For the past four years, Morgan Spurlock has been best known as the handlebar moustache-sporting face that puffed up in the interest of proving fast food isn’t good for you. Now, with his latest film, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, he is the guy who rode a camel in the hopes of finding public enemy number one. He’s also the guy who put himself in jail for 30 days for his television show, appropriately titled 30 Days. For the show, he also worked for and lived on minimum wage and toiled in a coal mine in his hometown in West Virginia. He’s more than just a documentary filmmaker and factual television producer, he’s the personality of his own programs, which means they rely not only on his skills as a director, but also on his ability to get the audience to trust him.
Like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield before him, Spurlock is the face of his own documentaries. In the cases of Moore and Broomfield, being front and center has left them much more open to criticism than most directors. There is even a documentary called Manufacturing Dissent about the alleged errors and omissions in Moore’s films. Spurlock also has his share of detractors. After the 2004 release of Super Size Me, Radley Balko, a writer for Fox News, created a blog called ‘Morgan Spurlock Watch’ dedicated to criticizing Spurlock’s take on McDonald’s. So why put yourself out there as the face of your documentaries when you can hide behind the lens?
When Spurlock graduated from New York University in 1993 with a BFA in film, he was attracted to documentary filmmaking because he’s a fan of movies and books that put the creator directly in the experience. He cites Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a book about the author’s attempt to live on minimum wage to see how millions of Americans exist, as an influence. His FX series 30 Days is a prime example of his affinity for immersion filmmaking. For Spurlock, working on episodes not only opens his eyes to what it’s like to live under different circumstances, it also gives him a better appreciation of aspects of his life he normally takes for granted. ‘You suddenly wake up and that’s what your life is,’ he says of the experiences he’s had through the show. ‘You will go through some real epiphanies over the course of that time.’
Working on Super Size Me, his decision to be the main subject of the film came not only because he wanted to experience everything firsthand, but mostly because he didn’t trust anyone else to undergo the experiment. ‘When that person went home at night and I wasn’t around with the camera, how did I know they weren’t going to go get a steak or eat a salad or have some carrots?’ he questions. His distrust combined with his desire to be true to the idea of the film forced him into the spotlight. He gained 25 pounds on his McDonald’s diet and took a little over a year to work it off, all in the name of documentary filmmaking. When asked about his strategy as a filmmaker, Spurlock’s answer is very much in keeping with the reasons he immerses himself in the subjectmatter of his films: ‘My biggest strategy is to always be honest with myself, I think that’s a key thing for a documentary filmmaker,’ he says. ‘So long as I can be honest with me, then I can be honest with you.’
One thing he doesn’t hesitate to be honest about is his opinion on the current state of the documentary film landscape. After attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Spurlock thinks there is a shake-up happening in the doc world. So few docs were bought at Sundance this year, he thinks distributors are questioning how profitable they can be in theaters. Moore’s Sicko made approximately $25 million at the box office while the next highest-grossing (non-large format) doc in 2007, No End in Sight, only made around $1.5 million.
Moore’s idea to reserve one theater in each multiplex for a documentary is an appealing idea to Spurlock, but he also has higher hopes for the small screen. ‘A lot of people will hate me for saying this or disagree with me, but I think reality television has helped documentary forms,’ he says. ‘I think it’s turned people on to the idea that, wow, real people are interesting.’ Because he sees a larger acceptance for docs amongst the general public, Spurlock hopes documentary programs will gain a larger television presence beyond HBO in the United States. ‘If you go overseas to London, the BBC, Channel 4, all of these mainstream, popular networks have doc programming in primetime and none of that’s on the big four networks in the United States,’ he says.
His desire to find a home for important documentaries led Spurlock to partner with Joe Amodei – whose company Hart Sharp Video released Super Size Me on DVD – to create a video line entitled Morgan Spurlock Presents… to help release movies that were otherwise not getting a chance. ‘We were really trying to find documentaries we thought were important and that people need to see,’ says Spurlock. Yet amongst the list of docs they got behind (including The Future of Food and Confessions of a Superhero), there was a drama that caught their attention. ‘Chalk was a narrative that was shot like a mockumentary that I just fell in love with,’ he says. ‘It was one of those movies that people passed up and it won award after award at film festivals.’
While making his most recent film, which is now in theaters, Spurlock insists that he believed he was going to find Bin Laden. ‘As pie in the sky as that may be, you kind of have to keep that notion alive. You have to be an optimist,’ he says. As much as that may be hard to believe, he makes a good point that people don’t enter the lottery thinking they’re going to lose, so this was much the same thing.
As the film progressed and Spurlock spoke to more people in different countries about why some believe in Bin Laden and others don’t support him, he started to get a different picture in his head of where the movie was going. And, in the end, not finding Bin Laden wasn’t discouraging. In fact, it took Spurlock back to something a fellow documentary filmmaker told him when he was preparing to make Super Size Me. At the time he was asking around for advice, seeing that he was working on his first feature-length documentary. Though he can’t remember who said it, one piece of advice stuck with him and rang true through his experiences working on all his films. ‘They said, ‘If you end up with the same movie at the end that you envisioned when you started, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way,” he remembers. ‘I think that’s such a fantastic way to look at filmmaking, especially doc filmmaking, which is very organic.’
Morgan Spurlock’s favorite docs of all time
In no particular order, here’s the list of the docs that inspired Spurlock to get into documentary filmmaking:
Brothers Keeper by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger
Hoop Dreams by Steve James
The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris
Roger and Me by Michael Moore
Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple
Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese