New York vs. L.A. Rat Race: Morgan Spurlock on Which City Has More Rodents
The director-producer of documentary 'Rats' — the scariest film this Halloween season — says that even the "swankiest" neighborhoods (including Beverly Hills) aren't immune from infestations.
New York boasts better pizza and higher-brow culture than Los Angeles. But when it comes to which city has the bigger rat population, L.A. can claim bragging rights.
"It's partly because of the sprawl, but they are everywhere — in holes in the ground, in houses, in Beverly Hills, in the swankiest parts of town," says Morgan Spurlock, who directed and produced the scariest film this Halloween season, Rats.
Spurlock should know. The Oscar-nominated shockumentarian behind Super Size Me trekked from the sewers of Paris to a temple in Rajasthan, India, where 35,000 vermin live, to find the film's most goosebumps-inducing footage.
The documentary, which screened as a Landmark Theatres Exclusive Midnight Event on Sept. 23 and 24 and will debut on Discovery Channel on Oct. 22, plays like a straight-up horror film, which was Spurlock's idea. The 45-year-old West Virginian was weaned on fright-fests, adding, "I had terrible parents as a child who took me to see things like The Exorcist and Jaws because it was the '70s and were like 'It's a movie. It's fine.' Scarred me forever as a result. But bless them for doing it. Horror movies were the movies that made me want to become a filmmaker."
When Submarine's Josh Braun approached Spurlock with Robert Sullivan's 2004 book of the same name as a possible subject for his next doc, Spurlock asked, "'What if we made a horror documentary?' And Josh said, 'Wow. Is that possible?'" Spurlock then began brainstorming with his cinematographer, Luca Del Puppo, putting together a look book of horror classics and devising how to play with shadows, what camera angles to use and how to frame every hair-raising shot.
Rats takes full advantage of the titular subject's bad rep to put viewers in full panic mode. The world's most detested mammal moves with lightning speed, is filthy, spreads disease (think bubonic plague) and will attack humans if cornered or scared. And one-upping Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, it can jump three to five feet.
Surprisingly, it can be delectable, too. Though Spurlock didn't partake in a Vietnamese rat feast in front of the cameras ("I couldn't because of what I just saw in New Orleans," he says, referring to a Tulane researcher pulling a parasitic worm from a rat's lung during a dissection), he has eaten the dish since. Before the film's premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Tim League had his chef prepare a gourmet rat dish for audiences. "It was delicious," Spurlock insists. "It kind of tasted like pulled pork."
As tasty as they may be, rodents are not welcome in Spurlock's offices in Lower Manhattan, where he oversees Warrior Poets' staff of 20 full-time employees. COO Jeremy Chilnick found a 6-inch rat in the toilet one day, a remarkable feat for the intrepid rodent, considering the company is on the seventh floor.
"The exterminator came, went into the little bathroom with some gloves on and said, 'Do you have a garbage bag?' and he went back and it was like 'Bam, boom, bee-bop-pow, whack, bop-bop, boom,'" says Spurlock, gesturing toward the bathroom.
The father of two — who lives with wife Sara Bernstein, an HBO Documentary executive, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn — wanted to film in L.A., but once he zeroed in on New Orleans and New York, he figured that the Angeleno rat might be redundant. Still, there are a few differences between New York vermin and their L.A. counterparts.
"Hollywood rats are much better dressed," he says. "And they drive much better cars."
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.