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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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