Recently, OC Movie Reviews sat down for a nice chat with Morgan Spurlock, the man who almost ate himself to death in Super Size Me and who also tried to find Osama Bin Laden, because, why not?
We covered a range of subjects from how it all started for this self-confessed hillbilly, to how he is now on the verge of becoming the next Colonel Sanders to what documentary he’d really like to make next.
Mark: How did you get into film making and in particular documentary making? What started it all for you?
Morgan Spurlock: I mean, ever since I was a kid all I ever wanted to do is make movies and TV shows and, and tell stories. I was a constant writer, I was always journaling and writing stories of some sort, and so once I learned you could actually go to school and learn how to make movies and and do that as an actual career I was like: “oh, my gosh, you changed my life forever” and that was the path I was on and was all I all I ever wanted
M: And what was it that pushed you into documentaries, as opposed to say, feature films?
MS: I didn’t go to college thinking I was gonna’ make documentaries, but once I got there and started studying documentary films, I took a class on documentary films, and around that time was when some really great documentaries started coming out. I remember Fast, Cheap And Out Of Control had just come out, you know, Michael Moore’s first film had come out. Brother’s Keeper had just come out, like there are a lot of these movies that I just became really enamoured by, Hoop Dreams had come out. It was one of those things, I just fell in love with documentaries, I started to go see them in movie theaters, I grew up in West Virginia and documentaries would never play in a movie theatre, just never happened, and to suddenly now be in a city where there were movie theaters that were showing runs of documentaries for extended periods of time, I mean it really kind of changed the way that I looked at these films. Growing up they had this very specific identity of being medicine, of being something that was only in an educational environment or on public television, and that transformed very much for me in the nineties and when I got to New York City.
M: Who would you say inspires you in the documentary space?
MS: I mean, I think there’s a lot of people that do, you know of course: Michael Moore, Joe Berlinger. I love, Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple, D. A. Pennebaker. I love that I got to meet and spend time with someone like him and Al Maysles. There’s just a lot of folks that I really look up to and admire. Errol Morris, of course, I love Errol Morris.
M: What made you return to the Super Size Me ‘realm’, if you like, after all this time?
MS: Well, I mean, I talked for years about doing some kind of a sequel around it, and there were different iterations that we’d start to explore, like once we talked about trying to unionize McDonald’s. There was an amazing film that was made, I think it was called Maxime, McDuff & McDo, it was a French Canadian documentary about these filmmakers who went in and tried to unionize McDonald’s in, somewhere, I think Quebec, and it’s fantastic. It was such a great little movie and it just kind of shows the power and influence that this company has. And so we said, well what if we did that here in New York? We started talking to those filmmakers about them potentially co-producing it with us, since it was their idea, I wanted them to kind of help steer me down the path. And then I started making Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden and that kind of fell off by the wayside. And then there was another iteration of this, after unionizing, that started looking at animal practices, and I think that that really does transfer a lot in the film we have right now.
I remember when Food Inc. came out, we talked about, like a Super Size Me 2, that looked at the food practices, and Food Inc. does an amazing job of showing people where their food came from in a specific way that we said; well, that was already done so well, I don’t think we need to kind of tackle this. And then when we got the idea of kind of pulling the curtain back on the corporatocracy, becoming Ray Kroc, like what if I became Ray Kroc? What if I became Colonel Sanders and I literally show you everything that goes into starting one of these restaurants? From how the food is made, all the way up to how I sell it to you? That was when I was like: that’s a good idea, that’s something that’s really different, that could be really fun. It wasn’t until we start going down the path that we started to see how twisted and dark things could become, and I think that’s what’s really special about the movie and really eye opening.
M: And how much did you know about the industry, and what you were getting into, beforehand?
MS: I mean, I think we’ve all seen the terrible videos of the chickens and pigs and cows all packed into the pens where they can’t move. So, you have that sense of it. But you also think that if something is labelled in a specific way then it is produced in a better way. If there’s a farmer who’s working in that type of environment, then he’s also being treated fairly and is being rewarded economically, that there are people that are making ethical choices that benefit me and you and the food system in general. It wasn’t until we really started getting in and raising our own birds that you start to see how much of that manipulation is falsehood. Like, how much of that is just us being fed a bill of goods, that’s completely inaccurate.
M: From watching the documentary there’s a definite split between the animal welfare side of things, and, almost, the human welfare side of things. Did you find it difficult to get that mix right and get them both in?
MS: It’s a line that you want to walk and it’s a line that I try to walk in everything that I make; I want you to be entertained, I want it to be fun, but at the same time we want it to be, you know, really meaty, you want it to be something that has some real muscle on the bone and I think that the film does a good job of doing that.
