The documentarian/TV series creator talks about the new season of his F/X series and more
If only we could all get as much out of fast food than Morgan Spurlock did... The documentary filmmaker turned a unique mission of eating at McDonalds for a whole month into the amazing documentary Super Size Me and then almost immediately parlayed that into his hit F/X TV series, 30 Days. The series, which chronicles the extraordinary changes ordinary people go through in a month, returns for an all new season on Tuesday, June 3 at 10 PM ET on F/X. I was in on a conference call with Spurlock to discuss this new season. Here's what he had to say.
I wanted to know what story from this current season moves you personally the most.
Morgan Spurlock: I think that just being able to go home to my home state of West Virginia and kind of be immersed in this environment and around these people who affected so much of my own life growing up that you don't even kind of take into consideration; I think that's probably the most moving for me in being there.
Can you explain a little bit more about what happened?
Morgan Spurlock: I just think for me it was just kind of eye opening and the people that you meet and these are people that none of us think about. It's a profession that none of us really know much about or know what goes on and we really take it for granted. These are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day to basically go underground and mine a resource that essentially enables you and I to turn on a light bulb every day. Fifty percent of our electricity comes from the work these guys do, and I don't think anybody thinks about that.
So I think for me that was probably just one of the many eye-opening things that you start to see. And as you're surrounded by these guys it really is a brotherhood of these people. It's a group of people that really look out for one another; they really care about one another. And I just felt really honored just to get to be a part of that.
I actually watched the "Working in a Coal Mine" and "30 Days in a Wheelchair" last night, I got your new season yesterday, and they just wrecked me emotionally. I was just in tears during, especially with the young father, the coal miner, the one whose name is Jamie.
Morgan Spurlock: James Cooper, yes.
Yes, you could see in his face that he was stuck and he was doing right by his family, but he was torn up about it. I also felt very strongly, too, when you enlisted Ray Crockett for the "30 Days in a Wheelchair," it was a very powerful segment. And I notice that you're only in two, you do the 30-day challenges in only two of the six. Is this the least amount?
Morgan Spurlock:Seasons one and two I only did one episode and then this season, season three, I decided to do two. It's just I want to try and keep my marriage somewhat intact. When we originally pitched the idea to FX four years ago, when we got the idea for 30 Days, the original concept behind the whole show is I would go off and do every single episode, which essentially means I would be gone and in some sort of a different environment, a different experience every month for six months straight, essentially. And my wife said, 'You're not going to have a wife very long if you do that.'
But what I also was going to say is the thing that I think, while I love the episodes that I'm in I think the better test of the show and kind of what the show represents and what it means are the people, are the episodes that I'm not in, when you get people who get put into a new environment. Because I think the episodes that I'm in and the episodes that other people do are very different because it's me going through an experience and getting put into an environment that a lot of us don't think about or we kind of take for granted. And with these other people they're being put into a situation where they really have to defend their beliefs and they have to defend what they think and how they feel or how they were raised and kind of things that are really personal to them. So I think that when you have somebody who really is kind of forced to see the world through someone else's eyes, I think it really is eye opening.
Of the four episodes that you were not in for this season, the "30 Days in a Wheelchair," "Animal Rights," "Gun Nation," and "Same-Sex Parenting," which one of those spoke the strongest to you emotionally that you really felt poignant and really a powerful moment?
Morgan Spurlock:I think that there's powerful moments in all of those shows. I think the gun control - "Gun Nation" - episode is really fantastic. And I think you see Pia really go through just a real emotional journey and she's touched by so many things. And to see her, she's someone who's so against firearms and against guns and fire a gun for the first time and how emotional that is for her and how overcome she is, and I think there's a lot of power in that episode. I grew up in West Virginia and I grew up hunting as a kid, I grew up around rifles and guns my whole life. For me, I think it's something that will speak to a lot of Americans.
How do you personally feel about guns?
Morgan Spurlock:I don't have a problem with guns. Back in West Virginia I still own guns, back in my house there. I don't think guns are necessarily the problem. I think that there are certain guns that, of course, I don't know who needs a machine gun, personally. But I think rifles and things like that are fine. I think that in the wrong hand is when a gun becomes a problem.
I was just wondering when you go back to West Virginia, which is not far from here in Pittsburgh in the heart of Appalachia, you stayed with the mining family.
Morgan Spurlock:Yes, Dale and Sandy.
And Dale, right, hadn't been tested for black lung in a long time and he eventually ends up going in with you for the test. Did it take a lot of coaxing to get him to come along with you?
Morgan Spurlock:It was tough. He didn't really want to do it. But when I said, 'I'm going to go do it. Why don't you come along?' He's like, 'Sure, I'll go.' And I think that he had gotten so many negative results for so long that he didn't even anticipate kind of what was going to come out of that test. But I think it's one of those things; it wasn't like it was a big shock. Of course after being in the mine for 30 years this is what happens. You're breathing coal dust every day for 30 years, this is where you go and this is what, that 99% chance that you're going to get black lung. And I think that, still, it's a hard thing.
