Known as the filmmaker who gets personally involved in the story, as in Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock has a wide range of subjects he’s covered from product placement in Hollywood films (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) and serious political issues (Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden) to reality TV shows like I’ll Bet You Will and quirky events like Comic-Con.
“When I laugh, you laugh, when I learn, you learn and when I feel, you feel”, Spurlock says, and he has the credentials to prove it. Read part one: Morgan Spurlock – Inspired by Need to Find Answers.
VM: You appear to move easily from reality television to feature-length documentary. Please talk about your role as director and your creative process.
MS: Almost everything we do, especially all the docs that we do, is really made in the edit room. When we have an idea whether it be Supersize Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold or Comic-Con Episode IV, we’ll basically plot out a perfect world of here’s how this film will start, here’s what will happen in the middle, here’s how it will end. And then you start shooting and you throw all that out the window because basically everything you’ve written down, none of it happens. But at least you’ve given yourself some confidence in a roadmap, a place to start from. And then once you start shooting you kind of have to go with the ebb and flow of the storyline.
I remember back when I was making Supersize Me, I had a conversation with Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) about making the film, I’d never made a feature length film, so I asked him, “Could you just give me some advice, some sort of insight into what I should do?” And he said, “Well, if the movie you end up with is the exact same movie you envisioned at the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anyone along the way.” That’s the greatest advice I’ve ever gotten as a filmmaker. One door closes and another three open, you have to be willing for that to happen. That’s what I mean about the whole documentary process, it’s incredibly organic, it’s very fluid. You get pushed and pulled into different directions that not only take your story but you as an individual into different places and that’s what I find to be really rewarding.
VM: Sometimes your work mixes entertainment elements with very serious subject matter as you did in Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden where you used animation. Please talk about the creative decision-making that goes on to arrive at a certain style or treatment of your films.
MS: For me, I want to take you just far enough where you’ll be entertained, you’ll be engaged, you’ll learn something and at the same time you’ll stay on this journey with me. And hopefully that along the way when something funny happens, when I laugh, you laugh, when I learn, you learn and when I feel, you feel. It really does become a kind of one-on-one relationship (with the audience). I’m a real believer that if you can make someone laugh you can make someone listen. I think through humor comes the ability to raise more gates, you have a chance to take away a lot more apprehension that people may have because they’re suddenly a lot more attentive.
VM: Does your experience in reality television inform what you do when you make a feature-length documentary?
MS: I think what TV does is it really hones your ability to find the story a lot quicker and finding the best stuff. With a film you can end up being stuck in an edit room and stuck in a story line for a very long time. With Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden we were about a year and a half in post-production. Greatest Movie Ever Sold took over a year of post-production. In TV you never have that amount of time. With the series we’re doing now and even with 30 Days, the editorial process on each of those shows is eight to ten weeks. So you have eight to ten weeks to find the story and to put it together. You know, what is your A story what is your B story, what’s happening with these characters? What works, what doesn’t? And you really have to chop a lot faster to find that story. Are there times when you feel rushed when you work in television? Of course there are, but ultimately it makes you a much better craftsman at the end of the day.
VM: On location, please talk about your relationship with your DP, your director of photography.
MS: For The Greatest Movie Ever Sold or Mansome which I was on camera for, or even now with Inside Man, what I will do is have a conversation with the DP before we go into a situation. I’ll say, here’s what I think this film or this show is about or what the issue with this scene is about. And we’ve already determined going into this from day one how we want to shoot the film. On Greatest Movie Ever Sold the DP was Daniel Marracino who I’ve worked with for years, we wanted to shoot that film incredibly frenetic. We wanted that whole film to feel like it was a race. We’re hurrying, we’re trying to find the money, we’re trying to make the movie, we’ve got to get things done. So, when you look at how Greatest Movie Ever Sold was shot versus Comic-Con or Mansome, it had an incredibly frenetic pace. Very different from 30 Days or Inside Man where those were shot with a very different kind of pacing and pattern. But we’d already talked about the landscape of how it was going to look on screen and you develop a kind of shorthand with your DP for communicating what you want.
VM: In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold there are a lot of swish pans and snap zooms. Is this about shooting coverage on the fly or is it about style or both?
MS: It’s about both. With Greatest Movie there is a tremendous amount of pushing in because we wanted to make sure we got reactions of people during certain key moments and we also wanted to make sure we covered the room. A lot of that film was shot with only one camera, for most of my movies we only shoot with one camera except once in a while there may be double coverage. The TV series we shoot a lot more with two cameras than we do single because we’re trying to cover so much more in a short period of time. So for us it is about both, it’s about the aesthetic as well as trying to get the story out.
