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Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock cut his teeth in reality television, creating and co-hosting the MTV show I Bet You Will, which challenged people to do disgusting or embarrassing things for money. Spurlock's winning personality and gift for big conceptual hooks paid off in his breakout 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which his observations about the fast-food industry were hung on a personal experiment to eat every meal at McDonald's for a month. Shortly before the film was released, McDonald's removed the "super-size" option from its menus, but the company claims that the timing was coincidental. After Super Size Me, Spurlock adopted a similar conceit for the FX show 30 Days, an activist entertainment that stages various monthlong social experiments, including episodes where Spurlock tried to live on minimum wage for a month, and spent 25 days in jail.
In his latest film, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, Spurlock heads off to the Middle East in search of the world's most wanted man, and comes home with insights on the region, plus a wealth of provocative material. Spurlock recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the journey, the conclusions he reached, and his Mary Poppins school of filmmaking.
The A.V. Club: The film starts with the premise that you're about to be a father, and you want the world safe for your child, so you seek out the world's most wanted man. Half that premise seems tongue-in-cheek, and half is real. How do you want the audience to take it?
Morgan Spurlock: Hopefully, they take it just like you did. Hopefully, they take it as tongue-in-cheek and also real, in that I'm going on this journey, and that I really do want the world to be a safer place for my kid. The whole idea that a documentary filmmaker is going to go off and find the most wanted man in the world, that everybody else in the military and government can't find, is in itself a bit of a lark. But why not make the attempt? I think that the fun part is going on the journey with me.
AVC: Of course, some people believe they don't want to find Osama, so maybe you had a shot.
MS: "Spurlock knows where he is! He's in Spurlock's house!" [Laughs.] Yeah, he's back at my house in Brooklyn. He's just chilling out.
AVC: How did the arrangements for this journey come together? It isn't something a travel agent can put together.
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. It's not something that Orbitz knocked out for us. It was hard. The logistics of a movie like this are massive. We had a great production team in New York. My co-producer, Jeremy Chilnick—who also was my co-writer on the movie—and [producer] Stacey Offman did a great job of helping us put this whole thing together. You throw a lot of stuff out there, the people you want to talk to and the places you want to go, and you never really know how it's going to play out.
I don't go into a movie with preconceived notions of where I want things to go. We cast a really wide net and started to whittle it down in post [production]. We were really fortunate; in every country we went to, we hired amazing people on the ground, like local producers and fixers, journalists as well. All of these countries kind of helped us navigate the waters, and helped us find the people we wanted to talk to. In those situations, you can never predict what's going to happen. You talk to one person, and that one person is like: "Oh, you know who you need to talk to? You should go meet this guy." One by one, the other doors start to open for you on the ground, and your ideas of who you want to talk to are thrown out the window.
AVC: How did you get the Saudis to let you speak with those high-school students, even under those restrictive conditions?
MS: We basically went to the school and just asked, "We'd like to speak to some students." Our fixer contacted the school, and the principal said, "Sure, you can talk to a couple of our kids. I'll pick the kids." He picked those two children and said, "We have to be there to watch." It was great that they allowed us in, but kind of a bummer that they had to shut down the interview.
AVC: What was in it for them?
MS: Well, I think it's just perception. They want also to improve the perception that people have of Saudi Arabia, but I think shutting down the interview probably isn't the best way to do that.
AVC: How did you get embedded in the military unit that deep into Afghanistan?
MS: That's hard. We were denied embed from the United States. We kept applying to the Department Of Defense and kept saying, "We're going over. We want to do an embed with the military over there." And they were like, "No. No. No." So finally we just resolved, "We're just going to go to Afghanistan, and when we get there, we'll ask them." When we got there, we went to the International Security Assistance Force headquarters. ISAF isn't controlled by the United States government. It's working independently. We go to their headquarters and say, "We'd like to get an embed," and they're like, "Oh, sure! Just fill out this form, and how soon do you want to go?" [Laughs.] In a matter of days, we were basically embedded with the troops.
AVC: Did your presumed political point of view ever get in the way of making any of these arrangements?
