Morgan Spurlock

Moving in many directions

June/July 2013


In January 2003, just as he was about to embark on a month-long diet of McDonald’s fast food that would make him about as famous as the Golden Arches, Morgan Spurlock checked out coverage of the Sundance Film Festival, where he had watched independent filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez rise to fame.
The next year, the West Virginia native was at Sundance himself, experiencing recognition on an accelerated and large-scale level, on the heels of the documentary “Super Size Me.”
“Suddenly I was there in 2004 with the movie I made for $65,000 blowing up around me,” Spurlock said in a telephone interview from the New York City office of his production company, Warrior Poets.
“A reporter asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the belle of the ball? This is your Sundance.’
“I get chills. There was this moment when I realized, ‘I’m that guy who made that film for no money whose life is never going to be the same.’ It was an incredible, humbling experience.”
The film won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize there and for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.
Not one to rest on his laurels, 10 years later, Spurlock has amassed an impressive oeuvre, spanning not only theater-released documentaries but three different television series as well as diverse works including “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special — In 3D! On Ice!” and an ESPN project about sports agents called “The Dotted Line.”
“Once the film took off, I said, ‘We really need to run with this.’ I was able to set up a TV show, make more films and more television projects. I’ve been entrusted with something that is important out of ‘Super Size Me’ and it’s given me the chance to make things that are smart and engaging, that challenge an audience and open people’s eyes.
“I’ve been lucky to do that, to make populist and popular projects.”
His TV shows include “30 Days,” in which someone — occasionally Spurlock himself, who worked in a coal mine, went to prison and lived on minimum wage — explored a different life for a month; “A Day in the Life,” available on the subscription service Hulu; and his most recent show, “Inside Man” on CNN.
“We’re platform agnostic,” added Spurlock, who was born in Parkersburg and grew up in Beckley. “You should try to create material for where the audience is, and there has been a migration to television and the Internet.”
But the project that really has the director spanning the globe in recent months is a 180-degree turn from his 2006 documentary “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” in spite of some similarities.
As in that film, Spurlock has been traveling the planet, but this time he has been following the British boy band One Direction to shoot a documentary that represents a different direction for Spurlock.
To date, “The Simpsons” special is Spurlock’s project that has registered the most viewers, at 13 million, he noted. That appears to be on the verge of changing.
“When this movie comes out, it will be on more screens in more countries than I’ve ever had anything play as a filmmaker,” Spurlock said. “It will reach a broader audience and be seen by more people. I think these are great opportunities.”
Spurlock had been pitched films about pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry that he had to decline because of his busy schedule. So when he was asked about making “One Direction: This Is Us,” Spurlock said yes.
“After missing both those opportunities, the chance to make a very big, splashy, challenging 3D movie, I said, ‘I don’t want to miss that opportunity again.’ So I jumped at the chance.”
The film provides more than one challenge. A major one is the shooting schedule.
He accepted the project in November and started shooting in January. He filmed the band in their native Britain and planned to meet up with them again for their European tour in May and finish up with them in Mexico in June. That gives him a short post-production window as the film is due in theaters in August.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s almost a narrative schedule. It’s kind of unheard of.”
When not traipsing after the five “lads” — as Spurlock calls them — the director likes to get home to West Virginia, which he tries to do three or four times a year, visiting family in Beckley and sometimes making it to Charleston to see friends.
He recounts his 1970s childhood fondly, noting how back in those days, adults would pile “10 kids in the backseat of a car with no seat belt.”
Those also were the days that the Spurlocks would allow their young son to see some grown-up movies, such as “Jaws” and “The Exorcist.”
“My parents took me to movies that you would never take kids to today,” he said. “You’d think, ‘Why would a parent take a child to see these movies?’ but they were like, ‘It’s just a movie. You’re fine.'”
Spurlock ended up more than fine. He became a huge fan of the cinema. Then, when he was a teenager, acclaimed director John Sayles filmed the movie “Matewan” — about the attempts to unionize a mine in the Mingo County town that led to the Battle of Matewan — near Spurlock’s Beckley home, in the Fayette County town of Thurmond.
“I told my mom that I wanted to see this and she drove me down to the set,” Spurlock recalled. “I got to see them making a movie. It was a real turning point. Hollywood was a million miles away, but seeing them make this movie in my state a few miles from my house, suddenly, filmmaking became tangible and real. That was a real moment for me and it made filmmaking seem like something I could do.”
