“Did you find Osama bin Laden?,” began a conversation with director Morgan Spurlock on Sunday at SXSW moderated by indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez. indieWIRE’s inquiry referred to Spurlock’s secretive new film, tentatively titled “Where in the World…“, which was recently acquired at the EFM in Berlin in a multi-million deal with The Weinstein Company. “We’ll have to wait until the movie’s finished to see,” responded Spurlock who said that he would not reveal too much about his new documentary quite yet, but added, “It’s about the state of the world right now. I hope that like ‘Super Size Me‘ it will make people question the choices we make, and maybe the film will help us start to think of the world beyond our borders more then we do now.” Spurlock added that despite an intial goal to finish the film in time for the Cannes Film Festival, he is now aiming for a Fall completion date.
Sporting a bushy beard that helps him blend in a bit when shooting in places like the Middle East, Spurlock is at the SXSW Film Festival with “What Would Jesus Buy,” a new doc that he produced — directed by Rob VanAlkemade — that debuted last night at an overflow Paramount Theater screening. On Sunday, Spurlock participated in an hour-long discussion in rainy Austin and during the chat, billed by SXSW as a “conversation with Spurlock [who has made] his mark on the creative world by trying to make a difference,” the filmmaker added that like “Super Size Me,” he will again appear on camera in the new film.
“It’s very comic in tone, but also has serious at moments,” Spurlock said of his new movie. “We’re hoping to infuse with the Mary Poppins method — ‘a spoon full of sugar’ before we punch you in the face.” Spurlock’s gathered more than 800 hours of footage (with more to come) and has a team of some two dozen people working with him in New York to make the anticipated new film.
In “What Would Jesus Buy,” a film that was two-and-a-half years in the making, rampant consumerism takes center stage. The movie was inspired by the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, whose mission is to rescue the world from the “Shopocalypse.” The film offers a portrait of Rev. Billy and pre-holiday gospel tour to spread his message. Along the way, the film also take a closer look at how consumerism has gripped the nation.
“I’d heard of Reverend Billy for years,” said Spurlock, explaining what drew him to the project. “I lived in [New York’s] East Village for years, [and] he’s like this one lone voice in the middle of this corporate world.” The comical doc, which is debuting in Austin as it seeks distribution, fits in with Spurlock’s ideas about using humor to tackle serious subject matter; the film’s promotional poster includes an image of Mickey Mouse crucified to an American Express card) and it skewers the crescendo of consumption, Christmas. “We wanted to turn it into a Christmas film,” laughed Spurlock, about the project which had its roots in a short VanAlkemade made about Rev. Billy, called “Preacher with an Unknown God” screened last year at Sundance.
Beyond his film projects, Spurlock revealed that his FX television show “30 Days,” loosely based on the concept of “Super Size Me,” has been renewed for a third season and that he and his wife Alex, who have appeared in the series of the show, recently welcomed their first baby. He also gave his filmmaking advice to the crowd, which included a large helping of aspiring filmmakers.
“The key to making a movie [is] having the time to invest in it… We made ‘Super Size Me’ for $65,000 at the end of the day… Everyone worked for free. I called everyone I knew and their brother to work on it…” Continuing he added, “People like to sell movies and win Academy Awards before they even make them. There are others out there who have the same passion as you do… If you can let your passion carry over with you, and they know [the film] is going to get done… you can find people who will always want to work with you.” [Brian Brooks]
Dissecting Michael Moore
Another provocative filmmaker in focus at SXSW is director Michael Moore, subject of the rather unflattering portrait “Manufacturing Dissent,” which arrived here in Austin on Saturday night amidst a flurry of recent national attention from a New York Times profile. In the film, by Canadian television producers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, Moore is portrayed as a deceptive and manipulative filmmaker who continually evaded the CityTV crew’s attempts to shoot a portrait of him.
