Doc Week: The Return of Morgan Spurlock


I’m sure many of you are wondering “Why do a Doc Week? No one EVER goes to see those movies!” Well, you see, that’s the point, and you hit the nail right there on the head. There have been many great docs in the last few years but few people are going to see them, which is a shame because many documentaries have proven that it’s possible to be entertained while being informed and educated about topics we might never have been interested in prior to seeing them. In the past few years, political docs have been the most prevalent, but the way docs are made, marketed and viewed has changed drastically in recent years thanks to a number of award-winning films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and the global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth.

As we get to the end of the stagnant spring movie season, we decided to shine a light on a couple upcoming docs, two of them by filmmakers renowned for their investigational work. This week alone, we have five new documentaries including: Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, the new movie from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock and the controversial Ben Stein doc Expelled: No Intelligence Here as well as a couple of smaller releases, including the Kentucky Derby doc The First Saturday in May and Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts by Oscar-nominated director Scott (Shine) Hicks. Next week, Errol Morris returns with Standard Operating Procedure, his first doc since winning the Oscar for The Fog of War. Since talked to a bunch of the film’s directors in the past week, we decided to turn it into an event to try to draw more attention to some of the more interesting and informative films being released as the season comes to a close.

We kick things off today with our interview with Morgan Spurlock, which you can read below.

When you hear the title of Spurlock’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Super Size MeWhere in the World is Osama bin Laden?–you might immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s just another political doc like so many others we’ve seen in recent years. In fact, it isn’t a serious hard-nosed look at the origins of terrorism, as much as a film that follows a similar approach Spurlock has taken with his past work, as the filmmaker traveled to the Middle East where the terrorist leader had been or was thought to be. Visiting some of the most dangerous countries for Westerners such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, Spurlock talked to a lot of people from different avenues of life in order to put together an interesting profile of the people from those countries, how they feel towards Americans and why that is. The results are surprising, making it another eye-opening and thought-provoking film, but Spurlock’s trademark sense of humor from Super Size Me and his award-winning FX show “30 Days” makes it go down that much easier.

When talked to the New York filmmaker about his new movie, we also got a short preview of what’s coming up in the 3rd season of “30 Days.” This is probably the most entertaining movie about terrorism I’ve seen. Not sure if it was meant to be that, but it’s pretty amazing what you did. You’ve been doing the television show for a couple years now, so what was it about this topic that made you want to do it as your second feature?
Morgan Spurlock: “Super Size Me” ended up playing all around the world in a way that nobody anticipated, especially myself, and I really wanted my second film to be something that dealt with something on a global scale, something that wasn’t as American-centric, but something that affected all of us. When we got the idea for this film, it was around 2005 when Osama had just put another tape and suddenly he’s everywhere, and all the newscasters are like, “Where is he? Why haven’t we found this guy? Why haven’t we brought him to justice? Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?” I was like, “That’s a great question. I want to know that, too” and so that was kind of the whole jumping off point.

CS: It’s funny because most people will expect it to be this investigative political documentary which we’ve seen so many of, but it really becomes something different. Was that what happened while you were on the road filming?
Spurlock: When we were about two months into pre-production. We raised some money at the beginning of ’06, trying to start figuring out how would we even make a film like this, what would we do? About two months into that process of just talking through logistically what the idea of the film was, was when Alex (Morgan’s wife) got pregnant. It was at that moment did take a big shift for me from being not just about “where is Osama?” and “what kind of world creates Osama?” but “What kind of world am I bringing the kid into?” I think that made the whole film a much more personal experience for me, which I think ultimately made the film a much different and better movie, and it also it just opened up who I wanted to talk to along the way. It was at that point, that we were like, “Let’s not just talk to people on the street and politicians and people in the military, let’s talk to people who have families, people who are fathers, people who are in the boat that I’m going to be in soon.” I think that really sent me in a different direction and it’s really incredible what came out of it.

