Interview: Morgan Spurlock

Another OWF exclusive interview as Michael Edwards hunts down Morgan Spurlock to talk about why he makes documentaries, his political views and insuring his moustache...

Morgan Spurlock to talk about why he makes documentaries, his political views and insuring his moustache... How did you get into making documentaries?

That's a good question, I made docs in college and even after college I made some short films for some record companies about their artists, you know, low-profile doc pieces, but I'd never considered making a feature-length doc until SUPER SIZE ME and even then I wasn't planning on it. Just before I had a show that just got cancelled on MTV called I BET YOU WERE and we had about fifty grand in the bank, I'd written a play a few years earlier that I'd adapted into a screenplay called THE PHOENIX that had won an award in New York City so that was what we were going to make. But then watching all the plays that had been converted into movies and they really felt like plays that were made into movies. None of them felt fresh or different. So I thought I'd come up with some new idea, something else, and it was then that I got the idea for SUPER SIZE ME and it just felt right.
So was it more like you felt you had something to say or a professional decision to make documentaries?
Well I got the idea from the television, from a news report where they were talking about a couple of girls who were suing McDonald's because they were overweight and sick and thought it was their fault, which I thought was crazy since they bought the food and they ate it - it's like "it's your choice". And then a person from McDonald's came on and said "you can't blame us for being sick, our food is healthy and nutritious and good for you" and I just went "well if it's that good for me then should I be able to eat it for 30 days straight with no side effects?" and the light when on and that was the beginning.
Well it was that simple in that I was watching the news, (my ideas seem to come from news stories), and Osama had just put out a new tape and the journalist was just like "Where is he? Why haven't we found him? He's taunting us again! Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden?" and I thought that's a great question... that's a great movie!... we should do that!
I felt like that concept came across in the first 15 minutes or so when you played around with it, but then I felt like it changed and you moved onto something you had to say. Was that the plan? I mean did you have specific aims with this project?
No, I mean the whole goal of this movie was to try and find out where he was, what kind of world creates him, what kind of things puts people towards finding him, and we shot 900 hours of footage. If we'd known what we wanted to do we'd have shot 100 hours or 50 hours because you know what you want to make. It's a very organic process when we make a film, it's not until you get into post that you find what kind of story you want to deal, what are the touchdowns over the course of the trip that you want to hit on. That's really where this movie got put together: in post-production.
What would you have done if you actually found him?
I'd have gone "WOO-HOO!" and gotten my picture taken with him then got my big Tiger Woods golf cheque for twenty-five million bucks... Yeah. I think the big scenes would be to ask how this all ends, how to make it stop.
What made you choose your locations?
Different reasons. There were other places that we went to that we wrote about in the book but which didn't make the film.We also came to the UK first, where we wanted to talk to people who'd been affected by terrorist attacks, and we wanted to go to Leeds where the 7/7 terrorists came from, we went to Ireland where we interviewed Martin McGuiness who for years was seen as a terrorist and is now the number two for Sinn Fein, we went to France where we went to Maux in the ghettoes where young Muslim men are looking towards religion as their answer, and it's where the riots have happened for the past few years and then when went to Egypt which is where Ayman al Zawahiri was from and is also one of our partners in the war on terror. So each country had its own reason for why we wanted to go there and I think each of them starts to fill in a piece of the puzzle that is the enigma of Osama Bin Laden.
What was your favourite place you visited on the trip?
Afghanistan. I mean the people in Afghanistan are incredible and the fact is these people are hardened people, I mean there are people our age who haven't known anything but fighting since they were kids. For me it was hard to hear from people about their disappointments but they were just so endearing and wonderful.
Did you make a lot of friends who you're still in touch with?
Yeah there's a lot of people who we still send emails to, but it's harder in Afghanistan because they don't have a way to communicate with me! I mean you can't even send letters.
I noticed you didn't go much into the military's role in bonding with communities, or allegations that they were doing the contrary, was this conscious?
I think you get a sense that things aren't really happening there, and you see that the military are all in these bases, separated from the people. I mean they'll go out and talk to the villagers but then they'll go back and be completely enclosed and protected, and for a good reason! Otherwise they'd probably be overrun at night. But for a long time they didn't make connections to the local people and now they're really trying to remedy the situation, especially in Afghanistan where they have weekly trips out into the village. I'm sure that there are people who do bad things, but I'm also sure that there are a lot of people trying to do the right thing, and I think one thing that really comes across in this film is the PR war on terror: all you need is one person to say a negative thing and it steamrolls like wildfire.
We're getting a bit political. It's tiring me so I'm going back to film - what's your favourite movie ever?
My favourite film ever is A FACE IN THE CROWD by Elia Kazan.
How did you answer that so quickly??
Yeah, well that's my favourite fiction film! It's a great comentary on the state of the media, and it's a great movie about the influence television has over people. My favourite doc is a film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky called 'BROTHER'S KEEPER' which is about these three brothers, one of whom is on trial for killing the others. Great film.
Your moustache is becoming a bit if a trademark, ever thought of getting it insured?
That's a great idea! I should just go talk to Lloyds while I'm here. I mean J-Lo got her posterior insured so I should get this insured.
Were you a bit worried when you grew your beard that people wouldn't recognise you?
Well that's the best part! We had another film that I was a producer on called WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY and when we went out on the road I shaved it off, and the minute I did it was like I was invisible and I was like "This is the greatest thing ever!" I felt like Clark Kent, put my glasses on and "whoah! Where'd he go?" I mean, is it really that simple?
How's your baby doing?
He's big, he's like 16 months now so he's like a little person. He runs around climbing on things. It's cool.
So are you thinking your next documentary might be something to do with parenting in the US?
Well I really want to make a film about education at some point, I come from a family of public educators: my mom, my aunts and my wife's father is a principal and I think there's been a real demise in the public education system. So maybe that's next, I don't know.
Why not stick to what you know? It's best to work on stuff where you know what you're talking about.
I agree. I actually just got approached to be a part of... have you read 'FREAKONOMICS?'
No, I've been told to but haven't.
It's been on the bestseller list in the US now for like three years in a row and they're making a screen version of the book and I've been approached to be one of five or six directors to make a segment for that which will be cool.
You often get compared to Michael Moore, does that bother you?
I think that Michael and I each have our own style of storytelling. I like to say "I'm going to start at 'A' and let's spin the top and see what happens"... and Michael's been very supportive of me, when SUPERSIZE ME came out he had a lot of really kind things to say, and if it wasn't for Michael when I filmed SUPERSIZE ME it wouldn't have made it into theatres, I mean if it hadn't been preceded by things like ROGER AND ME and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and I think he opened up the door for a lot of filmmakers. He makes it easier for the rest of us to raise money!
Ever thought about working with him?
You know we never talked about it, he's always got like three or four irons in the fire, he's a pretty busy guy.
It could work though. It seems to me you have quite similar political views...
Yeah, I mean I grew up around guns in West Virginia so I don't have a problem with guns. And I mean there's things in the conservative party I have problems with but there's things in the liberal party I have problems with, I'm a registered independent in the United States, I don't really have an affiliation: I'd much rather be in the middle.
That surprises me! I'd always seen all these liberal labels attached but being in the middle is a great place for a documentarist to be!
Cheers, thank you.
Those more astute among our regular readers may notice I failed to mention either GREMLINS or TRON, this is true. I enjoyed talking to Morgan so much I failed, and I humbly beg your forgiveness. It will not happen again... WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? is out in UK cinemas now!


Michael J Edwards hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.