Director Seth Gordon’s newest movie takes him away from the realm of high scores and barrel-throwing giant apes to the lofty heights of the New York Times bestseller list. Opening this weekend, “Freakonomics” brings the left-field data crunching of the literary best-seller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to the silver screen.
Produced by Chad Troutwine Films and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, the movie takes four case studies from the book and turns them into vignettes directed by an all-star team of documentary filmmakers. Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) gives hilarious voice to the “Freaknomics” thesis on the consequences of certain baby names, while Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”) take on the book’s infamous cash-for-grades chapter. Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) illustrates Levitt and Dubner’s controversial conclusions about abortion and crime in the mid-1990s and Alex Gibney (“Enron:The Smartest Guys in the Room”) adapts the harrowing tale of corruption and cover-ups in Japanese sumo society.
Gordon directs the interstitial segments that hold the film together, which they do largely on the strength of insightful interviews with Levitt and Dubner. In an odd bit of synchronicity, Steve Wiebe–the hard-luck Donkey Kong master fighting for respect in “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”–recently regained the world record score in the Nintendo arcade classic. I talked with Gordon about the similarities between “Kong” and “Freakonomics,” and the reasons he became involved in the new documentary.
I watched both “King of Kong” and “Freakonomics” right after re-watching “King of Kong,” and it occurred to me that Billy Mitchell shares the same kind of ego as the people who kind of got us in this current financial crises.
Wow, you know that’s interesting. [laughs] That above-the-law kind of attitude, huh?
Exactly, yeah. Now, I know “Freakonomics” doesn’t directly deal with the current economic crisis but did it come up in the process at all?
Well, I feel like it’s Gibney’s section that deals most with the relationship between corruption in our financial system and the different incentives that are in place to give people in those positions a chance to cause a little trouble or look out for themselves above everyone else. More than that, I can’t speak to the details of his section really because that’s his work. And it’s great work.
Staying on the linkages for a little bit, there was a line in the Gibney segment where Steven Levitt says, “Purity is a good mask for corruption.” That, again, reminded me of that whole sequence in “Kong” when the Twin Galaxies referees show up at Steve Wiebe’s house and take apart his machine, all under the auspices of making sure that things were above board. Meanwhile, they didn’t find anything wrong but they invalidated the score anyway. I just thought that was very interesting parallel.
Certainly, I do think that Billy certainly exhibits a kind of narcissism that you’d see in the folks that think they’re above the law in other disciplines and histories, too, including the Enron guys.
So the big question is why jump on board “Freakonomics”? What interested you about the concept of the book and the authors’ theories? What made you feel like you could translate that into a movie?
My folks are economists and have taught economics and social science so I grew up with those kind of conversations around the dinner table. And I knew and loved the book before Chad Troutwine, the lead producer, approached me about participating . So it’s the kind of material where I just love it. A study of the incentives that drive behavior. Because I think that’s ultimately what underpins “Kong” too, it’s a study of social science ultimately, right? Why did this group of gamers protect a guy who’s clearly, at the very least, got questionable motivations? Why do they protect him and honor him like their king? When any objective viewer would see conflicts of interest, double standards.
I was just fascinated by that. And what I think is so interesting about the controversy around the documentary is those guys who go to great lengths to try to discredit the film, completely miss the point of the film. It doesn’t matter, most of the stuff they bring up and quibble about. The issue is that Billy’s tape, regardless of how it was created, was accepted without being questioned in a way that’s totally different from….
The way they treated Steve Wiebe?
Yeah! You know what I mean? That’s what’s interesting. Not all the details that they fight about.
Yeah. I hear you 100 percent. It’s interesting because there’s a moment where at the end where Steve is trying to go for the live record in Florida, and Billy walks in and pretty much doesn’t acknowledge him. That really, really stung, even just watching it. Again, it reminded me of the Gibney segment, where it was like: “Yeah, we’re just not going to talk about the problems in Japanese Sumo culture, we’re just going to pretend like it didn’t happen. It doesn’t exist. And we’re going to go on with our daily lives complete in the delusion.” The parallels were probably weren’t conscious, but I thought they were really, really interesting.
Yeah. I think that both deal with the principles of corruption. Right?
And, in that way, they have a ton in common, because what underpins them is identical. I think it’s really insightful that you spotted that.
It also got me thinking about the California video games law that’s going before the Supreme Court. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but it basically would criminalize the sale of M-rated video games to anybody under 18.
Yeah. Mind you, there’s already an organization–the ESRB, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board–that already provides oversight. That’s how games get their ratings, just like the MPAA.But Leland Yee–who wrote the law–was taking it a step further to say that businesses would get penalized to the point of having a fine. Which effectively amounts to financially censoring the ability to sell these games. So the ruling was appealed. It got overturned and is now going before the Supreme Court. There’s a hysterical logic behind all of this. It’s the whole pop culture demonization argument, all over again. It’s been radio, it’s been TV, it’s been comic books, and now it’s video games which are being scapegoated for bad behavior.
All of that to say, it reminded me of the ice cream and polio story in one of your interstitial segments. The idea that ice cream caused polio preceded from faulty logic, right?
And it was like, well, OK, it must be the ice cream because here’s the data we have on hand. It’s about how you look at the data, right? Can you speak to the spin that happens in situations like the scapegoating of violent video games and the idea of ice cream causing polio?
