Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Interview with Morgan Spurlock

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Fast Food for Thought

An interview with Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock

Conducted in Edinburgh, 20th August 2004 – the day after the UK’s first public screening of the film, at the UGC multiplex in Fountainpark, Edinburgh

NEIL YOUNG: The movie is very funny and entertaining, but also kind-of depressing. Is it just too late?

MORGAN SPURLOCK: God, I hope it isn’t. My hope in making this movie was to hopefully turn things round a little bit. It’s frightening the way things are in the United States. For me the film is a tremendous wake-up call for America, but not only for America now, but for the rest of the world. There were over 300,000 deaths in Europe last year associated with obesity-related illnesses, over 400,000 in the United States. These numbers are rising. See, we love to share in America, so we ‘franchised out’ this wonderful way of living all around the world so we can share it with folks like you, and people in Asia, and South America. And it has a way of taking over. For me, the question about “Is it too late?”, I think it won’t be so long as we start to focus on the one place where we can really make a change, and that’s in schools. With kids. In the United States we feed kids terrible food – we “teach” them to be fat, to be obese, in American schools. They have horrible diets, they have no exercise, they have no nutrition in health education. We’re putting them on a path to be overweight!

When you first made the movie, you must never have thought it would be playing at the UGC cinema in Edinburgh!

Are you kidding!

Your idea was that it would be shown in a few little art-houses…

Yeah, that if we got any distribution I was gonna be excited. I thought we had a good movie, very entertaining, and dealt with a very serious subject in a way that made it accessible to the “masses”, in the way that newspaper stories and magazine articles just didn’t. I thought that we had something that was pretty good.

It seems as though the film is like a diagnosis, of a kind of body, which is the US, which is in a bad condition. But what is the internal malaise that’s hinted at – what is the root cause of it all. Is there one root cause?

We all want it to be one thing. We want to be able to fix one thing, and have it all be perfect. But obesity is such a huge issue in the United States. There’s so many things that play into it. From how we teach our kids, to the choices we make… To the way that our work-ethic in the US means we have to work so much more to make money. How we put money and time before our health – our health is third on that list.

Is it a a failure of government?

People would rather make money than do what’s right. And that’s part of the issue I think with a lot of these corporations. These corporations aren’t there to make you healthy, they’re there to make money. What will happen if you get people attuned to this way of living and eating, they’ll be eating for a long time. And you pass on your habits. That’s what parents don’t realise, that if you’re a parent and you eat out three, four, five, six days a week and don’t exercise, that’s what of kids you’re gonna raise. We pass down our habits both good and bad, and somebody who eats crap is gonna raise kids who eat crap.

So if you’re the parent, you’re overworked, the kid wants to go to McDonald’s, what do you do?

I don’t take ’em there. If I’m a parent, and my kid wants to go to McDonald’s, I’d say, ‘You know what, you wanna burger, come on, we’re gonna go down to the diner, this other place that makes burgers.’ The goal for me – and this is a conversation that Alex and I, my girlfriend, have all the time – is what do we want to instil in them, in our kids, when we have children one day. And for me I want to instil in them the idea of quality. Not quantity. And it’s much better to have a fantastic, great-tasting burger, than it is to have something from McDonald’s with a toy. It’s like, ‘I tell you what, let’s go down to this burger joint, and I’ll take you to Toys R Us, I’ll take you to the toy store, and I’ll get you a toy. But I won’t take you there, because the food is just not quality. It’s not the best for you.’

So was the day when everything started to go wrong the day that McDonald’s opened their first shop…

The thing is, it’s not that I think McDonald’s should stop operating business. Once in a while it’s not a bad thing. But what’s happened is that we’ve turned this into a cornerstone of our diet So for me I think there’s just been so many pieces of the puzzle, one of which is the advertising, the marketing, the way they target kids. The way they mass-market their toys and their food and the image of being so “happy” and “wonderful” to children, it’s terrible.

Is it like a free-market thing, whereby if a business wants to do it then the government isn’t going to say no?

