“Super Size Me” asks the question – Why are Americans so fat? Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempts to find the answer by starting at prime suspect – McDonalds. For the sake of this documentary, he restricts himself to a 30-day diet of nothing but food and drink found on the McDonald’s menu. We caught up with Morgan to find out how his digestive system is doing.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
I have always loved movies. I know that’s a cheesey canned People Magazine answer, but its true. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been mesmerized by filmmaking – the entertainment business as a whole actually. The idea that I could make a living entertaining people was the greatest day of teenage clarity of my life.
Do you prefer docs or narrative films? And why?
I was always a scripted film kind of guy – I love docs, but just never fancied myself as the type of person who could make a good doc. Most doc filmmakers that I’ve come into contact with were extremely intelligent, well read, geniuses bordering on savant – they were so brilliant. Those are definitely not the words I would use to describe myself.
And I never had thought of making a doc film to be honest, it just kind of happened. I had made a short doc about a folk singing stunt pilot once, I was hired by her record company to do it. That was 6 years ago – after that, the thought never crossed my mind again until the idea for “Super Size Me” jumped in my head. And it just clicked from day one.
You ever have those days where you say, “I’m gonna ask that girl out today” or “I’m gonna buy a lotto ticket today” or “I’m gonna do whatever I want today” because everything just seems to work, no matter what? Well, that’s how this movie felt. From the minute we started working on it – everything just clicked and worked. From the crew to the interviews – I felt so lucky to be surrounded by such gifted artists (all of whom worked for free!)
What interested you so much that you wanted to make a documentary about the food industry?
I was sitting in my mother’s house in West Virginia last year on Thanksgiving – stuffed to the gills, pants unbuttoned, you know that look – the uncle no one wants to get around until he sleeps off some of that gravy. Well, as I’m sitting on the couch, they start talking about the two girls in NY who are suing McDonald’s. And I was always someone who looked at this as being a little much – you do have a level of personal responsibility for what you put in your mouth, but now they were saying that wasn’t the case.
I can’t remember who it was that next came on the news, it was either a rep from McDonald’s or one of the other fast food chains. They said, “there’s no way these girls can link this food to their illnesses or their weight gain.” He went on to say “Our food is nutritious.” And at that point the light went off, the buzzers rang, somewhere a baby smiled and a 6’ tall freshman dunked the ball for the first time – it was great. (I love when I get ideas like that.)
I jumped up and called my friend Scott Ambrozy (he was the poor DP who basically lived with me 24 hours a day for two months while we shot the film – and believe me that’s no easy task!)
His response: That’s a really great bad idea.
He was right.
What surprised you most about the world of fast food?
The money they make and spend is incredible – mostly on advertising. The way they manipulate children is disgusting – playgrounds, toys, the happy clown. It’s scary, but I think the scarier part is that most of us have our culinary lives high jacked by such bad food.
Do you have a weight problem yourself?
No – I have always been fortunate. Both my parents are thin and I’ve always been extremely athletic – that’s also part of what made this so hard for me. I stopped exercising over the course of the filming and that took away the only grounding force that I had in my kooky life. I still walked like crazy – I live in NY – you don’t have a choice. But for me its not enough, I like working out to the point of near exhaustion.
What prompted you to want to pursue this subject?
Well, after seeing the bit on TV that inspired the idea and lit the fuse came the lucky break of some cash. I had just finished a TV show for MTV where I made some loot and I had been wanting to make a feature for years. I knew we could do this cheaply so we dove right in. From the time I had the idea to when we started shooting was less than 7 weeks.
You expose this world, would you ever eat fast food again?
Sometimes you can’t help it – its either McFood or starve. But after what I’ve been through, I lean toward starve. (But who can pass up a good Tommy’s Chili Cheeseburger? Or an In n’ Out Animal Style? When I’m in L.A. … not me)
What have been audiences’ reactions at screenings?
People have loved the film – its so topical and we really hit on things that most articles don’t discuss, from school lunch programs to the elimination of phys ed programs to No Child Left Behind. We go beyond fast food to other root causes, but believe me, fast food is still a huge piece of the culprit pie.
Everyone wants to know this so I have to ask, what was the budget and how long did it take you to make it?
From the time I had the idea to getting into Sundance was exactly one year. It was pretty incredible to make a doc so fast and I talk to people who’ve been working for years and I just think how lucky I am to have had this idea and not a spin-off of “Hoop Dreams” or “7 Up.” I have mucho respecto for those cats – that’s some serious dedication to the craft – I don’t know if me and my A.D.D. could make it.
What are some of the scenes you had to cut?
There was a great scene at an Overeater’s Anonymous meeting. So moving, so many sad real stories, and people who have made changes in their life with a support group of like minded people. Its something I think people (especially in our country) could stand to hear, you know, that the answers aren’t in the buffet and comfort isn’t in the cupboard. We’ll get it back into the DVD.
We also originally cut the kids’ scene out of the movie too for time. But as we got deeper in post, our editor really missed it so we found a place to put it back. I think it really works where it is now – I won’t spoil the scene for you, its too good.
How did you go about finding your subjects?
Research, the web, TV – you name it. And then I became the guy that wouldn’t go away until they committed.
So, why the hell exactly are Americans so damn fat and why do they like fast food?
We’re fat because we eat too much crap and don’t exercise. Its easy to do nothing and that’s what most Americans want – the easy way. The easy way to lose weight, the easy way to look good, the easy way to make money – we all want something for nothing, not realizing that it all comes with a price.
What have you learned from your subjects?
That we can make a difference, on ourselves, in the community. Too many people don’t succeed because they quit when it gets hard. They see insurmountable odds before them and don’t even try, though in their heart they may believe other wise. The best things in life are difficult and you can impact people with what you do everyday – one person at a time. In a situation like this, we are the ones in control – WE PAY THEM. If you don’t like what they’re giving you, then don’t pay them. If you vote with your fork long enough, they will try to appease you.
What do you hope audiences get out of the film?
I hope people walk away with sort of understanding in the truth of our film. Shaw said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” I hope people laugh, walk away feeling good, but then think twice before walking into a fast food place to get something to eat. And I hope they are inspired to tell others about it.
Tell me what you’re working on right now.
My production company, THE CON, produced Super Size Me and we have a lot in the hopper. TV shows, movies – what will really be the idea that gets the gold star and gets to move to the front of the production queue? I’ll be able to tell you that better after Sundance (and after I take a nice long vacation.)