Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock

The Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker talks about his new venture, the CNN original series, Inside Man, which he hosts and produces.

Oscar- and Emmy-nominated writer-director Morgan Spurlock has conceived and created everything from commercials to music videos. He was a successful playwright before producing the critically acclaimed Super Size Me, which won a best documentary Oscar nod, and, through his New York-based company, has produced multiple award-winning films and TV programs, including, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? and Freakonomics. An NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad known for pushing boundaries, Spurlock's latest project is the CNN original series, Inside Man, a weekly look into diverse sectors of American life.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So Morgan Spurlock first caught our attention risking his health by eating nothing but the big McDonald meals available at the store for his Oscar-nominated film, “Super Size Me.” He’s now bringing his brand of telling important stories by placing himself in the middle of situations to CNN with a new series that debuts this Sunday in fact. It’s called “Inside Man.” The first episode has Morgan working at a medical marijuana dispensary here in California. So let’s take a look at a clip from that episode.

[Clip]

Tavis: I wonder why everybody’s so happy [laugh].

Morgan Spurlock: That’s right, so mellow. Everybody’s so mellow [laugh].

Tavis: I wonder why [laugh]? Let me start by asking whether or not the woman we saw in the clip, whether or not she’s right. Have we as a nation evolved on this question or is this a California thing?

Spurlock: No. I think we as a nation have evolved and that’s part of what the show talks about. You know, there’s a lot of pushback from a lot of states that would love to have this kind of in their states and it’s how do you sort of pull that away from the federal government and let this be kind of a state issue, state by state?

Tavis: So tell me how this project came to be. I mentioned, of course, that you are known for putting yourself in the center of these stories. But how did this project come to be?

Spurlock: Yeah. You know, we’d been talking to CNN about doing a show. This was last spring and they wanted to do a lot of original, you know, doc series or original documentaries. This is an idea we’ve been knocking around for a year or two and I said, “Well, what do you guys think of this?”

They loved it and we just jumped at the chance to do it. I mean, anytime you get a chance to do like a smart show that actually gets people to think, you know, those are few and far between in TV.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me more about the decision to create this style that you have, again, of putting yourself at the epicenter of the story.

Spurlock: I’m just a glutton for punishment [laugh]. I think what I really enjoy about doing this, and I do enjoy doing these episodes, because it starts to change your own perception over the course of telling the stories and I take you on this vicarious journey with me.

So when I experience something or feel something, that’s kind of transferred to the audience. There’s a lot of great breakthrough moments that come out of that.

Tavis: But tell me more about what you learned specifically at a marijuana dispensary.

Spurlock: Well, I think what you start to learn with something like this is we live in a nation that, for so, so long, we’ve been medicating problems. I mean, the number of people that were coming into the clinic who for years were like doing five, six, seven prescription medications that now, once they started going to this clinic, are off all those medications.

You know, soldiers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who have tremendous PTSD, who are just like drugged to the nines, that now are off all that medication and actually can be more functioning with their family. I mean, it starts to really change the way you look at not only the acceptability, but the impact that this drug can have.

Tavis: So what’s your point in doing this series, since we’ve seen this clip here, specifically this episode? Is it just to show what happens when Morgan gets a job working inside of this particular marijuana dispensary or is it about impacting the debate in the nation about whether or not we ought to legalize marijuana?

Spurlock: Well, it’s much more about the latter. I mean, it’s much more about the conversation of what is this truly about. And I think, once you kind of start to put faces to the issue, take it away from pundits and screaming heads, then it changes the way you look at the problem. And I think that, you know, by talking to real people who are dealing with this on a day-by-day basis, it changes your own perception.

Tavis: So give me some sense – I don’t want you to run through the whole list of episodes. But when you said a moment ago that this gives you a chance now to be at the helm of a smart show that’s really, as I say all the time, challenging folk to reexamine their assumptions and helping them expand the inventory of ideas, we’ll come back to why there isn’t enough smart television these days in a moment.

But give me some sense of the kinds of issues that you hope to get a chance to tackle on the show.

Spurlock: I mean, the first episode, as you saw, was about medical marijuana. We’re dealing a show about guns, dealing with the guns in one of the shows. I go and work as a gun retailer. I sell guns in a gun shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We’re doing one about migrant farm workers and illegal immigration.