For me the harder part was when we had to go home and talk to Sandy about it. I love those guys. Dale and Sandy are just two incredibly beautiful people and she loves him. But how do you tell the guy that you love that he can't do what he loves to do? How do you tell this guy that he can't go work in a coal mine because that's his life? That's what he really lives to do.
Is he still mining today?
Morgan Spurlock:He's still mining. He's working at a different mine now, but he's still superintending; he's still working as a foreman of another mine. What I love about Dale is the guys really look up to him, guys respect him because Dale will be the first person to get in there and work just as hard as anybody else. And he's been around the block, he's been doing this for a long time.
Did the miners, as you were working did they have anything to say sort of about needs to improve mine safety and rescue type stuff?
Morgan Spurlock:I think everybody recognizes things could always be better, things can always be safer. There are always advancements that are happening with mining technology and the ability to detect gases or methane within the mine. Those things are moving forward every day. I think that when we were shooting our episode, when we were in the mine we were actually pillaring the mine at the exact same time, and that's when you basically pull out the big chunks of the mine and it basically collapses behind you. When we were pillaring is when the exact same mining collapse happened in Utah, and it's one of those things that while - because every day you'd be in this mine doing the exact same thing that basically you trap these other miners.
And it just wasn't discussed; it wasn't talked about. It was one of those things where the men go into the mine and you could feel it. It was palpable the very first day that we were in to work when these miners were trapped. Usually the miners are chatty; they're talking, you're in the bunkhouse getting ready to go in and then when you go in, it was silence. There was no talking on the man trip on the way in. It was very telling, I think, in a lot of ways.
What do you consider to be a successful 30 Days?
Morgan Spurlock:I think a successful 30 Days is one where you don't really know what's going to happen. I think there are two. There's a successful 30 Days as a participant where I go in and I'm surprised and my eyes are opened and I learn things and experience things that 99% of us will never get to. And I think that's really what I love as a participant that I get out of the show. For me as a person who watches the show, I love that every episode isn't tied up into a nice little bow, that at the end of every episode people don't always get along. Everything isn't always resolved. Sometimes people find commonality; sometimes they agree to disagree. Sometimes their relationship is just as volatile at the end as when they started. And for me that's what makes the show real. This is a show that really does deal with reality in so many ways and deals with a lot of the problems that we face as a culture on a daily basis. And I think for me, that's what I love about 30 Days.
How do you pick then, those issues every season? How do you come up with the episodes?
Morgan Spurlock:We read the newspapers. Most of those are pulled right out of the headlines, from a news story, a magazine article, you name it. We put together like a hot list of ten to fifteen ideas that maybe we want to do for the season and we talk to the folks at FX. They're so supportive of this show and have been from the beginning and they're just such a great network to work with. They go through our ideas and come back with their thoughts and maybe they have a couple that they throw in. We whittle it down to what those six are going to be.
How do you find the people to participate in the show?
Morgan Spurlock:In the episodes? It's difficult. It's a long, arduous process casting a show like this. We're very lucky to have had such great, the casting directors that worked on the show, Morgan Fahey, Jaye Fenderson, Joshua Herbst, the people who really helped us find these people. You can't have like a cattle call audition like American Idol. You can't just put an ad out and have people show up like, 'I want to be on TV.' It's not that kind of a show. You really want people who are invested in what we're talking about, people who have some sort of a real interest in whatever the topic is.
We go through casting the show through chat groups or through organizations that are involved in it. Like with the episode where George from North Carolina, George Snedeker, goes and lives with a family in Los Angeles, a family of PETA, animal rights activists. We contacted PETA and said was there a family in the Los Angeles area we could work with and so they kind of pushed us towards the family that we used. And then we started finding somebody through hunting chat rooms or people who subscribe to hunting magazines, people who could kind of start to open us up to the inverse of that.
And it is, it's hard. You start to go down a path with some people and you get tapes from them and you meet them in person and the person who you think you might want ends up, the person you want to use it ends up being somebody completely different. You go in a completely different direction. So I think we've just been very fortunate with the people we've gotten. It takes a lot of courage to be on a show like this. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and belief and strength to be put in an environment where you're stripped of all your safety nets. You're stripped of your friends, your support groups and suddenly you're put in an environment where every day you're having to defend what you believe in. And I think that over the course of the show at around week three is when two things happen, I think around Day 20, Day 21 is when one of two things happens: you have a breakthrough or you have a breakdown. And that's what this show's really about, I think.
Is there a topic that you know you will never cover?
