by Luke Hickman
Note: Since we talk specifics about 'Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope' in the following interview, it might be wise to read my review of the film in the Bonus View section of the site first.
When the world's biggest geektastic comic book convention, Comic-Con, is held in San Diego, California each year, those of us who do not attend typically only hear about the stuff that goes on in Hall H – the celebrity-filled movie-centric frenzy. What we don't get to see is what goes on at the rest of "The Con" – which is exactly what the exceptional documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is showing us in 'Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope.'
Spurlock is a major comic book geek. His passion for the convention shines throughout the film even though he doesn't make a single appearance in front of the camera. While he's usually front and center for his docs, this time around he's letting everyone else convey their love for The Con, since these are his equals in geekdom. There is a great amount of interview footage with celebrity geeks in attendance, but the majority of the film follows six specific fans attending Comic-Con with unique purposes. Joining Spurlock for this interview is one of the six main "characters," Holly Conrad, an aspiring make-up and costume designer who went to The Con to show off her unique homemade and animatronic costumes of the main characters from 'Mass Effect 2.' Enjoy!
HDD – Luke Hickman: Hello, Morgan! Let me start off by telling you that I really enjoyed the film. I want to know how you chose the six main attendees that you followed and if there are any plans to follow them around Comic-Con again in the future.
Morgan Spurlock: We basically put out a big casting call - once we knew the movie was happening - using mailing lists from The Con and other cons. Ain't It Cool News – Harry Knowles, who was an executive producer on the film – sent out a blast about the casting call via his site. Then we just got bombarded with about two thousand people sending letters and videos, wanting to be in the film. And from there we whittled it down to stories of people who were going to achieve certain goals, or to make sure that certain things didn't happen – like with Chuck Rozanski wanting to make sure that his business was going to stay afloat in light of the faltering paper comic book business. We just wanted to make sure that we found the most interesting folks. I think the cast that we got was really amazing. We got fortunate with the people we got – with Holly, Skip and Eric, Anthony Calderon … With this year we will probably try and shoot with a couple people. It will kind of depend. What I'm hoping is that we can have a few big screenings of the film at Comic-Con. If that happens, we will definitely shoot that and the Q&As after. We will probably do some checking in [with the characters] over time. That's the thing – Holly's career has just taken off in the two years since we shot with her. To see what happens with her post-this film, I think, is going to be really really exciting.
HDD: Being someone who attends Comic-Con each year, how did you manage to fly under the radar and keep people from knowing what you were doing?
Morgan Spurlock: I think that people knew we were making a movie. Anyone who lives in that community or submitted videos knew there was a film being shot, but we didn't make a lot of noise about it. I don't make a lot of noise about most films I make just so that it doesn't cause a lot of distraction. I try to keep things under wrap as much as we can with the exception of, you know, telling who we need to tell to get it executed. It wasn't like we had one or two people – we had a crew of 150 people making this movie. It was the biggest crew I've ever had in my life. We had 15 full-time cameramen, another ten field producers with them that, at any point, could pick up a second camera. There were anywhere between 15 and 27 cameras rolling at once. We shot 650 hours over the six days – a day on each side of The Con. There was a lot going on, so it wasn't like we were invisible. Lucky, 150 in a field of 150,000 is still very small.
HDD: How did it feel to not be in your movie?
Morgan Spurlock: It felt fantastic! It was great! I highly recommend it! (laughs) I'll do it as often as I can. With this film, we went to a lot of investors trying to make this movie and there were a lot of people who said, "We will give you the money to make this film – but only if you're going to be in it." I was like, "Well, great – but we'll find the money somewhere else." We basically walked until we found an investment team that wanted to get behind the movie that we wanted to make, that wasn't going to force us into making something that we didn't believe in. With this film – I'm a fan. And I am very obsessive over certain things in this culture. But there are people who are much more emblematic of this kind of passion than I am. We wanted to make sure that those were the people who were front and center in the movie. It was the right choice.
HDD: How do you feel about the comic book aspect of The Con dying off a little bit?
