Four years after the release of his Oscar-nominated documentary, Super Size Me, in which he spent 30 days eating nothing but McDonald's food, Morgan Spurlock is about to release his second feature film. This one's about his search for the most wanted man on earth. The filmmaker forgoes fast-food binges for another type of physical danger: searching for Osama bin Laden. In an interview with TIME, Spurlock opens up about his quest.
TIME: Why do you care about Osama bin Laden?
Morgan Spurlock: You know, I think for me it’s just one of those questions in this post-9/11 world that a lot of people wonder. For me, it was 2005 when …we just got into a second term of the presidency. The war in Iraq had now been going on for two years. I think another tape came out somewhere around then, or a video, and suddenly on every news station people were saying, "Why hasn’t this guy been brought to justice?" "Why haven’t we found him?" "Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?" And I was like, that’s a great question. That’s something that I think everybody would like to get an answer to.
What do you think makes Osama tick?
I think there are so many things in the world that helped create Osama bin Laden. I think that’s what you start to see over the course of the movie [is ]what pushed people toward admiring or wanting to follow an Osama bin Laden: dictatorships in Middle Eastern countries oppress their people, extreme poverty and lack of access to health and education, people who feel like they’re being oppressed by their own countries. Michael F. Scheuer, who’s the former head of the Bin Laden unit of the CIA, said something very smart and eloquent, which was, what these people realize is rather than going after their own countries, they have to go to the champion and protector of these countries and that was the United States, so you start to see the pattern develop.
What was your wife’s (chef Alexandra Jamieson) initial reaction to this idea of seeking out arguably the most wanted man in the world?
She was not a fan. (Laughs.) Yeah. She completely hated it, and hated it for the whole time while we were still making it. She’s incredibly supportive of me as a filmmaker and the things that I want to do no matter how harebrained they may seem. We were already in pre-production on the movie when we found out she was pregnant. So that really shifted the focus of the movie for me because then it wasn’t just, Where is Osama bin Laden, What kind of world creates Osama bin Laden? But what kind of world am I bringing a kid into? It really did take on a different meaning for me. We started to talk through it together and I talked to her about why it was important to me, especially with our child on the way, she understood why it mattered. It was one of those things where she said, you know what? We need some concessions. I had to be home for the pregnancy. That was one of the deals I made with her. I had to be home when the baby was born. The other was, I wouldn’t go to Iraq. We hadn’t really planned on it. I feel like we see Iraq so much in the news every single day. To me the bigger story was where Osama bin Laden was hiding and where the first war started, which was Afghanistan.
What was the most dangerous thing you were exposed to?
The most dangerous and at least the most frightened I was over the course of the trip was probably when we were embedded with the troops in Afghanistan. These guys are targets. Al-Qaeda targets them. Taliban targets them. The week before we got to the base where were staying, there was a mortar attack on the base. There was a Taliban ambush on the governor’s convoy. There’s so many things that at any moment these guys could suddenly become target practice. That’s a scary place to be. You’re protected and you feel safe, but at the same time you know we’re driving down the road and about a half-kilometer in front of us at one time they discovered an IED, so we got diverted. We had to go back to the base while they went ahead and dismantled this bomb. Things like that really ground you and bring you back to reality.
What did your producers say you could not do?
I’m trying to think. There wasn’t that much. (Laughs.) We pretty much threw caution to the wind and just went forward. Most of the things that we wanted to try to do we were able to accomplish. Pakistan is part of the example. We couldn’t get visas into Pakistan. We ultimately had to bribe our way into the country. We were denied access, denied access, denied access. We had someone inside the government who was giving us information and this person said our application had been denied countless times. There’s no way they’re going to let you in. We asked, Why? What’s the issue? They said, Well there are two reasons. One is that they don’t want anything to happen to you. The last thing they need is another “Daniel Pearl” murder to happen in Pakistan. The other is they’re afraid of what you’re going to talk about. They’re afraid of what you’ll find. We ended up having to bribe an official at the Pakistani embassy in Afghanistan who was able to get us into the country and let us do what we needed to do.
What did you imagine that you’d encounter? What were your preconceptions as you went out to try to find out what their preconceptions were?
I thought I would be met with a tremendous amount more hostility than I was throughout the Middle East. I thought there would be a lot more people who across the board had anti-American sentiment. And it just wasn’t the case. There were people who were very upset about our country’s government and about the foreign policy of our country, which I would say to them, Well the people elect government. They would say, Yeah, but at the same time you don’t know what’s going to happen once people get into office. They were very astute at making a distinction between people and the government. What was even more incredible was that a lot of people who were very anti-American had never even met an American in the first place. So what was incredible was that I would talk to people and they would say, But these Americans, all they want is this… And I would say, But I’m an American. And they would say, Really? So to have a conversation with someone and at the end for them to say, "Anytime you want to come back call us, come see us, stay with us," it was pretty mind-blowing for me.
There was that one area featured in the film where the people were really hostile toward you? Did you ever figure out why?
We were in Me'a She'arim, which is an incredibly conservative, Hasidic neighborhood in Israel, an area where they’re very much against outsiders and don’t really trust the media. So we get there and our local fixer because we had a fixer in every country said that it would be a great place to go and speak to people. So we go there and we start to be yelled at [and told] to “Get out of here” and “You don’t belong here.” And then the crowd gathered very quickly. It was one of those things that nobody expected. It was overwhelming for everyone on the crew.
Did you genuinely believe that you could find Osama bin Laden?
I think that once we hit the road and started going from country to country, you start to get a bigger picture that it’s not just about this guy, that there are so many other things that are out there, that finding this one guy isn’t going to change every other thing that has led to this guy existing.
Most people would probably assume that you didn’t find OBL, so why do you think they will go see the movie?
I think that the movie is a fantastic look at the state of the world today. I think it’s a funny movie. I think it’s very entertaining. It’s not a history lesson. You don’t feel like you’re being fed spinach. I’m a fan of not making movies that taste like spinach. I think we’ll see when it opens, but I think that people are looking to have a little fun with a little bit of education to it. Not that I think this is bad education. I think this is a great primer. It’s a great way to open a door to a much larger conversation.
What do you think of the pop-culturization of heavy-duty issues such as the search for OBL, the ongoing saga of Gitmo or the war in Iraq?
Well I think that anything that exists within the world and has an impact on the public psyche suddenly becomes a part of entertainment or pop culture in some ways. It kind of starts to find its way into the vernacular or into the films and TV shows that are being made. I think it’s inevitable. It happened with Vietnam. It happened with World War II. It happened with Hitler. These things just work their way into the media because they are a huge influence on how people think, how they feel, what they believe. Some of the people turn their backs on it, some of them embrace it.
How was fasting during Ramadan for a non-Muslim? It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. (Laughs.) I didn’t make it the full month. I made it about 22 days. I made it almost the whole way. So what they said is that I just have to make up those 8 days. At some point, I have to fast for 8 days.
Was it a conscious decision not to include any OBL videos?
I feel like we see those all the time. That’s what we get to hear. We get to hear from him constantly. We don’t get to hear from everybody else.
In 10 years or so, when your son (born in 2006) is old enough to watch the film, what do you hope it will mean to him?
I hope that it opens his eyes and his mind up to other people and other cultures. I hope it piques his interest of wanting to go to places like that on his own, wanting to travel on his own. That’s what I hope for this film for anybody who sees it. We live in a country where 1 in 4 people has a passport. I think that it would be great if in some way people suddenly said "I want to go out and see what’s happening for myself. I want to make up my own mind and not just be sold the bill of goods that I see on TV or read in the papers every day."