Morgan Spurlock: The burger king is back for a second bite at America

A month eating McDonald's left Morgan Spurlock fat - and a star. Now More4 is bingeing on his new series '30 Days'. Robert Hanks meets the film-maker
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The Independent Online

The money shot in Super Size Me, the scene that everybody remembers, comes on the second day of Morgan Spurlock's month-long McDonald's binge. Sitting in his car, chomping his way through his first ever "super-sized" meal, Spurlock pauses, leans forward and vomits right in front of the camera.

In an ironic reversal, More4, Channel 4's digital "adult entertainment" channel, is offering viewers the chance to assess for themselves the effects of bingeing on Morgan Spurlock, with a Morgan Spurlock Blow-Out Week. For the next four nights, he will be hosting the late-night chat show The Last Word; tomorrow night there is a screening of Super Size Me; and on Thursday there is the first episode of his new documentary series 30 Days. By the end, will we be puking our guts out in the car park, or contentedly rubbing our tummies and emitting little belches of satisfaction?

Hosting a chat show is new territory for Spurlock, but when we met at a Manhattan restaurant - since you ask, yes, a health-food restaurant - he seemed confident. "It's pretty much what I do with my friends all the time anyway, you know. We just sit around and talk nonsense about what's happening in the world, so it'll be pretty easy."

He gets jittery only when I mention that the series' other hosts are mainly comedians. "What are you saying - are you saying I'm not funny? You're saying I've got big shoes to fill?" This was only a couple of days after More4 launched; knowing what I know now, I'd have been able to reassure him that the bar hasn't really been set that high, thanks to a set apparently designed with the explicit object of killing all prospect of creative interaction - host stuck behind square a desk, guests plonked on rather uncomfortable-looking chairs in a straight diagonal line.

Spurlock couldn't or wouldn't confirm any details of guests, but did confide his hope of getting Jamie Oliver, whom he met recently in New York. I didn't have the heart to tell him that British audiences blew out on Jamie years ago.

30 Days, the excuse for More4's Spurlock fest, is a development of the Super Size Me concept: if 30 days of McDonald's was enough for Spurlock to gain 25 pounds and enlarge his liver, what else could happen in the same time frame? What about if you send a conservative Christian to live in a Muslim household for a month? Or a conservative homophobe to shack up with a gay man in San Francisco? Get a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a spread to recapture his youth through dietary supplements and steroid injections?

The original idea was that Spurlock himself would be the guinea pig. He abandoned that idea: the production logistics wouldn't work. "I would be going from shoot to shoot to shoot to shoot to shoot, six months straight. I'm involved with the editing and the story process, so that means we couldn't even start editing the show until I'm done with all six months." Also, his fiancée, healthy Alex the vegan chef, said: "Well, if you do that you can pretty much bet you're not going to have a girlfriend very long." He did only one episode, the first one, in which he attempts to live for a month on the national minimum wage. Alex insisted on coming with him, and together the two of them discover a whole new reality of poor housing, inadequate diet and rotten healthcare.

How this will play with English audiences is hard to predict: while the problems of poverty and bigotry are the same the whole world over, there is nothing here that has quite the same global appeal as taking a pop at Ronald McDonald. The series has already been a hit in America, though, and a second season has been commissioned for FX, the Murdoch-owned cable channel that gave us The Shield and Nip/Tuck. The day before I met Spurlockhe signed a one-year development deal with Sony's TV arm. Murdoch and Sony, eh: is he just a corporate sell-out?

The question doesn't bother him. "I don't think so... If they were telling me what to do, I'd believe it, but basically I'm going in there with the shows I wanted to make anyway. Now we have a partner who actually has money."

It's not as if he's any stranger to Sony: in the mid-1990s, after he left film school, he landed a job as spokesman for Sony at all the live events they sponsored, and spent two and a half years touring round America entertaining college audiences and doing announcements at sports fixtures.

The high point of this phase of his career was, surely, announcing the beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics. On the side, he started making corporate videos and commercials. "It was interesting for me to see how marketing works," he says, "to see how branding works." I suspect this may account for his slightly silly but very recognisable mutton-chop whiskers.

The other reason he's not worried about being labelled a sell-out is that he knows how hard life is without money to back you up. After September 11, film production more or less shut down in New York, and Spurlock struggled to keep his own production company afloat.

"I had great credit at the time, so I kept getting credit cards. I would get credit card after credit card after credit card with like $25,000 limits on them." He didn't have cash to pay his staff: "I would use the credit cards to pay their rent, to buy them food, to pay for my office's rent; I would use credit cards to pay credit cards." In a year, he accumulated $250,000 in credit card debt, got evicted from his apartment and starting sleeping in a hammock in his office, using a local gym for showers. He learned one valuable lesson: "If you want to know the sure-fire way to not get credit card applications any more, get really terrible credit. I finally got to the point where they wouldn't even send me credit card applications any more. I was like 'Wow, I figured it out. They'll send those things to monkeys...'"

MTV came to the rescue, picking up his web-based show I Bet You Will. "That was the first show in the United States to go from the web to television." The shtick was that Spurlock bet people they wouldn't perform outlandish tasks, and then paid up on screen: hence one critic's indignation that a man complaining about McDonald's had previously made a living paying people to eat dog's faeces. The 53 episodes MTV bought gave him the wherewithal to start filming Super Size Me. The success of that - not just in America, but in every country where McDonald's operates - was overwhelming. "Now my life's changed completely, he says. "Whereas it used to be impossible for me to sit down and talk to people or to have meetings and pitch ideas, now all my phone calls get returned."

On the back of the film, he has been round the world - Iceland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, which was "one of the greatest experiences of my life - we got to go on the set of King Kong!". He does an impression of himself meeting Peter Jackson - something between a giggle and a whimper of pure pant-wetting excitement. One reason he admires Jackson is the way he has used the success of The Lord of the Rings to promote New Zealand, in effect creating a new film industry there. Spurlock hopes to imitate his success. "I was just home last week and I met the governor of my state, to talk to him about how can we bring more film production back to West Virginia."

This unselfconscious combination of entrepreneurship and social conscience animated our whole conversation - one moment he's getting excited about cutting a deal, the next, seamlessly, he's worked up over the political issues he wants to expose. (He's frustrated by the logistics of giving a lock-'em-up conservative 30 Days in prison: "Nothing like a good shower-scene to sway someone's politics.") It's invigorating to encounter it, and if they could bottle it and sell it they could make a fortune. More4's blow-out is a good second best. I don't think we'll be puking.

The Morgan Spurlock Blow-Out Week on More4: 'The Last Word', Monday-Thursday 11.05pm; 'Super Size Me', Tuesday 9pm; '30 Days', Thursday 9pm