Assholes: A Theory
| 81 min
Selections and Awards
With venomous social media, resurgent authoritarianism and rampant narcissism threatening to trash civilization as we know it, the time has come for Assholes: A Theory—an entertaining and oh-so-timely feature doc from acclaimed director John Walker.
Inspired by Aaron James’ New York Times bestseller of the same name, Assholes investigates the breeding grounds of contemporary “asshole culture” and locates signs of civility in an otherwise rude-’n-nasty universe.
Venturing into predominantly male domain, Walker moves from Ivy League frat clubs to the bratty princedoms of Silicon Valley and bear pits of international finance. Why do assholes thrive in certain environments? What explains their perverse appeal? And how do they keep getting elected!
Lively commentary is provided by the likes of actor John Cleese, former Canadian police officer Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk, and Italian LGBTQ activist Vladimir Luxuria, who famously locked horns with Silvio Berlusconi, the p***y-grabbing prototype of the 21st-century demagogue.
About the film
Ever get the impression that assholes are taking over? Assholes: A Theory, a timely new doc from John Walker, investigates the breeding grounds of contemporary asshole culture and searches for signs of civility in a rude-’n-nasty universe.
With philistine politics and toxic tweets trashing civilization as we know it, the time has come for Assholes: A Theory — a tonic-n-timely new doc from acclaimed director John Walker.
A Conversation with John Walker
Ever get the feeling that assholes are taking over the world?
Bad behaviour is as old as human history, something we all encounter at some point—whether on the playground, in the workplace or in public life. But the phenomenon seems to be amplified in an age of venomous social media and resurgent authoritarian politics.
With rampant narcissism threatening to trash civilization as we know it, the time has come for Assholes: A Theory, an entertaining and oh-so-timely new doc from acclaimed director John Walker.
Built around a lively conversation with philosopher Aaron James, author of the New York Times bestseller of the same name, Assholes: A Theory investigates the breeding grounds of contemporary “asshole culture”—and locates a few hopeful signs of civility in an otherwise rude-’n-nasty universe.
Venturing into a predominantly male domain, Walker moves from the frat clubs of elite colleges to the bratty princedoms of Silicon Valley and bear pits of international finance. Why do entitled assholes thrive in certain environments? What explains their perverse appeal and success? And how do they keep getting elected!
Weighing in with pungent commentary are observers like actor John Cleese, referring sweetly to the hedge-fund trade as an “arsehole factory”—echoing law professor Saule Omarova’s tart appraisal of financial services as “a quintessential asshole industry.” While Leslie Miley, one of the few African-Americans to rise through Silicon Valley’s ranks, assesses the damage done by the move-fast-and-break-things mantra, and former police officer Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk shatters the clichéd image of the courteous Mountie with Women Not Wanted, her exposé of misogynistic assholery within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Other featured interviews include policy consultant Robert Hockett, who worked for both Occupy Wall Street and the US Federal Reserve in the wake of the 2008 crash; banker Paul Purcell, who has pioneered a novel “no asshole rule” at his company; and Italian LGBTQ activist Vladimir Luxuria, a former parliamentarian who famously locked horns with Silvio Berlusconi, the p***y-grabbing prototype of the 21st-century demagogue.
Assholes: A Theory is a co-production between John Walker Productions Ltd. (Ann Bernier, John Walker, producers) and the National Film Board of Canada (Annette Clarke, producer).
Assholes have been around forever. Why this film? Why now?
There’s a real sense that assholery is on the rise. That’s something that Aaron James addresses head-on in the book that inspired this project. He’s a moral philosopher, issuing a warning that this kind of bad behaviour is getting out of hand. When assholes start controlling institutions, he says—when they start disrupting workplaces and entire political systems—then we have a serious problem.
When I finished his book, I had two immediate reactions. One was to go out and buy a copy for my 23-year-old daughter. She loved it. And the second was, “I want to make a film about this.”
