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Review and Interview: Morgan Spurlock of FX’s ’30 Days’

What would you do if you could live someone else's life for 30 days?  A better question might be how would you handle it if you had to?

FX Network will premiere season three of “30 Days” on June 3rd at 10 PM, the original series grabs those questions by the ankles and turns it upside down, shaking all the hidden secrets, problems and challenges out for our full view on June 3rd.

The FX series was created by Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian and filmmaker who received an Academy Award nomination for “Super Size Me,” which revealed his grueling thirty day endurance test showing the deleterious physical tolls of a consistent fast food diet on his mind and body.

Spurlock carries that original movie premise into this unique series that gets under the skin of whatever situation he injects himself into.

This season opens with a personal journey for Spurlock who ventures home to his Mountain mama state of West Virginia.  He takes us on an intimate adventure with the men of the coal mines. 

Morgan brings it home; the light switch you flick on, never giving a second thought as to what is fueling that energy, to the raw mining and all its toil and dangers for the men of his home state, many who wish they would have had options in a limited local economy that gives little opportunity save for the dirty descent into the ground that provides a decent income to raise their families. 

It is a limited, archaic carbon-based fuel, the means of extraction are terrible to the environment, disastrous to the men’s’ health, but what else is there for them in the immediate to put food on the table?

The footage is heartfelt, powerful and gives us insight into both Spurlock as a man, and the big-hearted people who take him in, educate him and protect him in a brotherhood of laborers who know at the end of the day, all they really have is each other to watch their backs.

Spurlock also enlists others to live the 30 day challenge.

The coal mining episode is followed by an equally sobering look at life in a wheelchair, with blessed former NFL star Ray Crockett taking the Spurlock challenge, having his wife April and his children help him undertake losing his legs for 30 days. 

In 1991, Ray was on the field with the Detroit Lions when his teammate and friend, Mike Utley, was hit on the field and paralyzed from the chest down - an event that has fueled Ray's involvement in this project.

Ray’s a deep soul, and bonds with one young woman he meets at the Baylor rehab center who in a tragic moment lost her mobility due to a common car accident.  It can happen to any of us. 

She tries to be brave on camera but her sadness, pain and fear is picked up immediately by Crockett, who then devotes himself to finishing the month without using his legs. 

Ray visibly absorbs the people’s frustrations and hurt. His athletic champion’s heart finds him taking the pain away through sports with a quadriplegic rugby team who won’t let pity or despair break them. 

Spurlock has produced six installments for the series, and you will meet many interesting people who tread in unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory.

In “Animal Rights”, (June 17) hunter George Snedeker will live with PETA activist Melissa Karpel; “Same Sex Parenting” (June 24) finds Kati, and adoption proponent who was adopted herself as a child live with two men who are raising their own four adopted sons.

“Gun Nation” (July 1) takes anti-gun activist Pia Lalli and puts her square into gun country, living and working at a local gun shop in Ohio.

The finale has Morgan Spurlock himself facing another 30 day challenge in “Life on an Indian Reservation” (July 8) on New Mexico’s Navajo Nation. During this he learns the language, finds employment and lives the economic hardships and medical challenges unique to the tribe.

Morgan Spurlock is known for taking on controversial subjects, and posing us the questions; could you live this life;  walk in these shoes; or rethink your own biases towards certain groups of people? 

The answers are not easy and there are no neat, perfectly happy endings here.  This series is much more complex and sophisticated than anything you have seen on network television.   This 30 Day journey Spurlock take us on is reality television at its highest art form.

Grade: A

Monsters and Critics joined a few journalists and spoke to Morgan yesterday by phone.

What story from this current season moves you personally the most?

M.  Spurlock:  I think that just being able to go home to my home state of West Virginia and kind of be immersed in this environment and around these people who affected so much of my own life growing up that you don’t even kind of take into consideration; I think that’s probably the most moving for me in being there. 

Can you explain a little bit more about what happened?

M. Spurlock: I just think for me it was just kind of eye opening and the people that you meet and these are people that none of us think about.  It’s a profession that none of us really know much about or know what goes on and we really take it for granted.  These are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day to basically go underground and mine a resource that essentially enables you and I to turn on a light bulb every day.  Fifty percent of our electricity comes from the work these guys do, and I don’t think anybody thinks about that. 