The way farmers are treated in America is really eye opening to me, and we’ve heard for a long time about how tough it is for farmers, but you think that in today’s world that if a farmer is doing what it takes to survive and he’s actually being able to maintain his farm and keep up his job, then he’s doing something right, and that somehow the company’s are rewarding him for that. For me I thought it was mind blowing to see how these farmers are essentially indentured servants to these giant corporations, and they are so taken advantage of, and so literally shackled to these businesses, sometimes with millions of dollars in debt, that they have no choice but to continue to be stuck in a terrible situation.
M: Do you think that was the most surprising thing that you learned on the whole journey that you went on?
MS: I think that, combined with how…again you want to believe that when you’re buying something that’s labelled a certain way and this labelling falls under the federal government, that you’re thinking “well, the governments at least looking out for me”, like, “they’re there to protect me”, and then you realize, “holy shit, no, no one is there to protect me, nobody’s there to look out for me, nobody’s there to help me, nobody’s there that I can trust. So, what am I doing?”.
M: What’s been the reaction to the film from people?
MS: [laughs] I think it’s positive. People get upset that I ruined chicken for them [laughs]. But I think on the whole, you know it’s not that I’m out to ruin chicken for you, I’m out to help you try to find a more rewarding chicken experience. I love chicken, I love a good chicken sandwich, I love a good crispy chicken sandwich, as we talk about in the film, but I think that we’ve been so blinded by the manipulation that we don’t know what that even means anymore.
I think part of what the film does a great job of doing is putting you down a path of, again, taking ownership of the choices you make. Of really understanding what this terminology means, understanding how the marketing has kind of misled you and misled us into buying, believing and eating certain things and also understanding how you can change that. You know not only by the choices you make but who you buy from, who you support, who you vote for, all of those things matter.
M: That’s interesting, so you’re still eating chicken then? Do you still eat chicken from fast food places?
MS: I eat fast food from Holy Chicken, but it’s a very different chicken experience, but I won’t go to Chick-fil-A, I don’t eat McChicken sandwiches. But I live in a very fortunate place, in New York City, every weekend around the corner from my house, literally it just stopped last week, last week was the last weekend of the farmer’s market, chicken farmers from less than fifty miles outside of town, come to New York City set up their little booth and sell me a chicken that he raised on his farm, that he slaughtered himself that he put in the bag. I know exactly where it came from. I think that the same thing happens in London, you have access to better food, and we have the ability to make better choices, if we choose to do that.
I think that there’s a lot of people who don’t have that option, who live essentially in a food desert, where those types of opportunities are either a) over priced, for them, because the number one deciding factor now, for food choice in America, is cost. So everybody’s looking for the lowest common denominator and the cheapest option. So how do we make it 1) available to them and also affordable to them? That’s been the big push right now, how do we accomplish that?
M: So, from your experience of both Super Size Me films: do you think this set up, the way that the big companies were behaving towards chicken farmers, do you think that’s endemic across other industries as well? Do you think it’s the same whether you’re a chicken farmer, you’ve got cows or whatever, but do you think it’s all the same?
MS: Well, I think, at the minute, you have what is essentially a monopoly and the companies will push back and say it’s not a monopoly, because there’s multiple companies, there are multiple places you can buy birds from, but it is a cooperative monopoly. These companies collude with one another: they speak to one another, they price fix with one another. They make sure they know which farmers are trouble makers, Jonathan Buttram (the farmer in Super Size Me 2) is a great example, he’s been a whistle blower for years and someone who has spoken out against the industry and he is now blackballed by the industry for doing so, for being so vocal and speaking out.
So, where there are those types of instances, I say yes, this is not a single industry problem. I think that the more you have consolidation of industry, which is happening worldwide, the more you have fifty companies become twenty become fifteen, become ten, become five, this is going to be an ongoing problem and you’re going to see these companies be able to exert and have more control over the people who work for them, to the point where you aren’t gonna have a choice but to do what they say and get stuck with it. Because the other thing is happening in the United States is, any protection that these people had, has been destroyed because they are crushing unions left and right around the country, no matter what the industry is. Whether that’s the coal industry, whether it’s the oil industry, whether that’s the chicken or food industry. Unions now have this incredibly negative connotation to them, because the companies have convinced people that it’s hurting them, that these unions are hurting their cost, that it’s these unions that are hurting their ability to get food to them or produce a product that’s accessible or affordable, and it is lunacy. It is unbelievable the narrative that’s been created.
M: And that’s being spun from these large corporates?
MS: One hundred percent, one hundred percent, it comes from a manipulation of the system by the corporatocracy.
