I've interviewed Morgan Spurlock several times over the years, and I find him to be one of the easiest filmmakers to talk to, which probably explains why most of his documentaries and television specials feature him as an on-camera narrator and participant. Whatever you may think of his films, Spurlock is a personable guy who gets so passionate about his subjects that he jumps right on screen with them. If you're a documentary purist, you may not appreciate that element of his work, but I'm of a belief that there is no such thing as one type of "proper" documentary, so why can't those who make them have as much fun making their films as a feature director who might put himself in an acting role? I'm not saying I prefer that style, but I won't condemn a doc just because it's filmmaker chooses to make it personal.
He was the king of Sundance in 2004 with SUPER SIZE ME, one of the most popular docs of all time, a film that inspired Spurlock to create the series "30 Days," in which he or another subject would take on a different tough job or challenging lifestyle for 30 days and see how it goes. Spurlock is a prolific filmmaker, often working on several projects at once and in 10 years, he's cranked out films like WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LIDEN?, a segment in FREAKONOMICS, THE SIMPSONS 20TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: IN 3-D! ON ICE!, MANSOME, THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD, COMIC-CON EPISODE IV: A FAN'S HOPE, and his current CNN series "Inside Man," which had it's first-season finale this past Sunday.
But even if you are a fan of Spurlock, you may have trouble shelling out the money for his latest feature, the music documentary ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US because you don't know or don't like the music of the British boy band One Direction. The film itself is actually extremely well made, featuring many of the touches that have always appealed to me about Spurlock (he does not, however, step in front of the camera). There are a lot of personal touches as he attempts to peek a little bit behind the curtain of the one of the biggest music acts in the world. He interviews family members, follows the five group members to their respective homes on break from a world tour to see them in their natural habitats, and attempts to capture of bit of the human beings behind the glossy photos and screaming fans.
There's also a great deal of 3-D concert film of One Direction (filmed by Tom Krueger, the same gentleman who shot U2 3D). For me this film (and this interview) wasn't about whether I enjoy the music of of One Direction; it was about talking to a filmmaker whose work I was extremely familiar with who had been given this choice gig and seeing how he made it his own. Music docs, such as the recent ones spotlighting Justin Bieber and Kate Perry, are becoming more and more popular, and Spurlock is a known commodity as a filmmaker. So I was curious how this all came about and how he fits it into both his busy schedule and his landscape of films, which have ranged from serious, issue-driven works to lighter topics. Please enjoy my talk with Morgan Spurlock. I being with a very serious question right off the bat…
Capone: Do you have to dress better when you’re doing press for a One Direction movie?
Morgan Spurlock: [laughs] I’ve got to do something to try to make myself look better. When you’re surrounded by that much handsome, what am I going to do? I can’t compete.
Capone: Did you have to get a stylist for this?
Capone: When I think about how comedy film are edited, they sometimes add a little beat after the joke for the audience to laugh, so that the next joke isn’t laughed over. Did you have to put beats like that in for girls in the audience screaming? When I saw it, it was almost constant.
MS: [laughs] That’s the thing, ultimately the movie would be five hours long if we had to put beats in for screaming, and we didn’t know. I just watched it for the first time and I haven’t watched the whole thing with a full audience yet, but I watched probably about 15 minutes last night with a packed, crazy, screaming fantastic audience and it’s one of those where you’re like, “Wow, a lot of people are going to have to see this again.”
Capone: I was at that same theater yesterday at 11am for a press screening, and there was already a line [for a 7pm screening].
Capone: I was thinking, “What are these girls here for?” And then I remembered.
MS: And it was for a screening that they already had tickets to. They already had tickets.
Capone: I think they just wanted the best seats for 3-D.
MS: Listen, I am that guy. I can give them mad props for that, because show up for movies like 30-45 minutes before it’s supposed to start just so I can get prime seats, because if I get a bad seat I'll leave a movie. I won't see it. I will physically leave, because I can’t stand to have a bad seat in the movie.
