The Yes Men have a new movie out. The absurdist-activist troupe's members specialize in posing as executives and government functionaries to make stunning announcements about the people in power suddenly deciding to do what's actually healthy for humanity. The Yes Men Are Revolting takes viewers behind the scenes to alternately nail-biting, hilarious, and heartwarming effect. Oh, and this being a group that has set its sights on the politicians and corporate bigwigs profiting off of climate change, there's plenty to be outraged about.
The movie invites newcomers into the wacky and earnest universe the group inhabits with a solid primer on how it pulls off stunts like holding a press conference as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and throwing the corporate lobbying group's weight behind sweeping climate reform legislation. The ruse only gets more surreal when Eric Wohlschlegel, actual PR guy for the Chamber, barges in and demands to know who the man behind the podium, "Hingo Sembra," really is. Sembra, actually Andy Bichlbaum (also a pseudonym) responds by demanding to see Wohlschlegel's card, and a half-unwitting Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis routine ensues.
"The Yes Men Are Revolting" clip - Confusion at the Chamber of Commerce from The Yes Men on Vimeo.
For road-weary activists staring down the barrel of their mid-40s and looking to just-maybe save up enough to buy a townhouse in Sunset Park with some comrades, it offers up a look at the strain two decades of activism has had on the relationship between the founding duo, Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, as well as their romantic, family, and professional lives. A particularly poignant scene takes place in Bichlbaum's Lower East Side apartment during the blackout following Superstorm Sandy with Bichlbaum, who's gay and single, drunkenly confessing that he's jealous of Bonanno's three kids. And though they came close to giving up at times during filming, the movie ends with optimism and a call to action.
The Yes Men Are Revolting - Trailer from The Yes Men on Vimeo.
We spoke to Bichlbaum and Bonanno ahead of the movie's June 9 release about how they got started, what it's like to film a drunken moment of bromance in the pitch dark, and how to make a life out of puking red, white, and blue.
You guys were activists before becoming the Yes Men, and I was wondering: were you guys making banners and going to marches, or how did you first get involved in activism?
Mike: The inspiration for becoming an activist probably comes from being the child of a Holocaust survivor. There's something very early in my life where I got the sense of the idea of justice and resistance. But then I think it was in college when I started to get involved in a direct way with activism. And actually the stuff that i was doing there was much more mischievous too, these sorts of interventions were already just something that I was interested in. So instead of making banners, which I did do, because I was a printmaker at the time, mostly i would do things like: we went to a fundraiser for a Republican Party senator—Dan Quayle, was speaking, the vice president—and we dressed in business suits and we vomited in red, white, and blue, at the fundraising luncheon. It was during the first Gulf War. It was just a fun way—or, that wasn't particularly fun, just because of the metabolic effects of it.
Andy: My father was also a Holocaust survivor and that was sort of a critical thing in my upbringing as well—that's in the film. I ended up more stumbling into activism, I was in San Francisco around the time of Act Up and was working as a computer games programmer, and was working on this computer game that I wanted to kind of alter. I ended up putting some unauthorized content in it, and that became a big story quite accidentally. But being around that stuff at the time, I realized you could use a funny action to get press. So that was the way I stumbled into it.
And did you meet here in New York or did you meet on the West Coast?
Andy: No, I was living in San Francisco, and mutual friends actually introduced us. When I did the SimCopter thing and started thinking about how to perpetuate that sort of media activism that I stumbled into, I was talking to a couple of friends said, "Oh we know this guy who did something kind of like what you did, with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe dolls." So we ended up working together on this new project that eventually morphed into the Yes Men.
Do you guys have training as actors?
I'm sure you get asked this a lot but how do you keep a straight face when something happens like the actual Chamber of Commerce rep showing up at your fake press conference?
Andy: When people around you think that what you're doing is real, you just kind of forget that it's not. For me anyways, I just fall into the role. They believe it completely and then I dont have to work very hard, and then it's easy and I fall into kind of believing it myself.
