Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock burst on to the scene in 2004 with the cinderella success that was Super Size Me. The pure novelty of the idea struck a chord with the viewing public and when all was said and done, the film wound up being one of the most profitable documentaries of all time as well as earning its director an Academy Award nomination. His mix of daredevil bravado come self-destructive sadism quickly led to Spurlock’s profile rising to that of second-best known documentary filmmaker in the country. But where do you go from a month of eating only at America’s most beloved fast food chain? Television, of course. Following the recipe that led to his initial success, Spurlock developed 30 Days, a program for FX that’s three seasons ran from 2005 to 2008. The show’s concept is essentially the McDonalds diet expanded into the more controversial water-cooler topics of American life. 30 Days hits DVD shelves this week as a complete series and I had the opportunity to talk to Spurlock about the role of documentary in today’s society, his favorite Simpsons episode, and just what it’s like working with Harvey Weinstein.
Was there anything you did on 30 Days that was deemed too dangerous? No, I mean FX was incredibly supportive. The one thing that they put the kibosh on was when we were doing the immigration episode. One of the things I wanted to do, to explore what illegal immigrants have to go through to get into America, I wanted to go to Mexico and have a coyote literally bring me across the border.
That sounds pretty cool. Yeah, which would have been great. It takes days, you’re in the desert, people die every year doing it. I said this would be a great thing to do, and they went to FX legal and they said no and then they took it to lobbyists in Washington D.C., because it’s Rupert Murdoch and he’s got a huge giant corporation. Basically, their media people in DC were like “there is no way he is going to be allowed to go across the border illegally.”
What’s the worst situation you’ve been put in on the show? Prison by far is the worst thing ever. I would never wish prison on anybody. It’s a real wake-up call.
So, why documentary? I always wanted to do narrative filmmaking and I probably still will at some point. Before I made Super Size Me, I was writing plays in New York City. Super Size Me was just one of those films that when we got the idea, I just loved what it was. We had like fifty grand in the bank, so the idea was, let’s make a film. So then when I was home for Thanksgiving, I got the idea to make Super Size Me and I came back and we all loved it and it went from there.
Do you ever eat fast food these days? No, I am so done. I haven’t eaten fast food, like a big McDonald’s or Burger King type chain in five, six years. When I’m in L.A., I like an In-N-Out Burger once in a while. There’s another place I love in L.A. called Tommy’s. I love the original Tommy Burger at Beverly and Rampart. A good chili cheeseburger there at around midnight, it’s a great thing to have once a year.
That sounds pretty good. Maybe twice.
At most. Now, I read that there’s a comic book adaptation of Super Size Me in the works. The thread of what Super Size Me is about, me going on this diet and the things we discovered along the way is in there, but it’s more stories from other people that we got who worked in fast food restaurants. Their own horror stories from behind the closed doors of fast food. I think people are going to really dig it. It’s going to be really funny. We’ve got some of the best graphic novel artists in the world working on it.
What filmmakers or documentarians are influences on your work? There’s so many people that I look up to, Steve James who did Hoop Dreams and Stevie. I just love that guy, I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker.
It’s pretty incredible the way Hoop Dreams plays out almost like a Hollywood narrative. And in terms of that, I love the movie Brother’s Keeper which is probably my favorite documentary of all time. It’s by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
On your new movie Freakonomics, you collaborated with Seth Gordon who did The King of Kong. King of Kong is such a great film. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to jump on Freakonomics. They started talking to me about all of the other filmmakers they were going out to. I think I was the first one to sign on, but then they started talking about going out to Alex Gibney, Jarecki, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grading. These are people I have so much respect for as filmmakers, to just be in that group of filmmakers would be such an honor.
Do you think having a leftwing President is going to hinder liberal documentarians such as yourself and Michael Moore? Jon Stewart’s still on the air, you know, Stephen Colbert, those guys still have stuff to talk about. Just because he was elected doesn’t mean all of the problems just magically go away. I think there’s still so much to deal with from our health care system to education to race in America, the class divide that we have.
What do you think the role of the documentary is in today’s society? From my standpoint, I think there are few places where you can really express an outlook or a view that isn’t the view of whoever the mothership is. Every form of media is controlled by like, five companies, and so many of those companies exercise their editorial control over what you do. So where do you really have free speech? Where do you have the ability to put out questions or arguments that are going to get people to think in a different way than through independent documentary films? Michael Moore’s in a category all by himself. I think his box office average per movie is something like 17 or 18 million dollars.
Your film Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden ? was distributed by the Weinstein Company. They were incredibly helpful. Harvey is really brilliant in terms of storytelling. It was the first time I’ve ever had a distributor who was basically involved in the film while we were still editing the film. Harvey gives great advice about notes, gives great advice about cutting the film and what he thinks you should and shouldn’t do to make it better. That’s where Harvey’s real gift is, it’s when you’re finishing a movie.
Harvey Weinstein’s notoriously outspoken. You never had any problems with the two of you butting heads over anything? We had a great relationship. We were releasing the film when times were tough for our distributors and we ended up probably not getting as much money put into the release of our film as would have been great, but you can’t fault somebody for running their business. At the end of the day, the film’s still out, it’s still getting seen and I get stopped by people all the time who’ve seen the movie. For me it’s still getting it’s legs out. The Weinstein Company is finishing their deal with Hulu right now, so Where in the World will be on Hulu, I think in the next month or two, which will be fantastic.
I just watched your documentary about The Simpsons, which I really liked because I’m a fan of the show. I love what Joe Montegna said: People who say they don’t like The Simpsons, it’s like people who say they don’t like dogs. Who the fuck doesn’t like a dog?
Do you have a favorite episode? I have a special fondness for “King-Size Homer” where he gets completely obese and goes on disability.
That’s a good one. And I love the tomacco episode where he becomes a farmer outside of town and grows the tobacco infused tomatoes.
Do you still find the show funny? There are people who say it’s not as funny as it used to be and that it was so much better ten years ago. Turn on The Simpsons on any night and even if it’s an off night in terms of what the episode is, it’s still better than 80 percent of what’s on television.
I suppose that’s true. I’d rather watch a bad episode of The Simpsons than most of the stuff that’s on the CW.
What’s your next project? Right now we’re trying to do a movie on San Diego Comic-Con.
That sounds cool. I went to Comic-Con for the first time last year when we were shooting The Simpsons special and I fell in love with the place, it was amazing.
It seems pretty crazy. It is such an incredible place and it is such a place of influence. Comic-Con has become so influential in pop culture. The world of movies, TV, graphic novels and comics, video games. Literally, they are the tastemakers of this generation. For me, doing a film about that would be just great.
Is there a dream project in the back of your mind you’d like to do sometime in the future? When I was a kid in the 11th or 12th grade, I read Brave New World and that was the book that I was like, oh God, I want to make that into a movie so bad one day. I would have dreams about it. I would literally dream about making that movie. I heard last year that DiCaprio’s making it with, is it Ridley Scott?
I’ve heard his name attached to that project at some point. I think it’s DiCaprio with Ridley Scott and it’s one of those things where I was like: Aww. Now I gotta come up with another dream project.
That would be an interesting match between story and director. I know. So if anybody’s still out there, reading this article and there’s an open directing assignment, please call me. I would do anything to make that movie.
I’ll see what I can do. Fight for me, fight for me.