Ever since his first directorial outing—with the revelatory Super Size Me—documentarian Morgan Spurlock has always been in favor of embracing experience, throwing himself into a subject, however discomfiting, to create an eye-opening experience for the viewer.
Suffice it to say that with Discovery Channel’s Rats—based on Robert Sullivan’s book of the same name—Spurlock once again immersed himself in the material. A documentary that plays as a horror film, the project places a spotlight—or rather, a flashlight—on the carnivorous creatures that hide in the shadows, along with those who study, catch and kill them.
Speaking with Deadline, Spurlock explains his drive to apply fictional narrative forms to documentary filmmaking, touching on the most disturbing moments in the making of the doc.
How did Robert Sullivan’s book come your way?
The book came to me through an old friend of mine, a producer and film sales agent named Josh Braun from Submarine Films.
I read it, I loved it, and I called him back because I was so excited. I was a lifelong lover of horror films—it was the movie Scanners that made me want to make movies.
I went to Josh and I said, “I love the book, I’ve got an idea. What if we tried to make a horror documentary? What if we shot it like a horror film, scored it like a horror film, made it feel like a horror film, but we treat it like a straight doc?”
Josh was like, “Oh my god, I love that. Do you think we could pull it off?” And I said, “Yeah, I actually think we can.” From there, we got Discovery on board—John Hoffman and the team over there—and they let us run with it.
This collision between narrative forms and documentary filmmaking is really interesting. Is this something you’ve thought about with every film you take on?
100 percent, because here’s been the problem: For so long, documentaries have been pigeonholed into one camp. You can have a thriller, you can have a drama, or you can have a comedy, or you just have a documentary, and I think that it doesn’t do service or justice to how good and how diverse the art form is.
I think documentaries can be comedies, and documentaries can be thrillers, and documentaries can be dramas, and they can be horror films. It’s exactly what we went for with Rats, to try and create a film that was as horrific and as stomach-churning as a horror film could be.
The decision to make Rats is the decision to throw yourself into a horror film. As a filmmaker, what is it that drives you to go to places others would never willingly go?
My mom said when I was a kid that I was the kid that would never stop asking questions. I would never shut up, so maybe that’s what it is. Now, I’ve applied that to my life in general.
For me, it’s what is going to be the best story, which began with Super Size Me—immersing myself in something to show you a world that I think you never would’ve gotten to see otherwise.
We tried to do that exact same thing with Rats by not just showing you things that are a bit expected—by seeing a ton of rats in New York City—but then going into the labs in New Orleans, where you’re seeing them be dissected, and all the parasites and dangerous things that are in them, or going into the sewers of Paris, or going into the streets of India, where they’re killing them with their bare hands, or the temples, where they worship them, and the rats are gods.
I love showing you things you’ve never seen, and I think Rats did an amazing job of doing that for a lot of people. We had the first screening of Rats at TIFF, which I was so excited about, because we got into the Midnight Madness section, so we got validation from day one that it was a horror film, it was a genre movie.
After we watched the premiere with the audience the first night, every other screening after that, all I would do is watch the audience, because there’s nothing more rewarding than watching the audience freak out while they’re watching that film. It was fantastic.
Was it difficult to find a crew to work on this film?
Yeah, you have to find the right crew that will do this. From my DP, Luca Del Puppo, who makes such beautiful pictures—the film is so cinematic—all the way down to our sound team, who we’ve done audio with for years.
These guys know I’m going to get them in a place that may make them uncomfortable, but I think they also know I’m not going to put them in a position that I would never put myself. They’re like, “Well, he’s never going to put himself in a position where he’s ultimately going to really be in danger, so we’re in. We’ll go along for the ride.”
How did you find your subjects for this documentary? Ed Sheehan is a particularly fascinating figure to watch.
That’s a great question. The Ed Sheehan character started off as, I wanted to find my Crypt Keeper—I wanted to find the guy who’s taking me into this horror film, but I don’t want him to just be the Crypt Keeper. I want him to be like Quint from Jaws; I want him to be the guy who tells you the story.
We started casting around, looking for that guy, the guy who’d been fighting rats for decades. And the more people we talked to, it was like, “Who is the guy? Who is the Rats rat-catcher?” Everybody we talked to in New York City, they were like, “Oh, there’s only one guy you gotta talk to. You gotta talk to Ed Sheehan. Ed Sheehan’s been doing this forever.”