MS: I don't think so. I mean, I'm a registered independent, so my political views are kind of not in line with a lot of other cats. I think the biggest thing I wanted to do was just kind of let other people tell their stories. Kind of open up their world to us, and we'd listen. I think that's one of the biggest goals I had in making this movie, was listening to what other people had to say.
AVC: Did you learn anything in the Middle East that altered your preconceptions?
MS: I think that what we are fed every day, especially in the two-minute sound bites that you get in the news, is a very specific version of the Middle East. What you see, the majority of it is people who are screaming and yelling. "If it bleeds, it leads." That's the selling point of television news. I went in with preconceived notions that people weren't going to be willing to talk to us, that people weren't going to be hospitable, that we were going to have a lot more hostility toward us, and that really wasn't the case. Once we got there on the ground, people were more than willing to talk to us, and opened up their homes, and invited us in to sit down, and explained how they felt. They were excited that they actually had the ability to speak to somebody, because these are the silent majority. These are the people you don't get to hear from. For me, it really became a goal as we started to get out on the road, to talk to people like that.
AVC: That becomes the thesis of the film, in a way. The idea that this silent, more moderate majority is really a force that is going to keep these extreme warring elements isolated.
MS: Yeah, and that's what you want. The more we can empower people like that, and the more we can give face time to people like that, the more power you take away from the others. I think you need to empower those people that can really quell the other types of folks.
AVC: One criticism that's been leveled at your work is that you know the destination before you take the journey. You know you're going to get sick if you eat fast food for a month. You're probably not going to catch Osama bin Laden.
MS: Those are pretty broad endings. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how would you respond to that? Did you have ideas on how this particular film was going to end?
MS: People have said this particular film is oversimplified, or people have said that I knew where I was going. The only thing I knew is that I was hopefully going to come home, and my wife was going to have a baby. That was the only thing that I really knew was going to happen. We didn't know how things were going to end up as we traveled overseas, and we didn't know where we were going to go once we hit the ground. We didn't know what we were going to find out, or the people we were going to meet. That was all incredibly natural and organic, and you can't plan those things. In terms of knowing what the bookends were, my wife was pregnant, but we didn't know if we were going to include that in the movie. While that was what shifted the focus of the movie for me, how much of that was going to make the final product, you don't know until you're in the editing room. I'm not somebody who comes in with a whole outline, and says, "Here's the movie we're going to make." That's not what a documentary is for me. I think a documentary is about capturing events as they unfold in real time. People have said, also, that the film is an oversimplification of things. That it really boils things down and makes them too simple. My response is, "Well, if you haven't heard, fast food is also bad for you." [Laughs.] I think that Super Size Me made things very simple, but at the same time, made things accessible. I think this film does that as well. I think Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? is a great primer to a larger conversation. That all the pieces we touch on over the course of this great journey are great jumping-off points for a larger discussion, and for a larger investigation for whoever sees the movie.
AVC: Do you feel like people need that primer?
MS: I feel like some people do. Again, look at Super Size Me. This is a very simple idea. Of course everyone knows that fast food's bad for you. It's exploring this topic in a much different way, that I think gets into different pieces of the puzzle. That is new to people. I think this movie's also very new. I think it will reach audiences in a different way, without tasting like medicine, without tasting like spinach. It makes this topic that we've heard and read so much about accessible in a different way. A lot of people have checked out. We are incredibly apathetic and complacent. We don't read the newspaper every day. We don't watch the news every day. We don't want to hear about these things. This is a chance to kind of bring things back into the forefront in a new way.
AVC: So people need a hook, in other words?
MS: I think that my movies are entertaining. This is a fun movie. At the same time, it doesn't taste like medicine. It is the Mary Poppins school of filmmaking: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. There's terrible news in there, but it tastes kind of like cherry.
AVC: First-person filmmakers like yourself, Nick Broomfield, and Michael Moore adopt a sort of "babe in the woods" screen persona that doesn't really mesh with the fact that you aren't as naïve as you appear. Do you see a gap between Morgan Spurlock the man and Morgan Spurlock the screen character?
