"I'm a real believer in trying to shift and bend the genre," director Morgan Spurlock says of documentary filmmaking, which is why his latest movie, Rats, isn't a straight-up documentary—it's a horror documentary designed to scare the bejesus out of us.
Spurlock, who first made a name for himself by stuffing his face with meals from McDonald's for a month to see how a diet of fast food would impact his health in the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, loves scary movies, by the way. "I'm a lifelong horror fan. I had terrible parents who took me to see movies that you should never take children to see like The Exorcist and The Omen and Jaws and Scanners," the director says.
So he had a lot of fun making Rats as terrifying as possible.
While New York City's own internet sensation Pizza Rat garnered some good press for the generally feared and disliked rodents last year, Spurlock's film, airing on Discovery on October 22, paints a nasty picture of the creatures, warning of the dangers posed to humans by these disease-carriers who are reproducing like crazy despite our attempts to kill them. And the footage shown in Rats is unnerving—the most gag-inducing sequence provides a close-up look at the wriggly parasites extracted from rats during autopsies conducted by scientists who study them.
Viewers of the film also witness disturbing footage from a rat hunt in rural England that shows in gory detail how a bunch of little terriers transform into killing machines when they are on the scent of the rodents, rooting out rats and tearing them apart. We also see men in India hunting and killing rats with their bare hands.
Actually, it's quite chilling to see how much joy some people take in torturing the pests.
"There are so many things that you can't unsee," Spurlock enthuses. "That's what I love about the movie. There are so many things that stay with you after you watch it. You watch a horror film, and when you're done, you're done. You can let go of it because it's just a movie. This is a movie, but it's real. You will continue to think about these things for a very long time. I think that's what really makes this movie a success for me."
Spurlock and his crew produced Rats, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, in eight months—that's a fast turnaround for a feature-length documentary. "I love deadlines. Deadlines force you to make decisions," Spurlock says.
With no time to waste, the director sat down with producer and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick and cinematographer Luca del Puppo last January and created a game plan that included talk of what kind of stories would be interesting from both a narrative and visual perspective. The film is inspired by Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, but while the book is focused on rats in New York City, Spurlock chose to tell rat stories from around the globe, giving him even more material to work with. "Whether it's the story of how they control the rat population in India, or how they hunt them with dogs in England, we just wanted to make sure that each piece pushed the narrative forward," Spurlock says.
Each story also had to be shot in a cinematic way, and cinematographer Del Puppo, taking inspiration from a vision board full of references from classic horror films, approached each situation thinking of the best way to maximize the horror, which is exemplified in the scene that shows the rat hunt in England. "We strapped GoPros on the dogs when the dogs were hunting, which was amazing," Spurlock says. "Then we had a Phantom camera that we also used on the dog hunt day to really slow down the footage, so we're shooting at whatever that was—1,000 frames a second. It went super slow motion."
Del Puppo also strapped GoPros on drones to catch the dog hunt as well as other scenes. "I love The Shining, and I wanted to have some of those moody flyovers, or trailing shots behind vehicles—things that can tonally lead you into something, that are very representative of a Dystopian moment that we're about to go into," Spurlock says.
It wasn't easy witnessing first-hand everything shot for the film, but Spurlock had the toughest time when the shoot took him into the rat-filled sewers beneath Paris. "We tried to film in the sewers of New York City, and New York City wouldn't let us shoot down there. They said it was for safety reasons, but I'm sure it's probably other things as well," Spurlock says, continuing, "We ended up shooting in the sewers of Paris, which are dark and damp and filled with rats, and it's one of those things where once you're in there, it is a really uncomfortable place to be. You're walking through the sewers, and you're going through a foot and a half of water-slash-excrement, whatever it may be. It's coming up to the middle of your calf, and you can feel the rats running by you while you're passing through it."
As eerie as that footage was, it didn't make the final cut of Rats because Spurlock wanted to ensure that the film didn't go on too long. "I believe there's a real sweet spot where documentaries shine, which is 85 to 95 minutes," he says. "Rats is a fast ride. You never start to feel bored."
Editor Pierre Takal set out to pace Rats like a horror film. "The great thing about horror films, what really makes them work is not what you see, it's everything you don't see. Horror films succeed by building tension and getting you into the action in a very different way," Spurlock says, noting, for example, that there are scenes in Rats in which Takal rattles the audience not by showing us rats at first but by letting us hear them scurrying about.
Takal, who is a composer as well as an editor, also created the music for Rats. "He's our 'compeditor,' " Spurlock says. "With the score, the whole idea was, let's simulate the movies that we love. Let's go back to those John Carpenter horror films."
You will be able to download the Rats soundtrack on iTunes this weekend, and Mondo is releasing it on vinyl in the spring. "It's an accomplishment any time somebody comes to you and says, 'Can we put out the soundtrack for this documentary?' " Spurlock says. "I was like, 'Oh my God. Success! There's another win for the doc world.' "
While the rats—and their icky parasites—are the stars of Spurlock's carefully-crafted horror documentary, Ed Sheehan, a cigar-smoking, Brooklyn-based exterminator, is also a memorable character who deserves a shout-out, and perhaps even his own Discovery series. This man has seen it all when it comes to rats in New York City and has a grudging respect for foes he knows he will never defeat.
"When we were making the film, I said, 'I want Quint,' " Spurlock says, referencing the shark hunter from Jaws. " 'I want Quint on the Orca who is telling me about all the sailors that went into the water and how the sharks came and got them. Who is that guy? Where am I going to find my salty seaman who is going to tell me this story about being there on the boat that day?' We started looking around New York city for [an exterminator] who has been doing this for decades. As we started asking people, they were all like, 'Oh, you've got to call Ed Sheehan.' "
"We tracked him down in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he has been in pest control for 49 years. We went out, and we met with him, and I was like, 'He's perfect. This is exactly the guy.' He's such a good storyteller," Spurlock says. "We couldn’t have asked for a better Crypt-keeper than Ed Sheehan."