Capone: I guess the obvious for-real first question is who approached who on this?
MS: I got approached from the studio for this. Just to put it in context, two-and-a-half or three years ago, I was doing GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD at the time and got a call at my agency from Paramount. Paramount wanted me to come meet with them about possibly directing the Justin Bieber movie. They said, “Yeah, they're looking for directors. They would love to talk to you. You are on their list.” I was like “There’s no way I can do that. I’m in the middle of GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD where literally every day I’m cold calling every brand I have access to.”
Capone: You were in that part of the process, alright.
MS: Yeah, we were chasing companies at the time, so I was like, “There’s absolutely no way I can do this.” So then that went away and then January of last year when we were finishing COMIC-CON for theatrical release and MANSOME for the Tribecca Film Festival--we were finishing both of those movies almost simultaneously--we got called again by Paramount saying, “They’d like you to come in and meet for a Katy Perry movie.” I was like, “I’m finishing two movies right now, the last thing I want to do is add an even bigger headache to the work that we are doing.”
So then that went away, we delivered both those films, and then June of last year came around, and the agency calls and says, “Have you ever heard of this band One Direction?” I was like, “Of course I have, it’s one of the biggest bands in the world.” “Sony would like to meet with you. Do you have any interest in making a movie about them?” I was like, “Absolutely. Yes, I'm not going to miss another one of these opportunities again. I want to go meet with them.” It wasn’t like I just walked in and got hired. I had to really pitch and lobby, and it took months.
Capone: So what was your pitch?
MS: My pitch was simple. I think they have an amazing story. My central pitch was I said, “This movie is about two things. This movie is about dreams and it’s about family. That’s what the whole thing is.” I said, “When you look at who they are and what’s happened, for me, I can’t help looking at them and then look at my own life." Nine years ago I went to the Sundance Film Festival with this little movie that nobody had heard of that I made for nothing. I went there and I was so excited to be at the show, like, “Here I am. I’m at the king of independent film festivals with this movie,” and the movie exploded out of this film festlival in a way that I never thought possible.
I had watched Sundance for years and seen people like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers with these little movies that they made for nothing, and it changed their lives forever. In the middle of that festival, James Rocchi said to me, “How does it feel to be the belle of the ball?” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “This is your Sundance, Mr. Spurlock.” At that moment, I was like “Holy shit, I’m that guy. I’m that guy who’s life will never be the same.”
And over the next year, I was suddenly thrust into something so completely different than what I had been doing the year before that, where now I went to like 25-26 countries with this movie doing nonstop press. I was on the machine, and my life literally changed overnight. When I put that side by side with these guys, theirs was on such an infinitely larger level of the amount of success and fame and fandom and people that basically suddenly knew who they were and fans chased them down the street. Fans aren’t chasing documentary filmmakers down the street. Documentary filmmakers don’t get groupies.
Capone: You didn't get nutritionist groupies after SUPER SIZE ME?
MS: Exactly, nutritionist groupies. So for me when I look at what happened, their lives changed like that [snaps his fingers],in a second. And what happens when things like that happen, when a circumstance like that happens, it’s suddenly the people who gave you the courage to go off and chase your dreams--your mom, your dad, your brothers and sisters, the people who were there and literally helped you get out of the nest--suddenly you reach a point where they can’t give you advice anymore, because they can’t understand what is happening in your world.
I call my mom and I call my dad and I know they love me. They love me more than anything, but there’s a point where they don’t really get it. They don’t know what is encapsulated in that world. So suddenly here are these guys who are now traveling to countries that most people in their families have never been to, experiencing things most people can’t even relate to. But the only people who can relate to that are the other four of them. So each one of these guys has four other people who know exactly what they are going through--the stress, the strain, the drama, the pressure. When you look at their family, it’s not just the family that gave them the courage to go off and chase this, but now it’s the new family that enabled them to continue on. That’s what I pitched them. I said, “That’s the idea of the film. It’s simple.”
