- Chad Crowe
In perhaps Morgan Spurlock's best big-screen moment, he's lurching out his car window, kecking a just-eaten double Quarter Pounder with Cheese and fries onto the asphalt.
When Billy Talens gets recognized, it's often as "the guy I saw the cops ripping out of Starbucks."
No, neither man is known for being subtle. But 'tisn't the season for subtlety.
'Tis the season for dropping $500 billion on holiday gifts, for creating 5 million tons of extra waste, for deepening the $13,000-plus in credit-card debt that 60 percent of Americans already carry. Or so the stats go in What Would Jesus Buy?, an independent film opening locally Friday, Dec. 7, at Kimball's.
In the movie, producer Spurlock and director Rob VanAlkemade track Talens (in character as Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping), his wife/partner Savitri D, and their 35-member gospel choir on a cross-country bus tour. Their holy goal: to save America from what Talens, in true gospel-preacher style, calls the Shopocalypse.
On Nov. 16, the film premiered at Village East Cinema in New York City, just two miles from Times Square, the site of Talens' original anti-consumerism "revelation" in 1999. We spoke via conference call with both the star and the producer earlier that day.
Indy: How did you guys connect on this project?
Spurlock: I met Billy ... I had known of Billy for a very long time. I was approached about becoming a part of this film and somebody showed me some footage they had already shot of Billy and Savitri and the church, and I said, "You know what, this is a really interesting thing. I want to meet him in person." Because you don't know if it's shtick or not, the first time you see it. You're like, "Is this guy for real? What's this about?"
After I sat down and met him and Savitri and spoke with them about what they believe and what their mission is and why they do what they do, I was sold, because these guys really walk the walk. They're using this [Reverend Billy] character and this group they've put together to bring some humor and some levity to what I think are very serious messages.
One of the things I've always said for a long time is that if you can make someone laugh, you can make someone listen. And I think Billy does a great job of that.
(Talens comes in on the call. We ask him the question.)
Talens: The truest answer is that we were both in the neighborhood. He was a film student who lived at 11th and B Street [in New York City], and I was a local activist living at Bleecker and Lafayette. He tells me he's just seen me on the sidewalk, and getting thrown out of Starbucks and so forth, just walking back and forth between his apartment and school. (Both laugh.) I had a traumatizing influence on Morgan.
Indy: So, Morgan, as producer, what was the extent of your involvement in the film?
Spurlock: I was very involved from the beginning. ... There's only so much you can do with a documentary in terms of, like having a plan, but we had an idea. Billy wanted to go on tour, and he was already going to go out across the Northeast, on kind of a Christmas tour to save America from the Shopocalypse, and I said, "Well, let's really save America let's go across the country." And so we put together this nationwide tour with Billy to spread this message of ... anti-consumerism. We were just following him on his path the whole way, and it's just kind of blossomed into this fantastic movie that none of us really knew we were getting at the time.
Talens: If you were feeling really good about Morgan, you would say he was a compassionate champion of the film, and if you were feeling ornery, you would call him a micromanager. (Both laugh.) But he seems to have managed us to [56 cities as of Dec. 5] across North America.
Spurlock: With everything that's happening in our country right now, with all of these recalls that are happening with products, with all these Chinese products that now have chemicals and drugs in them and things that are killing kids, now more than ever, we need a message like this to ask ourselves, "What are we doing? What kind of a society are we creating, where buying all this junk, all this stuff is this how we deem something important or valuable?"
Indy: I read on your Indiewire blog that every distributor nobody bit, because they were afraid of ...
Spurlock: That's true. Well, I mean, people were starting to bite, but when they started to kind of examine the kind of possibilities of this big, giant corporation, Wal-Mart which controls almost half of the DVD market in the United States the prospect of this company not taking not only this movie, but potentially any other movie they want to sell to them ... [It] suddenly made them say, "You know what, we have to walk away from this."
And for me, that's an incredible commentary on the state of media in America, where one big, giant company can really dictate what you see and hear and, a lot of times, actually read, whatever it may be.
Indy: So how was it that you actually said, "OK, we're going to self-distribute" I mean, what is that process like?
Spurlock: It's frustrating. (Both laugh.) Apart from that, well, it's hard, because you really have to go out and bang the drum. I was very passionate about this movie and have been from the beginning. And you have to physically go out and meet with people to invest in distributing a film, and not only to distribute a film, but to distribute a film that other distributors have walked away from because they deemed it, ah, troublesome. And it takes me sitting down with them and saying, "Here's why we think this will work, and here's why this is important." Luckily, we found a group of people who really were believers.
Talens: And so we have a group of people of investing that are, um, I don't know Morgan, will we ever get in one room together? We have a young Swiss couple with kids; a man who, one of his main businesses is medical equipment and models for medical purposes in museums. He's from Chicago. We've got a young man who grew up on a ranch in Utah, and now just moved to the Bay Area, but he's an expert on transportation alternatives.
Spurlock: It was a ragtag bunch. This was kind of our Dirty Dozen we put together to put this movie out. (Both laugh.)
Indy: Given the success of Super Size Me, did it surprise you at all that despite this being something Wal-Mart might look down its nose at that nobody would say, "Well, it's a Morgan Spurlock film, maybe we should take a shot at this"?
Spurlock: Well, I think that's the whole reason we were able to raise the money that we did to begin with. I think that's why we were able to raise the initial financing to help us produce the movie, as well as the money that allowed us to distribute it. Because even with cold feet from distributors ... the final company that basically came in, the group that finally came in and invested in the film that helped us get it into theaters [Palisades Pictures], is a group that does just that. They invest in "P and A," what's called prints and advertising, you know, to make film prints and advertise a movie and get it into theaters. It's a group that they come in and basically do just that.
And so I went in and sat down with them and they loved the movie, and we were really, really fortunate. You know, had I not had the success with Super Size Me, would it have been a lot harder? Absolutely. Who knows if this movie would even see the light of day.
Indy: And now, Billy, am I right, then, based on what I've heard so far in the conversation, that a cross-country tour of this size was something new to you and the choir? And if so, what were some of the unforeseen challenges you faced?
Talens: Well, as Savitri would say, touring in the wintertime is not something we'll often do again. (Laughs.) Especially with a bus working on veggie oil that freezes. But we had the tour in England
Spurlock: And the Northeast
Talens: The Northeast, and in California, so we were ready to step up. But it was 5,000 miles in a month. It was a couple steps up. But we were ready.
Spurlock: Yeah, and what I thought was really interesting was after the [bus accident shown in the movie]: You would think the accident would be a big setback for morale, and the group in general ... [but] for a couple people including Rob VanAlkemade, the director, who ended up getting laid up in the hospital for about three weeks this really was a big boost for them. It was a rallying cry in a lot of ways, that they almost felt like there were forces against them that were trying to keep them from going on this mission.
Indy: I think that comes through in the film, too. Everybody gets together in those hotel rooms and they get the bus and say, "OK, we're going to do it differently, but we're still going to do it."
Spurlock: Yeah, it's very admirable, I think.
Talens: It just just as so many people are enthusiastic and contacting us and coming to the turnstiles right now, we had people in the Midwest, outside of a little town of Byron, Ohio, who put us up in their homes on no notice. They came to the hospitals, they came to ... the motel. They came to us, they brought us food. Ordinary Americans.
We're part of a wave of interest in finding a new way to live our life. It is a revolution. And pulling back from consumerism and finding solutions in local economies and in families and in neighborhoods is a radical change right now. It means we say no to lots of advertising.
But lots of people rose to that occasion and helped us out, including one volunteer who came up with the money for the new bus. We had a person just come in out of the blue he just walked into the motel room, and he said, "I have this money for you. Let's get a new bus." That, in a microcosm, is what happened with the movie.
Indy: When you're talking about the problems you're trying to address here, it seems like there are multiple prongs: sweatshop labor, consumer debt, the death of the mom and pop stores ... Is one of those issues more incendiary to each of you than any of the others?
Talens: Advertising to children is the thing that unifies all Americans. Children need to have their innocence, their discovery. Having a $15 billion advertising campaign directed at kids who can't read yet, that is, to me ... (Trails off.)
- There are demons in this cash register: Reverend Billy in action, with his choir standing by for support.
Spurlock: Yeah, advertising targeting kids is terrible. I think for me, also, some of the environments where some of the products we buy are made is also a horrendous thing to think about. We really don't often think about the world in which a product was created: How did it get here, and who was affected by that?
Every purchase you make contributes to support either a good way of doing business or a way that is very destructive to an economy or a community or someone's life. For me, when we started making this film and understanding what that "Made in Wherever-it-Was" label meant, it really was a choice that you made in how you would shop and live your life.
There was a woman who came up to me after a screening in Los Angeles, where we were the closing-night film at the City of the Angels Film Festival, which is a large Christian film festival in Los Angeles. She came up and said, "This movie for the first time made me think about how I shop as a Christian."
And for me, I thought that was a pretty incredible revelation she had, to think about that: "Am I making the right choice, as I should, in how I buy and how I shop and how I live?"
Indy: Describe for me, then, what will make this film a success in your eyes.
Spurlock: The success of Super Size Me came from personal levels and from personal experiences of individuals who would come up to me and say, "You know, after I saw this film, we changed the school lunch that was in our kids' school." Or a parent that will come up and say, "You know, I started cooking for my kids at home." Or an individual who said, "I lost a hundred pounds and started exercising and changed the way I ate."
For me, I think it's going to be in individual accomplishments, one by one. ... What did they do to change their Christmas? Or how did they change their holiday? Or how did they change the way they shop and look at [what] they deem important? Did the way they deem fulfillment in their own life change? For me, I think those will be the ways I will gauge the success of this movie.
Talens: Boy, I thought that was a really good answer. (Pause.) I would just like to second that emotion.
We've come in from 10 years of activism, trying to get people to be conscious about what they do with their money, and it's a little bit of a different road our road joined Morgan's road. He came from Super Size Me, and we came from the sidewalks and streets and on the stages and concert halls ... it always comes down to the energy that a person you are encountering is taking into their change.
When ... somebody comes up and says, "I've been a consumer, but now I'm going to be a citizen" I had a person say that to me the other day, right on the sidewalk, looked me in the eye, shook my hand I just feel humbled by that. I know we're doing what we think is right, but there's nothing like somebody actually dedicating a change and you had something to do with it. I just feel so privileged to be making this movie.
Indy: So what should people consider as they start to think about how to change their buying habits?
Talens: In the course of making this movie, in saving Christmas from the Shopocalypse, we've come into people's homes. We've talked to thousands of shoppers. What we get again and again is that we have made a society that's in a hurry. And when we're all in a hurry, we're isolated from each other. We might be trying to get back to each other on the cell phones and in the e-mails, but now I've got young parents coming to me and saying, "I'm spending time with my children, and that is my gift. That is the form my gift will take."
That, then, becomes being creative with the child. You end up going to do something together; you might take a trip together, you might make a visit to another loved one together, and share it in some way. You might write a journal, you might make a painting. Spending time together, that changes everything.
Spurlock: Yeah, absolutely.