June 5, 2005
Serialize Me: America, 30 Days at a Time
By JOE RHODES
IF it had been up to Morgan Spurlock - and his fiancée, Alex Jamieson, makes it immediately clear that it was not - the director-guinea pig of the film "Super Size Me" would have been not just the creator, producer and host of his new "30 Days" documentary series on the FX cable network, he'd have been the subject of all six episodes, including the one involving 30 days of binge drinking and another focused on 30 days of taking steroids and human growth hormone.
"The original idea was that each episode I'd go through something that would examine an issue in America," said Mr. Spurlock, whose 2004 film chronicling his 30-day McDonald's-only eating experiment earned him an Academy Award nomination and a host of international film festival prizes and went on to become the third-highest-grossing documentary of all time (behind only Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" and "Bowling for Columbine"). It also jacked up his blood pressure and cholesterol, damaged his liver, put 25 extra pounds around his midsection and wreaked havoc on his relationship with Ms. Jamieson, a vegan chef, who is seen in "Super Size Me" lamenting the Big Mac-induced effects on his health, his libido and his state of mind.
"I didn't want him to do something that would harm his body again," Ms. Jamieson said, explaining why she vetoed the idea of Mr. Spurlock's once again abusing his health for the entertainment and edification of others. "I told him, 'Do you want to do this or do you want to have a relationship at the end of the show?' "
"I was ready to do it," Mr. Spurlock said, smiling as he sipped tea and soy milk that Ms. Jamieson had laid out for him. "But I decided I wanted to be able to come home at night and not get hit in the head with a pan."
So, while he will be the host and narrator of the entire series, Mr. Spurlock is the subject of only one episode - the June 15 series debut, in which he and Ms. Jamieson spend 30 days trying to live on the minimum wage in Columbus, Ohio. Later episodes will focus on a Christian man living for 30 days with a Muslim family in Dearborn, Mich.; a straight man spending 30 days with a gay couple in San Francisco; a woman who takes on the binge-drinking experiment to make a point to her college-age daughter; an over-the-hill athlete who tries steroids to regain his former glory; and, Mr. Spurlock says, "a family of mass consumers who go to an experimental eco-village where they live, essentially, off the grid for 30 days."
"I wish we could have done that one," Ms. Jamieson said.
"Of course you do," Mr. Spurlock said.
Instead they spent most of March in a poorly heated, ant-infested $325-a-month apartment in a Columbus neighborhood called "the Bottoms." Ms. Jamieson washed dishes at a local coffee shop; Mr. Spurlock worked two full-time jobs at a time, including landscaping, day-labor construction work, making pizzas and picking up trash. Without insurance or the luxury of taking days off work, their primary health care center was the local emergency room, which they needed after Ms. Jamieson contracted a bladder infection and Mr. Spurlock injured his wrist. His take-home pay, even after 11-hour days at $7 per hour - actually $1.85 more than minimum wage - was less than $45 a day.
"I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be on our relationship," Mr. Spurlock said when asked what had been the most difficult aspect of the month. "You work such long hours, and it got to the point where we were rarely together and, when we were, it was like we were exhausted. We were cranky with one another. We were completely run down.
"I would hope that employers would take a look at this and realize that your employees need a living wage," Mr. Spurlock said, freely admitting that "30 Days," like "Super Size Me," is not meant to be equal-time objective journalism. "If you're working 40 hours a week, you should be able to have food on the table, a place over your head, a comfortable life. I'm not saying you should be able to go out and buy a Ferrari, but you should be able to provide the necessities of living to yourself and your family. And that's not the world we live in right now."
The FX Networks president, John Landgraf, who describes "30 Days" as "constructed documentaries," acknowledges that giving a weekly platform to Mr. Spurlock, who has been lambasted by fast-food companies and some conservative political groups for an "antibusiness" slant, is likely to bring some criticism.
"This is not polemical filmmaking," Mr. Landgraf said. "These shows are pretty balanced. They're not particularly strident. But entertainment networks generally are trying to be as unobjectionable to as many people as possible and that's not what FX is about. In an increasingly tepid environment, we want to give filmmakers the ability to create. We think the audience wants unvarnished, bold work. It's not a Democratic or Republican audience. It's just an audience that wants to be treated with intelligence."
Not that "30 Days," which is also being produced by the documentarian R. J. Cutler (whose credits include "The War Room" and "American High"), was an easy sell. Mr. Spurlock, who came up with the idea before "Super Size Me" became the hot film of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, says he was rejected by all four major broadcast networks before FX signed on.
"My pitch was that each week we'd deal with a social issue in America by taking somebody out of their lives and putting them in a situation that makes them walk a mile in someone else's shoes," Mr. Spurlock said. "I said: 'It's not a reality show. Nobody gets voted off. Nobody wins a million dollars.'
"When I finished the pitch at one network, one guy asked, 'But who wins?' And I said, 'Well, you do, the American viewer,' and I knew, at that point, that the meeting was over and that my parking wouldn't be validated."
If the summer run succeeds, Mr. Spurlock would like to come back with six more episodes next year. In the interim, he's got a show coming this fall on Comedy Central called "Public Nuisance," which he describes as similar to Michael Moore's "TV Nation" and "more satirical" than "30 Days."
Virtually unknown before "Super Size Me" - his biggest previous credit was as producer of an MTV show called "I Bet You Will" - Mr. Spurlock, 34, realizes he has carved out a somewhat precarious niche for himself: part comedian, part activist, a sort of affable, self-deprecating scold. He has become a prominent spokesman railing against the dangers of fast food, obesity in America, substandard school lunch programs, the excesses of advertising and corporate greed. Recently, he has even branched into print, with "Don't Eat This Book," a breezy, humorous volume that includes its share of finger-wagging, this-stuff-isn't-good-for-you admonitions. Ms. Jamieson, meanwhile, has her own book, "The Great American Detox Diet," based on the nutritional regimen she devised to help Mr. Spurlock recover from his all-McDonald's eating binge.
"I don't think of Morgan as someone who goes around ranting and raving about stuff," she said, sharing the vegan orange-pecan scones the couple were having for breakfast in the Hollywood Hills bungalow they are renting while he finishes "30 Days." "I see him as someone who likes to have an intelligent conversation, poke fun at people and have fun poked back at him."
Mr. Sourlock said: "I want to explore issues I care about. "But I want to have fun while I'm doing it. I don't want to be preachy. I don't want to tell you how to live your life. I just know how I'm going to live mine."