NEW YORK — Last time out, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only fast food for a month. This time, he's the one dishing out the fried stuff.
Spurlock has gone from being an avid Big Mac consumer in "Super Size Me" to serving his own chicken sandwiches in "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!" — a sober look at an industry that processes 9 billion animals a year in America.
"I think the intention is to kind of give you a different perspective of the fast-food world — the fast-food commodity world — from a much more corporate point of view," said Spurlock.
Viewers watch as the filmmaker goes to Alabama to learn about raising chicks and follow the process all the way until he opens his own chicken restaurant in central Ohio, the nation's test-market capital.
It's been 15 years since he ate only at McDonald's for a month to illustrate the dangers of a fast-food diet. Since then, he's seen an explosion in restaurants stressing freshness, artisanal methods, farm-to-table goodness and ethically sourced ingredients. But nutritionally not much has changed.
"There has been this massive shift and people say to me, 'So has the food gotten healthier?' And I say, 'Well, the marketing sure has,"' he said.
The film was to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 but it was shelved at the height of the .MeToo movement when Spurlock came forward to detail his own history of sexual misconduct.
He confessed that he had been accused of rape while in college and had settled a sexual harassment case with a female assistant. He also admitted to cheating on numerous partners. "I am part of the problem," he wrote.
Two years on, he said he's "in the process of continuing to heal and continuing to get better and make amends to the people that I need to."
"For me there was a moment of kind of realization — as somebody who is a truth teller and somebody who has made it a point of trying to do what's right — of recognizing that I could do better in my own life. We should be able to admit we were wrong."
Ironically, Spurlock's film about fast-food chicken reemerges during a food feud over fried-chicken sandwiches, with the nation obsessed with a Popeyes version. But viewers of "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!" may skip that menu item once they learn about the cruelty and dishonesty used to make it.
Spurlock focuses on two parts of the fast-food world: chicken farmers stuck in a peculiar financial system and the attempt by fast-food chains to deceive customers into thinking they're eating healthier.
Spurlock finds that advertising terms such as "all-natural," "cage-free" and "hormone-free" are virtually meaningless. He discovers that offering his chickens a few inches of walled-off space outside means they are now officially "free-range."
He finds that 99% of the chickens we eat are produced by five companies. Talking to farmers, he uncovers a reward system they consider rigged, one they complain makes them "indentured servants" to Big Chicken. Spurlock's own chicks are bred to grow so fast that they often suffer heart attacks or can't stand up.
Spurlock's restaurant becomes a bold counterpoint to the industry, offering actual photos of his pale, sad-looking chickens, debunking slick food advertising on signs and offering explanations on the walls of how farmers are mistreated.
His sandwiches are wrapped in paper that says: "Better for you — sounds great, means nothing." His poorly paid staff members wear T-shirts that read "Part-time all the time." He admits to painting grill marks on fried chicken to make it seem healthier and to painting the walls green to give the impression that the food is natural.
"I think the restaurant does a great job of doing that and kind of ripping the Band-Aid off the misleading terms and fractured landscape that we couch our food system in," he said.
The film has classic Spurlock touches, including zippy graphics and amusing music, blending a Michael Moore-ish camera-in-your-face style with his own sense of humour and pathos.
"I wanted to be able to lean into the serious moments. I wanted to be able to breathe in the moments of levity. We want to give you permission to laugh in the places where it's really hard to laugh," he said.
"At the end of the day I do want to give you spinach, but I want it to taste like cotton candy and the more cotton candy-flavoured spinach I can give you the more you're going to eat."
His pop-up restaurant in Ohio has long since closed but Spurlock brought it to New York to coincide with the film's release. He said a franchise company has offered to open his restaurants across the country, but no deal has been made yet.
More than just savvier customers are at stake: Many chicken farmers who feel abused by the current system are hoping Spurlock can make a viable business that can employ independent growers.
Jonathan Buttram, a farmer featured in the film, argues the whole chicken business needs to be dismantled, including the way farmers and slaughterhouse workers are treated. He and his family have been punished financially for revealing the industry's secrets to Spurlock.
"Right now, our best bet is for people to go and support 'Holy Chicken' because if it gets off and gets up and running we're looking at a nationwide chain," said his son, Zack Buttram.
Despite his skeptical view of the industry with two films, Spurlock thinks fast food can be both ethical and affordable, pointing to companies like Warby Parker and Toms as examples of firms that do well financially and also do good. He warns consumers may have to pay a little bit more to support independent farmers and chains that pay a living wage.
"We're at an amazing moment in history from a consumer standpoint where consumers are starting to have more and more power," he said. "It's not about return for the shareholders. It's about return for the consumers."