Tonight on Current TV, Morgan Spurlock hosts 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die, a five-part miniseries that counts down the top must-see docs of all times. Expect the classics, like Roger and Me, Hoop Dreams, and Thin Blue Line, but according to Spurlock (director of Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?) we can also expect some surprises. We recently spoke to Spurlock, who was hard at working putting the finishing touches on his next film, Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope, about the evolution of the documentary, reality TV, and where he was when he found out Osama bin Laden had been killed.
Now that you’re finishing this film, is it what you imagined going into the project? Yeah, I love Comic-Con in general—I’m such a nerd. Comic books were one of the things I used to turn to as an escape. The whole film was spurned out of a conversation I had with Stan Lee when I first met him two years ago at Comic-Con. He was like, You know Morgan, we should make a movie together about Comic-Con! And literally out of him saying that, we came up with the idea for Comic-Con: Episode Four, that we basically co-produced with Stan and with Joss Whedon. A geek dream team.
Is the film told from a fan’s perspective? It’s told from a fan’s perspective as well as a writer’s and director’s. We’re all fans. This is something that’s affected all of us in some way. So what we do is we follow seven people into Comic-Con and tell the story of Comic-Con through their eyes, with a bunch of interviews and stories from people who’ve been going there for years.
Are you in the film? I’m not in one frame.
That’s new for you. It’s great, I kind of like it.
What do you consider to be the most important development in documentary filmmaking in the last 25 years? I think that there was a real commercialization. I remember when I went to NYU around ’91, there were movie theaters that were showing all these documentaries like Brother’s Keeper, and for me it was the realization that these films had made their way into theatrical distribution, and were getting more popular. A film like Hoop Dreams literally transcended documentary film. It didn’t matter who you were, you were talking about this movie. There were people like him, like Errol Morris, Michael Moore, who really started to push the genre in a way to being a popular filmmaking genre.
Is reality television a form of documentary? Yeah, Super Size Me came out at the beginning of the reality boom. I think reality television has been co-opted and turned into something else, but at the same time it lets regular people be interesting, and shows they can have a good story. Now it’s been so shifted and scripted and turned into something else, but I think people are still making real docu-series and real documentaries for television and creating good programs. I’m a believer that reality television has helped documentary film. A lot of people don’t agree with me but I really do.
What was the coolest thing about making the current miniseries? I loved going around and meeting people you’ve seen in a films, like when I got to meet Mr. Brainwash. I was so excited because one, he’s fantastic, but he also caters to everything I love. I love lowbrow art, and I collect street art, so to kind of get to meet him was something I was really, really excited about. Did you know who he was before you had seen the film? Getting to meet the kids that are all grown up from Hoop Dreams was something I was really excited about. I remember seeing the film 20 years ago. Seeing that film then, and now seeing these guys, hearing where they are in their lives 20 years later, is remarkable. It’s a cool thing to see the lasting impact. There is a legacy with a lot of these movies, and to see that legacy living on and to understand how it affected them as participants is really interesting and enlightening.
What about meeting the other filmmakers? Are you part of a documentary brotherhood? The thing about documentary films is that it’s not so huge field, so it can’t be filled with a lot of assholes. It’s a still a club where people support one another, people help one another. You can pick up the phone and call someone.
Were you surprised when you found out where bin Laden actually was? Well, the overwhelming majority of people we spoke to sent us to Pakistan. And when we were filming in Islamabad, we were about 20 miles away from where they ultimately captured him, which is pretty remarkable.
How did you find out the news and what was your reaction? I was at home on my couch, and all the sudden my phone started blowing up. The Twitterverse went nuts and people were emailing me and texting me and I was trying to watch a movie. My phone was buzzing nonstop, and for the next two hours I was transfixed.
Has it changed the way you see your own film now? I think it changed how a lot of other people saw that film. I always thought the film was pretty good, but I think it gave a lot of credibility to the film that it didn’t have before.
Have you considered directing a scripted film? Absolutely. I’ve wanted to make narratives ever since I was a kid. Those were the movies that made me want to make movies, so for me to get the chance to make a feature film sometime in the next year would be great. When Super Size Me first came out, I got sent a lot of scripts. People were like, “That movie’s funny! We’ve got to send him some great comedies!” I was sent a Revenge of the Nerds remake, I was sent a new Deuce Bigalow movie, and I was like, “Absolutely not, these are not the movies that I want to be making right now.” And then Thank You for Smoking came out and that was a great example of a scripted film I’d like to make. There’s one film that’s with Leonardo DiCaprio’s company that I’m attached to, which hopefully will happen.