When Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame came to Chicago to screen his latest doc “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?,” Viva Doc’s Arlen Parsa was in the audience to record his observations and some low quality video of the subsequent Q&A session. What follows is a transcript from the Q&A along with two YouTube videos.
Part 1 (scroll down for the video and transcript of Part 2):
[Part 1 video begins here]
Q: What was it like going to all these places where America is not exactly the most popular country in the world and interviewing people on the street?
A: It was incredible how people really did open up their homes and open up their lives and were anxious to kind of share their stories with me and really wanted to sit down and talk to me and in a lot of these countries I went to, you know, Pakistan, Afghanistan, there were places where I was the first American any of these people had ever met. And so we would just talk and talk about our world views, and what we hoped and hoped for our kids, and what we thought about what was happening and they were like “You’re American?” And I was like “Yes” and they were like “Do lots of Americans think like you?” And I was like “Yeah, there’s a lot of people who don’t want war and want things to change and are hopeful for the future and it was pretty remarkable. It was a beautiful thing. You know, we were in the middle of Morocco in City Mumon, the shanty town you see me having dinner with Achmed and his wife Zorah and their whole family and [it was] such a beautiful thing, this family has next to nothing and they let us into their home and made dinner for us during Ramadan– this was iftar that we were having at the end of the day. It’s interesting when you walk into the shanty town where people have next to nothing and their walls are made out of plywood and these tin sheets and on the roofs there are satellite dishes where they basically illegally pipe satellite tv into their homes… And so they’re like “We see Fox News, we know what America is like!” [Laughter] In this neighborhood, a lot of these people, that was their whole perception of America is kind of what’s said on the Fox News Channel which was remarkably scary.
Q: Were you ever scared you might offend cultural sensibilities in other countries? How did you get people in countries where Westerners are hated to talk to you?
A: We were very aware and tried to be incredibly respectful of people and… I had people who helped coach me before I went for what I should and shouldn’t say, what I should do and shouldn’t do, and even when we got to Saudi Arabia, our local producer there, our local fixer, the guy who kind of helped us navigate the waters, was the one who was like “Yeah, you should definitely dress in Saudi clothes– people will love that!” And it was true. Once I started dressing in Saudi clothes people were like “Look at you, you look like a Saudi, come here!” So they wanted to talk to me, and they were very welcoming and I mean, it was incredible but there were things that I tried to do to really endear myself. One was dressing in local clothing, which it did kind of open people up, and it made it look like to them I was actually trying to fit in, I was trying to understand kind of a little bit more. When we were shooting a lot throughout the Middle East, I fasted during Ramadan, which is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life. I didn’t make it through the whole 30 days- I made it about twenty-one days, so I owe em about eight or nine days [laughter], maybe they can pick that up sometime, but it’s just little things like that I think really helped along the way to make people kind of want to talk to us.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the technical aspects of how the film was made.
A: We shot this whole film on the Sony F900 HD camera, which is a beautiful camera, it shoots in true HD, shoots in true 24 frames per second so the transfer to film is 1:1. The picture is beautiful as you can see in the blowup [from video to film], I mean it doesn’t look like video, it looks like we shot this movie on 35 millimeter– it’s amazing. Production itself, we shot for, the core production when we were overseas and traveling was about five months. We did some pickup interviews the following year… We had about 900 hours of footage [scattered “wow”s from the audience] and that’s just the field footage. There was archival [footage] that we also got and went through, there was about 100 hours of archival that we pulled things out of over the course of making the film. So it was about 1,000 hours in total– 900 [from us] and 100 of archive. And the post process on this film was long. They started editing while I was still overseas, or at least started screening footage and going through it with the editorial staff in like October of ’06, and then we edited it all the way through February of ’08. So basically we just stopped like a month ago. So it was about fifteen months from start to finish. It was long.
Q: Did you actually think you could find bin Laden when you set out to make the film?
A: Of course I was going to find him! [Laughter] The thing is, when we first started making it, we were like “Well c’mon, why couldn’t a guy with no expertise or experience or, you know… knowledge go find this guy?!” And then kind of once we got on the trip, we started going on the journey as you see in the film, we started to realize that it’s so much not about this guy– it’s about so many other things. [But] you don’t buy a lottery ticket thinking you’re not going to win.
Q: Structurally, you sort of wandered around and let the film shape itself. Tell us a little about this.
A: Yeah, it’s a very organic process, and I’m a real believer in kind of letting a movie… I think documentary films are very organic. And I think you have to let them be organic. When I first started making Super Size Me, I called a couple friends of mine who I knew who were filmmakers and just asked them for advice and I got some of the greatest advice I ever heard in my life, which was if the film that you end up with is the same film that you imagined at the beginning of the process, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way. And I think that that’s very true, cause when we made this film, we went to country after county, and we had plans and ideas of who we would talk to, those would fall through, suddenly three more people would pop up, they would point us to two other people, and just you snake through this story, this puzzle, and then when you get back in post, when you really start to put it together, you really don’t have any idea, and you do start to find it along the way, as you start to meet people in other countries, and we started meeting families and said “We should try and meet families in other places, and this is working out really well, and let’s not focus on politicians so much, and let’s focus on regular folks” and we started to see what really does play as the people back home are watching the footage.
Q: Have you thought about aligning yourself with any nonprofits in connection with the film?
A: We’ve talked to some, we haven’t aligned ourself with any, I’m not a fan of like saying “This is who I’m behind, these people” you know? So for me, I’d rather wait and see how the film does, if it does some, I don’t need to blow some trumpet and say I’m giving money to somebody, I’d rather us just take care of that, you know, on our own. I don’t need that to pat ourselves on the back and I don’t think it’s going to make more people go see the movie if they know we’re going to give money to charity. I think it’s a personal thing we should do.
Q: Are you still in touch with any of the people you interviewed?
A: We are, we still email the ones who are email-able, you know there’s a lot of people in Afghanistan of course that we can’t talk to cause, they don’t even have electricity, let alone running water or emails. But there’s people in Saudi Arabia that we still talk to and there’s people in Pakistan so I’m anxious for them to see the film, and hear their thoughts. I’m sure it’ll be bootlegged there quickly [laughter]. Which will be fantastic. Yeah, I mean it’s cool. [In] Saudi Arabia, there’s this incredible underground scene, like there’s so much stuff… I’ve a book that’s coming out the same time as the movie, because there’s just so much stuff we just couldn’t put in the film, and there’s so many things and so many stories that just happen behind the scenes and so much information, there’s a huge underground scene in Saudi Arabia of movies and music and parties and clubs and it’s just this whole other world from what you see, and it continues to reinforce that conflict between Western influence and you know, the real religious authority in that country.
Q: How do you reconcile the fact that there’s countries that have totalitarian regimes that the US supports that have great malls and then there’s places where we’ve actually intervened where they don’t have running water?
A: There’s a fantastic conundrum, as you see in this movie. And the question is, how do we fix that, how do we change that, and for me it is… You watch a film like this and you are completely torn because there are great people on both sides and there are people who are suffering on both sides, and you know I’m not a foreign policy expert, I don’t have the answers, but for me, I think that the biggest thing for me, as you travel around the world and we talk to people about this “war on terror” and the thing that we’ve really lost, more than anything, is the PR war on terror. The United States used to be a company– a country that was put up on a pedestal that people admired, that people aspired to emulate, and that doesn’t happen now. We’re not seen as beacon of democracy, we’re not seen as peace-keepers anymore. Throughout the world, we’re viewed as aggressors, we’re viewed with such negativity that it’s heart-wrenching to hear, especially when you sit down and have somebody tell you that. And I think that as we move forward, and for me, it would have been really easy to come in and make a film that could just bash what’s happened over the last seven years, but I think we need to be a little bit more forward-thinking now and we need to start saying “What’s next? What do we do now? How do we really change things? And I think whoever gets elected next, one of the big mandates has to be, we have to really start to look at our foreign policy, we have to start to get back to the time when we were seen as this great country of hope and inspiration. And I think it’s a tragedy that that’s been lost.
