by GREG KING
“I can’t think of doing anything else. I just love making movies and I love that I get to do it,” confesses rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who was recently in Melbourne to promote his latest film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Spurlock is undoubtedly a provocateur, and is best known for his documentary Super-Size Me, in which he existed on a diet of McDonalds. But he is also an engaging, informative, subversive and entertaining filmmaker, and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is one of the funniest documentaries you will see.
In this cheeky and very funny film he turns his attention to the potent power and insidious influence of advertising in today’s world. In particular he looks at the practice of product placement in movies, and attempts to examine just how powerful the marketing industry has become within the film industry.
“What’s starting to happen is that you’re seeing an impact on the creative,” he elaborates. “You’re seeing people write dialogue and then have to insert product shots, conversations about things, and suddenly in the middle of a movie it’s like you’re watching a commercial. And there’s a tremendous amount of power and influence these brands have because there’s a lot of money at stake.
“It’s affecting movies right now; you see it all the time,” Spurlock elaborates. “Companies will get hold of a script even before it’s been green lit by a studio, and they will basically break it down and have writers rewrite the story based on brands they represent. So when the film does actually go to the studio they can say: ‘Oh, and by the way, we’ve got all these companies that will offset x amount of costs.’ I mean, it’s crazy.
“I think a big star is still powerful, but you’re seeing a tremendous amount of sway going towards brands. They have real budgets to offset marketing dollars. If you’re a studio and you’re making a Transformers movie that will cost $200 million, and someone can come in and provide you $5-10 million worth of free marketing, you’re going to take it.
“When you see films like Iron Man or Transformers, etc, you don’t know the levels or the layers of the onion those types of placements represent, and a lot of times I think you don’t even see them,” he continues. “And what I think The Greatest Movie Ever Sold does is pull the curtain back on that process, showing you how it works, and letting you understand how the machinations of this industry function and operate, and also giving you a level of understanding you never had before.”
In preparation for making this movie about product placement, Spurlock compiled a list of the types of companies that he would approach – beverages, clothing, shoes, airlines, automobiles, hotels, etc. He approached some 650 companies trying to interest them in sponsoring the film but most of them were not interested. He was even willing to offer a company above the title branding for the right amount.
Spurlock finally managed to find some investors, including POM Wonderful, a corporation that makes pomegranate juice drinks. But in dealing with these companies, Spurlock discovered there were a lot of restraints and contractual obligations placed on him. “You start to see the manipulation of the content that brands can have, the influence over the creative, the infection of the idea,” he explains. “So you see them talking about things we can and can’t say, places we can and can’t shoot, things that they want us to say and places they want us to shoot. I mean to see those things start to make their way into the movie is really eye opening.”
In trying to finance a film about product placement purely through sponsorship and product placement itself, could Spurlock be compromising his own integrity? “The one thing that enabled me to maintain integrity was that we didn’t give up final cut of the movie,“ he says. “As much as these brands had influence and gave money, and you saw them manipulate the content over the course of the filming, I still got to maintain final cut of what went out into theatres, and I think that was important.”
And what did those companies that agreed to be involved in the film think of the completed product? “Well they haven’t told me they’re unhappy,” Spurlock says. “I think if they were really unhappy I’m sure I would have heard from their lawyers.”
But filming a documentary like this is something of an evolving process, and during the shoot, Spurlock learned of something extraordinary that had occurred in Sao Paulo that fitted some of his key themes about the insidious nature of advertising. The city had banned all outdoor advertising. “Like most other people I had never heard what had happened in Sao Paulo,” Spurlock says. “I mean I was there about seven years ago when Super-Size Me came out, and it was like Blade Runner! I mean there were ads everywhere, there were helicopters that flew people around that had ads coming off them. It was crazy how that city functioned.”
Spurlock talks to high-powered advertising agents, lawyers, corporate types, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader and author Noam Chomsky. “Whenever we start a film we make a list of all the people we would want to talk to, and both of those guys were on the list from the very beginning.” Nader is the consummate consumer advocate, and was responsible for getting seat belts put in cars in the US. “If it wasn’t for him we would still be flying through windshields!” Spurlock adds. Chomsky has long been the lone spoken voice about the corporatisation of America for decades.
“So when we sat down and talked with them and got them to talk about the power and influence of companies not only over the media but also over us as individuals it was a huge coup. When we told them what the movie was about they both thought it was a really funny way to deal with this issue and talk about this topic.”
Spurlock also manages to get several respected film directors, like Peter Berg (The Kingdom, etc), Brett Ratner, of the Rush Hour movies, etc), Quentin Tarantino and J J Abrams (Super 8, etc), to talk about the subject. It may have seemed a bit like biting the hand that feeds them, but Spurlock is full of praise for their honesty in speaking on camera about the process of advertising and product placement. “Other directors would be harder to get on camera,” he acknowledges, although is reluctant to name those who wouldn’t appear. “Because these guys have reached such a level of success that they can say whatever they want and it’s not going to affect their jobs. There’s a level of honesty they can put out there because they are great directors and they will make more movies. But I think for other people it would have been difficult for them to come on.”
So where does Spurlock get his ideas and inspiration from?
“I get ideas for my film and television projects from a variety of places, usually straight out of the headlines of magazines, newspaper cover stories, or things we see on the news on the television. Like, Super-Size Me came from the news report about two girls who were suing McDonalds, and Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? came about after there were all these reports about Osama Bin Laden releasing another mix tape. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold came from an episode of Heroes, the tv show that I saw, where it had suddenly become overrun with product placement.”
Like Michael Moore, Spurlock is a shameless showman who often goes into clever, eye-catching stunts to reinforce the themes of his documentaries. He is always front and centre in his films, even providing the sardonic voice-over narration. But this approach grew out of necessity, and basically evolved out of Super-Size Me. The original idea for Super-Size Me was that someone else was going to be the guinea pig and exist on a diet of McDonalds. But during the pre-production stages concerns were raised, and he couldn’t be 100% sure that when the subject was off camera he wouldn’t sneak some broccoli or have a salad on the side. “So we realised that the only way to be 100% sure that he didn’t cheat was if it was me. Out of that stemmed me continuing to humiliate myself and put myself in terrible situations.”
Spurlock copped a lot of negative criticism for his documentary Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, a film that tracked the notorious terrorist. “It’s one of those things,” he shrugs philosophically. “There are going to be people who love what you do, and people who hate what you do. We got attacked for that film. There were people who went: ‘How could you make this movie?’ But here’s the interesting thing. When they killed him a month or two ago, suddenly people started calling me and going: ‘You were right, he was in Pakistan, I can’t believe it!’ You have to weather the criticism, you have to be prepared for that. Not everyone’s going to like what you do, that’s a fact.”For those who tire of seeing Spurlock front and centre in his films, his next film will offer some respite. Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope is a documentary that explores the largest comic book convention in the world and grew out of his own love for comic books. The annual San Diego event annually attracts some 150,00 people. Spurlock follows seven people through this Mecca for comic book fans, and allows us to view it from their perspective. “For everybody who hated every other movie that I’m in, I’m not in one frame of that movie. I don’t even do the voice over,” he says. “I think people are really going to dig it.”