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Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has been busy the last few months, weaving between tales of immigrants, marijuana growers and–yes–John Stamos and English boy band One Direction. At any given moment his production office is buzzing with people juggling TV shows, films and web series.
Spurlock says he is “platform agnostic,” though he acknowledges that each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages.
“The beauty of television is deadlines, you could fuck with a movie forever,” Spurlock says, reclining in a leather chair in his New York City office. “Having deadlines forces you to make choices, and being in a position where you have to make a choice and make it now, is fantastic. With movies—Picasso once said about paintings, you never finish paintings, you merely abandon them—and that is what happens with movies, with documentary films you abandon them at some point, because you can’t work on them forever.”
Spurlock’s new CNN series, “Inside Man,” debuts Sunday at 10 PM, and all but one episode has been delivered to the channel. His production crew is hard at work on a film (in 3D) about One Direction called “This Is Us,” which will be released August 30th. They are also staffing up for a web series starring Stamos.
“For season two we will do ‘Inside Man’ in 3D!” Spurlock quips.
“Inside Man” came to fruition fairly quickly. Spurlock had been meeting with CNN for some time, including with former managing editor Mark Whitaker, but it was during a meeting with CNN development senior VP Vinnie Malhotra that the show came to life.
“[Malhotra] said they wanted to go in different directions, some smart, non-fiction movies and possibly even TV shows, and we said, well, if you guys want to do some TV shows, here is an idea we have been kicking around, something that we have been developing for probably a year, year and a half,” Spurlock recalled. “We pitched ‘Inside Man’ in the room, and Vinnie said ‘this is exactly the kind of stuff that we want,’ and we had a deal within a month, it was fast.”
The show follows Spurlock as he investigates firsthand the unique situations people find themselves in. Whether it is working at a gun shop, spending time in an assisted living home, or growing marijuana plants. If CNN orders a second season, he says he would like to tackle the NSA and surveillance state.
“It is a different genre, but I think it is smart, because I think what we make is very much in the brand wheelhouse of CNN, it is about telling great stories, newsworthy stories,” Spurlock says. “I think the programs have real journalistic integrity, but at the same time have an entertainment bridge to an audience.”
Spurlock’s production company, Warrior Poets, maintains an office in SoHo, just two blocks from the hustle and bustle of Broadway. There are fewer than 10 full-time staffers, but the office expands and contracts depending on how many projects are in the hopper. At the moment there are 40 or 45 people (and one very small dog) editing on iMacs, refining scripts and shuttling tapes.
“It is controlled chaos,” he says.
Spurlock’s office looks like it is part art gallery, part museum and part flea market. Liquor bottles share space with awards and mementos from his previous works. The walls are covered with funky street art (he is an avid collector) and posters from his films. A gold bust of Chairman Mao with Mickey Mouse ears holds court by the window, next to a cardboard cut-out of Spurlock–sans pants–while a CNN baseball cap is conspicuously placed on his desk. There is a coal mining helmet from his FX series “30 Days,” and an orange-picking bag from the immigration episode of “Inside Man.”
Arguably the most noticeable mementos are from “Super Size Me,” the 2004 documentary that put Spurlock on the map. A poster and action figures of an overweight Ronald McDonald are prominently displayed.
“[Super Size Me] is a part of me, it is something that literally everybody talks about when I see them,” Spurlock says. “I was traveling through airport security the other day in Los Angeles, and the security guard stopped me and said, ‘hey, you are looking good!, I lost thirty pounds after I saw that film.’ The fact that the movie resonated with so many people, and the fact that so many people saw it that had never seen a documentary in their life, for me it was amazing.”
Fast food was not on the plate Wednesday evening, as CNN feted the debut of “Inside Man” with a party on the roof of the Hudson Hotel, across the street from Time Warner Center. As the sun set over the Hudson River and New Jersey, guests nibbled on cheese and crackers, kobe beef bites and falafel sliders.
Just after 7:30 PM, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker took the microphone.
“We have a lot of people on the air who do the ID on the air, and say ‘I am so and so, and this is CNN,’ and it has been such a highlight to watch, as we add to that rotation, ‘I am Morgan Spurlock, and this is CNN,’” Zucker said. “This is exactly what we want CNN to be and what we want CNN to stand for.”
Spurlock, always quick with a joke, took the mic next.
“I’m hoping that the longer I stay on the air and say ‘This is CNN,’ the more I will sound like James Earl Jones,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.
Like Anthony Bourdain before him, Spurlock is not the type of personality one expects to find on a channel that has a reputation lately for being staid. Of course, simply betting big on personalities like Bourdain and Spurlock is a risk in its own right.
“I think what CNN is doing right now is really smart, the idea of taking it out of the 24 hour news cycle,” Spurlock says. “Having the ability to respond to breaking news is very important, but I think having stuff that allows you tell those same types of stories… where I think shows like this really serve a great purpose, is that long-form investigative journalism has vanished from television.
“The ‘Frontline’’s of the world, the ’20/20’’s, the ’60 Minutes,” those are few and far between, most of those other shows are gone,” he added. “I think to be able to have a place where you can tell some long-form non-fiction investigative storytelling is important, and for a news organization, I think they are imperative.”