Interview: Morgan Spurlock Finds His New Direction


Over the years, there have been many great movies that captured a band at the height of their popularity–A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, for example, are great examples of how the Beatles were captured on film during their early days of being chased by screaming fans. That’s not to compare “X-Factor” supergroup boy band One Direction to the Beatles–although those comparisons have been made many times in recent years.

Hopefully, before you read the words “One Direction” and click away, you’re already aware of what separates One Direction: This Is Us from other recent concert docs. The big difference is that it was put together by a seriously experienced, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker in Morgan Spurlock, who is doing something a little different from his last few movies and television shows.

Mixing 3D concert footage of the musical group with behind-the-scenes footage of their 2013 tour, the Super Size Me director has created a movie that will surely appeal to One Direction fans while also giving “non-Directioners” a view into why they’ve achieved such popularity. The movie even has a cameo by director Martin Scorsese, who has made more than a few concert films himself. got on the phone with Spurlock this past weekend to talk about making the movie that is likely to be seen by larger audiences than even his biggest movie to date, Super Size Me. I’ve obviously followed your work for a while and all the subjects of your movies are very different, but when your name was announced to direct this one, I think everyone was really shocked and surprised. Did Simon Cowell come to you to direct it?
Morgan Spurlock:
The studio came to me first. I got a phone call first from Sony asking if I was interested, so from there it kind of began the vast array of meetings that had to happen after that. I went from talking to them to meeting with Adam Milano, who runs Simon Cowell’s production company (Syco), then to management and then I met with the band for the first time then back to the studio, then Hannah Minghella, then back to Syco and meeting with Simon. Then Simon became a big proponent of me directing the film, so it was good. He was a real advocate of me coming on board from the beginning.

CS: Is this the first time as a director where you really had to sell yourself? Most of the time you have your own ideas and are developing them on your own without needing studio backing.
Usually the only time I ever have to sell myself before is filmmakers to investors–you have to sell yourself to people who are going to give you money. With a film like this where there’s already a studio behind it and financing already in place, I had to really pitch myself for the project. One of the first questions was, “Well, what is this movie going to be about or what is it going to be?” and I said, “Well, first off, I’m not going to be in one frame of this movie.” And they were like, “Great, that’s a great place to start. Let’s start there.” I think the fact that I made “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” the year before, which I think is a beautiful compelling film that does a couple things. One is I think it really does show love for fans, being a geek myself and “Comic-Con Episode IV” does show a tremendous love for fandom, which I think is what the studio was looking for, not someone who will create a “Trekkiefest” film that makes fun of fans, whether it be geeks or “Directioners” with this movie. So I had to prove that I could make a film that’s compelling, that’s engaging, that tells a fantastic linear story but that doesn’t involve me in a part or doing voice-over.

CS: One of the things about One Direction is that they became a huge phenomenon really quickly and if we were around in the ‘60s, we’d probably be trying to figure out why the Beatles created such a fervor.
Yeah, why are the kids so crazy for them? What is it?

CS: Was that something that interested you that you wanted to get out of making the movie for yourself?
The big question from the beginning of this is “Why? Why them? Why are they so compelling? Why are they the ones that exploded the way that they have instead of so many others?” I think along the way, a lot of those questions get answers, at least answered from us, at least from a fan perspective, like why do fans love them? I think you get to see over the course of this movie how genuine these guys are, how normal they are–which I think really resonates with their fanbase–and the fact that they haven’t let all of this incredible fame and success go to their heads. They haven’t imploded as a result of this in the last three years, and I think a lot of that is because of the fact that each one of these guys has four other guys in this band that understands exactly what he’s going through. He has somebody to vent to, and I think that helps.

CS: I have to say that the screening I attended was a very interesting experience. I was one of only five guys in the theater… I think two of them were fathers with girls.

CS: But there were girls crying and screaming when the movie started, and I’ve never really been in a situation with a movie like that before.
To me, that’s a great way to experience this film, because it is a fun movie, it really is an enjoyable film. I think that these guys are incredibly charismatic and it pops off the screen, but seeing it with the fans and in that environment, it becomes electric. It really is an electric screening when that’s happening, the way they react and the way they involve themselves with the storyline with these guys is remarkable.

