Interview Date: 09/23/2010
Morgan Spurlock became one of the biggest names in documentaries by doing something that, if he'd kept it up, would have made him one of the biggest bodies in all of cinema. Of course, I speak of 2004's Oscar-nominated "Super Size Me," in which the devoted boyfriend of a vegan chef ate all of his meals at the home of ultra-unhealthy/unsustainable high-calorie cuisine, McDonald’s. That was followed by a difficult weight loss and the reality television series “30 Days,” in which Spurlock and his now-wife, Alexandra Jamieson, kicked off the program by living on minimum wage for a month. His second film required Spurlock to leave the country while Jamieson was pregnant with his son. A breezy look at the terrorism and world politics, “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden” was as disdained by critics as "Super Size Me" had been lauded.
Today, Spurlock is working on a highly geek-touted documentary about Comic-Con co-produced by Stan Lee, Harry Knowles, and Joss Whedon. His most recent work is easily the most diverting segment in the omnibus documentary, "Freakonomics." "A Roshanda by Any Other Name" expands on the questions asked by "rogue economist" Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner regarding the effect of parents on the life-paths of their children. "Roshanda" looks at changing baby names over the last several decades, particularly, but not exclusively, among African-Americans. Along with examining such fairly common monikers as Tyrone and Shaniqua, Spurlock explores a pair of naming horror stories: A girl named "Temptress," whose mother was attempting to name her after actress Tempest Bledsoe of "The Cosby Show," and a pair of boys sadistically named "Winner" and "Loser," whose life history turned out a bit differently than you might guess. Popular Caucasian names also get a bit of humorous examination.
I caught up with Spurlock at the offices of the PR firm supporting "Freakonomics," and it surely does seem as if the real-life Morgan Spurlock is as affably talkative as that "Super Size Me" guy was. It was an interesting moment as a couple of white guys sat around talking, initially anyhow, about names.
Bullz-Eye: "Morgan Valentine Spurlock"...
Morgan Spurlock: Yeah.
BE: One of the things I was thinking about while watching [your segment] was that white peoples’ names changed a lot just in a few years. I'm just a few years older than you and there's a lot of Steves, and I'm a Bob, Daves, Franks and so on. A few years later, you get Hunters and Morgans and Jasons.
MS: And now there's kids like that kid we talked to in the movie who's a "Harper" and what was his brother's name? His brother also had a very, very white name.
BE: But those names, in my day, would have gotten you made fun of.
MS: Oh, believe me, I got made fun of. I was called "Morgan Fairchild" constantly. My middle name, which is my mother's maiden name, was made fun of. Every year, the first day of school, they go through home room. "Anne Marie Clay, Todd John Blankenship, Morgan Valentine Spurlock" and so it's like [imitates a kid's mean-mocking voice] "Valentine!" So I was made fun of constantly for that. Names are a great source of identity but also...
MS: Mirth, yeah.
BE: When you’re doing this, looking at primarily African-American baby names, what surprised you about it?
MS: I think what I found really interesting was, here we are, 2010, and there's still such a very strong kind of racial undercurrent in America. One you'd think that we'd continue to move past and that we'd continue to move forward on, and it's still very much there. The question is: how many more generations will it be? Or, will it ever?
BE: Looking at "Freakonomics" as a whole, the [main] theme seems to be incentives.
BE: How do you think that ties in with your segment?
MS: "Incentives"? Do parents have an incentive to give their child a better name? What's the incentive for a parent to give their child a certain name?
MS: If you give your child a name that people will make judgments about them, that will make things more difficult for them automatically, depending upon their race or their economic standards. I think that there's incentive for you to try and not put a Sword of Damocles over their head from Day One.
BE: Right, not the classic case of Temptress.
MS: Of Temptress or Winner and Loser. Just like [an expert quoted in the film whom neither I nor publicists could identify later] says, if you like the name "Tyrone," it was your grandfather's name, do you name your child "Tyrone"? It may be hard for him as he moves forward simply because there are racial undercurrents.
BE: And not many people remember Tyrone Power.
MS: No, exactly.
BE: It does get to the point of giving your kid, if you're African-American, a name that's sort of racially non-determinative. Maybe nothing obviously white sounding, but maybe something like "James." There may be a lot of incentive do something like that.
MS: Absolutely. Even on the white side, for white parents, don't get too cute.
MS: I feel like there's way too many people getting cute.
BE: That's true. And kind of on a side thing, I noticed in your "man-in-the-street" segment, [actor] James Ransone from "Generation Kill."
BE: What happened with that?
MS: We just ran into him on the street. Literally, we were out shooting man-in-the-streets, and I said "Hey!" and he said "Hey," and I said, "You wanna talk with us for our movie?" and he said, "Absolutely, I'd love to." It was so fantastically random that we met him and his answers were great. Like talking about Stone Phillips. "Stone Phillips, that's a perfect white guy name. 'Stone Phillips.'!"
BE: [Laughing] Okay, switching gears a little bit, first of all, what's going on with the Comic-Con film?
MS: We're editing it as we speak. We're plowing through that. We shot 600 hours of footage for that movie in, literally, six days. It was the largest crew I'd ever worked with in my life. We had about 175 people working on the movie. Massive. We're just sifting through, putting storylines together. It was cool because we followed ten different people with very different stories and goals when they were coming into Comic-Con. What's it going to show people is something very different, I think, than what they think Comic-Con is. People think Comic-Con's the place where crazy people go dressed up in costume and hang out and party. That's a piece of it, but there's so much more that goes on.
