Morgan Spurlock: Making Films And Making a Difference

Morgan SpurlockMorgan Spurlock

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who gained inter- national recognition by making himself sick on McDonald’s food for his successful documentary “Super Size Me,” headlined an informative and entertaining Super Session Monday, “Avid Presents: A Conversation With Morgan Spurlock.”

The documentarian walked attendees through key points of his career, from that first feature — a project even his family thought he was crazy to pursue — to a very productive career of feature and short films and television projects. He completed the projects in his multi-hat role as “writer, director and producer, president and founder” of his production company, Warrior Poets.

He shared stories about that lightbulb moment when he realized as a teenager that he wanted to make movies. He was watching David Cronenberg’s “Scanners,” and he responded to the film’s most famous scene in which a character’s head explodes. With the intention of making that kind of film, he learned everything he could about filmmaking and attended film school, but it was still several years before he came up with the hook for “Super Size Me” that helped translate what would otherwise have been a rather dry look at America’s unhealthy eating habits into a compelling, entertaining account of Spurlock himself trying to subsist only on fast food for a month and suffering greatly in the process.

In short order, the film was a Sundance standout with significant distribution and excellent reviews. But beyond that, Spurlock recalls, “It was making a difference.” A group of Long Island school students saw the film and boycotted their school lunches until healthier food was made available. He soon made a deal with the FX Network for a series of nonfiction shows, “30 Days,” where he examined serious issues, such as healthcare and the minimum wage, but he did it with his signature method of placing himself in the action and using humor to infuse entertainment into very serious subjects.

By the time he got through a season of the show, he’d become a celebrity in his own right, so when he set out to take a look at product placement in movies for “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” — a meta feature about trying to find sponsors for content about the excesses of sponsored content — audiences knew that they were in for a look at a serious subject told in a humorous way.

Spurlock recounted his first meeting with General Electric executives who wanted him to oversee a series of short films about their products. “I told them nobody cares about a new MRI machine GE makes,” he says. Instead, he put together what turned into GE’s branded “Focus Forward: Short Films/Big Ideas.”

The series of films directed by many stars of the documentary world — Lucy Walker (“David Hock- ney in the Now: In Six Minutes”), Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”), Albert Maysles (“Grey Gar- dens”), Spurlock and others — simply looked at interesting people doing inspirational things. Spurlock showed clips of the three-minute films, one about two women developing an “invisible bicycle helmet” that works like an air bag, and another about the development of a cancer therapy that saved a young girl from almost certain death. The films are syndicated for TV and the Web as podcasts and streaming by multiple broadband content providers and cable services.

He took the same approach when Microsoft cofounder and philanthropist Paul Allen approached him about creating a series of short films designed to educate people about the economy. The resulting series of shorts was “We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.” The Web series (available at wetheeconomy. com) also made use of the talents of multiple directors, including Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”), Spurlock and others to tell entertaining short stories with eco- nomic themes that have in total received more than 30 million views.

Spurlock’s career did not go the way he expected when he was blown away by “Scanners,” but by finding a niche and developing it, he has helped bring a great number of issues into the mainstream and become a celebrity and a brand in the process.

“Talk about things that matter,” he said, “and you’ll matter.”