CS: How do you even plan a movie like this when you’re starting out? Was it a matter of just figuring out different places that you might be able to get to?
Spurlock: Yeah, it was important for me—especially as we started talking to people—to try and paint a picture of Osama and why he thinks the way he does or what are some of the things that influenced him, so we started plotting those countries we would go to and who we would like to try to talk to. You can make all the plans you want when you’re making a documentary film, but the minute you hit the ground, those plans get thrown out the window. One of the guys you want to talk to is banished, somebody suddenly won’t talk to you now that you’re in the country. It becomes much harder to navigate on the ground, so at that point, you really just start finding completely different people and avenues and different doors open up for you. It’s a really organic process, and especially with a movie like this where we know we’re going to start at A and we have no idea where Z is, with the exception of hopefully I come home and I’ll be here when my wife has our baby. That’s the only part of the end of the film we had a clue about. With the rest of this journey, things start to open along the way. I got some great advice when I first started making “Super Size Me” from a friend of mine, who said, “If the movie you envisioned at the end is the exact same movie you envisioned at the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way.” That’s such great advice, and I tell myself that every time we’re doing a project.

CS: I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers who’ve made movies set in the Middle East including Peter Berg of “The Kingdom,” Gavin Hood, Marc Forster, Michael Winterbottom. At least the first three couldn’t make their movies in the real locations because they were so dangerous and they couldn’t get insurance, but you were able to go to many of them and film there, so what was involved with that?
Spurlock: It was incredible. We had a great insurance agent, for one, which was helpful, and we were really fortunate. We had great producers on the ground. Every country we went to we had local fixers, local producers, journalists, people who would help us navigate the territory and the terrain, and these people were irreplaceable. We were really fortunate because they helped lay the groundwork, helped build the foundation for us to come in and hit the ground running. Those were the guys who got us access into Saudi Arabia, into Afghanistan. Pakistan was the one place where we were denied access. They wouldn’t let us into the country. Actually, that’s not true. They would let our cameraman in and we hired a local field producer who has shot in war zones before to take us into the more dangerous terrain. They let him get a visa; they wouldn’t give me a visa. We called someone within the government who we had inside track who would talk to us, and this person said, “Well, they’re concerned on two levels. One is they don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Last thing they want is this big high-profile tragedy, and the other is they’re afraid of what’s going to come out. They’re afraid of what you’re going to say, who you’re going to talk to and what you’re going to find.” We ultimately ended up having to bribe an official at the Pakistani Embassy in Afghanistan to get our visas. That’s how we got in the country.

CS: I remember you did a show where you were a Muslim for 30 days and I thought that would have been your ticket to get access to anywhere in the Middle East.
Spurlock: It was incredible when we were traveling through some of these Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia especially. I think tons of people saw that show in Saudi Arabia. I was amazed at how many people had seen that, who had downloaded it illegally on the web. (chuckles)

CS: I’m guessing they don’t have a Fox network in Saudi Arabia.
Spurlock: Yeah, that’s right, but if they want to watch it, I’m all for it. It was interesting to see how many people had seen that.

CS: Did you end up using a lot of local crews or were you able to bring any of your own people over from the U.S.?
Spurlock: Yeah, well the people that we brought, like it was Daniel Marraccino. Most of the time just he and I were the band, it was myself and Daniel, and then we would meet people in each of these countries. We had a production office based in London as well as a production office based in New York, so that they would be able to work with the time differences in some of these countries a little better, but on the ground, it was usually myself, Daniel Marraccino and then this field producer I told you about, a guy named James Brabazon who took us into these difficult places.

CS: With all the different places you went to and all the people you talked to, how much footage did you end up coming home with?
Spurlock: It was massive. We ended up shooting about 900 hours of footage, plus about another hundred hours of archival footage that we were shifting through, so all in, about a thousand hours that we edited down to 90 minutes, so it’s a lot.

CS: It’s an amazingly tight movie in terms of covering a lot of ground with a strong narrative thread, so great job.
Spurlock: Thanks.

CS: Has the TV show been helpful in terms of doing a production like this?
Spurlock: I think the TV show has done a few things for me. I think the TV show has helped me get a grasp around a really quick, cohesive story. R. J. Cutler who produces that show is an incredibly smart producer, such a great guy and just really understands story. He worked with DA Pennebaker, so he comes from the Pennebaker world of storytelling, so it’s always story, story, story. I think that show has really helped me better grasp how you put together a cohesive story in a short period of time. I think that’s really been helpful to me.