M: And I presume the government probably know about it, but are doing nothing about it?
MS: Well, no, the government’s complicit in it, because what’s also happening is regulations are getting rolled back, because these corporations are backing candidates that they can get in the office that will support their missions, that will basically be their they’re whipping boys in Congress. So they’re one hundred percent in cahoots with these companies. The minute they take a penny from them to get elected, they know exactly what they’re getting in return.
M: Have you had contact from outside of the States, are people saying that this is the same in my country?
MS: There have been people from around the world who have talked about how they see this same type of influence coming into their country. You know, the UK is a great example where the rise of these mega chicken farms is continuing to grow, again, because cost is such a driving factor of expectation. And so you’re having these birds that are being raised in these farms, these giant factory farms, where each bird is getting a one foot, twelve inch by twelve inch space, to live their whole life in and it’s disturbing. But, again, how do you give people the most food for the least amount of money? That’s what we’re fighting against.
M: There was a moment in the film, towards the end, when people are sat in your restaurant, eating your food and then there’s this slow dawn of realisation as to what is actually going on. They see the photos, they see the messages, but what amazed me is, no-one stops eating. Everyone acknowledged what was around them and kind of shrugged and said ‘well it still tastes good, I’m going to keep eating’. It was quite astonishing. So what’s happened since the end of the film and that restaurant?
MS: So, the one that was in Columbus Ohio closed after we did the pop up in Columbus, we did another pop up in New York, when the film opened here in the States. We are now closing investment with financiers to turn Holy Chicken into an ongoing enterprise. Which is amazing, because what Holy Chicken does an amazing job of doing, and you summed it up so perfectly, is that people didn’t stop eating the food, because what we did is we created an incredibly, craveable, delicious sandwich. We have made food that tastes, incredible. So the food tastes great, that’s number one, but simultaneously what we’re doing is, well there’s two things that are happening: one, I’m giving you what you want, and what you want is a delicious grilled, crispy chicken sandwich that makes you feel better about it, just because you’re in this place. So that’s what you want. But what you need is an education. What Holy Chicken does a great job of doing is pulling that curtain back and giving you that education in a way that you haven’t gotten somewhere else. I’m not hectoring you and telling you what to believe I’m literally just, in a fun, delightful, shocking way, telling you the truth. I’m being honest in a way that no other food restaurant has. In a way that no other fast food restaurant has, in a way that no other chicken retailer has. And so there’s an appreciation for that on one level, there’s a disgust for that on another level [laughs].
But what also happens with the people who come is, they want to bring other people back. They want other people to come experience the same thing. So, it’s been an awesome thing to witness and the number of people that want to share this message and again, if we made a shitty sandwich, nobody would have stayed, no-one would have come, people would have just left. But since the food is so great, they stay. Since they get to talk to farmer Jonathan, the chicken farmer who basically told them the plight of a chicken farmer, and they got to meet the guy who grew the birds that, are like literally sitting on their sandwich, that’s transformative. You know, suddenly to have that conversation with the person who touched your food, actually made it possible. So, I think that I think there’s an amazing kind of window of opportunity for Holy Chicken to shake the trees in a way that just hasn’t happened.
M: So you’re going to be a restauranteur?
MS: Well, you know I I love a good crispy chicken sandwich so we’ll see what happens.
M: And so I guess that brings things on to an interesting kind of conundrum, then, which is if you start opening lots of these restaurants, whether you go into franchise or, however it’s going to work, you’re going to end up getting to the point where you are going to need more chicken. Are people going to be willing to give them to you?
MS: Well this is the whole thing, the whole reason Johnathan Buttram was our chicken guru because he is like one of the smartest guys around and he basically knows that there are so many chicken farmers that don’t want to work for big chicken. There are so many chicken farmers that want out from under the thumb of Tyson, Perdue, Koch Food, Sanderson.
In the United States, one percent of the chicken that you buy, one percent, comes from independent chicken farmers. Ninety nine percent of it comes from these giant chicken conglomerates. So, if we could swing that pendulum, you know literally from one percent, to two percent, just that little bit, where we create more independent chicken farmers who don’t have to work for those companies who are growing chicken in a better way, a smarter way, a more ethical way, that they’re growing it within twenty five, thirty miles of where it’s actually being served on a bun in a Holy Chicken, then that’s amazing. In success, as more of these are created, more chicken farmers will line up because nobody wants to work for those companies. Nobody wants to continue to support the way they do business. Nobody agrees with their ethical standards or mandates and I think that everybody’s ready for something better, smarter and more rewarding.
M: We had a question from Curt Wiser who asks: “What policy cultural change do you hope Super Size Me 2 will inspire”?
