The time-slot offered to meet Spurlock was anything but super size – 10 minutes was all I could get – but it was time well spent. I finally met the guy who had made himself famous as a fast-food-eating guinea pig and has made a buzz of Michael Moorish dimensions in the doc world, and he didn’t even seem all that crazy.
Spurlock’s tongue-in-cheek road movie uses a light, humorous approach to describe the serious issue of a fast-food culture that causes obesity and severe illness.
Spurlock got the idea of making the film from watching a news story about two teenage girls who sued McDonald’s for being responsible for their obesity. He wanted to see just what would happen if you ate nothing but fast food for a month and set out on a gluttony binge across America.
Morgan Spurlock: For me travelling was an important part of it, because fast food is everywhere, all over the country in America and the world, and it was important for me to show that this problem is not just in certain places – it’s everywhere. So it became important to go to some of the “fattest” cities in America and talk to the people there.
The filmmaker puts himself in front of the camera, Michael-Moore style, although Spurlock’s attitude is less aggressive and at times almost naïve. But the filmmaker’s unpretentiousness gives the film its charm. In his own silly, wry manner, and with an acute sense of timing and comic relief, he gets the audience to laugh with him, all the while presenting horrific facts and figures on America’s health problem.
MS: I think that, as much that the film is a documentary, the film is a comedy. And it was very important for me very early on to make it a comedy. Because nobody likes to be told what to do, nobody likes to be preached to, and by making a film that is funny and makes you laugh, suddenly your barriers come down and you become receptive to the information. Like, you know, the Mary Poppins song, ‘A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down…’ [Spurlock actually sings this], so we ‘sweetened’ up a really serious problem.
The playfulness and humorous attitude of the filmmaker towards the heavy issues he addresses are apparent in the many colourful graphic special effects and funny animated sequences, as well as the inserted drawings.
MS: I love cartoons. And I love comedy. Plus, I think that one of the great things cartoons and animation can do is that they let you deal with something that is really serious or even offensive in a way where people won’t get offended by it – because ‘Look! It’s a cartoon! It’s fun!’. So you can say and do things in a cartoon that you’d never be able to say or do otherwise. Like the whole way of showing chicken McNuggets getting manufactured as the chicken gets his head lopped off and his bones get ripped out his body. We’d never be able to show that process, but by doing it as a cartoon we can laugh and say, ‘Oh, look how they’re made!’ and then realizing, ‘Oh, [my God]! Look how they’re made!’.
Spurlock uses the road movie genre to discover and cover issues such as corporate-owned school lunchroom programmes offering fries and fast-food meals, stomach-reducing operations and aggressive marketing strategies of fast-food corporations, and he manages to keep it all together by structuring the story around his day-by-day McDiet experiment.
MS: We just happened to stumble on that school where they served all that junk. We were actually there to interview the guy who has the great phys-ed [physical education] programme. So during lunch we went into the school lunchroom and I thought that that was such a contradiction: you have this school with a great phys-ed program and then you feed the kids all this garbage. So for me, we had to dive into that issue a lot more.
The film is Spurlock’s first feature documentary. It was made on a very small budget of USD 65,000 from funds left over from a TV-show Morgan did on MTV.
MS: I knew that a big-name studio wasn’t going to put this movie out, but when they saw it in Sundance they came up to me afterwards and said, “Oh, we love your movie – but we could never put this out,” because they need the partnerships. They need to have their toys, their cups, to have the signs in the windows and they couldn’t put out a movie like this.
The film has a clear message, but it’s not just about proving how unhealthy it is to eat too much fast food. It is also about questioning the authorities and heightening awareness. The film takes a critical look at corporate power and investigates the issue of responsibility, both our own (what we put into our mouth) and the political one. Super Size Me is another success to add to the list of recent political aware documentaries – like The Corporation, Control Room and Fahrenheit 9/11 – that seem to be responding to a need for a different kind of “truth” than the official one of those in power.
MS: I think it’s the political climate, I think we are reaching a precipice where we are frustrated, where we want things to change. I had people ask me when I was doing press in France, ‘Why do you think these anti-American films are so popular?’. I look at this completely differently. The most American thing I can do as an American is make a movie like this. Because we live in a country where it’s about freedom of speech, it’s about questioning authorities, it’s about saying there is something wrong here. And that’s what I think the film does, that’s what The Corporation does, that’s what Michael Moore’s films do: raise awareness and that’s important. I think in America we’ve become complaisant for so long.
Spurlock’s attitude to documentary filmmaking is driven by curiosity and a respectful approach to people and issues. Journalistic flair is coupled with artistic intentions and a promise never to bore the audience. The unpredictable aspect of documentary filmmaking appeals to Spurlock.
MS: Any good documentary blossoms into something that you didn’t really foresee in the beginning. It’s a discovery process even for you the filmmaker, unless you do something that is historically based and you know the facts. But if you do something that happens in real time, you don’t know what will happen. And I think that was the beauty of this movie. I wanted to make a movie about fast food and obesity: that was where it started from, that was the acorn, the seed. And when I started to do research it just grew into a much bigger examination, because me eating McDonald’s for a month – God that’d be boring! What a terrible movie that would be!