At least a dozen people pointed us to Ed Sheehan, and when I went and met with him, I was like, “Oh my God this is our guy. This guy could not be any better.” He had the best stories, he’s such a great character, and he’s one of those people that you just wind him up and let him start telling you stories about rat catching, and it was incredible.
With docs, you have the ability to explore fascinating subcultures that most people don’t know exist. I, for one, had never heard of “rat academies” or “urban rodentology” before watching the film.
For me, it’s fun, and I think as a documentary storyteller, it has to be fun for you, otherwise you’re going to go crazy. You’re married to this for a year-plus—two years sometimes, or longer—so for me, I love it.
You become a little expert in whatever the field may be. To this day, people ask me about how many rats are in the city, or did you see all the rats outside? Now, I’m this person that they want to share all of their rat moments with. I find it to be really wonderful, because I think you come out with not only a greater understanding of whatever the topic may be, but I think a greater empathy for the people that do it, the characters that are in it, even if those characters are rodents.
You do develop a greater respect. Believe me, I’ve got infinitely more respect for rats after making this movie than I did when I started.
What was it like traveling the globe for the project?
It’s exciting. Any time you get to travel like we did for this film, and capture those moments and meet those people, it’s a rare thing to not only find things that are so compelling, but also, characters that are so rich.
Everything really aligned with this film in a way that we were just very fortunate.
Was there a particular moment in the making of Rats that was the most daunting or disturbing for you?
Being knee-deep in the sewers of Paris was a revolting experience. The only reason we filmed in the sewers in Paris is because New York City wouldn’t let us film in the sewers. I’m like, “What are they hiding in the sewers of New York City that they won’t let us in?”
I’ve trudged through anywhere between six to twelve inches of muck in a sewer, and rats running around—it’s one of those experiences I don’t ever need to have again, so I can tick that box off.
In Cambodia, we see people killing rats for consumption, rather than disease prevention. That must have been a startling revelation.
In Cambodia, they’re not even eating them—they’re shipping them across the border to Vietnam, because they can make more money on them. There’s this whole rat trade where they’re catching them in Cambodia and then running them across the border to Vietnam, where they’re a delicacy in a lot of restaurants.
Again, it’s one of those things—how can I show people something different, how do I show them something unique? I love that scene because the idea of importing rodents as a delicacy in a restaurant is something that I think a lot of western cultures would be freaked out by.
I thought that was a great way to show someone a bit of fascination of our world that we never get to see. The idea of someone who’s not only catching them, but preparing them in this kitchen, cooking them, and it smells and looks incredible. I grew up eating squirrel in West Virginia—I grew up eating rodents my whole life, and all rats are, are much less attractive squirrels.
Unfortunately, when they were there cooking them, they were like, “Does anybody want to eat this?” We shot that scene after having shot in New Orleans, so we already saw everything that was pulled out of the rats, and we were like, “No, no, we’re okay. We’re not going to eat any of that.”
Had we shot that before New Orleans, I would’ve been all over it, but having seen all of the parasites that they pulled out of the rats in New Orleans was enough for me.
During your travels, you also stopped in England and watched as terriers were released in packs, on the hunt for rats. What was that like to experience?
There’s a lot of hunt clubs—there’s even one in New York City, where guys will take their little rat terriers down to Battery Park or Central Park, and they’ll go hunting for rats at nighttime.
Once we found that story, I said, “If this is happening domestically, this has got to be going on somewhere else in the world.” When we tracked down the hunt clubs in England, it was just so apropros that these big farms have these gentlemen come with their dogs that they turn loose to catch the rats, either at the end or beginning of the hunt season.
Usually, they’re raising a lot of quail or some type of ground bird that they will hunt on their properties, and the rats come because of all the feed, as well as the baby birds, because rats are carnivores. Rats will eat other rats, rats will eat birds; it’s an incredible thing to see.
When we would bring the dogs to the farm and see their natural instincts to hunt these rats, it’s one of my favorite scenes of the movie, because you do get this raw, visceral satisfaction after watching the whole film, to see these dogs go after the rats. It is one of those moments. When the movie premiered in Toronto and the dogs were catching the first rats, people started cheering in the audience.