MS: I think that if it made people start to question and make choices that supported independent farmers, independent growers, I think that the next big thing, there was a real movement a few years ago, where there was this slow food movement. Where it was like slow down, let’s start cooking and eating in our home again. Let’s start sitting around the dinner table, something I try to do with my kids as often as I can, I made chicken pot pie last night out of the leftover chicken from the night before, we sat around the table last night and had a great meal. Those meals matter, those are meals that I grew up having, that we all have, that we want to make sure come back. So the slow food movement did a great job of reminding us how important those meals are.
I think the next thing that’s happening is a small food movement. There’s been this big food push, the big conglomerates, these mega corporations who continue to buy up every company and it’s happening in food and it’s happening in media, one by one by one we’re seeing everybody get gobbled up. The next push, and I believe in this and I think that’s why Holy Chicken, you know, really has an opportunity to do something impactful, the next thing is small food. It’s small food, it’s small farmers it’s real local connection. It’s knowing the guy that hands you the carrot or that makes your bun or hands you the soda. I think that the McFood world is slowly whittling down. There’s not as many millennials that want to go to a McDonalds or a Burger King, as there once was. There’s a nostalgia that is associated with those places that piece by piece by piece is getting chipped away. And I think that, the more that places like this can come along, the more I believe there can be an ever growing impact, and a change of importance in the way that we look at our food.
M: What’s next for you, then, besides…
MS: Besides coming a chicken magnate [we both laugh]
MS: Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple projects that I’m cooking up but you know, right now, Holy Chicken is taking all my time and the hope is that we can get this teed up and going and open our first couple of restaurants next year and once those are kind of off and running I can I can focus on another movie.
M: I read that you had been into rehab a while back?
MS: Yeah – next Friday, the thirteenth or fourteenth, will be two years, two years sober, which is yeah, it’s awesome.
MS: I wish I’d done it ten years ago.
M: Surrounding that was this notice that you put out on Twitter Initially, and I don’t want to get too far into it, but I was interested more in the timing of it.
MS: Yeah, it probably wasn’t the best time when I made the decision that I needed to change my life and I need to take control of things and, had I actually communicated that with someone, because I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, I didn’t talk to one person that I worked with, I didn’t talk to a publicist, I didn’t talk to my wife, I just basically did it. Had I spoken to someone, I probably would have been given some sage wisdom to have waited and given myself a little bit of time to have said that I need to straighten myself out a little. But yeah I, I don’t, I don’t live with regret. I regret how it impacted so many people who worked with me, I hate how sixty five people got put out of work two weeks before Christmas, I hate the impact it had on my family and the burden it’s put on my wife, my kids, but I feel better than I have in years, and it’s one of those things, as I said before, I wish I would have taken my life in my own hands a little bit sooner. But, you know, clarity’s an interesting thing, you can’t determine when that’s going to happen, and the moment of clarity I had was that the moment when I needed it to happen apparently.
M: And are you still feeling the ramifications of that, in terms of dealing with businesses and people in industry. Are they stand-off-ish or has it been forgotten?
MS: I think it’s a little bit of everything. It still comes up. You and I are still talking about it. The film is coming out. So, I think things just take time and I’m someone who lived so quickly for so long where I was doing so many projects at once, everything was moving very fast in my life, and I like things moving very fast, but literally the brakes got put on everything, and maybe that’s ultimately what I needed. Maybe I needed the breaks to be put on to have a better understanding of where I was going and what I wanted to accomplish and what was important in my life. These moments do an incredible job of forcing you to really recognize what’s most valuable, and the time that I’ve been able to spend at home with my kids, while I’ve been determining which projects I want to make, because now I don’t have sixty people in my office that can help me chase twenty things at once. I have me in my office picking them one at a time so that dramatically changes your creative focus and what you deem to be the most important. So I think that it’s a good reset that I’ve had and it’s one that I’m really grateful for.
M: So the final question from me then: Putting aside any thoughts of resource or money or anything like that. What would be the one subject that you would like to cover in a documentary?
MS: Oh man, that’s a great question.
MS: Yeah, you know what, it’s like: I love Bowling For Columbine, it’s such a great film, but I think we’re at a time now where there needs to be another examination of gun culture in America and in a way that can resonate with people in a big way. Because, here’s the thing, I’m not anti gun, I’m a hillbilly, I grew up in West Virginia, I grew up hunting my whole life. I don’t have a problem with guns. I’m a country boy, I have guns. I think there’s a story to tell that I think can be very accessible, but tell a story that is incredibly needed in America right now, because things do have to change when it comes to gun culture in United, States.
M: That sounds awesome, I think you should definitely do that.
MS: Yeah, thanks man.