The Yes Men are busy. When I walk into their hotel room tucked into the bosom of downtown LA on an sluggish, overcast Wednesday afternoon, you wouldn’t know it from the activity inside, with Andy Bichlbaum on his way from organizing not one but two of the absurdist protests the activist duo is known for in order to bring awareness to such serious issues as climate change and his partner-in-crime Mike Bonanno feverishly looking for lunch in the area, all the while tending to the duties of promoting their latest film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting.”
“It’s always like this,” says Laura Nix, a longtime collaborator of the duo who served as a co-director on “Revolting,” urging me to just start asking questions.
Ordinarily, that might entail how exactly how they pull off such wild actions as sneaking into a town square in Russia in a polar bear outfit to expose the oil company Gazprom’s devastating drilling in the Arctic or causing a ruckus when they set up a press conference in which Bichlbaum poses as a representative of the lobbyist group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and claims they have reversed their position on climate change, much to the chagrin of the real organization. But although their exploits remain ever intriguing, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” reveals just as interesting a story going on behind the scenes as Bichlbaum and Bonanno are no longer the young Turks who set up shop anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice – the latter now the father of two children while the former fears he’s spending too much time away from his boyfriend. Despite pushing ahead, even when they’re separated by the Atlantic Ocean once Bonanno decides to move his family to Scotland, they’ve reached a crossroads and following two previous films that ended in triumph, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” doesn’t only raise questions about the world around us, but the toll it takes on the those who try to change it for the better despite all odds, especially longtime activists such as Bichlbaum and Bonanno who are no longer under the same idealistic illusions of their youth that their elaborate pranks exposing corporate and governmental malfeasance will result in improvement overnight.
Still, if there’s wear and tear on the Yes Men, it would appear they left it back when they ended production on “Revolting,” with the two currently hard at work on a new online program called the Action Switchboard, launching in July that will enable people from around the world to get active in their communities and fashion actions just like theirs. In the midst of all this, they managed the time to sit down…well, not exactly, as the two seem to be in constant movement, but with Nix, Bichlbaum and Bonanno spoke about getting personal with “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” the similarities that brought them together in the first place and how their actions have evolved over time.
Laura Nix: We decided to include this personal part of the story and they needed someone with an outside perspective on that because they were talking about themselves and their own friendships, so the idea was to have somebody to help them tell that part of the story. I’ve also known them a really long time — I’ve known [Andy] since he was 18 — we went to college and grad school together, so I was there when they started doing actions together. What I’ve seen of them over that period of time, like 20 years, I wanted to include in the film and be able to talk about them as real people, not just comic activists.
Was that something Mike and Andy were open to from the start?
Andy Bichlbaum: It was a mutual decision to do the personal story. For me, It was during Occupy, and it felt like a personal story is really critical because the film has to be about social movement, and when people despair, as we do in the film, or wonder why we’re doing things and what good is it, the only answer is that you’re a part of something a lot bigger than yourself. If you look at things bigger than individuals like social movements, they always win, and that perspective was the point of the film, at least for me. So we decided all to work together because we couldn’t do a personal story about ourselves alone — it would be too contentious and too difficult to have that outside perspective.
Your work with Occupy actually comes in near the end of the film and it seems to be moving in more or less chronological order. Was this reverse-engineered in a sense, given how that decision to make it more personal came with Occupy?
Laura Nix: Yeah, this documentary was made over five years of time and the way The Yes Men work is that they’re constantly doing actions and documenting everything that they do, so I worked on the film for three years, but there was some material I inherited that they had done before I even started, and the personal story is in that too.If you know what’s going on with them, it’s just a matter of picking out things that are just right in front of the camera and being able to include that.
Andy Bichlbaum: When Occupy came about, we had been filming forever with the intention of making a film, which is the ultimate point of a lot of what we do. The actions are important because we give journalists ways to cover issues, but ultimately, we’re about the film experience because you can really change people a lot more if they see a film and spend that time with it. It really can get people to think differently. In fact, a lot of people out of Occupy came up and said that they had gotten their start or that they had been particularly inspired or changed by seeing one of our films when they were teenagers or earlier. So during Occupy is when [the central idea for the film] crystallized, what it had to be about and how it had to work.
It’s interesting to hear you say that films are still most important since I imagine with the desire for immediate results in activism, doing videos for the web might be more appealing. Why does the feature-length form still make the most sense for you?
Laura Nix: Cinema is one of the rare moments in life when you sit down and you focus just on that for that period of time. That’s what’s incredibly special about it and why even though there’s all these other forms, it never goes away. The other benefit of doing that is you get to go deeper. All of these actions could’ve been YouTube videos and that’s the end of it, but we wanted to tell a more complex story about what it also means to be an activist over time. It’s one thing to do this work when you’re in your twenties and it’s another when you’ve been doing it for decades. The issue that comes up is how do you keep the strength and the energy to keep fighting this fight over the years again, and again, and again when the problems are so big, and every year they seem worse?
We wanted to be able to tell that story, with the doubts that come up in many people’s minds when they’re waking up in the morning and facing the world that we live in, and make them realize that that the Yes Men have those doubts too. Yes, they are these super-activists in a way, but they’re just like you and I in struggling with being able to maintain that hope, and they also “fail,” which I say in quotes because when you do this kind of activist work, everyone’s always asking you well, “Did it make a difference?” That’s like asking a cancer researcher, “Well, did you cure cancer today?” Well, no, not today, but it’s what happens incrementally. Being a part of a social movement where you’re not alone and you’re getting energy from other people is really the answer to that they come to in the films. Even the Yes Men, who have each other, need to reach out to a much larger movement to be able to find the sustenance and energy to keep going long term.
It seemed to be suggested a couple times in the film that you thought about giving up on the movie, if not the whole Yes Men partnership all together, when Mike moves to Scotland and Andy stays in New York. Was that actually the case?
Andy Bichlbaum: Part of that is for the film. It’s not like we really were that naïve about it, we knew how activism works. We’ve been doing this for 20 years, but it became an opportunity to really highlight [the illusion of futility that can set in]. But when that became the question, then how to steer the film after that became changed. I don’t think we ever thought of making it about giving up on activism. It was always about activism and it was gonna remain that, but it was just how to really communicate the doubts that people have in order to talk about how it works and what we think and get people excited.
Something I had to ask about was there is this prop and costume closet you have in New York that’s shown in the film. Over the years, do you actually collect things, thinking you’ll use them at some point in the future?
Mike Bonanno: Occasionally, we do gather things up and stash them away. Sometimes actions get built around things that maybe we found or knew that we had access to. For example, the whole Gazprom polar bear action in the film [protesting their Russian oil company’s partnership with Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic], is basically because there was this crazy polar bear costume available that Greenpeace had as a result of a Radiohead video, so it’s like making use of things that are available. That’s really common.
Andy Bichlbaum: That’s how we got started, too. We made fake Web sites just for fun and found that people are thinking they’re real and inviting us to conferences.
Going back to the beginning, there’s another detail in the film that made you seem fated to start working together, though it’s uncommented upon. When you’re describing your upbringings, Mike says he used to pretend he was Mussolini and Andy says he’d give speeches like Ayatollah Khomeini. Did this in fact feel like this partnership was meant to be as soon as you met each other?
Andy Bichlbaum: Yeah, there were some strange congruencies.
Mike Bonanno: Family histories, childhood adventures of tyrant figures, food choices…
Laura Nix: I remember I had been to Mike’s parents’ home and when I walked in, I couldn’t believe the similarities — the furniture was similar, there were like similar books on the shelves, and both were middle-class suburban households outside of not a big city. There’s just a lot of parallels in their lives and it was fun to be able to draw that out [in the film] and show how they were meant to be together. There was actually a big argument about whether we should keep that stuff in the movie or not, like is this important? And a friend of mine said that was when they understood who they were because this whole thing about Khomeini and Mussolini — what child knows who Mussolini is? A child doesn’t know that and [Andy and Mike would say], “Oh, we don’t need that” but I’m like, we do because the fact that you are playing Mussolini means you knew who that person was and why that person was significant. I don’t think that’s a usual experience, I certainly didn’t know who that was at that age.
