This is an interview with Morgan Spurlock, but I didn't want this to be about Morgan Spurlock. Ever since his critical and commercial 2004 success, Super Size Me, it seems like it's been mostly about our man Morgan. His documentaries—sometimes painstakingly revealing—come bundled with a whole lotta wise-cracking Spurlock on screen, leading to criticisms that his ego overshadows his social commentary and reporting.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! which debuted at TIFF last week and is rumoured to be looking at a $3.5 million purchase from YouTube Red, doesn't push Spurlock too far from his comfort zone. This time the filmmaker uses his celebrity to stunt the industry and consumer by building his own fast food chicken restaurant, which costs a fortune, to make his point. Through his desire to build a successful chain, we see the deceptive marketing that comes in the form of buzzwords like "green" and "grilled," giving the illusion of health. We also learn how some of the terms apparently don't mean shit, such "free range" and "all natural," which allows subpar meat to be the norm despite the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) regulations. To his credit, Spurlock does a decent job in exposing the practices of big-time producers like Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, and Tyson. But it's not so much the negative revelations about how chicken is produced that grabs you—the last time I checked, McDonald's is still doing fine—rather, it's the farmers affected from the thoroughly explained "tournament system" that comes off as far more interesting.
The "tournament system" pits chicken farmers against each other, with the industry deciding which farmers get paid more and which get paid less based on a number of performance rules. But many chicken farmers say the rules are vague, unfair and leave them indebted to the industry.
I had a chance to speak with Morgan Spurlock along with chicken farmers, John Buttram and Charles Morris about the film and their experiences with the chicken industry.
VICE: So you were taking on a mountain by going after McDonald's, and now you're taking on the sky with the chicken industry. Beyond what was said in the film, what compelled a sequel?
Morgan Spurlock: We talked about making a sequel to Super Size Me for a while, which would be a re-examination. The kinda really came after that email we got from a PR firm looking for me to be the face of Carl's Jr. and Harvey's. I was like, wow, that's where we've come? We're at a place now where I'm the guy that they want to be the face of their industry? So we said, let's dive into that from here, and because our first film looks at things from the consumer perspective, I thought it made sense to look at things from the industry side. So by opening my own restaurant, we'd be able to show you the manufacturing, everything that goes into the creation of the product, along with the marketing delivery of that product and the opening of the space itself.
What came after was natural. It's not like we went out looking for chicken farmers who were fed up with the industry. They came as a result of farmers that didn't want to talk to us. It would destroy them and their livelihoods, and they couldn't put themselves in that situation. John Buttram and Charles Morris had already spoke out against the industry as chicken farmers. They were very excited to come on board.
So what made you really push to join with Morgan on this project, John?
John Buttram: Well, we've been trying to find a venue that could allow the public to learn about what's been going on with us. The inhumane treatment of the animals, with the nasty stuff that's been fed to the chickens. These chickens are not healthy, and the growers are being treated terribly. The government is no friend of the farmers anymore. The conservative side basically hates us farmers. We got help from the left side. I was raised conservative, and I always thought they could do no wrong. Got to Washington DC and came to find out different [about Republicans.]
Listen, I care about people. I care about chicken growers. I don't want people to eat this nasty food, and I don't want the chicken grower to be mistreated.
How does the industry mistreat you guys?
John: Man they talk to you like you're dogs. Fellow chicken growers call me, two of them just two weeks ago, threatening to commit suicide. They're losing their farms due to unfair rules and they got young kids. I have to shift from chicken grower to a counsellor. I have to drive to the houses of these guys, meet with them, and counsel them, not about chickens, but about their mental state and talk these guys into not doing something they'll regret. It shouldn't be like this, where a simple farmer like me has to go talk these guys out of killing themselves or someone else out of frustration.
I had old people call me—75 years old—telling me, 'Hey, the chicken company is speaking about terminating my contract. We don't have any money. We never really made very much from them and we have nothing to retire on, so we're gonna starve to death, what can you do John?" And I sat there and cried. There's nothing I can do. I can't go up against this powerhouse alone.
Well Charles, one of the tougher scenes in the film came from you admitting to burying your son only two days before you were asked to take on more chickens. Where do your issues come from?
Charles Morris: It comes down to the fairness issues on the farm side of it. I loved the way the documentary speaks from the consumer side, but with the farmers, we just want fairness. If me and you can compete for the job, that's fine. I just want it to be a levelled playing field in everything. When the feed is different, the chicks are different, you got so many variables in growing chickens and making money that the big guys control.
John: It's all corrupt. We haven't had anything like a raise since the 70s. What they do, they'll say they gave you a raise, and they'll turn around and take it away through the tournament system or with forced upgrades.
Charles: We know nothing and have to take their word at everything. We're supposed to be teams here. But do they give you any information? Zero.
John: Hell, I had to put scales on my farm, and they said, if you put your own scales for measuring the feed, we'll terminate your contract. Well if they ain't got nothing to hide, what's wrong with it?
Morgan, as a documentary filmmaker, you're constantly being exposed to crazy truths. How did this venture compare?
Morgan: It was pretty eye opening for me. I mean you hear how terrible the food industry is. You get these incidents and you read articles or you've seen other films talk about it but I've never been included into this size of the industry before and I think this discovery for me was huge because it puts a different face on it. It puts a real human face on the cost of our food system, kinda what's being sacrificed and what's being sacrificed are the American farmers, the American family farms. The people who have been the backbone of North America for centuries are [now] indentured servants.
So what's the solution. On one hand, through your experiment, you prove that doing it honestly drives people away. On another, healthy food doesn't appeal to the fast food consumer. And of course, fast food is bad for you. Are you saying, the fast food industry should just go away?
Morgan: I don't think that's ever going to be possible. You know that, and I know that. I think that the greatest thing you can ever do is arm consumers with information. Because here's the thing. We all want to believe that somebody has our best interests in mind. That's the faith we have in food companies. That if they're selling it to us, then they obviously are making sure that it's going to be OK, and they're telling me it's OK. What they're telling me is true. That's the kind of contract that you have with the people that you buy it from. And what you realize, and how it comes across in the film, is that none of these people have your best interests in mind. The government agencies that are overseeing these organizations don't have your best interests in mind because they're filled with people who came from the industry that are running the USDA, running the FDA, so the best thing you can do is to create an armed populace, an armed consumer base who have the information.
So you've done what they've done to prove a point. Did you come away with sympathies for the fast food industry from building this franchise? Afterall, we all want to make money and sustain a business.
Morgan: (Laughs) Hey listen, I'm a business owner, so I understand the source of capitalism, and I still have a business because of that. So I understand the need to make a profit, I get that, as a business owner, I totally get that, but I don't think you should be sacrificing the well being of your employees, the well being of your consumer, all in the name of profit and greed. And I do think that their is a way to do good and do well at the same time
So you got any future ideas? Because in the moment, you kinda ruined chicken for me ….
Morgan: I don't know, I'm gonna have to find out what I can ruin for you next.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.