First-time filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me is a lean, zippy documentary about growing bloated and lethargic. A record of his decision to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at McDonald’s for 30 days straight (and to eat nothing else), Spurlock’s film starts out in a light, humorous vein but turns increasingly somber as it becomes apparent that the man onscreen is poisoning himself to make a point. An obvious point, perhaps, but one worth making nonetheless. It’s one thing to know intellectually that fast food is bad for you, but it’s still alarming to see it demonstrated by a human guinea pig. In the month he spent eating off the McDonald’s menu, Spurlock put on 25 pounds, raised his body fat from 11 to 18 percent, and saw his cholesterol shoot up from 160 to 230. After three weeks, the physicians monitoring him said he risked serious liver damage and urged him to quit.
Spurlock, who attended USC but didn’t get into the film school, does more than document his own ballooning waistline. Traveling around the country, he draws up a devastating, though never preachy, indictment of a society that has made the sale of bad food to the masses a pillar of its national and international economic strategy. In certain parts of the country, where there is almost nothing but fast-food restaurants to choose from, junk food isn’t just a way of life, it’s virtually a destiny.
His Big Mac binge over, Spurlock once again looks like a healthy, energetic man in his early 30s. His office, where I spoke to him, is on Mercer Street in Soho, New York — which seems to be, culturally speaking, about as far from fast-food culture as you can get without leaving the United States. Spurlock’s girlfriend is a vegan chef, and the streets around his office are dotted with organic food stores and pricey restaurants. But any suspicion that Spurlock might be a puritanical food snob chiding the burger-eating masses is dispelled both by the man and by the film itself. Anyway, as he points out in Super Size Me, Manhattan has more McDonald’s per square mile than any parcel of land on Earth.
L.A. WEEKLY: You got the idea for making the film when you heard about two girls suing McDonald’s for making them fat. But why did you want to make the movie? What excited you about it?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: The whole idea excited me to begin with. It sounded interesting, it sounded challenging to put myself in the position of not only being the director of my first feature film, but to be the guinea pig in the movie. A lot of people say, “Why didn’t you get someone else?” My fear of getting someone else was that I couldn’t trust anyone else to do it. The minute somebody goes home at the end of the day, and the camera’s not on them, [how do I know] they’re not making themselves broccoli or asparagus? By the end I was dying for vegetables.
Your girlfriend appears in the film and you have a bit of a running argument with her about meat. I take it you haven’t crossed over to being a vegetarian yet?
No, I haven’t jumped ship. I still love cheeseburgers or a great steak. We were just in Texas, and I had steak, or ribs, or pork, or some kind of animal every day, almost every meal. And it was fantastic! But that food isn’t processed, and you get vegetables and other things to balance it out.
So was part of the reason for doing this that you were a fan of McDonald’s, or a fan of hamburgers?
Yeah, I’m definitely a fan of burgers. I was told the whole time I was growing up, “This food is not good for you, you shouldn’t eat this food very often.” So from my point of view it was, “How bad can it really be?” Even the doctors said it can’t be that bad. They thought I might gain some weight, put on a couple of pounds, but nobody anticipated it was going to be so damaging.
It seemed to me that you not only looked fatter and less healthy as the film went on, you also looked less intelligent. The light seemed to go out of your eyes.
Over the course of the film I found myself getting dumber. I would forget things that were just told to me, I was completely scatterbrained, I couldn’t pay attention — my cognitive skills were just vanishing.
In terms of the effect on your health, the most notable thing was what happened to your liver.
My liver basically just got filled with fat. As your liver gets sick, it releases more enzymes into your blood, and my liver was getting really sick by the end. So much so that I was en route to getting cirrhosis — just from eating a high-fat diet. Too many people live in the moment, without realizing that what they put in their mouth now is going to affect them five years from now. What I’m hoping this film makes people think about is the longer-term effect of what you do today.
In the film, Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine asks whether it will eventually be socially acceptable to hector fat people the way smokers are hectored now. What do you think about that?
I think that would be terrible. But I think he’s just raising the question of where we draw the line between corporate responsibility and personal responsibility. What can I control, and what is so heavily pounded into me through marketing and advertising and the lack of better food in my neighborhood or in my school? Where is that fine line? There are things that have to change. When I was in school, I had a year of nutrition classes and health classes where we learned about physical health. All these classes were cut, thanks to the “No Child Left Behind” program.
Have you been to a McDonald’s since you made the film?
I haven’t been once. But I went to an In-N-Out Burger when I was in L.A. and that was great! It was fantastic! When I go out to L.A. next time I’ll probably go to Tommy Burger, another of my favorite burger joints.
What do you think of someone like [the anti-McDonald’s activist] José Bové in France?
He’s a patriot for defending what he believes is a sacred institution, which is food and dining in France. McDonald’s and fast-food culture are the antithesis of everything the French stand for in a lot of ways. [But] they just opened the first Starbucks in Paris, and now there are lines around the block. The McDonald’s on the Champs Élysées is packed. A friend of mine was at the opening of McDonald’s in Moscow, and there were thousands of people trying to get in there, because it’s an American institution that is seen as iconic. It’s iconic of freedom and everything America stands for, and so people go there to get their piece of America. And they’re getting it — right around their midsection!
Super Size Me has generated a lot of buzz.
It showed at Sundance in the documentary competition, and I won Best Director. The word of mouth just spread — it took off like a rocket. I was getting calls from friends in Japan and Europe and Australia saying they were reading about me in the papers over there. And exactly six weeks later, McDonald’s made the announcement that they were doing away with the supersize option. McDonald’s said that this film had nothing to do with their decision to eliminate supersizing whatsoever. I’m sure it didn’t!
You’ve been making the rounds in Hollywood: What’s next?
We’re going to do a show for FX called 30 Days, where we take somebody out of their life for 30 days and put them in a completely different environment. It’ll deal with hot-button issues such as religion or sexuality or poverty, and you could think of Super Size Me as the pilot. Like the film, this will be a show that deals with serious issues in a humorous way. We’re shooting the pilot this summer, and the series will most likely debut late in the fall. But right now my biggest goal is to get this movie out, to get as many people as possible to see it, to do anything I can to use this movie as a catalyst for change, because change needs to happen.
Super Size Me opens May 7 at selected theaters.
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