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Q&A: Morgan Spurlock Celebrates on Current TV 50 Greatest Documentaries

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On the heels of the International Documentary Association's Docuweeks annual August kickoff, Current TV launched a five-part celebration, 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die on August 2 hosted by energetic documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

The hour-long weekly series counted down 50 of today's most powerful, provocative and moving docs. With each show, concluding this Tuesday, Spurlock hit the road and visited with iconic figures from these films, including Paris is Burning's girls, Hoop Dreams' players and Exit Through the Gift Shop's Mr. Brainwash.
 
Or, this provocateur chatted with the creators of such films as The Fog of War's Errol Morris, When The Levees Broke's Spike Lee, Bowling for Columbine's Michael Moore, and Jesus Camp's Heidi Wing and Rachel Grady. High-spirited Spurlock provides a guided journey through the world of docs, highlighting its various styles and subjects.

His own burger buster, Super Size Me is also included and was the title that put him on the entertainment map. He has since established an enviable rep as a filmmaker, humorist, TV producer, screenwriter, and journalist.

The 1970-vintage West Virginian then executive produced and starred in the reality TV series, 30 Days, where he or others tried on very different jobs for sizing.

And upcoming, Hulu -- the online content distributor now developing original programming -- acquired Spurlock's latest TV series, A Day in the Life, which spans six episodes chronicling 24 hours in the fabulous life of a well-known personality.

Episode one finds Spurlock lensing entrepreneur and Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, who, over 24 hours, dines with the Queen, opens a new Virgin America route and declines to serve on the board of a charity pitched to him by actor Adrian Grenier.

Still to come from this wacky cognoscenti is his take on serious convention fans, Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope -- developed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, AintItCool.com founder Harry Knowles, and comic book legend Stan Lee.

Prior to Super Size Me's 2003 debut, I had sat down with Spurlock and then-girlfriend-now-wife Alexandra in their loft office for an early interview. Over the years, via follow-ups and various revelries (like several Sundance fest's closing nights), Spurlock had made for great soundbites and humorous moments.

But underneath his garrulous side is a passionate supporter of social causes such as the up-coming Burma Relief Benefit (he co-hosts this annual event Sept 19th with writer Naomi Wolf and Esai Morales). In the following exclusive he waxes philosophic on the cultural power of docs and his own offbeat career.

Q: It must be daunting to host a series about the 50 greatest docs, and at the same time, a huge honor. How did you react when you were asked to do it? 

MS: One of the reasons they wanted me was because I immerse myself in the things that I do, and they wanted me to... immerse myself in these experiences of meeting with filmmakers. 

We dove into their lives beyond the movies. We both wanted this to represent [a] larger examination of... the stories behind the doc, what a lot of people don't get to hear about.

For me, that was a great angle to take. And for people who love documentaries, it's going to be great to hear the stories that are associated with these movies -- to hear the things you didn't know about, how they got made, what went on behind the camera, what happened afterwards.

For the people who aren't huge fans of documentaries but love movies, this whole series is going to open up a door and it's going to be impossible to watch this without walking away wanting to see some of these movies.

Q: One of your great qualities -- or maybe great failings -- is that you have a sense of irony. Where does that come from and how have you employed it in the choice of documentaries picked for this series?

MS: Luckily, I wasn't in charge of picking the documentaries. They've got people much higher than my pay grade to come in and pick what they thought were the top 50 docs of the last 30 years. 

It is done by people from the International Documentary Association, college professors, much more educated folks than me. They came in and put together this list...

How do you start to explore these people and tell a deeper story? Apart from the interviews, one of the things that I felt would be great was to make sure that we tapped these people whose lives have been changed... 

As much as we've watched a lot of these docs -- although when it's done, we turn them off -- some people are married to them forever. They're tied to these films, it does affect their lives, and it changes the directions that they're set upon. 

And to go meet people from Exit Through the Gift Shop or Jesus Camp, to see where the scene for [documentaries] has gone the last 20 years, to see these things come to fruition is a pretty incredible thing itself.

Q: You've had quite a year. Your DVD box set came out for Super Size Me, you've had The Greatest Movie... and now this. It must be a daunting to figure out your own head: where you stand, what you're doing and how you look at it.

MS: Luckily, all these things do kind of complement one another. They all are different shades of grey. I'm not going off at night and doing a Broadway musical, so thank goodness they're all kind of living in the same space.

The biggest thing for me when we get involved in things [is that] I just want to make sure that it's something that I'm passionate about. It's like we were talking about before.

You've got to be willing and ready to stand by a project for the long haul, whether it's a film we‛re distributing that's going to have our name on it forever, or a television project that's going to go out and be distributed around the world to multiple television networks. 