Morgan Spurlock: The only aspect of The Con that's dying off is people buying physical paper comics – just like every book store in America is dying off. Barnes and Nobles are going away, as are Borders bookstores. People just don't buy print comics. I read more comics now than I ever have in my life. As an adult, I download and read more comics on my iPad than I ever did as a kid because it's even quicker to get them. I don't have to go to a comic shop, I can go right online and buy five comics without ever leaving my apartment. The accessibility and interest level in comics is greater than ever before and it's reaching an ever grander audience. What is dying is people buying paper anything. For me, I think that side of The Con is an argument that is a bit insular in its viewpoint.
HDD: In the film, you touch on how Hollywood, television and video games have been dominating The Con over the last few years. How do you feel about the balance shift in that direction.
Morgan Spurlock: You have to think. The DC booth is still one of the biggest boots that's there – as is the Marvel booth. The Dark Horse booth is a big booth. ... The smaller artists on comic alley are always going to have smaller booths and a smaller presence because they don't have the dollars to jump up and be as loud as someone else. The people always say – and this is something that I don't completely agree with – "Movies are completely dominating Comic-Con now." Hollywood dominates the press of Comic-Con now; they don't dominate Comic-Con itself. If you go to Comic-Con Hall H, which is where they do these large movie teasers – which holds 6,000 people – there's still 144,000 people at The Con that aren't in Hall H. The movie portion is still a smaller portion of the giant con, it just dominates the media because Angelina Jolie just showed up for a press conference and what are you going to write about? You're going to write about Angelina Jolie showing up for a press conference. That's news – much more than the small comic book purveyor who's launching his new title. For me, I think that comics are still part of this – and they're still recognized as part of it – but it becomes a financial battle at that point. You're never going to win a battle against Rockstar Games. They have the biggest video game title in the world, so what you do is think, 'How can I still offer unique and creative opportunities to these people?' That's the thing, they (meaning the heads of the convention) easily could have gotten rid of these people years ago. If Comic-Con didn't care about comics and just cared about making money, then they would have gotten rid of these smaller places and let in the big giant studios and just let them dominate The Con. I think that [Comic-Con] recognizes that the heart is still those folks and that's why they are still dedicated to making sure they have a presence.
HDD: Holly, can you tell me how working with Morgan Spurlock has changed your career? I noticed on your website that you have some big projects coming. Can you talk about some of those?
Holly Conrad: After the movie was filmed, we were still pretty much trying to make it. It was off-and-on, so I ended up moving to L.A. and getting out of San Bernardino – which was nice. [Me and my team] ended up going to Bioware and making a bunch of suits for [them], which was really cool. We did the live-action trailer for them ... and a few official Femshep costumes, so I got to walk around as Femshep, which was very cool. Pretty much, it's just been freelance things. I just did a project with (inaudible) and got to do production design and make monsters. I'm, more or less, just looking for more cool design positions like that in the future. I'm still doing what I love to do while still trying to make it.
HDD: During the close of 'A Fan's Hope,' it says that you're working on the 'Mass Effect' film. Can you talk about that?
Holly Conrad: Obviously, it takes a while for these things, so once it actually does get into motion, I'll be hoping that I get to learn more about [my job] because it's going to awesome once it actually does go forward.
HDD: Do you have a comment about the controversy of the 'Mass Effect 3' ending that's been all over the internet lately?
Holly: That's actually a big deal. It's been all over my feed recently. I've been meaning to make a video about it. I think, honestly, that people are jumping the gun on the ending. How I feel about it is that we haven't really seen how Bioware is going to conclude everything. Maybe they'll add a DLC, maybe they'll have another game. We just don't know. Being upset about an ending, I understand. I cared about the characters as well, but I think there's a lot more to it that people are jumping the gun for. We should just wait it out and have fun playing the game. (laughs)
HDD: Thanks! Morgan, did you use any product placement to fund 'Comic-Con?'
Morgan Spulock: Yeah. Didn't you see? The whole thing was brought to you by DC and Marvel! (laughs) Oh, and George Lucas and Lucasfilm, apparently! (laughs) I remember when we first started making this film - we were also in the process of finishing 'The Greatest Movie' - you would just walk into the building and think, 'This is a clearance nightmare. We're not going to worry about any of that. There's no way.' … Once we got permission from The Con to shoot there, all of that got piggy-backed in – which was great. Could you imagine having to try clearing a movie like this? I would take you ten years!