Adam McKay is an executive producer on “Yes Men Are Revolting.” Is that just him lending his name or was he actually involved at all creatively?
Laura Nix: At a really crucial moment, he gave us notes on the film that were really helpful. Obviously, his comedy sense is super-honed and smart, but he’s been a fan of the Yes Men for a very long time. When I met him for the first time, I knew he was a fan, which is why I asked him to be an executive producer, but I didn’t know how much. He told me this story of how he bought a couple of boxes of DVDs of the first Yes Men film and kept them in his office. Whenever people came to visit him, he handed them out to people and he did the same thing for the second film, so it wasn’t even a matter of, “Do you want to be EP?” He was totally happy to help and I just really appreciated his creative insight.
There’s a great moment early on in the film where you’ve successfully impersonated a representative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been lobbying on behalf of the oil industry against climate change regulations, and your press conference is interrupted by someone who really works for them. On a Fox News report, you see it happen in real time that it’s accepted at face value and reported, only to have a retraction moments later. Has the speed of the news cycle affected what you do?
Andy Bichlbaum: It’s the situation we’re in and all sides are using this. You have this billion dollar industry called public relations that sends out press releases all the time and people are hopping on stuff they don’t know and they don’t have the time to research, so we try to use it just like everybody else. In that scene, the guy barging in was great for us in that moment, and it’s not so great when it’s exposed, but 20 years ago, there were different constraints and 100 years ago, there were different constraints and people used whatever tools or media they had in different ways. Now we’ve been using social media, but it’s just another tool.
Laura Nix: Never, no. [laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Andy Bichlbaum: We usually keep going down the road.
Mike Bonanno: There are some examples where it’s gotten a little bit crazy. I think I’m always surprised more that so many do work and often things seem like they’re failing, but you just keep pushing and pushing and eventually it does what it’s supposed to do somehow, whether it emerges as a social media phenomenon or a journalist picks it up or somebody has a big enough following to launch the story another way.
Laura Nix: Watching how these guys work is really interesting, from the idea that they come up with and where the idea ends up, which is really far from where they started. It’s very organic and it can go through crazy cycles of some really bad ideas, eventually to somewhere that makes sense. It’s very interesting to be around that because [as a filmmaker] I tend to want to figure that out sooner and they’re very good at pushing the idea until it gets better and better.
Andy Bichlbaum: Sometimes when we’ve gone down the wrong road, it’s actually better not to have much time or resources to come up with ideas because then you just do it. I really think that most of our ideas have been adequate. We haven’t had any horrifically bad ideas, but some of them haven’t worked out, [either] because there’s too much money behind them or there’s too much expectation. It requires a light touch and being able to try different things. One of the most successful actions in the film involved pizza boxes at Occupy and that took a couple hours, no money. I think that’s important.
These three films have been a little different from each other. Do you actually view them as interlocking pieces or simply capturing the moment that you’re in?
Andy Bichlbaum: That’s another reason [“The Yes Men Are Revolting”] is a personal story is because it had to be really different. In a way, they reflect where we were at each time. The first one is really about the big problem. It’s about the [World Trade Organization] and we were pretty much working alone, consulting with people but basically doing our own thing. We did that for a few years, then we started working with Greenpeace on the Bhopal campaign and we never stopped after that. We worked in close collaboration with other organizations and that really wasn’t highlighted as an issue in the second film, but it was a fact, so in [“The Yes Men Fix the World”], we talk about the on the ground issue of free market capitalism — what’s wrong with it and also how to fix it — which we didn’t really talk about in the first one, so [there has been a progression] from the big issues [in the first film] and the second one where we really talk about how to fix it which is through action. The final action of [“The Yes Men Fix the World”], the fake New York Times, is really about people taking to the streets, so in the third movie, we really expand on what that means and how you do it and how you believe in it and how you can be part of it.
“The Yes Men Are Revolting” will open at the IFC Center in New York on June 12th, Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema on June 19th and around the country in the coming weeks. A full schedule of cities and dates is here. Additionally, it is now available on iTunes and Vimeo on Demand.