I think it has got to be something that you're passionate about and believe in because it's going to have your face on it for a long time.

Q: When did it dawn on you that you should be in front of the camera as well as the person behind the camera?

MS: I think it just happened. I think just now in this phone call it happened. Up until now it's been a mess.

Q: I don't think so. I talked to you early on when you did Super Size Me.

MS: You're absolutely right.

Q: When you thought about making a doc, what made you decide to do that?

MS: The whole idea behind Super Size Me originally was for me not to be in the film. When I first got the idea of Super Size Me, I said, "You know what, I'm going to direct this movie. We'll have somebody else be the guinea pig."

[T]he more we started going into pre-production and talking about this, the more... we realized that I... [could] never trust when that person went home late at night, that they wouldn't be sneaking some broccoli in the closet, that they wouldn't be eating some cauliflower on the sly when I wasn't around.

And so the only way that I knew for sure that we could make this film and that [the] person wouldn't...cheat on the diet or take any shortcuts was if I did it myself. 

So... [that forced me] in front of the camera to do that film. It became me in 30 Days, because 30 Days basically was a spinoff... of Super Size Me, and then just kind of kept going from there.

Apart from getting fantastic liver damage, I got a lot out of making Super Size Me just as an individual. Just going through the experience and having that type of... experiential journalism... changed me. It changed the way that I look at filmmaking, and I think that's one of the things that helped drive me towards all the projects we did after that.

Q: A lot of directors are behind the camera because as much as they're able to brilliantly articulate themselves, they use an "um" and an "uh" when on camera. You avoid that and do it so well.

MS: That's from years of having an English teacher as a mother, believe me. She's the only one who should get the credit for that.

Q: Ahh, I see why they picked you to helm this series -- you're perfect for this. It's a strange process, self-examination. Ross McElwee is a pioneer of the self-investigative film -- he did Bright Leaves and Sherman's March, about the South and smoking. I'm sure you've got one of his docs in the series. And there's Michael Moore. But you've figured out ways you can do it through another angle.

MS: Yeah abuse, that's my angle. Personal abuse.

Q: When you went into making your first film, what were your expectations of what would happen? It transformed you, made you a spokesman for docs in many ways. You've had a big impact on how people look at how they eat. Were you expecting to do that?

MS: I was happy when we sold that movie. The fact that we sold that movie at Sundance I was surprised by. I was happy nobody sued us at Sundance. I was happy that we were able to actually get that film out into the marketplace. You can never anticipate.

The biggest thing for me is [that] I was hoping we could make what little bit of money we put in that movie back, and that it could actually lead myself and my company to [the point] where we could make another movie. 

The whole idea of documentary [filmmaking] is... [hoping] that it will just enable you to make the next one. That each step is another step toward the next project, the next film, the next TV show, whatever.

What happened with that film nobody could have predicted, nobody could have imagined. It blew up in a way that no one anticipated. I got stopped by a doctor two days ago, this past weekend, who said, "I just want to tell you, I write prescriptions to my patients for them to see your movie." It's incredible.

Q: Besides making your own docs and producing your own TV shows, you've put your name behind a number of other docs. 

MS: Years ago -- it was probably about a year and a half after Super Size Me came out -- Joe Morley, who was my video partner then, and I saw so many films in the marketplace at film festivals and different places, films that would be sent to us that just...never made it out into the marketplace, into cinemas, that never got on television.

He and [I] both were talking about all these movies that we fell in love with, and we said, why don't we try to help get some of these films out there? 

It has now been five years that he and I have worked together on this video partnership. We've gotten films distributed in cinemas, on television, on DVD, online, Hulu, Netflix.

It's not like I want to make any money off this whole series. The whole idea of what we've done with this series is, we've taken any money we've made and given it to more filmmakers to get more films out into the marketplace. 

I am a real believer that there are great movies out there that people need to see, and anything I can do to help get them out, I want to do that.

Q: Your own docs show how you've allowed them to change your life directly by making them. You are, in effect, a metaphor for that idea of what a documentary can do. You and Michael Moore are two of the best known people who have been directly affected by making their docs. 

MS: One of the things I love is [that] we go to meet the two guys from Hoop Dreams, who at the time were kids. They graduated from high school, they were getting ready to go to college, and now here they are 20 years later.

These guys are grown men. They have been tied to one of the greatest documentaries of all time and it made such an impact on them. And this was a film that... literally did become like a blockbuster movie. Everybody was talking about it.

At that time, there were a handful of these movies that started to really change the way docs were seen: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris, Hoop Dreams by Steve James, and Roger & Me by Michael Moore.

These films started to transcend art house movies and became a part of the real, national conversation. They became popular, they became a cool thing to go see, and I think that type of transformation was a remarkable thing.

