When Super Size Me drew an Oscar nom and blew a lid off of how fast food franchises were fattening America, Morgan Spurlock became that rare celebrity documentary filmmaker, as identifiable in his first-person films as Michael Moore is in his. Spurlock got there by eating so much fast food that his skin greyed, his waistline bloated and his organs seemed on the verge of failing. For Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, Spurlock takes on the guise of a chicken grower to illustrate lies that make consumers believe they are eating healthy when they aren’t, and exposes how the major poultry food manufacturers exploit the chicken farmers who take their eggs containing birds especially bred to grow so large, so quickly that it becomes a race to get them on supermarket shelves before their hearts explode and bones break because the birds simply cannot support their own weight. A wonky sweepstakes payment system enacted by the Big Chicken corporations for maximum control left many of these farmers, particularly those who speak out, hopelessly in debt, their paltry poultry proceeds leaving them barely able to survive.
The Super Size Me sequel drew a strong response two Toronto Film Festivals ago, where Spurlock got a $3.5 million distribution deal from YouTube Red that immediately put the film in profit, and promised a theatrical and VOD release that ensured that the chicken farmers who sued Big Chicken and risked themselves by appearing in and helping Spurlock grow his own chicken crop for the film would have their day in the court of public opinion. It would be an important film for Spurlock’s Warrior Poets, where he and his cohorts had numerous documentary series and films percolating.
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Two months later, everything was gone within days of Spurlock voluntarily posting a confessional essay on social media. Behind the scenes, success brought excess and unhappiness for Spurlock. After watching the rise of #MeToo and a line of male Hollywood executives exposed and toppled for harassment and worse perpetrated against women, Spurlock’s essay labeled himself “part of the problem.” His revelation of such personal details as being sexually abused as a youth, and of unchecked depression and alcoholism, got drowned out in the blunt details of his sometimes boorish behavior toward women. He described a boozy bedroom encounter in college he believed was consensual, but which led the other student to write a classroom essay in which she named Spurlock and thought she might have been raped; there was an admission he settled a sexual harassment allegation at his office with a payoff to an assistant to whom he made marginalizing references like “hot pants.” And how he had been unfaithful to every girlfriend he ever had.
Spurlock was so sure his come-clean missive would provoke needed discussion about the growing specter of “MeToo and Time’s Up that he grew impatient for it to be noticed, and sent it repeatedly to outlets like the New York Times. Just to make sure it didn’t get lost. Then he prepared to go into rehab. The results weren’t what he imagined. Spurlock misread the level of boiled-up anger from women who for too long had been marginalized and treated second class, with some being forced to see their natural ambition and dreams get twisted to serve the perverse desires of powerful men. Rather than provoke discussion, Spurlock was effectively banished, lumped in with outed serial predators.
By the time he returned from rehab for his alcohol problem, Spurlock’s company was gone. YouTube Red bailed on the movie deal and got its money back; all 65 employees at Warrior Poets were let go; and projects like the TNT docu-series on women’s issues done in partnership with Sarah Jessica Parker were scrapped. It frayed his marriage and left on the hook the chicken growers who risked their livelihoods to appear in Holy Chicken!, hoping that wide exposure might ease their hardship the way the original movie spurred reforms in the fast food industry.
Cut to today. Spurlock found a more modest and low key release for the sequel through Goldwyn, which distributed the first Super Size Me and recently opened the sequel in a small number of theaters in New York, LA, Chicago and other major cities before it got released on digital, where it can now be seen. Spurlock has been promoting it with the same kind of pop-up chicken sandwich restaurant seen in the film. He’ll be there another week, on 23rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, slinging chicken sandwiches and hard truths about the poultry industry.
Spurlock’s decision to come clean lends it self to an easy parallel to Jerry Maguire. In that film, an existential crisis “mission statement” written by Tom Cruise’s sports agent and dispersed to co-workers saw him immediately lose his job, saw all but one client fire him, and saw him lose his girlfriend. It sent him on a journey that left him a better man, even if he was still struggling to come back professionally. Redemption movies have always been a staple in Hollywood, but is there room in the industry for an imperfect man who wants to resume his storytelling career? That exploration will be the next step in the evolution of Spurlock, who recently took Deadline through a detailed tour of his self-inflicted trip down the rabbit hole, tearing up numerous times over lunch as he recounted the pain his decision to use social media as a confessional caused his family, friends and colleagues, and his career.
