Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, famous for his 30-day McDonald's binge flick Super-Size Me, and the effects junkfood has on our lives, is now taking aim at how corporations get their brands into films, commercials, and even, literally, our brains.
In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which had its east coast debut last night at the Miami International Film Festival, Spurlock takes aim at America's biggest company's boardrooms to try and get financing for his film. Ultimately, he reveals just how saturated our lives have become with product placement and branding, and how everything from your requisite summer blockbuster movie to the smaller, lesser-known, artist is influenced and manipulated by the advertising industry. We spoke with Spurlock about his film, the school district budget cuts, and the awesomeness that is Mane N' Tail shampoo.
What stands Spurlock apart from other documentarians is his willingness to push himself into his subjects and get to the ultimate truth of it. He's also funny as hell. And Greatest Movie is by far his funniest film to date (a running gag-of-sorts of him hawking an actual shampoo called Mane N' Tail, that's geared towards humans and equines, is especially hilarious).
But there's also some serious themes explored in the film. Spurlock takes us into the cash strapped boardrooms of the Broward County school district and their search for ad money, as well as a revealing look at Sao Paolo, Brazil, and their amazing new law banning all outside ads.
New Times: Super-Size Me was inspired when you noticed the obesity epidemic in this country. Was there anything specific that inspired you to make this film?
Morgan Spurlock: It came from a conversation we had about everywhere we look, you know, in movies and on TV, it seems like there was some kind of product placement in there where ultimately it was becoming a part of the dialog. Becoming a part of the storyline in our conversations. And I was like, we should do a film about this. Really everywhere you look now it's on every channel, every film. We just wanted to rip open that world, and not only rip open that world, but actually get companies to pay for us to rip open that world. We thought it was a great idea. But it became a much more difficult proposition once we started trying to raise the money.
The film tells us that it cost $1.5 million to finance this movie. Did all of that come from the companies we see in the movie?
Yes. All of it. Plus, the full amount we raised was actually $1.8, because they paid for the commercials that we shot and placed in the film as well. Those were about a hundred grand each.
So it was 100% paid by each of the corporations featured?
Yes. With the exception of Mane N' Tail, who want to make sure you know that they didn't pay a dime to be in this movie. They are there literally out of the good graces of their own heart. And my desire!
We need to make sure that's out there!
That's right (laughs).
Given your status as a sort of maverick, sort of troublemaker, was there any hostile push back from the bigger corporations like Coca-Cola or Nike, for example?
Anyone tell you to fuck off?
Nobody told me to fuck off (laughs), which was surprising. But there were a lot of people who said, listen we don't want anything to do with you, we don't want to work with you. There was a lot more raw honesty in people, than anything. But then there were other people that we spoke to who would say, listen I'll do anything to help you that won't get me fired. You know, people who were in a certain place in the pecking order and want to talk about things and want to take risks.
But the advertising industry is an incredibly risk-adverse industry. All of these companies want to protect these cash cow companies that are paying them all this money all the time. Ultimately what I think this film starts to show is that a lot of these companies probably don't really need these ad agencies.
Was there anything about talking to these corporations that surprised you?
I was surprised that anyone said yes at all. We went into those meetings and said we want to show the advertising world in all it's ugly glory and the fact that people paid for that is amazing.
A huge part of Super-Size Me was how you showed the impact of the way McDonald's constantly bombard kids with their commercials with toys and Happy Meals. Do you see similar negative themes with ads geared towards adults like that?
Well, I think what the film does is that it explores a lot of interesting topics. From neuro marketing, which is a very scary concept. This idea that ultimately they're putting people in MRIs to target the desire centers of your brain. They're putting you in a machine, watching your brain, showing you commercials and movie trailers to make those commercials and movie trailers focus more on your desire centers. To make you want them more. To make you crave them. To make you have a release of dopamine when you see it, which is going to make you want to have that physical connection to it.
I think the sections we shot in Broward County where we're talking about how cash-strapped school districts are now, and how they're becoming beholden to advertisers and marketers. They need the money. So now you're seeing this creep, this ad creep coming into the school system. I think that's something people definitely have to talk about.
I just heard that the governor said he wants to cut ten percent out of the education budget for all of Florida. In Miami-Dade that's about three hundred million dollars. Where are you going to make that up? How are the school districts going to take care of that? That's a huge piece of the conversation I think that people need to have.
I mean, Sao Paolo is a really interesting thing to generate a conversation, because can you even imagine what Miami would look like if it got rid of all the advertisements! Suddenly all the billboards were suddenly gone. I mean, how would that change the landscape here? It would be a huge shock. And at the same time, this is such a beautiful place, imagine all of that suddenly being gone.
The Sao Paolo scene was pretty amazing. It looks so different now, like an ancient city like Rome. It's beautiful. Did you notice a significant difference in people's lifestyles because their city is now ad-free?
What you do is you really start to see everything. Because ultimately, everywhere you go you're seeing nothing but the landscape. Trees, the buildings, the people. There are very few distractions. What they've done, which is amazing, is they've championed these artists and there are so many outdoor art projects there now, which you see some in the film. And for me that was a really beautiful thing. The fact that they turned a lot of these spaces into public art spaces. If you're going to pull those ads away and turn it over to the artists, that's a beautiful thing. It would be a amazing if some communities here in the States would say: "You know what? We should do something like that." It would be remarkable.
It would be a miracle.
(Laughs) Yeah, a miracle, exactly.
Attend A Conversation With Morgan Spurlock tonight at 6 p.m. at the W South Beach Hotel (2201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). Call 305-938-3000 or visit miamifilmfestival.com. You can catch a second screening of Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Bill Cosford Cinema (University of Miami, Coral Gables, Memorial Bldg., 2nd floor). Call 305-284-4861