Collapse Director Chris Smith on the Decade's First Great Feel-Bad Film


Imagine the most sincerely encouraging, feel-good movie you've ever seen. Then imagine the 180-degree opposite -- the most sincerely helpless-making, devastating movie you could ever see. Then imagine not being able to look away. That's Collapse in a nutshell, director Chris Smith's one-man show featuring journalist, intellectual and former L.A. cop Michael Ruppert (pictured at right) holding forth about the surpluses, shortages, conspiracies and other looming crises that threaten the world as we know it. Filmed in an empty warehouse setting with its chain-smoking subject fielding the skeptical filmmaker's questions, Collapse is designed to let viewers draw their own conclusions while underscoring the consequences of those conclusions; Smith lets nobody off the hook. The doc's scope and power have demanded reckoning from the Toronto Film Festival (where it premiered last September) to the Berlinale (where it will screen next month) to theaters and even homes nationwide, where it's currently available on demand.

Movieline recently caught up with Smith to inquire about what Collapse means to him, how to factcheck a doomsayer, and how his 1999 classic American Movie holds up after a decade.

How did you meet Michael Ruppert?

In the '70s Michael became a whistleblower in terms of a connection between the CIA and drug trafficking. Consequently his life sort of fell apart. The story that we had heard about came up just while we doing another project. We had just finished a film and were researching new things, and this was one of the ideas that we thought would be interesting to pursue, just to see if anything would come of it. It was really born out of just trying to have him talk about that project. When we contacted him and set up a meeting at his house, he had just finished writing a book basically about what he sees happening -- the things that have led to the point in history where we are now -- and what he sees coming our way. When we went there we realized very quickly that he wasn't interested in talking about the past, but he was very much consumed with what he sees happening around us.

So we just kind of went with it. We spent two or three hours at his house, and it was this incredible sort of train-of-thought monologue. We left not quite sure what to make of it or Michael or anything else we thought of doing with him. But we kept coming back to it over the next couple weeks; we kept thinking about what he said and the way he said it, and kind of came to this conclusion to see if anything was there. So we organized to shoot with him for a few days in March 2009. That kind of started the beginning of the process.

How did you conjure and create this setting -- this dark, empty space where Michael holds forth?

Our goal was to not do it in a studio. I was much more interested in trying to get the audience into Michael's head -- the world he lives in every day, the way that he looks at the world. We decided we wanted to film him exclusively in a setting that was visually engaging and interesting. We originally started looking for locations that had a postapocalyptic feel; the idea there was to put him in a place that would be representational of the world that he's describing. Then we moved away from that because the more we got into the project, it seemed more appropriate to film somewhere where it felt like an interrogation could take place, and also played up his past connections to this underworld between the CIA and drug trafficking. It felt like some secret, hidden bunker where you'd take someone to transfer information that was perceived to be dangerous or top secret. It was a combination of those ideas that led us to that place. And also, cinematically, it felt like it was from that world.

Michael says at one point, "I don't deal in conspiracy theory; I deal in conspiracy fact." Yet you do express some skepticism as an interviewer. How much did you vet [SP?] and fact-check his allegations?

We did fact-check the whole movie. We hired someone to go through the whole film and find articles or papers that supported his claims. When we found things that did, we left them in. When we had things that couldn't be supported, we took them out. But a good portion of the film is just opinion or his conclusion. There's no way to check that; only time will tell if some of those things come to pass. But in terms of the actual material in the film, what we felt was appropriate was that if there was some third party who agreed with Michael who could verify the claim, then we'd leave it in the film.

That's not to say there aren't conflicting opinions about what's in the film. For instance, the government will say that ethanol is net energy positive, whereas this independent scholar named David Pimentel wrote the original paper that Michael cites about ethanol being net energy negative. And he says he still believes that to be true. So it's him versus government agencies, and a lot of the things he talks about exist in this shadow world. You can find people on both sides, and there's a lot of information and a lot of disinformation about all of these subjects. It was hard to come to definitive conclusions on things, but we felt that as long as there was some sort of backup to the claims he was making that felt legitimate, then we'd leave them in.

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  • sweetbiscuit says:

    I read about this film a couple months ago and was eager to see it. Since I don't have Comcast or Time Warner cable view-on-demand, I'm pretty much out of luck. I'm glad you've got this interview - maybe someone in L.A. will get it in a theater here.

  • Bob says:

    Coincidentally, I just saw this tonight. Easily one of the best -- if not the best -- films of '09. Can't recommend it enough, even though I do so with the strong reservation that it is both terrifying on a global scale and depressing on a personal one, for no matter if he's right or wrong, here's a man who has paid an awful toll to learn about and communicate terribly upsetting information. Will honestly have a difficult time getting this one out of my head.