Documentarian Morgan Spurlock (2004′s “Supersize Me”) discusses why he made “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” and some frustrating surprises that stymied it and his aspirations.
Of all the topics, why product placement and brand-integrated movies?
“It is literally a stepping stone. It’s one piece to a larger conversation about marketing and advertising. It opens the door to a conversation that’s easily understood from the start. From that point we can dive into other issues, about how we’re marketed to, how we’re advertised to – the impact that has on us, using this journey of the movie as kind of the catalyst.”
This morning I was watching the TED talk you did. I remember how you made your point. I thought it remarkable, your zeal for transparency. When I saw the screen burn (definition of “transparency” shown on-screen) Transparency: “absence of pretense or deceit.” That is almost a dangerous goal in our culture. How successful, how potent do you think the film is?
“I think the film is really successful in that. I think what this film does, in a really unique way…is it pulls back the curtain and gives you access to rooms, conversations, people and things you’ve never seen before. I think that’s a really valuable tool as a consumer, as a film-goer, being armed with the fantastic tool-kit of awareness is something we should all have. I think it does pull the veil back and suddenly changes the way you look at advertising and marketing.”
What was the biggest disappointment?
That In-N-Out burger wouldn’t do it.
(Beat) (quizical look)
“Because you can’t have a doc-buster – a documentary blockbuster. That’s what we wanted to do. An independent film that has as many partners as a gigantic Hollywood summer movie, that’re doing exactly the same thing in promoting this movie, of getting people excited about it. …You wanna have that happy meal, you wanna have that kids meal. If you’re gonna make a doc-buster, you gotta have that. And we couldn’t do it; we couldn’t git it. We tried. We tried. We tried.
McDonald’s didn’t call back – big surprise there! Burger King wanted nothing to do with the film. Taco Bell said “no.” No Jack in the Box. No Wendy’s. No Pizza Hut. All the way down the line.
Even In-N-Out burger; I wanted them to do that so bad!
Why them in particular?
“One: I really like In-N-Out. I think In-N-Out makes a great hamburger.
“You know when the french fries show up at an In-N-Out you know what you find when they open the french fry box? Potatoes. Crazy. They pull out a whole potato. They put it through the shucker, and then the deep fryer. And they have this real, satirical outlook, and they’re a fun brand. Like a fun company. “
It made sense for this film, but they…
“But they thought it did not make sense.
“I wanted to make an unhappy meal, or a thoroughly displeased meal. How funny would that be: come to in-and-out burger for your thoroughly displeased meal. Woulda been genius!”
Obviously transparency is one of your caveats, one of your credos. What’s the least transparent thing about how you do what you do.
“There’s a great quote by Werner Herzog, in a documentary film, every cut is a lie; every edit is a lie.’” What he means by that is you can’t literally turn a camera on, and I can’t show you two hours non-stop. Like, you can’t make a movie like that. Literally you’re changing the story every time you cut.
The argument is “well you’re not changing it. Ultimately what you’re doing is you’re condensing it. Because we shot 375 hours. I’m not gonna present an Andy Warhol-esque movie where I’m just gonna let 375 hours run in a movie theater. Cause no one’ll ever see it…”
Somebody would wanna kill you.
“Exactly, if not multiple people.”
I asked him about his meeting with executives who didn’t know their company’s talking points.
That was really strange. When you were meeting with Ban roll-on folks. Who are branding executives who –
“Can’t identify the brand…
“I bet if you asked them that question today, they’d have an answer. …I bet they could answer that question in five seconds!”
Did you cut anything even more embarrassing out of that?”
“Well originally when we first asked it, we asked the question and we cut right to her answer, and I was like, ‘but they didn’t answer it that fast.’ So I went back into the edit with Tom and we play the whole thing out in real time. I said ‘let it play.’”
“Cut to the wide shot, so they know we’re not cutting. We’re not milking it. We’re not making it longer. Just go to the wide shot and let it sit. So, just as soon as I ask the question we just go to the wide shot – it was great! So now you know there’s no trickery. We’re not doing anything to make it longer.
That was something shy of FUBAR.
You don’t know. In this economy…! All right…
“The least transparent thing about a project like this is one, the amount of work that goes into it, and the amount of stuff you don’t get to see. Cause there are tough choices, really, that go into making a movie. And I believe the sweet spot for a movie, and especially a documentary movie is about 90-minutes. You know, I think you start to lose people as you get to two hours.”
“I think we live in such a world when people have such short attention spans. Especially if you’re watching at home – forget about it. I was just watching a movie, yesterday, when I got to my hotel here. I started watching “I Am Number 4.” About halfway through “I Am Number 4,” I had my computer on my lap – I was working – I was already checked-out! I was done. And I realized suddenly ‘I’m not even watching the movie now.’ …I am that guy.”
“I love having stuff go to television after the fact. But the movie theater is an experience. It is a captive experience. There’s no place else like it. Not even sporting events. Like tennis. Cause even football games, you’re talking to one another during the game.”
“There’s no place else like it. Like Where people are so dead silent and doing nothing but paying attention to the action – doesn’t happen. I believe that filmmaking, movie theaters is like a sacred place.
I indulged in a fan-like question about his former cable series, “30-Days,” which was canceled.
A year ago, I bumped into 30-Days years ago on FX. It earned awards.
“They canceled the show because it started to get expensive. By season three, it was probably costing $750,000 an episode, maybe $800,000. Which is not astronomical at all. Especially one where we’re shooting for like five weeks straight.
“The bigger thing we were up against at FX were ratings. The ratings averaged between 1.1-milion 1.5 million viewers from the premiere. Where as “The Shield,” which was the number one show at the time, got 6-million. ”Rescue Me” got about 5.5-mil, “Nip-Tuck” got about 5-mil. …And that’s what ad sales were comparing us to.”
“So literally we’re getting put in the same box. But these shows are dramas and comedies; how can you compare these shows..? But that’s what happened. The only reason we got a third season was that I agreed to do two episodes.”
“I felt we were in great hands with that show. There’s no place else where we could’ve done this.”
After having watched his TED talk…
Now you have 900-mil media impressions domestically.
“That was in February! “Now, it’s gotta be in the billions.”
Spurlock had a compact with POM Wonderful to provide at least 600-million media impressions…
“You know where we screwed up in the negotiations, really?! I tell ya the one thing, just in terms of being not a smart negotiator, was that we didn’t negotiate for success.
You have to have a metric then.
“I would’ve kept that metric going. Cause if this’s the metric going up to 600 million. I would’ve said this’s the metric going up to a billion. Three billion. Whatever that crazy number is. I feel like we totally missed an opportunity.
“A real opportunity. I real financial opportunity was squandered!”
Mr. Spurlock wears a Tom Baker suit with brand logos embroidery sprawled over it.
I gotta ask about the suit. Assuming this was tailored, did the tailor just have to laugh?
“Well first the suit was tailored. But then we took it to Jonathan in New York City; Jonathan’s the embroiderer. And so the embroidering was done after the tailor. The embroiderer was like “you wanna do what to the suit?”
“This is a fantastically expensive suit that we have Nascar’d up. The embroidery does cost more than the suit, which is incredible: I think the suit’s about a grand. All the embroidery is about $1400- $1500 per suit.”
How many do you have?
This is version 4.0
(beat, with another quizical look)
Well, cause each time we had different sponsors come on. So this’s the final version.
Mane and Tail? What’s the deal?!
“Come on. It’s the greatest shampoo you’ll ever use. It’s a shampoo for you And your horse.”
“It’s crazy, right? Can I say one thing? I’ve never seen a bald horse.”
…That (brand) just tripped me out.