By Peter Barell
Morgan Spurlock stood outside of the Gold Coast Cinema at LIU Post campus schmoozing with students, faculty, and media professionals alike, before showing and talking about his latest short documentary Crafted, as part of the 2015 Gold Coast Film Festival. This film, which focuses on three groups of artisan craftspeople and their passionate work, is just a drop in the ocean of projects Spurlock has developed — perhaps you’ll know him best as the guy who ate nothing but McDonalds for thirty days in his Academy-Award nominated Supersize Me, or else for his work on CNN’s Inside Man. He’s a friendly, easygoing guy who is supremely approachable for his outward image: a normal person, like you and I.
Just about everyone I know has seen or heard of Supersize Me. It’s hard not to think of Spurlock without picturing him gobbling down McDonalds, but since that horse had been thoroughly beaten over the last ten years, we only briefly touched it. Instead, we mostly discussed his role as a media professional and the dialogue between the mass communication and politics. Most recently, Spurlock has collaborated on a video project entitled Call Bullshit, an application that allows users to fact check sound-bites made by GOP candidates during debates, determining what is or isn’t true. Here, Spurlock and I discussed the truth and untruths of politics, the media, and what makes a documentary compelling.
Pioneer (P): You’ve recently worked on a video project making an effort to call BS on untruths said during the GOP debate, and in general, you are a very outspoken person politically. What are your aims for projects like this, and who are you trying to reach?
Morgan Spurlock (MS): I think the biggest thing for me, with most of the stuff I make is ‘God forbid we start thinking.’ As a population, as filmmakers within a population, we should want to encourage people to think for themselves, not just buy into what people say. [To] kind of dig a little deeper to find where the truth really lays, what’s real and what’s bullshit, and I think that is what the [Call Bullshit] app does, and I think that’s what we try to do with the TV shows and movies we make. I really want people to seek out knowledge on their own. We’ve become gullible; we’ve reached a point that we just want to believe what others are telling us is true, and that’s a problem in the media to begin with and a problem in politics.
TP: Do you plan on making more political videos as the election talk continues?
MS: I hope so. That’s the plan right now. So, knock on wood we’ll be doing more in 2016.
TP: Voter turnout in the recent New York election was very low. Why do you think that is? Lack of interest, or something more? How can people become more engaged by politics?
MS: I feel like we have become a totally complacent society. Apathetic. A lot of the problem comes down to us. Well, there are two sides to it. One, we’ve allowed so much money to be in politics now. There’s so much big money and influence. This next president who is about to be elected will be the first three billion dollar president. That’s between both sides, republicans and democrats. They’re going to spend more than three billon dollars to get this president elected. It’s ludicrous how much money is going to be spent. And that’s just on the presidency, that’s not even on the house, nor the senate that’s not even in local elections, and then it’s tens and tens of billions.
When you see how much money is being spent by giant corporations whose interests are being served over and over again, you come to think, well who the fuck cares about me? Nobody cares about the little guy; nobody is going to be looking out for me. And so, people just stop voting. They think you know my vote doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything. And I think we have to recapture that, we have to bring that back and empower people to really believe and understand that they do have the ability to create change, to create a difference, and it does start in that ballot box.
I think the greatest thing that can happen is we get that money out. We have to find a way to change Citizens United so it isn’t about the best interests of corporations, which is what we’ve done. We’ve given corporations all the power and strength of a human being, yet with none of the repercussions.
TP: Then you’ve got guys like [Former 2016 Democratic Candidate] Lawrence Lessig who join the race, try to press that message and get squeezed out.
MS: That’s right.
TP: The political landscape seems very much interested in populists and atypical candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders, all of whom have stood up against the media in their own ways. As a documentary filmmaker, a media based profession, how do you make sense of this appeal?
MS: What’s interesting right now is on the republican side where you see a lot of people attacking the media. I think it’s the new mission and you can really see it in Ben Carson is [that they’re] going to talk all the crazy they want, and then when you call BS on it, it’s obviously your fault for covering it, it’s your fault for trying to say this is where the truth lies. It is a real specific spin tactic. It is one that would make Frank Luntz very proud; he’s a republican talking point guru. He invented the death tax and he’s a very brilliant guy. But it’s spin. It’s incredible spin that is being pushed where now the media is to blame.
Now, I do think that the media has been to blame for a lot of misinformation that we’ve gotten over the years, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason. But from my point of view, as a member of the media, as a creator, there have been people who have taken advantage of that. People who have given misinformation to push an agenda. I think the biggest thing for me is to do everything I can to break that. But as a little documentary filmmaker I’m also fighting windmills, I’m fighting big giant machines and it’s hard. But I truly believe that you can chip away at the arbor. I think that in time, you can throw that little rock that will knock down the giant.
TP: Is there any one candidate you agree with in particular?
MS: I don’t think that I agree with anyone too much. You have to go into politics with a tremendous amount of cynicism, and then kind of see where everything shakes out less than a year from now. When you get down to the two horses.
TP: What advice would you give to someone attempting to dig into an issue and create his or her own documentary? What information do you wish you had when you started out?
MS: I’ll tell you the best advice. I got the greatest advice when I was making Supersize Me, and this was given by a filmmaker named Eugene Jarecki, who is a super talented, brilliant guy. I asked him, I said I’m making my first movie, is there anything I should know? He said here’s my advice: if the movie you end up with is the exact same [one] you set out to make in the beginning, you didn’t listen to anyone along the way.
It’s one of those simple ideas. You have to say, here’s the story I want to make and tell, and you can’t go down that path with blinders on. You have to be open for things to take you in a different direction, let them steer you into different narratives. You have to open yourself up to being surprised; to finding things you never thought would happen; to the story actually going somewhere you didn’t anticipate. If and when you do that, you’ll end up in a better place than you initially thought you were going.
TP: Especially with documentaries, it’s a learning process anyway. You’re trying to figure things out.
MS: Exactly. Unless I’m telling a historical documentary, I mean I know how World War II ends. If you’re going to do that story, fine. But if you’re trying to tell something in the now and it’s an evolving, real story, then you need to be open to different, varied, and potentially surprising points of view.