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Capone With Morgan Spurlock (SUPERSIZE ME And 30 DAYS)!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Morgan Spurlock has always reminded me of the coolest sociology teacher you could ever have in high school or college. As cliché as it may sound, the man knows how to make learning fun. Whether he's teaching us about the horrors of fast food in SUPER SIZE ME or his countless lessons about tolerance, compassion, and walking in someone else's shoes with his undeniably entertaining FX series “30 Days,” Spurlock has done a remarkable job of getting many of us to look at things we feel strongly about in very different ways. Spurlock acts as producer and, in many way, guiding light for the new film WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY?, a whirlwind profile of Reverend Billy and his fellow anti-consumerism band of followers/activists/performance artists, directed by Rob VanAlkemade. Since much of Rev. Billy's message targets retailers', who he believed have hijacked Christmas and turned it into an excuse to get many people to spend money on things they don't need or can't afford, the timing of this film's release couldn't be better. In addition to putting the finishing touches on the third season of “30 Days,” Spurlock is also finalizing his apparently top secret, as-yet-untitled film on the hunt of Osama Bin Laden, which he hopes to have ready for next year's Sundance Film Festival. I wasn't really doing many interviews for AICN when Spurlock came through Chicago to promote SUPER SIZE ME three years ago, but I got the chance to speak with him this time around, I wasn't about to let the opportunity slip through my fingers again. Enjoy…

Capone: It occurred to me a week or two ago, when a few retain chains like al-Mart started up their holiday sales earlier than usual “Black Friday” day after Thanksgiving time frame. This film came to mind immediately. What do you think that move says? Morgan Spurlock: I'm surprised some of them waited this long. Some places I see putting up decorations November 1. I take my Halloween costume off, I put it in the closet, I walk outside, and they're already telling me how many day until Christmas. I think it's crazy what's happening; it's getting earlier and earlier each year. We start hearing commercials, sales start, you name it, and it starts the stress a lot earlier for people. People start worrying, “What am I going to buy? How am I going to pay for it? What am I going to do? What's the perfect gift?” We drive ourselves crazy during the holidays, and I just think it shouldn't be like that.
Capone: People seem to tend to forget that aspect of the holidays. Of course, there's the financial burden, but they forget about the mental anguish that goes along with the holidays. MS: Oh my gosh, yes. I have friends that have kids, and they're freaking out about what to get. And then there's the one gift that's the hot gift that year, that every kid wants, and you have to get that one thing or you're the worst parent ever. It is, it's a terrible a way to spend what should be a very relaxing and nice holiday just to hang out with your family and be together.
Capone: Toward the beginning of the film, we see a brief news report clips--and I'd forgotten this campaign, if you want to call it that, was used right after September 11—the “we must continue to shop, or the terrorists will have won” tactic. At the time, it didn't seem so crazy, but I see it today, and I wonder, “Who thought that one up?” MS: That's crazy right. [laughs] If we don't go shopping, the terrorists will win. Wow, if it's that easy, where my credit card?!
Capone: Tomorrow in Chicago, there's a big parade down Michigan Avenue--they do it every year. It's sponsored by Disney and sort of begins the shopping frenzy down the Magnificent Mile, the shopping mecca of Chicago. All the stores stay open late that day, so people can leave the parade and go right into shopping. I'm curious why Disney was a focal point of the film and of Reverend Billy's crusade? MS: That's always been a focal point for Rev. Billy. For me, the whole point of this film is, we're following Billy's lead. When it's all said and done, Rob VanAlkemade, the director, and myself, we'll go off and make other movies, but Bill Talen will be Rev. Billy forever. This is the character and the persona that's he's created to kind of create social change. So we followed his lead and the things that he wanted to tackle and discuss, and for him, Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney is one of those demons, from his point of view. When it was created, when he came up with the character of Rev. Billy, he was working in Times Square, he was managing a theatre company there, living in a church. It was a theatre company that had taken over one of those old churches in Times Square as theatre space. And the Times Square that was around him was disappearing; that was when the Disney Store came in, and they were shuffling people off, anyone who--as Billy says--didn't have a credit card, kind of got put on a bus and sent away as they cleaned up the city. And he saw the Disney-fication of Times Square as it was become incredibly homogenized and started to look like everywhere else where there's a mall in America. And he said, who are the people who are screaming out against this? And it was the street preachers, and that's when he came up with this character and started preaching out, and the first person he started targeting was Disney. So I think it's sort of full circle for Billy's story that that's where it started and so with the film that's where it ends.
