Morgan Spurlock, an award winning writer, director and producer, is high energy, animated, enthusiastic when he engages his audience in the auditorium at Long Island University-Post for “An Evening With Morgan Spurlock”, part of the 5th Annual Gold Coast International Film Festival.
Spurlock, who is also the president and founder of a full-service New York-based production studio, Warrior Poets, screened his newest film, “Crafted,” and generously offered advice during what really was a seminar in documentary film making.
He’s had quite a career: his first film, Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 where it won Best Directing honors. The film went on to win the inaugural Writers Guild of America Best Documentary Screenplay award, and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary. During the evening, he was also presented with an Artists of Distinction in Film award by the Gold Coast Arts Center/Gold Coast International Film Festival.
Since then, he has directed, produced and distributed multiple film, television and digital projects, including the critically acclaimed CNN television series “Morgan Spurlock Inside Man,” Showtime’s “7 Deadly Sins,” The FX series “30 Days” and the films “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?,” “Confessions of a Superhero,” “The Future of Food,” “What Would Jesus Buy?. His “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special in 3D! won a WGA Award and was nominated for an Emmy.
Most interestingly, as was revealed during the conversation, he has been on the forefront of digital content creation: his company, Warrior Poets led Hulu’s push into originally programming with their first series, “A Day in the Life,” and helped ignite Yahoo’s original content strategy, producing three separate series over the last few years. Recent projects include “Connected,” the first long-form series for AOL, and “Smartish,” an upcoming premium-branded content channel for Maker.tv (Maker Studios).
Spurlock is also a co-founder of the short-film content marketing studio, Cinelan, where he recently produced “We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.”
Spurlock previewed his new film “Crafted”, a documentary short film he directed and produced, which explores the lives and motivations of three modern artisans, the chefs behind Bar Tartine, in San Francisco, the knifemakers of Bloodroot Blades, Georgia, and the pottery of Nagatani-en, of Iga, Japan.
The documentary explores the mindset of artisans today – how they respect and preserve ancient traditions and heritage, but incorporate modern technology and cater to modern needs and sensibilities. The project was sponsored by Haagen-Dazs, arguably an “artisanal” ice cream maker, but Spurlock insisted that there would be no direct reference to Haagen-Dazs in the film, but it points to a new business model both for brands fighting to break through a cluttered marketplace and new funding streams for filmmakers, who are by definition artisans themselves.
He discussed his new documentary, “Crafted,” the business of filmmaking and whether “democratization” of filmmaking is producing a golden age of documentary, during “A Evening with Morgan Spurlock,” moderated by film critic Bill McCuddy.
“Crafted,” Spurlock said, “expresses my admiration of craftsmanship, a novel idea in society that seems to value how much you make rather than what you make. The film is not about me, it’s about inspirational people.
“I wanted to tell an international story – people in US that make things –I wanted to hone into the food space –but I also wanted it to be international. I found out about Nagatani – the place is magical – it’s phenomenal to go to home of Ninjas. I went to the Ninja Museum in Iga, Japan – it’s like you took Ripley’s Believe It or Not and put in Iga.
“Knife makers of Georgia. How many of you thought it was going to be ugly?,” He asks, a reference to the fact that the client came in wanting the knifemakers to incorporate a blue apron and fabric from his wife’s wedding dress into the knives, not to mention repurposing a sway bar from a Volkswagen into the knife blade. By the end, every knife they made is impeccable.”
What attracted him to the project? “The Idea of craftsmen.” Filmmaking, he said, used to be more of a hands-on art – he recalls being at film school at NYU, an editing machine in his room, “like a guillotine,” and trimmed film strips hanging down from everywhere. Acetate is long gone, replaced by digital.
‘I’m thankful I grew up touching acetate – now long gone. We shoot so much more with digital. For ‘Supersize Me’ I shot 250 hours.”
On the other hand, Spurlock says, digitization has produced a “massive democratization of cinema. The barrier of entry was eliminated. For $10,000, I had a movie studio in-house – camera, computer, sweat equity wouldn’t cost you anything. It changed the game.”