So I think for me that was probably just one of the many eye-opening things that you start to see.  And as you’re surrounded by these guys it really is a brotherhood of these people.  It’s a group of people that really look out for one another; they really care about one another.  And I just felt really honored just to get to be a part of that. 

“Working in a Coal Mine” and “30 Days in a Wheelchair” last night just wrecked me emotionally.  I was just in tears during, especially with the young father, the coal miner, the one whose name is Jamie. 

M. Spurlock:  James Cooper, yes. 

Yes, you could see in his face that he was stuck and he was doing right by his family, but he was torn up about it.  Also, when you enlisted Ray Crockett for the “30 Days in a Wheelchair,” it was a very powerful segment.  And I notice that you’re only in two, you do the 30-day challenges in only two of the six. 

M. Spurlock: Yes.  Seasons one and two I only did one episode and then this season, season three, I decided to do two.  It’s just I want to try and keep my marriage somewhat intact.  

When we originally pitched the idea to FX four years ago, when we got the idea for 30 Days, the original concept behind the whole show is I would go off and do every single episode, which essentially means I would be gone and in some sort of a different environment, a different experience every month for six months straight, essentially.  And my wife said, “You’re not going to have a wife very long if you do that.” 

But what I also was going to say is the thing that I think, while I love the episodes that I’m in I think the better test of the show and kind of what the show represents and what it means are the people, are the episodes that I’m not in, when you get people who get put into a new environment. 

Because I think the episodes that I’m in and the episodes that other people do are very different because it’s me going through an experience and getting put into an environment that a lot of us don’t think about or we kind of take for granted.

And with these other people they’re being put into a situation where they really have to defend their beliefs and they have to defend what they think and how they feel or how they were raised and kind of things that are really personal to them.  So I think that when you have somebody who really is kind of forced to see the world through someone else’s eyes, I think it really is eye opening. 

Of the four episodes that you were not in for this season, the “30 Days in a Wheelchair,” “Animal Rights,” “Gun Nation,” and “Same-Sex Parenting,” which one of those spoke the strongest to you emotionally that you really felt poignant and really a powerful moment?

M. Spurlock:  I think that there’s powerful moments in all of those shows.  I think the gun control – “Gun Nation” - episode is really fantastic.  And I think you see Pia really go through just a real emotional journey and she’s touched by so many things. 
And to see her, she’s someone who’s so against firearms and against guns and fire a gun for the first time and how emotional that is for her and how overcome she is, and I think there’s a lot of power in that episode. 
I grew up in West Virginia and I grew up hunting as a kid, I grew up around rifles and guns my whole life.  For me, I think it’s something that will speak to a lot of Americans. 

How do you personally feel about guns?

M. Spurlock: I don’t have a problem with guns.  Back in West Virginia I still own guns, back in my house there.  I don’t think guns are necessarily the problem.  I think that there are certain guns that, of course, I don’t know who needs a machine gun, personally. 

But I think rifles and things like that are fine.  I think that in the wrong hand is when a gun becomes a problem. 

How did you end up selecting Dale and Sandy to stay with in West Virginia?

M. Spurlock: The first thing was we wanted to find a mine that would let us shoot.  And it’s a difficult thing because a lot of mines didn’t want to give you access; they’re worried about safety concerns. 

They’re worried about what could happen.  God forbid there’s an actual mining collapse in the middle of shooting a show like this. 

You don’t want to be that company.  Or where the guy comes in there, like I would go in there and something would happen to me – I get pinched against a rib or a rock falls on me, anything.  There were a lot of people who were very worried about that.

So once we found a mine that was willing to let us come in and shoot, and part of the stipulation was I went through 80 hours of training even before I walked in the mine Day One. 

What you don’t even see before we start shooting was there were two weeks of me getting my safety training to become an apprentice miner.  To become an apprentice miner you have to go through 80 hours of training in the State of West Virginia, which I did before Day One. 

Once we agreed on how everything was going to work out we got access to this one mine.  Then we started meeting the miners who worked there.  Al LaGarde and our field team met all the different people who worked in this mine, interviewed them, talked to them, what’s their families like, went to their homes and met a lot of the families. 

Then we just all decided that Dale and Sandy were the right people for me to go stay with.  He’s been doing it for 30 years; he’s kind of the old guard.  He’s been around for a long time, knows everybody, knows everything about the industry, so we just thought he was perfect.

Morgan, do you want to mention what you’re doing in West Virginia on June 2nd?

