When I met Morgan Spurlock for an interview to discuss his latest film, it certainly happened in a Hyatt. POM Wonderful bottles were placed neatly on the table, and the director himself was sporting some Merells. Most importantly, Spurlock was wearing The Suit, as seen in the film. Soon to be seen in his visual appearances, it subjects him to the same literal branding of a NASCAR vehicle. Previously, Morgan Spurlock went up against the McDonald's menu for his smash documentary, Super Size Me. His newest challenge, with his funding process shown step-by-step in his new film, is product placement. Sponsored 100% by other companies, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold shows how aggressively blatant advertising has infiltrated the content of popular media, while giving moviegoers a rare look into the science behind such a billion dollar business.
In a roundtable interview, I discussed with Spurlock the meaning behind his unique idea, the process of how the funding for this movie came together, what the "Worst Movie Ever Sold" is, and more.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens on April 22nd.
When you were making this project, did doors open a lot more because the companies knew your name, or was it something else?
I think it was both. Some doors cracked just a little bit, and they listened. And a lot of others were slammed shut and locked. People would say, “I saw what you did to that other company, why do we want to be a part of this?” That was the end of the conversation. But the whole reason people even started calling us back was the success of those other movies. If this was the very first film that I had ever made, and no one had heard of me or anything that I had done, I think this movie would have been impossible.
And it happened really quick. Two years ago, concept, and here we are.
Super Size Me was even faster, which was remarkable. From the time we got the idea for Super Size Me to when it went into Sundance was exactly a year. I got the idea on Thanksgiving 2002, and we got in the day after Thanksgiving 2003.
One of my favorite scenes is when you’re making the phone calls, “Why would we put Morgan Spurlock in our jeans?” etc. What did this experience teach you about your own marketability?
It taught me that I am quintessentially unmarketable. I am very pale, I am very unattractive, I am definitely not a model. Maybe a model citizen, but I’m definitely not someone to go on a billboard. I’m a model citizen more than a fashion model. That’s what I realized – “Wow, I am not nearly as handsome as I thought I was.”
So it was a personal attack …
I would call up people, and they would say, “Absolutely not. Why would we put you in an advertisement?” Nobody wants Average Joe Morgan Spurlock on a billboard. I said, “Why not?” Well, one person actually said to me, “Look in a mirror.” Some people said terrible things.
I think the movie said that [you made] 600 phone calls. And you’ve got more sponsors since.
By the time the movie comes out, there will be twenty-three sponsors promoting the film.
Were there a couple times that you thought, “This person wants to be on it, but I’m not going to be drinking a beer during the entire thing.”
We avoided alcohol because we wanted to be able to get this movie into schools when we were done. We called cigarette companies, because [I thought] “Wouldn’t it be funny?” since cigarette companies can’t advertise. And we called companies that could use a boost of integrity. We called BP and said, “Listen, you guys need help. You need to sponsor this movie.” They wanted nothing to do with it. We called arms companies like Remington, and said, “You guys are getting a bad rap, how great would it be to have The Greatest Rifle You’ll Ever Own?” And they were interested up to a point where they said, “This isn’t gonig to work out.”
Has this been an overdose of consumerism for you? I know you’re interested in the subject, with Super Size Me, especially. Has this made you more interested in the topic, or are you moving into an ashram afterward?
What this film will do for those who see it, as it has done for me, is that it will ruin film and television forever. Literally. You will notice everything. You will see every bit of advertising and marketing, and not just in movies and TV. You’ll see all the advertising and marketing that literally goes on in your every day life. It will make you so hyper aware of all that target advertising, which I think is a great thing. And when people see this film, you will think about things on a much deeper level about where we draw the line. It really makes you ask that question, “Where does it stop?” “Do we really need to live in a world where everything is brought to you by a sponsor?” When you leave the movie, you will think about POM Wonderful, you will definitely be thinking about Mane ‘N Tail. [That company] didn’t pay a dime for their involvement.
You’re great also with seeing what’s going to be interesting when it comes to filmmaking. So when you met Linda Resnik, when you see someone who is eccentric, and you see her jewelry collection …
She is such a character. She is such a fascinating person, and she knows it. She really is a commanding presence. Youcan tell this is someone I should listen to. All of the scenes we shot with her were amazing.
In your opinion, what is the worst movie ever sold?
Mac and Me. Did you ever see that terrible film? McDonald’s paid for the whole movie. It is the worst movie you’ll ever see. Somewhere, there was a person at a meeting who was like, “You know what movie was great was that E.T. What if we had an alien come to Earth, and he loves to McDonald’s?” Literally there is an alien that loves fast food. There’s a dance sequence that goes down right in the middle of the restaurant. Ronald McDonald is in the movie. The whole thing is the most blatant terrible thing you’ll ever watch in your life. The whole thing is a ninety-minute commercial.
When you were putting the sound and editing, that’s got to be the hardest thing to decide who you want to show more of, which interviews you really want to use to get the full picture …
I really wanted George Foreman to give me tips on being a spokesperson. But then we got Donald Trump, and the interview was fantastic. I really wanted an A-list actor, I really wanted to talk to someone in a film who said, “That’s interesting,” [holds up a POM Wonderful drink to show the label]. We could never get a person to address it because there is a fear of repercussions. The fact that we got the directors (J.J Abrams) we got to talk was amazing, but these people were established with success so much that they didn’t have to worry about it. Ultimately, at the end of the movie, the last thirty minutes of that film, we shot probably within six weeks last fall. We had edited the first hour of the movie, started working with the marketing in schools, then John McHugh, musical supervisor for the film, who I literally had lunch with in L.A, said, “If you’re going to make The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you’ve got to have a great soundtrack.” That was around the end of October. So literally at the beginning of November we start calling bands, and that’s when we get Big Boi, we get Matt & Kim, we get OK GO. Big Boi and Matt & Kim do the mash-up that’s at the end of the film, OK GO did the theme song for the movie, literally all of that happened within five weeks. Then all of the marketing was taking place at the end of November, beginning of December. That last thirty minutes was shot when literally I was traveling everywhere to knock that out, it was amazing. The Jimmy Kimmel bit, I called him up, and said, “Here’s what the film is, we can talk about it at the beginning,” he loved it, and he said, “We go on hiatus next week. Can you be here Tuesday?” I flew to Boston and met Matt & Kim, I flew to Colorado to talk to OK GO, flew to L.A to do the Jimmy Kimmel thing, and then flew back to New York. The Jimmy Kimmel thing airs I think the week it comes out.
