Morgan Spurlock has directed a number of high-profile documentaries, including 2004’s Oscar-nominated Super Size Me and 2013’s One Direction: This is Us. But for his latest project, he let his subjects themselves do the camerawork.
Spurlock’s a producer on AOL’s Connected, a documentary series about a group of unrelated people living in New York who film themselves going about their day-to-day lives. Stars include Jonathan Bricklin, a writer and club owner who was dating Susan Sarandon at the time of filming, and Instagram celebrity Derek Gaines.
What resulted from the thousands of hours of footage are 20 half-hour episodes that will premiere over the course of five weeks on AOL’s website. (The first four went up March 31.) Although production on Connected is onging, Spurlock took some time to call up EW to talk about what kind of camera training the stars got, how Sarandon made her way into the show, and how everyone is, well, connected.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Connected?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: A good friend of mine, a great producer named Neta Zwebner—she and I have done three films together, and she’s Israeli, so she was talking about this show in Israel that was really popular. They’d sold it in like 20 territories around the world, and she was talking to the creators about bringing it to America. She got AOL interested, and she wanted me to come on and produce the show with her. And once I watched the first season of the Israeli [version], I was hooked. It’s so smart. It’s so pure. By having the characters shoot their own lives, it feels more honest and more authentic than I think anything you see on television today.
Giving the stars of the show the cameras makes the show like a half-hour long Real World confessional. Was that always a facet of the show?
Yeah, even in the Israeli version. We got an incredible cast of people who kind of took to it very easily. It takes a lot. You need people who are going to be attentive enough to pay attention, to shoot things well, so you can actually cut scenes around their conversations, around their lives. But more important than that, you need people who are going to be open and honest with you—and by you, I mean us, who are watching through the camera they’re holding in their hand—and aren’t going to hold anything back. And I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to do that. It takes somebody who’s very brave and willing to put themselves out there to be part of a show like this.
Was there training or orientation to be like, “Hey, here’s how we want you to shoot this?”
[Laughs] No. We showed them some of the other episodes so they could see how things were done in the past. And then you give them cameras. It’s a learning curve. Over the first couple weeks of them shooting, everybody feels like they have to perform and they have to act a certain way because they’re on camera. So that stuff you never use, because they’re kind of not being themselves. It’s like they have to play a character. But then after two weeks, something amazing happens: they become incredibly natural. They’ve become open. They’ll say things to this camera that they wouldn’t say to their family members, or they wouldn’t say to their spouses or their boyfriends or their girlfriends. It’s that level of honesty that I think really makes the show a success.
How did you choose who to spotlight? I went into the first episode completely blind, so I literally gasped when Susan Sarandon popped up.
The amazing thing about Susan is Susan was just an added bonus. I wanted to find somebody, who, when you and I are going to bed at night, these people who go out to go to work at like 9, 10 o’clock. So we were talking to people who own big dance clubs or who work in clubs, and Rachel, who works in my office, she says, what about your friend Jonathan? Jonathan Bricklin, who’s one of the co-owners of SPiN, the ping pong club in New York City.
I met Jonathan 10 years ago because we helped distribute a moive about his father, Malcolm Bricklin. His father is a fascinating character. Malcolm was the guy who brought Subaru to America. He brought Yugo to America. And the film that we distributed is the story of Malcolm trying to bring Chery, the first Chinese car company, to America. So Jonathan and I were friends, and I knew Jonathan had just written a book. I went to him, and I said, “Here’s what the show is, I’d love for you to be in it.” He goes, “I love this idea. Let me ask my girlfriend if it would be cool with her.” And his girlfriend just happened to be Susan Sarandon. Which is, you know, amazing.
HBO has had a pretty big month for documentaries, between The Jinx and Going Clear, and Netflix has become this kind of go-to spot for Oscar-nominated docs. What are your feelings on platforms and documentaries and how everything is kind of shifting right now?
I think what’s awesome is, there was this shift a few years ago where all of the scripted programming, all of the fiction shows, the quality just went up. And that’s because of people like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, FX. Because of those networks, they forced every other network to make better stuff. Along with that came the expectation of us, the audience. Now what didn’t change during that time was, there wasn’t better nonfiction programming. Most of the nonfiction programming continued to kind of cater to the lowest common denominator. It was like, how cheap can we make it? And those shows have kind of started to die off, because the expectations of the audience now are, we want something better, we want something smarter. And I think there’s a real opportunity to make great stuff—and for people who make smart, engaging nonfiction programming, nonfiction shows, documentaries, to really find a place. Because those are the shows now that networks are missing. And those are the shows now that I think are really going to start to jump out to audiences.
What do you hope people will get from watching this series?
I think what happens when you watch the show, and this is what I really think resonates with audiences, is—you watch the show, and you realize why the title is what it is. Even though these people may never sit down at a table with one another, á la those terrible shows—like the Housewives shows where people actually get together and talk to one another and bitch and complain about the world—you start to realize, we are all connected by the things that we deal with, by the problems we go through. The trials and tribulations of life, whether that be at work, at home, with our families, loved ones, you name it. And as you watch the show, you start to realize you’re dealing with some of the same problems. You’re facing some of the same issues. It becomes a common theme of struggles, and at the same time, of what real life is all about. And I think that’s what makes the show successful. As you watch, you see moments in your own life through the characters we’re following.
The first four episodes of Connected are now available online.