M. Spurlock: June 2nd, the show premieres June 3rd on FX Network at 10:00 p.m. and so then on June 2nd I’m flying back to West Virginia where we’re going to have a friends and family screening for all the coal miners. 

We’re inviting them up to, in my hometown of Beckley there’s this arts center called Tamarack where we’re basically hosting a screening for them and we’re going to have a reception.  And it’s great. 

For me it was really important just to go home and do this for them; give back to them.  And we’re also, our photographer, Ray Mickshaw, who came out to the coal mine, took some amazing photographs and just has these beautiful black and white photos and color photos that he took.  So we’ve blown a bunch of these up, about ten of them into 11x14’s that we’re going to have at the screening and they’re also going to be on the FX Web site. 

We’re selling about 60 of these pictures to give money to a charity for the children of coal miners so that they can go to college.  It’s basically a scholarship fund for coal miners’ kids.

Did it take a lot of convincing to get Dale to get checked out for Black Lung with you?

M. Spurlock:  It was tough.  He didn’t really want to do it.  But when I said, “I’m going to go do it.  Why don’t you come along?”  He’s like, “Sure, I’ll go.”  And I think that he had gotten so many negative results for so long that he didn’t even anticipate kind of what was going to come out of that test. 

But I think it’s one of those things; it wasn’t like it was a big shock.  Of course after being in the mine for 30 years this is what happens.  You’re breathing coal dust every day for 30 years, this is where you go and this is what, that 99% chance that you’re going to get black lung. 

I think that, still, it’s a hard thing.  For me the harder part was when we had to go home and talk to Sandy about it.  I love those guys.  Dale and Sandy are just two incredibly beautiful people and she loves him.  But how do you tell the guy that you love that he can’t do what he loves to do? 

How do you tell this guy that he can’t go work in a coal mine because that’s his life?  That’s what he really lives to do. 

Is Dale still mining today?

M. Spurlock He’s still mining.  He’s working at a different mine now, but he’s still superintending; he’s still working as a foreman of another mine.  What I love about Dale is the guys really look up to him, guys respect him because Dale will be the first person to get in there and work just as hard as anybody else.  And he’s been around the block, he’s been doing this for a long time.

Did the miners have anything to say sort of about needs to improve mine safety?

M. Spurlock I think everybody recognizes things could always be better, things can always be safer.  There are always advancements that are happening with mining technology and the ability to detect gases or methane within the mine. Those things are moving forward every day. 

I think that when we were shooting our episode, when we were in the mine we were actually pillaring the mine at the exact same time, and that’s when you basically pull out the big chunks of the mine and it basically collapses behind you. 

When we were pillaring is when the exact same mining collapse happened in Utah, and it’s one of those things that while – because every day you’d be in this mine doing the exact same thing that basically you trap these other miners. 
And it just wasn’t discussed; it wasn’t talked about. 

It was one of those things where the men go into the mine and you could feel it.  It was palpable the very first day that we were in to work when these miners were trapped.  Usually the miners are chatty; they’re talking, you’re in the bunkhouse getting ready to go in and then when you go in, it was silence.  There was no talking on the man trip on the way in.  It was very telling, I think, in a lot of ways.

When you were doing the mining episode, how did you handle the physical challenges and not give up?

M. Spurlock:  I’ve been really lucky.  The producer that produced my episode, the coal-mining episode, is Al LaGarde, the same guy who produced my prison episode.  He’s the same guy who produced my minimum wage episode. 

So Al and I have a really great relationship, we’re great friends and we have a great working relationship.  He’s one of those people who in the time when we’re not filming you can just speak to, that’s kind of someone outside of the world that you’re living in and you can actually just have a conversation with. 

But for me, I’m not somebody who’s going to drop out; I’m going to see it through.  I think it’s a different, it’s different for me because I can just talk about things that are maybe frustrating or things that I have questions about or things that are happening around me in real time. 

But I think it’s more important for other people who are in a different situation who have agreed to do this but suddenly there are emotions that are coming out of them, there are things that they haven’t thought about, they’re becoming conflicted, and I think it’s important for them to have some support out there.

How do you pick those issues every season? 

M. Spurlock:  We read the newspapers.  Most of those are pulled right out of the headlines, from a news story, a magazine article, you name it.  We put together like a hot list of ten to fifteen ideas that maybe we want to do for the season and we talk to the folks at FX. 

