Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is no stranger to taking on conservative billionaires and big corporations, nor to the inevitable attacks that come with this kind of work. After he released Outfoxed, about Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, Bill O’Reilly called him a “fanatical leftist.” Koch Industries chose the term “fringe left-wing” for Koch Brothers Exposed. Walmart didn’t use the L-word, but settled for “propaganda” to criticize Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price.
Now the award-winning Greenwald, 72, who has directed or produced some 65 projects for film and TV over the course of a forty-year career, is setting his sights on perhaps his biggest adversary yet: the gun industry. He sat down with the Voice over breakfast last week to talk about Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA, his latest documentary.
“When we did Outfoxed, no one was taking on Fox,” says Greenwald, who’s bright-faced and sturdy, with a boundless energy. “When we started Koch Brothers, no one was taking on the Koch brothers. I decided nearly two years ago that no one had taken on the NRA or the gun companies directly in terms of film.”
Making a Killing, which is premiering around the country this week, illustrates how the billion-dollar gun industry affects the lives of everyday Americans. Along with personal stories, the documentary presents some startling statistics: that one person is killed with a gun every sixteen minutes in the U.S. and that every day, on average, eighty Americans die from gun violence.
The film’s five personal stories cover various forms of gun violence and the lives damaged or destroyed by it, from a suicide to an accidental death to the 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that left twelve dead and seventy injured. One woman describes being shot by her ex-husband in front of her then three-year-old son. We hear of a Chicago boy who was shot on the steps of a church. Another mother recalls how her son, thirteen, was unintentionally killed by a friend playing with an unlocked shotgun.
“It’s not enough to tell sad stories,” Greenwald says. “We need to show this mother’s pain, that her child is dead as a direct result of the NRA and the gun companies spending money to stop lockup laws that would’ve saved the child’s life.”
Greenwald, who now lives in Los Angeles, has a gentlemanly and urbane disposition, but he’s also streetwise — which he attributes to having started life on 168th Street. “You can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take New York outta the boy,” he says. “Growing up in Washington Heights, it was a pretty tough area. I built street character pretty quickly, and it serves me well. I’ve developed a thick skin. It’s never fun when you’re attacked, but whether it’s the Kochs or Walmart or the NRA, you expect to take some blows.”
Brave New Films, Greenwald’s company, began in 2004 as a nonprofit and is funded through grants from various foundations, along with individual donors. Making a Killing‘s election-year release is a deliberate move, an attempt to push the public to protest the NRA and to pressure politicians to support stricter gun regulations. An inventive and ambitious distribution campaign intends to spread viewership as wide as possible — the doc will be shown for free everywhere from churches to hospitals to colleges.
Mayor Bill de Blasio will offer an introduction to a New York screening on Wednesday at the Downtown Community Television Center on Lafayette Street in Chinatown. First lady Chirlane McCray will be on hand too. “We did something with the mayor a year and a half ago on hedge funds,” Greenwald says. “And when I started on this, I emailed him and said, ‘Would you be interested?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.'”
In Iraq for Sale (2006), Greenwald used the election cycle to “talk about war profiteering.” “With the NRA film,” he says, “the goal is the same: to try to get candidates, elected officials, to talk about the fact that you are less safe and I am less safe because the NRA and the gun companies are profiting.” His hope is that each screening will produce its own small army of people angry enough to take action.
“It’s not enough that people see the movie,” Greenwald says. “The movie is a complete failure if people don’t do something. Our goal is, of those 1,000 screenings, we get 100,000 people doing something — a letter, a phone call, joining an existing movement. That will all happen through Labor Day. We’re going to meet it.
“With action comes change. And I hope this film will prompt change. I think it will.”