Chewing the Fat with “Super Size Me” Director Morgan Spurlock
by Andrea Meyer
By now, everyone knows about “Super Size Me.” Even before the sassy doc about obesity in America got to Sundance, the industry was buzzing in anticipation. When it made its way onto the screens of Park City, audiences were pleased to discover that Morgan Spurlock‘s debut film was as funny and compelling as the hype had led them to expect. All screenings sold out. Press screenings were added. Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films bought the distribution rights. And then, to top it off, Spurlock won Sundance’s award for best documentary director.
It was a dream trip to Sundance, but for Spurlock, the fun had just begun. Now the doc’s charming director and star — who ate nothing but Big Macs, McNuggets, and the rest of Micky D’s fattening repertoire for 30 days straight, for the sake of his film — is doing the dance with Hollywood. The guy who’s finally taken off most of the 25 pounds he gained in production and gotten his soaring cholesterol back to normal, is being wooed and romanced and asked what he wants to do next.
Even with his head spinning, though, Spurlock had the presence of mind to get more than a bit psyched when McDonald’s announced on March 2 that they’re phasing out their super-sized drinks and fries. The mega-fast-food-monster swears the decision had nothing to do with that silly little documentary, but Spurlock knows better. And now the company is touting adult happy meals served with water and pedometers.
The director of “Super Size Me” ate veggie burgers with Andrea Meyer, while chatting about corporate responsibility, the Michael Moore approach, and happy endings. The film opens today in select markets.
indieWIRE: What came first: the idea to make a movie about obesity in America or an experiment where you eat only food from McDonald’s for a month?
Morgan Spurlock: They both came at the same time. We’d been wanting to make a feature film for awhile at our production company, The Con. I’d written a play in 1999, “The Phoenix,” that won the Fringe Festival. I’d finished the adaptation and was leaning towards doing that as our first feature, but I wasn’t really happy with the draft that we had. So, I was in West Virginia on my mother’s couch, Thanksgiving 2002, and we’re watching the news. I’m all Thanksgiving’ed out, stuffed like a turkey, and feeling all full and good on the couch with [my girlfriend] Alex, and a news story came on about the obesity epidemic in America. They’re talking about the two girls who were suing McDonald’s and about how McDonald’s food caused them to get sick, how it’s the food that caused them to gain the weight. Someone from the food industry comes [on the news] and says, “These lawsuits are ridiculous. These girls can’t link our food to making them obese or making them sick. Our food’s healthy. It’s nutritious. It’s good for you.” I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t remember exactly what they said, but something along those lines. They actually said it was good for you, and I was like, you guys are getting a little ahead of yourself. So, then I got the idea for the movie.
iW: Before making this movie, you weren’t really a doc person.
Spurlock: I’m a playwright, a writer. I’ve done commercials and videos. My background wasn’t production to begin with. I love writing, so I didn’t come into this to make a doc. I just came into it to make a movie. I was ready to make a movie. It was very affordable for us. We traveled a lot.
iW: How did you make the decision to travel throughout the film?
Spurlock: Once I started diving in and doing a lot of research online and in books, it steered me on the path of who I needed to interview. We flew to California and talked to some people there. We flew to Texas and met with some people there. It just kind of started to make sense. We traveled long after the 30-day diet was done, because we couldn’t get a lot of the people right away, like the former Surgeon General, David Satcher. We had so many passionate, knowledgeable people to take part in the movie, with the exception of McDonald’s. They would never talk to us. They’d make statements. They issued a statement a few weeks ago: “Though we have yet to see the movie, from everything we’ve heard, we give the movie two thumbs down.” It was great. Then they went on to say this movie isn’t about choice. It’s about one filmmaker’s irresponsibility. They said I was irresponsible. They said, “This is one guy gorging himself and compulsively overeating.”
iW: Any chance that McDonald’s will try to interfere with the release?
Spurlock: I don’t think they’ll interfere. I think that would be the worst thing they could do. They have their spin doctors. They have a whole army of people over there who spin bad PR into flowers and roses. The worst idea suddenly becomes a Happy Meal. Would they want to bring attention to this little filmmaker who made this movie? They’re saying, “We have healthy options.” I hope this lights the fuse to make those things happen even faster, so they really say, “We have to roll out all these healthy options. We need to do this, this, this and this now.” They’re getting ready to put out their adult happy meal, which comes with a pedometer and water and I don’t know what kind of burger. These are all steps in the right direction, but can they do more? Absolutely.
iW: I thought it was depressing when you said in the film that some of their salads have more fat than a Big Mac.
Spurlock: Once you put the dressing on the grilled chicken salad [it does]. You know, I have to say, people are like, “You can’t blame McDonald’s.” I’m blaming the issue, and McDonald’s is iconic of the issue. The issue is fast convenience food. The issue is fast food culture that has influenced our everyday life, and I’m not just talking about outlets you go out to eat to. I’m also talking in schools and in our homes. This whole environment has influenced every bit of our culture and it’s all stemmed from these restaurants. You know, “I do deserve a break today. I don’t need to cook. I need to take my kids out, ’cause I’m busy, I’m tired.” They have helped fuel this culture. They are the ever-pervasive icon, and if anybody is going to institute change quickest, it’s going to be someone like that, because they are a leader, and since they are such a leader, everyone will follow. It’s a business of lemmings and everyone will be like, “They’re getting rid of their supersize option? We’re getting rid of our supersize option, too. We’re healthy too.” There’s the idea of responsibility that they don’t want to take on. They want to pawn everything off, but there is corporate responsibility and that’s something I tried to address in the movies.
iW: I’m sure people are comparing you to Michael Moore.
Spurlock: It’s a great comparison. It’s like, “Wow, first time out of the gate and they’re not saying I’m like Carrot Top. They’re saying I’m actually doing all right. Michael Moore is a great filmmaker. He’s definitely an inspiration for me. I think that I come at it from a different angle than Michael Moore. I think we both use humor in our films. I think my style and his style are a little different. A lot of people wanted us to storm the McDonald’s, to go in and demand answers, and that really wasn’t my style. People who wanted to talk to us talked to us and if you don’t want to, that’s fine. It’s your prerogative, and we’ll make it known who didn’t want to talk to us.
iW: An obvious common point is that both of you put yourselves into your films.
Spurlock: I toyed with the idea of getting someone else to do it and that way I could just focus on the filmmaking, but my concern was how do I know when I’m not around this person, that this person is not going to be eating other stuff? You know, it had to somebody who was as invested in this as I was.
iW: He’d be shooting wheatgrass on the sly.
Spurlock: Right. “He’s not looking, give me a carrot.” So nobody was more invested than me. I had to make the sacrifice to do it, but yeah, I think that for me another reason to do that was “show, don’t tell” is something I believe in, and that’s what movies do, so I think by them seeing what I was going through and what I would go through over the course of this diet, it would have a greater impact than just talking about it.
iW: What was the film’s reception at Sundance like?
Spurlock: It was so exciting. You work so hard in a little dark room. You don’t know what anybody’s going to think and then you get into Sundance. That was the greatest thing ever. I was in Oregon with my girlfriend for Thanksgiving when I got the phone call saying, “Congratulations on getting accepted to the Sundance film festival.” I’m like, “Yeah! We got accepted to Sundance!” And I’m crying and we’re listening to the message again and we’re screaming in the car. Just that, you feel gratification, all the hard work has paid off, we’re in. And then you go there, and our film was coming in with so much hype already. It’s on the front page of the Park Record and there’s a cartoon that was in the Park Record like two weeks before about what a joke it is to get tickets to “Super Size Me,” how it’s impossible. There was a cartoon of the Mars Rover that was on Mars and this Martian comes up and says, “Hey buddy, I can take you around, show you some really cool rocks and stuff if you can get me tickets to ‘Super Size Me’ at Sundance.” You see that and you’re like, “Oh my God,” and this is happening before we even get there, and you’re biting your nails and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Are people going to be completely disappointed by this? And the movie opened and everybody who came loved it. The critics loved it and, for me it was like, “Wow.” I got to meet Bob Redford, which was fantastic, and he said he liked the movie so I was like, “Oh my God, I can go home right now. I’m done, I can leave! “And then to walk away from the awards ceremony winning best director was the icing on eight cakes. We’d gone through so much already. By that point it was so overwhelming. We sold the movie at Sundance for theatrical and cable. I got both deals at Sundance.
iW: Now what?
Spurlock: I just got back from L.A. coming off of the fervor of meeting with people, with producers and studios, people who are like, “We love your movie, we want to do something. Do you have anything you want to bring to us? We have things we’d love to give you.” For me, as much as it’s a doc, it’s a comedy. It’s a black comedy. It’s definitely a very dark subject, but it’s a comedy. The next goal would be to make the crossover and make a scripted comedy. The scripts I was working on before this have all been pushed to a back burner and I need to go back and start to revisit them. It will be in theaters through the summer, so I definitely have some time before I start starving. I want to take the time to go out and get it out there. We’ve already been talking to colleges about doing a lecture course. I’d love to go to colleges and high school and share with some kids some health knowledge, some nutrition knowledge, which a lot of these kids don’t get now. It is an educational tool. We need to find a video company who will stand behind that.
iW: No matter what you do next, this will always be your baby, because you lived through it.
Spurlock: I did live through it. In the first cut, I die, but that didn’t test very well, so we re-cut it. People like it a lot better now. It’s a little more uplifting.
[Check out Morgan Spurlock’s blog here at indieWIRE: http://blogs.indiewire.com/morganspurlock]