They’re so supportive of this show and have been from the beginning and they’re just such a great network to work with.  They go through our ideas and come back with their thoughts and maybe they have a couple that they throw in.  We whittle it down to what those six are going to be. 

How do you find the people to participate in the show?

M. Spurlock:  It’s difficult.  It’s a long, arduous process casting a show like this.  We’re very lucky to have had such great, the casting directors that worked on the show, Morgan Fahey, Jaye Fenderson, Joshua Herbst, the people who really helped us find these people. 

You can’t have like a cattle call audition like American Idol.  You can’t just put an ad out and have people show up like, “I want to be on TV.”  It’s not that kind of a show.  You really want people who are invested in what we’re talking about, people who have some sort of a real interest in whatever the topic is. 

We go through casting the show through chat groups or through organizations that are involved in it.  Like with the episode where George from North Carolina, George Snedeker, goes and lives with a family in Los Angeles, a family of PETA, animal rights activists. 

We contacted PETA and said was there a family in the Los Angeles area we could work with and so they kind of pushed us towards the family that we used.  And then we started finding somebody through hunting chat rooms or people who subscribe to hunting magazines, people who could kind of start to open us up to the inverse of that. 

And it is, it’s hard.  You start to go down a path with some people and you get tapes from them and you meet them in person and the person who you think you might want ends up, the person you want to use it ends up being somebody completely different.  You go in a completely different direction.  So I think we’ve just been very fortunate with the people we’ve gotten. 

It takes a lot of courage to be on a show like this.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage and belief and strength to be put in an environment where you’re stripped of all your safety nets. 

You’re stripped of your friends, your support groups and suddenly you’re put in an environment where every day you’re having to defend what you believe in.  And I think that over the course of the show at around week three is when two things happen, I think around Day 20, Day 21 is when one of two things happens:  you have a breakthrough or you have a breakdown.  And that’s what this show’s really about, I think. 

Is there a topic that you know you will never cover?

 

M. Spurlock Is there a topic that I know we’ll never cover?  I don’t know; we’ll see. Alex says, my wife already told me that I’m not allowed to do any episodes about pornography, so she’s drawn the line in the sand.

Which episode was the hardest to produce?

M. Spurlock:  I would say just from my personal point of view, being in a coal mine you’re in an environment that is very constricting already, constricted in terms of the light, in terms of the air, in terms of just the, the mine that we shot in, the average height in the mine was about 5’5”.  So I’m 6’2”, so like you’re in a mine where you’re hunched over constantly. 

Our producer, Al LaGarde, is also my height; he’s like 6’2”.  Luckily, our cameraman, Michael Dean, was right around 5’6”, 5’7”, so he didn’t have to hunch over so much.  It’s one of those things and you’re in there shooting every day with a crew and with equipment.  From a production standpoint I think that was probably the most difficult. 

What do you enjoy more, doing films or doing the TV format of 30 Days? 

M. Spurlock:  I love making movies.  I think that the incredible thing about a film is that a film has the ability to really transcend culture. 

"Super Size Me" played in like 75 countries around the world.  My new film that came out, "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" has been sold in about 60 countries around the world. 

And "30 Days" has done really well.  I think "30 Days" plays in about 15 different territories now internationally, with a lot of these countries starting to produce their own 30 Days episodes, because originally that was my intent was for these own countries to focus on problems within their own societies.  And so that’s starting to happen.

I find each to be rewarding for a lot of different reasons.  With "30 Days" we’re able to cover so many more topics.  It’s a very defined production schedule with "30 Days", there’s a beginning and a middle and an end when you make this TV show. 

Whereas, when you make a doc it can take a very, very long time.  "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" took us about two and a half years from start to finish, where with "30 Days" the start to finish of this whole show cycle is about eight months. 

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a friend of mine right before we made "Super Size Me."  I called a filmmaker friend of mine; I’d never made a movie, never made a feature and I said, “Could you just give me some advice?”  And he said, “If the movie you end up with at the end is the exact same movie you envisioned at the beginning, then you didn’t listen to anybody along the way.” 

That’s such good advice.  And we take that advice with "30 Days" and I take that advice every day with the films we make.

What did you learn on the Reservation?

M. Spurlock: I think the biggest thing for me that I learned was just trying to find a balance in my own life. 

The thing that I came away from the whole experience of living with the Dennison’s and being there and growing up in the mountains of West Virginia where I did have a much more, much more, I think, consistent contact with nature and being in the woods and just being outside of like the concrete jungle where I live in New York City, I just feel like I want to find a balance in my own life. 

