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"A CONVERSATION WITH..."
 


 MORGAN SPURLOCK

Documentary Filmmaker

"Supersize Me"

 

By Liisa Kyle


 


In the documentary film world, Morgan Spurlock is a phenomenon. Having made his breakout doc Supersize Me in record time, he triumphed at Sundance, landed an unheard of theatrical distribution deal and won an Oscar nomination as well as such widespread appeal that he started popping up on talk shows and VH1 specials. More impressive: his film has been cited in contributing to corporate behemoth McDonald’s loss in marketshare.

Never mind that he was rejected by USC film school five times or that he was homeless at one point in his pre-documentary life. Spurlock's indefatigable spirit and wit have seen him graduate NYU film school, craft a cultural milestone and win respect and accolades from the industry.

It was my pleasure to speak with Morgan Spurlock at the historic Roosevelt Hotel on the very evening that he won the WGA Award for Best Documentary Screenplay.

ITL:   Congratulations on everything.

MS:   Thanks very much. This whole year has been such a whirlwind! It's incredible.


Morgan Spurlock and girlfriend, Alexandra Jamieson
Photo: Eric Borduas (c) 2005 Hgen

ITL:   You're looking good.

MS:   Yeah, my girlfriend [Alexandra Jamieson] did a great job of cleaning me out, getting me back in shape.

ITL:   Lucky you.

MS:   Lucky me.

ITL:   Are you also doing non-doc films?

MS:   I've wanted to do fiction films for a long, long time. And actually, we were leaning towards doing fiction films before SuperSize Me, when I got the idea for this movie.

The idea of doing a film…of going off and saying, "alright, we'll start shooting here and then be done here" is very intriguing to me – knowing that I'll be done in X amount of time. Whereas all the docs we have in development now that we're thinking of doing are very big productions and are going to take a long time.

This movie [Super Size Me] was done so fast. It was done in a year, which is unheard of for documentaries to be done that quickly. And so the ones we're working on now aren't quite as, you know, spontaneous.

ITL:   What kind of documentary subjects are drawing you to them?

MS:   Issues that I think are very important for America – things we need to deal with.

ITL:   Besides the time frame, what are the unique challenges of documentary filmmaking, as opposed to fiction filmmaking.

MS:   For me, it's something personal to me. It needs to be something I'm passionate about. And I think that's important for any film. It should be something that really speaks to you. Films that I like are the ones that really resonate with me on a personal level and the ones that are worth looking at are the ones that I have a very strong feeling about. A visceral response comes up the minute I start thinking about talking about it. That's the key. Something you're going to devote two years of your life to? You better like it. You better love it. You better eat, drink, breathe and sleep it. And SuperSize Me really grew into that, for me, along the way. It started off -- I thought I'd make a movie about fast food issues that, for me, really took over my being and my purpose in what film to me. And I think it's great when films do that.

ITL: So how do you distance yourself? How do you keep your life? How do you keep your balance when you're in the middle of filming?

MS: Luckily, for me, it's having a great girlfriend. God! Alex was a grounding force and still is a grounding force in my life. For me to be able to take a step back and know that I have somebody I can talk to and I won't have to talk about the film and I can have closure for a little while? I mean, she's an anchor for me and I think we all need somebody or something that allows an escape. 'Cause even when I'm away, I mean especially when you're making a film, your mind is thinking about the edits or the story or the writing or a new tangent you explore but, I mean, she's very good about letting me get away and helping me not think about things.

ITL:   Would you like to talk a little bit about the writing process?

MS:   We didn't write any of the film before we got in the edit room. For me, we shot 250 hours of footage, so you're in the process of trying to find the movie in the edit room. Luckily, we had a skeleton on which to base the film which was my diet, my thirty day diet, so had this very raw skeleton on which we had to build the meat of the story. You know, to put the muscles that really put the story together. And the fat.

ITL:   No pun intended.

MS:   Yeah no pun intended. The fat and the muscle. Hopefully it was somewhat lean. You know, we wanted it to be a lean movie, not so much fat, but there was some fat in there. So the goal was to create a cohesive storyline that would take us from A to Z along my thirty day story.

And, of course, along the way, there are things you love that you have to cut out of the film. One of my favourite scenes was the scene where we went to an Overeaters’ Anonymous meeting. This scene is on the DVD and it’s so heart-rending to hear these people who have food addiction – who have serious physical mental emotional food addiction -- and to hear them talk about how they deal with it in this environment with other people who share their problems, was something I felt people really needed to hear…but every time we watched a cut of the movie with it in there, the brakes just got slammed on. The movie goes so fast -- it's a very fast-paced film.

ITL:   It takes the focus off you.

MS:   It takes the focus off our key story points. And there's a lot of things we had to take out that [I wish we could have kept in]. The key for me in writing a great story is having a great editor. And I had great editors. I was blessed to have these two wonderful women [Stela Georgeiva and Julie Bob


HGEN's Liisa Kyle and Morgan Spurlock at the 2005 WGA Awards Photo: Eric Borduas (c) 2005 Hgen

Lombardi] who cut my film. And all along the way, we would have story conferences about how things were developing and I would go write the text and I would record it into a digital camera. Like, I would point the camera at my face [and read the narration] so we have all this great footage of my chin, you know, as we recorded the voice over, which we would then cut in and we would edit the scratch track and then we'd watch it and say, “No, this isn't playing. Let's change this, this, and this” –- and we'd go back and we'd rewrite it again. So for me, it's not only having another set of eyes in the edit room -- because I was falling in love with my footage -- so I needed another set of eyes to say “No. We need to cut here, here, and here.”

ITL:   When I talked with [Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker] Kirby Dick, he talked about using focus groups.

MS:   We had two screenings. This was before we ever got into Sundance. So once we got into Sundance, we never had another tech screening again. Because after the second tech screening, the movie was pretty tight. We were at about 105 minutes, so we cut out seven minutes and when we got into Sundance we were at 98 minutes.

ITL:   I also wanted to congratulate you on the DVD because I loved the extra footage and especially your interview with the author of Fast Food Nation.

MS:   Oh, with Eric Schlosser. How great was that?!

ITL:   It was wonderful. When I finished watching it and I called every person I knew who has a child and said, "You have to get this DVD and you have to watch it and the special features!"

MS: