First they went after the World Trade Organization. Then they took on major corporations like Dow Chemical Co. and Halliburton. Now the Yes Men are back, and in their latest film, The Yes Men are Revolting, Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin (who go by their Yes Men names Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum) tackle their toughest challenge yet—climate change.
Film Independent Documentary Lab Fellow Laura Nix, who was a producer on the last film, The Yes Men Fix the World, takes the director’s chair for this latest adventure. In anticipation of the film’s release this weekend, we caught up with Laura to discuss her history with the Yes Men, what’s different this time around, and the dilemma of shooting a documentary in which you can’t be completely transparent with the people you’re filming.
How did you first start working with the Yes Men?
I’ve known both of them a really long time. I went to college with Mike and have known him since he was 18. Later, we went to graduate school together. I was around when he and Andy met and first started doing stuff. Everyone that knows them eventually gets dragged into these actions. We kind of get conscripted.
They had a group called RTMark, and I was involved in some actions back then. On the second film I came in very late as one of the producers on the film—there were a lot of us—they needed somebody to be super hands-on to help them finish the movie for Sundance. This time around, I worked with them in a directorial capacity because we decided to include their personal story, and it felt really necessary to have somebody who was not them tell that story.
You mentioned doing “actions” with them. What is an action?
The Yes Men impersonate voices of authority as a way of making commenting on voices of authority and how often we believe them and whether we should believe them or whether we should be listening to all of it with a more critical ear—or even a more rageful ear. Because the truth is, what people are saying on a daily basis is insane, and it doesn’t take that much to push their logic a few steps further and it becomes satire. So an action is really setting up a situation where Mike and Andy can impersonate these voices and create a scenario where the press covers it. They create an excuse for journalists to write about the kind of issues they’d like to write about, when there’s not always opportunity to.
So they pose as business leaders, as government leaders, as journalists, as press people—I mean, you name it. They haven’t done military yet. We almost did in this last film.
The previous films are structured around the actions and these moments when the guys are at the mic in front of a group of people. How is this one different?
This film is different because it’s really three intersecting stories. There’s the climate change story, and that’s told through the actions and also the animations. And then there’s the personal story about what’s going on with these two guys in their midlife crisis, which is a story that was never told in any of the other films. And then there’s sub-story, which is the story of activism and how hard it is to maintain hope in the face of such huge problems. The challenge was how to make all three of those stories intertwine and augment each other and build upon each other, and figuring out how they intersect. We knew that the actions have a built-in narrative, but the danger if you have the film go from action to action to action is that it becomes incredibly episodic. This time around we wanted the film to go deeper and show them as real people.
For me it was very important that the film have emotional content. The other films are very funny, but they don’t have as much feeling in them. I wanted the audience to feel something for the Yes Men. Because I want the audience to be able to identify with the problem of waking up in the morning and not knowing what to do with this world. Because we all wake up and ask that question. And rather than have the Yes Men be immune to that question—because they’re so good at being activists that it doesn’t bother them—I wanted people to identify with that and realize that even the people who do this “professionally” are plagued by these doubts. And I wanted to stress the importance of regular people doing anything political, because whatever we do, it matters. As long as you’re one voice in a culture of resistance, you’re contributing something meaningful. Social movements are made up of all of these voices together, and we energize each other. And the only thing that’s going to change this particular issue is pressure. We can’t rely on government to address climate change for us.
I was also really interested in this idea of how friendships change over time. As you get older—and especially when people have kids—the nature of your friendship changes dramatically. And I don’t see much work about that on film so I wanted that to be an element of this story too. The nature of their collaboration changed a great deal when Mike became a father and didn’t have the same amount of time to devote to being a Yes Man.
Did you know before there were any actions that you wanted to follow them in their everyday lives?
We knew we wanted to make it a personal story from the time that we said, “Okay we’re making a film now.” And some actions had been shot by then. But the way the Yes Men work is they’re doing actions all the time. They’re shooting them all the time, and banking all of this footage. I worked on the film for three years, but by the time I came on the project, there was already a couple hundred hours that had been shot.
So to what degree are you involved in the actions?
Some of them I’m very involved in, from the conception, as basically a co-conspirator and part of the lie. And there are other times when there’s footage that they shot and I have to figure out how that action fits into the larger story in the edit room. But it is challenging to switch from documentary brain to Yes Men documentary brain because the modes of operation are so different. I get really scared when we are in the middle of an action that the whole thing is going to blow up and go belly-up at any second. They’re going to look at us and realize we’re not who we say we are. Particularly for the final action in the film. Mike lied and chose to say that he was bringing a really famous person, and I couldn’t believe that they would go along with it. I was ready to pull the plug and the guys always said, “Don’t worry it’s going to be completely fine.” I always said, “No, we need to have eight contingency plans.” And they would say, “Believe me, they’re not going to say anything.” And the thing that consistently shocked me every time—and I’ve done these actions with them a fair amount now—is how much people believe you when you’re in that environment. White men with suits can say really, really crazy things and people just kind of go along with it.
Do you think you could get away with saying the same things?
I’ve lied a lot in those situations. I told the people at the Homeland Security conference that my satellite truck was parked outside. And they asked, “Where is it?” And I said, “Oh we’re experiencing some interference from the Pentagon right now and I had to park it a couple blocks away and I’m sending the signal, and so that’s why you’re not seeing it. And that’s why we’re a little late.” And they asked, “Well where’s your transmitter for the satellite?” And I said, “Oh, it’s right here.” And I pointed to the wireless mic antennas on the back of the camera, which of course is totally impossible. And I said, “Yeah, the technology’s amazing now. We used to have this big dish and now it’s just this really small antenna.” And they just said, “Huh.”
Is there a tension between pulling off the stunt and pulling off the film?
They’re similar. The film relies on the actions being pulled off. So if you don’t pull of the action, you’ve lost your scene. The message needs to be satirical, but not so over the top that the people in the room think, “That’s crazy.” And as people have gotten wiser, that line has become a little bit thinner. But in the earlier films, they did really crazy stuff. The Survivaballs. The gold skeleton. The McDonald’s stuff is crazy. The Vivoleum is crazy. For the final action in this film, our proposal is actually not crazy. We basically say that the U.S. is going to convert to renewable energy. We’re going to do what we did during WWII and restructure the resources of the U.S., and this time gear them towards aggressively switching the energy infrastructure in this country. It’s not a crazy idea. It’s actually the most sane idea. And that’s what was so interesting about being in the room with the defense contractors is that they realized that. I was in the bathroom with them afterwards—they didn’t know who I was—and these women were saying, “That is so incredible that our government is finally doing this. I feel so proud to be an American today because we’re really doing the right thing.” Everybody knows what the right thing to do is, but they don’t think it’s possible. Even though, right now, scientifically, it’s possible. Financially, it’s even possible. But politically, it’s impossible. That’s the bottleneck.
Will there be more Yes Men films?
Three feels like a good number to finish on. But who knows. They might decide to do that some day. They talk more about television now. And their work actually lends itself to TV. You could do one action for one episode and you’d have more than enough material. What they’re doing now in terms of their activism is they’ve started the Action Switchboard, which is basically Kickstarter meets Tinder for activists. People take an idea that they have, post it, and then get support for it, and connect with other activists around the world. So if you’re doing a fracking action in North Dakota and there’s a coder in Finland who wants to help you put the website together, it hooks you up. It’s a way for people all over the world to connect, with a focus on getting a bunch of actions going in time for the climate talks in Paris in December.
The Yes Men Are Revolting is currently playing at Arena Cinema in Hollywood, in theaters across the country, and online on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand. For a complete list of theaters and screenings, see their website.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger