Morgan Spurlock went from being a humble documentary filmmaker to becoming a bona fide media figure with the release of Super Size Me, his account of eating nothing but McDonald’s food products for a month. While the movie certainly made important observations about American eating habits and the industry that feeds them, Super Size Me was also entertaining, becoming a verifiable box-office hit. Now, Spurlock has taken a similar approach with his new documentary series on FX, 30 Days, in which he films people being placed in roles outside of their typical lives. In the first episode, he and his girlfriend Alex Jamieson lived on minimum wage for a month—and barely squeaked by. How does an earnest filmmaker convince large media corporations to air reality TV programming that doesn’t involve bikinis or swallowing bugs? It ain’t easy, but Spurlock perseveres with his wit and social conscious intact.
How does it feel from going from humble documentary filmmaker to famous media figure?
It’s interesting when you can get all your phone calls returned. It’s a great thing! Still, it’s just an overwhelming thing that’s happened very quickly. It’s still difficult just to figure out every day. That’s the thing; it’s one of those things where you have the opportunity to do just about anything you can think of. What do you do? It’s good; I’m surrounded by a lot of good people, a lot of good friends who have no problem keeping me in check.
Has notoriety made your job easier or more difficult?
It has made it easier, I think. For so long I was struggling to get meetings and meet certain people and trying to get things off the ground. It’s made it a lot more possible to do things, whether it is film or television.
Do you feel as if you’ve become “the hamburger guy” in the public’s mind?
I’m that guy, I’m totally that guy, and will be that guy. I had a great conversation with Eric Schlosser about this, he wrote the book Fast Food Nation. He said, “The thing you need to realize is that you are going to be married with this forever.” He said it’s kind of like a wife: you may get divorced, but people are still going associate you with this “X” thing you did. But for me, it’s not a bad thing because I’m proud of the movie. The movie did a really great job of helping to educate some people and look at their own lives differently. For a few more years, that’s what I’ll be associated with. But at least now there are other things happening. There’s the show we’re doing for FX, there’s the book that came out a month ago that gave me a little bit more closure to my fast food odyssey. And as we go on there may be something else. Maybe next thing I’ll be “that pizza guy” or “that Coke guy” or “that Wal-Mart guy.”
What’s the main idea behind your new show, 30 Days?
The basic premise of the show enables someone to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—see the world through someone else’s eyes. And the goal for us was to make you kind of look at this world around you—a lot of the time, we walk through with blinders on and don’t pay attention. What we do is take someone out of their life and we immerse them in another situation, something that is opposite to their own very, very different environment. The person isn’t surrounded by the safety net, the friends, the comfort zones that they had before. Suddenly, they’re very vulnerable. And these people are brave enough to make themselves vulnerable, which is really admirable in many ways, very courageous. And so over this period of time, you see breaking points. You see them start to question the ideologies that they had, the way they look at the world, the way they think. Do they jump to conclusions? Are they judgmental? Do I need to evaluate the way I looked at this situation before I got here?
What particular episode really illustrates the concept?
First, God bless FX for even putting a show like this on the air—you know, for saying we want a show that deals with social issues. And like Super Size Me, the show is very funny, very entertaining, but has a serious bent to it at the same time. In one episode we took a Christian from my home state of West Virginia and for 30 days he moved into a Muslim family in Dearborn, Michigan. During that time he lived the life of a Muslim: dressed like a Muslim, ate as a Muslim, prayed five times a day, just as Muslims do in their culture, and really became immersed in this American Muslim culture. It’s not like these are people who just got off the boat to America; these people are American-born Muslim citizens of the United States who, in a post-9/11 world, have been treated very differently and are judged in a lot of ways. They are seen as “threats to our freedom” simply because their color and their race and religion. It was an amazing journey for this guy David Stacy to go through. I think the show really does a great job of saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
How did you develop the different scenarios for each episode? What process did you go through to say “hey, let’s go with that one?”
Well first you go in with a long list, and the network says, “That’s never happening.” Then you come back with another list. I’m working with some great producers on this show, R.J. Cutler who produced the movie The War Room, which I think is one of the greatest election movies that’s ever been made, and a guy named Ben Silverman who is the king of format television. This guy has bought and sold shows all around the world. And to have these two guys who know television so well come in and help this vision of mine was very helpful.
From the beginning we knew what the network would and wouldn’t go for. So what we kind of went in with as our "A" list was pretty much what stuck around. Then you have to start trimming and cutting based on time and money. What can we realistically get on the air in four or five months? The timeframe to make the show was so fast. They green-lit the show in around December, so we were in pre-production. As soon as we were done at the Academy Awards, Alex and I went off to Columbus, Ohio where we were doing the first episode, “Living on Minimum Wage.” March 1, we started shooting the series, and then three months later we were on the air. And that’s a lot to accomplish in three months. Especially on our 30-day shooting schedule; we were averaging 150 hours per show, which is an immense around of footage to cut down to 44 minutes. Basically, we’re making movies, every week.
