Interview: Morgan Spurlock “We talked to a couple actors who shall remain nameless… They didn’t wanna go on camera and talk about this”

My love of documentaries started when I first saw Morgan Spurlock’s, Super Size Me. The film, where he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days, woke me up to the wonderful world of documentaries. No longer was it a stuffy world of high-brow filmmakers. Here was a guy who was just like me trying to make a difference in the world and adding a ton of humor while doing it.

So, when I got an opportunity to interview him, I jumped at the chance. I’ve seen every one of his film’s and loved his FX series, 30 Days.

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker is back with another hilarious doc, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I’m sorry, it’s now called: Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock delves into the world of product placement, attempting to market and advertise a film that is fully financed through advertising. This is nothing new for Hollywood – and he shows some hilarious examples from shows like 90210 – but it’s definitely new for a documentary.

Or as he’s calling it: Docu-Buster. That’s right, he’s aiming to create the world’s first blockbuster documentary. And it just may happen because the film is great!

I talked to Morgan about how he got the idea for the film, why certain actors didn’t want to go on camera for an interview and how he see’s the future of product placement.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

How did you come up with this idea?

Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, the film was inspired by, I was a huge fan of the show Heroes, first season of Heroes, the second season it started to kind of collapse a little, very quickly. Part of that was all of this product placement started happening in the show. There was an episode where Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader’s leaving school one day, just coming out and her dad’s with her and the dad’s like, “Honey, your mom and I we’re really proud of you, I got something for you.” And he reached in his pocket and as he does cut to the front of the cars, the camera dolley’s past the Nissan logo on the car, as he pulls out the keys, rack focus from the keys to her face and she goes, “The Rogue? The Nissan Rogue? I can’t believe it’s the Rogue! Oh my God, dad the Rogue!”

And my mouth is agape, like hanging out of my mouth as I’m watching this; I’m like, “That literally just happened! I just saw that happen in the show.” Later on in the show, she’s leaving a party, she’s with her friends she’s like, “Come on everybody let’s get outta here! To the Rogue!” And I was dumbfounded. I was like, wow! Like, literally this show has gone to that point. And so, went in to my office and my producing partner, Jeremy and I just started talking about it ‘cause he was equally offended as I was and distraught ‘cause we, again, this was a show that we loved so much. And so we just started talking about it, we just started talking about all the product placements in films and television that’s out there, and how it continues to get more and more pervasive,. And then just like marketing in general, or advertising in general. We said, “What if we made a film, that kind of pulls back the curtain on the world of product placement and advertising, and actually get companies to pay for it?”

And it was like, the lights went on and we were like, “Oh!”, and then for the next like 2, 3 hours all we did was just like talk about ideas. Who would we go to? What can we do? What if we put commercials actually in the movie? Then, “Hahahaha!” It’s like literally we came up with the silliest ideas we could and the most ridiculous ideas. Whenever I start a film, I say in a perfect world, here is how I would see the movie playing out, we’re gonna interview these people, we’re gonna travel to these places, we’re gonna do these things, that never happens. Everything you write down ultimately never comes to fruition, but some of them do. Like, the commercial idea happened. The experts we wanted to talk to, we wanted to talk to Ralph Nader ‘cause who better to talk about what’s happening in consumer culture than probably the most famous consumer advocate. What I love about Ralph Nader, in his interviews, when he comes walking out into a room where we’re interviewing him, he comes walking in with all these books and he goes, “If you’re gonna interview me about product placements then I’m gonna place some of my own products.” So you look on the table, it’s covered with books by Ralph Nader, and in the middle of his interview, which is genius.

How did the idea changed from start to finish?

Morgan Spurlock: Well, I think what changes along the way are the people that you meet and the kind of the information that you get access to. I was meeting with a friend of mine, just out one night talking about the film, and just picking his brain about advertising, and he’s like, “Well you gotta go to San Paulo. You can’t tell the story without going there.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He told me about the advertising ban, I was in San Paulo in 2004 when Super Size Me opened and it was like Blade Runner, like literally there was more advertising all over that town. And so, he said that and we were there within a week.

We started reading about more and more schools that were now selling advertising in schools. I was like, “We have to make this a part of the story.” Which would never, it wasn’t at all in the beginning. And so for me it’s those things you start to uncover. Neuro-marketing. Again neuro-marketing another one that I was like, “Their doing what? They’re putting people in what?” That’s literally, it’s Minority Report. It’s like pre-cog advertising: I know what you’re gonna wanna buy before you even buy it.

How many advertisers did you turn away?

Morgan Spurlock: Oh, we didn’t turn away any. I called BP, I was like, “Listen, you guys need some positive press right now. This would be great for you.” And they were there like, “We want nothing to do with this movie, and stop calling us.”

What were they actually afraid of?

Morgan Spurlock: Control. I mean the biggest thing is control. They had no control, ultimately over what the message of the movie was. And so, they were all scared to death of that and that’s what makes, I think, the companies that signed on infinitely, makes them look infinitely smarter and braver because they gave up that idea of control. They were willing to take this risk, and embrace transparency. This whole idea of embracing transparency, of honesty, ‘cause again, the advertising business is not a business based in honesty, is not a business based in transparency, and so here’s a film that is literally doing that and companies were afraid of being a part of that.