So when the guy burst into the room it was just such an opportunity, it was such a golden opportunity and I recognized that as it was happening. Like, "Oh this is amazing, I just have to kind of make this look good for the camera. And this is going to make such a bigger story than it would have been." That was mainly it, just how to come up with funny things to say back to him in the moment was my entire job and I recognized it as a good thing.
And do you ever on a personal level in a moment like that feel bad for the person who you're duping? Or when something happens when the Northrop Grumman rep tells you he's interested in your novel idea, do you have to repeat to yourself mentally that this guy works for an evil corporation to be able to keep up the ruse?
Andy: No. In that case, when the Northrop Grumman guy came up I was just really excited about what that meant. I just kind of couldn't believe it. I was stunned that he was from Northrop Grumman. I remember just thinking, "That's amazing! You're the perfect actor here! Thank you! Casting did a really great job."
And so of course I didn't feel bad about that. He looked good. He's from a bad corporation and yet he has enough human sense to be excited about something really good that just happened in front of him. He's not determined by the corporation he works for, at all.
Do you ever hear back from these mid-level functionaries after the hoax has been exposed? I know you get a lot of flak from up top, but do you ever get any sort of communication from these people after the fact?
Mike: When we do it's usually positive. A lot of times people will email us after the event and say something. Even sometimes people walk up to us after the event. There'll always be one or two of them who realize there's something fishy, and ask, "Do you guys make a living doing this?"
But they like to watch it unfold even if they have a suspicion that we're up to something. And then we've had people contact us after the fact and usually they like it in part because they often imagine that their boss or company, who they want to criticize anyway, is being humiliated in a way that they can really enjoy. They aren't really the target of these actions. The target is the ideas and the corporations behind it, not the people who work there.
And you guys go by a lot of aliases, but why have a base layer of alias? You guys aren't the Yes Men as your legal names, though your legal names are out there.
Mike: Well it started out being an accident. We were doing a project before the Yes Men where we used fake names and we actually did try to conceal our identities, or at least we tried a little bit. And then when we started the Yes Men we needed to create a new identity. We didn't realize we could have just gone back to our real names.
So then we came up with these names, Mike and Andy. Initially Andy's name came out of a Vienna phonebook. It was the first place we were going to speak as the World Trade Organization, and we emailed a friend there and asked him to choose a name, and he just opened a phonebook and put his finger down. It was Dr. Andres Bichlbauer and then that became Andy Bichlbaum, to get a little bit more friendly—
Andy: More Jewish.
Mike: More Jewish and more friendly.
And for something like the WTO thing—I read the synoposis and it went really far—you guys followed up with various people that attended saying that Bichlbauer had been pied, the pie was poisoned, and that he then died of pie poisoning. Is that decided all that before the fact? And you just play it out until you get exposed? Or was that off the cuff?
Andy: That was entirely off the cuff. almost everything that we've done is improvisation. We never set out to get invited to conferences period. It just happened because of this fake website that we set up for the World Trade Organization, at a time when social movements were focusing on the World Trade Organization. We didn't think that that website would get invitations to conferences, but it did, and when we went we were so surprised that people were not appalled at the things we were saying.
This was the first conference that we did, so we were really surprised that they just sat back and took it, listened, and so that's why we had all that correspondence. We were just like, "Please, tell us you were appalled. Tell us there's something wrong here." And we came up with this whole crazy scheme to get this guy sick and then die from pie-ing, and all that nonsense.
I want to talk about the movie—You guys seem pretty comfortable in front of news cameras, whether you're impersonating executives or taking the role of the concerned activist, but was it tough to bring your personal lives in front of the camera?
Mike: No, it was essential. We decided we had to bring our personal lives in. For me the point was always like, just show why social movements are important. Like Occupy Wall Street, was really a thrilling moment for a lot of people because it showed that we weren't alone, and that it was a social movement that was really succeeding. It succeeded in getting us all talking about inequality, which no individual could ever achieve, no small group could ever achieve. It had to be a lot of people coming together.
