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Morgan Spurlock on “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”

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04162008_whereintheworldisosama1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month allowed “Super Size Me” director and star Morgan Spurlock to humorously illustrate to the masses just how toxic fast food can be. Apparently the guy likes to put his body at risk. Buzzed about since Harvey Weinstein bought the film after only watching a few minutes of it, “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is Spurlock’s new pop docu-quest, in which the handlebar-mustachioed filmmaker — concerned about the world he’s about to bring his baby son into — ventures to the Middle East to talk with various Arabic people in an attempt to locate the terror-monger himself. I spoke with Spurlock not long after the film’s SXSW premiere about his controversial intentions, his journalistic ethics and how best to groom one’s beard.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on John Anderson’s Variety review from Sundance, which said the film “serves up a rehash of others’ 9/11 reportage, bin Laden biography, Islamic theology and suicide-bomber psychology.” What do you think your film brings new to the conversation?

The goal for me is to try and put these [topics] into the realm of a mass audience. While some of this stuff may not be new, I think it’s going to be new to a lot of people. Countless people came up to me after South by Southwest who had never seen any of those other documentaries — who don’t read the newspaper every day or watch the news every night — and I think we present stuff in a fresh, fun, accessible way. The other thing the Variety review says is that the film will surely be a hit, so I will embrace that part. [laughs]

But aren’t you concerned that the news-literate might be turned off by presenting a Middle Eastern history lesson that’s so rudimentary? I’d imagine you’d want them to see the film, too.

Well, absolutely. I think what the film does is it starts to bridge a gap. I spoke to a writer who took her son to see one of the early press screenings. Her son is 14 years old, and he loves the movie; it enabled them to have a conversation about things that were happening in the world. This is a kid who doesn’t watch the news or read the paper. I mean, most kids don’t. I didn’t when I was 14. But if we can somehow start to make this information accessible, it serves as a fantastic primer to begin a dialogue.

It’s probably not a spoiler to say you don’t answer the titular question, as people would have known long before the movie was distributed if you did. Is that title more a hook than an end goal?

Everybody who buys a lottery ticket thinks they’re going to win. So when we first came up with the idea, we thought we had as good a chance as anybody to get over there, actually find this guy, and get him to talk to us. As we started going on the journey, it became more and more evident how unimportant that really was, and how potentially dangerous it was becoming. I think I personally made the smartest decision to not go into the tribal areas, and to come home.

04162008_whereintheworldisosama2.jpgA lot of doc filmmakers have been criticized for putting themselves in front of the camera. I was curious why you put yourself into it when you don’t have a direct connection to the subject matter?

I don’t know if I agree with that. I think I do have a direct connection to the film. From my point of view, it is a personal journey that the viewers are vicariously going along with the ride for. I try to come into a situation honestly, portray how I’m feeling, what I think is happening, and just try to create a vicarious journey. As I learn things, you learn things. As things happen to me, they happen to you. I’m trying to explore something a lot more personal, I think.

Could the film have been made without you being in the limelight?

I think you could have, but then who would you be following? What would be the impetus? Is somebody else going to go find Osama bin Laden? There still has to be this protagonist that you’re following along this journey to find the most wanted man on the planet. Otherwise, it just becomes a doc filled with talking heads. What I want to try to avoid is making films that seem like everything else that you see.

So many traditionally structured docs are bland, I agree. But with this, there’s so much flair and pop entertainment to it. Do you consider it film journalism?

I’m a filmmaker. I think there’s a journalistic quality to it because there is discovery. There is information that comes out of it, and it’s accessible. Whereas a lot of news and stories I see on television go down like spinach. They go down like medicine. They’re not going to resonate with an audience of 18-year-olds, college kids, even young adults at times. So I think that if, in some way, I can lessen the blow of that really heavy, dense material, then it can at least serve as a jumping-off point for [audiences] to go off on their own and learn more about a subject.

Are there still ethical rules you need to follow in your brand of filmmaking?

I think you have to tell the truth. The biggest ethical thing for me is you can’t create a false situation. Nothing in this is fake. Everything that happens, happens to me as it goes along. It’s still a documentary. For me, the definition of a documentary is you’re capturing events as they unfold in real time. And that’s what we do. We’re capturing these things as we start at “A” and end at “Z.”

Though I’m thinking about when you visited the ultra-orthodox Israeli neighborhood where you were assaulted by the locals. Once the crowds became unruly and aggressive towards you, why did you stick around? Were you egging them on a little?

04162008_whereintheworldisosama3.jpgNo, when we got there, we were just trying to ask questions. We had an Israeli producer who was there too, helping us produce within the country. They said we should go there, we should talk to these people, we’ll get great answers, and even they were completely taken aback by what happened. I mean, this really unfolded in a matter of 20 minutes. Nobody thought it was going to get to where it was. Once things started to get more hands-on and confrontational, that’s when he said, “Listen, we gotta call the police and help them get us out of here. We shouldn’t just walk away.” This was all coming from their advice. For me, the most telling thing about that scene is the guy who makes it a point to come up to me and say, “What you see here, the majority of people who live here don’t think like them.” I think that speaks volumes about all these other countries that we start to travel to where we hear these crazy, angry people on the news all the time, and that’s what we get fed everyday by the media.

Throughout the film, you show terrorists comically collected like onscreen baseball cards, and animated video game fights between yourself and bin Laden. For such a weighty subject, do you feel any responsibility to set boundaries to your snark? Is there too far in the name of taste?

Well, I think I’m surrounded by a fantastic bunch of “no” people. I’m not surrounded by “yes” men. I’m surrounded by “no” men, which I think is the best thing you can have as a filmmaker. We run things up all the flagpoles of people in our office, people who have all their alarms and whistles about [not just] what could and couldn’t be accessible, but what should and shouldn’t be in the movie. So long as we can continue to get feedback from audiences, and address as accordingly, that’s where we’ll draw the line.

You’re known for your trademark handlebar mustache, and in the film you end up growing a big, bushy, Middle Eastern-friendly beard. As someone just letting my facial hair grow out for the first time ever, could you offer me any tips on beard maintenance?

I think the key is you have to work past the scratchy phase, because that’s where it will start to feel a little more bearable. Don’t be afraid to shampoo and condition regularly; that’s the key to a good, comfortable beard. Otherwise, it’s going to get all crunchy and women won’t want to kiss you. If you just let it grow out animal style, you’ll start to see how you should shape it and what you should do. Like, do you want to go full-on Grizzly Adams, where it looks like a hedgehog landed on your face, or do you want to trim it up so it’s more sleek in tone and fits the contours of your jaw? That’s all personal choice.

[Photos: “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, Weinstein Co, 2008]

“Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” opens in limited release on April 18th.

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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.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.