From The Vaults: Morgan Spurlock & Super Size Me

Ahead of the release of his funny and revealing new documentary, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, here's an interview I did with gentleman adventurer, self-experimenter and documentarian Morgan Spurlock for Super Size Me back in September 2006.

Sometimes inspiration strikes in the most unlikely places. After packing away his mothers Thanksgiving dinner in November 2002, Morgan Spurlock was slumped on the couch watching TV with his belt unbuckled. On the evening news came a report about two girls in New York who were suing McDonald’s because, they claimed, eating their food had made them overweight and sick. At one point in the report, Spurlock remembers, a representative for the fast-food chain claimed their food was, in fact, nutritious. “When I first heard about the lawsuits I though the girls were crazy. They were going to sue a food company that sells us food, that we buy, that we choose to eat, and then blame that company for what happens to them. Then this spokesperson says, ‘Listen, you can’t link our food to these girls being sick, you can’t link our food to these girls being obese. Our food is healthy and nutritious, it’s good for you’. Well, I thought, if it’s that good for me, shouldn’t I be able to eat it for 30 days with no side effects? So that’s what I did”.

Given that Spurlock owns a production company, and had previously made shows for MTV, he decided to film his experiment. The result is Supersize Me, a darkly comic feature documentary, his first, that has gobbled up the column inches on both sides of the Atlantic and started a debate about nutrition and fast food that pressured McDonalds to phase out their ‘Super Size’ promotion in the US. “I just wanted to find out why Americans are so fat”, he says. Why then did he conduct the experiment on himself? “I realised as soon as I had the idea, that I couldn’t ask someone to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. The other thing is I couldn’t be certain that the minute the cameras weren’t rolling, this person wouldn’t go home and be sneaking broccoli behind my back. It had to be 30 days, McDonalds three times a day, try everything on the menu at least once, and if the cashier asked me if I wanted to ‘Super Size’, I had to say yes.” The filmmaker admits his stunt is an "extreme experiment" but even the doctors he hires to record the impact of his new diet are shocked at how much damage a few weeks of burgers can do. The film is peppered with regular visits to the team of doctors and nutritionists, interviews with experts on fast food and chats with regular folk on the road, including a man who eats three Big Macs every day, but never has fries. We watch, amused and aghast as the formerly fit filmmaker eats everything in sight, packing on the pounds, and looking—and feeling—worse in each successive frame.

The volunteer guinea pig starts the movie as a very fit man in his early thirties with low cholesterol, a healthy heart and a perfectly functioning liver. He’s a charming, easygoing presence in the early part of the documentary, seemingly delighted with his good idea, and happily munching down the first day’s meals. He is soon completely out of control, as his mood swings from morbid depression to artificial elation as he sits around waiting for another sugar injection. His puzzled girlfriend, a vegan, complains about their flagging sex life as Spurlock’s gains 25lbs and his body fat grows from 11pc to 18pc. By day 21, Spurlock is waking up at night with heart palpitations, feels pressure on his chest during a short walk, and his worried mother and baffled doctors are pleading with him to give up the experiment. "Your liver is very sick. It is now like paté," says one wide-eyed doctor, scanning a blood test and desperately trying to persuade Spurlock to eat some vegetables. "These results are obscene beyond anything I would have thought," says another medical expert, who compares Spurlock's liver to that of a middle aged alcoholic. Spurlock, now with his health restored, explains. “In the movie, when I would eat the food, shortly afterwards I’d be famished. This food is so devoid of any nutritional value. My doctors told me I was getting less than half of the vitamins and minerals I needed. I love the idea that McDonalds say their food should be eaten as part of a balanced diet. What part is that? This food doesn’t give your body what it needs, so your body is still craving food.”

I put it to him that he strongly suggests in the film that he became addicted to this food. “Yeah”, he says, “I believe that if you eat a lot of fat, a lot of sugar, and you’re eating things that aren’t giving your body what it needs, it’ll want more.” In the film, it appears that Spurlock is in the grip of an almost psychological addiction. He is so low, so depressed, that he only feels better after he has eaten. He agrees. “Absolutely, towards the end of the month I was so tired and so unhappy. I started to get very depressed about a week in. I’d get these massive headaches, but the minute I ate they’d go away, which is incredible to think about. The migraines got worse and I got more lethargic as the depression spiraled deeper. My blood tests showed a huge spike in my cholesterol, my liver was basically dying. Very scary. Ultimately, at my lowest point, the enzymes my liver was putting out to deal with this had increased 2000%.”

