Great bad ideas

Morgan Spurlock searches for a deeper truth -- by turning a mom into a binge drinker and moving a fundamentalist into a gay enclave -- on his new TV show "30 Days."

By Heather Havrilesky
Published June 15, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

A brilliant gimmick is worth a thousand words, and no one knows that better than Morgan Spurlock. His "really great bad idea" to eat nothing but McDonald's food for a month -- documented in the entertaining and enlightening 2004 film "Super Size Me" -- won him overnight celebrity, the Sundance best director prize and an Academy Award nomination, not to mention a 24.5-pound weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and impaired liver function.

Spurlock's liver has gotten back to normal since the film came out, but his life hasn't. In May, he released a book, "Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America," pounding home the brutal facts about fast food he'd explored on film. And his new TV show, "30 Days," which premieres on FX this week, applies the experimental gimmick of "Super Size Me" to new landscapes, all with a political edge: How would it feel to be a Muslim for a month? What would it be like to be a binge drinker for that long?

The first episode, which airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT, follows Spurlock and his fiancée, Alex, as they move to Ohio and try to live off minimum-wage jobs for a month. Combining the reality genre with lots of information and some slippery issues in American life, Spurlock has created a fascinating and informative show that broadens viewers' horizons at a time when our policies are as narrow-minded and myopic as ever.

Most of all, Spurlock proves that a good cause and a clever gimmick go together like potatoes and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. But that doesn't stop me from personally blaming him for ending my lifelong love affair with McDonald's fries. So what did I look for when I spoke to him over the phone recently? Signs of weakness, mostly.

What was your life like in the days after you went off the McDiet?

I went through massive withdrawal for the first three days, much like a drug addict or an alcoholic would go through. I felt really, really sick.

How long did it take until you felt good again?

I guess it was maybe a week and a half to two weeks until I started to really feel normal. And I was on Alex's detox for eight weeks before my cholesterol, my liver function and my blood pressure returned to normal. Then it took 14 months for me to lose all the weight.

That's a long time!

Well, I gained 24 and a half pounds. I lost 20 pounds in the first five months. And those last four and a half became the yo-yo pounds, where I'd lose one, gain two, lose three, gain two. I was up and down, up and down for the next nine months. I said to my mother, "I can't understand why it's so hard for me to lose this weight." And my mom's like, "Congratulations, now you know how every woman in the world feels."

Do you feel like your relationship to food has changed?

Oh, completely. The whole thing has made me very aware. It's made me a conscious consumer -- which is what I think we all need to be. We all need to know where our food comes from. What's in it? What is it going to do to me once I eat it? And we don't think about that -- we don't make that connection between our health and our food.

Do you ever have times that you regret being a role model who rejects crappy food, because you can never go to Outback Steakhouse and eat a whole Bloomin' Onion in one sitting?

Bloomin' Onion! Yeah, no, I do not. I don't go for the Bloomin' Onion. I do love onion rings, though. But, come on, I could bread a rock and throw it into some fry oil and be like, "Boy, taste this rock!" Anything that's fried is good. I can't explain why that is.

Have you ever been in public eating something disgusting and felt embarrassed?

No, because the thing is, for me ... I still love ice cream. I love to get a banana split. I probably get two banana splits a year. And I'll eat Ben & Jerry's. But I used to sit down and eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry's -- now I won't do that. But there are still things that I love to eat; I just don't overeat anymore.

How do you feel about having created something that's so personal? I'm sure a lot of people feel like they know you.

I think that allowed a lot of people to connect with it in a way that, had it not been personal, they probably wouldn't have. I think by letting my guard down and being so honest in the film in every way, you know, from how I felt to my relationship to everything, I think it made the movie much more credible. It's one of those things where suddenly everyone knows what's going on in my life. I mean, I got engaged and I'm walking down the street, and somebody says to me: "Hey, I loved your movie, and congratulations on your engagement!" And I'm like, "That's so strange." But luckily people like the movie. I don't have anybody come up to me and say, "I hate you, you made my kids hate fast food!" People are very appreciative and I guess that's fortunate.

You said in your book that when you came up with the idea, your friend said, "That's a really great bad idea."

Yeah, Scott Ambrozy, the D.P., said that.

Is that your mantra now?

A really great bad idea? Yeah, my goal is to fill the world with really great bad ideas.

So what's the latest great bad idea? The show?

The show is just a great sidestep into something new for me. I'm glad I didn't dive right into doing another movie. I'm glad I did the book and the TV show first. TV is a different animal because TV is so fast. We sold the show last February to FX, but we didn't go into production until January and now it's on TV in June. I mean, that's really quick.

That's crazy. So you're only in one of the episodes?

I'm in all of them [as a host], but I only participate in one. When I first went to FX with the idea for the show, I said, "Yeah, and in each episode it'll be me going through these 30-day journeys." And then Alex said, "No it's not." She said, "You're not going to have a girlfriend very long if you do that." And I said, "OK then, how about one?" And she said, "If you're going away for a month, I'm coming with you." So that's why we picked the minimum wage one, because then it was something where she's an actual participant in what's happening.

It really helped the episode to have her there.

Just like the honesty of the film, having us there as a couple really gave it more credibility and made it realistic I think.

When she got mad at you for spending $1.20 on some buns, it really highlighted how incredibly difficult it would be to try to navigate such an absurd, impossible situation with another human being. What surprised you the most about the experience?

