The Expelled Strategy: How Maher Got His Interviews

If Bill Maher's strategy for landing interviews for his mockumentary Religulous sounds familiar, it's because it's the same method that Ben Stein & co. used for Expelled. From an LA Times blog:

So how did Maher manage to get all these people to actually talk to him? Since "Religulous" was directed by Larry Charles, who also did "Borat," I suspected that subterfuge and trickery were involved. I was not far wrong. Here's how Maher pulled it off:

On how he got people to talk to him: "It was simple: We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.' It didn't work everywhere. We went to Salk Lake City, but no one would let us film there at all."

On the element of surprise: "Larry Charles' theory is--just keep going till they throw you out. I guess he learned that on 'Borat.' The crew would set up and at the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me. It was like--'And now here's ... Bill!' You could usually see the troubled looks on their faces. At the Holy Land theme park, the PR woman freaked out and finally told us to leave. She was definitely not a happy camper."

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This element of the Maher story bothered me when I first saw it as well. It is unfortunate they did that, and wrong.

If there is anything redeeming about Maher's approach here, it is that they have admitted up front what they did to get these interviews. Recall the Expelled nonsense where they swear to their god up and down that they did not get interviews under false pretenses. Maher here is just saying "Yup, we had to use subterfuge because we knew they would never talk to us."

And recall PZ's reaction to Expelled's tactics? He just said "why not just tell me the truth, I'd give you an even better interview?" Only Dawkins, IIRC, has said he would not have done the interview if he had known the truth.


I agree. Aren't we heathens supposed to be better than this? It's unfortunate: I was planning on seeing the movie, despite my aversion to Maher. If this is how he plays ball though, I certainly won't encourage such behavior by paying to see it.

Having now seen this brilliant documentary, I must say that there is no way he could have gotten such truthful answers if he'd have told them ahead of time what his aim was. I don't think there was anything wrong with his method whatsoever.

And I think calling it a mockumentary is a mischaracterization. Mockumentaries have fictitious setups, etc. This was real through and through. The questions he asked were simple and to the point. "What do you think?" "Why do you believe that?"

The hilarity comes almost solely from the ignorance of his interviewees (such as in the truckstop/trailer chapel that's actually just down the road from where I live).

I personally think everyone in America should be forced to watch this and to think about the implications. Even if they find it offensive, I cannot imagine how someone could not come away with a deeper understanding of where there own beliefs come from (Same thing goes with reading Dawkins' "God Delusion").

Maybe the Religulous folks used Expelled-style techniques because they agreed with you that Expelled was a very well-made movie for its purposes, and a big success.

If they did as good and effective a job as you say, you shouldn't be too suprised if people copy it.

I'm not very comfortable with blindsiding interviews, but I'm not sure I agree that obtaining interviews under false pretenses is wrong in general. If a reporter doesn't make the focus of a story clear to an interviewee, in order to get the story, is that necessarily wrong?

What about a cop? If a cop asks somebody questions without revealing their ultimately significance, in order to triangulate in on the truth, is that wrong?

I view reporters as being much like cops---they serve a vital social function, and in many cases the public's right to know about what's really going on trumps the interviewees' right to control their public image.

What is wrong is misrepresenting the answers they give, with clever cutting and juxtaposition. (That's where Expelled really crossed ethical lines, IMHO---leaving out the very good explanations of why people said apparently flaky- and scary-sounding things, and arguing against straw men.)

This is also the Michael Moore tactic. Show up at a business, say you want to do an interview, film them denying you access, then declare conspiracy of silence or fear of revealing the truth. I haven't seen a decent documentary on a controversial subject in a long time.

Kevin, is there anything redeeming about Mahr in general? He buys into outlandish big pharmacy conspiracy claims, and supports wacky cults, like PETA. He's certainly evidence that one can come to atheism* without critical thinking skills.

* - =def lack of belief in a god.

By MKandefer (not verified) on 06 Oct 2008 #permalink

Tu quoque Matt. Just because Expelled did it doesn't make it exactly the same.

Besides, haven't you said from a communications stand-point, that Expelled was a success?

Just so you don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of your work. I just really loved Religuolus and think it did a favor to atheists everywhere.

By Rodrigo Neely (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

Well, also remember... Religulous was more of a comedy feature, made by a comedian. Expelled pretended to be serious. Initially, I had thought Religulous was supposed to be thought provoking and enlightening. But pretty soon, it was clear that the larger focus was on humor at the expense of the interviewees. While it DID provoke some thought here and there, it was a far cry from being an educational attempt. And I have to say, I enjoyed it thoroughly! :)