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]