I ask him about his diet before this. Was it all tofu and wheatgrass shakes? He laughs, “No, I’m not a zealot, I’m someone who loves a great cheeseburger, and I’d eat one once or twice a month, no problem”. How did he feel coming to the end of the month? It’s no exaggeration to say he looked absolutely terrible. “You summed it up right there, buddy. I was so unhappy, so thankful that the experiment was almost over, and dying for this diet to end. I felt really sick, never felt as low in my life. I’m a very gregarious, outgoing person, so for me, to hit the mental, physical and emotional wall so hard was really difficult. We live every day not thinking about what we’re eating, piling it on, and we don’t think about how this stuff, salt, sugar, fat all adds up”.

McDonalds are calling him an extremist attention seeker who deliberately hurt himself to further his documentary career. While he had them on the rack, why didn’t he take a look at their employment policies, or their environmental record? He didn’t go down the Michael Moore road because, he says, the film isn’t just about McDonalds. “For me it’s much more about the diet. I wanted to look at the impact of their food on your health. A lot of that political material was covered in Eric Schlosser’s book ‘Fast Food Nation’. Why wasn’t Schlosser in the documentary? “We wanted to interview him, Spurlock explains, but he was busy promoting his new book, ‘Reefer Madness’ at the time. Thankfully, I was able to sit down with Eric a few weeks ago and we shot an interview for the DVD, so people will be able to get more information from his book. I tell everyone who has seen my movie to read it”.

Were there scenes he had to cut from the documentary that might turn up on the DVD? “There are a couple of troubling scenes where we go into an Overeaters Anonymous, which is a group of people who believe they have food addiction, food problems. They are all very overweight. For them to tell us their stories was incredible, these stories are so heart-wrenching, to hear about these people who from a young age would cover their emotions and sadness with food.” I ask him if he felt that the OE meeting scenes were moralizing? “Yeah, it was important to me not to make a preachy film, that tells you how to live your life, but presented you with a picture that gave you enough information so that you’d go home and think about what you’ve seen. People tell me they walk out saying they need to take better care of themselves, to pay attention to what they eat and how they live. Parents are saying I need to cook more at home, be a better food role model. People are not walking out saying, I’m getting a lawyer and I’m suing McDonalds tomorrow, thank goodness, because that’s not what the movie is about.”

Although Spurlock only eats at McDonalds, the documentary is not meant as an attack on the company. Spurlock says it could have been any fast food chain. “For me, it’s about the culture. If you think fast food as an American, you think McDonalds. To me they represent every food chain you can think of. They have influenced every other chain, they all follow McDonalds business practices. It’s follow the leader, McDonalds came out with ‘Super Sizing’ in America, everyone else followed suit. I picked the company that in my mind, could most easily institute change across the board, if they wanted to.”

What was the most surprising thing he uncovered about the industry? “For me, the most terrifying thing in the whole film is the impact and influence these companies wield in American schools. What we are feeding kids in schools is terrible, unbelievable. Why are the kids getting fat and sick? What are we ‘teaching’ our kids? The message is, ‘You don’t need to exercise’, PE has been eliminated from schools, so the kids get no exercise. Health classes have been dropped from schools. Then we send them to lunch, and they’re set loose in the middle of a fast food wonderland, filled with burgers and chips and sodas and ice cream and candy bars. Every day, 5 days a week for 15 years of their lives. The message is, it’s ok to eat this every day. My message is that it’s not ok at all. We have a generation of overweight, obese children who are actually malnourished.

Spurlock is currently preparing a classroom-friendly version of the film to be released on a special DVD with accompanying educational material, and will take it on a tour of American schools later this year. He is also preparing a book for next year, exploring issues raised in the film. “Yeah, I’ve just started working on that, it’ll be out next year. It’ll dive in a lot more into the whole issue, and deal with it in a fun way, much like I did in the movie” So what’s the message, the one point he wants us to hear? “Super Size Me is a funny movie, and a challenging one. It’s about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility. McDonalds says they're doing their part to change things. Now their customers have to do their part. People who go to these stores need to realise what they're putting into their mouths."

Obesity is second only to smoking as a preventable cause of death in the US, making it an increasingly important political issue. All of the world’s major fast food companies are American. So is the documentary more about America than fatty burgers? Spurlock agrees. “For me, the film isn’t really about McDonalds at all; it’s about this fast food lifestyle that we live every day in America. We are consistently turning to these restaurants to be the cornerstone of our diet. 50% of American meals are eaten outside the home. That’s an immense number of meals, so home cooking is vanishing, and this lifestyle is permeating American culture, but now we’ve franchised it out – to Ireland to Europe, to the rest of the world”. I tell him we probably didn’t really want it. His retort is that American companies don’t usually ask permission. “As much as my film is a wakeup call for America, it’s a bigger wake-up call to Europe, where the problem hasn’t yet gotten as bad as it is in the States.”

No comments: