Q&A: Morgan Spurlock, filmmaker

On making commercials, his biggest gamble and eating I Bet You Will pie crust for lunch.


(Photo: Fabrice Dall’Aneese/Corbis Outline)

He’s gorged himself on McDonald’s food, travelled to war zones and spent time in prison over the course of his career as a documentary filmmaker. Morgan Spurlock is known for his unpretentious approach to filmmaking and his use of humour to pose provocative questions. Last year, the 41-year-old’s film about product placement and sponsored entertainment—Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold—was completely funded by sponsorship and product placement. This year, Spurlock has unveiled two new documentaries, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, exploring the cultural phenomenon of San Diego’s annual geek convention, and Mansome, a look at masculinity in an age of men’s spas and metrosexuals. In addition to his own films, Spurlock recently launched a commercial production company, helping feature filmmakers and documentarians join the world of advertising. Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer spoke to Spurlock about the new company, why he directs commercials and the importance of taking risks in career planning.

Born: 11/07/1970
First feature film: Super Size Me
Rejections from USC film school: 5
Academy Award nominations: 1
Sponsors of Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: 21
Feature films directed: 6

You’re known as the guy who takes on big brands, like you did with McDonald’s in Super Size Me. How do you go from advocating corporate responsibility to directing commercials for brands like JetBlue and Ally to starting a company to represent other filmmakers to advertisers?

Ultimately for me it’s about making sure that whatever you’re doing is true to you as a person. I don’t think I’m going to be rushing out to do any McDonald’s commercials any time soon. I doubt BP is going to be calling me to do a commercial. So there will be brands that we’ll most likely not work with. As a filmmaker, you should have some level of personal integrity in terms of what you will and won’t do, and we’re going to adhere to that.

Traditionally, many people think of ads as being the minor leagues after which directors graduate to movies. The reality is, plenty of well-known and successful directors still—often unknown to fans—direct commercials. Why is that, and what makes you want to do it?

For many documentary filmmakers, shooting commercials also gives them the ability to pay for their other projects. The documentary business is still not a very lucrative one. You’re not making Avengers money in doc films. So if you can do something to help you offset the cost of your passion production, then why not? There’s also a tremendous amount of narrative know-how that comes from directing 30- or 60-second spots, because it forces you to really get down to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. There’s also been some interesting developments in branded entertainment, where there’s an alignment of ideology as opposed to just trying to get you to go buy more widgets.

If you could direct an ad for any brand in the world, what would it be?

Oh wow, I think it would have to be Virgin Galactic. So I could say, “C’mon, Richard Branson, let’s go to space and make a commercial!”

Do you have a favourite commercial that represents how ads should be done?

There were plenty I loved as a kid. Like the Alka-Seltzer “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball” ad and Apple’s 1984 ad. More recently, there’s the Old Spice ads. Right now, there’s a shift beyond the 30-second spots into branded entertainment [where companies bankroll the creation of music videos, documentaries and other endeavours in exchange for credit]. I think there’s a way to have people be a part of something that is still about creating great content and not just a great sales tool.

Do you have a creative routine, once a new project idea gets in your head?

Once we get an idea, my writing and producing partner Jeremy Chilnick and I will think of an outline and start by asking ourselves “In a perfect world where everyone had rainbows and unicorns, how would this movie play out?” We break it down, try to figure out how it will look. Of course, the day you start shooting, everything gets thrown out the window. Everything you imagine will happen, usually never does, but hopefully you’ve done so much research it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, you realize once you really start diving into a film it will start to point you in a variety of directions right away and open up your options for how you want to look at the movie.

When we made Super Size Me, I asked a filmmaker friend of mine for some advice and he said, “If the film you end up with is the exact same movie you envisioned in the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anyone along the way.”

In a talk you gave last year at a TED conference, you said, “When you train your employees to be risk averse, then you’re preparing your whole company to be reward challenged.” What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?

Years ago, pre–Super Size Me, I had a web company, and we started a show called I Bet You Will that paid people to do and eat outrageous things. We ended up selling the show to CBS and MTV. When 9/11 happened, production in New York City stopped. To keep the company going, I was using credit cards to pay employees, rent, using credit cards to pay other credit cards, everything. I was evicted from my apartment and started sleeping in a hammock in my office. After about a year and a half, just waiting to see what the status of this show was with the network, I was about $250,000 in debt. But I still had an office!

At that point, I owed so much money, I could’ve hung it up and done something else. But I didn’t and MTV ended up moving forward with the show and we did 53 episodes. I paid off $50,000 of the debt and we had another $50,000 from the show available. So there we are, we owned our own cameras, editing equipment and all that, so I decided to take that $50,000 and make a movie. That ended up being Super Size Me, and then everything changed completely. But there were some dark days when I was sleeping in my office. We had all this canned food for the I Bet You Will show, like pig’s feet and pie crust and all these other crazy things we used on that show, and that’s what we were eating because we couldn’t afford anything else. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t when I was sitting there eating I Bet You Will pie crust for lunch.