. We had stories we couldn’t include that were a little bit more about a local trend, a little more of a West Coast mentality, that unfortunately didn’t make it in because the story didn’t fit. We had a ton of interviewee clips that hit the floor. In terms of forming the argument, a lot of that stuff that’s in there about cheap imported goods are things that are the beliefs of the characters as they project that in their own story. It was more an unintended consequence that we have that element. I know Mark felt that way and Marie, as well, in their own personal stories as they’re making things. And of course they would; they’re manufacturers, they’re making things here. The [foreign] competition is cheaper in price and, in their case, in the quality.
Vittorio: We had a lot of stories we wanted to tell. We had a lot of people we interviewed. And it’s a double-edged sword because it’s really cool that you can discover a topic organically through the process of 300 interviews, but there’s that other side of it where you can only tell so many stories. There was a story that we LOVED, and Nathan and I tried to keep it in the film for so long and everyone who was going back through it on the editing side was like, “No, it just doesn’t fit. We can not keep forcing this in there.” That’s sometimes the hard truth, understanding that you can only pack so much into a film that will not be the law of diminished returns in which you’re continually telling the same story, but making it to where you find just the right characters and just the right information to drive it forward.
McGill: If you look at the German manufacturer that we have in the film, or when we talk about foreign direct investment, they’re coming here to make things even though they’re foreign companies. They’re choosing to make these goods in America to be closer to their customers. That’s a good thing. Not everything can be made here, but as you’re seeing, there is a trend with Apple deciding to come back and make something here; you’re seeing Walmart commit to buying $50 billion in American goods over the next ten years. I think it has a lot to do with demand and what Americans want to do, which is Americans want to help Americans. There are a lot of communities where these jobs are still really important, even though it might not feel like that in the larger cities. It is incredibly important. I think there are a lot of high quality goods made all over the world, but I think we can, especially with technology, compete with that and make a big impact on how much more we can make in the coming decades.
What was your process in finding the characters for the film and narrowing them down to who we actually meet on screen?
Vittorio: We had a great team that really got in the trenches and delivered us a lot of stories. We went out and pre-interviewed a lot of people, spent a lot of time getting to know people and share in some stories we couldn’t feature in the film. It was a long process. Going through a lot of different companies and understanding who they are and what their intentions were. There were even companies we looked at that were on the fence of even staying in America, so we had to drop some we thought of as an American brand but which really weren’t anymore. The same way, [other] companies we’d looked at that were on our list started manufacturing things back in this country after we started the film. It’s an interesting process, but we got through it.
I would be interested in hearing some of those stories of the brands you thought were all American but learned later they were going to outsource…
McGill: Historically a lot of companies are like that. They started with American origins and then went into outsourcing but their marketing never really changed. Consumers are getting smarter. A lot of this demand for American-made goods is that people feel like they don’t have an understanding of what’s real anymore. They see a commercial that has an American flag on it and then they flip it over and it’s made in China, and it’s kind of a wake up call to saying, “Wait a minute, I thought I was contributing to something that I’m not.” We’re excited about seeing more of the response. I think the best marketing for the film is the film itself. Once people get a chance to see it and get behind the stories, they really are drawn to it. Especially with a lot of the folks you don’t normally find at the movie theater who have a manufacturing background, they’re drawn in by the issue and are surprised by the content.
The film is called American Made Movie. Is it actually American-made? Did you try to use only American-made products while making the film, or is that even doable?
McGill: It would have been impossible, really. That’s the global world we live in. We wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to compete in a global economy, but — and this kinda says something to the way manufacturing has gone — we couldn’t make the film with American equipment. But when it was time to do our merchandising, we went 100% American-made and got American-made t-shirts, American-made DVDs, American-made CDs for the soundtrack. You name it, we went 100%. And it was surprising that we could do that with relative ease. There are plenty of people out there.
American Made Movie is now playing in limited release. Check the film’s website for locations and details.