Controversy sells movies. Remember "The Passion of the Christ?" Now Michael Moore's Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11" is raking in millions since launching its own firestorm when Disney refused to distribute it, citing the studio's nonpartison history. This July 4 weekend, "Disney will offer a counterdocumentary called 'America's Heart and Soul' with panoramic vistas, soaring music and heartwarming profiles of cowboys, gospel singers and handicapped athletes," Newsweek said.
If the controversy pumps up "Heart," its Jewish filmmaker, Louis Schwartzberg, isn't taking advantage. The 54-year-old is hardly as flamboyant as Moore, nor has his face been all over the news. Rather, he has been quietly attending Q-and-A sessions about his film, which Disney is promoting via word-of-mouth screenings -- a less incendiary marketing tactic borrowed from "The Passion." His powerful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous documentary has been shown to dozens of targeted groups, from Jewish musicians to Future Farmers of America.
The Journal recently caught up with Schwartzberg on the Disney lot between screenings for radio host Dennis Prager and an evangelical Christian organization. Soft-spoken and dressed in jeans, he almost faded into the background as the dynamic Prager conducted an informal Q and A.
"My parents are Holocaust survivors who came to this country with nothing," he said. "They instilled in me a strong appreciation of the American ideals of tolerance, freedom and opportunity, which I wanted to celebrate in a movie."
"Heart" presents 26 vignettes of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories (think Studs Terkel) including a blind mountaineer, a klezmer clarinetist, and an ex-con who heads the Olympic boxing team.
But don't call Schwartzberg the anti-Michael Moore. Some of the media spin "makes it seem like [Moore's] the left and I'm the right, but that's not true," he said. Schwartzberg describes himself as politically liberal (he's a board member of two environmental groups); he didn't intend his film to be "a whitewashed, Pollyanna greeting card vision of America."
He believes it depicts the flipside of the American dream, including homelessness and unemployment, while celebrating the proverbial devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"It doesn't matter if these values aren't perfect or whether they even exist," he said, later, while sitting in a gleaming lobby amid images of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "I know there isn't yet equal opportunity for all, but shouldn't we strive for that? That's what I'm hoping my film will inspire people to do."
"Heart" ends with breathtaking images of Fourth of July fireworks near Ellis Island, which Schwartzberg also traces to his parents.
"The Statue of Liberty is the first thing they saw when they came to this country, and it represents the ideals that brought them here," he said.
Although he shares these ideals, he didn't always share his parents' politics. During the Vietnam War, his father, a tool and dye maker from whom he inherited his love of photography, worked for a military aircraft manufacturer; Schwartzberg, meanwhile, shot photo essays about police violence during demonstrations at UCLA.
Rather than go to work for the audio visual department of dad's company after graduation, he developed a reputation as a preeminent time-lapse photographer. Later he directed commercials and spectacular time-lapse sequences that have been featured in films such as "American Beauty," among other endeavors.
It was while traveling the country to direct promotional spots for local news broadcasts that he got the idea for a movie featuring vignettes that, strung together, "would provide a snapshot of the American character." He spent millions of his own dollars to shoot "Heart," which uses 35mm stock and looks like the priciest of IMAX films. ("I'm out on a limb, big time," he said of the expense.)
Schwartzberg persevered even as every studio in town rejected his film; Disney finally bought "Heart" 18 months ago, well before the Moore brouhaha.
If generating movie controversies has become as American as apple pie, Schwartzberg wants no part of it. "For me, it's a nonissue," he said.
He's equally direct with those who might label his film as right wing or naive: "I don't think it's hokey to love your country," he said.
"America's Heart and Soul" opens today in Los Angeles.