MOVIES : ON LOCATION : Will His 'Bacon' Sizzle? : Sure, Michael Moore can get a rise out of former GM honcho Roger Smith, but let's see how the documentarian does with his first feature

Marshall Fine covers entertainment for the Gannett News Service.

It's a brisk Canadian morning at an abandoned steel plant in one of Toronto's industrial neighborhoods--"in the 3s and 4s," as one local radio voice announces, which, with the wind chill, puts the temperature at roughly 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The kind of weather, in other words, that would send most movie directors scurrying for their trailers, asking to have their latte warmed while the crew readies the next shot.

Michael Moore, however, is outdoors on the set between shots, bundled in a parka and Minnesota Timberwolves stocking cap--and he's customizing a car. With a hammer.

This in itself is unusual behavior. Usually a director would simply mention to his art director that, gee, the car needs to be aged a little--and it would be taken care of.

But Moore doesn't stand on protocol. As lights and cameras are adjusted for the next take, he circles the car with an impish smile, vandalizing a perfectly good Chevy Suburban so that it looks like the beat-up police vehicle it's supposed to be for his first non-documentary feature, "Canadian Bacon." He whacks at a hubcap, leaving vicious dents. After he is finished, the nameplate that says "Chevy Suburban" hangs by a single screw.

Later, holding court over lunch, Moore laughs and says, "I think Hamper built that Suburban," referring to Ben Hamper, Moore's longtime friend from his hometown of Flint, Mich., and the author of "Rivethead," a chronicle of his years on the GM assembly line there.

Which makes Moore giggle maniacally: "If you don't think we see the sick irony in all this: You can't go to many movie sets where the people who actually wrote and directed the film are the same ones who built the vehicles. The AC spark plugs in that Suburban--my dad probably helped build those. We've probably got three family connections inside that Suburban.

"And that we'd all be here with John Candy making a movie? Hey, last week we took over the private residence of the founder of General Motors of Canada as a location! Last film, we couldn't even get up the GM building's elevator."

But then, that last film was "Roger & Me," Moore's unexpectedly comic 1989 documentary about the terminal American auto industry. Even as Moore made himself GM's Enemy No. 1 with his witheringly funny tale of callous corporate ineptness, he rocket-launched his own filmmaking career. His movie became one of the top-grossing documentary of all time ($8 million) and, in the tradition of successful documentaries of recent years, was duly overlooked for an Oscar nomination.

Now, four years later, Moore is finally stepping up to the plate again with "Canadian Bacon," a political comedy he has written and is directing.

In a scenario eerily reminiscent of anti-NAFTA feelings washing over both countries, "Canadian Bacon" is about an American President (Alan Alda) who, faced with plummeting popularity and a worse economy, decides to foment fear of Canada, creating a new Cold War to put America back to work. But Niagara Falls Sheriff John Candy takes the President's saber-rattling too literally and creates an international incident. The film features Kevin Pollak and Rip Torn as presidential advisers, Rhea Perlman, Bill Nunn and Kevin J. O'Connor as sheriff's deputies and Wallace Shawn as the Canadian prime minister.

It's the second week of the $11-million-plus production, and the mood on the set--well, if it were a scene from a movie, the background music would be "Good Vibrations." Moore, who has only 38 shooting days, is by all accounts working efficiently and effectively. Even the producers, shivering in a gaggle as they watch the dailies on monitors, are marveling; plainly, Moore has calmed whatever doubts there might have been.

"Anytime you do a movie with a first-time director, it's a huge leap of faith," says producer Steve Golin, head of Propaganda Films, which is teamed with PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. "Michael's an extremely convincing guy. But until the first couple of days are over, you just don't know. 'Roger & Me' was a documentary, and there's a huge difference. Four or five people working on something for a year is a lot different than 200 people working on something for two months."

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It took a year and a half of writing and another year of taking the script around with producer David Brown ("The two of us were like Hope and Crosby," Brown says), looking for someone who didn't cringe at the words political comedy.

"He's like a snake charmer; he's just an incredible performer, a consummate salesman," says the dapper Brown, the only person this day (outside of people in costume) who has chosen to face the weather in three-piece suit, trench coat and muffler. "I said, 'If you're such a good salesman, how come 47 studios and production companies have turned us down?' He said, 'They didn't get it.' They'll get it when the picture comes out."

