“What Would Jesus Buy?”
You’re standing in front of the Gap, contemplating the soft green and red striped cable knit sweater fitted perfectly on the attractive in a distant-longing-sort-of-way mannequin. Through the glass window at Banana Republic, you spy a sparkly silver cashmere hat and matching gloves wrapped in a gleaming plastic package complete with shiny bow. You ask yourself, “What would Jesus buy?”
The man who forever altered your ability to enjoy that #3 combo is back as producer with a vengeance. This time Morgan Spurlock has turned his attention to Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. The good reverend and his band of gospel singers travel across the country on a pilgrimage to the consumer’s paradise–the Mecca Mouse-Disneyland– making all the consumeristic stops along the way. We love this guy and you will too, or not. Either way, his stop and think filmmaking is hard to ignore. So will be your next shopping holiday.
AUSTIN DAZE: The last time you were in Austin was with “Super Size Me,” how does it feel coming back?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I love Austin; it’s one of my favorite cities. And not only that, I think the SXSW film festival is the greatest film festival in the country. I think it’s got a great vibe, I think the people here are just fantastic, I think the city just opens up its arms to the festival in a way that can’t be said for a lot of cities that have film festivals. There is a tremendous awareness of what’s happening when the festival is here. For me, it’s just a really special place. Since the last time we were here with “Super Size Me,” my life has changed so much. When “Super Size Me” played here it was a tremendous launching point in proving that a film that I took to Sundance could play all over the country and do very well. I think that was a launching pad for distributors to see that this movie was going to really take off. That’s partly why Austin has a special place in my heart.
AD: How did you get involved with “What Would Jesus Buy?”
MS: I got approached by Peter Hutchison, who is one of the producers of the movie, in the late summer of 2004 right when “Super Size Me” opened. It had taken off and was doing really well. He said he had been following this guy-he’d been shooting him-Reverend Billy, who I had known about. He’s a New York legend, a staple of the East Village where I had lived for the past ten years. You would see signs up for his shows and messages he would put up outside the Starbucks or around the neighborhood or when a Gap store was coming in. So I said I would love to talk about it. We watched the footage and I met Billy in person. For me, the big thing was meeting Billy and just finding out, is this just an act? Which it is-he has created this character to get this message out-but at the same time he believes that message. He’s not just an actor playing a part; he’s an actor living this character. And for me that meant everything. Once I talked to him and realized he was the real McCoy; that he walked the walk and talked the talk, I said I was in. It was a long process of development. We had some investors come in and then some dropped out and we made the choice in August of 2005 to turn this movie into a Christmas movie, to follow Billy on this mission to save America from apocalypse. He and the Church of Stop Shopping were going to go on this mission to save America. We rushed to put together this idea and Billy put together the tour of where he wanted to go. It’s taken over a year to edit that movie. It was over 1,000 hours of footage-it was massive; a tremendous undertaking. I applaud the director Rob Van Alkemade and the editor Gavin Coleman who were able to sift through there and find those little nuggets of gold. There is so much in this film we could have made three movies, probably, that would be equally strong as what we have.
AD: It seems like you’re banned from a lot of places these days. McDonalds, Disneyland…
MS: I’m slowly whittling down all the places I can’t go. In a few years I’ll only be able to sit in my house. I’ll be like Stanley Kubrick.
AD: You’ve had a pretty busy year. What are you working on now?
MS: We’ve been banging this out like crazy. I feel like this is the end of one journey and the beginning of another with Reverend Billy because now it’s the push of putting this in theaters. And now I can focus on my film. I’m working on a new movie which will be out later this year which I can’t talk too much about. Hence this very Kazinsky-esque appearance I have. We’ve been shooting this movie for about a year-this film that I’m working on. And we just got picked up for a third season of “30 Days” which is awesome. FX has been just a joy to work with. I hear such horror stories about people who work in television and how awful it’s been and how they hate the network executives and they can’t stand it because they have these noncreative people telling them what to do. At FX it’s completely the opposite. They are so passionate about what they create, they really give tremendously important feedback on projects, they really help nurture artists and nurture filmmakers and nurture storytellers. And to have a network really stand behind you, support you, and have your back, I think is so rare and gratifying. I’m thankful everyday that we are doing this show with them because they get it.
AD: The projects that you have taken on really raise awareness. Everyone knows these things but nobody visualizes it. It’s really powerful. Just to get at least the “Hmm” into people’s brains.
MS: Just to start a conversation about it; to get people talking about it; to get people thinking about it-that’s the first step. Is everybody going to stop shopping? No. But anything that can interrupt, anything that can interrupt this loud bombardment that we have all the time with advertisements, shopping, credit cards, anything that will make you come out of this zombie world is a good thing.
AD: When will the movie be out?
MS: We’re looking to maybe premiere at Toronto or Venice so then we’re looking at probably a September/October release.
AD: Did he really go to these people and to these places?
MS: For me that was the best part. People are like, Is this for real? Is this really happening?
AD: I really like that you touched on where things come from. We as a population don’t think about that.
MS: It’s one of those things in my own life since I’ve gotten involved with this project- it’s had a tremendous impact on me. For the past two years I haven’t bought anyone in my family Christmas presents and I haven’t asked them to get me anything either. I’ve said, “I don’t need anything, I love you guys and the most important thing is for me to get to see you and spend time with you.” So we’ve been planning family vacations. Let’s spend our money on something that we will all enjoy, and be together. That’s what I encourage everyone to do. That’s the most valuable thing you can do-spend time together to talk and communicate and connect. We don’t connect with people at all anymore. How many times do you just send an email to somebody without getting on the phone or send a text message? It’s the world we live in. We continue to get further and further away from real human contact. Especially for people that we love and care about, we can’t let that happen. So for me, that’s the one thing that I’ve really tried to do since meeting Billy.
Somewhere along the line we bought into this whole idea that if you don’t buy a lot of stuff or if you don’t buy a lot of things then you are cheap and you don’t love someone or that they are not as valuable. I think we need to remold that.
I encourage everybody that I talk to now, the next time you buy anything look at where it is made. For a week, look at where everything you buy is made and tell me how much of that stuff is actually made in America. And then up it one more and tell yourself that for a week you are only going to buy products that are made in America and see how hard that is. It’s almost impossible.
Something that we are really trying to do with this movie when it comes out at Christmas is start a movement of local consumerism. So that people start to buy things locally or for presents or things you need. If it is stuff like that don’t, go to the big store, go to the local store. People say all the time, “What, am I not supposed to shop at Wal-Mart? What if I need to go there?” I need to go there too and I understand that but there are a lot of people that go there out of convenience who can make a choice, and if you can make a choice why not choose a better way.
AD: It seems that there is so much in this footage that spawns other subjects: where stuff is made, local business, Disneyland, credit cards, everything.
MS: There is so much. We’ve really tried to plant the seeds over the course of the film and what you hope is that when people go home they will look on the Web site and see where the stuff comes from or they will start to look at labels or when they get the next credit card offer in the mail they will not go there.