Capone: What’s interesting about their success too is it couldn’t have come out of a more prepackaged, manufactured thing , that whole contest.
MS: It’s a talent show.
Capone: What’s funny is they weren’t supposed to be the ones that blew up like that.
MS: They came in third. They got the bronze.
Capone: It was like a fan-driven thing.
MS: Remarkable. But that’s what makes their story incredible. They didn’t win, but they ultimately did win on such a scale and scope.
Capone: You had heard of them when you were asked to come in, but did you have to still educate yourself?
MS: Did I have to go out and buy their records, or did I already own them? That’s what you want to know. [laughs]
Capone: That’s the bare minimum. Did you have to do more research beyond that?
MS: I literally started reading every fan site and everything I could about them just to find out where they were from and trying to find out connections of things that I thought were pertinent or important. The fact that they come from small towns, the fact they all come from humble beginnings, the fact that most of them come from broken homes, there were things that I felt were very important to their stories and things that I felt like I could relate to.
Capone: Was the film even worth making for you if you couldn’t get them to open up about some of those things?
MS: I think you have to build that trust and you have to have them to be willing to go there, and from the beginning when I first met with them, I said, “Here’s what I want the movie to be about. What’s important to you guys?” They said, “It’s important for us that fans see us for who we really are.” I said, “It’s important for me that we have intimacy. We need access. I need to be able to be with you and ask you things and be around at times when you may not want us to be around, because that’s important.” And they were like, “Great. We want that too.” So from day one, they signed up for it, and I give them credit; it takes a lot of courage to be willing to go there, and they were on board from the start.
Capone: You don’t get much more intimate than them dropping their pants on the semi-regular basis in this film. The biggest screams came any time one of them was shirtless or the pants came down.
MS: [laughs] If only all movies were that easy.
Capone: That's your rhythm, right there. Just get a shot of one of those every 15 minutes, and you’re good.
MS: [laughs] Exactly.
Capone: A lot of people who aren’t familiar with them think of them collectively. Was also one of the goals to individualize them?
MS: I think each of them have such distinct individual personalities, and that’s part of what makes the collective work and makes their collective so successful. So I really wanted to make sure that we broke them out and gave them each individual time within the film, whether it was individual time at home or with their families or on the road where we can pull them away. I thought it was great to let each one of them have a voice, and I think you get that. You get the distinct separations in each of their personalities in the film.
Capone: You involve their families in this to a large degree, and those are some of the most revealing interviews I think, because some of those family members are a little freaked out by the level of success and they fear for their kid.
MS: Yeah, I love what Liam’s mom says, “Yeah, it’s almost like they’ve become somebody else, like faces in a magazine or those people you read about in a newspaper, because they’re gone all the time, and it’s like here’s my son, this thing that is so famous that I can barely comprehend.” Or someone like Harry’s mom, who I think says one of the most important lines in the film, she goes “As a parent, you sit around just waiting. You are there to help pick up the pieces when it stops, but it hasn’t stopped. It’s still going.”
Capone: There’s a subtext there of “…but it’s going to stop.”
MS: Yeah, at some point.
Capone: Were the people in their organization or the guys like familiar with your work?
MS: I’m still astounded every time with the amount of people who saw SUPER SIZE ME. So they all had seen that, and a lot of them had seen GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. A couple of them even saw WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, and I was like “Good for you guys, that’s fantastic.” So they were familiar. When I first started having meetings with management, that was the whole line of questioning: “What’s your angle? What’s the angle of this movie? What kind of story do you want to tell?” Once it was announced that I was going to make the film, the fans were tweeting me like, “Don’t you dare super size my boys.”
Capone: I think you did it with the Comic Con film too, but your voice is not a part of this.
MS: Which is part of the reason why I got the movie. Sony said, “Have you ever done a film that you haven’t been in?” I said, “Yeah, we just did this great film, and it just came out in theaters, you should watch it.” They watched COMIC-CON and were like “Wow, we really enjoyed that movie. That movie was great. You can make a movie you’re not in, that’s good.”