CS: When you were over in the Middle East, were there any places where you felt more danger or less danger than you expected? Is it slightly exaggerated or is it really accurate about how dangerous these countries are?
Spurlock: I think there is a reality that Westerners are targeted. Western hotels where Westerners go is targeted in certain countries, in Pakistan, Kabhul, in Afghanistan, but at the same time, there’s so many people there who aren’t those people. It’s an incredibly small amount of people who feel this way or act that way. The majority of people want peace, they want security, they want a safe place to raise their families and have jobs. It’s the same things we worry about. For me, I think that’s a commonality that we don’t get to see very often.

CS: Considering that, I was surprised that one of the most dangerous situations on your trip seemed to come from a pack of angry Hassidic Jews.
Spurlock: (probably not realizing that was a joke) I don’t know if I’d agree with that. I think the most dangerous situation was when we were embedded with the troops. I mean, those guys are targets every day. When you’re embedded with the troops, these guys are being targeted by the Taliban, they’re being targeted by Al Quaeda. I think that was by far the most dangerous situation we were in over the course of the whole trip. There was a Taliban ambush on the governor’s convoy, you see the Taliban man get killed while we were there. There was an IED that was discovered another day when we were out with them, just ahead of the convoy we were in, so they diverted the convoy back to the base. There’s a lot of things that happen when you’re with those guys. Those guys are heroes for what they do. Every day they go out could be a day when something really terrible could happen.

CS: There’s certainly a shift in the movie at that point, though the movie does start out very humorously. When you’re making a movie like this, how do you balance the two things? There’s a certain point in a movie like this where you have to sidestep the humor.
Spurlock: Yeah, I think you want the movie to be funny, and you want the movie to be entertaining and accessible, but you still want to get some of the real serious moments in there, and I think it’s a balance that you have to really find in the edit. Lily Tomlin said something years ago—and I’m going to paraphrase this—but she essentially said, “You have to find humor in everything, because by finding humor, you find humanity.” I think that is so true, and in this film, through that humor, you see the humanity of these people, and there’s a tremendous amount of humanity that comes out of “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”

CS: Very true… I love the end credits that shows all the different people just smiling.
Spurlock: Oh, good. Right on.

CS: Out of the whole experience, is there one thing that will stick with you forever?
Spurlock: I think it’s just all these people. The ability of these people… I went over really thinking it was going to be a lot more difficult for us to get people to actually open up and talk to us. I expected people to be very hostile and resistant and it just wasn’t the case. People were really eager to sit down and talk and share their feelings and share their experiences. I think that’s an amazing thing to get to have, and it’s just one of those things that I feel very fortunate and lucky to get to have done.

CS: At this point, do you think that finding Osama bin Laden will have any effect or even matter at this point?
Spurlock: I think it would matter to the point that you finally caught this guy who continues to inspire a lot of people. But beyond that, as you see in the movie, there’s so many other things that have to be addressed, and everybody says that. This guy is one man. You find that one man, well then what’re you going to do? I think that you see over the film, there’s multiple things that also need to be focused upon.

CS: I think we already knew that you have the most understanding wife on the planet from your first movie and television show, but for this one, you really put that to the test by leaving while she was pregnant. Was she freaking out while you were doing this? She seems pretty calm on camera.
Spurlock: There were definitely freaking out phone calls that we didn’t put in the film. (laughs) There were a lot of unhappy conversations.

CS: I guess she’s understanding because you’re a good enough husband to only make her look good in your movies.
Spurlock: Yeah, and plus people are already watching the film and saying, “Dude, go home! Your wife is having a baby!” Last thing you need is something else to hammer in the fact of what a terrible husband I am.

CS: I know your show is coming back in June sometime.
Spurlock: June 3, yeah.

CS: How has it been going and what can we expect in the third season?
Spurlock: It’s a great season. This season is really fantastic. There’s a show where I go home to West Virginia and I become an underground coal miner for 30 days, and we look at this industry that a lot of people don’t even think about. We take these guys granted who go underground and do back-breaking work every day, just so you and I can turn on a lightbulb. There’s an amazing episode about gun control, one about animal rights, one about being handicapped in America, Native Americans in America, and one about gay parenting. What the show has done so well is I think deal with these real hot button issues in our country and make them engaging to where more people can join the dialogue about them.

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? opens in select cities on Friday. Come back tomorrow when we speak to the newest of Doc Week’s filmmakers, John and Brad Hennegan, about their Kentucky Derby film The First Saturday in May.

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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