Filmmaker Robert Greenwald

The prolific filmmaker discusses his latest documentary Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA.

Robert Greenwald is the founder and president of Brave New Films (BNF), an award-winning television, feature film and documentary filmmaker. He has produced and/or directed more than 50 TV movies and miniseries. Greenwald turned to documentary filmmaking in 2002, inspired by pervasive voter rights abuses in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. He found audiences eager for substantive investigations of social issues, told through personal stories, and chose to bypass the usual gatekeepers by devising creative means of distribution, first through house parties, and ultimately through the Internet and social media. The documentaries produced by Brave New Films have been streamed across all seven continents and have been viewed over 70 million times and counting. Greenwald has received numerous awards, including a Peabody, AFI's Producer of the Year Award and 25 Emmy nominations. Making A Killing: Guns, Green, and the NRA is BNF’s latest feature-length documentary.
 

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: I’m so pleased to welcome Robert Greenwald back to this program. The prolific filmmaker is no stranger to taking on billionaires and, for that matter, big corporations. His latest is no exception. In it, he illustrates how the billion dollar gun industry effects the lives of everyday Americans. It is called “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA”. Before we start our conversation, first a clip from “Making a Killing”.

[Clip]

Tavis: Let me begin our conversation, Robert, perhaps at an unorthodox place. The stat we just saw was about Black Americans. The faces we saw predominantly on that montage were African Americans, and yet I had an epiphany when, in Newtown, we saw all these precious white babies who were killed in that school.

And the epiphany was that–I’m sure I’ll get some mail for this–but bring it on. I’ve never believed that this country has the respect that it ought to have for the humanity and the dignity of Black life.

So we live in an era now where we have a Black Lives Matter campaign because there has not been the requisite respect for the humanity and dignity of Black life in this country. But that’s a very different thing than watching white kids get gunned down in school.

So the epiphany I had was, if America ain’t going to get serious about the gun issue when white babies are being killed, I don’t know that we’ll ever get traction on this issue. Now if you can, given your work, disabuse me of that notion.

Robert Greenwald: Okay. Well, there’s obviously tremendous truth in that and pain. Having spent two years traveling the country and interviewing all kinds of people, Black, white, young, old, suicide, accidental, domestic violence, gang violence, drug violence, it’s an epidemic.

It’s an extraordinary epidemic and the reason we’re in the middle of it, as we make clear in the film, is money, money of the gun companies, money of the NRA. They’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars. But there is traction actually. There is progress.

It’s not happening on the national level, but it’s happening on the state level. And the smart groups that we’re working with, the hundreds of groups and the many legislators, are really emulating with the LGBT movement did, go state by state, ballot initiatives, local elections, and start to change there.

And people start to see, wait a minute, it’s safer. My life is safer, my security. I don’t need to get shot in church or school or movie theaters. And that’s the change that’s beginning to happen and that the film, I believe, will help.

Tavis: Tell me more about the change. So what is happening that we ought to be celebrating?

Greenwald: We ought to be celebrating that in different states there are laws being passed. Now, ultimately, you need national laws because, as we point out in this section, in Chicago which the NRA uses all the time in basically racist language to say the laws don’t work, the problem is, the guns are coming from Indiana and other states.

But right now, there are initiatives being passed. California’s had better laws. They passed the law in Washington. Seattle has better laws. State, local, city council, and that is progress. That is real progress.

And what we’re doing with the film, Tavis, making it available for free all over the country, so people can screen it in schools and in churches and in homes. And senators and elected officials are using it and saying, “You don’t feel safe. In fact, your life is in danger. Here’s why and here’s what you can do about it.”

Tavis: So I’m not naïve, obviously, in asking this question, but there is nothing in this film that congressmen, senators, don’t already know. And yet we can’t seem to get the traction on this issue, to your point, at the national level. Why is that?

Greenwald: Well, first, there is a lot that they don’t know. I got an email yesterday from a senator who saw it over the weekend, U.S. Senator, a very important one, and he said he thought he knew about the issue.

But what the senators and many elected officials–we showed it in Santa Barbara the other night with elected officials–they have not understood how deeply this is a financial issue, really have not understood that. And that’s another way for us to talk about this issue, right? For people to say, “Wait a minute. This is not just an accident.”

Tavis: But how can they not know that the gun lobby is lobbying for gun rights not just because they want to protect the Second Amendment, because a whole lot of folk are making money. So how could they not know that?