We’re doing one about end of life issues where I move in with my 91-year-old grandmother and basically become her roommate. For me, it’s doing things that I think are gonna get people to look at stuff a little differently. It’s good.

Tavis: I guess your grandma – I don’t know your grandmother, so I could be wrong about this…

Spurlock: Good woman [laugh].

Tavis: I assume – okay, I’m sure she is. I was about to say, I’m not sure she wanted you hanging out with her every day with TV cameras.

Spurlock: Well, when I called her, I said, “Hey, Tootie, how would you like to have a roommate…

Tavis: Hold on. What’s your grandmother’s name?

Spurlock: Tootie [laugh]. So I said, “How would you like to have a roommate for, you know, like a week to 10 days?” She goes, “Well, come on down.”

Tavis: Cameras in tow.

Spurlock: Yeah, come on down.

Tavis: So Tootie – can I call your grandmother Tootie?

Spurlock: Yeah, of course.

Tavis: So Tootie is okay with you hanging out for a week or so?

Spurlock: Tootie was totally fine with it.

Tavis: But how did the other people respond? I mean, when they know that you’re coming, I think famously of – I mean, I so miss and I adored – I think one of the reasons why I do what I do is because of Mike Wallace. I love Mike Wallace.

Spurlock: So good.

Tavis: He’s the best.

Spurlock: The best.

Tavis: So when people would see Mike Wallace coming, they’d start running.

Spurlock: That’s right [laugh].

Tavis: And nowadays, Michael Moore kind of has the same impact. You see Michael come, you start running, speaking of documentary filmmakers.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: So when you reach out to the medical marijuana dispensary or reach out to some gun shop, what kind of response are you getting?

Spurlock: Well, a lot of times we get no. I get no a lot [laugh]. I get a lot of people saying we don’t want you here; we don’t want you bringing cameras. But then you call, you know, six or seven people, one of them will be interested and intrigued and want you to come in and help tell a good story. But as people realize, what’s happening is the debates that we have right now are so literally one-sided.

It’s like you’re either way over here or you’re way over on this side and there’s a tremendous amount of people that aren’t, you know, screaming from the fringes, that are literally more in the middle and that want to have a real kind of educated conversation.

Tavis: So let me ask you two questions about this comment you raised earlier about smart television.

Spurlock: Yes.

Tavis: As you can tell, I’m partial to that. I’d like to think that what we do on PBS is try to do…

Spurlock: I think you do smart TV.

Tavis: We try.

Spurlock: Good job [laugh].

Tavis: Thanks. We try to, but there are two questions that raises for me. Number one, there’s a lot of talk these days. I don’t mean to put you in the position of being the spokesperson for CNN. There’s a lot of talk these days about what Mr. Zucker, your friend and my friend, Jeff, love him.

But what’s Jeff gonna really do at CNN? How’s he gonna turn this network around? How they gonna get their ratings up? And there are a lot of people who are saying that, no matter what you do, be true to the CNN brand. We know MSNBC’s spinning this way. We know Fox News spinning this way.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: No matter what you do, Jeff, to fix this, be true to the brand of CNN.

Spurlock: I agree.

Tavis: Well, tell me more then.

Spurlock: Well, then what I think is when it comes down to, you know, kind of what he’s doing with the network, there’s still plenty of time to tell news. There’s still plenty of places to still be kind of a leader in that medium.

But part of what you can also do is tell longer form investigative journalistic show like we’re doing with “Inside Man,” like Anthony Bourdain’s doing with “Parts Unknown.” You know, the series that Ridley Scott’s doing about, you know, these great capers that have happened over time.

I mean, there’s greater stories you can tell that still live and breathe within news and journalism that aren’t just the same type of stuff. And I think what he’s doing is saying how can we grow that brand and grow that identity in a way that is really inherent to our brand?

Tavis: What does it say to you? I was struck by this. MSNBC recently took a beating in the ratings. I mean, because of so many breaking news stories over the last few months, in part. You know, CNN kicked them in the behind. Fox News wore them out. Even headline news wore them out. You know, MSNBC bringing up the rear.

