by Emma Loggins
We had the honor of sitting down with Morgan Spurlock to talk about his show 30 Days which returns for a new season on FX on June 3rd, 2008! Here’s what Morgan had to say:
I’m such a huge fan of your show; I’ve watched both seasons and really enjoyed it. I think it’s very provocative. I wanted to know what story from this current season moves you personally the most.
M. Spurlock: I think that just being able to go home to my home state of West Virginia and kind of be immersed in this environment and around these people who affected so much of my own life growing up that you don’t even kind of take into consideration; I think that’s probably the most moving for me in being there.
Can you explain a little bit more about what happened?
M. Spurlock: I just think for me it was just kind of eye opening and the people that you meet and these are people that none of us think about. It’s a profession that none of us really know much about or know what goes on and we really take it for granted. These are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day to basically go underground and mine a resource that essentially enables you and I to turn on a light bulb every day. Fifty percent of our electricity comes from the work these guys do, and I don’t think anybody thinks about that.
So I think for me that was probably just one of the many eye-opening things that you start to see. And as you’re surrounded by these guys it really is a brotherhood of these people. It’s a group of people that really look out for one another; they really care about one another. And I just felt really honored just to get to be a part of that.
I actually watched the “Working in a Coal Mine” and “30 Days in a Wheelchair” last night, I got your new season yesterday, and they just wrecked me emotionally, especially with the young father, the coal miner, the one whose name is Jamie.
M. Spurlock: James Cooper, yes.
Yes, you could see in his face that he was stuck and he was doing right by his family, but he was torn up about it. I also felt very strongly, too, when you enlisted Ray Crockett for the “30 Days in a Wheelchair,” it was a very powerful segment. And I notice that you’re only in two, you do the 30-day challenges in only two of the six.
M. Spurlock: Yes.
Is this the least amount? I don’t know; I remember season one –.
M. Spurlock: Seasons one and two I only did one episode and then this season, season three, I decided to do two. It’s just I want to try and keep my marriage somewhat intact. When we originally pitched the idea to FX four years ago, when we got the idea for 30 Days, the original concept behind the whole show is I would go off and do every single episode, which essentially means I would be gone and in some sort of a different environment, a different experience every month for six months straight, essentially. And my wife said, “You’re not going to have a wife very long if you do that.”
But what I also was going to say is the thing that I think, while I love the episodes that I’m in I think the better test of the show and kind of what the show represents and what it means are the people, are the episodes that I’m not in, when you get people who get put into a new environment. Because I think the episodes that I’m in and the episodes that other people do are very different because it’s me going through an experience and getting put into an environment that a lot of us don’t think about or we kind of take for granted. And with these other people they’re being put into a situation where they really have to defend their beliefs and they have to defend what they think and how they feel or how they were raised and kind of things that are really personal to them. So I think that when you have somebody who really is kind of forced to see the world through someone else’s eyes, I think it really is eye opening.
Of the four episodes that you were not in for this season, the “30 Days in a Wheelchair,” “Animal Rights,” “Gun Nation,” and “Same-Sex Parenting,” which one of those spoke the strongest to you emotionally that you really felt poignant and really a powerful moment?
M. Spurlock: I think that there’s powerful moments in all of those shows. I think the gun control – “Gun Nation” – episode is really fantastic. And I think you see Pia really go through just a real emotional journey and she’s touched by so many things. And to see her, she’s someone who’s so against firearms and against guns and fire a gun for the first time and how emotional that is for her and how overcome she is, and I think there’s a lot of power in that episode. I grew up in West Virginia and I grew up hunting as a kid, I grew up around rifles and guns my whole life. For me, I think it’s something that will speak to a lot of Americans.
How do you personally feel about guns?
M. Spurlock: I don’t have a problem with guns. Back in West Virginia I still own guns, back in my house there. I don’t think guns are necessarily the problem. I think that there are certain guns that, of course, I don’t know who needs a machine gun, personally. But I think rifles and things like that are fine. I think that in the wrong hand is when a gun becomes a problem.