DEADLINE: There is a moment early in Holy Chicken! where you talk about your plan to go undercover as a chicken grower to uncover abuses in the industry. You say, “If I’ve learned anything from making a career out of questionable life choices, sometimes the only way to solve a problem is to become part of that problem.” Given that is the language you used to start your fateful essay, did you consider the irony and perhaps thought of dropping it from the new film?
SPURLOCK: No. It wasn’t my intention [to draw parallels]. The whole idea when we made the film was, I wanted to become a part of the machine. So to become part of that machine to tell the story is what makes the film so fun. To become the man behind the curtain, to get to become kind of Colonel Sanders in this journey. i don’t know, it’s one of those things where I so separated the two [the documentary and the essay]…I see the connection, but I feel like the movie lives in its own universe, separate from what my life lives in.
DEADLINE: Why did you publish that essay at such a harsh moment in culture and especially the entertainment business?
SPURLOCK: A confluence of events led to this. I had just gotten back from a film festival in Dubai, where we showed the film, and for days I was there living it up, as you do at film festivals. When I got home, I said to my wife, I got to change my life. And that next morning, I woke up…and this was before I had written any of this…and from the coffee shop under my office, I booked myself into rehab. Later that morning, I went to a doctor I was seeing about something else that was happening within my family. We were talking about just kind of the history of depression in the family. I said, well, there’s nothing on my side of the family. He asked, what about you? I said, I’m depressed every day. He says, what do you mean you’re depressed every day? When? I said, every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to bed. He said, what do you do? I said, I get up and I start my day, I put my feet on the floor. I got a family that I love, an office full of people that depend on me. I got a job that I feel so fortunate to get to do every day. But the minute it all stops? Also, I was thinking about everything that was happening at that time. There were a lot of women in our office, and [the issue of harassment] was a subject that was talked about all the time. As I was driving back into the city from this doctor’s appointment, I said to myself, I have to talk about this. It started off with me thinking I needed to first talk about my depression and talk about what I’d been going through, the way I emotionally felt at the time. And then it just kind of grew into a much bigger thing for me. It became this stream of consciousness emotional purge that I just had to get out. This moment where it’s like, I have to talk about this. Whether it was a moment of clarity or guilt, I felt like I needed to own up to things that happened in my past. As somebody who has made a career out of trying to find the truth and to talk about things…I wanted to say that I can do better, I can be better.
DEADLINE:Did something happen in Dubai to prompt this extreme desire to change your life?
SPURLOCK: I got back Monday, and I wrote this on Wednesday night. I think it was just years of post-Super Size Me, post the separation and the divorce from my ex-wife, falling in love with my current wife…
DEADLINE: The ex was the dietictian we saw in Super Size Me?
DEADLINE: Having covered movies so long, I often relate circumstances to scenes in films. Yours was the Jerry Maguire mission statement, and that moment in Platoon where Keith David’s King character says to Charlie Sheen, wait, you volunteered for this sh*t? Which came closest to how you felt after the essay got widely publicized and doors began closing?
SPURLOCK: I mean, it wasn’t like I was standing in the back of the room going, ooh, are those scarlet letters? Let me get one. That wasn’t my intention or hope. I guess the Jerry Maguire analogy is probably very close because I felt like I needed to share something in the midst of this conversation that just seemed to dominate that moment in time. And social media felt like something that can take you down to a place where…you feel like you are talking to someone who is like…you and I having this conversation. But it’s much different than that.
DEADLINE: Well, the difference, especially in that moment, is that after years of abuse, there was zero latitude for indiscretion, even one that happened decades ago. I find even in the comments on Deadline stories a prevailing desire to see people ended, when they admit flaws. But you were the one who wrote that essay and pressed the button, instead of confessing to a priest or therapist. What do you most regret about that decision?
SPURLOCK: I regret a lot of things about it. I regret the impact it had on my family. I regret the impact it had on my friendships. I regret the impact it had on 65 people, who were working in my office, and then, within a week were suddenly out of a job. The week before Christmas, who suddenly had…
DEADLINE: It happened that fast?
SPURLOCK: That fast. Within a week, everything was done.
SPURLOCK: Every project. YouTube bought Super Size Me. I published that essay Wednesday. They pulled out of the film by that Friday.
DEADLINE: I recall they won a bidding battle and paid $3.5 million for distribution rights and they were going to release it wide, a signature film for a new player in indie film.
SPURLOCK: Yeah. So, the film was in the black, just from that deal, which never happens for a documentary. We were so excited about, it was a great distribution partnership. The film was going to go to Sundance and then SXSW. And it all fell apart, along with everything else we were working on. All the TV shows, all the movies. Everything went away. That didn’t hurt nearly as much as the fact that all of the people who I loved and cared about and who depended on all this great creative stuff we were making at that company were suddenly out of work. To be in that position right before the holidays was the worst thing ever.
