Interview: Morgan Spurlock of One Direction: This is Us
From the imminently popular indie fast-food-horror documentary Super Size Me to more recent docs like Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, an exploration of the fanaticism behind the San Diego comic book convention, and Mansome, a film that asks what it means to be “manly” in the modern age, documentarian Morgan Spurlock has always gravitated toward fascinating, socially and culturally relevant subjects to analyze cinematically. Keeping that in mind, his newest film, One Direction: This is Us, might not be as unexpected a choice of subject as you might initially think. Still, the question I hear the most about this film, by far, is, “Why the hell is Morgan Spurlock making a One Direction movie?”
“Why not? I can’t be a Directioner?” Spurlock replied, half-jokingly, during a roundtable interview for the massive project, referring to the label the boy band’s devoted fans gave to themselves. The road that led to his decision to make the film involved multiple missed opportunities from one major studio in particular.
“Paramount called me two or three years ago when they were getting ready to do the Justin Bieber film, and they said, ‘We would love for you to meet with us about possibly making this movie.’ At the time, I was doing The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can think about taking on a movie like that right now.'”
The opportunity to make another pop-star doc would arise again, this time for another pop icon. “Last January, we were finishing both Comic-Con and Mansome” he continued. “Again we got a call saying, ‘Would you like to meet with Paramount about possibly doing the Katy Perry movie.’ I said, ‘We’re finishing two movies right now, it isn’t possible. There’s no way I can think about adding another movie to this pile.’ Come June, we’d delivered both of those movies. Somebody calls and says, ‘You ever heard of this band One Direction?’ I was like, ‘Of course I know who they are. They’re huge!’ They said, ‘Would you want to come meet with us to talk about possibly making a movie about these guys?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would love to meet with you guys!'”
“As a documentary filmmaker, the chances to make a film of this scope and this scale are few and far between. They just don’t happen,” Spurlock explained. “They happen once every three or four years, if you’re lucky. To get to make a movie with a studio, with a budget that’s beyond anything documentary filmmakers ever get to have, to use technology you never get to have access to, to make a film in 3-D about a band that is, at this point, one of the biggest bands in the world, at one of the crossroads of their career and continuing to explode into such a global phenomenon…that’s an amazing story.”
“Somebody was still like, ‘Yeah, but why!?’ If those reasons aren’t good enough, let’s put it in an even simpler perspective,” Spurlock went on, defending the project further. “The day this movie comes out, it’s going to be seen by more people around the world than have seen all my movies on opening day, combined. Combined. So, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, why would you not want to tell that story?”
The boys’ story is an unlikely one. The five heartthrobs—Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry, and Louis—were individually cut from Britain’s talent search show, The X-Factor, but showrunner Simon Cowell saw potential in them as a group, and bunched them together to form the pop group that’s so ubiquitous and inescapable today. Despite their huge success, they’re still young, down-to-earth fellows from the UK.
“When I first went to meet them, they were still so excited about everything,” he said. “What I love about them, and what’s captured in the film is [that] they’re still excited. There’s this incredible innocence to them. I think they’ve gotten used to the mass of people that is always around. They’ve gotten used to that piece of it.”
“The very first thing that we shot was Japan,” he recalled about the filming process. “They’d never been to Tokyo, they’d never been to Japan, they’d never been to Asia before. To get to be there when, for the first time, they’re getting to experience this incredible culture…Here they are, playing robot soccer, eating food that they normally never do, and not ever understanding quite what to do with miso soup. I find moments like that to be so beautiful. It’s innocent. These guys, as much as they are 19, 21, world-famous pop stars—they are young. They haven’t experienced a lot of the world.”
There are more than a few parallels to be drawn between this film, about boy-band fanatics, and his Comic-Con film, about comic book/movie fanatics. If fact, that project was probably the best preparation he could have asked for when tackling a phenomenon as giant as One Direction.
“The film we made about Comic-Con a couple years ago was probably one of the reasons I got this job,” Spurlock surmised. “The way that film shows the level of dedication those fans have without being cynical, without turning them into the butt of a joke. For me, it was important to have that same type of DNA be a part of this movie. I’m a fan of a lot of things, but I’ve never been so dedicated to something that I will camp out for days to either buy a ticket for it or catch a glimpse of someone. I’ve never made a sign to hold up or chased someone down the street in hopes of getting a photo. The level of dedication these fans have I find to be inspiring. It’s incredible.”
Due to the Beatlemania-level hysteria of the band’s popularity, Spurlock and his crew had plenty of reason to fear for their safety when tailing the boys in public. The chaotic environment must have been a challenging place for a filmmaker to operate in. Spurlock, however, said that the fans mostly left them alone, aside from a few minor bumps.
