Read an Excerpt
WAL-MART the high cost of low price
By Greg Spotts
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2005 Greg Spotts
All rights reserved.
Robert Greenwald is too smiley to be an activist. Sitting at his large wraparound desk, he's cheery, pleasant, and positive. His wireless reading glasses are often perched atop his bald head, like an extra set of twinkling eyes that accentuate his warm and welcoming grin.
The producer of over sixty films, Robert has created a comfortable and profitable niche in the entertainment business, producing movies for network television, cable, and independent theatrical release. One of his best-known television productions is The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett, which explored the consequences of domestic violence. At any given time, Robert has multiple movies in production for broadcast networks and cable channels.
Robert's office is filled with portraits of his heroes, from Albert Einstein to Abbie Hoffman. One of his favorite projects is Steal This Movie, a feature film he directed about Hoffman's life that included a re-enactment of the famous "Levitate the Pentagon" anti-war protest of October 1967.
When problems arise, Robert's reaction is mild gallows humor. He'll often spell out the worst-case scenario with light sarcasm and a grim, yet reassuring, smile. He says that the film he is now directing, a $1.6 million documentary about Wal-Mart, is "the toughest and most complex project I've ever worked on. And that includes a six-hour miniseries with Sally Field!"
The production process of the Wal-Mart film is organized in a unique way, building on Robert's experience with his two previous documentaries, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. In traditional filmmaking, there are three sequential phases of a project. In preproduction, you write and research the material. In production, you shoot the footage. Finally, there's postproduction, when you edit down your many hours of footage into a ninety-minute movie.
On the Wal-Mart film, code-named the "Retail Project," all three of these phases are happening at the same time. The production effort resembles neither a scripted film nor a documentary. Rather than assembling a conventional film crew, Robert has created an aggressive news-gathering organization that is investigating the business practices of the world's largest corporation.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is no stranger to controversy. The company has been accused of a wide variety of cost-saving employment practices that bend or break the law, from forcing hourly employees to work "off the clock" to using illegal immigrants as overnight cleaning crews. The largest class-action employment lawsuit in American history, Dukes vs. Wal-Mart, charges that the company systematically denies women the pay and promotions available to male employees.
Once primarily based in Southern, rural communities, the company has encountered fierce local resistance to an ambitious plan to expand into major cities and the West Coast. There are entire books and websites dedicated to critiquing Wal-Mart, and the company has been the subject of protests, academic conferences, and even special elections.
There are dozens of Wal-Mart issues and controversies, and Robert Greenwald wants to explore them all. On any given week, Robert may have two or even three camera crews gathering footage in different cities. During February, March, and April, Robert's traveling crews have shot over 140 hours of original footage in ten different states. In search of stories about Wal-Mart's international operations, Robert has engaged local crews in London, Hamburg, Hong-Kong, and Quebec to conduct additional interviews.
While most of the filming is taking place out-of-town, Robert's offices in Culver City, California are jammed and buzzing. A growing staff of twenty and counting is pushing hard to finish the Retail Project by Labor Day, 2005, to accommodate an ambitious promotional campaign that is planned for November.
Two editors are working six days a week to boil down the incoming footage to manageable ten-minute segments. Although the overall structure of the film is ever-shifting, the editors are cutting and polishing individual segments that tell the story of a particular person or town.
New story ideas are investigated by two full-time researchers and a fleet of interns. If Robert wants to know where Wal-Mart has been cited for environmental violations, the research staff combs through local newspapers and TV news clips, searching for concrete examples. Robert then picks his favorite storylines, which are passed on to the co-producers for more detailed research, including telephone "pre-interviews." Once Robert and a co-producer agree that there are enough good interviewees to merit a shooting trip, a detailed shooting proposal is written for Robert to review and approve.
Robert sees the entire documentary process as a giant balancing act, trying to formulate a coherent and powerful political statement while at the same time creating an artistic and entertaining movie. He is the only member of the team who has a clear understanding of the overall project and its many moving parts. Although there are two producers and four co-producers working full-time on the film, each is focused on a particular task. None of them are charged with supervising the overall project, on either a creative or operational level.
