January 24, 2011 / 1:52 AM / in 7 years

Ad agencies spurn innovative documentary

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - A regular at Sundance, Morgan Spurlock -- who won the documentary directing award for "Super Size Me" in 2004 -- returns this year with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold."

The meta-doc -- essentially a documentary about a documentary -- world-premiered Saturday ahead of a theatrical release in North America via Sony Pictures Classics.

WHAT WAS THE ORIGINAL SPARK FOR THIS MOVIE?

Morgan Spurlock: It came from a conversation that me and my producing partner and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick were having about the world of movies and TV, and this whole concept of branded entertainment which had started to really come to the forefront, where there were companies that were representing advertisers or brands and were trying to get them to pay for original content on the web ... I said, "It would be great to do a film that's all about the world of product placement and advertising where the whole film was actually paid for by product placement and advertising." That was the germ of the whole idea.

THAT'S ONE OF THOSE EUREKA MOMENTS, BUT THEN YOU HAVE TO EXECUTE IT.

Spurlock: Well, that became the interesting caveat! First we started trying to get ad agencies on board to come and help us make this film. And agencies wanted nothing to do with it. We wanted to have these people be the liaison to brands, to companies. They already had the ears of these corporations and were somewhat trusted by them, so why not get them to help us? And it was a real uphill battle. We wanted an agency to be our partner to help us go to brands, because ultimately we wanted to have the whole film underwritten by brands. Which is what we had happen.

IT'S META IN THAT SENSE THEN, THAT PART OF THE FILM IS YOU SEEKING OUT THE BRANDS?

Spurlock: Well, literally, the film is about the process of me trying to make the film. You're with us almost from the beginning as I'm trying to make this film about product placement and advertising and I'm trying to get brands and advertisers and companies to come on board and so you follow me through the process of trying to convince people to be a part of this movie and actually pay for the film.

SO WHAT ARE YOU OFFERING THEM? YOU CAN'T OFFER THEM A HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Spurlock: Well, we are trying to create a docbuster! That's the thing. I'm like, Why can't we make a blockbuster documentary? If what makes "Iron Man" so successful are all these brand partners, why couldn't we do that with a documentary?

WHAT WAS THE STRANGEST, MOST UNEXPECTED OR HARDEST PART OF PUTTING THIS ONE TOGETHER?

Spurlock: Just getting people to agree to want to be a part of it! There were countless people that we spoke to along the way that were like, "The last thing we would ever do is put someone like you on a billboard. There's no way we would put an average Joe like you in any of our ads."

SOUNDS LIKE YOU TOOK A BIT OF A BEATING OUT THERE!

Spurlock: We were like, "Just think of it, we'll have your brands in the movie." This one person said, "I'd rather kill myself." Along the way as you're talking to people who work in this business, they're saying, "Listen, I want to keep my job, you have to understand that." The people are like, "I'll be a laughing stock." It was incredible.

DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE, SELF-IMPOSED OR OTHERWISE, TO REPLICATE THE CULTURAL IMPACT OF "SUPER SIZE ME"?

Spurlock: "Super Size Me" was such lightning in a bottle. It was such this zeitgeist moment. The invasion of Iraq had already happened, and this became kind of the new enemy in America: obesity in the United States. And so, I think that film represented a lot of conversations that were happening, a lot of concerns people had, and did it in a way that didn't feel like medicine.

IT CERTAINLY WASN'T MEDICINE FOR YOU.

Spurlock: Yeah, it definitely wasn't medicine for me. But I'm very realistic in knowing how special that movie was for what it represented and that to try and find that lightning in a bottle again is difficult. So for me, I just try to find ideas that I'm compelled by, that we would be able to have an interesting take on. And I think "The Greatest Movie" is another one of those films that deals with something that is very much in the pop culture narrative of our time right now.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PSYCHED TO SEE IN THE SUNDANCE LINE-UP THIS YEAR?

Spurlock: Last year I was on the jury, which was the greatest thing ever. It was the best time I've ever had at Sundance, because I had no responsibility except to go see films. I saw 28 movies, it was awesome. I saw all the 16 in competition that I had to see for docs, and then I saw another 12 in top of that. I was averaging three movies a day, usually. Sometimes four.