We’re never going to rid the world completely of assholes, it would be naïve to think we could, but we need to strengthen the checks and balances against this kind of behaviour. We need to take a stand.
What were the challenges of adapting a book of moral philosophy to the screen?
There’s always the question of authorship. My films are personal, and with this project I was working with another author’s concept—one rooted in philosophy, with abstract ideas and concepts. I needed to bring it into a more popular realm, and Aaron was on board with that goal.
We had already started production when Trump got elected. The day after the election I called Aaron to console him. “How will you address this in the film?” he asked me. I had already decided that I would ignore Trump, but his rise to power has certainly changed the tone of the film. It’s a darker, more complicated film than the one I first envisioned.
Assholes come in many forms—they can be funny, or entertaining, and they are often very successful in their chosen field. While my original concept was not comedy exactly, it was certainly not tragedy either. The final film is more complex, but also more interesting, than what I had originally envisioned.
Did the #MeToo movement alter your approach to the subject?
#MeToo emerged after we’d begun, but there was already a focus on the gender aspect. Aaron defines assholery as predominantly male behaviour, and I myself have witnessed plenty of instances where male assholes target women with their bad behaviour, so that was something I wanted to address.
But I don’t think it’s enough to express moral outrage at the assholery of Weinstein and other public figures. We need to look at ingrained male culture and behaviour. I’m hoping the film will resonate with young people like my daughter. I’d like to think it could serve as a guide to identifying and avoiding assholes. I’m also hoping it will reach those young people—some are featured in the film—who see asshole behaviour as “cool”, as a way to succeed in life.
You single out specific sectors as particularly prone to asshole behaviour. Let’s start with the financial sector.
It’s kind of a cliché that Wall Street is a hotbed of assholery: Scorsese does a great job of exposing that in The Wolf of Wall Street. Aaron has written extensively about the lack of fairness in the global economy, and early on he introduced me to Robert Hockett and Saule Omarova, law professors at Cornell University who’ve been studying asshole behaviour in the financial sector.
Robert and Saule point to the 2008 crisis as an example of “asshole capitalism,” arguing that the deregulation that happened under Clinton derailed the entire financial system, knocking it off balance. With fewer checks on their behaviour, assholes were able to take control. They started rewarding their own asshole behaviour. CEOs who should have been thrown into jail were giving themselves bonuses. We have a great interview with John Cleese where he refers to pre-crash hedge-fund industry as an “arsehole factory.”
Silicon Valley is another sector you touch upon…
Silicon Valley is an interesting case. At its inception it had a liberal culture, with this sense that they were creating a better world. But as they gained massive power and wealth, they became imperialists, for lack of a better term. Aaron talks about this growing sense of entitlement, where the bottom line was to make as much money as possible regardless of the social implications. “To move fast and break things,” as the motto goes.
At the same time social media, a creation of Silicon Valley, has given birth to a new variety of asshole. We now have the phenomenon of Internet trolls, or haters, as Italians call them. Social media extends the reach of asshole behaviour into a whole new realm. Assholery and hate speech have been hugely amplified.
Leslie Miley, who used to be an engineering executive at Twitter, talks about this in the film. He’s one of the few African-Americans to rise to the top in the sector, and he’s witnessed how social media can encourage hateful and extreme views—and how CEOs have reneged on their moral responsibility to do something about it.
Sherry Benson-Podolchuk talks about “group think” inside the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. What does she mean by that?
Sherry has personal and institutional experience of assholery. As an RCMP officer, she had to deal daily with asshole bosses—as well as an entire institution that condoned and supported their behaviour. She was a single mom in a small town. She couldn’t simply walk away from the situation, and assholes drove her to the point of contemplating suicide. So when she talks about “group think,” she’s referring to all the institutional pressures that prevented her colleagues, many of them decent people, from speaking out.
She’s an extraordinary individual and brings a lot to the film. She was the first woman to speak out publicly against asshole behaviour in the RCMP, an important Canadian institution. It would take 20 years of pushing back, but finally real change is taking place. The government recently appointed the first female head of the RCMP and began dealing with harassment and misogyny inside the force. So she’s a superhero in my book.
