Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is renowned for having his finger on the pulse of the documentary world. When Spurlock created Warpaint with commercial EP Shannon Lords, he sought to break new ground in branded filmmaking. Empowering a select cadre of notable directors, the company has worked for major national brands to create advertising and entertainment experiences across every platform.
What is your background?
I was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and I moved to the states when I was seven. I grew up in LA, in Reseda, like The Karate Kid. I grew up there and went to school there. It’s funny. I studied international politics at UCLA, and I quit when George Bush got elected. I left the country for a few years, and traveled around the world for a while. I had a real curiosity for culture and languages, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. I realized public policy was probably not the way I was going to be able to affect the world. So, I came back and went to film school in San Francisco. I made my first short there, and I did it kind of against the rules. The department really took issue with that, so they didn’t let me graduate.
Which rules did you break?
We weren’t allowed to use mixed media or mixed formats. I also didn’t have a permit for filming sex in a famous cathedral and filming a scene inside a movie theatre.
What was your first shoot about?
I would have never mentioned this, but I’m actually really proud of my first film, Kalieko. I couldn’t get myself to write a script, but then I found this insane young German couple living like gypsies, running around San Francisco getting into everything they could. They inspired me, and the city inspired me, so I went out and just shot a film over a weekend. It really reaffirmed my style of improvising in the moment with real people in natural light and real locations and creating a film out of what I had in front of me. The department told me they were literally kicking me out because of the way I work and that I would never be successful in a professional setting working like that, so I never got to finish it. The way I made my first film is the heart of what I do. It was the discovery of my process, and it hasn’t really changed much. The way I capture tangible energy and the magic that we witness in life is through channeling and controlling chaos, through creating space for the accidental and the surprise and being open and ready when it comes. My very first shoot that was completed was right after that, which was a contest video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was the first video content on YouTube in 2007. I basically found out about it ten days before they were going to select the winner. They put up a song called Charlie and opened it up to all of the fans to make videos.
Were you happy with what you shot?
What we created was the most beautiful and most inspiring thing that I’ve ever made. What was beautiful about the experience was the intention. I made it clear to everyone who was working with me that we were making a gift for somebody, which is very different from some of the ego that goes into other filmmaking. I’ve definitely fallen into that trap where you’re out for yourself, or you want to make a statement for yourself. When you create a gift for an audience and when everyone is on board with that, miracles happen.
Was there an aha moment that made you realize you wanted to be a director?
It could’ve happened after watching The A-team or Transformers and then building Legos to recreate my own version. Maybe it was after watching Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal music video. I remember the feeling I got after I co-directed my first short in high school with my friend, Yonatan Dekel. I knew I wanted to feel that forever.
What was the next thing you shot?
My friend was shooting stills for Nike all across South America, and he took me as his camera assistant. We hit several countries like Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. During the photo shoots, I would pitch them ideas, and they gave me an internal short film to do in Mexico. By the time we got to Brazil, they had already seen what I had been doing on the trip, and my friend, Nick Onken, was shooting an athlete from Brazil for the 2008 Olympics. He gave me 5 minutes to shoot a little concept of what I would do on a cell phone camera. Then I pitched it to Nike Brazil, and they gave me the opportunity to shoot a spot for the Olympics.
That’s great! Did it go well?
We were shooting a triple jump athlete who was the favorite for gold that year. We had him for four hours, and when he showed up on set he told me he was only going jump once. We had camera issues, so he jumped twice. I was hoping for 10 to 12 jumps. At the time, it felt like a complete failure, but it turned out to be one of my favorite spots. It made me adapt.
Did you end up getting more Nike work?
Yeah. On that trip, I made four pieces of content, and the one that was the crown jewel was this thing called Jump. The higher ups at Nike dug it, so I did a bunch of Nike work. You would think that would’ve launched my career, but it didn’t. The production company that I worked for on the first Nike thing got me a job at Microsoft, which was a legit commercial through an agency called Razorfish. But even after that, I still didn’t get signed. I had like 20 pieces of Nike content, and three Microsoft spots, and a video with a million clicks on it, and nobody was really that interested. So, I had to work a little harder.
What did you learn from those early shoots?
I learned to trust my instincts. If I put the right pieces in front of me, everything will come together. I get really excited when obstacles appear now, because they guide me. Having everything you want never leads to anything good when you are creating. In the rare case where that does happen, I create my own limitations and rules to have something to push up against.
Can you talk about how you prep for a project?
I do loads of research and try to find a truth in the narrative – something honest to start from with an emotional background. I usually find a starting point, like a person in the casting or a location that gets me excited. Sometimes its light or an action, and I let things flow from there. I try not to plan or figure out too much. I trust and let things happen and take their course. People become unavailable, your favorite locations become impossible to shoot at, and that excites me, because I know that what is coming is exactly what I’m supposed to shoot.
Who were your inspirations when you were starting out?
Before film school, I didn’t have a deep reference database. I think around the time of Fight Club, right before I went into film school, I got into filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Gondry, and Aronofsky. Those are directors I loved early on. What really solidified my sensibility was when I saw Breathless. It was one of the first things I saw in film school. It really affirmed everything I love – the handheld camera work, the location as a character, the natural dialogue, the improvisation, and the editing. I saw that what I felt was my language had been created before me, and I started to see where it came from. I also love Return to Oz by Walter Murch. I saw it as a kid, and it gave me nightmares until my teens.
Do you have advice for up-and-coming directors?
I would say to them, forget about making a living. Forget about what camera you’re using. Forget about what anyone else is doing. Find a story that you’re passionate about, and shoot it now. Go out and experience, and go out and live. Go get lost, and shoot it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on my first short film. It’s a narrative about personal transformation as a teenager, when everything is possible, and if you take the wrong step in the wrong direction, you could end up in the wrong place. I’m also working on a film about the selfie for Flaunt Magazine’s selfie issue next month.
What’s your favorite film?
Who’s your favorite commercial director?
Martin de Thurah.
Director / Anonymous Content