Spurlock saw the director in action, and, in the role of Sid Hatfield, actor David Strathairn, a relative unknown at the time who has gone on to have a successful career, appearing most recently in the Oscar-nominated “Lincoln.”
Coincidentally, when Spurlock was traveling the festival circuit in 2004 with “Super Size Me,” he ran into Sayles, who was promoting his film “Silver City,” at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain.
“I told him that I was at the festival because of him and that if I had never been there on the set that day I probably never would have thought it was possible to be a filmmaker. He and I became friends as a result of that. It was wonderful.”
Before that moment happened, Spurlock enrolled in film school. He spent a few semesters attempting to get into the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, because he thought Hollywood naturally would be the place to go. After two years and five rejections, he finally went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
So at the age of 20, “I moved to New York and went to film school,” Spurlock said. “It was the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me.”
Even after graduating, however, Spurlock had not chosen documentaries as his preferred medium yet. In fact, he had written a play that won a prize at the New York International Fringe Festival, and he considered making it into a movie before he realized that other films he had seen made from plays did not always translate to the big screen.
The idea that would change his life came to him while he was at home for Thanksgiving in 2002. “I was sitting at my mom’s in a tryptophan, turkey-filled haze when a story came on TV about two girls who were suing McDonald’s because the food made them fat.”
At the time, “Bowling for Columbine,” in which Michael Moore explored guns and violence in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, was doing well and gave Spurlock the inspiration that other documentaries might be box office hits as well.
So he ultimately decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a month, trying every item at least once and supersizing the meal when — and only when — a server asked if he wanted larger portions.
By the end of the month, he had gained weight and his heart and liver levels had moved into dangerous territory. Afterward, he detoxed and lost the weight with the help of his vegan chef girlfriend at the time.
The idea to insert himself into the film as sort of a kindler, gentler Moore did not come to him immediately, however.
In fact, “The original idea was that I would have somebody else come on and do it,” Spurlock said. “But I couldn’t trust that the guinea pig wouldn’t cheat — sneak some broccoli or have some bok choy when no one was looking. I realized that I needed to be the person who does it, that it would be me who goes through the whole process.”
After that, the engaging and affable Spurlock could be found in his subsequent documentaries, including “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, which took him to the Middle East, Northern Africa and Asia as he searched for the terrorist mastermind; and “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” in which Spurlock explored product placement and sponsorships in movies.
In fact, the full title of the latter actually is “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” in honor of the pomegranate juice company that helped finance the film. The $1.5 million budget purportedly came completely from sponsors that also included Sheetz and Mini Cooper. “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” gave pundits as diverse as Noam Chomsky and Big Boi from Outkast a pulpit from which to discuss the pros and cons of commercialism in cinema.
Spurlock did not appear in his most recent film, “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” which actually ended up as a more conventional documentary in spite of its cast of costumed characters who parade through the famed San Diego Comic-Con International, a gathering of comic book and pop culture fanatics.
“Super Size Me” made it to No. 5 on a countdown show called “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” broadcast on Current TV and hosted by … Spurlock himself. No, he did not come up with the list himself, but he does agree with some of the choices, noting that the timeline begins with the modern era of documentaries ushered in by Errol Morris and his stylistic and industry-changing “The Thin Blue Line.”
Documentaries that Spurlock does admire include “Brother’s Keeper”; ”Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”; “Some Kind of Monster,” about the band Metallica, which the director loves; and, yes, even “Super Size Me.”
“For people who think documentaries are boring, I like to give them gateway docs that are going to get them into liking other documentaries,” he said. “‘Super Size Me’ is a great gateway doc. There are documentaries like ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ and ‘The King of Kong’ that don’t feel like documentaries.
“I like going to movies to be entertained. We live in a world in which we get so much information. The mantra we have at the company, really, a rule to live by, is, if you can make someone laugh, you can make someone listen. If you give people some humor, you get their guard down and they pay attention. We try to do that in most things we do.”