Capone: I certainly didn't grow up with any deeper love for Disney than any other kid, but even I felt weird seeing Billy and his troops sneaking into Disneyland at the end of the film. It's tense because Disney has a security force that rivals the Secret Service. MS: Absolutely, it does. They have security guards all over that place, and there are cameras everywhere. They watch and monitor every single thing that goes on in that park. So when you hear the one cop say, “Hey, this isn't like the United States of America, where you can just sing.” That's one of my favorite lines in the whole movie.
Capone: How did you first stumble upon Rev. Billy? MS: I knew of Billy for a long time. He is a New York City staple, and I lived the East Village, and that's where his shows are over in St. Marks Church. He's just somebody everybody knows, and I'd seen him have some of his actions at different places where he was trying to save public space, save parks, you name it, around the city. I'd never met him in person until one of the producers of the movie, Peter Hutchison, came to me. He'd been shooting with Billy and the church for about a year, and he said, “I've got some footage, and we're trying to make a movie. Would you become involved? Can you watch the footage, and let me know what you think?” And I watched it, and I was intrigued; I thought it was fascinating, and I thought what Billy did was pretty incredible. You know, to put himself in these positions where he invades this space where he gets arrested and puts himself out there and draws attention to what's going on. And the big thing for me was, I didn't know if it was shtick. I didn't know if it was for real. Where is this guy coming from? And I said, I want to sit down and meet him in person. So I met him and his wife, and we talked for about three hours over dinner and a restaurant one night, and by the time it was over, I was like, “Done, I'm in.” The thing about Bill Talen and his wife, they really do walk the walk, they talk the talk, and they use this character and this church that they've created to make us laugh, to entertain us. What really attracted me to Billy is, much like myself, I think Billy realizes that if you can make people laugh, you can make people listen.
Capone: You mentioned before that you weren't sure if his act was shtick or not. I can imagine at least in the beginning that a lot of people find it tough to take Rev. Bill seriously because of the persona. He's so crazy, and a little goes a long way with him. I'm wondering, is there ever any discussion that the message might be getting lost because of the messenger? MS: At times, and this is a lot of the stuff that we talked about, and I think Billy does a really good job of trying to balance that. But I think with this character, you know, whenever you watch any big televangelist on TV, these guys are bigger than life; they really do command a presence. And a lot of people will say, a lot of these televangelists have commercialized Christianity, much as Christmas has become commercialized, these people have done the same with basic religion. And they've turned it into a profitable business. Much like these guys are bigger than life, I think Billy really does try to emulate those exact same types of qualities.
Capone: I noticed that his audiences seem to include a lot of younger people. That one scene where those to teenage girls are trying to look up where exactly there clothes were made and if they were made in sweat shops, that seems like a really simple, effective way to get young people involved in this crusade. MS: And that was such an incredible organic thing. We were just out shooting with these girls while they were shopping, and they started talking about where things were made and how do you know that. And the way it kind of blossomed into them becoming these detectives, trying to find out where things came from was really remarkable. And that scene is really effective, and people who watch that and who watch the sweat shop scenes, it's kind of incredible to see how they react to this. It does resonate with young kids.
Capone: Who is his real target here, the people he's trying to reach? Are they people who don't have means and they run the risk of running into bankruptcy issues? Or is he also trying to get people who have money to curtail their shopping behavior? MS: That's a good question for Billy. I would say from my point of view and making this film, I think our goal was for everybody. The goal is for the people who have a lot of money and have the ability to help a lot of people; it's the people who spend excessively at Christmas and just buy tons of stuff. As Jim Walsh says at the end of the movie, is that satisfaction? Does having all these things really equal satisfaction? And it's the people who don't have a lot of money, but still overspend during the Christmas holiday to the point where the average person at Christmastime puts their credit in such a state that they're paying it off for six, seven month. So you're paying off this holiday where you've bought all these things, and you're paying for it until July. For me, there are so many other things you could be doing with your time, money, effort. You could still make that holiday a special time for your kids, yourselves, your family without going into hock up to your neck.
