Freakonomics makes its way to DVD on January 18th after a run in theaters and various On Demand outlets ranging from cable TV to iTunes. The big-screen adaptation of the runaway 2005 bestseller features the work of six of the highest-profile directors working in documentary film. They include: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (2007 Oscar nominees for Jesus Camp), Alex Gibney (2008 Oscar winner for Taxi To The Dark Side & a 2011 Oscar short-lister for Best Documentary with Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer), Seth Gordon (The King Of Kong), Eugene Jarecki (2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for Why We Fight) and Morgan Spurlock (2005 Oscar Nominee for Super Size Me which is, as of today, still the most popular rental for any documentary on iTunes).
Collider caught up with the film’s producer Chad Troutwine. Hit the jump for the audio and transcription of our interview, including great stories about how the idea came about and which high-profile directors almost took part.
Freakonomics is adapted from the controversial best-selling book by economist Steven Levitt and the NY Times’ Stephen Dubner, which features now-famous looks at human behavior through raw data that lead to fascinating, and often surprising, results. Here is how the film is constructed: Gordon directs the opening (about real estate agents) and closing vignettes taken from the book along with interstitials between the adaptations of four chapters. Spurlock leads those off with an examination of the impact of a baby’s name in “A Roshanda By Any Other Name.” Gibney’s up next with a look at cheating inside the Sumo world and its larger parallels around the world. Jarecki follows with the book’s most controversial chapter called “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life.” It examines the potential link between legalized abortion and a drop in crime rates. Ewing & Grady have the last section “Can A 9th Grader Be Bribed To Succeed?” which follows the plan to trade money for improved grades.
The background of the film’s producer Chad Troutwine is impressive. According to the bio on his company’s website, Troutwine graduated high school at age 16, completed a BA at Arizona State University in his teens, earned his Juris Doctorate Degree, with honors, from the University of Missouri and capped it off with an MBA from Yale. Having scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, LSAT, ACT and GMAT, he co-founded Veritas Prep to help others excel at standardized tests.
Troutwine began work in independent film in 2003. After a few years, he executive produced Paris je t’aime. The film is a collection of short films from top-flight directors that explore romance in The City Of Lights. It was the first in a series of omnibus films by producer Emanuelle Benbihy to feature various romantic themes in a single city. Our conversation began with the impact of that film on Troutwine’s current release, Freakonomics. Click here for the audio or read on for the transcript.
Chad Troutwine: Emanuelle (Benbihy) deserves a bit of credit for coming up with the vision for doing really high-level anthology projects. That experience (on Paris je t’aime) of working with people like Alexander Payne (Sideways) and The Coen Brothers (True Grit) and Gus Van Sant (Milk) was, in many ways, the inspiration for doing Freakonomics and Emmanuel (Benbihy) deserves an immense amount of credit in that. I loved that experience on Paris, je t’aime and I know the directors did, as well. It was fun when we had our world premiere for that film at Cannes and (it was the) same experience we’ve had at Tribeca and that is directors seeing the finished film for the first time, as audiences saw it. It’s a rare treat for them and it’s scary and exhilarating, but it was something I wanted to duplicate.
Troutwine: And there was actually a divergence. Because we only have 4 segments, compared to the 20 originally designed for Paris, je t’aime and the 18 in the finished version, it was a very different experience. (For Freakonomics) These filmmakers had 20 minutes to explore a subject in far more depth than the 5 minutes that the filmmakers had, in that project. So, although the idea was very much inspired by (Paris, je t’aime), the reality of what we created with Freakonomics turned out to be pretty different. Since it was a non-fiction work, it also gave us the opportunity to let each of the directors explore a very different filmmaking style. So with Morgan (Spurlock), obviously his segment is very polished, very crisp. He has actors playing the roles of real people. It’s more scripted. Alex (Gibney’s) is more classic, gorgeous, lush intelligent doc filmmaking, very much in the style of some of his more recent work. Heidi (Ewing) & Rachel (Grady) got to go after the verite style that they’ve done so effectively before in The Boys of Baraka (2005) and Jesus Camp (which received a 2007 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature) and Eugene Jarecki created a segment that I think is unlike anything we’ve seen in a major theatrical film. It’s truly groundbreaking. So, in that way we were very different —
And it’s very different from Why We Fight (which won Jarecki the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for documentary). It’s very different from his earlier work too (The Trials Of Henry Kissinger).
Troutwine: Exactly. There are through-lines that are inspired by his interests (Frank Capra films, including It’s A Wonderful Life) and his take on the world where there are parallels, but in the visuals, they’re extraordinarily different and again, I think, in that way it’s, it’s a very different project than the one I had in Paris, je t’aime. (In) Paris, je t’aime, each of the filmmakers were all anchored to an arrondissement (district or neighborhood) in Paris and because it was all narrative, aside from one scene, that used mimes, it just became a very different kind of film project.
Troutwine: Sure. Here are the filmmakers we were very close to working out a 5th or 6th segment with and that was: Laura Poitras (2007 Oscar nominee for her documentary My Country, My Country), Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com, Control Room), Spike Jonze (in addition to Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze was shortlisted this year for his short subject documentary Oscar for Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak), Larry Charles (Borat, Religulous), Patrick Creadon (Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.) and David Sauvage who’s never done a feature length film, but did a short subject film (Carissa) that I executive produced with Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth & Waiting For Superman) that won, I think, 11 audience and jury awards for short subject documentary film. So at different stages, it was almost informal attachments. I think every person I named was, at some point, either on IMDB or in the press, as being attached to the project. But for different reasons, we couldn’t make it work. For Spike Jonze, Where The Wild Things Are just sprawled a little longer than I think any of us ever imagined. Larry Charles had some television commitments with Curb Your Enthusiasm that made it impossible for him to fit it into his schedule. Frankly with David (Sauvage) and Pat Creadon, we would’ve used one or both of them. But we just opted to keep it at four full segments and so, that’s why we went that direction.
Great. Well, thank you very much.
Troutwine: No, it’s my pleasure.