And another thing that happened in Occupy was people came up to us and said that they'd gotten their start in activism by watching one of our movies. So that was a real watershed moment where we realized that all these ups and downs and ins and outs and successes and failures—mostly failures—of our actions were not failures because they had ended up inspiring people. That was why we had to include all the personal stories and al the downs, and all that stuff, to show the flip side to it that was so powerful.
Did you know that's what you were setting out to do when you started making this movie?
Andy: That was when we decided to really make it a personal story. And it was basically two years or three years of editing, and a lot of shooting over the years. We had like 600 hours of footage.
Wow. So the stuff that predates that personal and confessional is stuff you happened to be documenting for an amorphous project?
Andy: Well no, we knew we were shooting a movie but we didnt know exactly what form it was going to take or how important the personal story was going to be in it. We knew the political story was going to be about climate change, but even that changed with Occupy. Because, "Oh, this is clearly what we need is a social movement to deal with something this big."
And something like the scene at Andy's apartment following Hurricane Sandy—it's a very personal moment. You guys are in the dark together. Was it just the two of you? Were you just filming each other?
Mike: Yeah, we basically had a camera with not very much battery left on it either so it was sort of a challenge to figure out. There was one other person there for a little while, that was Andy's boyfriend who was lurking around in the background. But it was really quite a weird evening. We were handing the camera back and forth between us.
So how self-conscious are you guys of the camera? I guess to the degree that you're handing it back and forth you are aware, but how is it informing what you're saying?
Mike: It helped that I'd had a lot to drink. We had been pretty used to living our lives in our movies, so with all the stuff we're shooting of ourselves, it was pretty easy to feel like we weren't preforming, because we were having these real conversations. And sometimes the only chance we would have to actually have these more therapeutic conversations about our relationship was when we scheduled the time to do it, because our lives got so busy.
So even when we were holding a camera, and doing if for the camera, the reasons for doing it are real: its because they're real conflicts and we really need to resolve them. But it is very strange overall, as a practice, shooting yourself while you're living your life and trying to have it be as natural as possible. At the same time you do kind of forget that the camera's there after a while, like we did go for hours that night.
And I know a lot of upset rich people have called you names, but has someone actually said, "The Yes Men are revolting?"
Mike: How did that title come about, you remember now?
Andy: The title was Monty Python basically—the peasants are revolting? That might not be Monty Python at all—[Ed. note: It seems to have been the comic strip Wizard of Id.] It's just about revolution, and yet, we're not typical revolutionaries—we're kind of absurd. We're not exactly disgusting, but we're kind of funny.
It's discouraged in activist circles to be seen as looking for the spotlight, but the nature of your work is seeking the spotlight. Then again, a big group of people has beceome part of the Yes Men operation. Are you concerned about the people around you not getting credit?
Mike: Sometimes it just happens. we make every effort to credit everyone who participates, but also we end up getting pressure as well because when you release a film on TV—our last film was on HBO—they told us you only have this much time for credits you can only put this many on. And so suddenly you're taking key people who are part of creating the actions out of the credits, because there's people who are professional filmmakers who simply need to be in, contractually or otherwise, and may not have played a more important role.
It's a valid criticism. We're doing these sensational things because thats a way to have an impact, a way to reach more people. But it's not always fair. We couldn't be doing what we're doing without actually hundreds and hundreds of friends, some of whom have worked really thanklessly and without compensation. So yeah, they're the real heroes. I'm not saying we're heroes...
The Occupy movement is a centerpiece of this film, as you mentioned, but have you guys been taking a part in the Black Lives Matter movement as it's gained national momentum?
Andy: I've been going to protests and stuff. I went to the protest when they were in New York. Speaking of the connection with Occupy, they're related movements, and a lot of the Occupy organizers have been instrumental in the Black Lives Matter movement. It's also about inequality, and about the same kinds of injustice that Occupy highlighted. it's much bigger but it's related. I think they're actually part of the same movement in a way.
The Yes Men Are Revolting premieres online on June 9th and is at IFC starting on June 12. For more information, visit the movie's website.