For me, I think it was surprising just how difficult it was. Because you work so hard, and then it's like, "Wow, that's all I get paid? That's it?" You know, you're doing massive physical labor. The other thing was just how stacked against you the decks are in so many ways. To get assistance, to get help, just to get the things you need -- I mean, they're out there, but still, it's hard to navigate that system. And the greatest shock to me was, as much as you may think you're doing better, you're almost getting out of that hole, all you need is one thing to come along to set you back to square one. You're playing a giant life-size Chutes and Ladders. It's like, "Oh, Daddy's going down, down, down." And there I am, back at start, back at go. You go to the hospital and you may have saved a little money, but, oh great, now you've got to pay $1,500.

It's so incredibly expensive to be poor! And it's really inexpensive to be rich. Everything is free! When I started to have money in my savings account, my bank told me, "Oh you're a premium customer now. You don't have to pay any fees for anything. And you don't have to stand in line!" Meanwhile, people down the street are standing in line, waiting to pay $20 to get a check cashed.

It's so true. It's incredible how uneven the system is. You saw that when we had to pay a deposit just to get our electricity turned on. It was all because of where we lived [in a poor neighborhood].

Right! These people should give us a deposit, because ... they can't afford it! And then having to take cabs, not having health insurance and paying $500 just to step into the emergency room. It's incredible that people think of poor people as lazy, when you two experienced firsthand just how exhausting it is.

It's frightening. And you see these families ... The thing for me was all the people we met along the way: the people who are doing this every day, the people who are struggling through and working so hard. For me, when the month was over, I got to go away! But what about the people who don't get to do that? How are things going to change for them? I walked out of there saying, "Things can't stay the way they are, in this quote-unquote 'land of opportunity' that we live in. It shouldn't be like this."

What were the criteria for choosing what you wanted to explore in "30 Days"?

It was really about finding things that I thought were important issues in America today. Things that needed to be dealt with, from religion in America  especially Muslims in America, which I thought was a very pertinent issue with the environment and the world we live in today  to anti-aging with steroids. You know, you turn on the TV and there are steroids stories all the time now, with baseball players in front of Congress, and then you hear about the people who are just doing this to stay young. There were so many things we wanted to use. We went to FX with a laundry list of things we wanted to tackle and then we narrowed it down to these six.

What was a great idea you wanted to do, but that wouldn't work logistically?

There was one we wanted to do, but we're going to explore for next year, which is the prison system in America. Logistically it is incredibly difficult to shoot in a prison, but next season we're going to explore that topic. We've already begun on that. Well, next season, knock on wood!

Yeah, I was going to say.

But we've already got a plan; the minute that we get the nod, we'll be ready to go. But we'll be keeping our fingers crossed until then.

So what are some of the episodes this season?

Well, there are the ones I've mentioned ... Then there's also one that deals with binge drinking and alcoholism in America. There's a mother whose daughter is in college, and she's very concerned about the impact alcohol is having on her daughter's life. She's had family members who've fallen victim to drunk drivers. She just wants to show her daughter the impact of these choices on her life. And so the mother basically takes up living as her daughter does and becomes a binge drinker for 30 days while also trying to live her life and maintain her job and everything she's doing. It's a powerful issue that's been put in a completely different context. It's one that not only viewers but the people around her really could relate to.

We also do one about sexuality in America, where we take a guy who's ex-military, somebody who has a very straightforward view of what homosexuals are -- these are people who are sinning against God, this is a sin against nature, these are people who are going to hell because of the choices they make, they are choosing to defy God. And so we take this guy from Michigan, where he grew up, and we moved him to California, to the Castro [in San Francisco], where he moved in with a gay man and really got a firsthand look at what gay culture is like. The stereotypes that he had aren't what it is.

How was his experience?

Well, he saw what the homosexual lifestyle was really like: seeing couples, going to support groups. One of the best things that happened was he went and met with gay veterans from past wars. He met a guy who was at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. So here's this old gay man he's talking to and trading war stories with, and it's like, "Oh my gosh, these are people who are just like me, only they're gay." So I think that the show does a great job of shattering stereotypes, of exploring issues, but not being heavy-handed about it. I, like anybody else, don't like to be told what to do. And I think the show lets you make up your own mind. For me, that's what good films and good television do.

What comes next?

We've got a show we're developing right now that should hit the air this fall for Comedy Central called "Public Nuisance," which is in the vein and the spirit of Michael Moore's old shows like "The Awful Truth" and "TV Nation," where we'll look at things that are going on in America and around the world from a much more satirical, irreverent point of view. And then next spring I'm going to make another film, another documentary.

Do you know what it's going to be about?

I sure do.

What's it going to be about?

I can't tell you.


Because it's a secret.

Oh, man. Are you in it again?

Yes, it's my film. I'm directing it, I'm producing it, I'll be in it.

Is it another experiment-type thing?

We'll see.

So coy! So, do you ever crave McDonald's food?

To this day, if I smell a Big Mac, my mouth will start watering like Pavlov's dog. But I abstain. I love a good burger, and for me, a good burger just doesn't come from a fast food restaurant. I'd rather go to a mom and pop place down on the corner, a little diner that uses fresh ground beef.

I just don't know if I can ever completely shake the allure of the fries from McDonald's.

Well, nothing smells like that food. Nothing tastes like that food. It's its own animal. But here's the thing to always think about, anytime you think about buying those fries? Think about you're washing your car, you reach under the driver's seat, and you pull out a french fry. Who knows how long that thing's been there. But it looks like you bought it yesterday. Why is that? How does that happen?

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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