Morgan Spurlock: “30 Days” In The Life

For such a politically charged show, Morgan Spurlock does his best to keep his personal feelings a mystery when it comes to 30 Days.

Morgan Spurlock punches in at a coal mine in 30 Days
The documentary series that takes the axiom of “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” to new lengths — 30 days, to be exact — returns for its long-delayed third season June 3 on FX. This season’s episodes include a gun-control proponent living with a pistol-packing family, a same-sex couple and their adopted children hosting a woman opposed to gay rights, a former NFL player spending time in a wheelchair, and an avid hunter moving in with an animal-rights activist.

Spurlock pulls double duty this season, starring in two episodes — instead of his regular one-episode stint — in which he works in a coal mine and lives on an Indian reservation.

While he’s often labeled a dyed-in-the-wool liberal (one interviewer, he says, recently referred to the West Virginia native as the “red state Michael Moore”), Spurlock says many of his views are more centrist, and that his purpose with shows like 30 Days is in informing, not preaching.

He’s informing more than usual these days, with the promotion for the new season of 30 Days coming on the heels of the release of his Super Size Me follow-up, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? We caught up with him to talk about his unique place in the entertainment world.

You’re in two episodes this season, instead of just one. What, were you bored?

Morgan Spurlock: [Laughs] We were trying to work it out with the network; I was very passionate about both the ones that I did, so I feel if there’s a way for me to do two I would love that and it just kind of fell into place.

The episodes that you’re not in, how involved are you with putting them together?

In terms of the editorial process, very. From the minute we start getting story notes back, we’re reading through the story notes. As soon as we start putting cuts of the piece together, I’m working with R.J. Cutler and H.T. Owens, our other executive producers who are in Los Angeles. We give constant feedback until we deliver the final episode. But it’s not like I’m on location while they’re shooting. We have a field producer who’s there while our show’s going on.

Three seasons in, do you feel like you know what you’re doing now?

It reaches a point where, especially if you have the same editors — which we’ve been fortunate to have some of the same editors come back — I think that you start to reach your stride after a while. For me, after we made the second season, I was like I don’t know what topics we’re going to tackle, what are we going to do, and then this season, we get better ideas every time. I love the animal rights episode, the gun control episode is fantastic. For me the ones I love are the ones I’m not in. Those are a better gauge of what the series ultimately is and what the series should ultimately be about. I love the ones that I do, but for me, I love watching the other episodes. You can actually take a step back and look at the pieces of the story as you’re putting the puzzle together and it makes a little more sense.

Was it my imagination, or were things more intense this season? There seemed to be less of people coming to an understanding.

Morgan Spurlock heads out for lunch at the coal mine in 30 Days
It didn’t happen last season either, like with the atheist episode we had in Season 2. That’s for me the beauty of this show. At the end of every episode, some people may find common ground and other ones it’s like, “You know what, we don’t get along. We don’t see eye to eye.” That’s what the show’s ultimately about. Some people see that transformation and others don’t.

What kind of feedback do you get about the show?

We get so much feedback from different episodes. I remember after Season 1 aired, there were people who saw the gay-straight episode — the guy from Michigan moved in with Ed in the Castro [district of San Francisco] — and I spoke to Ed on the phone maybe a month or two after the season had aired, and he called me to tell me this story. He ran into a guy on the street who came out to his parents and his parents basically disowned him. You know, walked away from him and said, “You’re dead to us.” And so then this TV show aired and his parents called him. They watched the show and after the show was over they called him and said, “How are you? We miss you. We want to see you.” The fact that that show opened up the door for this kid and his parents to reconnect, that’s incredible and it’s one of those things that you can’t really anticipate how it’s going to impact people.

For us, one of the things we want to do is try to shatter stereotypes in a lot of ways. The show does a good job of doing that. We could have easily had a Christian go live with an atheist family and I thought it was a much better show to have it be the other way around. In Season 2 we had the guy whose job was outsourced to India and he went to India to look for a job. Then with this season, I love the gun control episode where [a woman] moves to Ohio and moves in with the gun family and she starts to work in an actual gun shop where she’s actually selling people guns. It becomes very emotional in a lot of ways as well.

Is there a possibility of a 30 Days update episode?