What happens when asshole behaviour infects the political realm?
I was lucky to interview Bill Emmott, who was editor-in-chief at The Economist for over 10 years. He has analyzed how asshole behaviour in the political class filters down through society and becomes an accepted norm. Early in Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power, Emmott ran a cover story with the headline “Why Berlusconi Is Unfit to Lead Italy.” He was raising the alarm about a particular type of populist asshole, warning that this kind of governance could spread to other countries. As indeed it has.
The author and women’s rights activist Lorella Zanardo has interesting things to say about Berlusconi’s media empire, how he used media to undermine public broadcasting and make assholery acceptable in the broader culture. During the 1980s he secured a near monopoly of commercial TV in Italy, broadcasting a constant stream of sexist programming, featuring semi-naked young women catering to older men. The message was clear: it pays to be an asshole. Lots of Italians bought that message.
What choices did you make in terms of the film’s style and tone?
The original concept was much more comic. As John Cleese says, assholes can be funny. But with the election of Trump and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the tone shifted. The film got more serious, with a more specific focus on male behaviour.
I didn’t want to simply point fingers. I’m interested in looking at assholery as a human characteristic, in exploring its roots and its causes. Vladimir Luxuria, a LGBTQ activist and a former member of the Italian parliament, tells this great anecdote in the film. She’d been the target of all these vicious attacks on social media; messages urging her to kill herself, telling her she was worthless. At a certain point she met one of her “haters” on the Italian TV show Le Iene. He turned out to be a pathetic kid, a troubled young guy with no job, no girlfriend, no real prospects in life—and she found herself feeling genuine empathy for him. I was moved by her reaction, her generosity of spirit. Yes, we absolutely need to resist assholery, but in order to do that successfully we need to identify its sources. In that sense, this is an activist film.
Talk about some of those signs of hope.
Robert Sutton, a professor of management sciences at Stanford, introduced us to an interesting company called Baird, a financial institution where the CEO, Paul Purcell, established the “no asshole rule.” Purcell tells potential employees that asshole behaviour is simply not tolerated within the company. If you’re an asshole, you’ll be found out. What’s interesting is that Baird managed to steer clear of the 2008 crisis, handling billions of dollars of their clients’ money without firing anybody. They survived the crash by taking the moral high ground. And as Robert Hockett points out, the law also has a role to play in curbing asshole behaviour in banking and finance.
And we found lots of smaller instances of successful pushback. Sherry Colb, another Cornell law professor, tells a fascinating story of dealing with a young asshole in one of her classes. At a certain point, disgusted with his behaviour, she stopped interacting with him, stopped asking for his comments. And when he came to her office to ask why, she simply named his behaviour. And it was as if nobody had ever told him. He was an entitled young man, well on his way to being a fully-fledged asshole, but he turned out to be a model student. He just needed to be told.
So resistance can take modest forms. Sometimes a small gesture can make a big difference. I think Vladimir Luxuria really nails it. Whenever we witness asshole behaviour, she says, whether it’s towards an individual or group, we should never forget that we can speak out. If the film has a message, that would be it. There will always be assholes out there—but if we don’t mount a resistance, then we’re in trouble.
Trailer (2 minutes)
Filmmaker, Narrator, Producer (John Walker Productions Ltd.)
Photo : Stephan Ballard
John Walker is one of Canada’s most well-known documentary filmmakers. His films are personal, lyrical and express a deep understanding of the human condition. He has received over 60 Canadian and international nominations and awards. In 2018, he was honoured with a Hot Docs Festival Retrospective.
Producer (John Walker Productions Ltd.)