“I was only worried about us until the guys showed up,” he recalled. “When the guys show up, who cares about us? [The fans] pay no attention to us. We might as well have been invisible at that point. I’d been knocked out of the way by 13, 16-year-old girls where it’s like, ‘Wow, these are little linebackers!’ You just want to kind of get out of the way of the herd.”
Spurlock detailed the unbelievable lengths he and his crew had to go to to find a place for the boys to have private moments. The most extreme example involved shooting the band camping in the woods in Sweden.
“I think it was Liam that said, ‘We should go camping while we’re on the road. How great would that be?’ We found this campsite…it was a national forest outside of Stockholm. You see them come in the afternoon, set up their tent and get ready to camp there, but what you don’t see is that they actually had a gig that night.” Spurlock further explained the seemingly impossible scenario. “So, once they set up camp, they had to go back to Stockholm to do their gig. The minute they leave [the concert venue,] the fans will follow them. The fans will trail the bus wherever the bus goes, back to the hotel or whatever. We put them on a bus, the bus went to an airfield, and at the airfield they got on a helicopter. We flew them by helicopter from Stockholm out into the middle of the woods about 200 yards from where they were camping, and that’s where they stayed the night.”
The film—half concert movie, half documentary—is in league with many other pop star films of its nature, but Spurlock made sure to leave his fingerprints on it.
“When I first pitched my idea to the studio for what I thought the movie was, I said, ‘This movie is about two things. It’s about dreams and it’s about family.’ That’s what the film is. Here are these guys who came from really simple, humble beginnings. They had familes that gave them a tremendous amount of support and a foundation on which to find the courage to chase their dreams. Now, once it’s happened, here they are—they have this family that doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. They don’t quite know how to give advice. They can’t quite be parents anymore.”
It’s a sad thing, but Spurlock explained that, despite the unfortunate distance from their families that comes with fame, they’ve adopted a new family of sorts. “Each one of these guys now has four other guys who know exactly what they’re going through,” he said. “They know exactly what you’re feeling—the stress you’re dealing with, the pressure you’re under. I think the reason why they haven’t had any ‘Bieber-esque’ meltdowns is because they have each other. To have the ability to spread that pressure and tension is really helpful. They talk about that a few times [in the film.] ‘If I had to do this by myself, I think I’d go crazy.’ It gives them strength, strength in numbers.”
When asked about his views on celebrity, Spurlock referred to a philosophy he’s always stood by.
“People say to me, ‘What do you think the secret is to making it in this business?’ I think it’s two things: You have to work hard, and you have to stay humble. That is a real running mantra that I have, and I think it’s one that’s reinforced by these guys. They come from great families and they have great people to really keep them humble,” Spurlock continued, passionately. “I think they’re doing a great job of dealing with the insanity of fame that’s kind of been thrust on them.”
“These guys are 19, 21. When I was between 19 and 21, I was in college at USC and then NYU, going to parties, doing keg stands, [other] crazy shit,” he laughingly remembered. “I didn’t have 200 people working for me. I didn’t have the pressure of having to travel around the world on a world tour. Like Harry’s stepdad says, Harry went to an audition when he was 16 and never came home. For the last three years, this kid’s end-of-high-school-in-to-college has been fame and kind of dealing with this. Considering that’s when the left home and this is where they are now, they’ve dealt with it really well.”
After watching the film, it’s hard not to like the guys, even for someone like me, who knew virtually nothing about them going in. They don’t carry many of the typical boy-band stereotypes—they’re unapologetically terrible dancers, they play their own instruments, and they’re humble and endlessly self-deprecating (they frequently slap each other on the face during photo shoots.) Spurlock made it a goal to not simply cater to the fans with the film.
“It was important for me to make a film that wasn’t just for the fans,” he said. “Fans who see this film will be very happy with the movie. I think it could tick every box that they want about having access, or learning new information about them.” He went on to describe the appeal for the parents of the teenage “Directioners” and the uninitiated, as well.
“From a family standpoint, I think that this is a great family movie. It resonates on a lot of levels parents will respond to. There are a lot of positive things about how the boys carry themselves and how their relationships with their families carry over into their work life I think parents will love. For non-fans, I think there are plenty of people who I think are…intrigued, would want to learn more or see more. ‘What is this fandom all about? Why are they so big? I don’t get it!’ It’s also making the film for that audience. When you go [to the movie] and you see them, you get it. [You] get why so many people like them. They are so fantastically charming. They’re so likable. The guy that leaves the stage is the same guy that’s in that film. I tell people—I challenge you to go see this film and not leave liking these guys.”