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Conversation: Chad Troutwine, Producer of ‘Freakonomics’

First a bestselling book, then a popular blog and soon to be a public radio show, the phenomenon that is “Freakonomics” is the brain child of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, who have long been examining and explaining “the hidden side to everything.”

Now ‘Freakonomics’ is a movie. For this project, six of America’s leading documentary filmmakers (Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki and Seth Gordon) were tapped to help shoot different chapters of the film, delving into “Freakonomics” concepts such as the power of names, cheating, incentives and cause and effect.

The film has been available on iTunes and On-Demand since early September, and opens today in theaters.

I talked to Chad Troutwine, a producer and entrepreneur — who was also the executive producer of the 2006 omnibus film “Paris Je T’aime” — about the making of “Freakonomics: The Movie”:

A transcript is after the jump.

Here’s the trailer for “Freakonomics”:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Today we’re going to talk about “Freakonomics,” the movie. You know about the book, of course. It’s the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, a major hit. Now it’s been turned into a film. The producer, Chad Troutwine, is with us today. Welcome.


JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the first question would be: Why a film of “Freakonomics”?

CHAD TROUTWINE: I don’t think everyone saw it as cinematic when they first read it. I did. I had already produced some films in the past and I thought this was a way to reach people who might not otherwise get to see the material. A lot of people read the book — more than 4 million — but this is a film for people who loved the book and for people who almost read the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now what about the challenges of turning it into a movie, because it’s a book, of course, it’s enormously popular, but it’s about ideas and about unconventional ideas. How do you turn that into a film?

CHAD TROUTWINE: I’ll tell you. One of the things we wanted to avoid was this notion that we were going to simply create a PowerPoint or put up Excel sheets and turn that into film. We wanted first and foremost to entertain without dumbing down the material. So the way I thought we would do it is follow the approach that works so successfully in the book. The book is a series of vignettes, each one inspired by some incredible work that Steve Levitt did as one of the preeminent economists in the world. So we followed that same format. Instead of using one director, we used several directors to each take one of the controversial or engaging topics from the book, or things that happened after the book came out. And we’ve woven them together into this new style of film.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now explain the process there, because you’ve got very high profile, prominent directors: Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene …is it Jarecki? I know his work, but I don’t know how to say his name. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. They’ve all made well-known documentaries. How did you pull them all together?

CHAD TROUTWINE: It was really the opportunity of a lifetime. I put together the exact team of directors I wanted. Every one of them has either won Sundance or been nominated for or won an Academy Award. It’s truly a dream team. And then I went to Seth Gordon who is also an established director in his own right. He’s now doing big budget studio films, but before that he made “The King of Kong,” this brilliant little documentary film. And Seth and I worked together to weave all the material together. Each of the directors you named worked together to create a segment on their own topic. Morgan Spurlock took on parenting and baby naming and the impact of an unusual name on someone’s life process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, what’s in a name, or how much does that determine our future.

CHAD TROUTWINE: Correct. Alex Gibney took on cheating, in particular in the sumo culture. And then he drew parallels to what’s happened in the financial services community over the last few years. Eugene Jarecki took on the most controversial material in the book and that is the unimpeachable link between abortion and crime. And then finally, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing looked at this experiment in a Chicago Heights school district that, can you bribe children to do better in school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now what for you when you think about the coherent whole, what is the basic or the basic messages of “Freakonomics” that you were trying to convey to people.

JEFFREY BROWN: First I’ll say this. As Levitt and Dubner themselves wrote, there may be nothing that draws it all together. There is no one unifying theme, but I think some emerged. I think that’s part of their humility, and so what emerged in our film and what I believe emerged in the book is that humans respond to incentives. Now just because we identify that doesn’t mean that we can always come up with incentives schemes to get people to behave the way we think they should. But simply by asking those questions we can all be better decision makers, maybe better parents, maybe better business owners and perhaps even better policy makers. It’s one of the things that I hope happens from this book is that policymakers and politicians may look to that sort of lens of an economist to make better decisions about social policies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there anything or things that did surprise you or strike you along the way or unexpected results? Once you gave these guys their assignment they went off and did it as you say. Did you get some surprises back?

CHAD TROUTWINE: The surprises came from especially in one segment. Rachel and Heidi did something very brave. They are verite filmmakers. They sort of film it as it comes. It’s real life. And so we had no idea how the experiment in Chicago Heights would play out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain what this one is. This is young kids in a Chicago high school.

CHAD TROUTWINE: That’s right. Steve Levitt and two other eminent University of Chicago economists, on the University of Chicago’s dollar, set up a program in a 9th grade school that would pay children to make better grades and to attend class. A grand experiment. They devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the title, Can You Bribe a 9th Grader?

CHAD TROUTWINE: Can you bribe a 9th grader. I’m not a parent yet, but I think, you know, I remember my childhood and I think every parent knows, sure you use bribery at some level of some kind. It may not be giving them crisp hundreds at the end of the month like we did in our experiment, but it’s a way to see if we can incentivize behavior. And it isn’t always with money. In this experiment it was. And what emerged was the heart and passion. You see how important parenting is and the outcomes. And what Rachel and Heidi did was extremely brave, and so I’m not surprised that it turned out to be good, but I was frankly a little nervous how it would all come together.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Anybody who wants to know the end result can see the film, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “Freakonomics,” when does it open?

CHAD TROUTWINE: We open October 1st. That’s this Friday, worldwide. But in a historic first, our film is available in iTunes. It’s the first time a film has been available before its theatrical release. It’s also available video-on-demand. We want people to consume this film the way they want. It’s an experiment within an experiment from experimental filmmakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Chad Troutwine is the producer of “Freakonomics.” Thanks for talking with us.

CHAD TROUTWINE: Thanks, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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