When you go back to West Virginia, which is not far from here in Pittsburgh in the heart of Appalachia, you stayed with the mining family.
M. Spurlock: Yes, Dale and Sandy.
Dale hadn’t been tested for black lung in a long time and he eventually ends up going in with you for the test. Did it take a lot of coaxing to get him to come along with you?
M. Spurlock: It was tough. He didn’t really want to do it. But when I said, “I’m going to go do it. Why don’t you come along?” He’s like, “Sure, I’ll go.” And I think that he had gotten so many negative results for so long that he didn’t even anticipate kind of what was going to come out of that test.
But I think it’s one of those things; it wasn’t like it was a big shock. Of course after being in the mine for 30 years this is what happens. You’re breathing coal dust every day for 30 years, this is where you go and this is what, that 99% chance that you’re going to get black lung. And I think that, still, it’s a hard thing.
For me the harder part was when we had to go home and talk to Sandy about it. I love those guys. Dale and Sandy are just two incredibly beautiful people and she loves him. But how do you tell the guy that you love that he can’t do what he loves to do? How do you tell this guy that he can’t go work in a coal mine because that’s his life? That’s what he really lives to do.
Is he still mining today?
M. Spurlock: He’s still mining. He’s working at a different mine now, but he’s still superintending; he’s still working as a foreman of another mine. What I love about Dale is the guys really look up to him, guys respect him because Dale will be the first person to get in there and work just as hard as anybody else. And he’s been around the block, he’s been doing this for a long time.
Did they talk much, because I’m not sure it was covered a whole lot in the episode in terms of mine safety and rescue and that sort of thing that’s been in the news in some of these cases in recent years, where mines have collapsed and people were alive and then sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not. Did the miners, as you were working did they have anything to say sort of about needs to improve mine safety and rescue type stuff?
M. Spurlock: I think everybody recognizes things could always be better, things can always be safer. There are always advancements that are happening with mining technology and the ability to detect gases or methane within the mine. Those things are moving forward every day. I think that when we were shooting our episode, when we were in the mine we were actually pillaring the mine at the exact same time, and that’s when you basically pull out the big chunks of the mine and it basically collapses behind you. When we were pillaring is when the exact same mining collapse happened in Utah, and it’s one of those things that while – because every day you’d be in this mine doing the exact same thing that basically you trap these other miners.
And it just wasn’t discussed; it wasn’t talked about. It was one of those things where the men go into the mine and you could feel it. It was palpable the very first day that we were in to work when these miners were trapped. Usually the miners are chatty; they’re talking, you’re in the bunkhouse getting ready to go in and then when you go in, it was silence. There was no talking on the man trip on the way in. It was very telling, I think, in a lot of ways.
And was that last summer?
M. Spurlock: That was last summer; yes, it was last year.
What do you consider to be a successful 30 Days?
M. Spurlock: I think a successful 30 Days is one where you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I think there are two. There’s a successful 30 Days as a participant where I go in and I’m surprised and my eyes are opened and I learn things and experience things that 99% of us will never get to. And I think that’s really what I love as a participant that I get out of the show. For me as a person who watches the show, I love that every episode isn’t tied up into a nice little bow, that at the end of every episode people don’t always get along. Everything isn’t always resolved. Sometimes people find commonality; sometimes they agree to disagree. Sometimes their relationship is just as volatile at the end as when they started. And for me that’s what makes the show real. This is a show that really does deal with reality in so many ways and deals with a lot of the problems that we face as a culture on a daily basis. And I think for me, that’s what I love about 30 Days.
How do you pick then, those issues every season? How do you come up with the episodes?
