Up to now Morgan Spurlock has specialized in small, often ironic documentary essays, but his latest is a much larger, less personal project—a glossy movie about the English/Irish boy band One Direction—which formed under the guidance of Simon Cowell in 2010 and became an international phenomenon largely as a result of fan action via social media. Part concert film and part biographical portrait, “One Direction: This Is Us” was also shot in 3D. Spurlock explained how he got involved in such a change of pace in a recent Dallas interview.
“A couple years ago—I guess about two and a half, three years ago–I got called by Paramount.” he recalled. “They wanted me to come in and meet with them about possibly doing their Justin Bieber property. And at that time I was doing ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,’ and there was no way I could think about doing another film, because that was taking so much of my time. Last January I got called by Paramount again, to come in and meet with them about possibly doing the Katy Perry movie. And at that point we were finishing both ‘Comicon’ and ‘Mansome’—‘Comicon’ was going out in theatres in April, and ‘Mansome’ was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in May. There was no way we could add a third movie to what we’re doing right now—it would be a disaster.
“Then last June, after those two movies were finished, I got a call from Sony, and they said, ‘Have you ever heard of this band One Direction?’ I said, ‘I was in the UK making a TV series two years ago when they were really exploding—the phenomenon was just beginning out of England. Of course I do, I know exactly who they are.’ And they said, ‘Would you like to come and meet with us about making a movie about them?’ And having missed those other two opportunities, I said, ‘Absolutely. I would love to come in and meet with you guys.’
“To me, there were a lot of different reasons to make a movie like this. One, to be able to capture this moment in time with them as they are literally just exploding on such a global scale—I thought [that] was an amazing story. To get to make my first real studio movie—I was very flattered. To get to do a movie in 3D, which was something I was so excited about. And to get to make a film of this scope and scale, to make a concert film and suddenly have techno-cranes at your disposal—something documentary filmmakers normally never get to have. And [when] somebody said to me, ‘Why make a movie like this?’ I said, ‘Well, let me put it even simpler for you. The day this movie opens, it’s going to be seen on more screens by more people than have seen all my [other] movies on opening day combined.’ Why would you not want to make a movie like that?”
But securing the job wasn’t a cakewalk. “I had to really lobby and pitch hard to get the film,” Spurlock said. “The first person I met with was Adam Milano, who basically runs Syco, Simon Cowell’s production company out of Los Angeles. After that meeting I met with management in New York. I told them my idea for the film, and they said, ‘You need to meet the guys.’ And I said ‘Okay, how many more weeks do they have left in the States?’ And they said, ‘They have one show left—it’s tomorrow night in Charlotte.’ So I was on a plane the next day flying to Charlotte to meet the band. I met them, came back, met with the studio, went away on vacation, came back for another meeting with the studio, had another meeting with the band, and then I got the job. It was like seven or eight meetings until I finally got hired.”
The first thing shot was footage of the band’s introduction to Tokyo on their 2012-13 world tour, and when Cowell saw the rushes he was enthusiastic. “You feel their innocence, their sense of adventure, their fun-loving spirit,” Spurlock said. “So using what happened in Tokyo as a model, we said, how can we make sure that same kind of spirit comes out throughout the shooting?” It wasn’t hard, he explained: “Luckily, that’s just who they are.”
Still, Spurlock admitted that Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were somewhat apprehensive at the start. “I think all the guys were a little reluctant in the beginning,” he said. “But at the last meeting we had right before starting shooting, I said, ‘Here’s what I expect—or here’s what I want—from you guys. For this movie to really be successful, we have to have access—for me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about having access to you, your lives, your families, moments when you don’t want to talk, things you don’t want to share. What we don’t want to do is to be editing ourselves while we’re shooting. Don’t say no. Let’s just go, and then if there are things we have problems with, or things you take umbrage with as we start editing, then we can deal with it. But while we’re out on the road shooting, let’s just go for it. Let’s get as much as we can.’
“And one of the most important things I said to them was, ‘What are your expectations? What do you want to accomplish with this film?’ And there were a few things. One, they said, ‘We really want the fans to understand how hard we work. There’s a lot that goes into this, and people think things have just been given to us.’ And I think that really comes out in the film, I think you really see how much work goes into being in a band like One Direction. They’re not just sitting on their laurels and being handed things. And the other thing is, they said, ‘We really want fans to see us for who we really are.’ And that’s the thing I think the movie accomplishes so well. I think you really do get a sense of each of their personalities, I think you really do get to see who they really are, and you really get to understand why One Direction is so popular and successful through a variety of means. But the biggest one is you see their families and where they come from. You see these humble beginnings, and these wonderful, amazing, supportive families that are there for them and were there for them from the beginning, that gave them the courage to go out and chase their dreams and still love and support them. You see that’s what makes them who they are.
“And then also you see how that family that they once had has transitioned into a new family. Now each one of these guys has four other people who are there to support them, to have their backs, to bring them back down to earth, to keep them real. I think that one of the reasons these guys haven’t had a Bieberesque episode is because they had each other—and that means a lot.
