The Making of the Unmaking of Janesville, WI

Independent Lens sat down with As Goes Janesville filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein in the midst of a whirlwind media tour ahead of the premiere of his film on Monday, October 8, 2012 at 10 PM (check local listings).

Watch Focus on the Challenges That Janesville Faces on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What impact do you hope As Goes Janesville will have?

The film is about the most vexing of questions: how do you reinvent an economy and sustain the middle class? It’s complicated by political unrest and polarization. I hope the film serves as both an instructive and cautionary tale about how to try to reinvent our economy in a fair way that includes the middle class, and how to overcome political polarization and work together toward a common purpose. I want to use the film to bring business, labor, community and civic groups together across political and other boundaries and find ways to unite them in their communities.

What led you to make this film?

I wanted to tell a story about our economic crisis, not so much the fall but the very difficult process of reinvention. And I knew about the closing of the GM plant in Janesville because my wife grew up there. What they faced — massive unemployment and, ultimately, political upheaval as Wisconsin erupted into a firestorm over unions — is a microcosm for all of America.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Scope and access. Though the film is about a small city, it covers three years, the closure of a GM plant, the battle over unions, a recall election. It’s epic, so our editor, Leslie Simmer of Kartemquin Films, and I struggled just as epically to tell the story through the experiences of our five main subjects. Access was always a challenge, not so much with the laid-off workers but with the business community. They put a premium on confidentiality and were skeptical of our effort to tell and candid, behind-the-scenes story.

About 1/6 of Janesville’s population lost their jobs.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Trust is an ongoing process. For some, they needed to know, for instance, that we wouldn’t film certain things like parts of Cindy’s breast exam when we go with her to shoot a scene about her health scare, which was relevant as she was going back to school for a new job after being laid off and unemployment and healthcare benefits were running out. In other cases, like with the business community, I’m not sure we ever achieved the level of trust that I’ve obtained with other people in other films. Ultimately, they were engaged in the effort to recruit business to town and any story that wasn’t completely positive could be seen as an impediment.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

Gosh, so many scenes. But the one that I really miss is Gayle’s family doing a spontaneous money and food collection on Christmas eve when they find out that a family has been turned out of their home that night. We went to the Super 8 where three generations of this family in need were gathered and it was inspiring to see one family, already dealing with lay-off, rush to help another.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

I think the scene that gets me every time is Gayle talking to her sobbing daughter by phone the first night she is away from her family, having taken a job in Indiana at a GM plant. Her daughter’s uncontrollable crying takes me right to the anguish I would feel as a parent if I could not provide what my children need.

The other scene is a controversial one: when Governor Scott Walker tells the co-chairs of the economic development initiative Rock County 5.0 that the budget bill he’s about to introduce is part of a divide-and-conquer strategy to weaken unions. That clip went viral and that was challenging for me personally as our film became news during the historic gubernatorial recall election. Yet, it also is a clip that is astonishingly revealing and I’m proud to have captured it.

Protestors gather outside the Capitol building in Madison, WI.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

We show every principal subject a rough cut. The responses when we screened it were minimal, mostly a melancholy at reliving a difficult time or some apprehension about the impact the film might have on the prospects of recruiting businesses to a town that is revealed so candidly. Audiences get very involved in debate about jobs, our economy, business versus labor, and our volatile politics that animate American life today. The most common comment I get, though, is that the film treats everyone fairly, even if the audience or reviewer disagrees with the point of view of any of our five subjects. And that was our goal.

What question are you frequently asked by audiences?

People ask all the time about why we didn’t include [GOP Vice Presidential Nominee] Paul Ryan, despite having shot two interviews and several scenes with him. Simple. We focus on the intimate stories of people in the community reinventing their lives and their town. Paul was in D.C. most of the time and we didn’t have that kind of access to him so he simply didn’t fit. We left a lot of people on the cutting room floor including GM executive Diana Tremblay and Obama car czar Ed Montgomery. Oh well.

What has happened to the people we met in your film?

Angie and Gayle are counting the days to retirement when they can return to their families. Cindy got a better shift at the hospital. Mary is busy with Rock County 5.0, pitching her community to businesses. Tim Cullen is trying to strike a compromise on a mining and venture capital bill, still hoping both sides will play nicely.

Cindy Deegan waits to be interviewed in front of ALCOA, where she used to work.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Public media is the only widely available television programming in America that offers a broad range of opinions and respects the audience enough to give them tough films and issues to wrestle with. What’s more, I believe in the mission of public media from my core – that we need media to motivate and expand civic dialogue about difficult subjects in order to sustain and strengthen our democracy. I guess I take this seriously 

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film? ?

I didn’t get my children to the dentist on time. I missed out on tons of holidays because I spent them with the families in our film. Funny story: Nicole (co-producer) and I finished shooting one Christmas Eve and had nowhere to go so we poured little whiskies into our Arby’s mocha shakes, toasted to the year and headed back to the motel.

What are your three favorite films?

My three favorite films are Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet), MASH (Robert Altman) and High School 2 (Fred Wiseman), but I must mention My Country, My Country (Laura Poitras), Gimme Shelter (Maysles) and Perfect Candidate (David Van Taylor) and 1,000 other documentaries.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Future filmmakers of the world, here’s my advice: Persist.

What fuels you when you are making an independent film?

Coke Slurpees.