But while there has been massive democratization of the filmmaking process, distribution is still a problem. There is limited access to traditional movie theaters, and there are only so many film festivals.
“Now hundreds of times the movies competing for same places. But simultaneously, as more film festivals pop up, there are more film schools.”
The thing that shifted next was democratization of distribution. “Now there are1000-plus cable channels to sell to, if you can – Youtubeification: you can put your film on line and charge people to watch. But if you put something online and nobody watches, did it happen?
“The third stage – the most important part of the process – is the democratization of marketing, viewership. Through curation process, where people you trust will tell you to watch, bringing more movies to top. That’s happening now, and will happen over the next 1-4 years.”
There are a lot more outlets for documentaries, he said. HBO is featuring a documentary every Monday night. CNN is another portal that is showing more documentaries, like “Black Fish.” Netflix, where more people watched my movies than ever before.
These channels are not just acquiring documentaries, but making them, like the Steve Jobs documentary. All these people who realize that there is a great way to deal with issues in a longer way, drive a conversation. Long form investigative journalism has gone the way of the dodo, but these docs help.” Still, the 60 Minutes, Frontlines and Datelines “are few and far between.”
“As a doc movie maker, I am pro piracy,” he half jokes. “If you are going to steal my documentary and show it to friends, God bless you (applause). Steal them all. But see them first at a festival, then steal them.”
He says that when “Supersize Me” came out, a friend in China sent a photo of him holding a bootlegged copy on the street. He was thrilled.
He also says, “If you gave me $200 million, I would make 200 movies – not one.”
The budget of “Crafted,” he said, was $300,000 – five times the budget of “Supersize Me,” which he eked out for $65,000. “Everybody worked for free.”
(“Supersize Me,” he says, has since earned $28 million in box office.)
When Sony was hacked, he said, “we found out how much profit it made, so they couldn’t do creative accounting (here he took a mocking tone, “Sure, ‘Jaws’ just broke even.”)
“With Supersize Me, we owned the movie, paid ourselves. The only thing they could claim they spent on was advertising – which we capped. So we did okay.”
Asked what was the inspiration for Supersize Me, Spurlock said, “I was already working in film. I started a company to create programming for the Internet in the late 1990s. I wrote a business plan for Interactive consortium – to create long form content online. This was 2000, way before Youtube, not even reality tv then either. I raised $250,000, then the bubble burst in March 2000. Huge readjustment, stocks bottomed out – one guy invested $250,000. We were going to make dozens of films, but could only make one – but there was no reality tv. Then, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ blew up,went to four nights, so I decided to make a game show, ‘I Bet You Will’ – like in college, where you bet each other to do stupid things for money – random people on street to do stupid things…
“The day the show launched, it exploded online – 1 million visitors in first week, by second week, 5 million. I sold it to CBS – I had proof of concept. I was waiting on CBS, burned through money. To keep the company going, I was taking out credit cards. For 6 months, chalking up debt. I got the show back and sold it to MTV. A full year goes by, then 9/11 and production in New York City just stops.
“I was taking out credit cards to pay credit cards, sleeping on a hammock in my office – I still had an office – 1 year 4 months. I have $250,000 in credit card debt. Companies stopped sending applications for new credit cards.
But MTV still on the hook – it’s February, let’s do special on Mardi Gras: ‘What Would You Do at Mardi Gras.’ We did 2 shows at spring break and they greenlit the series – 50 episodes for MTV in 2002. Then they cancelled the show. I had $50,000. Now I think, I can either pour $50,000 into that bottomless pit of debt, or I can make a movie.
“Let’s make a movie. I owned the equipment – camera, computers.”
He had written a play a few years earlier that won an award, so thought to adapt it to a screenplay, but it didn’t work.
“I go home Thanksgiving, 2002, when a story comes on about two women suing McDonalds – I’m fat, sick and it’s your fault. A spokesperson for McDonalds says, ‘You can’t blame us. Our food is healthy, nutritious.’