M. Spurlock: We read the newspapers. Most of those are pulled right out of the headlines, from a news story, a magazine article, you name it. We put together like a hot list of ten to fifteen ideas that maybe we want to do for the season and we talk to the folks at FX. They’re so supportive of this show and have been from the beginning and they’re just such a great network to work with. They go through our ideas and come back with their thoughts and maybe they have a couple that they throw in. We whittle it down to what those six are going to be.
How do you find the people to participate in the show?
M. Spurlock: It’s difficult. It’s a long, arduous process casting a show like this. We’re very lucky to have had such great, the casting directors that worked on the show, Morgan Fahey, Jaye Fenderson, Joshua Herbst, the people who really helped us find these people. You can’t have like a cattle call audition like American Idol. You can’t just put an ad out and have people show up like, “I want to be on TV.” It’s not that kind of a show. You really want people who are invested in what we’re talking about, people who have some sort of a real interest in whatever the topic is.
We go through casting the show through chat groups or through organizations that are involved in it. Like with the episode where George from North Carolina, George Snedeker, goes and lives with a family in Los Angeles, a family of PETA, animal rights activists. We contacted PETA and said was there a family in the Los Angeles area we could work with and so they kind of pushed us towards the family that we used. And then we started finding somebody through hunting chat rooms or people who subscribe to hunting magazines, people who could kind of start to open us up to the inverse of that.
And it is, it’s hard. You start to go down a path with some people and you get tapes from them and you meet them in person and the person who you think you might want ends up, the person you want to use it ends up being somebody completely different. You go in a completely different direction. So I think we’ve just been very fortunate with the people we’ve gotten.
It takes a lot of courage to be on a show like this. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and belief and strength to be put in an environment where you’re stripped of all your safety nets. You’re stripped of your friends, your support groups and suddenly you’re put in an environment where every day you’re having to defend what you believe in. And I think that over the course of the show at around week three is when two things happen, I think around Day 20, Day 21 is when one of two things happens: you have a breakthrough or you have a breakdown. And that’s what this show’s really about, I think.
Is there a topic that you know you will never cover?
M. Spurlock: Is there a topic that I know we’ll never cover? I don’t know; we’ll see. Alex says, my wife already told me that I’m not allowed to do any episodes about pornography, so she’s drawn the line in the sand.
If you’re picked up for another season do you already have an idea of what kind of topics you would want to cover for that?
M. Spurlock: We’ve talked about some, but nothing that we’ve really kind of locked into. We’ll have to wait and see; I don’t know. Knock on wood that FX gives us another season; we’ll see.
Which episode was the hardest to produce?
M. Spurlock: What episode was the hardest to produce of this season? That’s a good question. I would say just from my personal point of view, being in a coal mine you’re in an environment that is very constricting already, constricted in terms of the light, in terms of the air, in terms of just the, the mine that we shot in, the average height in the mine was about 5’5″. So I’m 6’2″, so like you’re in a mine where you’re hunched over constantly. Our producer, Al LaGarde, is also my height; he’s like 6’2″. Luckily, our cameraman, Michael Dean, was right around 5’6″, 5’7″, so he didn’t have to hunch over so much. It’s one of those things and you’re in there shooting every day with a crew and with equipment. From a production standpoint I think that was probably the most difficult.
What do you enjoy more, doing the films or doing the format of 30 Days? What format do you enjoy more and are there going to be more films from you?
M. Spurlock: I love making movies. I think that the incredible thing about a film is that a film has the ability to really transcend culture. Super Size Me played in like 75 countries around the world. My new film that came out, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? has been sold in about 60 countries around the world. And 30 Days has done really well. I think 30 Days plays in about 15 different territories now internationally, with a lot of these countries starting to produce their own 30 Days episodes, because originally that was my intent was for these own countries to focus on problems within their own societies. And so that’s starting to happen.