Did you get a chance to talk to any actors about what it’s like to do a commercial mid-scene?
Morgan Spurlock:
Yeah, we wanted to go into the actor pool and talk about this and we made a decision not to. Well, we talked to a couple actors who shall remain nameless, that we wanted to interview who said, “I would love to talk to you about this but I just can’t.” Because they didn’t wanna go on camera and talk about this ‘cause ultimately they will be in films again were it will have to happen. And so they were against it, some of these people were afraid to go on camera and actually talk about it.

Big name actors?

Morgan Spurlock: Name actors. Yeah. But to have some directors come in, like to have like JJ Abrams and Peter Berg, these guys who do these big giant movies and to be so honest about it. Peter Berg, his line in the film which I love is like, “Listen these guys, they’re my boss and they flying fine fuck about art. Art is not what they want return and if you’re making a 200 million dollar movie, I don’t give a shit how artsy it is, it better put some butts in the seats and make some money.”

Is there anything that you saw, trends, in the next 5 years that’s going to happen?

Morgan Spurlock: I think neuro-marketing is gonna continue to grow and flourish.  I mean it is a field that has shown it works and that it can actually make a difference in the choices or understanding the choices people make. Like they can almost pre-predict the choices they’ll make off of emotional responses people have. Not only emotional responses, but sub-conscious responses, that’s the other thing. It’s like, you don’t even know you’re responding to things in that way and so now they know the majority people respond this way to this ad so this will make x amount of people wanting to buy y product. Amazing. And scary.

And how many brands have you actually stuck with or truly like?

Morgan Spurlock: I mean all the brands that are in this movie are the greatest brands you can ever like make a film with. I mean they are literally the greatest sponsors you can have on a film.

Integrity to the core…

Morgan Spurlock: Integrity to the core, that’s right. The thing is, we had 15 brands on board by the time we took the film we took to Sundance. And then after Sundance we’ve added, by the time the film opens, I think it will be another 10, which I think is amazing.

Is this the most press that anybody’s has ever done for a documentary?

Morgan Spurlock: I think I’m doing more press with this film than I did for Super Size Me.

Do you think this is gonna usher in some sort of new era for documentaries?

Morgan Spurlock: Maybe. We’re shooting the era of the docbuster, that will be great, yeah.

Did your Oscar nominations for your last film help you in anyway?

Morgan Spurlock: Oh, I think it always helps. It is an honor just to be nominated. So, forever, all the way till my dying day, it will say out the screen, Academy Award Nominee Morgan Spurlock. I think that always helps where it does give you some level of credibility.  I think the success of Super Size Me helped but at the same time was a detriment in trying to get companies on board, because they were like, “Well, we already saw what you did to that other company Why do we want any part of this movie at all?” And  the big companies, the Coke’s, the Pepsi’s, the Nike’s, the Reebok’s, they wanted zero to do with it. And again, these are companies that are also very afraid of the idea of transparency, so I think that was a harder thing for me.

Did any of them have directorial input?

Morgan Spurlock: They all wanted it. Literally in the beginning, every single one of them asked for, “We want final approval of the film.” Absolutely not. “We want final approval of how we’re gonna be in the film.” Absolutely not. We denied all those request. Ultimately, we gave them the right to see the movie before it’s theatrical release, which they got to see it at Sundance ‘cause they said, “We wanna see it. You should come to our office and show it.” And I said, “No, we’re still finishing it. You should just come to Sundance and see it.”  “But that’s a movie theater.” I was like “That’s just a festival. Nobody cares about festivals. You should come there and see it with a real audience.” So, they came and saw it with the audience, and it was great ‘cause seeing it with a real crowd reaction changed everything. 11 of the brands came to Sundance and once they saw the way the people reacted, they were in. They were like, “We’re so on board to help with this movie.” Yeah, it was great.

Is there a feature in the future?

Morgan Spurlock: I would love to make narrative film. I’m attach to a film with Apian Way, which is DiCaprio’s production company, that we’re just now starting to kind of go out and trying to raise money for, so hopefully knock on wood. I think now’s a good time, ‘cause this film’s gotten great, great attention and has gotten great reviews so, now would be a great time to try and just, to make that step over and make a narrative.

When this is all done and the press tour is over and you go back home and start to work, how many various projects are you juggling at one time?

Morgan Spurlock: A couple. This film is going out in the market place; we’re editing our Comic-Con film right now.

Is that gonna be out before or around Comic-Con?

Morgan Spurlock: The goal is to have it done by this summer, so hopefully, knock on wood, we’ll be able to have it done in time for Comic-Con. Making a doc, things are always very liquid so who knows, but that was our goal. The other film that you see in the movie, that Ben Silverman calls and pitches me about doing a male grooming movie, funded by a brand, starring Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, that movie’s happening, we’re making that film right now. So,  that movie is actually happening, we’re doing a movie all about the world of male grooming, with those two guys.

What’s the title?

Morgan Spurlock: I’m not gonna tell you.

That’s a great title.

Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, I’m not gonna tell you. [laughs]

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