Q: If anybody could understand what it's like to become part of a national conversation, you're the man -- it that another reason why you were chosen to host this series?

MS: I think that [when we originally talked about those people], they looked at these films as all being very positive pieces of their lives. By being a part of these films, it did help them find who they were. 

Like Levi, who was in Jesus Camp -- it made him even more of a devout Christian. It made him even stronger in his faith and made him a little more true to the path he was walking. 

You meet Mr. Brainwash from Exit Through the Gift Shop -- that film validated him as much as his artwork, as an artist.

So now here's somebody who has a lot of expectations to live up to. But there's a huge amount of expectations that you start to put upon yourself. 

I think that you start to expect more of yourself as an individual, whether you're a filmmaker in the movie or you're a person who is a basketball player, a Christian, [or] an artist. There's a level of what you feel that you have to give back, that you can't let yourself down.

Q: But should we blame you for reality television?

MS: The thing is, before we made Super Size Me, we had a series -- before Survivor and all these shows in television -- on the web called I Bet You Will, where we would go out and we'd bet people to do these silly things for money. We were right on the cusp of all of these game shows and these things that came around.

Right after that show hit the web, that next summer Survivor came out, then Big Brother, and then the next summer was Fear Factor

It was pretty remarkable what happened in a really short period of time. I literally created this web company and the whole goal was to create programming online that we would then springboard off to film and television. 

We sold that show to MTV and they ended up doing 53 episodes of that show before it was canceled. Then we took the money from that show and made Super Size Me.

Q: We could lay blame for Jackass at your feet.

MS: No, see, Jackass was already on. Once I Bet You Will hit the air, Jackass was already on the air right before that, that summer. 

But what a lot of people compared Super Size Me to was this crossroads of journalism and Jackass, so it became Jackass journalism. 

Q: I will put the word out there so that you are free of that onus.

MS: That's right. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

Q: Do people who see Super Size Me or The Greatest Story Ever Sold realize that you have a strong social conscience and a deep, abiding, left-of-center progressive view? Does it ever frustrate you that people might not realize that?

MS: Yeah, but I think that I also grew up in the South and I have an affinity for guns.

Q: My father was an NRA member.

MS: It's one of those things. I think there's still a bit of a conundrum that's happening inside of me. As much as I may be left of center, there's still a lot of very Right, Southern things that are still within me.

Q: You're both a filmmaker and an activist in many ways. You put your money where your mouth is with your activism, supporting movies like What Would Jesus Buy? with Reverend Billy or other things like that through your distribution company, Morgan Spurlock Presents. You've not been idle.

MS: I really believe that if you're going to spend two-plus years of your life, that's your reality. If you're going to make a documentary movie, that's your baby. You're married to that movie forever and you‛d better love that kid, you‛d better think that's the most beautiful kid you could have ever made, because you are married to that kid for years to come.

If you're going to spend two-plus years producing, editing, getting the film out into the marketplace, then I think you have a responsibility to that movie to see it through. 

If people want to talk about it, if people want to use it as a conversation piece, if it can somehow help drive a national conversation, an international conversation, if it can lead to some sort of reform or change, whatever it may be -- I don't know why else you would make a film if you didn't want it to be part of a conversation.

Q: Look at Steve James; he's committed himself for years and years and years.

MS: Steve James is one of the most amazing filmmakers, but also one of the most amazing people. The guy works on movies for five, six, seven years at a time and makes these incredible portraits that are what I think documentary films are all about. They're surprising.

Q: Are you watching all of the movies in this series?

MS: I think I've seen most of them already.

Q: Have you met most of the directors and do you get to talk with all of them?

MS: I've met most of the directors before. There are a few that I haven't met. I met Errol Morris for the first time at a panel recently. He's one of my idols, one of the most prolific and amazing doc filmmakers working today.

We made it a point to definitely meet a lot of these folks, which was great. A lot of them I'd met before and some of the folks I got to talk to again. I was so happy I got to sit down with Steve James, who as I said is a huge hero of mine. 

The documentary community is such a small, supportive community. To be in that circle of people who are always there to help, are always there to lend a hand, that are always there to lift someone up rather than push someone down, is a great place to be.

Q: Are you hosting this documentary series to pay penance for making the movie, The Greatest Story Ever Sold?

MS: Exactly. After taking all the corporate money, I've got to do something to give back, right?

Q: So what was the greatest challenge with The Greatest Story Ever Sold?

MS: The fact that we actually were able to raise the money for that movie is a miracle. The fact that we got brands to sign off on giving us money to make a film that rips open the world of brands is remarkable.

Q: Do you have new companies offering you to be in the next movie?

MS: Well that would be The Greatest Movie Ever Sold 2: The Quest for More Money. We have to work on the sequel right away.

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