Greenwald: Well, when you’re hit with lobbyists who work for the NRA, who continually use the Second Amendment which is, you know, an ideology that’s in service of the profit motive, over time it tends to wear people down.

We spent two years finding all the facts and all the figures, but that’s not enough.

We married the facts and the figures to the most deeply personal story so every single person can see themselves in one section of the film, in the Chicago section or domestic violence or suicide.

I mean, the suicide thing, we have a mother and a fiance that she was six weeks from getting married. Her fiance goes out, he was having a bad dark day. He buys a gun. No waiting period. It’s insanity!

Tavis: There are some of us who believe that America may well have been a corporation before it was even a country, but that’s another debate for another night [chuckles].

Greenwald: That’s a good discussion [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah. But even if one doesn’t believe that, Calvin Coolidge perhaps was right when he said the business of America is business. So I ask a devil’s advocate question, I guess, which is why can’t the gun lobby or, for that matter, the cigarette industry, anybody else, why do you want to infringe upon their right to make money? Why can’t they sell their goods if people want to buy them?

Greenwald: Well, they can sell them if people want to buy them. But capitalism has always functioned best when there are protections.

The last 30 years with inequality, with the 1% rising, with corporations and a small segment of our country having more and more power, we’re seeing those protections being taken away more and more. And we know it’s had a lot of films dedicated to that, Koch Brothers or Walmart or Fox News that we’ve discussed.

And I think there’s a possibility–it’s not easy and it’s not quick–but what the Koch Brothers and the NRA and others have in common, they look at this as a long-term fight. We need to look at it as a long-term fight, shifting politics, pointing out the greed, attacking the ideology, and talking to people who know they are not as safe as they want to be.

Tavis: You and I both know that there’s a huge space between repealing the Second Amendment and reasonable gun laws. What has to happen for us to find a medium, find a space?

Greenwald: Well, the Second Amendment, I believe, is used over and over again by people who don’t give a damn about the Second Amendment, but give a damn about a bigger salary, another house or more money.

We need to get out of the trap of saying many of these people are just using the ideology, and we need to educate people and connect the dots. In the two years we’ve been working on this, Tavis, something has shifted and people are now more frightened. Now fear can be dealt with responsibly. It can be dealt with irresponsibly.

We hope the film is a vehicle for people who are frightened. And my wife, who said to me, “I want to do something about it”, here’s a film that you can use, that you can show, that you can educate with, and you can motivate people, whether it’s a local election, a ballot or a group that you want to get involved with.

There really is a lot that can be done. We’ve been convinced by the NRA and the gun companies, nothing you can do, but look. Did you ever think that cigarettes would change the way it has? Or the automobile industry…

Tavis: Seatbelts, all kind of…

Greenwald: Exactly. We don’t need seatbelts. We don’t need baby seats. We don’t need speed limits. And I believe the guns are exactly in that for profit greed model and we can win.

Tavis: The flip side to that argument, again, playing devil’s advocate here, though, is that this democracy is predicated upon the belief, ostensibly, that the demos, we, the people, have the agency, that we have the power, that we have the control.

And yet, every poll, every study, every survey that I see says that the American people want some reasonable gun control measures in place and yet they continue to be thwarted year after year. Why?

Greenwald: Why? Because the other side has had money and it’s had passion. And, again, the film is a tool for people to use to create that passion. Somebody high up in the White House said to me, “You know, our side gets activated when it’s in the headlines. Then it’s out of the headlines. The other folks stay active.”

We need to stay active. All of us need to stay active and committed when it’s not in the headlines and work through elected officials or work through groups. There’s lots of possible ways of doing it, but, again, it’s not a quick instant process. It’s not one thing and it’s fixed.

Tavis: I got 35 seconds here. In this election season, the issue has certainly been debated on the Democratic side. Bernie and Hillary have a somewhat distinct different point of view.

Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s that different, but there’s a nuance. Let me put it that way. A nuanced opinion that they occupy different spaces on the gun control issue. How do you see this issue, if at all, playing out on the presidential calendar this time around?

Greenwald: Well, we released it this year because of the presidential election like we did with our war profiteering movie.

So, hopefully, the candidates and people all over the country who will get the film will be using it and pushing and saying, “I want my elected officials at whatever level to talk about profit, to talk about greed. I want to be safer. I want my elected officials to make me safer”. And that requires taking on the NRA and taking on the gun companies.

Tavis: The film is called “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA” brought to us by perennial and brilliant filmmaker, Robert Greenwald. Good to have you on, Robert.

Greenwald: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: June 13, 2016 at 4:30 pm