I like to be outside.  This is a part of who I am and I think that it’s easy to get caught up in your own world and it’s easy to get caught up in your own life and it reinforced to me just the importance of my own family. 

I think that when you see these people who culturally, generationally live next door to one another and are in each other’s lives every single day, as Americans we don’t have that.  If somebody gets old we put them in an old folk’s home and that’s it; that’s the end. 

These are people who live with one another throughout their whole lives and I think that there’s a lot I took away from that that I really want to try and just put into my daily life as I go on.

What part of the daily routine while you were there was so much different from day-to-day life in your regular life?

M. Spurlock:  When I wake up in New York City I don’t walk outside and see a sunrise looking off into this vast horizon of empty space.  When you live in an apartment in New York it’s a much different, I don’t know, there’s a much different connection I think you have to just to the land, to the earth, to what that means in your life, understanding what it gives to you. 

I would get up every morning and go for a run on the reservation before sunrise, trying to beat the sun was the whole idea that the Navajo warriors used to have. 
And so while I don’t beat the sun every day now I still try and get up every morning and do that at least right around sunrise because it helps me focus.  It helps me gain focus for the day. 

One of the things that Karl Dennison really helped instill in me was this idea of intention.  What is your intention?  What do you intend to do about this, this whole thing? 

When I showed up there, when I first got to the res, what are your intentions with this show?  What do you hope it’s going to do?  Why are you here?  For me I just wanted to learn.  So every day coming into this, starting your day, understanding what your intentions are, having them be honorable, having them be honest.  I really believe if you go into a situation with good intentions good things will come out of it. 

I think that’s one of the greatest things I took away from that experience.

The "Same-Sex Parenting" episode - have you ever had an instance, either with that episode or just anywhere else, where the participants were like, “I can’t do this.  This is just too hard.”  How do you deal with that?

M. Spurlock:  There is this time of when there are breakthroughs and breakdowns.  And even when people are like, “I want to go home; I’m unhappy” you kind of talk people off the ledge and you say, “Stick it out.”  But they’re not contractually obligated to stay there for the 30 days.  People can stop; they can stop if they want to.

Like in season one there was, our participant was doing steroids and human growth hormones for a month, and around Day 20 he went to get his sperm checked, and basically when he started he had a sperm count like 80 million and on Day 20 he had zero. 

Basically he killed all the sperm in his body.  And his wife was like, “You have to stop right now.”  He was like, “You’re right; I’m done.  I’m walking away.”  So he was finished after three weeks.  And once he got off the HGH and the steroids all of his semen count came back and it was back to normal. 

But it was one of those things and listen, I don’t blame him.  If suddenly after three weeks I went from 80 million to zero I’d have probably been really seriously thinking about dropping out, too.  But for me, as I said, I think that’s the interesting thing; that’s the exciting thing.  And these people are really courageous for sticking it out and for putting themselves in this environment where, think about it, think about something that’s really important to you and you’re surrounded by people who believe the exact opposite for a month. 

That’s a difficult place to be mentally, emotionally, physically.  I think it’s very taxing.

Have you ever ventured into a subject on the show where you were truly surprised by the outcome, you think you know where things might go, but then it totally just surprises you?

M. Spurlock This season’s “Animal Rights” episode is phenomenal.  I think that that’s one of those shows you have no idea what’s going to happen.  Here’s George; he’s a person right out of my own heart.  He’s this hunter from North Carolina who goes and lives with this animal rights activist family in L.A.  What happens over the course of that show is amazing.  It’s one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen. 

What do you consider to be a successful 30 Days? 

M. Spurlock:  I think a successful "30 Days" is one where you don’t really know what’s going to happen. 

I think there are two.  There’s a successful "30 Days" as a participant where I go in and I’m surprised and my eyes are opened and I learn things and experience things that 99% of us will never get to.  And I think that’s really what I love as a participant that I get out of the show. 

For me as a person who watches the show, I love that every episode isn’t tied up into a nice little bow, that at the end of every episode people don’t always get along.  Everything isn’t always resolved.  Sometimes people find commonality; sometimes they agree to disagree. 

Sometimes their relationship is just as volatile at the end as when they started.  And for me that’s what makes the show real.  This is a show that really does deal with reality in so many ways and deals with a lot of the problems that we face as a culture on a daily basis.  And I think for me, that’s what I love about 30 Days. 

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