BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – It was a scene perhaps too obviously reminiscent of Beatlemania in the 1960s. The sidewalks outside the ritzy Four Seasons Hotel were lined with barricades and cadres of slightly bemused police officers holding back buzzing – occasionally screeching – hordes of fevered female fans, each hoping to catch a glimpse of, if not a quick snapshot or treasured autograph from, the objects of their devotion.
Inside, bouncing energetically from room to room to chat up the press, were a boppy quintet of UK mates, the cheeky young guys of the sensation-making, “X-Factor”-engineered pop band, there to promote their new documentary, “One Direction: This Is Us.”
The Focus Features press conference on this day was one hot ticket, and the ironclad chain of security checkpoints, the clipboard-wielding publicists scurrying to and fro and the adolescent emotional electricity swirling like an aura outside gave the usually routine PR procedure the ambiance of a “happening.”
When the five lads of One Direction (Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson) finally tumbled into the press room, the scene was – again, perhaps too conveniently – reminiscent of those old Beatles bouts with square reporters – the band mates cracking wise, talking over one another, and cheekily spoofing the whole media drill. Headaches for their handlers, hearty laughs from the press, cocky good fun for the boys.
The one steady, articulate adult presence in all this was director Morgan Spurlock, the veteran documentarian who earned his creds with the brassy, 2004 fast-food takedown, “Super Size Me.” After years of laboring in the low-budget, art-house fringes, he said in a separate press conference, the “One Direction” gig is a big step up in class for him.
“It’s not often you get the chance to make a ‘docbuster,’” Spurlock said. “When we made ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ (in 2011), we said the goal was to make that movie a documentary blockbuster, a film that would go outside the realm of a typical documentary.
“But this one is definitely a docbuster,” he said, “a film that’s the closest thing to a big-budget summer narrative film that you could make that is actually a true story. As a documentary filmmaker, opportunities like this are really few and far between. To get to have access to a story like this, with a fan base that’s already so passionate and dedicated, with a studio, with technology that you’d ordinarily never get to use, it was a dream come true.”
At age 42, Spurlock admits he’s well outside the fan demographic for One Direction, but he fully understands the passionate dynamic of their international fan base. He understands how pre-teen and teenage girls swoon and seemingly will do anything to get close to their idols.
“I mean, I just walked through the lobby and a girl was trying to sneak into the Four Seasons,” he said. “Everywhere you go there are people trying to sneak in and break in and get in and get a glimpse, get a touch, get a view, get anything. Get a photo. Everywhere we went, every city, the level of fandom and dedication was truly remarkable. I mean, it’s unheard of.
“And everyone says, ‘But, yeah, why is it these girls are so crazy focused?’ And I say, ‘Well, let’s put it in context. Let’s compare this to guys who love football teams. Let’s compare this to guys who love, not just American football, but soccer. Guys who will put on jerseys and get tattoos of their teams’ logos on their arms. Who will paint their faces and go to a football game on Saturday and scream for Tom Brady.’ But these girls are freaks?
“Let’s just put this in context for a second as to what passionate fandom means,” Spurlock said. “And so I think when you look at these young girls, and not just young girls, now its younger women and guys. For me it is people who are really finding a tribe. They’re finding a community in support, in love of this thing. And just as One Direction will lash out against people who don’t believe in things that they love, as will Patriot fans talk smack about Giants fans. Or as a Charger fan I will tell Raider fans how ridiculous they are. I think there’s a deep passion on all levels that people love to put in a tiny corner but that is a much deeper thing in all of us.”
Spurlock, who previously passed on chances to direct documentaries on Justin Bieber and Katy Perry due to other work commitments, said he knew of One Dimension’s meteoric rise to stardom, but traveling the world with them and getting to know each band member personally has been a revelation.
“When you look at them at first you think, ‘Oh, one of these guys has got to be a diva,’” he said. “These guys, they’ve had so much happen to them so quickly, they’ve got to take it for granted. The biggest surprise for me, and what I was pleasantly shocked and surprised by, was how completely grounded and normal they are. These are five ordinary guys who were thrust into an extraordinary situation, and they’ve managed to keep their wits about them. They’ve stayed normal. They’re great guys. I mean they are really good lads.”
But the challenges of latching on to the whirlwind that is One Direction and following it around the world, and into huge stadium concerts packed with screaming fans, were, the director said, at times daunting.
“I think the biggest challenges we faced were logistical,” Spurlock said. “Everywhere you’d go, as you see outside this hotel, there would be 200 or more fans. You saw it in the movie when they walked out onto the street in Amsterdam, it was like a couple of fans who saw them, and they tweeted to other people, and then it was 50, then it was 100, and then it was 200, and then they can’t leave the store. We had to call in the police to get them out.
“Filming around that type of environment is stressful,” he said. “It’s stressful for us in terms of making sure we can maneuver around the crowd. It’s stressful for the boys because suddenly there are throngs of fans who aren’t thinking about safety. I’m not worried about my crew or the boys so much. The kids swarm the cameras until the boys show up, and then we’re invisible. They couldn’t care less about me or our camera crew.
“But then at that point they aren’t paying attention to cars in the street or anything else that’s happening around them,” he said. “So it gets scary because they have such 1D tunnel vision as they’re running down the side of the street chasing the bus. So we’re just looking out the window thinking, ‘Oh please, look where you’re going.’ That’s when it gets frightening.”