DEADLINE: I went back and looked at the reader comments that followed Deadline’s report about your essay. There was a prevailing opinion that, well, he tried to get out in front before some exposé came out, before the train hit him. And yet I didn’t see a litany of women saying they had been victimized…
SPURLOCK: No, there wasn’t anything like that and that wasn’t the reason. For me, it was just a moment where I really felt compelled to come clean, to share the behavioral mistakes that I’d made along the way and the lapses of behavioral judgment that I’d made that I wanted to own up to. We all make bad choices over the years, and for me, it was one of those things where I wanted to put that out there, as a person and as a man, as a husband, as a father. To say I want to admit and accept the things that I’d done, and figure out a way to move forward. And I have to say, I’m grateful for how I feel today, on day 620 of my sobriety. I became dedicated to making amends.
DEADLINE: To whom did you make amends?
SPURLOCK: I’ve tried to make right with my family, and to make amends, to people over the years that I felt like I should’ve treated better along the way. That’s a big part of the journey, right now.
DEADLINE:You mentioned that incident in college. There were no formal charges. Did you hear from that woman after your essay?
DEADLINE:Why did you feel so strongly about discussing that college encounter?
SPURLOCK: I just felt like it was something that I needed to just discuss in a way that would allow me to let go of this moment that stuck in my head and made me feel regret and shame.
DEADLINE: You mentioned you told your wife you were going to do something when you returned from that festival. What impact did all this have on your marriage?
SPURLOCK: You mean with my wife? I’d rather not go there. I feel like I’ve brought her and my family into enough of the conversation that I’d rather keep that part out of it, at this point.
DEADLINE:You mentioned an assistant whom you referred to as “hot pants” and “sex pants,” to whom you paid a settlement when she left the job to keep it quiet. I recall reading about a young woman who got a similar job working for Dustin Hoffman and when she asked what he wanted for breakfast he made a crude female anatomical remark for the amusement of his friends. You could just imagine how marginalized and cut down that young woman must have felt, being so young and hearing that from someone so famous. I couldn’t understand how Hoffman could be so insensitive when he could have said something positive that might have bolstered her confidence and ambition to be part of this industry. Why would you say something like that to the young woman in your office? Was that back and forth banter normal in the workplace at that time?
SPURLOCK: When I look back on it, I regret having said these things. I think I said these things thinking I was making a joke, that these things were funny. I look at my own insecurities of how I dealt with things for years, of how I made jokes about other people or I would make comments about them. At the end of the day, it was just to make myself feel better and the root of the years of depression that I had and still have.
DEADLINE: I recently interviewed Sarah Treem for the launch of the final season of her Showtime series The Affair. She’s about as sharp a writer as you will come across, and she was talking about how she infused her own experience when she started in the business, when younger men would come from the same Yale drama school program she did, and she wanted to scream because she couldn’t understand why her bosses didn’t see the value of her writing the way they did the words written by these newcomers, because they were men. It made me consider how tough it must have been for a woman to exercise her ambition in a male-dominated business. You’ve had time to think about all this stuff. What have you come to realize about how these women deserve to be treated in the workplace? Were there some women who smartened you up on this subject?
SPURLOCK: I’ve talked to a lot of women, who worked for my company for years, and people who work in the business. And what I think is, what’s happening now is important, and necessary. I think the swing of the pendulum to put more women in positions of power, to elevate the voices that have been silenced for so long, it matters. All of this has changed the way that I look at how I want to run a company moving forward, and the people that I want to work with and surround myself with. I think all of that has impacted me in an immense way.
DEADLINE: Describe the aftermath of your essay, when suddenly you were stepping down from Warrior Poets?
SPURLOCK: I didn’t step down. I went to rehab, and I think my partners wanted to make that announcement to try and salvage whatever work we could. I completely understand and respect the choice that they made. But I came back from rehab to the company and tried to keep it going for a year-and-a-half. Until, ultimately, I filed for bankruptcy in July.
DEADLINE: It must have been a far cry from when 65 people worked for you…
SPURLOCK: It went down to, when I came back from California, there was myself, and my brother.
DEADLINE:Can you describe how that felt?