Capone: The structure of the film, the chapter headings, reminded me of what you did in SUPER SIZE ME, with those wonderful paintings. Was that your influence? MS: Well, Rob VanAlkemade and I started talking about the movie as we were making it, and he always came back to SUPER SIZE ME as an example of…we were trying to make a film that would be commercial and would resonate with people. And he said, maybe we should have chapter headings, maybe we should separate thoughts so people will really know what we want them to think about going into these different areas. So from there, we worked with Joe the artist, who did a lot of the animations in SUPER SIZE ME, as well as Jonah Tobias, the guy who did a lot of the graphic animations in that, and they all just started working together to come up with this way of twisting this typical religious iconography into this consumer world, and I thought it was a great idea.
Capone: Oh they're all beautifully blasphemous, yes. MS: [laughs]
Capone: Let me just talk for a while about some of things you have coming up. Just a couple weeks ago, I saw a teaser trailer on FX for the third season of “30 Days,” but now I can't find anything about where the season premiere is. When does that begin? MS: Yeah, it's running on FX, but because of the writers' strike, they're pulling the series. It was supposed to start airing right after Thanksgiving, so now what's happened is, they want to hold onto it. We're just finishing the final touches on some episodes now, but they want to wait and see how long this strike lasts because if it lasts into the spring they at least know they have some shows they can put on when the new shows that they have run out, which I completely understand.
Capone: So what sorts of issues are you tackling this season? MS: This season is a pretty great season. We're looking at, for the premiere episode, I get to work in a coal mine in West Virginia where I grew up. And this was happening at the same time as the Utah tragedy, so it was pretty incredible. For me, it's a great episode that looks at energy in America and the choices we make when it comes to energy. And these guys who go underground everyday, who I think are complete heroes. These guys are really incredible people. We look at gun control, gay parenting, some real hot button issues. I think it's a really great season. Every year, we're like, well the season's over, are they going to pick us up next year? How can we top this? What are we going to do? And every year it just gets better.
Capone: Your hunt for Osama documentary, what's going on with that? MS: Well, we're finishing that movie right now, and hopefully we'll get to premiere that at Sundance. We're waiting to hear. So that's our plan.
Capone: Are you talking to these bounty hunter/mercenary types that we hear about? What's the thrust of the film? MS: You'll have to wait and see. [laughs]
Capone: Ah, okay. Does it have a title yet? MS: Not yet. We're kind of honing in on that. We should have one hopefully by the time the movie's finished. That would be nice. [laughs]
Capone: Well, I also noticed you've been attached to something based on the book “The Republican War on Science.” MS: Yeah, that was a book that we optioned a couple of years ago. I don't think that's going to get made at this point. I was very excited about that book when it came out by Chris Mooney; it was fantastic. It was written close to the end of Bush's first term, and it talks about scientific thought and education in America. And for me, it was much more about science and how the government views science, and especially now that we're coming to the end of this presidency, I think that a movie just about the U.S. education system would make a much more fascinating film.
Capone: I remember in JESUS CAMP… MS: What a great movie.
Capone: …there was that one sequence about home schooling, and the mother was actually telling her child that global warming was nonsense. And I was baffled by that approach. Why does someone who is religious and/or conservative have to dismiss something like that? To a degree, I understand why they would dismiss evolution, but how does that translate into dismissing global warming? MS: Yeah, I know. But that movie is not going to happen. I think we just gave up that option, actually. We had the right to renew the option, but I think we let Chris have it back. I hope somebody makes this, but especially for me right now, it's just not the right thing to do. Coming off of my next film, I need to take a little break, take a little vacation, and spend some time with my wife.
Capone: It seems like you've been doing the feature and the TV show simultaneously. MS: We were finishing WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY?, while I was shooting my film; and while I was finishing my film, we started doing season three of “30 Days.” That show is based out of L.A., it's produced out of R.J. Cutler's space--R.J. Culter, who produced THE WAR ROOM and is a fantastic documentarian. But we're producing out of his offices, so basically I'm flying back and forth from New York to L.A. every three days. It's a bit exhausting.
Capone: Morgan, that you so much for talking to us. I really enjoyed getting the crash course on Rev. Billy, and look forward to “30 Days” and your mystery movie. MS: Thank you so much. And love what you guys do; keep it up.


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