The-Making-Of The Corporation: A Conversation with MARK ACHBAR

Entering Mark Achbar's space is a distinct experience. Part home, part production studio, his "space" alternates between newspaper clips with highlighted reviews and articles about "The Corporation" laying about, busy employees shuffling through the space, flow-charts and two cats warming up underneath the sun, strutting lazily-by.

It is a sunny day in Vancouver and it feels remarkably relaxed and laid-back. Not untypical for Vancouver, but rare for anyone in any close proximity to the film industry. Surly enough, phones go off in the background and employees franticly pace around, but somehow there is a peaceful sense even so.

Achbar, the co-director of the Vancouver-produced "The Corporation" reclines comfortably in his chair. No stranger to activist work and documentary filmmaking (having made quite a splash previously with the award-winning "Manufacturing Consent" about the MIT professor and activist Noam Chomsky), his tone assured and reflective.

His history of media activism goes back all the way to 1977, when he worked with Jim Morris (now President of Industrial Light and Magic, as well as Skywalker Sound) on a film called "The Stag Hotel", which is a portrait of a small twenty-four room hotel and bar where men on Social Security and various disability pensions went to live and essentially drink themselves to death. Since then, Achbar tried to focus his energies on media projects (e.g. film, video, books) that challenge apathy around quite a spectrum of issues. The interest towards corporations specifically was sparked when Achbar was working on "Manufacturing Consent" with co-director Peter Wintonick. That film served fundamentally as study of how the corporate media works. In the film there is a point at which Noam Chomsky is asked, "How do we make the media more democratic?," and his answer, "That's like asking how do you make corporations more democratic... and the only way to do that is to get rid of them." It was that answer that has prompted Achbar to ask deep questions about the nature of corporate power and its influence about a decade later with "The Corporation".

The project spurred to a start through a chance meeting with Joel Bakan, a former Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard and a law professor at UBC, under unfortunate circumstances. There was a memorial service held for the sister of a mutual friend that died tragically. "We were just having sandwiches at the food table," recalls Achbar, "and we started talking about each other's work and he was familiar with mine and I was very impressed with his and with him. It wasn't long thereafter that we decided to collaborate on a project." At the time Bakan wanted to write a book, whereas Achbar was set on making a film. But both shared common concerns about the impact of globalization and the perception that "corporations were becoming the dominant institutions--that there had been a shift from government as the governing institution towards corporations taking on that role and wanting us to surrender that power to them."

Eventually both Bakan and Achbar got their wishes. Bakan wrote his book "The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power" while Achbar recorded the interviews and footage for the documentary; uniquely intertwining the two processes of filmmaking and writing together. With Jennifer Abbott on board as editor and co-director, the team was complete. And "The Corporation" was about to start on its production journey...

Katherine Brodsky:What was the most difficult thing about getting the production off the ground?

Mark Achbar:Well, the most difficult thing about getting any production off the ground is finding the money to do it, of course, which was a process that took about three and a half years.

KB:How difficult or how easy was it to get the people to come along?

MA:Well if it was easy, it wouldn't have taken three and a half years. We would have said, "Hey! We want to do this!" and they would have said, "Sure! Here's the money!".

KB:That would have been helpful, for sure. But not just the financial aspect of it, was it difficult getting all of the people who are in the film involved?

MA:Well, you know, it was a challenge at every stage. Initially getting the concept into a workable form because the subject matter is so vast. Pitching it in a way that seemed possible to broadcasters and other funders.

KB:Do you think it was more difficult to pitch a project that was in a way going against corporations than if it would have been something else? Particularly, considering that you were probably getting some of the money from entities that were, in fact, corporations?

MA:About eighty percent of the money ultimately came from public sources, taxpayer-supported public institutions such as provincial educational television networks, or film investment agencies set up to support independent Canadian film. Run and paid for by the government. I think there's no coincidence between the subject matter and the fact that all the for-profit television entities chose not to support us. However, in general we did not pursue corporate sponsorship, although we did get one grant from a corporate entity that was by legislation obliged to support independent production. I'm not sure it was voluntary...

