On Wednesday, the Republican National Debate on CNBC generated a lot of immediate news stories analyzing various candidates’ claims. While those stories were being cranked out, however, the production team at Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets was hard at work attempting a different approach: Entitled “Call Bullshit” — or “Call Bullsh#t” for the more conservative-minded — the web-based interactive film published Thursday allows users to watch the debate and click on a “bullshit” button after candidates make various statements. (Experience it above.) By clicking the button, users experience audio and video clips explaining factually misleading information.
A partnership between Warrior Poets and the interactive video production company Interlude, “Call Bullsh#t” was headed by Warrior Poets producer Jeremy Chilnick with oversight from Spurlock. On Thursday, still noticeably fatigued from a late night production, the two men spoke with Indiewire about the “Call Bullsh#t” concept and where they hope to take it next.
How did this idea take shape?
Morgan Spurlock: We had several conversations for a long time about creating interactive content, ways that people could not only watch and enjoy and be entertained, but at the same time, start to somehow steer the narrative in a way that makes it much more engaging for them. We started trying to figure out how do we something around the election and the debate and this idea came up. The guys at Interlude, who we worked with on this project, had some incredible technology. When we started talking with them about the idea about doing something around the debate, they just loved it and jumped at the chance of us working all night long to pull it together.
When did you start putting it together?
Jeremy Chilnick: It really came out of the last big Republican debate and the second Democratic debate. We thought, “Is is possible to have something that is interactive, reactionary, but gets content out in real time so it’s still viable, it still seems fresh?” And when you’re dealing with this kind of interactive storytelling, it feels immediate.
Did you already have a sense of your targets among the candidates?
JC: To an extent. As my father was fond to say, “You can tell they’re lying because their lips are moving.” So we had a pretty real sense that there would be plenty of bullshit to wade between, but you still have to watch the debate. You still have to cut the debate down in real time and create the content in time to get it out and create the storytelling platform.
MS: During the debate, Jeremy and his team were sitting in the writers’ room in real time watching it, taking notes and recording it — so they’d be able to go back and basically at that moment, start chaffing all of the bullshit and all the things that we were going to be calling people out on. So basically, the real production started at the beginning of the debate and was delivered this morning.
Is this start of an ongoing series during election season?
MS: I’ve already been emailed and reached out to on Facebook and via Twitter from people who are like, “I didn’t see Hillary or Bernie in this one,” so I think there is already a push for us to go into the Democratic debate with an equal amount of bullshit meter.
How did you map out the experiences users would have?
JC: This is what makes working with a company like Interlude so exciting. They’re a company that’s built from the ground up to have this interactive experience. It’s a perfect melding where we like making things that tell stories and are going to start conversations. Interlude has this amazing interactive platform that actually allows us to tell this type of story and create a totally different user experience. We were lucky that the debate was only two hours — the last time, the dry run of the debate was three hours. There’s so much content and you don’t want to overload the audience or the user with having too many options. You still want to see concise storytelling, but you want people to stick around and interact with all the different candidates.
What’s the next stage of this approach? Real time responses?
MS: I think you could do it in real time with just information, but there would still be a little bit of a delay to bring the information up. You wouldn’t have the production value that this has or the ability to pull clips or things like that. But I feel like the actual delay makes the experience richer for people because there’s so much more content experience that comes out of that. But I think there is the ability to do things in real time. I just think it will be a different experience.
Morgan, you’ve been making movies for over a decade. It’s telling that you do the on-camera introduction to “Call Bullshit.” Do you ever feel nervous that you have to evolve because people don’t watch traditional documentaries the way they used to?
MS: My first company was a web company that I started back in 2000. I feel like I was ahead of the curve before there was a curve. Now, there are stories that are meant to be told in movie theaters, stories that are meant to be told in television, stories that are great for the web and there are great waves like this where you can create interactive content. Right now, technology enables you to do so many more types of things — to engage people in different ways, to get them talking, to get them to actually interact with it. For me, we are platform agnostic, and we’ve been that way for a very long time. I think that the more we can continue to push those boundaries of storytelling in a way that engages audiences differently is exciting to us. That’s a big goal for us all the time.
Is there a way to monetize something like “Call Bullshit”?
MS: I think so. We live in a world that’s full of bullshit, so I feel like this approach can be applied to so many other things. As the first ones out of the gate, I feel like this is a great place to start, but I could see the “Call Bullshit” home version coming anytime soon. [laughs]
But right now, there’s no obvious business model — no advertisements, for example. So you guys just did this as an experiment?
MS: Right now, this isn’t about making money. This was one of those where we had an idea that we really liked and we ran with it. We’re real believers that there are things you do to make money and and then there are ideas that are just so good that it’s much better to plant a flag and say we made this, we created this. This is much more the latter.