Yeah. I think politicians know how to misrepresent data in order to support a political agenda. Politicians and the people that work for them–I should say–are expert at that. And I think what is great about “Freakonomics” as a book and as sort of as a way of thinking about things, is you don’t accept the simple summaries that you’re fed. You look deeper into the numbers to find their hidden truths or find out what’s really going on. Whether you’re talking about the ratings on video games and whether you can punish people for selling things outside of the supported age group. Or, if you’re talking about the way the controversy over the Gulf oil spill was handled or characterized.
There’s a dangerous bottom-lining, and super-summarizing that happens in a lot of our press and our media, and sort of our politicians’ talking points, that’s dangerously simple. I don’t know a better way to say it. And there’s usually a lot more complicated facts going on than what is quoted and quotable. You are literally getting at the deepest reason why the book works and why these issues are important to get out in the world.
The oversimplification doesn’t help anybody, right? If you swallow that stuff, hook, line, and sinker, then you’re not equipped with a worldview that’s able to actually help you day-to-day.
So, another thing I wanted to talk about with regard to “Freakonomics” is the vast variation in tone. The first one– Morgan Spurlock’s “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” segment, was more comedic obviously. And “Pure Corruption”–the Gibney/Sumo one–is deadly serious.
No kidding, right?
Do you have worries about losing the viewer between the vignettes? After watching the Spurlock one, it felt like, “Oh, I’m going to be in for a light interpretation of maybe some thorny data that I otherwise would not be interested in.” And then you hit them with Sumo stuff, and it’s like, “oh my God, people are dying!” Was there a concern about losing the viewer? And what was your job in terms of the interstitial segments and stitching the film together? Did you feel like you needed to create some commonality throughout?
I joined the project at the outset, and was part of selecting the directors that would do the different sections. And we knew from the beginning that there would be a huge variation in tone in the way they would approach it. That’s the reason we picked them. I’m not worried about people losing track or focus, or losing viewers with the final product. But the whole reason I did the interstitials, instead of doing a discreet section, was so the film had as cohesive a tone as we could possibly present. Having sort of a narrative home base that also uses the voices of the authors, for the viewer to return to as they watch the movie, gives them a chance to orient themselves between sections.
Because they are wildly dissimilar, and we knew Gibney was going to be nothing like Spurlock, would be nothing like Jarecki, would be nothing like Heidi and Rachel. And that to me is the beauty of the film. But, you need to show a single film that feels like a whole film. So how do you do that? And my answer to that was to make those interstitial segments lighter in their nature, but deceptively complicated. I tried to make it just like the book, hopefully, where there’s actually a lot more going on than you might necessarily notice. And that’s why we chose animation for most of the stylistic elements, because it allows you to get to some really sophisticated issues very simply.
It lowers the inhibitions of the viewer, because I feel like I’m not watching something so complicated….
Totally. It lowers the inhibitions and it also just feels light. But the truth is there’s a light way to watch it, but there’s also a lot heavier way too, depending on how much you know about economics and the study of incentives.
Arguably the darkest segment, even darker than Gibney’s, was the Jarecki segment. Levitt and Dubner have gotten some heat about for looking at the abortion debate and how a woman’s right to choose might have affected the crime rate.
It was certainly the darkest topic in the book.
The core thesis of that segment was that people who aren’t born into bad circumstances don’t commit crimes or don’t exist to commit crimes. Yet, at the same time, the presentation in that part of the film was almost all motion graphics and drawings and stock footage. Jarecki told it in away that was almost fantastical.
Yeah, that topic is probably the most controversial of any that the writers ever covered. I think Jarecki did an expert job at portraying the nuances. And I mean, how genius is Melvin Van Peebles as the narrator? I mean that is such an intense choice and so, so great.
So, all of the directors went off into their corners and did their segments independent of any input from you?
Oh, absolutely. That was the goal. I think if you choose these directors that each have their own voice and talent, you shouldn’t get in their way. And the only thing that became tricky about that is we committed to the Tribeca premiere before we’d seen all of the final product. So, I had to create my interstitial segments in a vacuum a little bit.
You were kind of flying blind, then.
Yeah, although I knew the principles. I knew that clearly Roe vs Wade would be about causality. So if I teed it up with that, we’d be fine. And I knew that Morgan’s was going to be about parenting. So I knew some things. But it became tricky to kind of weave, to thread all those needles. I think it worked out great.
Levitt and Dubner’s work focuses incentive-based behavior. Applying Freakonomics thinking to”King of Kong,” do you feel like the old school games were a little bit more palatable because they gave you a clear goal to work towards?
Totally. I feel like “Kong” is a great example of something that’s incredibly easy to understand, and almost impossible to master. And I think that was true of a number of the old games. A lot of the newer ones, it’s much more like a rote memorization of joystick moves done in a sequence, in a way. Especially for the fighting games, where it’s a combination of moves that get you through. In a way, that’s a lot simpler to master in that you just have to remember all that stuff. The kind of experience that today’s game deliver is very different, from the incredibly complicated puzzles of the levels in “Donkey Kong,” that almost no mind could solve.
There was that one sequence in Kong where everybody is talking about Billy Mitchell’s brain power. Even if he is the villain of the piece, it’s still amazing to hear about.
Oh, yeah. And, I mean, it speaks to the game he plays with people being equally complicated.
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is available on iTunes and DVD. “Freakonomics” opens this weekend.