Now I’m not saying that to bash them. I’m saying it because these are the facts. So as a result of these facts coming out, the president of MSNBC comes out and does a press conference or at least does an interview with The New York Times, I believe, and basically says we got killed because “we don’t do news so well.” I thought that was an astonishing statement.

Spurlock: Very honest statement [laugh].

Tavis: They do spin. They spin. You know, if that’s what you do and that’s how you make money, you know, God bless you.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: If I don’t like your spin, I’ll go to Fox News.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: But the fact that the head of MSNBC can say we just don’t do news so well, so we got killed the last few months because there were so many breaking news stories, including Boston, etc., etc., and that’s why CNN goes to the top. What do you make of the fact that we live in an era now where the heads of certain cable networks say, you know what? We took a shellacking because we just don’t do news that well?

Spurlock: Well, because they feel like that people have bought into this idea of this is what sells. Punditry sells. You know, opinions sell more than facts and real news. And I think that, you know, you see the CNN. It was on top of some of these breaking stories and you know Fox has always had somebody on the ground out there. These people react.

Of course, the big CBS, NBC, ABC, they’re always there first in line. But a place like MSNBC has really bought into the whole pop of punditry and just has lost sight of news.

Tavis: So what then, back to your initial statement, what then does that say about the state of or the lack of smart television these days?

Spurlock: Well, I think that a lot of what’s happened, you know, when it comes to the overrun of reality TV, that’s kind of where a lot of the networks have pushed their money because they’re cheaper, it’s easy to put out. You know, a lot of that is not for the people who read books. You know, it’s not for people – I mean, there is a dumbing down of television that has happened.

And when you have the chance to do a show like this that you hope can kind of raise the narrative or raise the conversation up, hopefully, this will open the door to more of those things happening. You know, whenever something like this happens, it’s a great thing for television because it does. It starts to lay the groundwork for more shows.

Tavis: So tell me why you think your brand of “information” can be successful at a network like CNN? I mean, you’re not Brian Williams, you’re not Diane Sawyer, you’re not Scott Pelley. You’re not really news, but you’re on a news network with a show that wants to push us, but it’s not really news per se. So how does that work?

Spurlock: Well, I think it’s not hard news and that’s what we say from the beginning. But what we hope that the show does is kind of open up to topics that are news, you know, whether it be the drought or bankrupt cities or unions in America. Like those are still real news stories. They just aren’t being covered.

One of the things that’s happened in the last few years is like long foreign investigative journalist shows have just vanished. With the exception of like the “Frontline” and “60 Minutes,” they’re really gone. And where shows like this really can do a service is to open up that dialog in a way that will benefit kind of the whole over-arching goal of a network.

Tavis: Let me close with this then. What is the joy in this opportunity for Morgan specifically?

Spurlock: You mean, it’s not fun to go like pick oranges all day with migrant farm workers [laugh]?

Tavis: You tell me, yeah.

Spurlock: It’s hard work, but for me, I enjoy telling these stories that I ultimately think get a disservice on a lot of network television. So for me, I mean, I enjoy that. I enjoy getting people to change their perspective. I enjoy, you know, pushing myself into learning and understanding things from a very different point of view. It’s scary to do that. It’s scary to kind of put yourself in somebody else’s position.

Tavis: So finally, what happens then to your documentary work and, hopefully, one day your feature film work?

Spurlock: Yeah, we’re still doing it. We’re doing a movie right now. Here we are all the way on this side, you know, doing this TV show about immigrant labor and unions and medical marijuana and guns. And over here is the film that we have coming out August 30 about the boy band, One Direction [laugh].

I’ve pretty much covered the gamut of like what I could be doing this year. I’ve got this show that I think is really smart and really challenging, then I’ve got this movie that is gonna come out on more screens on August 30 than any film I’ve ever made in the history of my career. It’s exciting.

Tavis: Well, that’s the fun of it.

Spurlock: That’s the fun of it.

Tavis: Getting a chance to do all of it.

Spurlock: That’s right.

Tavis: And you do it well.

Spurlock: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

Spurlock: Great to see you.

Tavis: Morgan Spurlock’s new program is called “Inside Man” premiering this Sunday on CNN.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 20, 2013 at 5:36 pm