KB:You purposely did not pursue corporations?

MA:No. No. We wouldn't want to put ourselves in a position of feeling beholden to any editorial influence.

KB:Looking back, would you have done anything differently in the early stages?

MA:I would have gotten Joel to pitch the film earlier because he's an award-winning teacher. I think that I sort of had this producer hat on for quite awhile and sort of thought it was my role to be the person pitching, but I finally realized that Joel as writer and as the person most knowledgeable on the subject, and also very convincing on the subject, should have done the pitching. And so, after a couple of years that finally dawned on me and I dragged him off to the Banff Television Festival, sat him down with various broadcasters and they were duly impressed. Normally when pitching you're supposed to be able to sell your film in a sentence or two, maybe take a maximum of five minutes of somebody's time...

KB:... And did he?

MA:(laughs) I think we got it down to about forty-five minutes! But he held them spellbound. He's an extremely engaging educator, and I think he was, in fact, educating those broadcasters on the subject and they were intrigued - as audiences are now intrigued by the film and by what it addresses.

KB:As you went deeper into production, was there a specific moment when you suddenly saw that the project was finally coming together?

MA:There were various points where you felt like this is going to happen. One of those points was when we finally had all our finances lined up. And that was such a sense of accomplishment after three and a half years. I felt like I was done, but in fact, it was only the beginning. And there are many points where you kind of feel like you're done but it's only the beginning. So you finish all of your interviews and you feel like you're done--seventy interviews--and it's only the beginning. You feel like you've edited the piece and it's only the beginning of the launch...

Jennifer Abbott, my co-director--the woman who edited the film--was very disciplined about editing narratives first, and not delving into illustrative material. For the longest time, we both selected our favorite bits from eight hundred pages of transcripts of seventy interviews and the rough cut. The first assembly was about thirty hours of just our favorite interview bits! And so we boiled that down, and boiled that down some more, locking in the narrative structure of the piece. Once that was finally done, and we started layering images--I think that was certainly a turning point.

And I guess, you know, turning points are when you get someone like Milton Friedman to do an interview, you know? Because from that, much else can follow because the piece starts to gather cachet that will make it possible for other, high-level, impressive CEOs and so on to feel comfortable enough to talk to us.

KB:Who was the most surprising person you interviewed, and why?

MA:I think a number of the CEOs were quite surprising in a way because as a social activist with certain kinds of conceptions about corporate power and the people who run big corporations, you are so rarely exposed to those people. When I finally met them, these people who run these multi-million, sometimes multi-billion dollar corporations-you realize that they're people, and you're not quite prepared for that in a certain way, or at least I wasn't...

KB:Is there anyone in particular who you may have been completely surprised by?

MA:No, because you do your research so you're not completely taken aback...

KB:How do you research their personality?

MA:Well, you read about them and the kinds of things they do and you try to get some tape of them... But you know, Mark Moody Stewart was a very genuine, decent, charming, smart person. And yet, you just sort of build up an image around people with power and then you meet them and they're just kind of normal folks. Besides, you don't get to be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation unless you have extremely honed communication skills, unless you're extremely smart and unless you can pitch your corporation and its products in a very convincing way. I mean, you are the lead salesperson of this massive organization... and so I would find myself talking to these guys and by the end of the interview I'd be ready to buy stock in the companies and then I'd...

KB:...Then you'd change your mind?

MA:... go for a little walk, fresh air...

KB:Were there any difficulties in terms of getting those CEOs to be more personable, since these people are so used to being in the public eye?

MA:It's hard. A couple of them were cardboard. They were just so media trained that you just couldn't get to the person inside...

KB:How did you attempt to get to the person inside?

MA:Well, you'd talk to them... But people who were that opaque didn't make it into the film and I think what characterizes the interviews in the film is how candid the people are. And if they were candid and they were honest and they revealed something about how they do what they do, how they think about what they do and how they feel about what they do, that's what makes the film interesting.

Cardboard deflection didn't cut it with us.

KB:How did you start out viewing the institution of the corporation?