ANYTHING JUMP OUT AT YOU IN THIS YEAR'S PROGRAM?

Spurlock: I really want to see James Marsh's new film, "Project Nim." I love, love, love his movies. I think he's really brilliant. I love "Man on Wire," so I'm really anxious to see that. I love Steve James, I love the way he makes films. His new movie is going to be there. Kevin Smith's new film. My favorite movie at Sundance last year never got picked up by anybody, which was "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil." That was my favorite film of the festival.

WHAT'S GOING ON WITH YOUR COMIC CON DOC?

Spurlock: We're editing it right now. I just watched a cut today. I really love the story. We followed so many great characters into Comic Con. What you start to see is that Comic Con is a place where there are stakes, and people actually do go looking to have their dreams realized. Whether it's a collector or an artist or somebody who owns a comic book shop, it's really fantastic because Comic Con is a backdrop of real people's lives.

YOU'VE ALSO GOT A BUILT-IN AUDIENCE.

Spurlock: Yeah. We did so many great interviews while we were there. We shot this past Comic Con, we shot it in July (2010).

ARE YOU TRYING TO GET IT READY FOR COMIC CON THIS YEAR?

Spurlock: Absolutely, we would love to have it be at Comic Con. But first step: Make a great movie.

YOU'RE ALSO PRODUCING AN IRAQ MUSIC SCHOOL PROJECT?

Spurlock: Yeah, that whole idea came out of a photograph I saw in National Geographic about this music school in the middle of Iraq in this bombed-out town called Sulaimaniya where there's a guy who teaches kids how to play music. It's beautiful. We have a director that we're working with. A guy named Dane Lawing went over there and shot and is doing that piece. It'll be a short doc, probably about 35-40 minutes.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SUNDANCE FILM?

Spurlock: That's a tough question. There were so many films before I ever went to Sundance, films that I loved, like "Reservoir Dogs" is one of those movies that whenever it's on I could sit and watch forever. Some of the lines in that, the music in that -- the minute I hear Sundance, I think of that film. And then if I think of when I went to Sundance, I was there with "Napoleon Dynamite." Jared Hess and I were there at the same time. It was an incredible group of filmmakers that was there that year, from doc to narrative, it was pretty exciting.

WHAT IS THE MEMORY OF SUNDANCE THAT MOST STANDS OUT FOR YOU?

Spurlock: I was somebody who loved movies, and grew up watching films my whole life, and never wanted to do anything else but make movies and TV shows and somehow be involved in the entertainment business. I had no idea what that was growing up in West Virginia, but I just knew I wanted to make movies, even though I didn't even know how to do that. So even when I was in high school and college I would be watching the films that came out of Sundance, these people who took these little movies that they made for nothing that blew up and changed their lives - from" sex, lies and videotape" to "Reservoir Dogs." So there I was in 2004, and about five days into the festival, a movie reviewer at a party comes up to me and says, "So, Mr. Spurlock, how does it feel to be the belle of the ball?" And it was at that moment when I realized ... I'm that guy. I'm the guy who made the movie for nothing that is coming here and having my life change right before my eyes. I am Kevin Smith, I am Quentin Tarantino, I am Cinderella right now, and literally things will never be the same.

WHAT'S THE ONE TIP ABOUT SUNDANCE YOU WOULD THROW OUT TO A FIRST-TIMER ABOUT TO HEAD UP THERE?

Spurlock: The biggest thing I tell everybody is, as a first-time filmmaker I made it a point to talk to everyone, I made it a point to meet as many other filmmakers as I could. If somebody wants to talk about my movie, I want to talk to you. Let's talk right now! The greatest thing that I tell filmmakers is it's so overwhelming and it's so exciting you need to take a step back, take a breath and just realize that there are thousands of other people that would want to be where you are right now. It's so easy to take that for granted and it's one of the greatest gifts that could ever be given to you, it's one of the greatest experiences you'll ever have. You are one of 120 films out of 5,000! You are in a very special class of filmmakers. You'll never get it again, especially for your first Sundance, your first film, you've gotta take the time to enjoy it.

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