The only time I was unable to get into a press screening at the Sundance Film Festival occurred when Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004) filled the theater seats with lawyers trying to decide whether the distributor could be sued for releasing the film. Supersize Me—about Spurlock’s 30-day self-imposed diet of only eating items from the McDonalds menu and the health effects of that choice—went on to win the filmmaker best documentary director kudos at the festival, the Writer’s Guild Documentary Screenplay Award and an Oscar-nomination for Best Documentary Feature, among other honors.
This year at Sundance, Spurlock premiered his second feature, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? In his tongue-in- cheek quest for America’s most wanted man, he enlists the help of ordinary people across the Middle East and empathetically captures their true feelings about America and the War on Terror.
BTL: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Morgan Spurlock: In 2005 we had just finished shooting the first season of [the TV series] 30 Days. I started throwing ideas at [my co-writer and co-producer Jeremy Chilnick. Supersize Me played around the world, so I really wanted to make a movie that would deal with a global issue for a global audience. Right around the election, Osama Bin Laden was back in the media. I said, “That’s a great search. We should go out and find Osama Bin Laden.” Everybody said that was the dumbest idea they ever heard. My wife, Alex, was completely against the idea.
About two months into preproduction, she found out that she was pregnant. There were a lot of questions about whether we should stop because we were going to some very dangerous places. Before we even left the US, the idea for the movie shifted. It wasn’t just about Bin Laden, but what kind of a world was I about to bring a kid into. That affected the people I wanted to speak to. I wanted to seek out normal people that we don’t get to hear from.
Turn on the TV and you get the people who are screaming and hate us. The vast majority, billions of people, don’t feel that way. Those people never have a platform.
BTL: You used the family issue to connect with people.
M.S.: Being an expectant father, to sit down and talk to people about familial issues, about what they want for their kids…that’s where I was.
BTL: How large of a crew did you have?
M.S.: One person traveled with me all the time, Daniel Marracino. He’s an incredible DP. He has shot a lot of music videos and docu-style TV shows. He worked as a shooter on What Would Jesus Buy?, that we produced. This was a big undertaking for him as well as for me. We were shooting 15-hour days, sometimes longer… or traveling, with rarely a day off. For me, work is like a vacation. I really enjoy it. We had a sound guy, George Ziaday, a Palestinian who speaks fluent Arabic, when we were traveling through Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. He was in Europe with us, although none of that made the final cut. We went to countries with big Muslim populations that had internal attacks. It was basically the three of us. We would hire local field producers, fixers, within each country. We had a DP in New York named Nadia Helvrin who shot the footage with Alex while we were out of the country.
BTL: How did you communicate to Daniel what you wanted?
M.S.: In the beginning we would come back and watch footage every day. We’d scan through an interview and see how we had covered it. We tried to shoot the majority of the movie in natural light. We wanted to keep the feeling of it being on-the-fly. Almost the entire movie was shot from his hip or shoulder. Once or twice when shooting B-roll, we used a tripod, but the majority of the time, it was handheld. There’s an energy that comes with something that’s handheld, a feeling of movement. For me this is an action film, a documentary where we’re on a journey. There is continual movement through the film, so through the frame we wanted to have that same kind of movement. It was a conscious choice.
BTL: What did you shoot on and for how long?
M.S.: We shot 90 to 95 percent of the movie on the Sony F900 HD camera. We started shooting in July, 2006 and shot for about five months, in the US and then overseas. I wasn’t in the states to see Alex during half of her pregnancy. That was the hard thing.
BTL: Did you send material back for your editors to begin cutting while you were still on the road?
M.S.: The editors started around October. By the time they started, there were already a couple of hundred hours worth of footage. For the first two months, all they did was watch every tape. I got back at the end of November. In December, my wife had the baby. In January, we started screening scenes and putting puzzle pieces together. We focused on a couple of different countries, editing some scenes. We took that to Berlin and presented it to buyers. The movie sold in Berlin off of about 15 minutes of footage. The Weinstein Company bought it. We cut the whole thing on Avid. We had two full time editors, Julie Bob Lombardi and Gavin Coleman. Underneath them we had a co-editor named Sean Frichette, two assistant editors and about three or four editorial interns over the course of production because it was massive. We had over a thousand hours of footage. I think it was like six or seven terabytes of material once we loaded it all into the servers. Daniel is a workaholic like myself so we would shoot eight, nine hours a day and send it back.
BTL: Is there anyone on your crew that you could not have survived without?
M.S.: A couple people. James Brabazon [co-producer], who we hired through a friend of mine, is a Brit frontline reporter who has done a lot of work for the BBC and Channel 4. His specialty is going to places like Dafur, incredibly dangerous places. He normally field-produces for himself and shoots. We hired him to be our field producer in all the Middle Eastern countries. Now we had a second camera. We had somebody who could help us understand when things were good and going bad, somebody who knew the lay of the land, who could help us navigate along with the local fixers that we hired. We also hired a security officer who’s been in a tremendous amount of dangerous places and now, as a private contractor, his whole job is to keep journalists safe.
BTL: The animation was a good way of bringing Bin Laden into the film. You were credited. What did you do?
M.S.: The video game animation is all green screen motion capture. When you see me in the video game, I am doing all my own action. All the characters in the video game sequences would put on a suit with [motion capture] markers like in the big, crazy sci-fi movies.
BTL: Who was in charge of the animation?
M.S.: We had three different animation companies that we were working with on this movie…four actually, because there was one, Zographic, in Bulgaria. We drew the keyframes in the States and they did all of the real cartoon cel animation. The video game animation was done by Curious Pictures in New York. There was a lot of flash animation and graphic effects that were done by One Cube and a guy named Jonah Tobias in New York. Then there was another gentleman named Rich Nemad who came in and did the global war on terror animation and the Afghan movie posters at the end that explain the Afghan conflict. A lot of talented people came on board.
BTL: Who supervised the animation?
M.S.: We had a post supervisor, Stuart Macphee. Stuart and I did Supersize Me. It was great to work with him. When stuff’s going crazy and everybody’s freaking out, Stuart’s always right there. He’s calm and mellow and figuring out how to fix it. As I start stressing out, he’s like, “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.” I would give notes and talk about what I wanted, then Stuart and Jeremy would go in and see through the process with the animators. People in New York were irreplaceable. Lou Goldstein was our sound supervisor. He did the sound design and mixing . This guy is so talented. He’s done over a hundred films. Most of the people who worked on the film, I’ve worked with on some level before.