Interview: Director Morgan Spurlock on Documentaries and One Direction

One Direction
One Direction: This is Us documentary was directed by Morgan Spurlock

Director Morgan Spurlock is famous for no-nonsense documentaries such as Super Size Me, as well as his recent work as a film maker for CNN and his Inside Man series. For those who know Spurlock for his serious reportage, his newest film - One Direction: This is Us, released on Friday August 30 – seems frivolous. Yet, during our interview in Philadelphia, Spurlock claims that tackling the life, love and music of Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne is as intense a subject as delving into fattening foods.

Q: Next year is the tenth anniversary of Super Size Me, the movie that made you. Do you get more love from foodies or from film aficionados? Do you think the dangers you alerted people to have stayed with audiences?
A: What we learned is that a movie will only change certain eating habits. We won’t change everyone’s appetites and habits, and not for very long, apparently. What we did accomplish, beyond foodies and film fans, is that it resonated with teachers and parents. I still get stopped by teachers because they‘ve shown Super Size Me to their class as part of a curriculum, or parents who are concerned about their kids. It’s their version of Scared Straight. We’re looking forward to revisiting it next year for the re-release.

Q: You’ve worked on series with FX and CNN, as well as Hulu where you did your A Day in the Life series. What’s your opinion of internet networks such as Hulu and Netflix?
A: It’s about marketing and marketing dollars. Hulu hasn’t spent money or done data research like Netflix has. That’s why Netflix is successful. It comes down to push, marketing and planning. Netflix has the resources to tell who watches what and when. They do different trailers for different audiences for every show. It comes down to data and knowing what to do with it.

Q: What does CNN offer documentarians?
A: Credibility. Some people may not always think CNN is a credible news source anymore, but for non-fiction storytellers like myself and Anthony Bourdain, it gives us a chance to prove those people wrong and for us to offer stories that are newsworthy. That’s valuable. We have the flexibility and creative freedom to get those stories done.

Q: There are some poignant moments to be found on Inside Man. Watching you and your mother deal with the old age home was touching. I can’t think of many news shows that could choke up its audience.
A: Last week, I as at the Beyonce concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, in the bathroom, yet, and this guy stopped me as I was at the urinal to tell me how affecting that episode was. Everyone has parents and everybody deals with the aging process.

Q: Speaking of concerts, what is such an affecting filmmaker doing with the boy band sensation One Direction? Have you made music videos? There are none listed on your IMDB pages.
A: Since we’re in Philly, you like this. I did some video work for Jazzyfatnastees, part of The Roots crew. There was a girl who was repping me back in like 1998, 99, who happened to be dating the Roots bassist. She introduced me to Roots manager Rich Nichols, we got along, so I did some work for the girls. I was part of that whole circle – Jaguar Wright, the Black Lily crew – for like a year.

Q: That still doesn’t say how you hooked up with 1D.
A: Two years ago, I got called to meet with Paramount about the Justin Bieber concert film. I was doing The Greatest Movie Ever Sold at the time, so there was no way I could do two films at one time. Then Paramount called for me to do the Katy Perry movie, but I was just finishing my ComicCon film and getting ready to start another I had committed to, so  no way, bad idea again.

Q: Why you?
A: I think I got called for both of those films because I make popular documentaries that have a populist feel that deal with pop culture. I make pop docs (laughs). Anyway, after missing out on those, I was in London working on something for the Sky Network, during the same time that One Direction was exploding. I saw their rise, and it was phenomenal. Anyway, when I got a call about whether or not I’d like to discuss making a movie on them, I wasn’t about the miss out as I had when those other two opportunities passed me by. Now, I still had to lobby hard, but my pitch was for a simple story: the One Direction movie would be about family and dreams.

Q: Family because they share the singular sensation of going through such excitement, the rigors of fast fame.
A: Exactly, and that has a lot to do with what I went through. Nearly ten years ago, I brought a little film, Super Size Me to festivals. Nobody knew what the fuck it was. Suddenly and somehow, the film exploded and I was thrust, literally overnight, into this storm of press and awareness of this movie. Suddenly, I’m in 26 different countries, being feted and celebrated. My life changed right then.

Q: Soderberg. Tarentino. Kevin Smith. The same thing happened to them.
A: Someone said to me during that year’s Sundance Festival, “How does it feel to be the belle of the ball, to have this be YOUR Sundance?” Yes, at that moment, I was like those directors, that guy whose life was going to be changed forever because of one little movie. That is who these guys are, big overnight. Only my scale was infinitely smaller than what is happening to these guys. No one can really give you advice or share in what is happening, other than the immediate people around you. I knew that my parents loved me, but they couldn’t advise me. It was beyond their world. My production crew was there to help me relate. They understood. In One Direction’s case, it is those boys, and those boys alone, who are thrust into the limelight, an incredible freight train to success that’s turned into a rocket ship flying through space one million miles an hour. They are the only four guys who know what is going on with the other one. This is your new family, your support system.

Q: Did you enter into the 1D film differently than your other films?
A: From the doc side, not very different. You use a minimal crew, one or two cameras covering guys at every given time, two sound men, a minimal footprint for the most amount of footage. The concert footage, the 3D., I had never done that at such as scale, so I brought in guys who worked on the U2 concert film as well as on live films with Coldplay and Adele. I had a dream team.

Q: What is it like dealing with subjects who are more camera-ready and savvy than your average topics? Does that remove the spontaneity?
A: The one thing that didn’t happen, is they didn’t have to get to the level of ramp up. These guys are always ready. What they didn’t have was too much of safe haven. Normally, when they’re off stage, they have breathing room to go home. We didn’t offer too much room. So they trusted in me, and I’m trusting in them to deliver a story of honesty. I was looking for access and intimacy. I wanted you to feel as if you were there.

Q: These guys are ages 19 to 21. I’m curious as to how much they had to say. I know you’re not looking for scandal, and that you’re in collaboration with the film company.
A: True, I’m not skewering sacred cows. It’s not a reflection of life’s great lessons. They were aware of that. I am infinitely aware of that, because I usually do the skewering thing. I wanted to create a moment, rather than turn this into some heavy treatise. It’s not even about the dos and dont's of success. This doc just allows you in the bubble, to what goes on in their lives, the struggles, the successes. There is still a lot of hard stuff to be found in this film. They’re away from their homes for three years, so there’s loneliness, there’s a disconnect from everything you are and know. Look, as we speak, I’m away from home. The road is fun, but it’s lonely. I can attest to that.

Q: Everyone has their favorite - Harry Styles seems to be the most beloved. Was there a One Direction member that you were closer to, or liked more?
A: I got along with each of them really well. They are very nice boys.

One Direction photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Posted on Friday, August 30, 2013