The government and regulators are bought and sold by corporations. They are funded by corporations, by lobby-groups. These are the people who helped get them elected.

Watching the film you wonder afterwards about ‘best practice’ – is there an area of the US where things are moving in the right direction, where people aren’t becoming more obese.

Nothing’s perfect anywhere, but the question is ‘How can we get it just to be better than it is.’ I always tell people, we’re never gonna make every parent a perfect parent, but we can make every school in America as close to perfect as possible. That’s the one thing we really can do. Parents need to realise ‘You have the power to do that.’ In the US it’s our tax-dollars that fund local schools systems in each county, in each state. Parents need to realise that they can do that. Because the greatest power we have as a consumer is our dollar. Your ‘pound’. If you don’t agree with something, if you don’t support something, then don’t buy it, don’t go there.

Is that replacing the ballot-box… in Britain only half the people vote.

The real ballot-box these days is the place where you spend your dollar. Because you can influence things more by doing that than you will by voting. You will really be able to change a population. If one percent of the people eat at McDonald’s say ‘You know what, I’m not goin’ there, because I don’t agree with this’ – that’s what, 460,000 people, a big chunk.

When you read about them closing down do you feel a bit happier? You must do…

Well, one down, 30,000 more to go. There’s so many of them. Wouldn’t it be great if suddenly McDonald’s started shutting down more stores? Sure – but there’s people who love McDonald’s. If they wanna go there, do what you want to do. I think it would be great if McDonald’s would really start to launch some food that was actually good for you, a little healthier. Why not do your consumers a favour and give them some nutrition education. Talk about how much of what you should be eating, how much fat should they be having a day. You know why McDonald’s won’t do that? Because suddenly when you start educating your consumer they’re not gonna be goin’ there. What’s the phrase, “give them just enough rope to hang yourself.”

Is it because people don’t have time to eat properly?

No. We are so convinced that we don’t have time. If you put your priorities in the right place you’ll always have time. Time to exercise, to eat well… If you make it a priority in your life. The fact is that we haven’t. It’s more important to work longer, to go have ‘pints’ with some people after work rather than go shopping for food… We put our events in order of importance to us…

Do people ask different questions at screenings around the world?

Ever since leaving America the questions are fantastic, outside of the United States. Most countries outside of America realise we’re part of a global community and it’s not all just about America, so it’s nice to get questions that deal with more of the global impact of the way that we live, and the way that we eat.

Will your next movie be something completely different, or has this ‘opened the door’ to an area of public-health education…

I believe documentary film is the last bastion of truly free speech. Especially in the United States. I think that independent cinema is the one last place where you can really say an opinion without it being policed by anyone, without it being chopped-up. You can’t say it on television, because all the television is owned by the giant media companies… You can’t say it in the papers, all the papers are owned by the media conglomerates… The internet is so huge, it’s near-impossible to find an outlet that’s gonna reach people in the way this movie has. I believe that film-making is the one place where you can really make something that will get out and get seen and have the potential to reach a lot of people.

How many people have contacted you, and said, ‘I used to go to McDonald’s all the time, I saw your movie, now I don’t go at all.’?

Thousands. I have web-blog on the internet, where I talk about travelling and what’s happening with the movie. And people write into that all the time saying ‘I’m never eating fast-food again… I haven’t eaten fast-food in months – I feel better.’ I don’t people to walk out of the cinema going ‘That’s it, I’m going to get a lawyer and sue the fast-food companies!’ I want people to walk out of the movie saying ‘You know what, I need to take better care of me…’

You need to catch up with them in a year’s time and see what they’re doing.

Let me tell you something, that’s fine, they might go back to McDonald’s, but they won’t go back so often. What’ll happen is that you’ll think about it before you go in there. If they say “Do you wanna Super Size it,” and you’ll say “No, you know what, the small’s fine. I’ll take the small Coke, the small fries, and the small regular burger, that’s all I need.” It’ll make you think. That’s what people need to do, they need to start thinking about what they’re shovelling into their mouths, because they haven’t for so long.

1st September, 2004

click here for the full-length version of this transcript

Transcript by Neil Young