I find each to be rewarding for a lot of different reasons. With 30 Days we’re able to cover so many more topics. It’s a very defined production schedule with 30 Days, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end when you make this TV show. Whereas, when you make a doc it can take a very, very long time. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? took us about two and a half years from start to finish, where with 30 Days the start to finish of this whole show cycle is about eight months.
Wow, so it’s really quick and dirty versus the film bit. And do you have a beginning, middle and end and know, kind of like a hypothesis like a scientist, when you’re doing your films of this is what I hope to find, basically? Obviously you did â€¦ on Super Size Me and all the other ones, but is that what you go in with?
M. Spurlock: No. I pretty much go in with just an idea of, like with Super Size Me we’re going to eat this food for 30 days and see what happens. With Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? we’re going to go try and find the world’s most wanted man. Then we kind of spin the top and see what happens. You know there’s people you want to talk to and you know there’s places you want to go, but other than that I really like to let that whole process be very organic. I like things to develop on their own. I let people help steer where we’re going, and when we’re in a country or we’re in an interview the best things that happen are when somebody comes into an interview or something happens that one door opens and leads you to three or four different things you never even thought about or never anticipated.
Some of the best advice I ever got was from a friend of mine right before we made Super Size Me. I called a filmmaker friend of mine; I’d never made a movie, never made a feature and I said, “Could you just give me some advice?” And he said, “If the movie you end up with at the end is the exact same movie you envisioned at the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way.” That’s such good advice. And we take that advice with 30 Days and I take that advice every day with the films we make.
You’ve established the documentary sort of side of you. Do you have any feature fictional film ideas that you might be kicking around?
M. Spurlock: Yes. I would love to do a scripted film and do a narrative film. For me, I want it to be something that really speaks to me. After Super Size Me I got sent a lot of broad comedies, a lot of really not funny scripts that they wanted me to direct. I don’t know, for me it’s just that I’d want to do a narrative feature and that’s something that I’m really passionate about that, but I think that it’s got to be something that has some teeth to it. It’s got to be something that has a little something beyond just humor, and hopefully I’ll get to do that.
It would be something you would write yourself?
M. Spurlock: I think so. After just reading a lot of the scripts that I’ve gotten I think it’s got to be something either that I adapt or I write completely myself. That’s at least the direction that I’m working towards right now. And I still write. I grew up as a writer as a kid and was a playwright before I made Super Size Me and I write a lot of one-acts and short plays. For me it’s just a fantastic exercise, the way to continue to write dialogue, the way to understand characters; the way to understand how characters interact with one another. So at some point hopefully all these exercises will be put to use.
Do you have any ideas for maybe what your first might be?
M. Spurlock: I’ve got some ideas, but nothing that I’ve really kind of gone down that path. I want it to be something, you know I loved Thank You For Smoking and I thought that was a film that had a great message. It had a great heart to it. At the same time it had something behind it. It was a comedy, but at the same time it had a soul. I think that I loved, what was the film, it was nominated for an Academy Award last year, sold at Sundance. I was just talking about this today with Steve Carell –.
Little Miss Sunshine?
M. Spurlock: Little Miss Sunshine’s another one of those movies. It’s a fantastic film about the dysfunctional families that we all come from and how our lives, you can’t ever plan who your family is and you can’t really understand why you have this family, but at the same time they’re your family and you have to rely on them. It’s one of those things that I think we all still wrestle with and I think there’s something really beautiful to that, too. I don’t know, there are a lot of things that I really respond to and I like and we’ll just have to wait and see.
Going back to the show a little bit, the “Same-Sex Parenting” episode that’s definitely an example of what you said a little bit ago about two sides that really didn’t come together towards the end, which is great because that’s what the show does; it reflects real life because that’s the issue. I would assume that sometimes the participants you guys get, like somewhere in the course of the 30 days they might want to bail and they might be contractually locked in. But have you ever had an instance, either with that episode or just anywhere else, where the participants were like, “I can’t do this. This is just too hard.” How do you deal with that?