“I thought to myself, if it’s nutritious, you should be able to eat nothing but McDonalds for 30 days. It seemed the stupidest idea, but then realty tv exploded – ‘Jackass’ – and the transition from ‘I Bet You Will’ to ‘Supersize Me’ made sense. It fit into the psyche of what was happening on TV, but in a way that was bigger, different – more highbrow, because it was documentary (he says, in a deep, knowing voice). ‘Jackass’ went to lower common denominator.
“When a film critic said it was ‘jackass journalism’ – that idea of being silly, but make it real around something that could actually be a conversation.”
His inspirations come from everywhere. “Inside Man,” which Spurlock made, just finished its 4th season and he remarked on a favorite episode that explored the explosion of the video game world, with professional video gamers and leagues. “65 million people play every day. There’s a worldwide championship for greatest League of Legends. Some kids make $500,000 to $1 million a year playing video games.”
Asked how “Crafted” came about, Spurlock’s answer pointed to a new business trend for documentary film makers.
“Haagen Dazs came to us. They wanted a movie about artisans. I said ‘I won’t put Haagen Dazs anywhere in the movie,’ and they said that was all right.”
He pointed to an emerging “branded content revolution – brands say commercials don’t work, they want an alliance with a brand message. I’m all for branded content if brands get out of the way, where there is alignment of ideology, not to just hawk product. It’s like the early days of television: Let’s create content that is compelling. Then there is a place for brands.”
Spurlock said he has taken “Crafted” around to film festivals, and it was launched on amazon.com/crafted, “the first time Amazon gave direct content – it’s gotten 2 million views. It was just a tool to get a story out about why craftsmanship is important.”
As for what Spurlock has in development, he said he’s working on a feature length movie that will come out next year. “I’m a horror fan. I wanted to do makeup special effects – make a guy’s head explode. I wanted to make a horror documentary – a documentary that is just as scary.” His subject? Rats – about rats in New York City and around the world. “It will be spectacular, creepy.”
He said he’s shooting 95% of movie (as opposed to special effects). “It’s a real documentary, with real people, real stories, cities around the world.” Shooting takes him into sewers and “very bad places.”
Asked what made him want to become a filmmaker, he says, “Jaws. I wanted to make movies that could effect change, to see the world differently, to create empathy. When I was in 11th grade, I read Brave New World. I wanted to make that film – if I had $200 million.”
As for his most memorable experience at NYU, he said, “Graduating. I graduated on time, That was exciting for my parents. My brother was on the 6-year plan. I had gone to USC, and tried to get into film school there. I was rejected every semester. I applied 5 times, was rejected 5 times. After the fifth time, I also applied to NYU and got in..So I left California and came to NY as a second semester sophomore. I went to summer school to get back on time.
I grew up in West Virginia – you can’t get any further away from Hollywood than West Virginia. We had two movie theaters –an old town movie theater with one screen, then a new mall with two movie theaters. I saw everything – I loved movies as a kid. This was the 1970s. My parents let me see everything – people didn’t have seatbelts, no helmet on bike. My parents took me to see ‘The Exorcist’ – that is so wrong, it explains so much about this (he says, gesturing to his entire face).”
Asked if there is anything he would go back and do differently, he said, “Making a film is not a one-man show, it’s a big collaborative process. The more you realize you need help early on, the better. Early on, I realized I’m not a good editor, I fall in love with footage. I learned early on to be big enough to admit what you aren’t good at. The more you can find people to put in your life, the happier you will be, the better your work will be.”
As for advice for those trying to break in, Spurlock said without hesitation, “Get an internship – work at a film festival. My first film was with Natalie Portman (she was Hershlag then). Get an internship. When you get out, do as many things as you can – when you’re in your 20s, try it all – lighting, sound, boom op, grip. Find the place that makes you happiest, while you’re in school, working on others’ films. You want to go to work and love what you do. The minute it’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
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