Not long ago I stumbled across the trailer for Rats, the Morgan Spurlock documentary based on Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, a fascinating if fairly creepy book about everyone's least favorite rodent.
But that's nothing compared with the level of creepiness of Rats, which premieres on Discovery on October 22.
Don't believe me? Check this out.
(Admit it: the scene of the rat swimming up and out of the toilet will stay with you for a long time.)
Then a week or so later I stumbled across Morgan at Metallica's Webster Hall show.
And here we are.
Spurlock's career arc is familiar to any successful entrepreneur. He's worked hard to parlay the success of Super Size Me (where he ate nothing but McDonald's for thirty days) into Warrior Poets, a thriving production company that creates critically acclaimed documentaries, television series, feature films, and other content.
And he's a really nice guy who clearly loves what he does.
You've reached a point where you can pick and choose projects. So why Rats?
You're right. Fortunately I'm at a place where I can pretty much make anything I want, at least where documentaries are concerned.
Let's take a step back. What my partner Jeremy Chilnick and I try to do at Warrior Poets is continue to reshape the nonfiction narrative world. With documentaries, everything tends to be put in one category. In scripted there are comedies, action movies, dramas... but all documentaries tend to be placed in one big basket.
But that's not really the case: there are documentaries that are comedies, there are suspense documentaries... So with Rats, we saw an opportunity to make a "horror documentary." It plays as scary as a horror film, and after you watch it will leave you thinking about it as a horror film.
Bending and advancing the genre is cool, and we always look for projects that help us do that.
Walk me through how a project like this comes to life.
The story of Rats begins with an old friend, Josh Braun. He's a producer in his own right, a sales agent, he co-sold Super Size Me ... and he had an option on the book Rats.
He asked me what I thought about the book. Keep in mind I'm a lifelong horror fan. When I was little my parents took me to see movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, Scanners--basically movies that parents shouldn't take a small child to see.
I loved the book and thought, "What if we made a horror documentary? What if we shot it like a horror film, scored like a horror film....?"
So where do you start in terms of actual production?
The first thing we did is create a look book: strange images, creepy images... odd points of view, dark shadows, disturbing ways of seeing things through close-ups...
We create a look book before almost everything we do, and especially when we try to do things differently. The look book is really important because it informs the way we tell the story.
Then we focus on the specific stories we want to tell. Sullivan's book focuses mainly on New York City but we wanted to take a global look. We wanted to push forward the research, the science, what it means to society as rat infestations grow... it's an international story.
There were also some stories we decided not to tell. One is the giant rat population on Cook Island. It's like rat island; in fact that's what people call it. Rats are non-native and are driving some other animal species to extinction, so people tried things like dropping poison from helicopters... and stuff like that doesn't always work. Cook Island is a cool story, but we found a place in Reading, England that tells the story of how rats become immune over time.
So ultimately you pick and choose where you spend your time and money in order to tell your story the best way you can.
Filmmaking is both art and business, creative and "manufacturing"... and even though you shoot tons of footage, efficiency matters.
We produced this movie very quickly. We actually started editing a week after we started shooting. That's a huge advantage because since we were already cutting we could see what gaps needed to be filled even as we were shooting... and that meant the post-production process could be very fast. With Rats, we started in January and were done in August.
We've developed that way of doing business on purpose. We have the right infrastructure, we have the right people, and that lets us be really nimble.
But yeah, you do end up with so much footage. We shot 300-plus hours of film for this movie. At least it wasn't a thousand-plus hours, which happens on some films.
How do you sift through all that?
I don't. Certainly not all of it. We have great editors and assistant editors.
You have to trust the people you work with. If my editor says, "You you don't want to look at this," or if my editor says, "This just didn't work," I trust him. I don't waste time on it.
I trust our editors. I trust my producing partner. They're people I believe in. I trust their skill and talent.
So let's talk finances for a second. When Discovery gives you a green light, they give you a budget?
Yep. Discovery gives us a chunk of money. We use that to build our budget and decide what we can and can't afford. We then get creative to figure out how to go to all the places where we want to shoot.
Keep in mind the best plans don't always work out, though. We shot for three days in Paris and didn't use one frame of what we shot. We did use some of it in the trailer, but nothing made it into the actual film. That's painful. Every day you shoot you want to be delivering some amount of footage for the screen.
You directed Rats but you don't appear on camera.
When we started this business twelve years ago it was a "me" business. Now it's 70 to 80 percent everything else. We're still driven by our creative DNA, though.
If you want to scale a business, it can't all be "you." You have to figure that out if you really want to grow.
When you refer to "scale" ...
We work on multiple projects at the same time. We made five movies this year.
Eagle Huntress premiered at Sundance and opens soon. A young girl bucked 2,000 years of tradition to become an eagle hunter, and now she's a national champion. We sold that film to Sony Pictures Classics. Two films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival that we produced: Vlogumentary, a documentary about video diarists that we sold to YouTube Red, and Pistol Shrimps, about Aubrey Plaza's women's rec league basketball team that we sold to NBC Seeso.
We have another movie we started shooting once we moved into post-production on Rats. And we're trying to get a movie into Sundance about the Oregon standoff.
Plus we did a big digital project about the Star Wars universe for Lucasfilms and Disney, and we have a TV business where we'll do five or six television series.
That's only possible when you decide to take a "me" business and make it something much bigger than just yourself.
Is it true that this is a golden age for content?
HBO, FX, Showtime ... USA has Mr. Robot ... so many networks create really smart fiction shows. Seemingly all of them have at least one great fiction series. So the bar has risen across the board for scripted fare, but for a long time it stayed low for non-fiction.
Now, on the heels of documentaries like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, there is widespread recognition that people love narrative non-fiction just as much as fiction. That lets us create smart films that are emblematic of our DNA and can reach a different audience.
For non-fiction storytellers this is really an amazing time. We can make narrative non-fiction for less than it costs to make a scripted hour... and it can be just as engaging and entertaining.
The cool thing is that the market has come to us. We have a talented and robust production engine in place. Our goal was always to just tell great stories... but in the process of building a business we found ourselves in a perfect place to take advantage of the growing market for great content.
And while we've yet to jump into the scripted world, that will happen next year.
Every entrepreneur who creates something new hopes the market will come to them.
If I think back fifteen or sixteen years, I was sitting on a couch with all this energy I had inside, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for a job, wishing something would happen... after Super Size Me hit I had the chance to build a real business, and we have.
And yeah, it's great that the business we built helps fill a huge demand.
You're definitely an entrepreneur, so let's hear your elevator pitch for Rats.
It's a spectacular experience. If you love documentaries you'll love this film. If you love horror movies you'll love this film.
It's entertaining, it's creepy, it's fun, it's informative, it's compelling and engaging... and if you love horror, I promise it will make you feel just as skeeved out as any horror film.
So pull up a chair and turn the lights down. You're going to be in for a great ride.