Morgan Spurlock is the muckraker (or Mac-raker) behind 2004's Oscar-nominated "Super Size Me," in which he personally absorbed the effects of an all-McDonald's diet, and 2011's "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," an expose of product placement that was financed partly by product placement.
Spurlock's latest movie might be his cheekiest yet: the unabashedly commercial, 3-D concert documentary "One Direction: This Is Us," which follows the phenomenally popular boy band One Direction on tour.
The movie charts the rise of band members Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik and Harry Styles. The five singers started as individual British "X Factor" aspirants, were united in boy bandom by "X Factor" czar and marketing genius Simon Cowell, and have achieved global fame and fortune via their music and by hawking Pepsi Cola and their own One Direction perfume.
Made for TriStar Pictures, which exists under the same corporate umbrella as the band's record label, Columbia, "This Is Us" travels with One Direction to Japan and to Mexico, where the band's young female fans speak the international language of shriek-and-swoon. It also goes behind the scenes to show the band members' reunions, during brief breaks from the road, with the working-class British parents who miss them terribly.
It does not, however, get into the boys' dating lives. So there are no juicy details about Styles' short-term romance with Taylor Swift.
Spurlock, a 42-year-old New Yorker and the divorced father of a 6-year-old boy who Spurlock said is "so not in the demographic" for One Direction, discussed his up-close time with 1D by phone during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco.
How did the "Super Size Me" guy make a One Direction movie?
I got a call from the studio to come in and talk about this band. ... I had been called (previously) to meet with Paramount about both the Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (3-D concert) movies, and I couldn't do either (because of other commitments). When this one came along, we were in between productions, and I was like, "We can't let another opportunity like this pass us by." As a documentary filmmaker, movies of this scale and this global appeal are few and far between.
"Super Size Me" and "Greatest Movie Ever Sold" question corporations' hold on Americans and on popular entertainment. How do you reconcile that work with this highly commercial endeavor?
I think if you look at "Comic Con Episode IV" (Spurlock's 2011 documentary about the annual San Diego convention), it is a film about fandom and people who love comic books and who love genre movies. There is not a cynical piece in that film. ... I think that is one of the reasons why I got this movie, because we made a film that kind of respected the passion of fans in a really deep way. Just because somebody likes it doesn't make it wrong, or make it something that other people shouldn't have the right to enjoy.
I think with this movie, it's the same thing. This is a band of mass global commercial appeal who have a huge fan base. The question the films asks, and I think answers really well, is why them? Why have they become so incredibly successful when other bands haven't? When you watch the film, you realize it all comes down to these five guys and how charming they are, and how normal they are, and the families they came from. I think the film does kind of reconcile a lot of those points.
Still, it seems a big departure for you.
I don't want to just make "Super Size Me" for the rest of my life. ... That's not really the way to grow as an artist or as a filmmaker. I think if you really want to tell stories, you need to stretch yourself and expand ... into genres and places that kind of push your creative boundaries and make you flex different muscles, and this is one of them. To come in and not only make a film in 3-D about this band -- a subject that has such mass appeal -- but to tell a coherent, cohesive, engaging story, is an exciting challenge.
You mentioned the Katy Perry and Justin Bieber movies. There seems to be a formula to these concert films. Did you have wiggle room within it?
I think this film is very different from Katy Perry or the Justin Bieber film because you really feel like you have access to these five guys. In this movie, you feel like you actually are getting to know their lives and go into their homes and know what they think. ... I feel like it creates a much deeper level of intimacy. ... And the 3-D is infinitely better. I think it's some of the best 3-D that's ever been done.
This is your first time working with 3-D. How did you feel about it?
It was amazing. I think for me it was also (about) having incredible people around to help us and navigate the process. Tom Krueger, who was the (director of photography) on this, was the DP on "U2 3D," which I think prior to this was probably the best 3-D concert film ever. I think that he really outdid himself with the way this film looks and feels.
"This Is Us" has a big payoff that happens offstage -- it's the Elvis-and-his-mama moment when Zayn Malik buys his mom a house.
These kids ... they come from good stock. They come from great families. The fact they want to take care of their families and friends really is lovely. They are not going out and buying 17 Lamborghinis or solid-gold toilets like MC Hammer did. They are being very wise and frugal.
In the movie, it seems like the band members are handling their fame rather well. But are they aware of the pitfalls of so much attention, so soon? As you watch the film, you think of all the young celebrities who have struggled publicly, like Justin Bieber.
I think what keeps (One Direction) incredibly grounded is the fact they are not doing it alone. Each of these guys has four other guys who know exactly what (he is) going through, that knows exactly that stress and that pressure. If they were having to go down this road alone, there might be some kind of Bieber-esque moments.
Is it true the band members would eat McDonald's in front of you?
Yes. Just to laugh, and then make fun of me. In Japan, they ordered a trolley full of McDonald's up to the (hotel) room that was brought up by the security guys. Like literally a luggage trolley of McDonald's.
You didn't have any, did you?
Of course not. Which is why they do it. They do it like, "You sure you don't want some of this, Spurlock?" I'm like, "No, I'm all right."
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