Interview: Morgan Spurlock, writer-director of POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

by | Aug 23rd, 2011 | 8:25AM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

A few years ago, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) was watching his favorite TV show, Heroes, when there was a blatant and very awkward bit of product placement for a car brand.

The jarring obviousness of that marketing ploy in the Age of DVRs and Fast-Forwarded Commercials gave Spurlock the idea for his latest “stunt” documentary: To make a “Doc-Buster” documentary entirely funded by product placement.

In the course of the resulting film, Spurlock sets out with his typical sense of humor to wrangle sponsors for his documentary, which itself becomes an expose and commentary on the nature of marketing, advertising, and sponsorship, particularly in the film and TV industry.

Along the way he speaks to ad and marketing agencies, filmmakers, and communication gurus, and eventually gets more than 20 brands to sponsor and thus completely finance the film. Which ended up entitled POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

Earlier this year another writer and I sat down with Spurlock in Chicago to talk about the filmmaker’s trip down the very meta rabbit hole of examining movie marketing while trying to market a movie about movie marketing. The following is a reprint of that interview. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is now available from redbox.

In the film you pull back the curtain on how external marketing sources have so much influence on the making of movies.

Morgan Spurlock: We really wanted to go film them shooting one of those scenes in a show or film where an actor plugs the product. We had a conversation with a lawyer in L.A. who plays middle man between movies and brands right now. He was literally on set where they were doing product placement on the set–he’s there on behalf of the brands, giving the comments on holding things, moving things, adjusting the lines of dialogue, and I’m like, “Oh my god, we have to shoot that.” Then his bosses said, “Absolutely not, you’re not doing this.”

As a filmmaker, how do you feel about that influence?

Spurlock: It’s incredible the power that that money brings, especially in Hollywood, and it’s kind of scary. I agree with J.J. Abrams in the film, where he says, “I’m about story telling, not story selling.”

The biggest thing is you have to kick all these companies out of the writer’s room, get them out of this creative process completely. They’re in the writer’s room saying, “And he should hold it like this, and he needs to say this line and ‘Wow! these clothes smell amazing’”–you know, stuff that no one says.

When you make your documentaries are you shaping the narrative as you go or do you sit down and do it afterwards?

Spurlock: I got great advice from a friend of mine when we started making our first movie, Super Size Me. He said if the movie you end up with is the same movie you envisioned in the beginning then you didn’t listen to anyone along the way, because ultimately documentaries are organic–they take you in very different directions, things change.

The way we make movies is very fluid: We’re gonna start at A, and I have no idea where Z is. We come up with an idea and write an outline, and none of that ever happens. We shot about 375 hours of footage for this film, so when you start putting the movie together you’re sifting through, doing a lot of mining for all the good stuff. That’s where the actual physical construction and writing happens.

For Greatest Movie Ever Sold we got some of the things we wanted from the start: we had Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, and we put commercials in the movie. But then new things presented themselves along the way.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is where you see the control that goes on when you pitch the commercials to the brand. I love the way that whole section plays out with the POM commercial, because I think it shows you something you never get to see, the creative conversations you never get to see, how the brand makes decisions.

You go down the meta rabbit hole, using all advertising and promotion tricks you’re exploring to finance, advertise, and promote the film itself. When all the spinning is over, what do you feel is your film’s ultimate message?

Spurlock: We wanted this to be a look at advertising and marketing that you’ve never had–that was the original hope, and I think that did come off. But I learn things along the way in the process of every movie I make because I’m so invested in them.

We interviewed Janet Dalphonout, the woman who sells advertising in the school districts in Broward County in Florida, and she has this great line in the film. I said, “Why are people so upset about advertising coming into schools?” And she goes, “Well, because schools are sacred, schools are these sacred places where kids can make up their minds and have their own decisions.”

That was the point in making this movie where I realized we live in a time and a place where nothing is sacred. Literally if you are captive even for [snaps fingers] that long, whether it’s in an elevator or at a gas pump or a urinal, if there’s a moment where you’re in one place for like five seconds then someone’s going to try to sell you something in that moment.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is available from redbox.

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