Being able to churn something out in like 12 hours from when the debate was actually happening and have it out to the public to interact with was a huge accomplishment for us and something that we want to continue to do on an ongoing basis. So now we know we can accomplish it, now we want to see how can we do it faster, how can we make it better, and how can we monetize it. Coming off of this, now we can actually have a sponsor for the next one, someone who can come in and pay for the process because they know how much interaction we’re getting. So yeah, I think in the future you can, but we’re like drug dealers. We’re giving away the first one for free.
So how many variations on calling bullshit can you actually do here?
MS: You can go far down this rabbit hole. And this is American politics, you can call bullshit on people a lot.
You don’t know the specific number?
MS: Oh my gosh, Jeremy, how many times is that?
JC: I believe it’s 46 individual combinations that any user can have in the interactive experience.
So you could have a different experience 46 times?
JC: Yeah, between all of the different candidates. So going to Carson, going to Donald Trump, Chris Christie, all of those different times, we’re weaving together 46 different possibilities of interactions between calling bullshit, not calling bulllshit. That’s about where we’re at.
How much new material did you guys create?
JC: In terms of creating footage, we’re really using the debate itself to drive everything. The debate is the engine that creates the interaction. Luckily for us, there was a tremendous amount of bullshit that was being thrown around last night, so we had almost too much to choose from, and the hardest thing was making hard choices to make sure that the experience was finite and still exciting. And then, it’s really a matter of creatively writing with a bunch of writers and letting the guys from Interlude create an amazing user experience that makes the complete package.
Were there any candidates who surprised you? Going into it, you knew you were going to get some pretty insane stuff from Trump and Carson, that’s already a given. But there’s so many people on that stage.
MS: I think Chris Christie surprised us all with the amount of bullshit he was throwing last night.
JC: Did he, Morgan? Did he really?
MS: Well, I think he came out strong. He really wanted to throw that shit last night.
JC: I would say, on the flip side of that, we were surprised that there wasn’t more to cover from Jeb Bush. For a project like this, there’s only so much pre-production you can do, because leading up to the day you don’t know what the moderators are going to ask, you don’t know what the candidates’ responses are. You have an idea of who’s going to go after who, but you don’t really know how they’re going to go after each other. We were going in expecting to have a lot of writing about Jeb Bush, and I’m sure he was equally as surprised at how little there was for us to write around him.
Of all the times you can hit that bullshit button, which one do you find the most astounding?
MS: Aside from me?
JC: I think Ben Carson with his diet supplements. To say that he showed a little interaction with those companies, and you could call up videos of him doing on-camera interviews. That was the most astounding, because it just really flew in the space of, “Oh wow, you’re really going to say that out loud with a straight face?” That’s amazing, but that’s why it’s so exciting to be able to call bullshit.
Is there a more positive spin on this approach that you could take? How to single something out that’s not bullshit?
JC: Absolutely. There’s the option to not call bullshit as well. That’s built into the experience. The whole goal of it is to get audiences to engage with political content in a different way and still make it fun. Ideally, you just want to start a discussion. There’s as much possibility in the next debate that you’re going to call bullshit on something and it turns out that it’s totally true.
What have you learned from this experience?
JC: The biggest thing that we’ve learned is that the more content that we can put on there, as long as it’s meaningful, is always going to create a more robust experience. And then we have to figure out how to have even more interactivity, so that it can live on not just in the singular — of this one moment calling bullshit — but you have a whole database of calling bullshit. I think that’s one of the most exciting parts of this project.
MS: From my standpoint, what makes me excited about it justifies the fact that this type of content is engaging people, that people want to watch it, they want to interact with it. I mean, the sheer volume of people who have visited callbullshit.org is immense. That only encourages us to say that things like this are the right things to do. These are good choices and the right risks to take. In the future, it’s stuff that we’re going to continue to create because it’s a short form way to tell a great story that reaches a very large audience.
What sort of numbers are you seeing?
MS: Once we get through everything over the first couple of days, we’ll share some numbers. It’s impressive. It’s fantastic.
Is there anything about the Democratic field that entices you to this approach, since it sounds like you’re considering that as your next target?
MS: Yeah, I wish there were five more candidates in it. It’s kind of upsetting.
JC: I’m sad about the absence of Lincoln Chafee as well. That was prime writing real estate that we no longer will have as we go into pre-production.
When Jon Stewart signed off from “The Daily Show,” he called for vigilance against bullshit. Are you trying to steal that show’s thunder?
MS: No, but I feel like there’s enough bullshit to go around for everybody.