It was quite a challenge, as a narrative filmmaker, to think about how I might approach a documentary about widening income inequality. As I thought about it more, however, I realized my background could be a real asset. I decided my goal with this film, first and foremost, was to take a conceptual and abstract topic and find a way to tell an approachable and human story about it. Every choice – from letting Reich’s humor show through to approaching interview subjects as people rather than victims – was designed to help show the argument and the economy in human terms that people could wrap their heads around.
This approach was so important to me because economic inequality was a concept that I have always felt personally. I grew up knowing I was from a poor family because I got free school lunches – the scarlet letter a kid wears to let his classmates know his family is below the poverty line – all the way through school. My mother raised a family of four by herself on a salary that ranged from $9,000 – $15,000 a year. I remember all the day-to-day tough calls my mother had to make – medical insurance for her kids or groceries? – the pressure of which weighed on her every second of every day. I also remember how people looked down on us – we must not be worth much if we had worn clothes on or if we didn’t even have enough money to go to the mall or to get an ice cream.
My upbringing also led us to move around a lot. I started out in a rough neighborhood in New York City, went to high school in a farm town in rural Michigan when New York became too much for my mother to handle, and moved to California as an adult. All of this might surprise people who know me now. Education was my way out, and I don’t often call attention to my economically disadvantaged roots. But I never forgot where I came from, and I was always keenly aware of who had what in society.
Cut to today. My hope in making this film was that I would be able to take all of those experiences and use them to help make a film that a wide variety of people can connect to. I have lived among the most conservative and liberal people in America, in urban and rural communities across this amazingly diverse country, and have experience dealing with billionaires and homeless people and everything in between.
I believe my somewhat unconventional background has provided great preparation for the goal of the film: to find a human way in to an idea-driven film. I believe America could use a discussion about the future of the middle class and widening income inequality, but not in purely partisan terms. I think we’ve had enough of that. The film I hope we made is one that educates at the same time it inspires, and speaks to what we can hope for to make America better. That large, idea-driven story, for me, is as personal as it gets.
STATEMENT FROM ROBERT REICH
This movie is critically important. It exposes the heart of our economic problem. Something that’s been getting worse and worse for over 30 years. Widening inequality.
We’re in the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression, and we can’t seem to get out of it. Why? Because, exactly as in the 1920s, so much of the nation’s income and wealth are going to the top, that the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going.
I’ve spent most of my working life concerned about what’s happening to American workers – their jobs, their wages, their hopes and fears. My father sold clothing to the wives of factory workers in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I watched as the factories began to close, and as those families struggled with a new economy. Households kept their living standards by sending those wives and mothers into paid work – a strategy that did the trick for a time. But when it no longer generated enough income, American families went deeper and deeper into debt – and that’s been the vicious cycle most middle class Americans have been in ever since.
People are stressed. They’re angry and frustrated, and the tide is only rising on that front. Their debt obligations are staggering, yet (if lucky enough to have a job), they’re working harder and longer than ever before. People need to understand what’s happening to them – because from their perspective, the picture looks pretty bleak.
Until we can take a step back and understand the big picture, we can’t do anything to get ourselves out of this mess. Our democracy as we know it depends on it. I’m an educator. I love the classroom. But I also write books, appear on television and on the radio, and do everything else I can do to help people understand the economic truth. It’s my life’s work and it’s more important than ever. One of the best ways to help people understand the challenges we face, is with a movie that can grab an audience and move them to action.
And this movie will do exactly that.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Shoot days: 60 over the course of one year
Hours of footage: 550 (including archival)
Media size: over 10 terabytes!
Locations: San Francisco Bay, Sacramento, Washington, DC, Seattle, LA, New York, rural northern California
Cameras Used: RED Epic, Sony F300, Canon C300 and 5/7Ds
Motion Graphics: Brian Oakes
DIRECTOR – JACOB KORNBLUTH
Kornbluth is the award-winning director of HAIKU TUNNEL and THE BEST THIEF IN THE WORLD. Both films premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival. HAIKU was released by Sony Pictures Classics, and THE BEST THIEF was made and released by Showtime Independent Films. Kornbluth was selected as a fellow for the Sundance Directing Lab and was twice selected as a fellow for the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. He was also one of three North American finalists for the Sundance/NHK New Filmmakers Award. He lives and works as a screenwriter and director in Berkeley, CA, and conceived a successful web video series with Robert Reich for MoveOn.org and The Nation that was the genesis of this film.
PRODUCER – JEN CHAIKEN / 72 PRODUCTIONS
Chaiken won an Emmy for Best Documentary for her work on MY FLESH AND BLOOD, following Sundance wins for both the Audience and Best Director Awards and the Audience Award and Critics Prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA). MY FLESH AND BLOOD was also short-listed for Academy Award consideration after its theatrical release by Strand Releasing, and later broadcast as an HBO special. Other credits include BIG EDEN, winner of over 15 Audience Awards; the documentary feature NAKED STATES, an HBO premiere; the HBO documentary short POSITIVELY NAKED, short-listed for Academy consideration; RESTAURANT, starring Adrien Brody; I LOVE YOU, DON’T TOUCH ME!, a Sundance premiere distributed by MGM; and the documentary feature FAMILY NAME, winner of the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance and nominated for an Emmy after its broadcast on PBS. Chaiken is a graduate of Yale University and a partner in 72 Productions, which has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
PRODUCER – SEBASTIAN DUNGAN / 72 PRODUCTIONS
Dungan worked at Paramount Pictures and at Warner Bros.-based Witt-Thomas Films where he was involved in developing such films as David O. Russell’s THREE KINGS and Chris Nolan’s INSOMNIA. Independently, he produced TRANSAMERICA which was acquired and distributed by The Weinstein Company. The film received two Academy Award nominations and won a Golden Globe and both the Best Female Lead and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. Dungan is a graduate of Yale University and a partner in 72 Productions, which has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
ABOUT ROBERT REICH
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
ABOUT 72 PRODUCTIONS
72 Productions is an equity-based finance production company with a diverse slate of projects ranging from independent to studio-size films. Our development fund allows us to nurture projects with strategic investments of hard to find “first money” at the earliest stages. As hands-on producers, we also bring our story skills and industry experience to guide projects onwards through production and release.