Since his very first feature documentary, Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock has deliberately put himself into some very uncomfortable situations. He upped the stakes with his two series 30 Days and Inside Man, but he may have outdone himself by spending a year of his life shooting, editing and promoting a documentary film about everyone’s least favorite furry friends, simply entitled RATS.
After a recent screening (during which everyone watched with half-covered eyes in terror), Paste sat down with Spurlock and longtime writing partner Jeremy Chilnick to ask, “Dude, WTF?”
Paste Magazine: Everything y’all do is great, but this is very disquieting.
Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, it’s dark and weird and everything that we’d hoped it would be.
Paste: So where did the idea come from to then be like: “Let’s just spend a lot for time with rats for a while”?
Spurlock: Well, it started with Josh Braun [of Submarine Entertainment], who optioned the book Rats by Robert Sullivan. And for years, we’d talked about doing a horror film. I grew up loving horror films—Scanners was the movie that made me want to make movies. I still to this day love watching horror films. I love how uncomfortable they make me and I love being frightened and kind of on the edge of my seat. And so when Josh brought us this book, we said, “Well, what if we made a horror documentary? What if we made a doc but shot it like a horror film, scored it like a horror film, made it look like a horror film, feel like a horror film? Could we do that? Could we even figure that out?” And I think we did. Yeah, I’m really proud of it.
Paste: From the beginning of the section going into Vietnam until the food hits the table is the best horror movie I’ve seen all year.
Jeremy Chilnick: That is great!
Paste: And I love that when she starts preparing the food…
Spurlock: Yeah… [Michael chuckles.]
Paste: …that the film just goes silent. I love that ballsy choice.
Paste: Because there’s nothing you could have done to add to that moment.
Paste: And I love that you dragged it out too, and made us just watch every little part of that.
Spurlock: Every piece of the preparation.
Paste: And I think part of the horror and the suspense of that is that it gives you a long time to go ,“Well maybe this is not gonna be what I think it’s…”—even though you know it is.
Paste: You still have like three minutes of hoping that you know: “It’s all gonna be a joke or something, right?”
Spurlock: Yeah. That’s why one of my favorite parts of that is the plating of the rat. And she’s plating everything and like showing it off to us.
Paste: There’s a fly in one of the frames.
Spurlock: All the flies! I was gonna say I love that too! It’s one of my favorite things is that fly on the table.
Paste: So obviously, y’all knew what you were getting going into. That was obviously not a surprise for you.
Paste: But I love how you built it up as kind of a surprise. How long did it take you to find somebody that would let you do that?
Spurlock: In Vietnam we were shooting there in the middle of major political turmoil, and a lot of film crews were having trouble getting in. So we had one restaurant that completely fell through that was a bigger restaurant, so we had to basically call an audible on the ground once we were in the country to find another place. And the place we found I think is even better because I think it feels much more for locals. It feels so much smaller. I love that she squats and cooks on that little tiny burner that’s got coals on the bottom… As it came out, it was a much better thing to happen. The beauty of documentaries is, you know, that things go wrong in the field, you have to figure out how to continue to get the story you want and most of the time things work out for the better because of it.
Paste: And your Greek chorus guy, the cigar smoking sage.
Spurlock: Ed Sheeran.
Paste: Was he in the book, or how did you find him?
Spurlock: We found him through New York. We started reaching out in New York City to the rat community, which you know, is a small group of exterminators, and all the exterminators know everybody else. And I knew going in I wanted to find Quint. I wanted to find the guy on the boat telling me the shark stories. Like who was he? Who was that guy?
And so I said, “Here’s what I’m looking for: Somebody who’s been doing this for decades, like he’s old and grisly.” And everybody’s like, “Oh, you gotta call Ed Sheeran. That’s the only guy you need, you gotta call Ed Sheeran.” And so I called up Ed Sheeran. Ed’s like [deep voice], ”What do you want?” I’m like, “We’re making a movie,” and he goes, “Well, what do you want from me?” So then we talk to him and he’s like, ”Alright I guess I can do it.”