The organizational structure is completely flat: almost everyone reports directly to Robert, and he receives an absolute blizzard of daily e-mail from staffers seeking his direction and feedback. According to producer Jim Gilliam, who has been working with Robert since Uncovered, the controlled chaos is by design. "Robert needs to work this way," Jim explains. "He is unable to function effectively unless he is at the center of everything. All of us have confidence that Robert has a vision. My role as producer is to be an extension of his brain." (Robert himself does not view his process as substantially different than the way in which other directors manage big-budget films.)
Robert's centrality to every aspect of the project necessitates that he stay in Culver City to manage the project on a minute-by-minute basis. Early in the process, Robert reluctantly decided that he could not go out in the field and conduct the interviews himself. The broad scope of his inquiry and the rush to complete the film by September have created a degree of separation between Robert and his topic. Rather than making his own personal journey into the heartland of America, Robert is closely supervising three co-producers who fly around the country and do the interviews.
Since Robert is not present during most of the filming, he's devised a unique way to watch the footage. With videotapes flooding in from the field by overnight mail, Robert's entire workday could be chewed up by sitting in front of a television watching the dailies in real time. So Robert directs his staff by day, and watches the new footage at night on his home computer. To save time, he often watches the footage at double-speed, with the interviewees chirping like chipmunks.
Every minute of the Retail Project's footage is available twenty-four hours a day via a password-protected website that is referred to as the "Wiki." Incoming tapes are digitized, compressed, and uploaded to the secure video server so that the researchers and co-producers can review the growing library of material within days of each new tape's arrival. While the rest of the staff watches the footage as a streaming QuickTime file, Robert gets special treatment. His home computer is programmed to automatically download new footage from the video server, so that "video dailies" are waiting for Robert on his hard drive when he gets home from the office.
The Wiki contains much more than just the raw video footage. An outside transcription service watches each new tape and uploads a word-by-word transcription to the Wiki that can be viewed by any staffer. Each one-hour videotape also has an associated set of shooting notes written by the appropriate co-producer. There's a ton of additional material on the Wiki, including Robert's original script notes, shooting settings for the Panasonic DVX-100a camera, and a huge research section with Wal-Mart-related documents, news clippings, statistics and photographs. Best of all, the Retail Project's Wiki is completely keyword searchable and is accessible from any place in the world that has internet access.
Robert's team constantly refers each other to the Wiki for information and answers. At any given time, half the computers at Robert's office complex are being used to upload or download material to the password-protected site. Since all roads lead to Robert and Robert is insanely busy, the Culver City courtyard echoes with the oft-spoken words "Hmmm, good question. Have you checked the Wiki?"
If you can't find the info you need on the Wiki, the best person to ask is co-producer Sarah Feeley, whose desk faces a large whiteboard displaying the movement of crews and equipment around the country. Sarah and the rest of the production department operate in a two-room suite that's a half-block away from Robert's main building. She and her staffers affectionately refer to their humble quarters as "the island," and the headquarters building as "the mainland." Overseeing the complexities of the Retail Project requires Sarah to walk from the island to the mainland at least once every hour.
Sarah is the type of no-nonsense woman who naturally ends up in charge of a team, and Robert describes her as "the glue that holds the whole thing together." With her wiry frame and retro-hipster wardrobe, Sarah could pass for a college student. She derives her authority not from her appearance, but from her clipped, concise pattern of speech. On a team of people who speak in paragraphs, she communicates in declarative sentences. Her motto is "just get it done."
Sarah originally came on the Retail Project for a two-week assignment before any footage had been shot, and her performance quickly made her one of Robert's most trusted lieutenants.
Her job was to figure out how to videotape fifty new Wal-Mart stores that were opening on the same day. Discovery of this Wal-Mart super-day was big news for Robert's small team of researchers, because the company provides little advance notice about its plans.
Robert had been searching for a way to illustrate the sheer scale of Wal-Mart's operations, and the opening of fifty stores on a single day seemed like the perfect opportunity. But how to shoot it?
That's where Sarah came in. Having just finished working as an associate producer on Tim Burton's new animated film Corpse Bride, Sarah was brought into the Retail Project on January 14 to find a way to shoot as many of the January 26 Wal-Mart store openings as possible.
