Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Interview with Morgan Spurlock

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Chewing the Fat

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. At a certain point you start thinking, “Maybe it’s too late…”

MORGAN SPURLOCK: That’s the question – 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!

The film is certificated 12A here – are lots of kids getting to see it in the US?

There’s a lot of parents who are taking their kids. The film has done incredibly well with teenagers in the US. I got a call from a friend of mine who went to see it in Texas on a Friday night. First off, Dallas Texas is not a hotbed of documentary film-making. And it was playing in a cinema with Troy and Van Helsing. He called me after the screening, it was like an 8.30/9.00 screening, he said I had to call you after the movie was over, because I saw it in this multiplex with those two other movies playing, and the place was packed, sold out show on a Friday night, and half the audience was teenagers. I thought that was incredible, to think that the film is doing well playing against other films like that.

You said it’s up to $15m at the box office.

That’s worldwide – it’s $11m in the States.

You said at the screening that means it’s the number four most money-making documentary in the US. There’s the two Michael Moore films. What’s the other one?

Winged Migration‘s number three. That’s ahead of us by only $400,000, so they’re in my sights! I gotta beat the birds – let’s beat the birds! Michael will be a little tougher, but I’m ready for the birds!

But getting back to whether kids are gonna see it… In the States the DVD is getting ready to come out. For me kids need to see this movie, and parents need to see this movie. The DVD comes out in September in the States, I think here it’s either January or February. We’ve done a “family friendly” version of the film, where we’ve taken out the curse-words, all the sexual references, all the drug references.

Will it be in Blockbuster?

Yes, which is great, Wal-Mart, all the big chains in the United States. In December we’re making the family-friendly version available to schools, with an “educational packet” that has exercises for teachers to work through with their student.

Are you doing a schools tour?

I’m doing the tour in the fall, we’re taking the film to colleges, high-schools, junior highs.

That could be a movie in itself…

Exactly!

Watching it in the multiplex last night, there was a huge queue of people and I was quite near the front of the queue, so I had quite some time to look around the cinema. And there was a bank of confectionery all along one wall, with 75 different tubs of candy – I had long enough to check if there were any duplications there. In a cinema you can get water, but everything else is full of sugar. So there’s a kind of irony in showing a film in a multiplex cinema, because they’re as bad as McDonald’s aren’t they?

Yeah, but the thing is people don’t go to cinemas to eat. That’s the difference. You go to a movie, the average person would go to a film once every two weeks, once a week maybe. And that’s a “treat”, you get a popcorn, a coke, maybe some candy. You’re only eating that one time at the movies once a week. But what the fast-food companies are doing is that they’re touting themselves as a “meal” – here’s where you can “go eat” and get breakfast, or lunch or dinner…

You wouldn’t go to a cinema and have your dinner there…

You wouldn’t go there three times a day and eat meals there.

There is that place in New York where they serve the food while you’re watching the movie.

Like Angelika in New York, this great arthouse cinema, they have sandwiches. There you could get food, but you’re not just gonna eat a big tub of popcorn and some whoppers and a giant candy bar.

It’s frustrating if you go to the cinema quite a lot. If you want anything decent you have to buy it elsewhere, then you’re confronted with this big sign saying NO OUTSIDE FOOD.

whispering : (I take my own food!) I smuggle in all my food. Every time I go to a movie in New York, Alex and I smuggle in our own food.

If you were watching say, Troy, what would you eat? A big tub of popcorn, or vegan popcorn…

Alex makes popcorn, with olive-oil and it’s a Japanese like flavouring…

Presumably that makes it a bit quieter than normal popcorn.

It’s a little quieter, yeah. And I’ll take in… there’s tons of sodas and juices you can get that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup or added sugar, it’s all natural sugars. Things like that are what I’ll drink.

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

I think they left the toy out of my f@*king Happy Meal!!Are you kidding!

What was your realistic expectation of where it would be shown? Cable TV?

I made it for theatrical release. My goal was to get it into cinemas on some level.

Was the thinking, ‘let’s get this into Sundance’…

Once we got into Sundance I was like ‘Wow, we have a really good shot of getting this out into movie-theatres.’ But you never know, because Sundance isn’t the end-all, but it’s a great launching pad, or it can be. Or it can go… nowhere. I could have a film that goes there and nothing happens.

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.

You can deduce from the film that you’re some kind of journalist. We see you going to work…

That’s my production company. That’s my office.

Your job was making the movie?

Yeah. Before this I had a series on MTV, so that’s what I do, I’m a producer. I directed commercials, music videos, TV shows.

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.

That’s a great analogy.

But… it’s a diagnosis of symptoms. 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 question of under-regulation. I know it’s easy to say this in Europe, where some people think we’re over-regulated. But the most horrifying thing in the film for me was McDonald’s closed-in playground, and in an aside it’s pointed out that there were no other closed-in playgrounds in the area. That’s a failure of government, isn’t it?

Yeah, and you would think that we would want there to be as many playgrounds in areas as possible so kids have a place to go, and be active, and be kids. But you gotta look – even in New York it’s more valuable to throw up a parking-lot than it is to put in a playground. 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.

In the short-term – they know you can make more money from fat people than thin ones. But that’s only in the short term. Because then they’re gonna die. Is the problem short-termism…

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.

What about peer-pressure, because most kids go to McDonald’s, and if a child says, “No, I’m gonna have vegan food,” kids being kids, they’re going to get beaten up…

Then they’re gonna be shunned, and made fun of…

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. “You deserve a break today” is now like “You’re right! I deserve one every single day! Because I’m too busy! And I work hard! And I deserve it!” 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.

Was there a moment when obesity started to balloon? Pardon the pun…

In the eighties was when it really started to take off. And if you start looking at that, even in the nineties, when the ‘Super Sizing’ phenomenon really started to happen, as these chain restaurants proliferated across the United States, you see it spread exponentially start to spread across the States. It’s been in the last 20 years that all this has really started to happen.

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.

All the way through the film I was saying “That’s the cause, that’s what it is” – an one point I thought “Lobbyists! That’s the problem!”

Governmental power is a big issue when it comes to this. There can and could be more regulation. Will there be? I’m anxious to see what happens. There are ways that we can start to change things in a smarter way… Like one of the bills that they’re trying to push right know is a ‘Menu-Labelling Bill’. There are restaurants in the US that are already doing it. You open up the menu and it tells you how much fat, how many calories, how much sugar…

Shouldn’t they just have a picture of an obese person in there saying, if you eat this, then you’ll end up like that… If people see ’17 grams of Riboflavin’ or whatever it is, they don’t know it means.

People have no idea what it means. So to go along with this Bill – it’s called the ‘Menu Education and Labelling Act’.

MEAL?

It’s Senator Tom Harken who’s trying to push this through.

He’s a Democrat?

Yes.

So are the Democrats more receptive to this, to So are the Democrats more receptive to this, to you, than the Republicans are. You’d have thought they would be instinctively.

Well, probably. But I think even the Democrats are in some way partisan to corporations. There have been some who have been very supportive, then there are others who have been quietly supportive.

The government’s man in charge, Tommy Thompson, doesn’t come across in the film as a kind of firebrand crusading against fat or anything…

Tommy Thompson – the whole Health and Human Services Division has been completely laughable. This group that has the “nation’s health interest in mind”..!

Is it a coincidence that Bush is from Texas and Texas is becoming the ‘fat state’?

(laughs) I think it’s a “fantastic coincidence” much like how when Super Size Me came out McDonald’s decided to eliminate Super Sizing options and it had “nothing to do with the film.”

A happy coincidence for a happy meal.

Another “happy” coincidence. Exactly.

If all the fat cities are in Texas, what’s the thinnest city in America.

You know that’s a good question. I don’t know. One of the healthiest states is Colorado, that’s a very healthy state. Colorado and Oregon are two of the healthiest states.

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.

There’s pockets everywhere. There are places that have a little more concern about what they eat. Like Oregon is a place that has a little more ‘forward-thinking’. Where there is much more value put on farm-grown food… Fresh-grown food.

They have terrible drug problems in Portland, Oregon. So is the choice that you can die from heroin or from ham…

One or the other – is it ham or heroin. There’s problems everywhere. 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.

Same in the United States. So I think it is. 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 hear about McDonald’s closing restaurants… “restaurants”, ha ha, that’s what they call them.

That’s a very loose term I would say.

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. If they led the charge to educate their consumers. All you hear them talk about is “balanced choices”, “healthy lifestyles”, “here’s a pedometer!”. They’re giving away pedometers here in the UK just like they did in America when the movie came out. It’s laughable the steps that they take. It’s absolutely a joke. 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.”

Part of it is time as well. People are “time poor”, “time poverty” is the buzzword. It’s like Jello Biafra’s phrase, “Give me convenience or give me death” – in this case you get both of course… 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…

If you’re walking down the main street here in Edinburgh, and you wanted to get something to eat, where would you go?

When I’m in a country, I love to eat local fare so I’d probably go somewhere I can get some fish and chips.

I swore to myself that I was never going to use the phrase ‘Deep fried Mars Bar’ in this conversation…

I’ve eaten them, they’re fantastic. They’ve gotta be the English Mars Bars, the US Mars Bars are terrible. There’s a chip shop in Brooklyn that imports the Mars Bars and deep-fries them. They also deep-fry Twinkies, Reese Cups, Mounds Bars.

Here we also have deep-fried Chocolate Eggs.

That sounds fantastic!

How many countries have you been to with the movie?

Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway.

Do people ask different questions.

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.

Presumably you’re hoping that Kerry wins, would that be a step in the right direction.

Of course that would be a step in the right direction… I’m a big proponent of the ‘Anyone But Bush 2004’…

It would maybe make a better movie if you were a die-hard Republican…

Yeah (laughs). Even I wouldn’t become a Republican just to make a movie.

Ralph Nader is the other consumer champion, and he stood for President… Have you considered standing for elected office? That would make a very good movie.

See, there you go, maybe that’s next. Maybe that’s the next film.

‘Elect Me’ rather than ‘Super Size Me.’ … What is the next movie? Because it’s all your money behind the movie and it’s taken $15m.

Believe me, I’m not getting $15m. The distributors take a big chunk out of that. I get $8. I can go get some fish and chips.

So do you have an idea for another movie?

Yeah, I’ve got a couple ideas.

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…

Fox, as we see in the new documentary Outfoxed.

That’s a great film, a fantastic movie. You can’t say it in the papers, all the papers are owned by the media conglomerates…

What about the internet?

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 long will you spend promoting this movie before you move on to the next one, because it’s already been a while…

It’s already been a while – all the way through the fall into the spring, because as I said, going to schools is really important to me, so I’ll probably be with this until March or April.

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.’?

A lot. 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

Transcript by Neil Young