TIFF’16: Morgan Spurlock bends genre with horror doc “Rats”

The Oscar-nominated director talks to realscreen about making his rodent-infested film, the deliberate move to secure a midnight screening and his new take on the documentary format.
September 16, 2016

Rats did’t have a typical documentary festival screening. But, then, the film isn’t your typical documentary.

Academy Award-nominated director and producer Morgan Spurlock‘s latest picture premiered at the festival on Sept. 13 during a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Midnight Madness screening to a raucous, rat-nose-wearing (thanks to some TIFF swag) audience of horror enthusiasts.

The late-night screening was an unusual time slot for a doc premiere at TIFF. Rats is only the eighth documentary ever to debut at Midnight Madness throughout the festival’s 40-year history.

Colin Geddes, TIFF’s Midnight Madness programmer, kicked the night off. He revved the audience up pre-screening to more of a rock-show than doc-show vibe. With a story about a handlebar moustache he once had, Geddes introduced Spurlock who, energetic and affable as ever, and with his own handlebar ‘stache safely intact, hopped on stage to take a group selfie and introduce his film. Then the screening started, as did fervent chanting which reverberated throughout the Ryerson Theatre: “RATS! RATS! RATS!”

Rats is a genre-bending film, billed as a horror documentary. A copro between Spurlock’s Warrior Poets, Submarine Deluxe and Discovery Channel, it’s based on the New York Times bestselling book Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan. But it also brings a zombie-flick feel to the exploration of the lives of humankind’s most pesky pest: it pokes cameras into rats nests; explores New York rat havens, including parks, subways, sewers and street garbage; ventures to Vietnam and Cambodia, where a cottage industry that catches and sells rats as food flourishes; stalks the darkened streets of Mumbai with the city’s revered Night Rat Killers; takes to England where packs of terriers hunt, terrorize and tear apart their rodent prey; and offers a look inside a New Orleans lab that reveals all the scary, cringe-worthy and legitimately dangerous things that lurk within rats themselves.

The film was something of a passion project for Spurlock, who told realscreen he’d always wanted to make a horror film, inspired at a young age by the likes of David Cronenberg’s Scanners and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and more modern fare like 28 Days and World War Z. Those influences shine through, complete with tension-building visuals or lack thereof  (“so much about horror films are about what you don’t see,” says Spurlock), sinister sound design (there are moments where you can hear rats behind you in the theatre), and a Quint-like character in 70-year-old veteran exterminator Ed Sheehan, who shepherds viewers through the film’s every creepy phase.    

With Rats, the opportunity to finally fulfill his horror-film ambition was presented to Spurlock serendipitously. Submarine co-president and Rats executive producer Josh Braun approached him about making a documentary film after optioning the rights to Sullivan’s book. It’s fair to say that Spurlock took the rat and ran with it.

“If it was something else other than rats I don’t know if we would have done it, but because rats resonated with us so much we jumped at it,” Spurlock says, adding that, as resident New Yorkers, he and his long-time collaborator, Rats writer and co-producer Jeremy Chilnick, are quite familiar with the furry fiends.

“[The film] was inspired by the book, but we did have a lot of creative license to tell the kind of story we wanted to tell,” he says. “It’s going to make you uncomfortable. It might give you the heebie-jeebies, but, hopefully, at the end of the day, like a horror movie, it will be really entertaining.”

With Spurlock on-board to add unique spin to the story, Braun then took the project to John Hoffman, then newly appointed EVP documentaries and specials, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel, during a meet-up at Hot Docs. Hoffman agreed to bring Discovery in as the film’s majority funder and secured the U.S. distribution rights, immediately seeing the appeal in the doc’s spooky spin and in Spurlock himself.

“Really moving in a direction with Morgan and supporting him in his fun mission to create a new genre, the horror documentary, it’s great for us.” Hoffman tells realscreen. “Morgan has such a following with younger audiences and younger people. Every television network wants to attract a younger audience.”

With Discovery as a backer, the film moved into pre-production in January with the goal of a 10-month turnaround due both to the network’s plans to debut the doc on TV on Oct. 22 — in time for Halloween, and also giving Spurlock, Chilnick and Braun the opportunity to sell the film to TIFF as a Midnight Madness contender.

The goal from day one was not only to snare international distribution — sales for which are being repped by Submarine — but also to search for validation.

“Getting it into midnight madness validates it as a horror movie,” says Spurlock. “We wanted it to transcend what would be typical of a doc and just that seal of approval that Colin [Geddes] gave us was the beginning, because out of this we go to Fantastic Fest, Beyond Fest, Telluride Horror Fest.”

“It always seems that documentary gets lumped in one category and for us particularly, as filmmakers, I think we’re populists and we always strive to make our film as equal as a choice as any other movie you’re going to watch,” adds Chilnick.

Rats also opened the Camden International Festival on Sept. 15, albeit with an 8 p.m. showing. It’s further slated for exclusive midnight showings across the U.S. with Landmark Theatres on Sept. 23 and 24.

And if there’s one thing those audiences should be taking away from the film as it continues along the festival circuit, says Chilnick, it’s this: “If you see a large pile of trash, cross to the other side of the street.”

Rats screens again at TIFF on Sunday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET at Scotiabank Theatre.

Image courtesy of TIFF 


About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.