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Thirty Minutes with Morgan Spurlock

By Staff | May 20, 2008

The connection was bad but even from 4,370 miles away I could hear the concern in Morgan Spurlock’s voice. I could hear him talk about what he had done with pride, and while that’s not rare with a filmmaker, I was captivated by it.

You see, Morgan Spurlock, in his FX series “30 Days,” spent 30 days as a coal miner in Bolt, W.Va. It wasn’t as glamorous and condescending as you initially think — a New York City director roughing it out in an Appalachian coal mine just to get his shots and feign hard labor.

He worked — hard.

In fact, through the hour long season premiere of the series’ third season (set to air 10 p.m., June 3 on FX) you see him shoveling, lifting and standing alongside these miners — they’re “heroes” as Spurlock likes to call them.

“I’ve been wanting to do a coal mining episode since the first season, and now with season three it was the first one out of the gate that I wanted to do,” said Spurlock. “So for me, it was awesome to get to come home and it meant the world to me.”

Through the phone in Cannes, France, at the 61th Annual Cannes Film Festival, Spurlock became instantly sentimental about his home state of West Virginia. Born in Parkersburg but raised in Beckley, Spurlock is quick to label it home.

“Most of my family is still there. With the exception of one brother, everyone still lives there. For me to get to come home, it’s a really special experience,” said Spurlock.

Spurlock’s fame, as you probably know, came from the 2004 surpise, “Super Size Me,” where Spurlock documented himself eating 30 days of fast food from McDonald’s. In the same vein, Spurlock created “30 Days,” a documentary style television program designed to put someone in the life of someone else for that amount of time, documenting the experience.

So on Spurlock went, through the hills of Appalachia and landing swiftly in the town of Bolt, where he became a coal miner.

“For me, the biggest thing I took from it were these guys,” said Spurlock. “These guys are heroes for what they do and they are people we don’t think about. I mean, whenever we turn on a light bulb, it’s because of them. Half of the electricity of the United States comes from those guys going down every day and doing backbreaking work that is incredibly dangerous and could be potentially fatal.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. West Virginia was thrust into the unwanted national spotlight when the mine exploded in Sago, W.Va., in January 2006 killing 12 men. And even for the 30 days in which Spurlock was a miner, there were scares.

“I’ll tell you what the scary part was, is that the same time we were pillaring the mine was exactly when the mining collapse were happening in Utah,” said Spurlock. “So what happens is that you’re going into the mine and you’re pillaring and you are coming home and watching the news about these guys who are trapped … it brings an incredible level of reality and gravity to the situation … all you need is one thing to go wrong and it would be an awful, awful thing for everyone.”

 What’s even more interesting is that despite episodes in Sago, Utah, or lesser happenings in an average mine, these men ride down into the earth to do it.

“These guys go down and do their job, it’s what you do and you go in knowing what could potentially happen, but at the same time you go in knowing what your job is and how to avoid something awful,” said Spurlock. “It’s one of those things when you’re underground, you don’t talk about it.”

I asked him what took place in conversations, in moments not talking about the outright dangers of the job.

“You talk about everything. You talk about WVU football, you talk about Marshall, you talk about your families, why you ended up working in the mine and what are you going to do on your day off,” said Spurlock. “Because the mine works six days a week, and that Sunday’s gold.”

Spurlock stayed with the Dale and Sandy Lust, the mine foreman and his wife for the duration of the 30 days. He slept in their house, ate their food and tried to truly understand the life of a coal man’s family.

Throughout the course of the show, you see the relationship Dale has with Sandy and it’s a sweet one. But you also hear the tepid but urgent concern in Sandy’s voice about Dale’s health risks in the mine — particularly black lung.

Sandy has every right to be concerned. In fact, in the past 10 years, 10,000 American miners have died from black lung disease (or coalworker’s pneumoconiosis).

So what do you talk about when you’re down there in the mine so as not to talk about the dangers of the mine?

I asked him to speak about his time with them, a time in which Spurlock has deep affection for. During Spurlock’s stay with the family, he was part of a transformative experience in their life. Dale had contracted black lung.

“Sandy loves Dale and Sandy cares about Dale and wants him to be around for a long time. Dale’s worked in a mine for 30 years now and this is a guy who loves what he does and doesn’t want to do anything else, so how do you stop him?”

Spurlock went on to talk about the scenario facing many coal miners. Dale was diagnosed at 53, and starting a new job in Bolt, W.Va., would be tough. Dale also loves his job as coal miner. He’s pulling down six figures and can provide for his family.

“He’s one of the most giving and open and honest and incredible people I’ve ever met,” said Spurlock.

Although Spurlock only has around 43 minutes to document this experience, he still attempts to cover the hot button topic of coal as an energy source. He meets with an environmental association as well as the president of the West Virginia Coal Association. His aim is not to take sides but to allow the sides to speak freely in this film. Spurlock shows you coal’s irrevocable damage done to the hills and mountains of West Virginia, as well as explains America’s dependence on the substance and the industry’s big role in the state’s economy.

Spurlock’s dad repaired torque wrenches for coal mining, and Spurlock uses this example to explain that there’s more people involved in the coal industry than the people going down into the mines — stating that one coal mining job spawns eight new jobs related to coal.

His 30 days are long and his face is blackened every night. Although such an experience can never be fully summed up, Morgan recalls the lasting message he received from the miners of Bolt.

“What I loved about working down there is that it really is a brotherhood,” said Morgan. “You get a sense down there that everybody has your back and everybody down there is looking out for you. Everybody down there is there to make sure that, when things could possibly go awry, that somebody is there to help. For me, that was the coolest thing about the whole experience.”

It’s interesting to see Spurlock get wrapped up in the story with you. His style is so much based on the companionship between you, the viewer, and Spurlock the journeyman that he becomes almost a catalyst for the feelings and emotions rippling through his documentary.

“The biggest thing I try to do is just be open to everything that’s happening. I’m not someone who goes in and says, ‘I’m going to prove this this and this over the course of the show.’ And I like to start with an idea and say, let’s start with ‘A’ and then we spin the top and see what happens. We start at one point and we start going down this path and we let things lead us.”

Contact Ben at bspanner@graffitiwv.com