MA:I think the impetus for the perspective of the pieces comes largely from Joel Bakan, who backed and wrote it, and he's a law professor whose first degree was in psychology and both his parents were psychologists so, in a way, he blended both of those perspectives. In formulating this sort of analysis of the institution, Joel was of course conscious of the corporation being a person under law but he also had in the back of his mind his Psych 101 class where you learn about certain personalities and disorders, and particular anti-social personality disorders which describe a self-interested person--pathologically self-interested person that has no consciousness, no capacity for guilt over the harms it may cause others, a person that breeches social and legal norms to get its way, a person that is superficial, grandiose, but that can sort of mimic the qualities of empathy and caring-- All those characteristics, if you look them up, the standard diagnostic tool of psychologists and psychiatrists, or in the World Health Organization criteria, you find that those characteristics match perfectly with a psychopath...

KB:Do you believe that a corporation is truly a psychopath?

MA:I believe that the institution is created quite intentionally with those qualities. It's not a question of belief. It's a question of fact.

KB:It matches, and it's actually quite a witty way to look at it too...

MA:And considering that we actually narrowed down the criteria... If you actually go to Dr. Robert Hare's full list (he's the guy we interviewed in the film), either he's got a diagnostic list of twelve characteristics, or an even longer one of twenty, it still matches perfectly.

KB:At the same time, since you have people in corporations and these people could be quite kind and caring and quite horrible at once, what is it in that structure that doesn't allow the corporation to be more like a human being versus a psychopath?

MA:Well, it's designed that way and legal decisions have further refined the definition of its purpose to be...

KB:Was it created in such a way intentionally?

MA:Yes, it is intentional. I think its purpose shifted at a certain point. I think they were actually, historically created initially to serve the public good. I mean, you would build a bridge across the Charles River as the example we gave from the film and that's a thing done to serve the public good. Or the earlier example that we show in the film is how it was used to supply fresh water to the city of New York. But these early corporations were very limited in their scope and in what they could do, and they couldn't own other corporations and their shareholders were liable. They didn't use to have limited liability, which is another great creation. So now the corporation has been refined to the point where it only exists to serve the best financial interests of the shareholders and the courts have upheld this position.

They're accountable only to their shareholders. They're not accountable to you or me or the general public or anything else.

KB:So what kind of regulations can you introduce to ensure that a corporation isn't in fact a psychopath?

MA:Well, I mean you could re-define its charter. There's a range of options. On one end there is Noam Chomsky and he says that if you want to make corporations more democratic, get rid of them because they are internally vicious organizations, they're top down and people obey orders or you're out...

KB:Which still doesn't make sense to me because it seems like, imagining for a second the not-so-unlikely scenario that I would be the CEO of a corporation and we have to go somewhere and set up sweatshops or whatever else that is harmful to our world, and I just can't imagine saying, "Let's do it for the bottom line", because it's almost like it is an illegal kind of action.

MA:The bottom line, that's the only reason to do it. And just because it's immoral doesn't mean it's illegal.

KB:Yeah. But I mean I still can't imagine making this sort of decision just because of a system. I still think that a corporation is essentially based on the people within it, as well as those who are consumers of their products or shareholders... They can still wag the tail of this entity, you know?

MA:Well, people can, as Noam acknowledges in the film, they have some room to move. They can do some benevolent things if they care about the environment or human rights. They can have all kinds of policies made, but unless they're acting in the best financial interest of the shareholders, the shareholders can hold them accountable and say, "No, I'm sorry--you're spending too much money on this daycare center for your employees or your health compensation program is too generous or your wages are too high and, you know, that's our money".

KB:I noticed something about Electronic Arts, for example. They offer their employees good wages, benefits, healthcare, recreation and all sorts of perks...

MA:Oh, they're pampered...

KB:They're pampered, yes, but I'm sure that their loyalty is high there and I'm sure that the profits end up being higher as a result...

MA:Well, you're talking about, you know, extremely skilled and creative people for which corporations will always pay a very high price. Look at the ad industry, where workers are more easily interchangeable in terms of their skills, and you're going to find greater degrees of exploitation.