Morgan Spurlock:Is there a topic that I know we'll never cover? I don't know; we'll see. Alex says, my wife already told me that I'm not allowed to do any episodes about pornography, so she's drawn the line in the sand.
Which episode was the hardest to produce?
Morgan Spurlock:What episode was the hardest to produce of this season? That's a good question. I would say just from my personal point of view, being in a coal mine you're in an environment that is very constricting already, constricted in terms of the light, in terms of the air, in terms of just the, the mine that we shot in, the average height in the mine was about 5'5". So I'm 6'2", so like you're in a mine where you're hunched over constantly. Our producer, Al LaGarde, is also my height; he's like 6'2". Luckily, our cameraman, Michael Dean, was right around 5'6", 5'7", so he didn't have to hunch over so much. It's one of those things and you're in there shooting every day with a crew and with equipment. From a production standpoint I think that was probably the most difficult.
What do you enjoy more, doing the films or doing the format of 30 Days? What format do you enjoy more and are there going to be more films from you?
Morgan Spurlock:I love making movies. I think that the incredible thing about a film is that a film has the ability to really transcend culture. Super Size Me played in like 75 countries around the world. My new film that came out, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? has been sold in about 60 countries around the world. And 30 Days has done really well. I think 30 Days plays in about 15 different territories now internationally, with a lot of these countries starting to produce their own 30 Days episodes, because originally that was my intent was for these own countries to focus on problems within their own societies. And so that's starting to happen. I find each to be rewarding for a lot of different reasons. With 30 Days we're able to cover so many more topics. It's a very defined production schedule with 30 Days, there's a beginning and a middle and an end when you make this TV show. Whereas, when you make a doc it can take a very, very long time. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? took us about two and a half years from start to finish, where with 30 Days the start to finish of this whole show cycle is about eight months.
Do you have a beginning, middle and end and know, kind of like a hypothesis like a scientist, when you're doing your films of this is what I hope to find, basically? Obviously you did on Super Size Me and all the other ones, but is that what you go in with?
Morgan Spurlock:No. I pretty much go in with just an idea of, like with Super Size Me we're going to eat this food for 30 days and see what happens. With Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? we're going to go try and find the world's most wanted man. Then we kind of spin the top and see what happens. You know there's people you want to talk to and you know there's places you want to go, but other than that I really like to let that whole process be very organic. I like things to develop on their own. I let people help steer where we're going, and when we're in a country or we're in an interview the best things that happen are when somebody comes into an interview or something happens that one door opens and leads you to three or four different things you never even thought about or never anticipated. Some of the best advice I ever got was from a friend of mine right before we made Super Size Me. I called a filmmaker friend of mine; I'd never made a movie, never made a feature and I said, 'Could you just give me some advice?' And he said, 'If the movie you end up with 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 good advice. And we take that advice with 30 Days and I take that advice every day with the films we make
I wanted to find out a little bit more about your experience on the reservation, what you learned.
Morgan Spurlock:I think the biggest thing for me that I learned was just trying to find a balance in my own life. The thing that I came away from the whole experience of living with the Dennison's and being there and growing up in the mountains of West Virginia where I did have a much more, much more, I think, consistent contact with nature and being in the woods and just being outside of like the concrete jungle where I live in New York City, I just feel like I want to find a balance in my own life. I want to, I like to be outside. This is a part of who I am and I think that it's easy to get caught up in your own world and it's easy to get caught up in your own life and it reinforced to me just the importance of my own family. I think that when you see these people who culturally, generationally live next door to one another and are in each other's lives every single day, as Americans we don't have that. If somebody gets old we put them in an old folk's home and that's it; that's the end. These are people who live with one another throughout their whole lives and I think that there's a lot I took away from that that I really want to try and just put into my daily life as I go on.
I was wondering, you've been established in the documentary sort of side. Do you have any feature fictional film ideas that you might be kicking around?
Morgan Spurlock:Yes. I would love to do a scripted film and do a narrative film. For me, I want it to be something that really speaks to me. After Super Size Me I got sent a lot of broad comedies, a lot of really not funny scripts that they wanted me to direct. I don't know, for me it's just that I'd want to do a narrative feature and that's something that I'm really passionate about that, but I think that it's got to be something that has some teeth to it. It's got to be something that has a little something beyond just humor, and hopefully I'll get to do that.
Would it be something you would write yourself?
Morgan Spurlock:I think so. After just reading a lot of the scripts that I've gotten I think it's got to be something either that I adapt or I write completely myself. That's at least the direction that I'm working towards right now. And I still write. I grew up as a writer as a kid and was a playwright before I made Super Size Me and I write a lot of one-acts and short plays. For me it's just a fantastic exercise, the way to continue to write dialogue, the way to understand characters; the way to understand how characters interact with one another. So at some point hopefully all these exercises will be put to use.
Do you have any ideas for maybe what your first might be?
