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Morgan Spurlock on “What Would Jesus Buy?”

Morgan Spurlock on “What Would Jesus Buy?” (photo)

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Morgan Spurlock’s a busy guy. Since his Academy Award-nominated 2004 McDonald’s take-down “Super Size Me,” he’s been producing and occasionally appearing in the reality-show-with-a-brain the film inspired, “30 Days” (the third season of which kicks off in January). He’s been distributing titles like “The Future of Food” and “Chalk” via his label Morgan Spurlock Presents. “What Would Jesus Buy?”, a new documentary on anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, a.k.a. the Reverend Billy, and his Church of Stop Shopping, finds Spurlock trying his hand at producing films that, like “Super Size Me,” pair a message with humor and entertainment. And then there’s his own new film, still untitled, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, footage from which was shown to buyers at a tightly monitored screening at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, sparking a bidding war and a considerable amount of media speculation. Despite having all this on his plate, Spurlock cleared a few minutes to talk to me about commercialization, responsible consumption and why it’s so important to make people laugh.

How’d you end up getting involved with “What Would Jesus Buy?”?

One of the producers of the film, Peter Hutchison, came to me about six months after “Super Size Me” came out. He’d been following Reverend Billy for a while. I knew Reverend Billy — I’d lived in East Village for about 12 years, and he’s ubiquitous in that area, everybody knows him. I’d never been to one of his shows but I watched the footage that Peter had and said, “I want to meet him. I want to talk to him in person.” Because you don’t know when you first watch if it’s for real.

I met Bill Talen and his wife Salvatori, and just wanted to get an idea of what they hope to accomplish and what their mission is, what they really believe in. I was sold after that because — these are two people who really walk the walk. They’re really trying to make a difference and have an impact and they’re using this character and this church and humor to do it, which I think is brilliant. It’s like the George Bernard Shaw quote. If you’re gonna tell people the truth you better make them laugh or they’ll kill you. And I think Billy does a great job of that.

You financed the film, is that right?

Yeah, we came in, we financed the movie. We had a lot of other financiers but the biggest thing for me was to come in and help produce something that I hoped would be commercially accessible. This is a tough topic to tackle. It’s an immense issue — how do you tie that into something? I wanted to come in and help shape a film that would potentially get out to as large an audience as possible, and not taste like medicine.

Right — it is, literally, a preachy film.

You don’t want to be preached to in this movie and I don’t think you are. I think it’s kind of fun.

You’ve been a major proponent of this, for lack of a better word, functional filmmaking—

[laughs] As opposed to years of dysfunctional filmmaking?

Well, films and a series that have messages in them but also humor — they go down easier. I wanted to ask about how this became your form of choice.

The biggest thing for me is that the films I want to make are films that I want to see. I want to make stuff that I enjoy going to, that, when I’m sitting in a movie theater, I actually enjoy watching. I enjoy all kinds of films, but I think there are specific films that resonate with audiences and the biggest ones are usually comedies. And I think that if you can make people laugh then you can make people think, and that’s really what we try to accomplish.

With the case of Reverend Billy, there’s a real sense that people who are drawn to the Church of Stop Shopping have become disillusioned with the usual means of protest.

Yeah — and what I also find to be really fascinating about the Church of Stop Shopping is you think it’s just some bunch of nutty activists, but these are people who are really together in their lives. As Billy says in the movie, they’re scientists. They’re schoolteachers. They’re executives. These are people who are very successful in what they do every day, and who find this to be, I think, an outlet where they can promote social change but at the same time are a part of a community. And the idea of being a part of something is what church is all about.

Can you imagine any other way someone could tackle the issue of consumerism and Christmas? I don’t know what Billy’s personal beliefs are, but it seems like his embrace of this religious persona has freed him to engage a topic people are otherwise very protective of and sensitive about.

It is a sacred cow in a lot of ways, but the film does a great job of walking that line. And the amazing thing about “What Would Jesus Buy?” is that it’s centered around this preacher with this church, and the movie has been embraced by Christian groups all across the country. I mean it’s incredible — it’s played at all these Christian film festivals. It’s become a rallying cry for a lot of groups that, I think, like Billy for different reasons, but everyone can agree that, no matter what your spiritual beliefs, things have gotten crazy. When I start hearing Christmas ads the day after Halloween, it’s like “People, come on! Are you kidding me?” When decorations go up November 1 and it’s a countdown — it’s a race to see who can make the most money by Black Friday and who’s gonna win by Christmas.

Tackling consumer culture is, as you said, a larger issue in many ways and less easy to act on than, says cutting back on fast food. What would you hope for people leaving this movie to do?

They recognize this in the film — James Sullivan, then the choir director, says, “You can’t ever stop shopping. It’s impossible.” You have to shop. But can you become a more conscious consumer? Can you become more aware of the things you buy? Where they come from? Who do they affect? Where does the money go? Does it go off into some big bank? Somewhere in Arkansas or New York or wherever the company headquarters is? Or does the money actually stay in your community? These things are all really important, and we’ve stopped thinking about them. I think that we need to become a little more aware. We need to become more conscious, and, if the movie does that in some small way, then that will be a tremendous accomplishment.

In an interview at indieWIRE, director Rob VanAlkemade mentioned that he got a kind of subversive kick from using, as he put it, “The Devil’s own tools,” like putting the film’s trailer up on AOL’s movies page, to promote the film. Obviously if you want your work to be widely seen, you have to work through the systems in place. What’s your philosophy been in that way?

I think there’s a way to work within the machine where you don’t feel like you’re just another cog in the machine. And I think that you have to — you have to be a part of this industry and you have to do things to get your movie out.

So is there a particular pleasure in, say, producing “30 Days” under the umbrella of News Corp?

Yeah. [laughs] Maybe “30 Days” is for when people question [Rupert] Murdoch. They say, “You don’t have any programming that isn’t biased. He says, “What do you mean? Look at this show.” We’re the out.

“What Would Jesus Buy?” is now playing in limited release.

[Additional photo: Morgan Spurlock in television show “30 Days,” fX, 2005]

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.