You can say that about much of Spurlock’s work. The prolific documentary maker and creator of reality television approaches his subject matter with entertainment in mind, but once he has your attention, hang on for the ride and be prepared to get schooled. From fish out of water storytelling (30 Days) to a quirky odyssey in search of the 9/11 mastermind (Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden), and from male grooming (Mansome) to Hollywood product placement (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) the range of topics is wide and unpredictable, the filmmaking is unconventional if not quirky, but the messages are crisp and come with a point of view. Spurlock moves easily between reality TV and feature length documentary wearing whatever production hats are necessary to get his work to the screen, big and small. He makes his return to television in 2013 to host and produce a new original series for CNN called Inside Man, “an insider’s view into rarely-seen sectors of American life.”
Morgan Spurlock shared his creative process in a telephone interview with Videomaker and talked about how he got to the top of the heap. In this two-part series, we’ll first touch on how Spurlock got his start, and who inspired him to keep pushing despite early rejection.
Videomaker: How did you decide that you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Morgan Spurlock: I’ve always wanted to make films ever since I was a kid. I grew up in a house where my family loved movies. I was in about sixth grade when John Sayles was shooting Matewan about half an hour from my house in West Virginia. I was like, “Mom, can we go over to watch?” She took me down to the set and we sat there for five, six hours until it was night and they brought lights. To me it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen because at that moment movies suddenly became real. Suddenly they weren’t these things that were so far away and were only made in Hollywood. It made filmmaking tangible to me for the first time in my life. And it showed to me that there was a business behind it. Once I learned that I could go to college and actually study film, I said, “Hold on, that’s exactly what I want to do.”
VM: You graduated with a BFA in film from New York University, how did that prepare you for the industry?
MS: I went to Southern Cal. [University of Southern California] for two years and got rejected from their film program every semester that I applied. Finally the fifth time I also applied to NYU. I got into NYU and transferred there and decided to start over again in New York City.
The great thing about NYU is that everyone in the film program has to raise their own movie. If you want to make a film, here’s your idea, great, now you have to go find the money to make it. There’s a real independent spirit that is bred into you at New York University. It gets you ready for the reality of the film world.
VM: In what way?
When you graduate, the chances of you coming out of college with a film degree and an idea and somebody walking up to you and giving you a check for a million dollars to go make a movie, are few and far between. Mostly what’s going to happen to you when you come out is that you’re going to have to hustle to find somebody who likes your idea, you have to find a place to sell it and you have to find a crew. I think that NYU very much prepared me for the hustle.
VM: Is there anything that film school did not prepare you for?
MS: I’ll tell you that my greatest education in the film business came after I got out of film school. At NYU there were a lot of people who were teaching classes, who hadn’t made a movie in ten years. There were people who were teaching you the nuts and bolts of production, but meanwhile the nuts and bolts of production had changed dramatically since the time they last made a film. When I was at USC I was taking as many [film related] classes as I could. And the one thing I liked very much about USC’s film program: all the film classes were at night – you didn’t have a day-time film class because everybody who taught a film class worked in the business during the day. I took a camera class when I was at USC and my camera teacher was Jay Roach who went on to become an amazing director and just won the Emmy for Game Change. But at the time in 1989 he was a cameraman and DP. I found that to be infinitely valuable because these people who were living it every day could tell you, “Here’s what’s happening in the business right now.”
VM: What did you do after college?
MS: As soon as I got out of college I started working as a PA (production assistant), I was working as a schlepp on any movie I could, any job I could get. The first movie I worked on was The Professional, the Luc Besson film. I worked as a PA on Bullets Over Broadway, the Woody Allen film. I worked as PA on Boys On The Side the Herb Ross film and the last film I PA’d on was Barbet Schroeder’s film Kiss of Death the remake. I think getting in at the bottom, getting in as an assistant, as a PA, anything, is a great place just to learn the business. You learn who people are, you learn the form and function of the industry, you learn how people communicate, you learn the shorthand for jobs. I learned more in those days when I was working on those pictures because I would constantly try and get myself as close to the director and as close to set as possible just so I could see them work. I could see how they communicated with their cast, with their AD’s (assistant directors), with their support staff, the DPs whomever. To be in a position where you’re seeing people like Luc Besson or Woody Allen direct movies, that’s a special experience.
VM: Can you give an example of that, something that you’ve taken away from those early days that you’re applying now in your work?
MS: Well, the thing about Luc Besson, what I loved about him was that he shot so fast. He would shoot so much in a day. He brought this crew over from France, they had the money of a smaller feature film but they were shooting it like an indy movie, guerilla style. They had a union crew and at any given moment he would take Thierry (Thierry Arbogast) his DP and a guy with a light and they’d run down the street and start shooting and the union guys would say, “You can’t do that, you can’t just run around shooting things.” They had such an independent spirit about what they were doing and how they made movies. I loved that. So for me that idea of doing whatever you have to do to get it in the can is fantastic. That was an amazing thing to see.
And Woody Allen, to see him shoot where he shoots just a couple of takes. He’ll go out and give a couple of notes, he does one or two takes and then he’s done, he knows what he wants. His days are like bankers’ hours, he’d shoot from nine to five. We’d show up in the morning and be leaving for home when it was still light out. It was such a direct opposite of how Luc Besson was working, trying to get so much coverage and additional shots whereas so much of Woody Allen comes off of what’s on the page. And ultimately it’s like, it’s on the page, I know what I want, I’m going to have people dance around this idea and then we’re going to move on. And with Herb Ross (Boys on the Side) I only worked on the first two weeks of that movie, I was only on it during the rehearsals. So, I was living on a sound stage with him and all the actors. And this is like Matthew McConaughey’s first big movie. Drew Barrymore’s in the film, and Whoopi Goldberg. So here I was on the sound stage while they were blocking all the scenes. First they would do the table reads, and after day one they would start standing up and blocking scenes. They would move furniture around and say, “Well, I’m going to come into the room and do this.” The first two movies I worked on I was in filmmaking 101 and here I was in filmmaking 102, now here’s how you actually block scenes. That was Herb Ross, you know the guy who directed every Neil Simon movie. To see this guy in action was remarkable. With all these people there was such an overwhelming positivity on all these sets. I feel lucky every day to get to do what I do. I think that each one of those guys, to get to see them work it was almost the same thing, we all realized that we could be digging a ditch somewhere, ultimately this is a pretty great job that you get to have.
VM: How did you come to make non-fiction TV programs and documentaries rather than narrative fiction films?
MS: I didn’t go to NYU film school saying, “I’m going to make documentary films!” I went to film school wanting to make narratives, I wanted to tell fictional stories, those were the films I loved growing up. But once I got to college and I was really exposed to documentaries I did fall in love with the medium, the function of the medium and what the power behind it was. I made a couple of short docs when I was in school but when I graduated even then the idea was still to make feature length movies, scripted narrative films. Along the way I made a couple of short form docs, about musicians, I made one about a female acrobatic pilot. So when I got the idea for Supersize Me it just made sense that that was going to be the kind of film I would make.
VM: What was your first directing job? How did you get through the door and what did you learn from it?
MS: When I was working on Kiss of Death a friend of mine in the casting department said, “You should go audition for this job.” At the time I was so burned out on PA’ing, you know, I finished my senior thesis film, I’d sent it out to film festivals, it got accepted into several festivals but things weren’t nearly as great as I’d imagined. So I went on this audition. Two weeks later I found out that I got it. The next thing I know I’m traveling around the country as the face of this promotional tour for Sony Electronics. And over the next two years the tour became about the promotion of Sony auto sound, their car stereos, promotion of Sony Play Station and promotion of Sony VAIO computers. And somebody said, ‘We want to make a video about the tour.’ So I said, “I went to film school, I can do that.” So I started making these films about the tour. Then I started directing spots for Sony that became commercials for Sony Digital Mavica, their digital cameras that used the floppy disk. I did a big presentation video for them for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was this multi-million dollar video, the most expensive thing I’d ever made. And then I started to direct more stuff for them.
VM: You also went on to make music videos.
MS: I pulled myself off the road with Sony and started to push myself more towards directing commercials and music videos, any job I could get. And the whole time while this is going on, any down time I would have, I would keep writing because writing is the one thing you could always do. I was writing a lot of one-act plays and then I wrote a feature-length play, called The Phoenix that I ended up getting into the fringe festivals in 1999 and it won an audience award that year. Right around that time was when the internet exploded. I said, “This internet thing sounds kind of exciting.” And so that’s basically when I raised my own money and started my own company.
VM: Is that when you got into television?
MS: My first production company started off as a web company; this was back in 2000, we were creating programming on line. The goal was to create it online and then sell it off to film or television. At the time there was no reality television. The only thing that was on at the time was Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? So we made this game show I Bet You Will, which was a show where we would go out on the street and bet people to do silly things for money. We sold it to CBS, and suddenly reality television blew up and we had this property that people wanted, it was very exciting and we ended up selling it to MTV and did 53 episodes of that show. When they canceled it we had about 50,000 dollars in the bank. We owned all our own equipment, we owned the cameras we owned the computers. And I said, “You know what? We should take this money and we should make a movie.” And we took that fifty thousand dollars, and that was the money we used to make Supersize Me.
VM: Your career in both television and film is based on a series of interesting and quirky reality-based programming ideas. Could you please talk about what it takes to bring an idea for a TV show or a documentary to the screen.
MS: Using I Bet You Will as an example – that was an idea back when I was in college – me and my friends we would always bet people to do stupid things, “I bet you won’t do that, I’ll give you ten bucks if you do that,” you push one another to do idiotic things. And there’s never been a show where people would push other people to do idiotic things like that. So, that was literally what that was born out of and luckily we already had an investor on board to pay for that.
Supersize Me was a very different animal, nobody would ever pay to make that film. The idea for that film actually came from a news story. It was Thanksgiving 2002 and there was a news story on television about two girls who were suing McDonald’s. These two girls said, “We’re fat, we’re sick and it’s your fault.” And I thought that’s crazy, how could they sue a company that sold them food that they bought, that they ate and tell them it’s their fault? Then a spokesperson for McDonald’s came on the air and said, “Listen, you can’t blame our food for these girls being sick, our food is healthy, it’s nutritious, it’s good for you.” And I was thinking that’s a little crazy too, if it’s that good shouldn’t I be able to eat it for thirty days straight without any side effects and I was like, “Woah! That’s it, I’ve got an idea for a movie.”
Part of what has to happen is that you have to be open for an idea. I’ll give you an example of why I believe that. Right before this when MTV cancelled I Bet You Will the film we were going to make was an adaptation of a play that I wrote, The Phoenix, that won the fringe festival. I’d adapted that into a feature length film so I started watching all these movies, like True West, you name it, all these plays that have been adapted into movies. All of them really felt like plays, none of them seemed to transcend the stage once they got to film. So I said, “You know what, I don’t feel really good about this, I’m going to go home over Thanksgiving and let me think about it.” And that’s when I got the idea for Supersize Me. So, part of what you have to do is you have to be open for the creative process to happen.
When we were doing 30 Days the TV show we did for FX, we would find inspiration for ideas for that show all over the place, we would find ideas for episodes on television, in magazines, in newspapers in conversations people would have. Once you find yourself committed to a creative idea, more ideas will come from places you never thought possible.
VM: How did 30 Days spin out of Supersize Me?
MS: When you live in New York City you always see those people with clipboards who say, would you like to come to a test screening for a new Paramount Pictures’ film? And they invite you to these test screenings. We had finished Supersize Me, we hadn’t even gotten it into Sundance (film festival) yet. So I said, you know we should test screen our film. We solicited about fifty people to come to a screening and we showed them the cut of the movie that we sent to Sundance and afterwards we had a Q & A. What did you like about the film? What didn’t you like? What worked, what didn’t work? During this Q & A someone in the audience said, “I just want to thank you for making this film and for showing America how terrible these corporations are. And how we need to crush these people, how they are destroying our way of life…” Somebody from the other side of the room goes, “What movie did you watch, are you out of your mind?’ Suddenly in the middle of this Q & A people started yelling at one other and I went over to the two editors and I’m like, “This is awesome!” It was such a visceral experience the audience had to this movie. So the next day we were in the edit room and I said, “You know what would be great is to take this idea that we have with Supersize Me and do more with it.” So out of that night where people were yelling at each other in the movie theatre, came 30 Days.
VM: 30 Days was transformative for the audience and the show’s participants alike.
MS: The episodes that I’m not in are the real proof of concept for that show. I love the episodes where you see somebody question their own beliefs, questioning what they thought was true for so long. There’s some really beautiful moments in that show. In season one there was this great episode where a guy from Michigan who was in the military moved to The Castro (San Francisco) and moved in with a gay guy. This guy was a complete homophobe, he didn’t think gay people should have the rights to get married, adopt kids, join the military or anything. And to see the transformation that this guy goes through during the course of that show is amazing. I feel lucky every day that we got to make that show.
VM: You didn’t just sell the idea. Could you please talk about how you came to make and run 30 Days for FX.
MS: I’d never done a show of that scope or magnitude, so I was really fortunate. I had just met R.J. Cutler (The War Room) who is a brilliant filmmaker, a fantastic producer, probably one of the smartest guys in Hollywood. So when I met with the network, they said do you have anybody in mind that you want to produce the show with because they wanted me to run the show out of L.A. because that’s where FX was based. They knew of R.J. and I said, “What about R.J. Cutler.” So R.J. came on to produce the show with me and we basically ran the show out of his shop, Actual Reality, in Los Angeles. For me that was fantastic to have somebody who already had the wherewithal to run a show like that, and to learn from him as the process was happening. Ultimately, in a situation like that you could be paired up with somebody who could really ruin your idea who could drive the creative into the ground. But R.J. is such a smart, caring guy, he got from the beginning what this show should be. Also to be working with FX, to be working with a network that would have the balls to say we want to put a show on the air that’s going to challenge people, challenge what they believe in and make them think and make them feel. We were at the right place with the right team.
Part two in Videomaker‘s up-front behind the lens talk with Morgan Spurlock covers his move from televison reality shows to feature-length documentaies and the differences in how he approached them.”The key to successful films is very much rooted in emotion. For me emotion is something that you have to consistently pay attention to as a filmmaker because emotion is what’s going to drive your audience engagement.” he says in discussing keeping an audience interested in your story, and he discusses how marketing and distribution should be first on your list before you even take the cap off the camera lens.
Peter Biesterfeld is a video production college professor.