BE: Can you give us a hint of that? I've been going to Comic-Con since way... I don't even want to tell you how far back I go with that.
MS: I think Comic-Con actually has real cultural significance, for one. I think people do somewhat realize that, but I don't think with the impact and breadth of what it does and what it means. But it also has personal impact. It literally impacts individuals who go there in ways that I think are interesting.
BE: Now, there's been a lot of criticism. A lot of people like myself and people older than me are not pleased with the direction it's gone in.
MS: There's an interview I did, I'm trying to remember who it was, I don't want to give credit to the wrong person... but it was one of the people who comes from the genre world, the comic book world, who said: "Glee,” why is "Glee" here? What business does "Glee" have being at Comic-Con? That's a very valid point. But "The Walking Dead," you know the new Frank Darabont series on AMC, that makes total sense to be there. So, I think that there's a ton of people who've tried to ride the coattails of Comic-Con for all the wrong reasons, but I think there's plenty of genre pieces that, while television has grown and film has grown, that have come and been a part of it. People think that it's been taken over by Hollywood, and I don't think that's true. I think you've seen less people selling comics over the years automatically, and less comic book stores, and so there are less people there as vendors. I think the film side of this is helping to continue to drive a fan base. So, for me, I don't have a big problem with that. I'm not so precious about it. There are people who are very precious about it, and I'm not.
BE: Okay. Do you consider yourself a fan?
MS: Oh, I'm such a geek. Such a fan. I grew up reading comic books. When I met Stan Lee, it was one of the greatest highlights of my life, getting to meet him. And then getting to work with him on this movie was awesome. Like when I was a kid and Michael Ironside made that guy's head blow up in the movie "Scanners." That's what made me want to make movies.
MS: I said, that's it, I want to do this. So I started out trying to learn how to do make-up special effects. And those were the things I grew up reading – comics and Fangoria magazine. That was my life. I was the weird kid who didn't have a girlfriend.
BE: And, of course, you end up as a filmmaker.
MS: That's right.
BE: I was looking in your bio and I've noticed that you've been a playwright. Are you inching towards doing a fiction film?
MS: Absolutely. There's a couple of project right now that I'm attached to that we're rewriting the scripts, one of them with Leonard DiCaprio's company, Appian Way. When "Super Size Me" was first made I was getting pushed by a lot of people to do a narrative. And they were like, "Oh, that movie's funny. Let's give him something funny." So, I got sent some of the shittiest comedies you could ever imagine. These terrible, terrible, movies... I could easily have gone out and just started churning out some real bad formulaic comedies but, literally, I've taken six years to kind of find the script I want to make. So far, it's been the right choice.
BE: You're taking steps, but I'm guessing you can't tell me anything else about it.
MS: Until we're in production I don't want to talk too much about it, but it's a very "Erin Brockovich"-ish story about the little guy. I love the story where the little guy is fighting for something.
BE: Speaking of "Super Size Me," I'm imagining you somewhere – it's after 12:00 a.m. and you really just want coffee – will you step into a McDonald's now?
MS: Absolutely not. There's so many better places to get coffee.
BE: [Laughing] 12:00 at night, you're in Camarillo...
MS: Camarillo – I bet there's a 7/11 near there, but, yeah, I have not set foot in [McDonald’s]. I live in New York City. I'm really lucky. There's plenty of great fast food in New York City that is local mom-and-pop restaurants. But when I go home to West Virginia, when I go see my mom, you're hard pressed to find anything that isn't a chain. It's all chain restaurants. Whether it be like real fast food or quick-service restaurants or family style like Applebee's or Bob Evans, but it's still all very much in that same ilk. So, when I go home and mom says "You wanna go out to eat?" I say, "Nah, let's just make dinner and stay at home." Mom loves to cook it up, so it's great.
BE: Sounds great. You had an interesting experience with your first two movies. In the independent/documentary film world, critics, like myself, are a lot more powerful than they are in mainstream films. You had huge support on "Super Size Me" and then "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" came out and it was kind of the opposite. What was that like?
MS: It was interesting you know. I think it was like three out of four critics, like 75% of the critics who saw it liked "Super Size Me"...
BE: It's at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, right now.
MS: Oh, wow. That's amazing. And with "Where in the World" it was like one-in-three liked the movie. I think it was hard. We came into that film with a title that couldn't fulfill the expectations people had. I'm still proud of the film. I still like what it is. I still like what it says. I think it's very pertinent and still very poignant, but you can't win 'em all.
BE: That's true. Do you think the problem might have been that the approach, at least at the beginning, is a little too light for what people are expecting from an Osama Bin Laden movie?
MS: Maybe. Maybe some people thought we were taking it a little too easy, making light of the situation. I don't know. With all of our stuff, I really try to make sure that we make stuff that goes down easy, and make it seem not as heavy as it is, even though it is heavy, which I think helps. I know that there are teachers who are showing that in classrooms to their kids to get them to start having talks and understanding about the Middle East and politics. The audience that that film was ultimately targeting was this audience who don't consume media all day, like I do, who don't read a newspaper every day, like I do, and literally all these young kids who started to embrace "Super Size Me."
BE: On "Freakonomics," though, wasn't it kind of nice for a change not to have to do something that was personally painful to you?
MS: And to not be on camera. To not be on camera was fantastic. We wrote the script. We shot it. Also, having an ensemble of directors, there was less pressure. We made an 18-minute piece and we were done. Yeah, it was a great experience.
BE: So you don't have to move on to "Vasectomize Me," or I don't know...MS: [Laughing] That might be next.