CS: Did you approach doing a concert doc differently from your other films? Where did you start out? You obviously were going to shoot 3D concert footage…
Well the biggest thing for me is that a lot of time when you watch these other movies, they almost feel like two separate movies. It feels like here’s the concert and here’s the documentary that they then tried to wedge together into a cohesive film, which I don’t feel they really work in a lot of ways. With this film, one of the big goals for me right from the start was making sure that from concert to doc footage, everything weaved seamlessly together so it all felt like one complete linear story. I think we really pulled that off and I think it really works. I think the songs support and play into every bit of narrative that’s happening in the film. Nothing is ever jarring, everything from whether it be a story at home or a story that’s being told through song at a concert all create one throughline. The other songs support the story that we’re telling with the doc and the doc launches into the songs that are happening within the shows. I think that really works, so that was one of my big goals and just in terms of how it would look, I loved “U23D”–I think it was probably by far the best concert 3D that I’d seen up until this movie. So we went to Tom Krueger who was the DP on that. Tom Krueger came onto this film and completely outdid himself. The 3D in this movie is spectacular and the technology has changed a lot, the accessibility you can do, the size of the cameras, the way you can maneuver them. So much has changed since they made that film and I think for this film the 3D really just explodes off the screen.

CS: Were you able to shoot some of the interviews in 3D as well or was it mainly the concert footage shot in 3D?
We did a post convert on the behind-the-scenes footage so the entire film has been converted, which makes those moments when they’re at home, in those environments, seem much more intimate, but when you’re not lighting those situations it doesn’t really film the way that the concert does.

CS: I was impressed by the inventive use of CG during the concert footage, stuff that was used to enhance it later. Can you talk about that, because I thought the footage was amazing, but some of the stuff you added was very cool.
Oh, awesome. The goal to me was to also really enhance the concert in a way where we weren’t just watching them perform on a stage, that we did kind of push the 3D and that interactivity in a very fun and kind of pop direction to even just turn up the level of the popped-off meter a little bit so for one thing where we’re having the words of the song 3D out into the audience over us, to “Teenage Dirtbag” where they’re using a lot of comic book imagery to support the story of the song, then having that come to life through their performance on stage, as well as “Kiss You” where the background screen for that is the boys singing over this video game montage and they’re seeing the video games almost coming to life within the arena at the concert. For me, I thought those three songs really lended themselves well (to that). When I saw the show for the first time way back in February, I would watch the show–and I’ve seen 35 plus One Direction concerts at this time–but as I would watch the first shows, I was making notes of the things I would want to try accomplish within the 3D when we shot it six weeks later at the 3D concert.

CS: Were the guys pretty open about sitting down and talking for that portion of the doc? How much of that kind of stuff did you want to do? They talk about their past but not so much that it feels over-talky.
No, for me, we didn’t really want to have a big talking heads film. I wanted to feel like you were along for the ride, that you were kind of immersed within the band and going on this journey with them. Once we went through a lot of the story set-up, I wanted to get us out on the road and really make sure that the film had real locomotion. It’s fast, that’s one of the things that I love. From the time the film starts until it ends it’s 90 minutes and it goes really quick. There’s never a moment in that movie where I feel like there’s a lull. It is a race to the finish line and I think it really works for who they are with their energy toward the story. The guys were really open from Day 1. When I first met with them, I said, “The key into this movie is access. We need to have access to you, to your lives, to your families. It needs to feel intimate and they were like, “That’s exactly what we want. We want fans to know what it’s really like to be us, to be in our lives,” and they were open to that. It was great. They were a real joy to work with.

CS: Do you have any of your own personal crazy fan moments when you got mobbed or couldn’t get to the band ’cause they were surrounded by fans?
I’m a pale, tall, old documentary filmmaker. Nobody is chasing me down the street. (laughs) Because we just had the premiere in Leicester Square in London and this may be the first time that fans have camped out for a documentary, so that’s something we should be proud of.

CS: I was wondering whether you or your camera crew got separated from the band since they were so many fans around them.
Well, they’ll start to mob the cameras when the cameras first show up, but the minute the boys would become present–the minute the band’s around–they become invisible, like they could care less about us. They could care less about the cameras. It is literally tunnel vision after those five guys.

CS: I was also curious about some of the skits where like one of the guys in the band dresses up like a security guard, and it was a really funny bit. Was that something the band instigated?
If you watch the end credit roll, there’s stuff of them dressed up in costumes messing with fans a little bit. They shot some of that for the concert tour that basically plays in the arena, so we said we should try to do some more of that while we’re out on the road filming with them and Niall, who is such a great personality and is one of the funniest guys in the whole band, we said we’d dress Niall up as a security guard to interact with the people as they’re in the arena. He’s so good, he’s really quick and incredibly funny and that footage just came out great. He just killed it.

CS: That was really funny stuff and I thought that was one of the film’s true Morgan Spurlock moments.
Oh, great.

CS: And the neuroscientist was the other one.
Yeah the neuroscientist, I love that guy.

CS: As far as making this movie, what kind of autonomy did you have because obviously there’s a lot of factors involved–there’s Sony, there’s Simon Cowell, there’s the band…
It’s funny. We had four studios that we were making a movie for–it was Sony, it was Simon Cowell, it was their manager, it’s the band themselves–so there were a lot of cooks in this kitchen with opinions. Along the way as we were shooting–we were shooting and editing in real time–so we’d shoot something, we’d edit it and get it up on the web so they could watch it. They could give their thoughts, they could give feedback. “We don’t know if this works or if this could be a problem. We don’t like X or Y” and I’d be like “Great, well let’s see.” It’s hard to comment on pieces, but once we started putting things together, you could start to see what storylines worked, what doesn’t, what scenes worked and what didn’t work against the other ones. We didn’t get a lot of pushback. I feel like we got pushback from the boys. There was footage from like years ago, when they first got on the road and it was a real vanity conversation where one of them was like, “Can we not use that picture. My acne was so bad that we’d rather not use that shot.” And I was like, “Of course, we can totally replace that.” These guys are still young men so when they first came onto “The X-Factor” they were between 16 and 18, and when I was that age, my face was exploding with some magnificent acne, so there were a couple shots of them, a couple “connect the dots” moments on their faces, so they were like “Can we maybe not use those?”

CS: The fans in the audience definitely liked the movie a lot.
Oh, awesome. What I like about the film is that it’s not just for fans. I feel like non-fans who see the film – so many non-fans that I’ve seen, whether it’s somebody who went with their daughter or someone who was there seeing it separately, said, “It’s just a fun movie. I really enjoyed it,” so I’m like “Good, that’s great, because it is a fun movie. You can go into this and learn who they are and you leave the film liking them.” These guys are incredibly charming and they’re very likable and I think deep down at their core, they are good guys, and I think that reall comes across in the movie.

CS: I also thought the sound mix was great, and this is coming from a former music engineer.
Oh my gosh and we got to mix the film at Abbey Road, like all the concert footage was mixed at Abbey Road which was such a dream come true for me, it was incredible.

CS: How are things going with “Inside Man” (Morgan’s show on CNN)? Is that your main focus right now?
Well, we’ve already delivered that show, we’ve got one episode left and the final episode airs on Sunday, the eighth episode. The final episode is all about unions and I’m so proud of that show. For me, that’s a great balance, to get to have made a film like this and still get to do a show like “Inside Man” which is ultimately more of what I’ve made my name doing. I mean, it’s great to be able to live in both these worlds, to get to make something that really just caters to a real mass audience and is an incredibly populist film, and this show, which really dives into serious issues. That’s a balance that I hope I can keep for a long time.

CS: Do you have any idea what you want to do next film-wise?
I don’t. You know, we haven’t committed to a film because we’ve got a couple of other TV projects we’re working on to find out about a second season of “Inside Man,” so we’ve been holding off on a film. We’re going to let this come out and then go from there. For me, the next step would be a narrative film. Yeah, that’s kind of what we want to do next.

CS: Awesome, it’s great talking to you and good luck with the film. It’s exciting to see you doing a movie that’s getting a national release like this.
Yeah, believe me, like I told them at the time, it’s taken me ten years to finally get a movie that’s going to play in my hometown. I’m pretty happy about that.

CS: I’m surprised you didn’t end the movie on a shot of you shirtless with “Directed by Morgan Spurlock.”
(laughs) Yeah I know, I’ve been shirtless in every other movie. I did not want the kids and the families leaving the theater sick at that point – I wanted them to be able to keep themselves sane.

One Direction: This Is Us opens nationwide on Friday, August 30.