May 20, 2011

 

A Little Legal Help: Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gives lawyers love in KC

by Dan Lybarger

SpurlockMorgan Spurlock, the mind behind Super Size Me and Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. (photo by Dan Lybarger)

(It’s rare to find anyone who cheerfully admits to liking attorneys.

On May 6, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, the mind behind Super Size Me and Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, told a crowd of roughly 210 lawyers and journalists in a ballroom of the basement of the InterContinental Hotel on the Plaza that he not only likes attorneys but that without their sage advice, his career wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without good legal advice.

“A good lawyer will keep you out of trouble; A great lawyer will help you cause it,” he said. “Too many people I know in this business have no idea what their rights are as filmmakers. I’ve been lucky to have people who’ve been able to explain to me what these rights are but how to walk the line of those rights as closely as I can while accomplishing what I want to do.”

Know Your Rights
In his films and in his FX television series 30 Days, Spurlock has taken on some of the biggest corporations in the world, deliberately risked his health, put himself in prison, searched for Osama bin Laden (obviously before SEAL Team Six) and turned himself into a walking billboard. As he explained to the attendees of the University of Kansas’ 24th annual Media and the Law Symposium, his 2004 offering Super Size Me needed a lawyer’s touch.

In the film he spent a month doing nothing but eating food at McDonald’s. He gained 24 ½ pounds and injured his liver. Because his film was openly critical of one of the world’s largest corporations, Spurlock recalled that he depended on constant legal advice to avoid a libel suit from the food giant.

“I read more law during the making of Super Size Me. I read more law about copyright infringement, trademark infringement, fair use than I think most people who are in prison have ever read in their life. It was a huge benefit to me to understand the framework,” he said. So how did he avoid getting sued out of existence by one of the most ubiquitous companies on earth?

“We had not just one lawyer, but a gaggle of lawyers that we were working with. While I value the opinion of one lawyer, I value the opinion of three lawyers even more.”

He also had to take out an insurance policy that obligated him and his collaborators for the first $100,000 of any legal judgment against the film. As you might imagine, it’s difficult to obtain an insurance policy for a film about a man deliberately risking his health or in the case of his later film Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? travelling to combat zones to look for the world’s most wanted terrorist. Spurlock beamed as he said, “The only thing I love more than my lawyers are my insurance providers.” Had either venture gone badly, Spurlock warned, “We’d probably be living in a mud hut somewhere.”

Spurlock used clips from his films to show how careful wording prevented Super Size Me and his other films from becoming potentially libelous. When Spurlock ran a clip from Super Size Me, it demonstrated how over 20 percent of their customers are “super heavy users,” who eat at Mickey D’s more than twice a week. “We didn’t just call McDonald’s drug dealers,” he said. “They’re not drug dealers. They sell food to you that have queso endorphins in it. I love the way (the scientist) says it. He sounds so excited about it.”

In a DVD extra titled The Smoking Fry, Spurlock demonstrated how McDonald’s food rots more slowly than the servings from a mom and pop burger joint. While the meat and bread eventually became covered with colorful, stinky molds, McDonald’s fries took on a Dorian Gray agelessness.

After the eerie sequence he quipped, “If you can get past the heart attacks and the diabetes from eating at McDonalds, you will live forever.” Spurlock should know. One of the subjects of Super Size Me, retired security guard Don Gorske has eaten 25,000 Big Macs and is still going strong.

Getting the Truth Out
In between the clips and the wisecracks, Spurlock explained to the lunchtime crowd (who weren’t eating Mickey D’s cuisine) some concerns he has discovered through his career.

For example, on his series 30 Days, he filmed himself in prison, including a hellish stint in solitary confinement. Originally, he said he wanted to recruit a prosecutor to experience prison from the inside, but one agreed and then backed out. Spurlock quickly discovered that any prosecutor agreeing to go through with the plan would be putting his or her life at risk.

“There’s a lot of places that don’t share my love of lawyers,” he said. In the Big House, he learned something that made him question the way our laws are structured. “More than 50 percent of the people I talked with were in there for some sort of drug problem,” he recalled. “If we change how we deal with drug addicts, then the legal system will change.”

Spurlock’s clothing choices indicated the talk wouldn’t be all fun and games. Unlike his recent appearances on talk shows like Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Spurlock abandoned his blazer that sported the logos of the companies who sponsored The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Instead, he wore a dark, conservative gray suit. If it weren’t for his trademark mustache, he would have easily blended with his audience.

After presenting a clip from Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? Spurlock recalled what it was like to discover that his past quarry was no more. “I was completely shocked like everybody else. When they said there was going to be news from the Middle East, I thought it was going to be Kaddafi,” he said. “It was an incredible moment in history. People were excited. There was a lot of closure that came with that, that I thought was much needed. But now what are we going to do? We got one guy. Thousands of kids are being recruited. Now is a great opportunity to say it’s time to move on. Now it’s time to say get the troops out of Afghanistan.”

Oddly, the capture of bin Laden turned Spurlock’s commercial and critical dud into an instant hit three years after it came and went from theaters.

“After the news on Sunday, it became the number one movie on Hulu.com. It drives the discussion about what drives people toward terror and how to change things in the future,” he said.

He also took time to present sequences from The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. According to Spurlock, using product placement to finance a film about product placement was possibly the best way to examine how advertising works. “What we wanted to do was take our sponsors’ money and take a look at advertising and still be able to pull the curtain back and be kind of enlightening, to use the spin in a way that makes the movie more engaging and interesting,” he said.

The title of the Symposium was “The Ever-Shrinking First Amendment: Is free speech being held hostage?” According to Spurlock, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned.

“News is becoming less and less about news and more and more about opinion. What drives the news, what’s driving ratings now, are opinion-based news reports, much more than real, factual reporting. Long form investigative journalism is almost gone. Only a couple of places will still do that. One is Frontline and a couple of shows on the BBC. The idea of real investigations is disappearing.

“That’s why there’s been a real rise in documentary filmmaking. The golden age of documentaries is happening right now. Great filmmakers: Davis Gugenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side). They are great filmmakers who are doing films of incredible importance when there are five companies that determine the majority of what we get to see or read. They really do mandate that landscape.

“Thanks to documentaries, this is one of the last bastions of truly free speech in our country, where we can explore things and talk about problems where we’re not beholden to any of these people, where we’re not beholden to the advertisers or the networks. That’s why I think we need docs now more than ever.”

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.

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