Karen Valby
May 21, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In his fast-food takedown ”Super Size Me,” director Morgan Spurlock asks some first graders to identify pictures of famous men. They stare blankly at images of Jesus Christ, but beam in recognition of one redheaded clown. ”God is dead. Long live Ronald McDonald,” laughs Spurlock, relaxed on a Saturday night in an East Village pub. ”What are we preaching here?” Over rounds of Guinness, the affable 33-year-old, who says he relaxes by racing through New York traffic on his bike, tells you why on earth he made a movie about a 30-day McDiet.

He studied film at NYU, honed his stand-up comedy chops in California, and cut his teeth on grunt jobs on the sets of Woody Allen’s ”Bullets Over Broadway” and Luc Besson’s ”The Professional.” But the real inspiration struck in West Virginia, where he was raised on delicacies like pepperoni rolls and green beans with bacon. It was on a trip home to Mom for Thanksgiving, deep in a food coma on the couch, that he saw on the evening news a story about two obese teenagers who unsuccessfully sued McDonald’s for their poor health. ”Who needs 42 ounces of soda?” he started to wonder. ”Who needs half a pound of fries?”

In the course of filming, he visited cafeterias where high schoolers lunch on Tater Tots and Coke and doctors’ offices where experts fretted over his deadly diet. He gained 25 pounds, dove into depression, and suffered heart pains so bad ”it was like somebody put cinder blocks on my chest.” But by the time his movie premiered at Sundance, Spurlock was back in fighting form. His documentary earned him comparisons to muckraker Michael Moore as well as the best director award. Still, it was a tough sell. ”There were a lot of companies who said, ‘Listen, we love this movie, and there’s nothing we can do about it,”’ he says. ”If you want to get your promotional toys on the side of a Happy Meal box so all the kids will come to the movie, you don’t want to lose that [relationship].” (Independent distributors Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films swooped in to the rescue.)

McDonald’s dismisses the film as a gimmicky stunt in self-promotion. ”This was a study in personal irresponsibility,” says spokeswoman Lisa Howard, who also insists that her company’s recent abandonment of supersize portions had nothing to do with the film. ”No nutritionist on the planet would recommend that anybody eat that much of any kind of food.” Baloney, says author Eric Schlosser, who took his own whack at the Golden Arches in Fast Food Nation: ”Most of McDonald’s’ business is based on what they call ‘heavy users,’ and they have advertising specially targeted at them. So what Morgan did is extreme, but it’s valid and entertaining and funny as hell.” ”Every time you eat, you vote with your fork,” says Spurlock, ”and you say, ‘Here’s what I want for my future.”’

And the future looks golden for the young director, who just three years ago was homeless, sleeping on his SoHo office hammock and showering at the gym (”If you want to get into shape, move into a place that has no bathroom”). Next up is an FX reality series called 30 Days, which sprang from his documentary: ”We’re going to deal with hot-button issues. Homeland security, poverty, sexuality.” Then he’ll tackle a black comedy.

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