"Everywhere we went, we heard the same thing," recalls Moore, 39. " 'Very funny. Too political.' It was the same thing I heard when I was making 'Roger & Me' and looking for money. I had to convince people that I was making a comedy about a dying automobile town. They'd say, 'What's funny about that?' "

Making political comedy out of Canadian quirkiness is challenging enough--let alone selling it to a Hollywood studio. The average American, if he thinks about Canada at all, "probably thinks of it as this frozen wasteland populated by similar people who have better Americans than we do in baseball and great hockey teams," says Pollak, cast as the President's conniving chief of staff.

"Everyone's reaction is 'It's so clean,' " Moore observes. "Which is a euphemism for 'Look at all the friendly white people.' "

And what do Canadians think of America? "They want us to keep sending those Levi's and rock 'n' roll," Pollak says. "They're unbelievably thrilled that their Americans beat our Americans in the World Series. They're like 'Nice try in the World Series, eh?' "

When Moore finished the script, he showed it to Warner Bros., where he had a first-look deal, but nothing happened. Brown, producer of "Jaws," "The Sting" and "The Player," among others, saw the script, liked it and offered to help Moore get it going.

After almost a year of shopping it around without success, Moore suggested calling Madonna's new Maverick Pictures: "I said, 'Gee, Madonna grew up 30 miles down the road from me. I met the guy who runs her company, and he seemed like a cool guy.' "

"Our goal," says producer Ron Rotholz, president of Maverick, "is to work with interesting newer filmmakers. We want to work with filmmakers who press the edge of the envelope."

When Moore and Brown called, they discovered that Rotholz had been calling regularly about the script--and that Moore's agents at International Creative Management hadn't been forwarding the message. Moore and Brown hooked up with Maverick (and Moore left ICM for Creative Artists Agency--"it's the difference between watching GM work and watching Honda work," he says).

They decided to try to get actors attached before shopping it again--and found a receptive one in John Candy. Moore added Torn, Alda and Pollak and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; "I have the A-team on this film," he gloats. With them on board, Moore and company were able to make a deal with Propaganda, PolyGram and MGM/UA.

Nonetheless, he says, "the studios and the production companies we went to had a hard time believing that the American public would be able to understand a film that was political and entertaining. Hollywood doesn't make those: films that are funny, that deal with contemporary political issues and are accessible to a mass audience.

"But I want this to be like 'Roger & Me.' I always wanted 'Roger & Me' to play at shopping malls and cineplexes. And it did."

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Later that same day, the production has moved inside the steel plant, which has been made over as Hacker Dynamics, a Niagara Falls weapons plant that is closing down, throwing the local work force into disarray. The plant is having a going-out-of-business sale: "Buy One, Get One Free," reads a sign next to what looks like a row of Tomahawk missiles. "Blow-Out Sale," reads another, next to a rack of hand-held rocket launchers.

As a group of extras walks out of the building toting automatic rifles, Moore's writer pal Hamper, on hand to play a small part, looks on appreciatively and says, "Nice to see the postal workers could make it."

It happens to be the day before the Gore-Perot cat fight on CNN. Moore, who is vehemently against the North American Free Trade Agreement, has already arranged to have his testimony read before a House committee considering NAFTA two days hence. At the moment he's trying to figure out a way to arrange to call in to "The Larry King Show," to get his two cents' worth in.

"I'm fortunate in that I have a limited public podium from which to speak," he says. "My buddies who are still in Flint aren't on the 'Today' show or Jay Leno. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility. But I'm working 18 hours a day on this film, so that's my dilemma."

(As it turned out, Moore didn't try to get through to "Larry King": "I was so disappointed in the circus it became, I didn't even want to be part of it." Moore spent the day before the NAFTA vote calling members of Congress; after the final tally, he said, "The outcome will mean hundreds of thousands of people's lives with be ruined, and places like Flint are going to suffer even more. A few people will do well, and a lot of people will not do well.")

"Even though Michael now has resources on a personal level that are greater than before, he has realized his obligations to make the world a better place are greater as well," says Sam Riddle, a media and political consultant who, aside from being the film's unit publicist, has known Moore for 20 years. "That's how he lives his life, from setting up a foundation for independent filmmakers to contributing to the Flint Blind Bowlers--which he does." (Moore and his wife, Kathleen Glynn, and daughter, however, now make their home in Manhattan.)

"I've never seen anyone so driven," Hamper chimes in. "Has success changed him? Unequivocally no."

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Moore has had a driving self-confidence for as long as he can remember: the assurance that allowed him to live at a seminary at 14; to run for the local school board at 18 (and win); to found and edit an alternative weekly in Flint at 22; to shoot a wide-release documentary at 33 with no filmmaking experience and very little money.

"I have parents who always encouraged me to be an individual, to do the right thing," Moore says. "They were quiet people and very religious people. They always had a strong sense of what was right and wrong."