Q: Who are you voting for?
A: That’s between me and that lever. [Laughter]
[Part 2 video begins here]
Q: As a documentary filmmaker, how do you get around the fear that people won’t like your work, or that it will be controversial?
A: Well I think the biggest thing you have to realize is, everybody isn’t going to love everything you do. And that’s just something you have to come to terms with and you have to accept that. If you can get something that a lot of people like, and more than fifty percent like, then you’re doing great. If you can make something that only thirty percent of the people like, twenty percent, then you’re still doing great. It’s hard. And believe me, there’s already been people who have come out and said great things about this movie and there’ve been people who haven’t. But you can’t live your life based on reviews, you can’t live your career based on reviews, you have to continue to believe in your vision and your voice. That’s the thing I tell every filmmaker that I speak to, and they say “What advice can you give me?” The greatest thing you should do is be true to you. Be true to what you want to do, be true to your vision, what you want to accomplish, don’t try and be somebody else, don’t try to be something you’re not, you have to find your path and you have to stick to that. And it’s hard, and there’s going to be times when it’s great, and there’s going to be times when it’s awful, but you can’t give up.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the feel that you wanted the film to have and how you found people to interview.
A: [We wanted the audience] to really feel like everything was in motion the whole time, everything’s moving. We never put the camera on a tripod throughout the entire film with the exception of probably two shots in the whole movie. There’s very few times you’ll ever see the camera really settle and so there is a motion that I think continues through this whole movie and it is a documentary comedy action adventure… Osamady if you will [laughter]. Every country that we went to, even before we went there, we contacted local “producers,” whether it’s a production company, or a journalist, or some sort of local fixer, and these people would help us: work weeks in advance, and we would tell them “Here’s people that we’ve read stuff by, or people that we’d like to meet, people who think certain ways that we’ve seen on the internet, and maybe there’s people that you could recommend that also kind of have these viewpoints,” and they would help us source people out and once you get there and get on the ground is really when a lot of things really happen. It’s when you start talking to people mano-a-mano that doors really open for you. And so it was when we got to each one of these countries that I think things really started to catch fire. But if it wasn’t for those local producers and those local journalists and fixers that we hired, we would have been out of our minds, we’d have been lost. And there’s so many things that just happen along the way that you can’t predict. We were in the middle of Jerusalum, that day when rockets started falling like hail on Steralt, and I said “We have to go there immediately, we have to go right now.” And so we jumped in a car and we were down there that afternoon, we were in that school eight hours after it was bombed, I mean it was terrible. But at the same time, when you’re making a documentary film, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. And if somebody had said how do “I define what a documentary is?” For me, a documentary, cause I don’t really make historical films, I make documentaries that unfold in real time, and so I think a documentary is, you’re capturing events as they unfold in real time, and that’s really what tried to do.
Q: On a lighter note, does your mustache really have magical powers? [Laughter]
A: Does my mustache have super powers? Yes. Yes it does. I’m keeping them to myself though.
Q: You’re very present in your films. Tell us a little bit about your role in them as a character.