SPURLOCK: Basically, it’s a tremendous feeling of loss. I was very sad. It was sad to have lost so many friends. It’s sad to have lost so many people that you loved and were surrounded by for so long. I walked into the office, and it was like a tomb. And everything was exactly where it was when we left. There was still like notebooks and Avids, and there were still shows up on computers that people were working on. It was really just like everything stopped. Like that show The Leftovers, where everybody had just vanished. I came into the office, and it was really…it was so hard to be there. But I tried…and for me, the biggest thing I didn’t want to have go away was this movie. We had this great movie that was sitting on a shelf. Apart from everybody in the office who relied on me, there were these farmers who so depended on me and the fact I let these guys down hurt more than anything. For months, it became, how do I get this thing that is the most valuable asset we have right now, out into the world. Thank goodness for Goldwyn, for Peter Goldwyn, who stepped up to say, we want to put this movie out. They put the first one out, and they weren’t afraid to stand by this one. And I’m really grateful to them.
DEADLINE:You also had that TNT series, a docu-series collaboration with Sarah Jessica Parker on women’s issues…
SPURLOCK: Which also went away. Quickly. One after the other. So, that was a Wednesday when I wrote that essay. That show was gone by Thursday.
DEADLINE: The behavior you described was not on the order of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves and others. What were the conversations like as you tried to plead your case and save those projects?
SPURLOCK: Yes, but people wanted to…again, I don’t fault anyone. We were working on a show with them that was all about women’s rights and women’s issues when this happened. So we tried just to extricate me from the process. But that wasn’t enough.
DEADLINE: The optics were terrible, looking at this from their standpoint…
SPURLOCK: I totally understand. We even tried to just give the show to Pretty Matches so that they would just take it and make it. By that point, TNT, I don’t believe they wanted to move forward with it. Just based on the kind of baggage, that I was associated with it, from their point of view.
DEADLINE: Was it similar to the conversation with YouTube Red over Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!?
SPURLOCK: I had a conversation. And again, it was a hard conversation because we all love the movie. But they just felt they couldn’t put it out.
DEADLINE: Watching Holy Chicken!, the plight of those farmers is much of the backbone of a pretty terrific film. They put themselves at risk helping you grow the chickens you used for your pop-up restaurant. And they were blacklisted by Big Chicken for helping you and appearing in the movie. What were those conversations like, telling them you lost distribution?
SPURLOCK: I called Jonathan and his wife Connie, they’re in the film.
DEADLINE: His picture’s on the wall of the pop-up restaurant at the end of the film.
SPURLOCK: Correct. I called the two of them on my way to rehab. On my way to get on the plane to go. And I was crying, and they were crying. They said, we just hope you’re okay, and that was…oh, it just makes me cry all over again [he tears up].
DEADLINE: That was selfless of them. Your essay dealt with a tangle of complex personal issues. You talked about alcoholism and depression, you disclosed that you had been molested as a young person. Had you ever talked to anyone about that before?
DEADLINE: Or sought out medical care that might have included taking an anti-depressant?
SPURLOCK: Never medicated. That was the thing, but that was part of it. I was self-medicating for a long time. A lot of this began I guess around like 2010, 2011. It was even before that – Super Size Me came out in 2004 — but I think it just kind of amplified more as more started to happen.
DEADLINE: What factor is it when a movie like Super Size Me hits the way it did? Documentary makers especially back then mostly toil in anonymity. But your film made you a celebrity…
SPURLOCK: It was exciting, overwhelming, and you’re suddenly thrust into a world where there’s a lot of opportunity for drinking, for bad behavior. It continued to grow and amplify all the way up to 2017, when I had this moment of clarity that I needed to change. I think people have a very specific view of alcoholism, which is that it means you’re going out and you’re drinking every day, that you are hitting the sauce starting in the morning, that you have the bottle of vodka in your desk drawer. It’s not like that. I thought I was a social drinker; I would go out a couple times a week. But you go to a drinks meeting, into a dinner meeting, and then another drink meeting after that, and I would get to the point where I would make bad behavioral choices.
DEADLINE: Fueled by the cumulative effect of the alcohol?
SPURLOCK: Yeah, I think fueled by that and also fueled by…I had this black hole that I was continuing trying to fill inside of me. And it was filled through those types of activities, so it was alcoholism, it was workaholism. It was all about, how do I more, how do I work more, how do I continue to grow this business that I have, this opportunity and this career that I’m building. So it was literally just like, more, all the time. And it led to other choices.
DEADLINE: How did rehab help you address all this?
