What do Comic-Con, McDonalds, Osama bin Laden and product placement have in common?
They’ve all been the subjects of films by Morgan Spurlock.
For his latest project, “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” the man behind “Super Size Me” and “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” set his sights on San Diego’s annual orgy of pop culture geekery. Spurlock’s first visit to Comic-Con was in 2009, when he was working on “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” During a casual discussion with comic book icon Stan Lee, Lee suggested that Spurlock make a documentary about the Con.
Spurlock took the idea seriously, and soon enough Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles and Legendary Pictures founder Thomas Tull were also on board alongside Lee as producers. All that built-in nerd cred helped convince Comic-Con officials to let Spurlock loose. Just one year after attending his first Con, Spurlock was fronting a massive crew committed to chronicling as much of the four day festivities as possible.
He chose to focus on personal stories — like “Mass Effect” fan and aspiring costume designer Holly Conrad’s entry into the Comic-Con Masquerade, comic book buffs Eric Henson and Skip Harvey’s hopes of breaking into comic art and Kevin Smith superfan James Darling’s plan to propose to his girlfriend during a Smith panel. It all adds up to a pretty endearing portrait of an event frequently viewed as a marketing machine.
I spoke with Spurlock by phone to find out his thoughts on Comic-Con past, present and future, and how he pulled off this ambitious project.
Based on your previous films people might expect a critical or cynical look at Comic-Con, but this is a very positive movie. You’ve said you didn’t want to make a film like “Trekkies” which was perceived as somewhat condescending to “Star Trek” fans, why was that important?
I don’t think I came in just to make a film that’s on the side of these people or prove how awesome these people are. It’s a very different thing when it’s personal for you. For me, being someone who loves comics, who loves video games, who sees these things suddenly becoming popular and everyone else catching on how cool they are, it’s a very different thing. What I wanted the film to show is a side of the Con and these people that you never get to see.
When you look at any media coverage of Comic-Con there’s two things you get: “Look at these big movies! Here’s Angelina Jolie! And here’s these weirdos in costumes!” That’s what Con is, that’s how it’s covered in the media. I think there’s such a deeper story, which is what I saw at Comic-Con when I was there in 2009. There’s a lot more layers that we never get exposed to.
As part of that, what happens in this film is that these people become incredibly human. It’s not a freak show. It’s not looking into the fishbowl at someone who is so different and odd. What you realize is these people have the exact same passions and dreams and aspirations as most of us.
But the film isn’t always a celebration of Comic-Con itself. You do a good job of showing how people feel the Con has strayed from its origins.
Chuck Rozanski is a great character in the film who owns a comic book store and has kind of seen the comics get pushed aside. The comic side of Comic-Con is getting much smaller. I think the reality is just as books are getting smaller, so are comic books. People just aren’t buying them. We aren’t buying these paper collectibles anymore.
The artistry — the people still creating comics — is alive and well. You go down Artists’ Alley, and look at the signings, there are still hundreds of people there meeting their fans. They’re creating what is becoming a much more digital medium. I think there’s a critique from certain people but I think it’s an old guard critique.
You also focus on aspects of Comic-Con that not everyone is aware of — the annual Masquerade (a showcase for elaborate fan made costumes) and artist portfolio reviews. How did you decide what to cover, was there someone who told you “Be sure you get this!”?
When we started talking about the things we wanted to get into, Stan Lee was really vocal about the portfolio reviews. He said there’s great stories there, I think you can find something, and he was right. Joss Whedon, as well as the folks at Comic-Con, were the ones who talked about the Masquerade and how they’ve never really seen anything about that.
I wanted to show sides of Comic-Con people hadn’t been exposed to. The idea of Comic-Con as geek job fair was nothing I even knew existed.
My wife, who has also been to Comic-Con many times, made that same comment about the job fair.
Yeah, it’s amazing. There’s a lot of people who have that same type of realization. People ask, “How do you feel about Hollywood taking over Comic-Con?” Hollywood hasn’t taken over Comic-Con. Hollywood has taken over the media coverage of Comic-Con. Somehow that’s what we’ve deemed important for Americans and people of the world to see: famous people touting movies.
If you go to the Con itself, there’s 6,000 people in Hall H [where all the big movie presentations are made]. There’s 144,000 other people that aren’t anywhere near the announcement of the new action movie.
The last couple of years there have also been a lot of people waiting on line in frustration to get into Hall H and Ballroom 20 where they put the big TV things like “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead.” Did you get a sense at all that Comic-Con is getting too big and that it’s either outgrown San Diego or the convention center?