Morgan Spurlock:I've got some ideas, but nothing that I've really kind of gone down that path. I want it to be something, you know I loved Thank You for Smoking and I thought that was a film that had a great message. It had a great heart to it. At the same time it had something behind it. It was a comedy, but at the same time it had a soul. I think that I loved, what was the film, it was nominated for an Academy Award, sold at Sundance. I was just talking about this today with Steve Carell...
Morgan Spurlock:Little Miss Sunshine is another one of those movies. It's a fantastic film about the dysfunctional families that we all come from and how our lives, you can't ever plan who your family is and you can't really understand why you have this family, but at the same time they're your family and you have to rely on them. It's one of those things that I think we all still wrestle with and I think there's something really beautiful to that, too. I don't know, there are a lot of things that I really respond to and I like and we'll just have to wait and see.
Going back to the show a little bit, the "Same-Sex Parenting" episode that's definitely an example of what you said a little bit ago about two sides that really didn't come together towards the end, which is great because that's what the show does; it reflects real life because that's the issue. I would assume that sometimes the participants you guys get, like somewhere in the course of the 30 Days they might want to bail and they might be contractually locked in. But have you ever had an instance, either with that episode or just anywhere else, where the participants were like, 'I can't do this. This is just too hard.' How do you deal with that?
Morgan Spurlock:I think people, there are other things. There's this time of when there's breakthroughs and breakdowns. And even when people are like, 'I want to go home; I'm unhappy' you kind of talk people off the ledge and you say, 'Stick it out.' But they're not contractually obligated to stay there for the 30 Days. People can stop; they can stop if they want to.
Like in season one there was, our participant was doing steroids and human growth hormones for a month, and around Day 20 he went to get his sperm checked, and basically when he started he had a sperm count like 80 million and on Day 20 he had zero. Basically he killed all the sperm in his body. And his wife was like, 'You have to stop right now.' He was like, 'You're right; I'm done. I'm walking away.' So he was finished after three weeks. And once he got off the HGH and the steroids all of his semen count came back and it was back to normal. But it was one of those things and listen, I don't blame him. If suddenly after three weeks I went from 80 million to zero I'd have probably been really seriously thinking about dropping out, too. But for me, as I said, I think that's the interesting thing; that's the exciting thing. And these people are really courageous for sticking it out and for putting themselves in this environment where, think about it, think about something that's really important to you and you're surrounded by people who believe the exact opposite for a month. That's a difficult place to be mentally, emotionally, physically. I think it's very taxing.
Have you ever ventured into a subject on the show where you were truly surprised by the outcome, you think you know where things might go, but then it totally just surprises you. Has that happened?
Morgan Spurlock:This season's "Animal Rights" episode is phenomenal. And for me I think that that's one of those shows you have no idea what's going to happen. Here's George; he's a person right out of my own heart. He's this hunter from North Carolina who goes and lives with this animal rights activist family in L.A. What happens over the course of that show is amazing. It's one of the best hours of television I've ever seen.
I think in one of the episodes one of the guys refers to Super Size Me, he mentions eating McDonald's, I think. Do you find that your fame colors the way that these folks look at you when you sort of try to blend in to whatever the 30 Days experience is?
Morgan Spurlock:I think in the beginning they don't kind of know what to expect. They think I'm just going to show up and do a 9:00 to 5:00 gig or just come in and do a couple shots and then leave. But I think once I come in and they see that I'm there working every day, what you don't see is when the cameras aren't there I'm still working in the coal mine. The days when the crew has off I'm still a coal miner; I'm still going to work. I'm still mining every single day. It doesn't stop for me. This is their life. If it's their life, it's my life over the course of doing this show. And I think that when the miners and the guys that we were with saw that and they saw that I was just as invested in trying to really understand and comprehend and become a part of this then I think that they were much more open to me.
Morgan, do you want to mention what you're doing in West Virginia on June 2nd?
Morgan Spurlock:Oh, on June 2nd, the show premieres June 3rd on FX Network at 10:00 p.m. and so then on June 2nd I'm flying back to West Virginia where we're going to have a friends and family screening for all the coal miners. We're inviting them up to, in my hometown of Beckley there's this arts center called Tamarack where we're basically hosting a screening for them and we're going to have a reception. And it's great. For me it was really important just to go home and do this for them; give back to them. And we're also, our photographer, Ray Mickshaw, who came out to the coal mine, took some amazing photographs and just has these beautiful black and white photos and color photos that he took. So we've blown a bunch of these up, about ten of them into 11x14's that we're going to have at the screening and they're also going to be on the FX Web site. We're selling about 60 of these pictures to give money to a charity for the children of coal miners so that they can go to college. It's basically a scholarship fund for coal miners' kids.
The third season of 30 Days premieres on Tuesday, June 3 at 10 PM ET on the F/X network.