Hefty Business

Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary Super Size Me is a unique look at America’s obesity epidemic. The fit-as-a-fiddle Spurlock, intrigued by lawsuits in which the McDonald’s chain was accused of causing obesity, decided to undertake a distasteful experiment: Morning, noon, and evening for an entire month, he ate only at McDonald’s.

The regimen did some startling things to the filmmaker’s body (all monitored by a trio of doctors); it also gave him an opportunity to visit with people around the country about why we eat what we do, and whose fault it is. It’s a provocative film whose making and meanings will spur plenty of post-viewing debate. Earlier this year, at Austin’s South by Southwest film festival Spurlock helped get the conversations rolling. An excerpt of an interview with the Observer follows: Texas Observer: You visit two public schools with wildly different cafeteria philosophies. How did you go about finding the one where students are allowed to eat so much junk food? Morgan Spurlock: For us, the initial reason to go to Naperville, Illinois, where they have the horrible school-lunch program, was because they have this incredible physical education program. Initially my goal was just to go talk to Phil Lawler about their physical education program, because they have a class act. It looks like a health club in there. I mean, this guy is so passionate and persistent in terms of what he wants to accomplish for his kids; there need to be more people like him out there.

It wasn’t until we got there and spoke to him, we stuck around for lunch at the same school and saw the contrast—what’s being fed to these kids. It’s like, they’re talking about how important health is, but this is what they’re serving up, saying, “Oh, we want them to have the freedom to make the right choices.†But kids aren’t going to make the right choices. When you’re a kid, what are you going to eat? Somebody gives you a choice between a bowl of ice cream and a plate of broccoli, what are you going to eat?

TO: You threw up after lunch on only the second day of this experiment. At that point, did you look at yourself and say, “I’m probably not the ideal subject for this experiment, because my body is just so used to something else that of course this will be traumatic�

MS: I think it was—I think that anyone who doesn’t eat this food regularly could have that sort of impact. Because it is just so much food: A double quarter-pounder with cheese, that’s a half-pound of meat; a super-size Coke is 42 ounces of soda, that’s three and a half cans of soda; a super-size fries is anywhere from a quarter of a pound to half a pound of fries, depending on how they stuff them in there! So yeah, you sit there and think, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.â€

TO: Did you ever worry that you’re focusing too specifically on McDonald’s? Even though you do go down a lot of other avenues, obviously there’s a marketing hook to the film, with the fat Ronald McDonald on the poster, the name, and so on.

MS: For me, the movie isn’t an indictment of McDonald’s, it’s an indictment of the culture we live in. It’s an examination of this fast-food world that’s now enveloped every facet of our life. From our work to our lifestyles, to our children’s schools, it’s everywhere. The decision to pick them was because they’re the biggest—the biggest company in the world, and to me, they’re the most influential in rolling out the menus that are at most fast food restaurants.

TO: As far as Super Sizing?

MS: With Super Sizing and Value Meals, and so on. There are “value meals†even at places like Applebee’s, where for x amount of dollars you get this much more food. For me to choose McDonald’s was because I believe that they’re the ones who would most easily be able to institute change. By being the leaders, if they suddenly say, “We’re going to do this,†everyone else is going to do it too.

TO: How did it feel to hear that, before your third festival appearance, McDonald’s had announced they’d do away with Super Size portions?

MS: It feels like vindication. Gratification. Like the hard work pays off, and one man can make a difference. Too many people think that they can’t do anything to institute change, or to shift the paradigm. I think that it’s a testament to the power of filmmaking; film can have a tremendous influence, not only over people but over companies and the way they operate. As much as they say in their press release that this had nothing to do with the film whatsoever, you can’t help but think the film did somehow light the fuse.

TO: Has there been any follow-up that you know of, with jumbo portions at other chains?

MS: There hasn’t yet, but wait and see. Mark my words: Biggies, King-Size, Macho-Nacho—whatever the big size is at Taco Bell—all those giant sizes are going to be gone. Because none of them are going to want to be the companies that don’t care about you.

TO: When you were putting the movie together, did you worry at any point that “I’ve got too many shots of fat asses here. I’m exploiting these people.â€

MS: We wanted to be very careful. We never wanted to show people’s identity, we wanted to be protective of people.

TO: Okay, but all those rear-view shots…

MS: For me, I just wanted to continue to show the impact of what’s happening in America. Once you leave New York—well, even in New York City now, where people walk everywhere, a third of the population is overweight, and it’s getting closer to forty percent now. I wanted to just show, you know, Middle America, that this is everywhere. That’s why everywhere we went, I made a point of showing that there’s big people everywhere; this isn’t just in certain places in the country.

TO: I didn’t get that from the movie.

MS: Yeah, it’s that everywhere in the country, there are these people.

TO: When you’re editing, do you worry “the more I play this up for shock value or comic effect, the more I risk alienating the very people who could benefit the most from the movie�

MS: You see, I never thought that way, because for me I was never using them as comic value. I was never using them as a joke. I was always using them to reinforce the message of the film. At no point were we pointing at these people to laugh and make a joke of them.

Here in Austin—this is probably the first screening we’ve had that has had a really overweight audience. Not mostly overweight, but there were a lot of overweight people at the Paramount, and some obese people, and some who came up to me afterwards, saying “Thank you for making this movie, I have been battling weight problems my whole life.†I think the people who do go see it, it’s going to touch something inside them—the people who have always taken the easy route, of getting something quick on the run, or not taking care of themselves or not exercising. To hear that from someone who has had that sort of personal involvement, is great.

TO: You touch on issues about self-image, where you have the girl talking while images of teenage models pop up onscreen. Talk about the way the media pendulum swings between “we’re all too fat†and “we’re all too concerned with getting skinny, with bulemia and anorexia.â€

MS: We live in such an extreme society. It’s almost like the middle ground is so undefined. And we sensationalize these stories. What I did was very extreme; nobody should eat this stuff three meals a day.

TO: Given all the trademarks you use in the film, how confident are you that you could hold out in court if McDonald’s sued you?

MS: I don’t think they would. I think they’re going to let their actions speak for them, and continue to refute the film, which they call a sensationalized gimmick.

TO: But they could try to keep you out of theaters if they think this is going to be a Roger & Me kind of sensation.

MS: But GM didn’t see Roger & Me. They stayed away, thinking, PR-wise, this wouldn’t be a wise thing for us to do.

TO: In the movie, you try and fail to get McDonald’s to talk to you; have you still not been in contact with them?

MS: Not since the movie.

TO: How hard have you tried?

MS: Since the film? Well, during the film, you saw me continually trying to chase them down. But since, I haven’t tried at all. I mean, they’ve made it clear that they wouldn’t talk to me, so now why should I go talk to them? There’s no reason.

TO: Except that it would make a good story to be able to sit in a room with an executive and watch the movie.

MS: Well, yeah, and to have them already have their canned answers that had already gone through committees.

John DeFore, who frequently writes about film, is a writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST