Surging from their success with the Oscar-nominated The Trouble with Water (2008) – a personal, harrowing look at a couple surviving the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin have moved on to equally compelling subject matter in Citizen Koch: Charles G. Koch, CEO of Koch Industries, and David H. Koch, who serves as Executive Vice President. More to the point, the film concerns the influence their money is wielding in political campaigns. With the filmmakers’ healthy, proper fascination for absorbing topics (including GOP Presidential hopeful and proponent of campaign finance reform, Buddy Roemer), they offer us a revealing study of the Koch Brothers’ far reaching presence in our electoral landscape. Deal and Lessin took some time from their schedule to talk over the phone about funding for Citizen Koch, connections to their previous work, and responses to their new film.
You went the Kickstarter route for completion. Did anything about the success you had raising the funds surprise you?
Carl Deal: We did not want to [use Kickstarter], but our funding got yanked from public television. We brought it to PBS for the last months of finishing. They were afraid of offending the Kochs, who are major contributors to Public Broadcasting. We were forced to use Kickstarter as a means to finish the film.
Still, the fact that you exceeded your request by more than twice the amount – the goal was $75,000; and you received almost $170,000 – must have been gratifying. At least you know the audience is waiting.
Tia Lessin: We were overwhelmed by the support we received from crowd funding. Like Carl said, after the money got yanked from public television we went to Kickstarter. The money exceeded our expectations, and became a rallying cry. We can’t book it fast enough and, yes, it only proves an audience is ready for this.
The IMDB.com message boards are already littered with some sharply political comments from people. When pressed, many of them admitted they had not seen the film. Can you attract audience members with a political resistance to the film?
CD: We don’t want to write anybody off, and the independent documentaries market is tough enough without intentionally marginalizing it. Still, it wasn’t hard to find republicans who were unhappy with their party and did not like the extreme aspects that was overtaking it. This is not a partisan film; we’re not endorsing any candidate, and we thought we were fair in our approach. In truth, we amplified those voices, and discovered that many in the mainstream held views that weren’t that different from us.
TL: We’re filmmakers and we access all the resources we can to tell a compelling story of the journey that we took – revealing this vicious attack on our democracy and the broad audience that can be connected to that. We are excited about the film, to at least get people to talk and engage in dialogue and also be moved emotionally by the story. I don’t know if the film is polarizing, but the Kochs are.
Were you concerned about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that was really about stripping unions of collective bargaining rights, and the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission?
CD: Those things happened after the film started. We were following the story wherever it would lead us, and then came the outcomes. We didn’t know the decisions of these elections from the 2010 midterms and the way they would reverberate the way that they did.
TL: These situations are connected, in a strange kind of a way, with our previous film [The Trouble with Water], there was so much talk from what used to be the lunatic fringe libertarian ideas that were so mainstream to the Tea Party: getting rid of the post office, or extreme attacks on public employee unions. We were observing what happened in New Orleans after Katrina and the levee breach. People lost faith with our government, and we witnessed that first hand for the most vulnerable: the disabled, the elderly, inmates…what happens to them when the government fails them. Katrina destroyed the faith in the public sector. Then the Tea Party came in with a whole new dialogue, wanting to remove the safety nets. The fringe of the Libertarians in the ‘80s was now mainstream, and the trail following that led us to the Koch brothers.
2012 GOP presidential candidate, Buddy Rohmer, has been vocal about campaign finance reform. How did you come across him as a key subject for your film?
CD: Governor Rohmer [Louisiana, from 1988 to 1992] was someone we were aware of because of that. We took note of what he was saying and were impressed that he was running on an anti-corruption campaign and because of that, he was having trouble being recognized by the GOP. We reached out to his office, and he told us he was going to be in New York next weekend. We went down there, just to get to know him as a character, and we met him in Penn station. He’s a smart, sincere, charming politician, and sincere is an anomaly with politicians [laughs]. He took us in and made us laugh, and really, he speaks for the conscience of America in this film.
Have you heard any reaction from the Koch camp about Citizen Koch?
TL: The Kochs themselves tend not to make any public statements, but there have been some antagonist moments from their media group. But I say, bring ‘em on! We have seats reserved for them for all showings and any other billionaire and their brethren to come down and view the film, and we look forward to and hope that they would have something to say on the film.
Anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
CD: With Citizen Koch we got a rockin’ trailer and 50 theatrical bookings. We are partnering with TUGG.com [a website which helps book independent films in local cinema houses] to make sure folks who aren’t in major cities can come for a one-off screening to a theater of their choice. So please, buy the popcorn and enjoy the movie!
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. His short films can be seen here.