I don’t know what the commitment is from the convention center and the city, but there is a commitment of expansion. If you speak to the folks from Comic-Con, what’s interesting is they sell out their booth space almost as fast as they sell out tickets. They don’t even have enough space for the vendors that want to be at Comic-Con. So the expansion they’re talking about would accommodate more people who want to come and have a presence at Comic-Con.
I think it will grow, I think it will get larger. It’s just started to embrace the big video games, it hasn’t even gotten to the point of interactive — whether that’s an extension of online gaming or digital gaming, app gaming — there’s still other things that could go there to push beyond even where [Comic-Con is] now.
That’s the thing about the Con. One of my favorite lines in the film is from Guillermo del Toro who says “Comic-Con is like a Russian doll. There’s many Comic-Cons inside of Comic-Con.” You could take anyone — I could take my mom to Comic-Con and she would find something to be excited about. She’d be like, “Oh my god, there’s George Takei! And is that Ray Bradbury signing autographs?” She’d be ecstatic. That’s the thing, there’s now a piece of geekdom for all of us at Comic-Con.
And one of the messages of your film is that Comic-Con is a place where people can find belonging. Do you think the film will help expand interest in Comic-Con?
Well, here’s what I predict will happen. There will be many kids across America who buy this movie to give to their parents so they can prove to them how normal they are. “Mom, dad, I’m OK!” It will be the “I’m OK, You’re OK” for the 21st Century.
Was there a story you wish you could’ve squeezed in but you just didn’t have time?
We followed a couple from Colombia, South America who had created their own comic book label. They basically mortgaged their home to start this comic book. It was the story of a big folk character in Colombia who was basically a slave and rose up to free the people, now he’s fighting against the ills of the country. They turned this character into a comic book. They had spent all this money, borrowed money from his mom, now he and his girlfriend were coming to the States. They got a booth at Comic-Con and it was like their last chance to try to get a partnership with someone who could help them expand in Latin America. It was a week away, her visa comes. They’re waiting, waiting, waiting. The day to leave comes and his visa never shows up. She has to come by herself.
The problem with the story became that the whole passion behind the comic book label was his. It was his dream to start the company and he’s not there to sell it. We’re following around his girlfriend, she’s doing her best, but it was too hard. The set-up for everything was good, but it kind of collapsed. It was hard to cut that into our story and make it work. A lot of it was subtitled, there was a lot to contend with. The story was so heart-wrenching but it just didn’t work.
Comic-Con is only a four day event and most of the film unfolds during those four days. Was this the tightest shooting schedule you’ve ever worked under?
Absolutely. We shot this whole film in probably about eight days. We followed our [subjects] before and after, but most of the film we shot at Comic-Con. We had a crew of about 150 people shooting anywhere between 15 and 28 cameras over the course of the Con. We shot about 650 hours in the pre and post days. The whole film was shot there, we didn’t do any pickups afterwards. The on site interviews, all that, happened during that time frame.
What was that like directing? Were there certain places you knew you had to be at certain times?
I put together a list every day of where I wanted to be. So if I want to be there for Kenneth Branagh’s interview I’m there, if I want to be at the Masquerade when Holly’s competing I was there. I picked all these pinnacle events for every character over the course of the day. I literally bounced around all day from crew to crew to crew to crew.
Was there a point where you thought “I wish we got that, but we just missed it”?
Always. Every day you felt that way. What you realize — it took me about four or five movies — when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t be like “Why didn’t we get that?!” Once it’s gone you have to say “We didn’t get that? OK, what’s next? What are we not gonna miss now?” You just have to plan accordingly.
We did a really good job of planning this film. I had two great producers — my producing partner Jeremy Chilnick and Matthew Galkin, a tremendous director in his own right who directed the Pixies movie and the Kevorkian documentary. Part of what we also had was great directors in the field, filmmaker friends of mine — Ross Kauffman who won the Academy Award for “Born Into Brothels,” Kief Davidson who did the films “Kassim the Dream” and “Devil’s Miner,” Mark Landsman who did “Thunder Soul.” I called these guys up and said, “Would you be willing to follow one of our characters?” And basically paired up each one of these people with a character, so even when I wasn’t there we knew what was being shot in the field was being captured in the best way possible.
We called them up and said, “It’s only going to be a week!” And they said absolutely.
And then you realize how crazy it is once you get there.
Yeah, exactly. “It’s only a week, and you’ll only be shooting 22 hour days! It’s gonna be awesome!”
“Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” is available on VOD beginning April 5 and in theaters April 6.