Spurlock added, “There’s nobody behind the curtain pulling the strings with this band. They make all the decisions about what happens to them. They vote on it. They’ll get together and have a meeting, and management will propose opportunities…and then the band votes. Do they add more tour dates, do they do matinees, who’s going to sponsor the tour? What kind of merchandising is going to come out on the tour? The five of them vote. Majority rules the day. It’s an incredible thing, and that’s how they function. And I think part of why they continue to be successful is because they’ve really taken ownership of who they are. And I think fans can appreciate that fact simply because it’s not like they’re becoming someone else when they come off stage. One of the things I think fans connect to and I really like about them is, who they are off stage is who they are on stage and who they are when they see their families. They’re themselves, and that works.”
From a purely practical perspective, the production was a major undertaking. “The majority of the 3D show we shot in London at the O2 Arena, with F55 and F65 Sony cameras,” Spurlock explained. “We shot five shows, and we were using eight cameras a night—actually sixteen cameras a night, because it’s a dual system for 3D. And then when the boys were on the road we were with the band, we were filming the audiences at every show. They’re not just the fans from the 02 show, but from all over the world.
“We shot 963 hours of footage that we then whittled down to an extremely tight ninety minutes. And that’s one of the things I love about the film—it goes, it’s fast, it really rolls. I’ve seen it more than anybody, but there’s never a time when I feel bored. It’s always picking me up and carrying me to the next thing. Nothing feels superfluous. Everything complements the story; everything has its place in telling the narrative of the band.”
Were there pros and cons transitioning from smaller pictures to such a large project? “For me, it was all pros,” Spurlock quickly replied. “There was not a con anywhere in this movie, from day one. The pros were the people you can get to work with you, the access to talent. On this movie, the director of photography, the guy who did the concert, Tom Krueger, did U2 3D, probably the best concert 3D film ever up until this movie—because in this movie the 3D is spectacular. Or to have somebody like Doug Merrifield, who was the very first hire on the film. He was an executive producer and production manager. He comes from the Jerry Bruckheimer world, so he did all the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies, these two-hundred, three-hundred million dollar movies. But what people don’t know about Doug is, he’s also carved out this niche of doing very specific concert docs—he did Hannah Montana, he did Justin Bieber, he did the Metallica film that’s about to come out, he did this one…. And then you get into post-production. Our sound mixer, Paul Massey, did ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Lone Ranger,’ ‘Spider-Man’—he flew in from L.A. to mix the movie. There’s John Warhurst, who’d just been nominated for the sound design on ‘Les Mis,’ and went from “Les Mis’ to this movie. And so there was this incredible dream team of talent. So for me it just being able to expand the reach and work with people who are infinitely more experienced and talented than I am when it comes to films like this and really brought so much to the table.”
Spurlock was asked, after the experience of spending so much time with One Direction, whether he had some explanation for their incredibly swift rise and their immense popularity. “They are five very handsome and instinctively charming people,” he opined. “There’s this natural ease about them that I think is very attractive. They’re eternally likable. There was rarely a time when I was filming with them that they were miserable or unhappy or angry. They’re nineteen to twenty-one years old, and they’re literally having the time of their life. And I think that fun-loving spirit is also very attractive to fans. They’re very optimistic, but realistic as well. They’re very self-aware of where they are in their career and the potential finiteness of that. But also they realize that a lot of it is in their hands—there could be longevity if they want it… I think that so long as can continue to address a growing audience, they’ll have the ability to do that.”
And, Spurlock added, “This Is Us” brings the band closer to the audience than ever before.: “I think with this film you really feel you have access to them on a very deep personal, emotional level—much more, I think, than both Katy Perry’s and Justin’s films. I think the 3D is infinitely better; I think the engagement you have as an audience member feels much more electric in this film. And I think that the two stories—the concert and the documentary—don’t feel like two movies. If you watch those other films, I feel like I’m watching two different things, and with this movie I don’t feel like that at all. I feel that they’re so well woven together that the songs complement the stories that we’re telling and vice versa. It does feel like one cohesive movie.
“The movie that we pitched turned out to be the movie we made,” Spurlock concluded. “It’s a simple idea. These are simple guys who come from a simple place—it’s a simple movie about dreams and family. [What we said] when we had our first conversation about what we wanted the film to accomplish, both for fans and for non-fans—I think this movie does. I think it does create a tremendous amount of intimacy. We take you to places that films usually never go, whether it’s their home towns or their families or the hotel rooms and the bus. I think there are really beautiful, intimate moments that deliver for a fan. And for non-fans I think it shows you a very different side of pop music. It shows you how much work goes into being in this band, I think it shows you how individually talented each of them are. Everybody I know who’s seen this film who didn’t know the band or didn’t really like the band walk out of the movie saying, ‘Not only did I like the film, but I really liked those guys.’ You walk out of this movie rooting for these guys. They come from good homes, they have good hearts. It’s nice to see people who have that level of success but are still completely grounded. [That’s] really admirable.”
Clearly if there was ever a time that he wasn’t a fan of One Direction, Morgan Spurlock is one now.