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August 15, 2011 | by  | in Arts Film | [ssba]

Morgan Spurlock

“Both a blessing and a curse” is how renowned documentarian Morgan Spurlock would describe his own reputation, in relation to getting his latest film POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold off the ground. “There were plenty of people who called me back because of all the work I had done in the past, like Super Size Me, but there were a lot who said No for exactly that same reason”. Sitting down with Morgan for a mere twenty minutes during the final leg of his press tour down under, I was able to grasp a sense of both sides to that persona; a genuine, affable congeniality paired with a mischievous, unpredictable wit. To put it plainly; with this guy, it would be foolish not to expect an agenda.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Spurlock’s latest exposé; a sharp critique on the world of advertising and product placement – with the ironic catch of being entirely funded by advertising and product placement – and oddly enough, it was teen actress Hayden Panettiere that planted the seed. “It was an episode of Heroes, where the cheerleader [Panettiere] was given a car by her dad”, Morgan explained. “She just gushed about the Nissan Rogue that he gave her, and there were these close-ups of the logo and the keys and everything. Here was this seventeen year-old girl so excited about… a minivan”. Something stuck, and upon further contemplation of the ubiquity of advertising and product placement in television and cinema, Morgan began to develop ideas with his producing partner of a film that investigates that world. “Product placement has been around for a very long time, but over the last few years, it’s exponentially grown. It’s at such a saturation level that I thought ‘We should make a movie about this’”.

So that’s exactly what The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is; a meta-layered, riotously entertaining documentation of Morgan’s search for funding, his hysterical forays into advertising and a sharp probing of the inner mechanics of the industry itself. But as one would assume, production was not without its hurdles. “When we first had the idea, I was like ‘This is gonna be so easy’”, Morgan laughed. “I thought it would be a breeze to get these brands on board, but it was so fucking hard”. Production began in January 2009, and it wasn’t until September that the first brand actually agreed to take part. “Only one advertising company would even work with us. No product placement companies would work with us. I just began cold-calling all the brands; footwear, beverages, airlines, you name it. In the end, I called 650 brands and only 15 said Yes”.

Then the contracts began to roll in (Morgan only had one word to describe them with: ‘thick’), along with various sponsor demands. “They wanted final cut of the movie, they wanted final approval of every scene their products were in, you name it. But we pushed back on probably 75% of it”. Despite limiting their artistic involvement to what he termed ‘creative consultation’, Morgan assures that the final response to the film from his sponsors has been more than positive – “The whole idea was to make a film that was completely transparent and honest with people. I’m sure there are scenes in there that they would love to change, but ultimately, I think it makes them look so smart that they gave up control. As much as they are the butt of the joke, they are also in on the joke, and they just look savvy as a result”. Eleven of the fifteen brands were present for the film’s premiere at Sundance and Morgan invited them onstage to a standing ovation – “People were going crazy for the brands, like ‘Yeah!! Ban Deodorant!!’ It was amazing”.

But the price of selling out is a debt Spurlock is still paying off via a dedicated international tour in which he will promote his new film personally, clad in that now-famous NASCAR-esque branded suit. Though one of the most memorable publicity stunts so far could have only happened in America; the purchase of naming rights to a small town in Pennsylvania in which, for a sixty day window, the modest community of Altoona, Pennsylvania was renamed to POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania. “We went there, had an amazing ceremony where we renamed the town and presented the mayor with a giant cheque for $25,000”, Morgan beamed. “It was a good deal”.

Most infectious about the man is his joking spirit, but he has never been one to shy away from tackling a weighty issue. Being a filmmaker committed to pulling the veils away from different institutions and ideologies, I questioned Morgan on how he maintained the balance of treating serious issues with a delicacy yet remaining under the rubric of comedy. His answer was relatively simple; “You can make fun of something as much as you want, but at the end of the day; it has to be rooted in humanity. The minute the humor is disillusioned or dishonest in anyway, that comes across”. This was an issue that many took to with his previous 2008 film Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, which was somewhat mauled critically. “The press eviscerated that movie when it came out”, Morgan smiled. “For every good review we got, there were two or three that just tore it apart. But things change over time. Just a couple months ago when Osama Bin Laden was caught and killed, suddenly the film became the number one movie on Hulu and a bunch of other streaming sites in the States. Suddenly, all the press were talking about the film, and how insightful it was and how poignant it was. I think maybe it [the film] was just a little too early”. In response to the execution of Bin Laden, Morgan described himself as being just like anyone else.

“Finally, we can close that chapter. He was very much an enigma and the fact he eluded capture for so long only fed into that. I think it was important to bring him back down to earth and that sent a very strong message to a lot of people”.

Up next for Spurlock is a total change of pace; a documentary on the renowned comic book and popular arts convention Comic Con, and it was a topic of discussion he approached with a child-like enthusiasm. “Three years ago, I was at Comic Con doing a anniversary special on The Simpsons for Fox”, he explained. “I had wanted to go for years, but never got around to it, and while I was there, I was like ‘God, this is amazing. This right here should be a movie in itself’. Then later that night, I met Stan Lee”. For the uninitiated, Stan Lee is the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics and the creator of Spider-man, X-Men, The Avengers and a whole slew of other classic American comics. In short; he’s a god among mortals, and Morgan described the experience with near-spiritual undertones. “I just went to kiss the ring, to tell him, ‘Look, you gotta understand – as a kid, you changed my life. Your comic books made me want to tell stories and I just want to thank you for making a geeky little kid want to be creative’”. Stan Lee reportedly responded with a mutual sense of admiration for Morgan’s work and proceeded to suggest that the pair collaborate on a movie together – “We should make a movie about Comic Con!” From there onward, the project was ‘blessed’, as Morgan put it. With the support of Stan Lee and Joss Whedon, Morgan won over the notoriously unswayable Comic Con board and was allowed exclusive access to make his passion project, which he describes as very unique in comparison to his work preceding it. “First off, I’m not in one frame of this movie. Everyone who has hated everything I have made up until now, you’re going to love Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. It’s very much like vérité storytelling, where we follow these characters around and tell the story of Comic-Con through them and their experiences”.

Naturally, there’s a noticeable tonal shift when I ask Morgan about the toll that the risks and demands of what he does takes on his family. “It’s hard, y’know. It has a lot of strain on my relationships. My son’s mother and I have split up since Where in the World… so it’s difficult. It’s just one of those things where you have to make your relationships a priority and for a long time, I didn’t”. But Morgan perceives it all as a learning process; “Things have to take steps and come in stages. Having my kid changed my life completely, he changed the way I look at the world. It brings a tremendous level of reality back to your life. Suddenly, it’s not all about you… it’s about this fantastic little man. To have that wake-up call was a good thing”. It’s this sense of progressive maturation that Morgan applies to his work too – “As a filmmaker, I feel myself continuing to grow. What you hope is that you’ll learn something new with each film and as you continue to grow as a person, your work will evolve”. In this sense, Spurlock couldn’t be happier with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. “It’s better than I anticipated. I think it’s the best film I’ve made. I think it’s the funniest film I’ve made. With the sheer entertainment value and what the takeaway is, I’m so proud of this movie”. Hoards of knee-slapping patrons at both of Wellington’s screenings for the film can testify to that sentiment too. Selling out has never looked so smart.


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