VM: In editing, where do you begin to organize and cut something down from hours of footage to meet the requirements of a 45-minute TV show or a feature-length documentary?
MS: We always begin with the story. We had an idea of what the story was before we went in the field, now we’ve come back in and we have it much more concise, now we know in what direction the story should go. From there we root that story into characters and we start breaking out these plot points, these story points by character. If there are multiple characters within a show, as within Mansome or Supersize Me intersecting with a couple of different people, we just start to plot it out: here’s the A story (my story), here’s the B story, here’s this character, here’s that character, here are the arcs that they’re talking about in the footage that we shot. And then you start whittling it down. We usually create a very long linear cut, surrounding each character that we’re following. When we did the Comic-Con film we had seven characters and we cut probably forty five-minute, fifty-minute linear stories for all of them and then started to weave them together and pull (extraneous) stuff out, until we ultimately ended up with ninety-eight minutes. It’s the same thing with television, just on a much smaller scale.
VM: In post-production, to what extent do you work from a storyboard or an edit script?
MS: Most of what we do doc-wise we never script out. We use storyboards only for stuff that we know we can control and actually shoot. The commercials you see in Greatest Movie Ever Sold, all of those were storyboarded out. The rest of the time most of that never happens until my writing partner Jeremy Chilnick and I sit down after we’re done shooting and actually start writing the script. We usually start writing the scripts even while we’re still shooting. We’re shooting and editing in real time so we know what we have and what we don’t have, what works and what doesn’t work. You start to realize especially with docs that what we need here is an interview with somebody who talks about “blank,” or, it would be great to go back and ask this person this question because we didn’t ask them that in the field. It does give us the ability to go back and kind of fill in holes, holes that really become more evident in post. So, we’re consistently writing and re-writing probably from about two weeks into production.
VM: When editing a film down to the required length, what are your priorities for selecting material? For example, does content trump cinematics, does emotion trump information when you make editing decisions?
MS: For me story is always the most important, what’s pushing the story forward. It’s easy to get information overload, that’s why we try to think of as many ways as possible to not make information so dense whether that’s through graphics or animation, to find some other way besides just another talking head telling you something. I think emotion is important. Years ago I saw Peter Guber (Hollywood producer) speaking at NYU and Peter Guber said, “Show me a film that makes you think and I’ll show you a commercial failure. Show me a film that makes you feel and I’ll show you a success.” 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.
VM: In the current climate of independent and DIY filmmaking, how important is marketing and distribution?
MS: What I tell filmmakers all the time is that even at the beginning of your process you should be thinking about how you’re going to market your movie. You need to be thinking about the marketing side of your movie from day one. Are there things you could be shooting while you’re shooting the film that could be used just for promotional purposes? If you’re really going to be an independent filmmaker, you have to have a producer hat, you have to have an accountant hat, you have to have a director-writer hat, you have to have a marketing hat, you have to have all those on. You have to have a real understanding of how you want people to perceive your movie. Having a grasp of that perception is only going to increase your chances of being well received in the market place.
VM: You travel the world to fascinating and sometimes dangerous places in search of non-fiction stories, how has this shaped you as a person?
MS: One of the things that happened after Supersize Me, which was the start, and 30 Days was what really solidified this for me, is that I realized and understood that documentaries can have a real impact on what people think and feel and believe. I really want to continue to try and make films that shake people up a little bit, that challenge the way they think. It doesn’t mean you can’t laugh, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time, it doesn’t mean you can’t make something that is entertaining. At the end of the day I just want to be able to come home and have my son be proud of me, that’s the most important thing.
VM: Do you have any closing words of advice for emerging filmmakers?
MS: What I tell filmmakers is, don’t give up. It’s a real tough business to find a career in, to break into, to be consistently working. But it does get easier over time. I went to film school with a lot of really talented and gifted people who are now really talented, gifted real estate brokers and talented, gifted bankers. The business has the ability of trimming the fat along the way so what you have to do is continue to be dedicated to your voice, your vision, you have to be true to yourself. You can’t let somebody else come in and tell you what kinds of movies you should make or what types of stories you should tell. The more you can ultimately be true to you, the more chance of success you’ll have.
Spurlock 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.”
Peter Biesterfeld is a video production college professor.