A: With Super Size Me, originally when I got the idea, we were going to try and find somebody to kind of be the guinea pig in that movie. That was the first thought: “We’ll get somebody else to do that and I’ll shoot the film and I can focus on directing the movie,” but once we started talking about it, I realized that there was no way I could trust that somebody else would not, like, at night sneak like a broccoli [Laughter]. “Ooh, he’s not around, I’ll have a carrot!” So that was the biggest reason why I was in Super Size Me to begin with. Cause I knew I wouldn’t cheat and I would probably not quit– I would try and see it through as best I could. And I didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. I mean the movie was received by people… It was like winning the lottery. It’s like suddenly we were at Sundance, at the Sundance Film Festival. I’d watched the Sundance Film Festival for years, watching the coverage, watching people take movies there, and every year you watch the person who takes this little movie, the movie blows up, it becomes the talk of everything, they sell it, the movie goes out and so suddenly here I am in the middle of Sundance and this little movie completely takes off and it hits me that wow I’m that guy. Suddenly you realize that you’re that person that this is happening to right now. And it’s overwhelming. And the whole process has been overwhelming ever since then. And I’ve been really fortunate to get to make the TV show for FX (30 Days), which comes back in June for its third season which we’re really stoked about. And you know, so long as I get to keep making movies, that’d be great.
Q: What do you say to film students who are going to get out of school and be in sort of a limbo phrase before they do something great?
A: Don’t give up. Don’t quit. I graduated from college in 1993, I started working on everything I could, any jobs I could get. I was working as a PA [production assistant] a schlub on any movie that would hire me, any commercial I could get a job on… But at the same time, I got to work on great stuff. I got to work on the set with great directors. I worked Bullets over Broadway and got to see Woody Allen work with actors, I got to work on Kiss of Death with Barbet Schroeder, who is a fantastic director, I got to work with Herb Ross who directed almost every single Neil Simon play ever made into a movie, because he did Boys on the Side. Yeah. For me, to get to watch people like that work, I’d never looked at anything as being a dead end, I looked at everything as being a stepping stone. And I think so long as you can kind of look at your life as what it is and where you are, and always keep your eyes in the prize of where you want to be and what you want to accomplish, then you [can] continue to turn everything that happens into a positive and into a step towards that.
Q: What would you have asked bin Laden, if you had been able to get an interview with him?
A: I would have really loved to have heard from him, how does this all end? How does it stop? We keep hearing about here’s all the things that are gonna happen, but how can we just make it end? How can the killing stop? How can the killing of innocent people stop? How can we start to turn the tides so that this just goes away? And maybe there would have been a real answer, there would have been like a real solution that we could actually hear. Or maybe it could have just been a whole conversation filled with coo coo la roo, you know, it would have just been a whole bunch of crazy. Who knows? But it woulda been awesome.
Q: Was there any one moment that happened while you were making this film where you had an epiphany and said “this is where I want to take this film”?
A: There were so many things along the way that when you’re in a moment, or you’re interviewing somebody and something happens, you’re like… It’s one of those things that for me, I don’t even reflect on it there, it’s like when you’re in the car on the way home, you’re like “That was incredible like when they said this…” Daniel, the DP (director of photography), Danny Marracino, who is one of the most fantastic DPs on the planet… When we got our blood test before we went over there cause we had to find out our blood type so we would know just for the military and in case anything happened we would be able to tell a hospital when we were overseas… Mine came back O-Positive, his was B-Positive, and he was so excited when he got back, he was like “Be Positive!” That’s exactly what he is– We’d be shooting for like nineteen hours a day and I’d be like “Come on, we’ve gotta get one more shot!” and he’s like “Sigh, all right.” He would be exhausted and tired and hate me, but at the same time he was always just go-go-go, he was “Be Positive.” But back to what I was saying, we’d be in the car, and he and I would just start talking about what had just happened and the scene that had played out, and that was when it would really hit us, like “That was great, that was a great thing.” And there’s so many things, the dinner with Achmed and Zorah that you see in City Muman, which is such a beautiful thing that just kind of… Who knew it was going to happen and be that way and the conversation would go the ways that it went? The bedoins that we stumbled upon in Afghanistan, as we were driving down the road, and I said to him, I was like, “Stop the car! We gotta go talk to them!” And we jumped out of the car and we went over and sat down and had tea with the bedoins in the middle of Afghanistan… You never know. And you just have to go with it and [Spurlock pretends to test a coin by biting it] “It’s gold!” You know, but you never know until you just kinda go.