SPURLOCK: I think, it gave me clarity. It just gave me a moment to step back and look at me, and understand why I had made the choices I’d made, why I’ve acted the way that I did. It was a place that was for dual diagnosis, also a place where I could go and for the first time in my life, have real open conversations about depression. It was transformative for me. I know for a lot of people that it doesn’t work. But for me, I came back and saw the world in a very different way, and saw my actions in a different way. I saw the way I wanted to live my life and treat people, the husband I wanted to be, the father I wanted to be, in a very different way.
DEADLINE:What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?
DEADLINE: Even though you damaged your career and lost your company to get here?
SPURLOCK: Yeah. I think it’s…making me emotional again [he pauses to compose himself]. It’s one of those things where you get swept up in the moments [of career accomplishment], and you lose sight of being grateful to the people around you, your family. It was hard when I looked at how I treated a lot of the relationships that I had, didn’t show the love and gratitude to them when I should have. It hurts, a lot. And how I think I could have…I think…I don’t know, I think gratitude is the big part.
DEADLINE: Does this rebuilding continue after you walk out of rehab?
SPURLOCK: It doesn’t end. I’m in AA, I’m working the steps, I’m in the process of making amends to the people that I love and care about and that I feel like I need to really reach out to and speak to. It’s part of the journey and the process, right now, for me.
DEADLINE: A lot of people, the ones you worked with, paid a high price for that essay. How have they responded?
SPURLOCK: There are people who want to sit down and talk to me, there’s people who don’t. There is still a lot of pain associated with it in many ways. For me, it’s continuing to accept that and move forward. I’m more present in my life than I’ve ever been. I’m more present in my kid’s life than I’ve ever been. My relationship with my family, that’s been the best part of this whole process.
DEADLINE: What might have happened had you remained on the track you were on, and not written that essay?
SPURLOCK: It’s a real question. I had just shot a daytime talk show pilot for a network that had been green lighted to move forward and go to market. This was December, we were going out in January, and we’d already been meeting with all the buyers, the syndicators, everything was super positive. Apart from Super Size Me 2, we had a couple of other movies that we were doing, we had three or four TV shows that were moving forward, a bunch of digital series…it’s one of those things where I look back at what I’ve learned but also what we were building. I’m grateful for what we were able to do, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned. Does it hurt sometimes? Of course, it does, but all I can do is continue to be as good a supporter of other people, of women, of men, of young filmmakers, of the people that I was really trying to champion for a long time.
DEADLINE: So you went through all this, and we’ve seen a lot of debate about whether Nate Parker, about Roman Polanski or Woody Allen can pick up their careers in spite of this unforgiving moment we are in. What’s your feeling about returning to Hollywood, and the idea of all these men being let back into the fold?
SPURLOCK: I can’t speak to anyone else except myself. All I can do is continue to do the work to become more of a person that I know I want to be. I think that it’s not going to be a short road, it’s going to take time. But listen, I love what I do. I’m hopeful that I can go from this and start doing what I love to do, that’s the most important thing for me. All I’ve ever wanted to do was be a storyteller. I hope I get to do it again.
DEADLINE: What will make Holy Chicken! a success, in your mind?
SPURLOCK: If we can bring some justice to these farmers, bring the conversation out about what happens in the industry and how they’re treated, for me that would be a great victory. I hope my investors make their money back. I mean, they did and then it got taken away, and then we’re in this great place with Goldwyn where the film’s actually coming out. I hope they get to see some ROI, and I hope the farmers get justice. For me, that’s success.
DEADLINE: Your distribution arrangement is not nearly as lucrative as the YouTube deal. How difficult was it to set that movie up after it got dropped?
SPURLOCK: It was tough. It was literally me for a year, knocking on doors and meeting with the people that I thought would be interested, and it wasn’t even until just about the year mark when I spoke to Peter Goldwyn and he said, we’d like to try and figure it out. It was tough. I met with a lot of people who said no. But this is the film business, I’m used to a lot of people saying no.
DEADLINE: You had to be surprised by the severity of the cold shoulder you encountered after that essay. Was the harsh judgment fair?
SPURLOCK: I can’t gauge whether or not it was fair. I think it was a moment in time and what happened to me was just a natural progression of the moment. I think, on the heels of what I did and what I said and when I said it, in the form in which I did it, it was almost an inevitable outcome because of where we were at that time. So I can’t fault anyone for the choices that they made. We are living in a spectacular time of change and these are great things that are happening. I just hope that I get to continue to be a part of the change in that story. Part of the reason I wrote that essay in the first place, was to be on the right side of it. I’m hopeful that in time, with the work that I do and the changes that I continue to go through, that I can be there on the right side.