Chilnick: He’s just done it all—and he’s so beyond it all in the same way. He can talk just about anything.
Spurlock: He’s a great storyteller. Such a good storyteller.
Paste: He’s a philosopher. He’s got depth to him. If you had written that character in a fiction film, I think people would be going—
Chilnick: He would be dead.
Paste: But also, people would be going, “Oh come on, like an exterminator is going to be that cool and amazing and articulate—“
Spurlock: And have a cigar.
Paste: Almost like a character in a Frank Miller comic book.
Spurlock: So once we were putting the film together and we had already shot some other scenes with him, like at his house and him going on some rat calls, I said, “Well, what if Ed becomes our hitchhiker, what if Ed becomes the cryptkeeper?” He becomes our guy who kind of helps lead us through the journey that we’re on, because he is the all-powerful Oz in this world. And I think it’s great; it came out even better than we’d hoped.
Paste: And the whole Indian section is just…
Spurlock: Amazing. The night rat killers are unbelievable.
Paste: But all I kept thinking over and over and over again was, “Aren’t these numbers all out of whack?” Like how many tens of thousands of night rat killers would there have to be to make any kind of dent?
Spurlock: I mean, they go out every day and there’s, what now, 30, 40 night rat killers? It’s not a lot of guys.
Chilnick: I think it’s more of a way to get extra money but they take it super seriously. As you can see, they do very much enjoy their work.
Paste: As we go through the movie, to these places where trash is everywhere and rats are out in the open, I can’t imagine anything they do is going to have a ton of impact.
Spurlock: No, in a place like India it’s a disaster.
Post-Katrina, when we were shooting in New Orleans, down in the ninth ward, all of this garbage and everything was there: That’s part of the reason why rats were proliferating. There were still all these available food sources. But then once all that went away, people were like, “Well then the rats should go away”—but that’s not what happened. Once the garbage that was there went away, the rat population continued to grow, which made everybody look at things differently. [The rats] were completely dependent on us; [we’re] the whole reason why these populations grow. But when they start growing when there weren’t people, suddenly people in New Orleans were like “Oh my god. This is freaky”.
Paste: On the other end of the social spectrum, I love the hunt at the end of the movie, with the dogs—how it obviously has parallels to the fox hunt, to a very upper class kind off—
Spurlock: Oh yeah, they’re all dressed to the nines as they’re out hunting rats with their little dogs… It was phenomenal. It’s such a great thing to get to be a part of. We’re there the whole day shooting and I’m like, “This is one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Chilnick: Whatever you feel about animal cruelty, or worried about [when it comes to watching] rats having their necks broken—that’s what [the hunters] do normally. But when the dogs go after [the rats], there is carnage in there, [the kind] you see in horror movies that’s like: Those instincts that have been bred into them for like 500 years—
Spurlock:And it was fantastic last night during the Midnight Madness screening when the dogs caught their first rat and the whole place erupted into a cheer.
Chilnick: Unexpected too.
Paste: Why do we so instinctively recoil from rats?
Chilnick: Rats come at you. They see you and they don’t really give a shit. When you see one on the subway, those are the weakest rats. Those are the rats that can’t find food with the rest of the colony. They send them out and say, “Go find your own food.” There’s an evilness to that. They will do anything to survive and they’re excellent at surviving and they survive off of us, so they don’t give a shit if we’re building buildings, you know they don’t care about the poison we put down, they’re just gonna figure out another way.
Paste: The conniving nature.
Chilnick: Yeah. They’re really smart. We didn’t really go into it in the movie—but, in essence, they communicate through their urine and their feces.
Chilnick: They have this preternatural sensory ability, so if one rat, you know, pees on something, the next rat that goes by knows, “Oh, this rat just came from downtown New York, he was on the five train. Now he’s moving up to the six train, again on the R and then he was here and left for five minutes and now he’s gone.
Chilnick: It’s like ESP that they all have.
Spurlock: Like ESPee.
Chilnick: Well said.