MS: I think that I'm pretty much who you see onscreen. Are there times when I ask questions of people and have a sense of what their answer may be? Sure. I think that you can't deny that. But you still want to hear from that person, even though you may anticipate what they may say. I am as natural right now as I am when I talk to somebody in the Middle East. It's just trying to be a real person to them. So long as I can be as honest with myself when I make a movie like that, I can continue to be honest with you.
AVC: There are a couple of culturally uncomfortable scenes in the movie that raise questions. The first is in that ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Why exactly were all those people so upset with you?
MS: I found out later, our producer—the guy who was producing the Israel segment for us, and was working for us—said that he'd been [to that neighborhood] before, and he'd never had anything like this happen. They're a very protective society. They don't like outsiders, and don't like cameras and the media. There was a small group of people that was very upset that we were there, and I think the best thing that comes out of that scene, my favorite part of that scene, is the guy who comes forward and really makes it a point to say, "The majority of us, most of us, don't think like them." These 10 people really became aggressive with us, but that one little poignant moment speaks volumes about the whole rest of the journey that we go on. It really is a parallel to a lot of the places we go.
AVC: The second scene that comes to mind is the one where you're in a Saudi mall, approaching women in burkas. Surely you must have known that wasn't going to work out well, right?
MS: The thing is, our producer in Saudi Arabia said that you could approach women, but in typical Saudi culture, most Saudis don't speak to women, and you're not supposed to. It's basically haram, it's forbidden to speak to women. But as a Westerner, he told me, he said I should try and see what happens. Of course, no woman would talk to us there. That was in Riyadh, and Riyadh is much more restrictive and conservative than a city like Jeddah, where you see us in the grocery store. You see more women not covered, or even with their hair not covered.
AVC: Was that the most restrictive place, culturally, that you visited?
MS: I think so. You can see it's restricted, but at the same time, you can see the culture clash that is happening in Saudi Arabian society. This massive Westernization that's happening there, the modernization of this country. There are malls everywhere, and Western fast-food restaurants, and Starbucks, and all these things popping up. And people are railing against that, a small number of people who are like, "We can't have these things here. We need to get back to very simple life, very conservative life, these things are wrong." Most people are embracing this Western lifestyle.
AVC: In terms of Westernization, do you think our aggression in that region might stall the process?
MS: I don't think people associate buying a Coach bag with American aggression somewhere else. Nobody's going in and blowing up the McDonald's in Riyadh.
AVC: Well there have certainly been cases where American businesses have taken the brunt of the blows.
MS: True, but I think most people are still… just from the experience that I had there, I think that people embrace this whole idea of consumerism separately from our foreign policy. They don't associate American foreign policy with American exports. I don't think that's a connection that a lot of them make.
AVC: And that's a point that the movie gets at several times too—that separation between the actions of the American government and who the American people are. The people you encounter seem to have the ability to separate those two.
MS: Which is most people. It was the majority of the people we met. Ninety-nine percent of the people we met.
AVC: Do you think that about Americans? Do you think they have a similar generosity of spirit when they think about people from the Middle East?
MS: You know, that's a good question. I don't know. I think a lot of people that I met do, or have. But I think we live in a very isolated culture in the United States. Seventy-five percent of Americans don't even have passports. We don't even think about traveling beyond our borders. So I think that we have a lack of connection with a lot of these people. The only thing we know is what we see in the news. So maybe a film like this can start to shed a different light on things—you know, more than the kind of two-minute sound bites we get fed in the news.
AVC: Did you feel like you were in danger at any point, or were you pretty well protected?
MS: Oh, there were definitely times when we were in dangerous situations. Even when you're in a car in Kabul, there are guys who ride bicycles who are suicide bombers, so they can weave through traffic and get next to vehicles [near which] they want to detonate themselves. There are scary propositions everywhere you go. You never know, when you're on the streets, or when people start crowding around, who's who. And when somebody gets on a cell phone, maybe they're calling someone to let them know there's an American film crew here, and they should come down. So we tried to stay mobile and move as quickly as we possibly could in all of these areas.