How easy was it to get OK GO on board with the project, and what is your favorite OK GO music video?
Well, when are we going to make the Greatest Video Ever Made? I like the Rude Goldberg video (“This Too Shall Pass”). Was “White Knuckles” the one with the dogs? Spectacular. I met them first on tour, just to talk about the film, and just to say “Would you be interested in this? I’d love to interview you.” I showed them where we were with the film. And they were like, “Yeah, we’d love to be a part of it, you can come interview us.” So they didn’t know they were writing the theme song until I interviewed them, on the spot. And they said, “Absolutely, we will do it.”
Did you give them any lyrical cues?
No, I said “We want to make the theme song for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” so Damian Kulash [lead singer, guitarist] says, “Yeah, it should be the greatest song I’ve ever heard.” And I said, “Yes, it should.” And then the song they came up with is awesome. It’s epic, and anthemic. I love the line where it’s like, “We solved all of our problems with bigger problems.” It’s so perfect.
Have you realized that you’re being discussed so much in marketing textbooks now?
That’s amazing. I run into health teachers all of the time who say they show Super Size Me in their classes, which I think is pretty amazing.
How did your experience with Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden affect how you would handle this next project?
Well, it made me say, “I’m not going to go to a warzone again. I’m not going to go anywhere where someone can shoot at me.” Out of Super Size Me, Bin Laden, and even “30 Days,” this is the funniest movie we’ve made. It definitely is the most accessible, and the most commercial. It has been the most well received. For me, what I really wanted to make sure when I was going into this was to make a movie that was really engaging and fun, and at the same time really dealt with something. Which I think Super Size Me does a great job of, and I think this one does a great job of. But I’m a real believer that if you make someone laugh, you can make someone listen. Through the humor of this film, we get people in a much deeper conversation, almost without realizing it. So when you leave, there is much more that will stay with you.
POM was one of the first to sign on, but [as you’ve said previously] other groups signed on after the movie had screened [at Sundance]. Was it like they said, “This [film] is okay now”?
That’s exactly right. It’s about “Once I know it’s safe.” And, “Once I know I won’t get thrown under the bus.” It’s like you take the car across the country, and someone is like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take it in for you” and they park it in the garage.
At Old Navy, they have fun with their marketing.
That’s why we went to them in the beginning. But they said “No.” They had a change over in leadership, so the person who came in was savvy and smart. And you guys should talk to the CMO of Hyatt, Stacy Snider, she’s great.
And Hyatt was one of the first on board.
Hyatt was one of the first three. Ban was first, POM was second, and Hyatt was probably third. Ban coming on made POM say yes. POM was like, “Well, if Ban deodorant is on board, then we’ll do this.” Once Hyatt came on, it gave a tremendous amount of credibility to the film, because it’s a Fortune 500 company.
How pivotal do you feel the handlebar mustache is to your image?
The minute I shave it off, I am invisible. It’s like Clark Kent. When he takes his glasses off, it’s like “Where did Superman go?” But he’s in the room. For me and my mustache, I am gone, I disappear, no one recognizes me, and it’s great. Anytime I go on vacation, first thing I do is shave the mustache. And then my girlfiend is on vacation with another man.
Speaking of invisible, I saw you at SXSW, before Fightville. And you were just standing there, and I thought people would be coming after to you.
It’s great. People leave me alone. Plus I’m not Tom Cruise.
But you were at a documentary screening.
I was at a documentary. I really liked that film a lot.
Do you see yourself as a celebrity?
I see myself as fortunate that I have a job. The whole reason to make the film is to hopefully make the next one. [The next one] being Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope, which we are editing right now. It will be done later this year. The goal is to show it at Comic-Con, or to show a teaser at Comic-Con.
The little boy in the film is your son.
Yes. You see him at the end of the film, when we are walking past the river together, with the Merrills. But it’s not my son in the bathtub, during the JetBlue scene. Let me tell you a story. So I have my son, Laken, in the bathtub, with the horse. He had no problem being in the bathtub with a horse. But the moment I started washing his hair, literally, a meltdown. “AAH!!” “AAHH!” He was so unhappy. I felt so, so, so terrible. I felt like an awful father. So I said, “You know what? We should have a stunt kid standing by.” So we hired a stunt kid, in case it didn’t work out, so the minute my baby started crying, we literally took him out of the bathtub and put in “Faken,” my fake kid. In place of Laken, “Faken” was in the tub, smiling. Once we shot that spot, the next thing we were shooting was the JetBlue spot. And we said, “We’ve got to use the same kid.” But I thought to myself, “You know how great this is – this whole thing plays into the conversation I have with Rick Kern about faction. I said, “Commercials are a slice of life. But they’re fiction.” So I said, “With the commercials, I should have my fake kid. That makes it even better.” We didn’t even realize it after we shot the Mane ‘n Tail thing. You don’t see my real son until the end, until we are away from everything.