HDD: Was it easy getting all of the celebrity interviews for the film?
Morgan Spurlock: The minute we knew we were going to The Con, we got the book with all of the scheduled panels, trying to see who would be there. We just started chasing them immediately, calling their agents, calling their managers, calling their publicists. The response was overwhelming. Most people said yes. There were some people who said no – like maybe if it was somebody who was there to promote a studio film who, when they're there, have a very limited window of what they want to accomplish that usually has to do with a release that's coming out in the next two to three weeks or two to three months, so they're doing nothing but press that's going to drive to that window – but most of the folks that we got on there were people who had a real relationship with Comic-Con in the past and could speak legitimately and openly, as well as heart-warmingly, about their experiences there.
HDD: How was it going from weightier content to something fun and playful like 'The Greatest Movie' and this?
Morgan Spurlock: This is something that I'm passionate about. This film spoke to every little bit of fanboy inside of me, every bit of my geek obsessions, so to get to make a film like this – not only make a film like this but get to make it with Stan Lee, with Joss Whedon, with Harry Knowles – it was a dream come true. To have things fall into place the way they did, to have the cast that we did, to get the access that we did – it was a really special project in so many ways. I felt very fortunate to get to make this movie.
HDD: How did you get this great list of producers?
Morgan Spurlock: The whole idea of the film came from a conversation that I had with Stan Lee. It was Comic-Con 2009, I had just been hired to make 'The Simpsons' 20th anniversary special for Fox, so we were down there casting 'Simpsons' superfans. We were trying to find people who could come out and wax rhapsodic about their passion and love for all things Homer. That night – Friday night of that Con – I went to a party and met Stan Lee. I went to Stan just to tell him how much he changed my life as a kid, how I read his comic books in West Virginia growing up basically gave me the courage to tell my own stories, how they motivated me to want to be a creative person, and he was like, (in a Stan Lee voice) "Oh, Morgan, thanks! That's really nice of you. You know, we should make a movie together. We should make a documentary! We should make a documentary about Comic-Con!" And I was like, "That's a great idea Mr. Lee! That's amazing!" (laughs) I literally took it to heart. (laughs) I met his producing partner Gil Champion and literally five minutes later I said, "Stan and I are talking about producing a movie together." He goes, "Listen. If you want to do that, we're in." So I saw Peter Micelli, an agent for CAA also at the party, and he said, "How was it meeting Stan?" I go, "It was incredible. We want to make a movie about Comic-Con." He's like, "Great! You should meet my other client who's coming into town tomorrow." Cut to tomorrow and I'm having breakfast with Joss Whedon. I said, "Stan's in. Here's the movie we want to make …" and we fleshed out the idea a little more – we want to follow people into Comic-Con and tell a little more of their experiences. Joss is like, "I love it. I'm in." And I literally went from my breakfast with Joss to find my friend Mark Wytullarde who is on the board of directors for Comic-Con. I called him up and said, "Where are you? I want to come find you." So I found him, told him that we want to make this film, that Stan Lee's on-board, Joss Whedon's on-board, here's what we want to make the movie about, and he goes, "Listen. I've worked for Comic-Con now for the past two decades and literally every year someone has come forward wanting to make a movie and we've said no – but this time it just might work." Lo and behold, a year later we are there making the movie. It was remarkable.
HDD: That's an awesome story. Thank you!
Morgan Spurlock: You're welcome. And thank you!
HDD: For all of our readers abroad, is there currently a plan to release the film outside the United States?
Morgan Spurlock: Absolutely! We're going to be announcing an international plan for this very soon. Right now it's just a domestic release, but the film is going to go international very very soon.
HDD: What's up next for you?
Morgan Spurlock: My next film, which we're finishing now, will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21. It is a movie that we did with Will Arnett and Jason Bateman that looks at the magical world of manscaping, called 'Mansome.'
HDD: (laughs) I can't wait!
Morgan Spurlock: (laughs) It's special. It will be a very special film.
HDD: Who came up with that idea?
Morgan Spurlock: I think that idea was cooked up between Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Ben Silverman, then they roped me and I said, "That is a great idea. I'm in."
'Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope' is now playing in select cities, but will be expanding over the next several weeks.