But for me, the scariest time, when you feel the most like a target, was when we were embedded with the military, because those guys are targets every day. We were with the military when there was that Taliban ambush, when they ambushed the governor's convoy. And you see the guy get killed in the movie, the Taliban guy that they shoot. There was a time when we were embedded with them when we were in a convoy, and they discovered an IED not even a kilometer in front of our convoy, and diverted the convoy, and then they went up and detonated the bomb. That was a bomb that was set for us, for this convoy. The week before we arrived, there was a mortar attack on the base. Nobody got hurt, but there was still a mortar attack. I mean, every day, those guys are putting their lives on the line, and they're heroes for what they do.
Your heart's in your throat most of the time. Your stomach's in knots, and it's not just from the MREs. It's in knots because of the situation you're in. And I'm calling Alex [Alexandra Jamieson, his wife] on the phone, and of course I would never tell Alex half of what we're doing, so she's like, "What are you doing?", because she knows we're in Afghanistan, and I'm like, "Well, we met some Army guys. We're just hanging out on the base with them. Everything's fine." In the meantime, all this crazy shit's happening. Alex's comment when she saw the movie was, "I'm never going to believe you again." [Laughs.]
AVC: When did you know you were going to be able to walk around Tora Bora?
MS: We went to Jalalabad, and our fixer there contacted the governor and said we wanted to go to Tora Bora, and he basically arranged for us to go. And those were all his police that he sent with us, as safe as he says it is.
AVC: Like a Universal Studios tour.
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's crazy, right? Yeah, and this guy completely opened it up for us to go there, and arranged for a tour guide to take us there, a local guide. But what we found out after the fact, apart from there being mines and unexploded ordnances within that area, is that there were also al-Qaeda militants, still al-Qaeda factions scattered throughout the hills there, and that's why he sent the police with us, because it is still potentially dangerous out there.
AVC: So how did this whole thing become timed with the pregnancy? Why did you do it when you did?
MS: We had already talked about the movie, and had really started putting the idea of this film together. We were right at the pre-production stage, a few months away from starting shooting, and still trying to find the money to make the movie, when we found out that Alex was pregnant. And that was a real "stop the presses" moment. Because then there's the conversation about whether I'm really going to make this movie now. Is this the smartest thing I could be doing, with a baby on the way? And the more my wife and I talked about it, the more we talked about why it was important to me. And at that point, the movie did take a big shift. It wasn't just about where in the world is Osama bin Laden, and what kind of world creates an Osama bin Laden, but what kind of world am I bringing a kid into? And for me, it was that shift in focus that really made the movie better, ultimately. Because it made it much more personal, and it made the way I looked at why I was making the film a lot different. So it was right at the start. It really did become a big impetus for why I was doing it.
AVC: You talked a little about how people are perhaps complacent, or numbed by war. Who is your audience for this film? How do you reach them?
MS: I think that hopefully, we reach a variety of people. What I would like is, the people who do read The New York Times every day, and do watch the news every day, I think that there's pieces of this movie… You know, I don't see these people that we interview in the movie in the news. I love that we meet regular people, and we talk to folks on the ground, and we go into their homes. Those aren't things that I really get to see a lot of in any news source. And so I think there are elements for people who do have this vast knowledge of what's happening in the world, and in the War On Terror, to see something different. And I think that there's the chance to bridge it into a whole new audience, too. There's a woman that I know, and she's very well-read. She's one of those people who does read the newspaper every day and knows what's happening in the entire geopolitical spectrum. And she took her 14-year-old son to the screening of the movie. And he's a kid who plays PlayStation every day, and plays with his rock band, and could care less about what's happening in the world. But she said after they saw the film, "The two of us had a conversation about what's happening around the world that we've never had before." It bridged a demographic, almost, between the two of them. And formed a bridge for a conversation. So I think the film has the possibility to reach a wide variety of people, and by being funny, I think it has the ability to also do that. You're not being beaten over the head. It doesn't feel like you're being told what to think. I don't like to be told what to think. I don't like to be told what to do. And I think the movie allows you the opportunity to go in, enjoy yourself, but at the same time, kind of walk away with your own ideas.