Flying people around the country to twenty-seven different states would be way too expensive. So Sarah's goal was to hire a local cameraperson in each town who could shoot a grand opening with his own equipment. Many of the stores were opening in small communities, where a video professional would be hard to find.
Sarah and her two interns started phoning potential shooters in each of the fifty places where stores were about to open. Her shooters ranged from professional freelancers in the larger markets to camcorder-toting amateurs in the smaller towns. She wanted all of her shooters to have some experience creating usable video. In some cases that experience was taping the high-school football game.
The individual shooters were offered $150 for a few hours of videotaping, and did not know they were part of a large-scale effort.
Of the fifty store openings Sarah attempted to film, she was able to get worthwhile footage on thirty-nine of them. The whole endeavor cost about $5,000, and required two weeks of Sarah's time with the help of her two full-time interns.
Robert was impressed, and immediately put Sarah to work organizing the Retail Project's first interview expeditions. After three months of work developing specific leads, researchers Caty Borum and Jenny Cartwright were champing at the bit to head out in the field and produce their own segments. Newly-titled as "co-producers," Caty and Jenny started making travel arrangements for their first trips, and Robert tasked Sarah with helping them.
After a mad rush to get Caty and Jenny out the door with the proper cameras and equipment, Sarah quickly decided that the dispatch process needed to be organized and codified. So she wrote a "field manual" describing basic procedures for planning, shooting, and wrapping each field expedition, procedures that have become the basic rules-of-the-road of the Retail Project.
The cover of Sarah's field manual bears a quote from one of her film school professors: "There are a million reasons why something can't be done. We are here to find the one reason why it can."
Sarah is the only person other than Robert with a complete picture of the week-to-week status of Robert's investigative effort. Using the Wiki, she's keeping track of each of Robert's "story buckets," from "Shopkeeper" to "Employee Health Care." Some stories are being pursued by just one co-producer. Others are based on the hundreds of hours of archival news footage that's been collected. The more complicated stories are being pursued by the entire investigative team under Robert's close supervision.
Sarah says she's running as tight a ship as possible without overly disturbing Robert's controlled chaos. "The way this project started out, we've been racing to catch up the entire time," she explains. "We got out of the gate before sufficient planning had been done. The co-producers are under a lot of pressure from Robert to find great stories and get those stories on tape. My area is all the crap people don't want to get pushed about—dotting the i's and crossing the t's."
Sarah is in charge of logistics, equipment, and expenses for the co-producers. Prior to moving forward with each shoot, the co-producers must submit to Sarah a production plan and budget. Once Sarah signs off on a shoot budget, it goes to producer Devin Smith for final approval.
Although she is the main person reviewing individual shooting budgets, Sarah finds it curious that she knows so little about the budget of the entire film. "This movie operates unlike any film I've ever worked on before," Sarah explains. "I have never seen a master budget for this project. I don't even know if such a thing exists. We're still raising some of the production money, and I don't know if we're spending money that's in the bank, spending money we don't have or spending Robert's personal money."CHAPTER 2
Confronting the President
Robert's admiration of the rebellious Abbie Hoffman is the one indication that a smiley, five-foot-six Hollywood producer would end up challenging the national security establishment of the United States. On the heels of America's March 20, 2003 invasion of Iraq, Robert rush-produced his first documentary film, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. The sixty-minute film was sharply critical of President Bush and senior members of his administration.
The genesis of Robert's opposition to the Iraq War was a presentation by former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter that Robert attended in the fall of 2002. What started as an e-mail message from Robert to some of his friends in film and television quickly grew into Artists United to Win Without War, a group Robert co-founded with actor Mike Farrell.
On December 15, 2002, Artists United ran a full-page anti-war advertisement in the New York Times, signed by over one hundred actors and musicians including Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, Samuel L. Jackson, and Dave Matthews. Written as an open letter, the ad concluded with a statement that was virtually the opposite of the Bush administration position: "The valid US and UN objective of disarming Saddam Hussein can be achieved through legal diplomatic means. There is no need for war. Let us instead devote our resources to improving the security and well-being of people here at home and around the world."
Excerpted from WAL-MART the high cost of low price by Greg Spotts. Copyright © 2005 Greg Spotts. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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