Capone: I’m guess that was something they wanted; they didn’t want to make this to be Morgan Spurlock’s version of One Direction.
MS: And I didn’t want it to be about me. The goal from the beginning was to make a film that was all about these guys.
Capone: And then there’s also the concert footage, which is beautifully shot in 3-D. It looks great. Talk about your approach to that part of the movie.
MS: Sure, there are a couple of different aspects of that. There were three key people I think that were really important for the concert portion. One who is important for the whole overwhelming ride of the movie was a guy named Douglas Merrifield. He was an executive producer of the film and was a production manager on the movie. He comes from the Jerry Bruckheimer camp. He did all the PIRATES movies, so he’s done these $300 million, multi-ga-jillion-dollar ocean movies, but what he’s also done is carve out with this niche. Most people don’t know is he also did the HANNAH MONTANA film. He also did JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER. He also did the Metallica film that’s about to come out], [METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER and now he’s done this. He so understands this kind of concert doc niche really well. I think he was the very first hire that we brought on, because he’s so smart and he’s done it so many times and done it so well. Then we started looking for a DP and I love U2 3D, and to this day, it's probably, up until this movie, is some of the best concert 3-D I’ve ever seen.
Capone: It’s the most where you feel like you’re there in that audience.
MS: You're in it. Then what we did differently from that film to this film was the way we pushed the cameras. We pushed the cameras way up onto the stage into the boys at the concerts, so the guys are really in 3-D and you really get the separation through wide angle, but Tom Krueger, who is the DP on that did this, and Krueger killed it, like crushed it. When he and I first started having a conversation, I said “It’s important for me that they don’t just look like pop stars.” I said ,“They should look like rock stars,” and they do.
The way that he lit it--there’s a hard side and a soft side, so there’s always light coming from one side, so there’s always a real separation on the face. If you look you can see it; it’s a very rock way to light somebody versus a front-lit pop show. Like Katy Perry, if you watch her movie, it’s very front lit, very pop, which works for the Katy Perry show, because that’s what it is: bright costumes and feels like Candyland. But for this, we wanted it to have more of a bit of an edge. I think that really worked.
And then we hired a guy named Paul Dugdale, who is a fantastic director in his own right. He did the ADELE LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, did the Coldplay documentary [COLDPLAY LIVE 2012]. So he came on as a consultant just to help me understand how to deal with making a 3-D concert film, and he was there for that whole shoot that we did in London. Those three guys were just suck rock starts in helping us pull off that show.
Capone: Who’s idea was it to pull the graphics from the background screen up into the foreground?
MS: That was mine. We basically turned that whole thing into an animated sequence.
Capone: It was like a videogame. It’s interesting to capture a band at this point on the rapid ascend. Do you have the temptation to revisit them in five or 10 years and see what’s going on?
MS: It'll be interesting to see where they'll be in five years. It’s so interesting and exciting to see this explosion that’s happened, and the elevator is still going up. They are shooting through the sky. They just announced their stadium tour next year, where they are going to be playing a 100,000-seat stadiums all around the world next year. I mean it’s massive. They are so charismatic and they are so likable; you want to know what’s going to happen next.
Capone: I wonder if they are going to change, if they'll get harder or cynical.
MS: That’s the thing. They're so not jaded. They're so humble, and it’s one thing that I say to people all of the time, “If you’re going to be in this business, there are two things you should do: work hard and stay humble. That’s it.” I think they really encapsulate that in a lot of ways and part of that is because each one has four other guys that when each one starts to float up, they're the first people to knock the pedestal out from under you and bring you back to earth. They will take the piss out of each other and say “Listen…” They'll have band meetings where they literally will say, “Here’s what it comes down to.”
And they vote on everything. Other people think there’s a Svengali who is pulling the strings, like Simon Cowell is behind the strings going “Dance, monkeys!” What’s happened now is that the five guys basically decide everything. Management will come to them with “Here’s a bunch of opportunities,” and then the band votes; they have full-on democratic process. “Are we going to extend the tour? Are we going to do a stadium tour? Are we going to do matinees? Are we going to endorse this product? Who’s going to sponsor this?” And they vote on everything, and three votes rules the day, and that’s how they decided everything. It’s remarkable.