Still, confidence can be mistaken for arrogance.

"There is this misperception that Michael is hard to get along with, that you can't control him," says wife Glynn, a co-producer. "Which is true--but what a horrible concept, to want to control someone. We'd go to parties and people would think, 'There's the enfant terrible. ' But they all wanted to make him into a commodity for a comedy vehicle. Like he was an action toy."

An action toy? Not likely. Aside from his own feelings about exploitation (there are no product placements in "Canadian Bacon"), there is Moore's antihero look. His clothes are slightly more upscale than his "Roger & Me" get-up (featuring a baseball cap that said "I'm Out for Trout"), but not by much: His outfit--sweater, flannel shirt, jeans, New Balance shoes--all but screams alternative newspaper . And then there's the physique: tall, slouchy, with a waistline that bespeaks an affectionate relationship with a good meal (though he looks positively diminutive alongside Candy).

"Those of us who come from the working-class rarely get our voices heard," says Moore, whose father, grandfather, uncles and cousins all worked on assembly lines in Flint. "Yeah, there are so-called blue-collar shows on TV, usually written by someone who grew up on Long Island and went to NYU. Their perception of blue collar is of stupid, ignorant people who fracture the English language and have a brewski in their hand.

"We live in fairly depressing times. People need more comedies to let them know that some people out there are speaking to their concerns. But we don't have many examples of that kind of film. I find that odd."

So Michael Moore is making a political comedy for his times the same way he has done everything else in his life: by just doing it. No matter, apparently, that he's never written or directed a fiction film.

"I go see every film," Moore says. "Since I was a kid, three or four a week. If you sit in the theater that long, you can pretty much figure it out. I mean, really. If you saw 2,000 brain surgeries, you could probably do one."

The actors who work with him tend to agree. Alan Alda, who plays the President, acknowledges that Moore's lack of experience with actors made him wonder.

"But it turns out he's extremely smart and able to articulate very fine distinctions," Alda says. "His ability to communicate with all the people around him is really what makes the difference between being able to do it and just taking a stab at it. He's very good-humored and unflappable."

"He's been a delight to work with," chimes in Rip Torn, who plays the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "If you know his history, he's a tremendously skilled organizer."

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Moore's even-tempered quality can be traced at least partly to his Flint upbringing, Hamper says: "It's just a working-class town, very simple and unpretentious. And all those attributes are present in Michael. You don't get too high when things are going well, and you don't get too low when things are going bad."

And you give something back. Which explains the Center for Alternative Media, based in Flint and New York City. Moore created it to help independent filmmakers and social-action groups, using half the profits from "Roger & Me," the project he undertook after being fired from what he thought was going to be the best job of his career: the editorship of the left-liberal journal Mother Jones.

Tossed out of Mother Jones in 1986 after less than a year (for protesting what he called the publisher's increasingly centrist leanings), Moore found himself in the unemployment line with a settlement from Mother Jones but no prospects. So he decided to make a movie about the way the auto industry was killing his hometown.

The result was "Roger & Me," which he made with a crew of three and $250,000 (including the proceeds of sales of his house and car). His candid, unassumingly sly camera presence earned him a comparison to Mark Twain by the New York Times. Moore eventually made a half-hour sequel to "Roger & Me," called "Pets or Meat," in which he revisited Flint--and interviewed many of the same people.

Despite being familiar with his work, people still talk to him on camera. It happened again recently, with "TV Nation," a pilot for an NBC newsmagazine with Moore's distinctive twist. For one segment, Moore persuaded community development types at two Texas-Mexico border towns to take him and his camera around and tell him about the financial advantages of relocating his TV show to Mexico. ("TV Nation" has yet to be scheduled.)

"People knew who I was and yet they still talk to me," Moore marvels. "Maybe they think they're smarter and tougher than me, like they're looking forward to the challenge of taking me on. There's something about being on TV and in the movies that's incredibly attractive to everybody."

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The next morning, Moore is back in the steel factory, setting up a stunt in which a misguided John Candy tackles Alan Alda in an attempt to save the President from an accidentally ignited rocket.

Which means that two stuntmen, made up to look like Candy and Alda, are rehearsing the tackle, while Moore sits off to the side, breakfasting on an egg sandwich. He confesses that, like everything else in his life, movie-making is not all that difficult, if you don't believe the hype.

"I learned early on that most of the stuff they tell us is hard or impossible--well, it isn't," Moore says. "Like filmmaking: There's a mystique. You'd never think, living in Flint, Mich., that you could do it. But once you do one thing in your life that you think is beyond your ability--well, from that point on, you're set."

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