The Greatest Interview Ever Done
MORGAN SPURLOCK WITH THE FRUITS OF HIS LABOR. IMAGE COURTESY OF SONY CLASSICS
After taking on the evil Ronald McDonald in Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock’s newest film has him joining the dark side by becoming a sellout. Even the title is a (proud) bit of “product integration”: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The film follows Spurlock on his quest to reveal the inner workings of product placement by making the first blockbuster documentary completely paid for by sponsors.
But rather than a harrowing exposé on commercials, Spurlock simply points out the absurdity of certain partnerships, like the public-school television network being sponsored by Clearasil. As his producer Jeremy Chilinik acknowledged, “We’re neither for nor against advertising, and we’re neither for nor against product placement, but there is a way to do it that it is creative.” Rather than take down the evil corporations, Spurlock’s film merely illustrates that there is a man (or brand) behind the curtain. We caught up with Spurlock to find out how Heroes got him started on the film and how Ralph Nader is the ultimate self-promoter. (In the interest of full transparency, Spurlock revealed he doesn’t get the full POM Wonderful paycheck until he reaches a certain level of media saturation. Hi, POM!)
GILLIAN MOHNEY: Where did this idea come from?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: It literally stemmed from an episode of Heroes that [my producer] Jeremy and I were talking about. We loved the show when it came on. There was an episode with Hayden Panettiere, the “Cheerleader.” Her dad says, “Honey, your mom and I are very proud of you, and we want to give you something.” As he reaches in his pocket, it cuts to the front of car, and the Nissan logo goes through the frame! And there’s a close up of the keys! Focus to her face! And she says, “The Nissan Rogue! I can’t believe you’re giving me the Rogue! Oh my God, it’s the Nissan Rogue!” Literally, I was dumbfounded. My jaw was in my lap—I was so taken aback. I was like “Really! We’re at the point where we’re putting commercials in to the middle of a show. A good show!” I came into the office the next day and we were both like, “Did you see that show? It was so unbelievable!” We started talking about other shows and other movies and we said, “Oh my God, you know what would be great? A film that looks at the world of product placement and have the whole thing paid for by product placement.” That was the moment—that was the ding!
MOHNEY: Were you afraid when you were filming that you were going to lose your movie to these sponsors and their demands?
SPURLOCK: The first contract was fifty pages! Literally, the first contract [was] like the Magna Carta—it’s gigantic! You get this thing and you start going through, seeing, “We want final cut and we want to be on set every day and we want approval of this.” Not just approval of the film, but approval of all the marketing. It’s like “Approval! Approval! Approval!” Then you push back and say, “Absolutely not!” You just start ripping things out, saying, “You can’t have this and you can’t have this.” Then you start to meet in the middle about ultimately what they want, which is exposure.
MOHNEY: Have they seen the film?
SPURLOCK: What we agreed on with most of the brands is that they could see the film before it was released theatrically. We showed it to them at Sundance; it was the best place to see it because it was people who actually want to see a film. They’re not sitting around a conference table with their lawyers saying “How are we getting screwed?” It becomes a real conversation about how did it play? How was it received? How did we come off in their eyes? To see it in that format—which was [what was] great about Sundance, is that the brands come off looking great. They come off looking smarter than the average bear. There was a girl at Sundance who had one of my favorite lines, saying, “I loved this film and I love you guys made this film. I want to support you guys and I want to go buy these products now because you guys made this film. But at the same time I’m conflicted, because I know that’s what the whole movie is about.” That one comment summed the whole movie up.
MOHNEY: What happens if POM Wonderful’s sales go through the roof now?
SPURLOCK: I’m so angry I didn’t ask for a share of the company. I literally should have had my contract be for a share of the company, one percentage of POM—one percent or two percent. It would have been brilliant. [I could have] a lifetime supply of plane tickets on JetBlue, or lodging for life at the Hyatt. My mistake—we were so focused on getting money for the movie, we didn’t think about the bigger picture. We could fly on this airline forever! I have a feeling, however, I’m going to have POM in my office for as long as I want.
MOHNEY: Has this changed your view on advertising?
SPURLOCK: Well after the movie, I’m so sensitive to all of it. I see it everywhere. I see every bit of marketing and every bit of advertising. I see it in every TV show, I see it in every movie. I’m like, “Did they pay for that?”
MOHNEY: So you can’t watch anything anymore?
SPURLOCK: Well, it depends—this year’s big summer blockbusters are going to completely be shot for me. But with game shows—game shows are forgivable. The Price is Right is one of the best game shows ever. I still love Price Is Right. That show is literally the pitch for the [products.] “Turtle Wax! Do you want a shinier life? Use Turtle Wax!” With game shows, I think you expect it, but in the middle of a scripted show, it’s like, what am I watching? For me, that takes me out of the conversation.
MOHNEY: Can you talk about the high-school kids you talked to who had the commercial TV in their homeroom? They seemed at least aware of what was going on with those commercials.
SPURLOCK: I think just because it’s around doesn’t mean you’re aware. It’s being piped into your school and you’re being advertised in the middle of homeroom. The fact that they charge as much as prime-time TV is crazy and incredibly devious and brilliant. They are literally capitalizing on that captive audience and making bank from it, which I think is wrong. I’m all about having news in the classroom, but it shouldn’t be brought to me by Capri-Sun.
MOHNEY: Did it surprise you when you saw how invasive the advertising was?
SPURLOCK: It is the ubiquitous [nature] of advertising. That’s why the goal of the film was to show all the stuff in the beginning implemented in the end. It’s not just the one thing—it’s not just the mural in the school, or the urinal cake in the toilet, or me naked on the coffee cup or the poster. It’s the cumulative effect of all these things—that make you think, “Oh I need to see that movie, because it’s everywhere.”
MOHNEY: You go to São Paolo, Brazil, where they’ve banned all advertising in the city; what was that like?
SPURLOCK: Amazing, I compare it to Los Angeles, because the sprawl of São Paolo is [like] Los Angeles. It’s huge. It covers miles and miles of ground in the city limits. Imagine driving down Sunset Boulevard and every billboard was gone—every bus stop, every bench, every advertisement is gone. Imagine how it changes just that drive? How that changes what you pay attention to and how you view it. That’s an incredible thing to imagine, and to see it in São Paolo, it does have an effect on you. You start to see things in the architecture and the people. They even limited the signs that are on the outside of the store. It’s not this gigantic flashing thing, “Buy Here! Buy Now!” It’s incredible. It literally changes the way everything interacts.
MOHNEY: Ralph Nader shows up and kind of steals the movie. How did he get involved?
SPURLOCK: I called him and said, “You are the quintessential consumer advocate. If anyone cares about the people and wants to make sure that corporations aren’t undermining them—it’s you.” What you don’t notice in that interview is he came in carrying books under his arm. He was like, “Well, if I’m going to do an interview about product placement, I thought I should put some of my products here.” So the table is covered with Ralph Nader books.
MOHNEY: After doing all of this, do you believe there is truth in advertising?
SPURLOCK: I tend to agree with Ralph on this. If they tell you they’re lying, they’re telling you the truth.
POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD IS OUT IN SELECT THEATERS TODAY.