KB:That makes sense...

MA:I mean, it's the way it works presently, but it doesn't mean it should be.

KB:"The Corporation" ends up being a fairly balanced documentary most of the time, at least to me. Why did you make this specific choice in the presentation of the film? You could have gone with a bias slant (a-la-Michael-Moore), but instead you opted for a greater degree in balance...

MA:I think we give space to points of view with which we, as filmmakers, don't agree with and I think that makes it a more interesting film. I also think it serves our audience better to be able to consider multiple perspectives on the issues. But I also think that we don't hide our point of view either. We're fair to the opposition, but you can see where we're coming from as filmmakers, so I don't think we were striving for some journalistic balance. I was commissioned to make a point of view film--initially. And so it has that point of view present there, while being fair, I think. And trying to avoid some kind of a leftist rant which is only going to reach other leftists who want to hear a rant. I think the way we've constructed it, it's more inclusive and will generate a more interesting discussion.

KB:It's definitely more inclusive.

MA:Ultimately it's a strategy, you know, it's a conscious one...

KB:The movie, it basically goes beyond just being just a documentary film but rather you seem to present it more as a grassroots effort to raise awareness. Was this planned from the start?

MA:I think we were just trying to make our film and say what was important to say and try to tell the stories and try to make the points along the narrative. It wasn't calculated to appeal to grass roots any more than anyone else. But we've been very grateful for the support that all kinds of community groups have offered the film just in terms individuals and groups forwarding emails and telling their friends and handing out flyers and putting up posters where they work. There's only so much audience that advertising can generate and at a certain point the film has a reputation that is either a good reputation or a less glowing one.

KB:From my perspective, in terms of the marketing done for the film, this one seems to be exceptionally well done, which is rare for Canadian films. There are the pins, the live events, and posters everywhere... This film has a cult following in way, with people wearing the pins and recommending the movie to everyone who will listen with this sort of zeal...

MA:Yeah, you know, it's a cult of people who care deeply about the issues and finally see their values reflected on the screen in a way that connects, and that doesn't happen very often for a myriad of reasons. And when it does, people will really get behind it, with their hearts and souls to an impressive degree. And I must say, this success has been largely through the efforts of Katherine Dodds and her people.

I was just so impressed that we even had a trailer in theaters when it first came out, I was like blown away. It was in front of "Cold Mountain" or something, it was in front of these big Hollywood films and I just imagined what an anomaly that would be--and it was. Because people were all talking through the trailers and nobody cared because they're all stupid and ours comes along, and all of a sudden there's this sort of hush in the theater. And they were like, "What the hell... what the hell is this".

KB:Yeah! What is this? How confusing... This is not Hollywood. This is not Brad Pitt...

MA: The trailer was one of the best things that we could ever have done and it happened very quickly. We had some great talented people put it together.

KB:Are there any particular people that you think would be your main audience for the film? Have you noticed any particular traits in the people who have seen it thus far?

MA:It's a mixed bag. I think it's a really, really interesting and diverse demographic, I must say. You know, each demographic sort of has their own motivation for being there and their own interests and I just think the film has multiple entry points in terms of how people can connect to it. Because stylistically, I think it's very youthful and energetic and content-wise, I think it's sassy enough to appeal to a younger demographic but I think it's also connecting to businesspeople, and people who are just completely disaffected with the corporate world. Shareholders who've lost money, for example. People who are just dismayed at the scandals. I also hear a lot of middle-aged people talking about their activism being re-ignited, in part because of the film. I think it reminds people that they care about these issues. I think people kind of drift off into their lives and every now and then something sort of slaps them in the face and I think we do that with this movie.

KB:What can people do to change corporations and how they act?

MA:Big question.

KB:Of course.

MA:I think people have to look within themselves, at their own skill set, at their own concerns. They have to evaluate for themselves what bugs them most about the corporate world and from there, you can get involved. It's harder as an individual to do anything. You can have more impact as a group, and anything you're concerned about, there's usually a pre-existing group of people that are working on that issue. You just have to find who's doing what that resonates in a way with you and support them and give them your time, or do what you can to help out.

KB:I find that your documentary is one of the few that actually says you can do this and this and that, and doesn't just end up completely on this sort of dark note, where they present the issue and then say "you're living in this dark place, you're doomed."

MA:No, I think it's really irresponsible just to send people into the world completely devastated and depressed as we could have done if we cut off the last half hour of the film. Although I think there are inspiring examples, even though people lost certain battles, like the fired Fox reporters, just their courage in taking on Fox and Monsanto is inspiring. The film is not trying to be definitive in the examples that it gives, and I hope to have lots more examples on the website and on the DVD of things that people are doing, and people can take from that what they will. But they're symbolic efforts. We could have gone for five hours giving examples of what people are doing all over the world. There are so many completely inspiring efforts. I think those groups have been there working away for a long time. They just didn't pop up in the last twenty-four hours...

KB:Do you think there's a positive change that will come?

MA:There's always change coming.

KB:Right, right... But we can all go towards dying too, that's a change...

MA:I think we are continually fighting against injustice and suffering and society does make progress, you know? It's hard to tell sometimes if on balance things are better or worse but in terms of all kinds of issues of human rights and civil rights and women's rights and in terms of reigning in corporate power and even the power to conduct war, you know, they're not getting away with what they might have some time ago. I think there's considerable public pressure and more accountability because...

KB:The media contributes, I think, to this progress...

MA:In part because of the media, in part because of the independent media, in part because of the internet... The world is becoming a little more transparent if people care to look.

KB:If nothing changes in the way that the corporation system works, what do you imagine our life will be like fifty years from now? I was originally going to say ten but then I decided fifty would be more depressing.

MA:You know, at one point, we conceived the film as a reminiscence from the perspective of someone fifty years in the future looking back on this dark era of corporate tyranny and kind of looking at the present as if it were an archaeological dig and trying to see what we could discover about this strange time that people used to live in where they sacrificed their rights to these entities, where they permitted so much injustice and suffering, and I hope that the film will be a part of a movement that will help us see the present from a position in the future and let us look back on it and say, "What the hell were they thinking?", you know, in the same way that you can look back on the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and slavery... You know, these are important, significant, substantial societal shifts...

KB:Which are now really common sense...

MA:You look back and you go, "It's obviously common sense".

KB:Now it's not even a matter of discussion sometimes...

MA:How could people have been thinking that? How could they have gotten away with that?

KB:Do you think people are changing? In what ways are we able to actually make progress and change our views? With every new generation we seemingly start over again, and yet somehow we change...

MA:People are always changing. Every generation is making some kind of social progress. Maybe you learn a little from the past if you're paying attention.

KB:If your film was presented in the medium of feature film and not documentary, do you think the result would have been different?

MA:If it had been fiction?

KB:Yes, or based on a true story, even. Why did you decide to present it as a documentary specifically?

MA:I think people do tell aspects of this story in feature films. Well, there's all kinds of them. There's "Wall Street"... At one point we had a list on our wall. And they do illustrate various aspects of the institution, but you know reality is far stranger than fiction and I think these are real problems. I think people working in fiction can help illuminate the issues, very much from an emotional perspective, but this is just what we chose to do... it's just... because we're Canadian. We make documentaries, eh?

KB:Speaking of the devil... The film has done very well in Canada. And now you're taking this to the US?

MA:Yes. When you go to the website [ http://www.thecorporation.com ] you'll see an impressive list of states... We have distribution in South Korea and Japan and Italy and France and Greece and the UK and Australia and Canada...the United States...

... It goes on and on...

KB:It's a universal thing...

MA:Yeah, it affects all countries in different ways...

KB:Had you ever expected this sort of success?

MA:You can't.

KB:You can't?

MA:Well, I don't know. I can't... we weren't certain that the film would even play as a feature in theatres initially. But you're certainly grateful for it when it happens...

Check out http://www.thecorporation.com to learn more about the film, where it's playing, and even how to get involved in changing the world.

Comments? Email your thoughts to: [email protected]

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