Capone: Speaking of working hard, you’ve always got a few things going on. I’m a huge admirer of the "Inside Man" show you’ve got on CNN. I’ve seen them all so far. I know there’s still a few more left.
MS: Three more.
Capone: What is the next?
MS: Bankruptcy is this week, and then drought is episode seven, where I’ve basically moved in with a family of ranchers in Nebraska. This was last year, which was the largest drought in the history of the United States, which has now continued into this year. And then the last episode is unions.
Capone: The one that you called “Elder Care,” was actually a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. I was watching thinking, “There’s a little general information here, but that’s not what this is about.”
MS: The show went in such a different direction once we started shooting, because I lived with her. I went and stayed with her for about eight or nine days in West Virginia, and we were shooting all these other bits to talk about how other people were dealing with elder care and what’s happening with other families, and the things that drive them to check their relatives into old folks homes.
And then suddenly in January, when I was in Florida picking oranges with the family from the immigration episode, I was down there with them when I got the phone call from my dad saying, “Tootie is in the hospital.” That’s when I went home and then literally her health deteriorated in a matter of weeks. So that show ultimately ended up becoming something else--preparing to get old and then also preparing for the end, which most people don’t. It was one of those things where, when she first went in the hospital, my family was incredibly against me coming home and bringing the crew. They wanted me to come home, but they didn’t want me to bring the cameras.
Capone: I wondered about that, actually.
MS: I basically said, “Fuck it, we have to.” So I brought the cameras home. I called the hospital. We cleared everything, and when we got home I said to my aunt and my dad and said, “The cameras are here because we have to tell this story. This is what Tootie signed up for. Tootie would be all for this, and she would say ‘Let’s tell the story. Whatever is happening is happening', ” and it was heart wrenching.
Capone: You couldn’t watch that and not lose it. I was in tears. It was so moving. And since you mentioned it, the one about the migrant workers was also really good, just watching you break your back picking oranges.
MS:] [laughs It was the hardest job, second only to coal mining, where I spent a month coal mining on "30 Days." Picking oranges is a hard fucking job.
Capone: So are more of those being readied?
MS: We're waiting to find out about a second season. The first season did really well, so I was actually going to lob a call into Jeff [Zucker, CNN President] and say, “Hey Zuck, what about season two? What do you think?” I’m really proud of that show and I think it would be a shame to only go out on one. So I’m hoping to do it again.
Capone: And then just in terms of films, do you have anything percolating?
MS: There’s stuff that we're developing. There’s a scripted movie that I’ve been attached to for quite a while that originally we were supposed to be doing in the spring, then this movie came along, and I was like, “We have to push that film until this is done” because opportunities like this just don’t come along very often. One, as a documentary filmmaker to get to make a film of this scope and this scale is rare. To get to make a studio movie is something I was just so excited about with the budget and the technology--3-D and to get to make a film like that. And then to capture the band at this moment where they are at this incredible moment in time.
Somebody said to me, “Why would you want to make this movie?” I said, “Well, get rid of all of those things I just told you. All those reasons, get rid of those, the day this movie comes out, it’s going to open on more screens and be seen by more people worldwide than all of my other movies on opening day combined. That’s how many people are going to see this film. Why as a filmmaker would you not want to make a movie like that?”
Capone: Now that you have a taste for the music documentary, filmmakers like Scorsese or Jonathan Demme always come back to it. Would you like to revisit this format?
MS: I had such a good time making this movie, I would love to. I would love to come back to this. This film is so fun, and it doesn’t feel like a pop doc. It doesn’t just feel like a music doc; it feels like there’s something really special about this movie, and I had such a great time making it; I would love to do it again.
Capone: Okay. Well, it was great to see you again. Best of luck.