We’ve talked about that a lot, because that’s a question that everybody has. In Season 2 we had the immigration episode and people came forward and actually said we want to give her money to go to college. She was actually able to raise money to go to school as a result of that episode. So there’s a lot of great things that have happened and I would love for us to be able to do a — I don’t want to call it a reunion show, because those are so tainted — but more of a where-are-they-now show.

I would imagine that any temptation to become full of yourself or, now that you’ve had some success, becoming a prima donna, is pretty much quashed by doing things like you do on 30 Days.

It keeps things in perspective, and for me that’s what it’s all about. I really try and keep myself surrounded by people who will keep me in check and keep my head out of the clouds. And then doing things like this, where you’re basically making a show that can hopefully go out and touch people’s lives, but at the same time, you’re basically there with just regular folks and I think that really helps.

This season has been pushed back so much. Is it a relief to finally get it out there?

Oh, of course. Because … it was supposed to come out right after the new year. Originally, it was going to premiere around Thanksgiving, and then the writers strike was looming so they said they’re going to hold it until January and then the strike hit and OK we’re going to hold it until March and it just kept getting pushed and pushed, so I’m ecstatic that now it’s getting out there. I love it, I think it’s a great show and I’m really, really proud of it. FX is such a great network to work for, because they really do inspire you, they let you do what you want to do. When they give you notes, or they give you feedback, it’s so intelligent and so smart and I just feel blessed to get to make this show with them.

Was this season done before Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden?

We were back in the States editing the Osama film while this TV show was shooting, so I gave all my notes on the cut of the movie, then I went and worked in a coal mine, came back, watched the cut again, gave all my notes again of here’s where I want to go, and then went to the Indian reservation, then came back, and then we finished the movie.

Is it hard to keep all that compartmentalized?

With the film, we were lucky that we had some great people working on the movie here and, you know, you just detach. For me, when I’m doing 30 Days, I like to think about nothing but 30 Days and it kind of helps me focus a little bit.

When you do what you do, and you put an opinion out there for mass consumption, you’re going to get criticism, along with people who really dig it. What always strikes me, though, with the criticism of guys like you and, say, Michael Moore, is that critics only take a few facts that they choose to find fault with. Do you think they’re missing the bigger picture a little bit? Because if even 50 percent of what you were saying with Super Size Me or 30 Days is true, then we have some problems we need to talk about.

I think the biggest thing in a lot of these shows, you’d be hard-pressed to find my politics in the shows, in a lot of ways. I’m a big believer in letting people make up their own mind. Except for the shows that I’m in, where I’m personally experiencing something and personally feeling something, my personal thoughts and opinions don’t really impact the show. When you see me going through the episode, the ones that I’m physically in, that’s about the only time you’ll hear a personal opinion. For me, I hope people take away something good from this show. I know a lot of people who’ve been touched by it, and impacted by it and hopefully more will be.

Do you go into 30 Days or your movies with a set audience in mind? Say, this is for people who are totally new to the subject, or this is for people who might know a little more?

I like to try and reach people, whether it’s a doc or the TV show, where most of this is new to them. I mean, the world of coal mining, most people don’t really know much about that, or living on a reservation. What’s it really like? What trials and tribulations do Native Americans face? While you may find people who grew up with guns or around guns, like myself, there’s a lot of people who still aren’t that familiar with all the laws and things that surround it. There may be people who know something, but for me the goal is to reach an audience that may not know everything and you’re trying to give them the broad strokes that can get them engaged and get them into what you’re talking about.

People might paint you as the left-leaning liberal, but you grew up in a rural area and around guns. Is that something you run into a lot?

Somebody called me the red-state Michael Moore recently in an interview and I said, “Yeah, maybe, I don’t know.” I think a lot of my politics are very centrist. I don’t lean too far in either direction.

Is there a fourth season of 30 Days underway?

That’s the hope, knock on wood, they’ll let us come back and do it again. That would be great. The fact that we’ve gotten to do three seasons of a show like this is incredible. So if they ask me to come back and do a fourth, I’d be honored.

I’m sure that’s coming up. They’ll see what happens when this one hits and we’ll go from there.

I know you’re right in the middle of the movie promotion. How’s the movie being received so far?

Well, the critics weren’t big fans of the movie, but the audiences love the film. The thing is the movie plays incredibly well with audiences. What I love about the movie is there’s people in here and there’s things in this film that I don’t see on television every day and that I don’t hear about in the media every day and that’s what makes the movie good and different from my point of view, so it’s great and I hope it can continue to get out there and people can get a chance to see it.