Freakonomics: The Movie
During my extended time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I sat down with accomplished entrepreneur and filmmaker Chad Troutwine to discuss the most ambitious documentary ever to pique the interest of the editors of AskTheManager.com.
For those of you unfamiliar with Chad’s work, he is a founder (along with Markus Moberg) of Veritas Prep, one the finest and most prestigious GMAT preparation and graduate school admissions consulting companies in the world. In addition to his business interests, Chad has served as a producer or executive producer for many wonderful films.
His latest project involves taking one of the most interesting and controversial business books ever written and turning it into a feature length documentary. Freakonomics, for the few of you who’ve not yet read it, is likely one of the five best business books ever written. Although not a leadership development or management training book, Freakonomics is both a fun read and an eye-opener into real world economics. More social commentary than Economics 101, Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, is one of those rare books that provides something for everyone, especially for those outside the field of economics.
While the editors are not seeking to turn AskTheManager.com into a blog about Freakonomics – the book’s authors Levitt and Dubner already maintain a terrific one at NYTimes.com that (like the book) is both an economics lesson and a quirky look at humanity – we are very interested in the upcoming documentary and we do highly recommend the book.
To satisfy some of my own curiosity around the Freakonomics documentary, I cornered producer Chad Troutwine – keeping him from his Holiday shopping – and peppered him with ten tough questions:
TheManager (TM): What made you think that Freakonomics would make a good film?
Chad Troutwine (CT): The real answer is that I thought it deserved to be a film, more than I was convinced it would be a good one. I’m pretty evangelical when it comes to this subject. I want as many people as possible to learn about Freakonomics. Film is a remarkable medium to reach a mass audience. It gives people who don’t really read much the chance to enjoy the material, but it also offers the three million readers a way to enjoy Freakonomics in a brand new way. Besides, I really wanted to meet some of the amazing characters that Levitt and Dubner found for the book.
TM: Have there been any other projects that made you feel this way?
CT: Yes, but none as strongly as Freakonomics. I’d still like to adapt Liar’s Poker, the brilliant Michael Lewis autobiography about 1980s Wall Street excess. It seems particularly timely today. Brush With the Law would make a spectacular film. It’s the joint memoir of a Harvard Law School student who became addicted to gambling and a Stanford Law School student who occasionally smoked crack during his third year. It’s Fight Club and Trainspotting meet The Paper Chase, but it’s a true story.
TM: Freakonomics is such a great read with many desirable topics, how did you select the main topics for the film?
CT: I let the prospective directors pitch me. First, I had to get them to agree to join the project. I described my cinematic vision with as much clarity as possible, and shared my passion for the material with them. I suggested several possible topics – including ideas that emerged after the book was published. Morgan Spurlock was great. He said something like, “As long as it doesn’t have anything to do with food or terrorism, I’m in, man.” Because Morgan was willing to commit to the project so early, it gave me instant credibility when I approached Academy Award winner Alex Gibney and the other accomplished filmmakers.
TM: What influence, if any, did the directors play in selecting the topics?
CT: The directors chose their own topics, but I retained a veto position. I required each director to submit a treatment. If I approved, that was the topic. I rejected a couple of ideas, actually.
TM: What influence, if any, did the authors play in selecting the topics?
CT: That’s a good question. Co-authors Dubner and Levitt have shown interest throughout, particularly Dubner. They trusted me to oversee that part of the process, so our contract gives me sole responsibility. One director team pitched a story idea that required a lot of participation from Levitt. He graciously agreed, and I think it will turn out to be one of the most engaging segments.
TM: Was there a topic covered in the book that you felt was too taboo for film or too hard to deliver to a traditional audience?
CT: No. Abortion, racism, cheating, classicism, crime, terrorism, and myths about child safety were all fair game. The main premise was enough of a hindrance: taking economic analysis and making it entertaining. Fortunately, Levitt and Dubner already conquered that challenge in grand style. We’re simply emulating the model that they created. One subject was off-limits. Because Sudhir Venkatesh was writing his own book, “Gang Leader for a Day,” we were contractually obligated to avoid using material in the chapter “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?”
TM: What is the most important thing you hope audiences take away from this film?
CT: Running regression analyses and mining rich data sets are extraordinarily valuable endeavors for brilliant people like Professor Levitt because the results offer so much utility for everyday life. He can interpret the data and impart findings – often directly contradicting widely held beliefs – that can help us all be wiser parents, more informed voters, savvier business people, and better decision-makers. If we succeed, our film will inspire audiences to see the merit in challenging conventional wisdom. I’m not sure I can turn economists and sociologists into rock stars, but I hope that “thinking freakonomically” becomes synonymous with sound judgment and high intelligence. That’s pretty sexy to me.
TM: What has been the most rewarding thing for you (personally) about working on this project?
CT: We’re not done yet, but I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I was able to orchestrate what is already being hailed as the greatest collection of documentary filmmakers ever assembled. Moreover, this is, ostensibly, my first film as a lead producer. If Freakonomics can permeate the popular culture and inspire people to think more like Levitt and Dubner, and then act accordingly, that would be the ultimate.
TM: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
CT: I would be a deciduous tree in autumn. Is there any other answer?
TM: No, not really… As a producer, where do you get both your motivation and your inspiration?
CT: I’ve never fully understood where I get my motivation or my inspiration. Maybe that question is best left to others to interpret based on what I create and how much I accomplish.
Troutwine is eyeing a late summer 2009 final cut for the film, with a theatrical release possibly later in the year. For those of you (like us) who cannot wait, here is a list of the named directors, the working titles of each segment and current status for their respective segment:
- Morgan Spurlock: “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” (post-production)
- Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing: “Applying Freakonomics to the Young and Nimble Mind” (filming)
- Alex Gibney: “Who Cheats and How Do We Catch Them?” (pre-production, filming begins January 2009)
- Eugene Jarecki: “Abortion and Crime” (pre-production, filming begins in January 2009)
- Fifth Segment: TBD
We think we know who the will direct the fifth segment (and we’re thrilled if it turns out to be correct), but we were sworn to secrecy and despite our overall lack of journalistic integrity; we do plan to keep this secret. Sorry…
Between now and the film’s release, may we recommend you enjoy the books Chad Troutwine mentioned in his interview. We’ve read all three and highly recommend them:
Additionally, if you’re looking to get a daily fix of Freakonomics, we recommend you drop in on Dubner’s and Levitt’s blog.