Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is not afraid to get messy. When tackling an issue on film, he gets right down in the trenches, often compromising his own health and well-being to unveil systemic problems in America with microscopic scrutiny. He did it most notably with Super Size Me, a documentary in which he examined the problem of obesity by eating at McDonald’s for every meal for 30 days. His declining health and subsequent depression was enough to send longtime McDonald’s patrons running to the nearest farmers market.
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Since then, Spurlock’s projects have had the same premise of immersion journalism. His now-canceled Fox television show, 30 Days, placed participants in “what if” situations that seemed to come out of Spurlock’s own musings: What if a self-proclaimed “homophobe” was forced to live with a gay man in San Francisco? What if you lived in a prison for 30 days? What if an avid hunter lived with a vegan animal-rights activist? The scenarios made for some real human drama as well as honest civil discourse among folks on two sides of an issue.
Spurlock spoke with Sojourners editors Jim Wallis and Jeannie Choi about his newest project, The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice, and explains that though his projects be madness, there is method to them.
Jim Wallis: You take filmmaking and turn it into social commentary—you did that most notably with Super Size Me. Where did the idea for that project come from?
Morgan Spurlock: I felt there was a real conversation to be had with what was happening in our country. Obesity had become such a big problem at that point, no pun intended.
When we were producing this film and before we ever got into Sundance [Film Festival], we made a test screening for ourselves to see how people would respond. In the middle of the Q&A session, people started arguing with one another about what they thought the film was about, and was it important, and what does it mean. At that moment I thought, there’s really something to this film! And not only to this specific movie, but there’s something to creating a film that can generate dialogue.
Jeannie Choi: A good example of generating dialogue is the show you produced on Fox, 30 Days. What kinds of interactions came out of that project?
One of the most beautiful episodes was in the first season when Ryan, who lives in Michigan and is a homophobe, moves to the Castro in San Francisco to live with Ed, who is this great gay guy. They become roommates and over the course of the month, the two of them become friends. Ryan starts to see Ed as a human being.
We create “bogeymen” in America. We need “bogeymen” to drive industry, to drive fear, to drive a war machine that continues to drive profit for a lot of companies, but by creating these enemies, we create a definition of “us” and “them.” So, 30 Days was about bringing “us” and “them” together.
Wallis: How did you become involved with The Simpsons anniversary special?
Well, when Homer calls, it’s hard to say no! (laughing) The producers of The Simpsons had seen the fight sequence in Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, and they wanted me to make their special. It was the greatest phone call I ever got.
Wallis: How do you think they treat religion on The Simpsons?
With a wink and a nod. I think they smile at it, they laugh at it, and for me, that is something I believe in doing with all my work. You can really attract a lot more people and get people to listen through humor. When people laugh, their guards come down, and they become receptive.
Wallis: Throughout your work, there are themes of values, conscience, right and wrong. Where does that come from?
You can blame my mother, father, and Rev. Frank Bourner at the United Methodist church in Beckley, West Virginia. Those were the people who helped instill in me the importance of helping someone through the simplest actions.
Choi: What are some qualities film and television projects need in order to create social change?
I think you have to go into a project with a passion for what you’re talking about. There has to be a real driving force behind it other than making a show or making money. There has to be a belief in why you think this issue should become a part of our consciousness right now, a part of the dialogue.
Also, I’m someone who hates to be told what to think or how to feel or how to live my life, and I think most people feel the same way. So if you can come in with a level of respect for your audience from the beginning, then you can get them to watch, listen, and maybe even want to change things.
Choi: What gives you hope to continue the work you’re doing?
My son. Everything I do in my life is for him. I’m a real believer that you should try to make this world a better place than how you’ve found it, and hopefully I can do that for him.