Going from 150 hours to 44 minutes—there’s a lot of good stuff that’s left over that can’t go in there. I remember when I first met with the network, I said, “Why don’t we make it a 90-minute show?” “NO ONE’S MAKING 90-MINUTE SHOWS!” The one thing that will be exciting and a lot of people are excited about are the DVDs. Teachers have taped the episodes and are showing them in their classrooms now. I think it’ll be awesome when the DVDs come out. That’s one of the things we did with Super-Size Me: We created an educationally enhanced version that was re-edited for schools, which had additional supplemental material, had lesson plans so the teachers could use it in a classroom curriculum. So, hopefully we can do the same with the series.
Most reality television deals with the surreal as opposed to reality…
Surreal Life was a show I could not turn away from when Mini-Me was on. I watched the first episode and could not stop watching for some reason. When Mini-Me was naked and peeing in the corner, I was like, “That’s television!”
Do you think audiences can develop an appetite for “real” reality shows like this?
I think we have been so weaned not to want stuff like this that we don’t think it can be entertaining, that it can’t be funny. But what’s happened is that people who have seen 30 Days have seen differently. People went to see Super Size Me who had never gone to see a documentary in the theater in their life. I met theater owners in Texas and Alabama who had never shown a documentary in their theaters ever, in the history of their cinema. They said the movie was selling out. It was in a theater with Van Helsing and Troy in Texas. I said “Wow. Me, Hugh Jackman, and Brad Pitt. That’s pretty impressive.” My friend called me from that theater and said, “I just want to let you know that it’s a Friday night and your movie is sold-out, full of teenagers.” And that’s an incredible thing, that you can reach a new audience, a different audience. And I think 30 Days is starting to do that.
A lot of critics of "entertaining" documentaries charge that the filmmakers have skewed things in the editing room to heighten the drama or the humor. Have you ever felt that temptation?
I think that what the reality is that when you have to cut a show down from 150 hours, you’re going to have to cut stuff out. You’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, or it’ll be a mini-series and nobody will watch: The seven hour melodrama of 30 Days. It would actually be 30 days long. If you look at the sources of the lot of the criticism, they’re coming from fixed people who have very specific views of the corporate involvement. In Super Size Me, it was lobby groups. With the TV show, people who are speaking out against minimum wage were from business interests. People who were speaking out against the Muslim episode who were very right wing fundamentalist Christians, or of that ilk. So for me, a lot of the arguments were completely unfounded. One of the arguments that people make that I love about the show is that the documentary is SO subjective. They say that documentaries should be completely objective. You need to realize that the filmmaking process is subjective. From the minute you set up a camera, from the minute you point it in a certain direction, from the minute you get to the editing room and make a cut, put music in, it is a subjective process—creating an ebb and flow of emotion. For me, filmmaking is not just an observational experience, it’s an emotional experience. Same thing goes for television. The best shows are the ones that create an emotional experience for the viewer. You can’t do that just by setting up a camera and pointing it at something. Andy Warhol movies will show that. He had a movie that was an 18 hour film of a shot of a skyscraper.What was your goal with your new book, Don’t Eat This Book?
There is so much you can’t put in a film. Because it’s 90 minutes, no one would go see the four-hour Super Size Me epic. So you have to cut things out, automatically, to make it interesting to the viewer. There was so much more I wanted to expand on, from government influence to school lunch programs, to community. What individuals can do for themselves to take the reigns and say, “We’re going to change this.” So it was really important for me to dive into those issues, provide more information to those people, talk in greater detail about things we just started to scratch the surface on in the movie. I think the book is a great companion to the film to kind of pick up where it left off because the book answers a lot of questions that the movie wasn’t able to. Like, “Why did I make the film?” “What happened after the movie came out?” as well as a lot of other questions that continually arise from people.
Do you have any new plans or projects coming up?
We’ve got a show that we’re getting ready to go back to New York to do with Comedy Central, a show called Public Nuisance, which I’m really excited about. We’re ready to go back and shoot a special for them and then they’ll decide whether to pick it up. For now I’ve been living in complete 30 Days land. I’m so proud of 30 Days, and I hope FX brings it back.
How hard is it to pitch a socially-aware project to a large media corporation that’s supported by advertising?
Yeah: “Here’s a show about DRINKING. Your sponsors are going to LOVE it.” I’m a big subscriber to the Mary Poppins school of filmmaking, which is “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” You have to make it fun, got to make it exciting. You don’t say, “We’re going to make a documentary about this…” You say, “We’re going to make this fun show about X, Y, and Z.” And for me, if you keep it fun and entertaining, it’s not hard to sell something that’s fun and entertaining. It’s not hard to engage a viewer and to get an audience. But the minute it’s not, then you start having problems. For me and for my company, the goal is to always keep it funny.
What kinds of responses do you get from these companies when you pitch your ideas?
Well, when we first started pitching 30 Days, we met with all the networks before FX picked it up, and that’s why I say kudos to these guys for saying it’s important and needed. The networks all looked at us like we had three heads while we were pitching this show. One network executive said, “So hold on a second… who wins this show?” I said, “Well you do, the viewer, every week by watching.” He said, “Well, it was nice meeting you.” And that was that. Especially for a network that is so dependent upon sponsor revenue, on ad revenue, it’s hard. Super Size Me will never show on any of the big four, ever. It will never play on commercial television. It played on commercial television in the UK, it played on commercial television all around the world, but in the United States, the corporations are so beholden to sponsors that it won’t happen. But there are plenty of other things I can make.