Ann Bernier has been an independent producer since 1999. Previously, she was Director of Operations and Development at imX Communications Inc., which co-produced such award-winning films as Margaret’s Museum, Love and Death on Long Island and New Waterford Girl. Ann was the Canadian producer on Dominique Cabrera’s Folle Embellie and also produced Thom Fitzgerald’s The Wild Dogs and the feature doc Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey. In addition to being the executive producer on Rohan Fernando’s feature film Snow, she co-produced Donna Davies’ feature documentary Fanarchy for TMN, HBO Canada and Epix, and John Walker’s feature documentary Quebec My Country Mon Pays for the documentary Channel. Ann and her partner, Chris Zimmer, are developing a number of new projects, including two television series and an animated feature called Koati.
Photo : NFB
An accomplished producer committed to collaborating with artists to craft transformative stories, Annette’s select producer credits include The Boxing Girls of Kabul (2011, IDFA and CSA for best documentary short), Hard Light (2012, FIFA Jury Award), Danny (2014, Hot Docs Big Ideas series), 54 Hours (2014, Yorkton Founder’s Award), Gun Runners (2015, Hot Docs), Theater of Life (2016, Berlin), Hand. Line. Cod. (2016, TIFF), Love, Scott (2018, Hot Docs, BFI Flare, Inside Out, One World) and Assholes, a theory (CPHDOX). In addition to Conviction, her current productions reflect on the human condition through the eyes of a twelve year old Yazidi boy arriving in Canada, and inside the lives of resilient women along the Brazilian Amazon. As executive producer for NFB’s Quebec Atlantic studio, Annette envisions a potent and ambitious slate of short form and feature documentaries, animation, and interactive story telling across a rich and large territory.
Inspired by Assholes: A Theory
Directed & Narrated by
in order of appearance
AIME E MORRISON
SHERRY LEE BENSON-PODOLCHUK
ROBERT I. SUTTON
SHERRY F. COLB
BETHANYE MCKINNEY BLOUNT
BEATRICE MARIA ‘BEBE’ VIO
ELENA DAL PRA
Studio Interviews & Streeters
KEVIN MICHAEL DUNFORD
AMMONS E. SMITH
SHANE K. SMITH
Additional Sound Recording
MAX HIRTENSTEIN, CSF
Location Production Assistants
DAVID LA HAYE
MARINA CUNHA MARTINS
PATRICK DAVID ORR
Halifax Casting Agency
NYC Casting Agency
NFB Quebec / Atlantic Studio
LESLIE ANN POYNTZ
SILVIO PUPO MONTERO
Music Score recorded and mixed at
THE SONIC TEMPLE
DARREN VAN NIEKERK
Recordings assisted by
Film mixed at
THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
Assistants to the Composer
MIDI, Sound Design, technician
THE HIDEOUT STUDIOS
Graphic & Website design
Visual Post-Production Facilities
902 POST INC
Assistant Online Editor
Archival Footage Courtesy of
AFP/ GETTY IMAGES
ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVE
CBC ARCHIVE SALES / ARCHIVES RADIO-CANADA
ROLAND DIAZ / GETTY IMAGES
Photographs Courtesy of
ALAMY STOCK PHOTO:
AGENZIA SINTESI, ANDIA, ANDREA SPINELLI, CROWDSPARK,
ERIK PENDZICH, INDEPENDENT PHOTO AGENCY SRL
INSIDEFOTO SRL, KREMLIN POOL, ZUMA PRESS, INC.
ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO/ CARLO VITELLO
BOB THOMAS SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY/ GETTY IMAGES
SHERRY LEE BENSON-PODOLCHUK
Assholes: A Theory Book Graphics Courtesy of
DOUBLEDAY – EMILY MAHON
FRONT ROW INSURANCE BROKERS INC.
Developed with the assistance of
SUPER CHANNEL Entertainment Network
Produced in association with
Senior Director, documentary Channel
Production Executive, documentary Channel
(c) 2019 -A Rude Film Inc & The National Film Board of Canada co-production
Produced with the participation of
Canada Media Fund
with the assistance of
the Government of Nova Scotia,
Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund
Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit
and the participation of
Rogers Group of Funds
Through the Theatrical Documentary Program
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.