M. Spurlock: I think people, there are other things. There’s this time of when there’s breakthroughs and breakdowns. And even when people are like, “I want to go home; I’m unhappy” you kind of talk people off the ledge and you say, “Stick it out.” But they’re not contractually obligated to stay there for the 30 days. People can stop; they can stop if they want to.
Like in season one there was, our participant was doing steroids and human growth hormones for a month, and around Day 20 he went to get his sperm checked, and basically when he started he had a sperm count like 80 million and on Day 20 he had zero. Basically he killed all the sperm in his body. And his wife was like, “You have to stop right now.” He was like, “You’re right; I’m done. I’m walking away.” So he was finished after three weeks. And once he got off the HGH and the steroids all of his semen count came back and it was back to normal.
But it was one of those things and listen, I don’t blame him. If suddenly after three weeks I went from 80 million to zero I’d have probably been really seriously thinking about dropping out, too. But for me, as I said, I think that’s the interesting thing; that’s the exciting thing. And these people are really courageous for sticking it out and for putting themselves in this environment where, think about it, think about something that’s really important to you and you’re surrounded by people who believe the exact opposite for a month. That’s a difficult place to be mentally, emotionally, physically. I think it’s very taxing.
And who is that person for you? Who do you go to? When you were doing the mining episode, the first or second day you could just see in your face you were like, holy …, I have to do this for 30 days, bending over, shoveling coal, who’s your go-to person? Is it somebody on the show?
M. Spurlock: I’ve been really lucky. The producer that produced my episode, the coal-mining episode, is Al LaGarde, the same guy who produced my prison episode. He’s the same guy who produced my minimum wage episode. So Al and I have a really great relationship, we’re great friends and we have a great working relationship. He’s one of those people who in the time when we’re not filming you can just speak to, that’s kind of someone outside of the world that you’re living in and you can actually just have a conversation with.
But for me, I’m not somebody who’s going to drop out; I’m going to see it through. I think it’s a different, it’s different for me because I can just talk about things that are maybe frustrating or things that I have questions about or things that are happening around me in real time. But I think it’s more important for other people who are in a different situation who have agreed to do this but suddenly there are emotions that are coming out of them, there are things that they haven’t thought about, they’re becoming conflicted, and I think it’s important for them to have some support out there.
Have you ever ventured into a subject on the show where you were truly surprised by the outcome, you think you know where things might go, but then it totally just surprises you. Has that happened?
M. Spurlock: This season’s “Animal Rights” episode is phenomenal. And for me I think that that’s one of those shows you have no idea what’s going to happen. Here’s George; he’s a person right out of my own heart. He’s this hunter from North Carolina who goes and lives with this animal rights activist family in L.A. What happens over the course of that show is amazing. It’s one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen.
I wanted to know a little bit about your wife, Alex. I’ve been so interested in your personal relationship through the show’s eyes and seeing how you’ve gone from sort of boyfriend/girlfriend to fiancÃ©s; now you’re married. I wanted to know if you’re going to continue to sort of chronicle your life through the episodes if you are picked up for another season.
M. Spurlock: Yes. Alex would like to say no, probably. After we did the “Minimum Wage” episode where in season one she and I learn to live on “Minimum Wage” together, she was like, “You know what? This is your deal; this isn’t mine.” She goes, “You know what? I’ll say goodbye to you or I’ll talk to you on the phone or I’ll come visit you,” but she’s like, “You know what? I’m not doing this. This isn’t my life.” And so I think that you still see how the things that I do affect her and how it affects our relationship or what we’re going through. So I don’t think she will immerse herself in one the way that she did in season one, but when we got married she knew what she was getting herself into so it’s no big surprise.
When did you guys get married?
M. Spurlock: We got married two years ago. We just had our second anniversary. It was May 3, 2006.
M. Spurlock: Thanks. She’s a saint of a human being for putting up with me, let me tell you.
I’m inclined to agree with you there!