AVC: It seems more difficult now. There was a documentary boom a few years ago, where it really did seem like docs could cross over.
MS: The penguin movie made $80 million! [Laughs.]
AVC: Exactly. And now that seems to have cooled a little bit.
MS: Last year there were only three docs that broke a million dollars. Sicko—I don't even think you can put Michael Moore in that category, because the guy's on such a whole other level. His last three movies have made more than $20 million, just in the States. The next one was No End In Sight, the film about Iraq that was nominated for an Academy Award, and then From The Earth To The Moon, the film about the space program. And then after that, all the rest of them were under $900,000. So yeah, we'll see what happens this year. There's a lot of great movies that are coming out. Errol Morris' new movie [Standard Operating Procedure] is coming out, and he's a genius filmmaker, the guy's brilliant. So it's ebbs and flows. Hopefully it'll come back up for this movie.
AVC: In regards to 30 Days, what's worse, being in jail for 25 days, or living off minimum wage for 30?
MS: Oh jail's much worse. Jail's so much worse. Because at least when I was living on minimum wage, I got to see Alex every day, I got to go home, and I got to walk outside. Being in a place where you don't even get to go outside is awful. I got transferred to a second jail, where at least I got to walk from the one building to the mess hall at the end of the day, where the drug rehab was. But the first jail, you can't even look outside the window. My windows were smoked, so when you walk to the gym, which you got to do one day a week, you could see into the inner courtyard, and in the inner courtyard, there's no trees, there's no grass. So you had no vision of nature. You had no idea what season it was.
AVC: Did you feel like you were being rehabilitated in a profound way?
MS: Completely! [Laughs.] I don't wish jail on anybody, because it's such a terrible experience.
AVC: What has been the most enlightening or surprising experiment you've done on that show?
MS: I'm in two of the episodes this year. In one, I go back home to West Virginia and I work as an underground coal miner for 30 days in my home state of West Virginia. And then in the other one, I live on the Navajo reservation for 30 days, and just kind of explore Indian culture in America, kind of what's happened to Native Americans in the last however many hundreds of years. I think the experience that I had on the Indian reservation was really fantastic and profound, and I got a lot out of it. And to this day, I'm affected by that.
AVC: And the coal mining?
MS: With coal mining, it was great to be back home, in my home state, and hang out with the kind of people I grew up around, people I grew up with, people who work in that mine. And these are guys who go do backbreaking work every single day of their lives, just so you and I can turn on our computers, or plug in our phones, or turn on a light switch. Fifty percent of our power in the United States still comes from coal, which is hard to believe.
AVC: Was there a lot of anxiety among the people you were with? There have been so many collapses recently.
MS: While I was underground, while we were shooting there, was when the tragedy happened in Utah with the mine collapse. So it's scary. You go under there, and it is the blackest black you could ever imagine. There is nothing more dark than that. You turn off the light on your helmet, and you can't even see your hand two inches in front of your face. Those guys are rock stars for what they do. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like the essential work of that hasn't changed.
MS: The equipment gets a little better, but still, you're walking around in a mine, and I was working in "high coal," which basically means it's higher than three feet, so you're not having to crawl around on your hands and knees. The mine that I worked in was about five feet tall, and I'm 6-feet-2, so the entire time, you're walking around kind of hunched over. You're carrying stuff that weighs 40 or 50 pounds while you're bent like the Wicked Witch, trying to carry things through. Massive backache. After my first day in the mine, I was so sore. I was all banged up. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but not even close. Coal miners are just a whole other level of being in shape. I don't know if it's muscle tone or body preparedness. I don't know.
AVC: What are your thoughts on the upcoming election? Are you excited about it?
MS: I tell you what's exciting. The thing that excites me the most are my nieces and nephew, who are folks that fall completely into that apathetic category. They can vote, and they could care less. But this year, I saw them over Christmas and they were talking about the candidates, and they were talking about what's happening. There's been this explosion of interest in this kind of non-voting culture, of young kids 18 to 25, that I haven't seen in a long time. And so if this election actually inspires kids to go out, kids in that age group to actually go out and become a part of the process, then that would be amazing.