An informal poll preceded the debut screening of “Manufacturing Dissent” on Saturday night, with University of Texas film professor and former film rep John Pierson asking the audience how many people hate, and then how many people love, director Michael Moore. An equal amount of applause greeted both questions with Pierson then asking the large crowd at the Paramount Theater if they could watch the film with an open mind. Greeted by a larger ovation, Pierson told the audience, “Debbie and Mike made this film for you, you be the jury.”
An insider who brokered the Warner Bros. deal for Moore’s “Roger & Me” back in 1989, Pierson and students from his UT producing class have been working with the filmmakers to publicize the new movie during its world premiere here at SXSW.
In a movie that will no doubt embolden Moore’s enemies, Melnyk and Caine challenges aspects of “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” and re-visits forgotten claims that Michael Moore conducted a one-on-one interview with General Motors chief Roger Smith in the film with the central premise of CEO evading a sit-down interview, deciding to exclude the footage to suit his own story needs. It also adds that Moore falsely reported and faked other sequences in the movie.
Melnyk and Caine track Moore on his Slacker Uprising tour preceding the 2006 Presidential election, in scenes reminiscient of “Roger & Me.” Despite the attempt by Moore staffers and family to stop the Canadian filmmakers, they push on, even interviewing apparent friends of the director who characterize him in rather unflattering terms.
Admitting that they had at first intended to make a “straightforward biography” of Michael Moore, Melnyk said that when that wasn’t possible, they resorted to “plan B,” depicting the difficult process they faced in trying to report on the filmmaker.”
“When you show the process,” Melnyk said, “You can get to a greater truth.”
What we are trying to say (is), dont necessarily believe all the hype,” Melnyk added, urging the audience to go out an make their own decisions.
Viewers have been buzzing about the movie at the festival and chatting with indieWIRE immediately after the showing, Pierson shared a few thoughts about “Manufacturing Dissent,” saying, “I think its an important film, but I didn’t know that until I shouwed it to the students in this class.” He explained that the reaction from his students showed him that the documentary was likely to strike a chord. Some students were angry and outraged, according to Pierson (who has been challenged by anonymous fliers criticizing his involvement with the film).
Explaining that “Roger & Me” is a film he has spent “a lifetime defending,” Pierson said Saturday that the “flashpoint” of “Manufacturing Dissent” is the question, “Did you or did you not actually interview Roger Smith?”
“I am absolutely sure at this point, based on the evidence presented here, that he did and that’s really unfortunate.” Pierson concluded, “Its the foundation of his entire career and it made for a better film, make no mistake about that. If he talks to Roger Smith in ‘Roger & Me’ its not as good a film. But, its hard to go through 18 years swearing that you didnt.”
iW Video Link: John Pierson talks with indieWIRE about filmmaker Michael Moore and the new doc about Moore, “Manufacturing Dissent.” Film professor and former film rep John Pierson discusses Moore, “Roger & Me” and “Manufacturing Dissent.”
Journalism has also been a hot topic at SXSW, particularly at the large Internative Conference running concurrently with the film festival events taking place here in Austin. At the conference on Monday, veteran newsman Dan Rather participated in the keynote conversation, offering candid insights on the state of news today.
Saying that American journalism has lost its way, Rather said frankly, “What we need in journalism is a spine transplant.” He explained that in an effort to maintain access, reporters play the “go along to get along” game, comprising their standards. He said that in an effort to develop sources, journalists can lose their independence and, fearful of losing access, become a part of the system they are expected to look at independently. “A great deal of the time, the repoprter is using the source and the source is using the reporter,” Rather explained, adding “The reporter begins to feel a part of the inisde and part of the establishment.”
“Those of us in journalism, including myself, have to re-think the whole busines of relationship to sources, it is clear that you are only as good as your sources, but if you have a wide and deep reserve of source it is impossiobte for any source to seal you out.”
Explaining that as a journalist, his role is to be a “check and balance to power,” Rather added, “A watch dog is not an attack dog. An attack dog goes for the throat, a lap dog crawls up on lap…but the watch dog barks at everything that’s suspicious.” And concluding the thought, Rather added, “Not that they will always be right, but they will always be barking.” [Eugene Hernandez]
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