Plunging into One Direction Fan Land with This Is Us Director Morgan Spurlock

The anticipation in the air was intense: it was like the moments just before a riot breaks out or the seconds before they open the doors for the Black Friday sale at Jeremy’s. As one of the few adults without an accompanying child I was self-conscious and as one of the only theatergoers not decked out in fan merch, I was clearly a novice in the presence of diehards. When the lights went down, screaming adolescent girls (and some boys, good for their parents) rose in a collective frenzy and chanted their names: Zayn, Niall, Liam, Louis (and of course) Harry.

I had entered the land of One Direction: reality superstars, international boyband phenomenon and now, stars of their own 3-D concert film: One Direction: This Is Us.

Toto, we were most definitely not in Kansas any more. Kansas, in this case being press screenings. As part of the film’s preview campaign traditionally staid press screenings were nixed in favor of having journalists sit amongst fans in packed houses for the authentic One Direction experience. Eventually, my ears stopped ringing.

If you have or regularly are in contact with preteens, you probably already know about the Anglo-Irish boyband that rocketed to fame on the U.K. X-Factor in 2010 and has since formed a nouveau British Invasion selling over 19 million singles, 10 million albums and winning every pop prize know to man including three MTV Video Music Awards (including the one they picked up Sunday for “Best Song Ever” as “Song of the Summer.”) As a “1D” (as the kids call them) newbie, I was about to get a crash course on what makes the boys the toast of the tween set. This is Us isn’t just a film about a band: it’s a film about the fans that made them.

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At the helm of the band’s 3D multiplex takeover is an unlikely auteur: documentary filmmaker, CNN personality and overall muckraker Morgan Spurlock. The Academy Award nominated director of Supersize Me might seem like an unlikely contender to helm a boy band movie (in 3D! It’s like they’re singing right at you!) but in his own words, “Why not?”

“Why not One Direction?” Spurlock said at a press conversation following the screening. “Are you saying a handsome 42-year-old man can’t be a directioner?” Spurlock revealed that over the years he had been offered several concert film projects (including fellow 3D experiences starring Justin Bieber and Katy Perry) but the timing had never worked out. “Then come June [2012]: Sony calls and says ‘have you ever heard of this band One Direction?’ I had just been filming a series in England (New Britannia for Sky Atlantic) and watched as they exploded in the U.K. and across Europe. Of course I knew who they were. When they asked if I wanted to come meet with them about doing a movie about these guys I was immediately like ‘Yes, I would love to meet with them. I’m not going to miss the chance to do another one of these movies.'”

“As a documentary filmmaker, the chance to get to make a film of this scope and this scale are few and far between: they happen once every 3-4 years if you’re lucky.” Spurlock continued: “To get to make a film with a studio, with a budget beyond anything documentary filmmakers ever get to have, to use technology you never have access to, to make a film in 3D, about a band that is one of the biggest bands in the world at such a crossroad in their career as they continue to explode into such a global phenomena is an amazing story I’d love to tell. If all those reasons why aren’t good enough, let me put it into an even simpler perspective: the day this movie comes out it’s going to be seen by more people around the world than have seen all my movies on opening day combined. As a filmmaker and a storyteller, why would you not want to tell that story?”

When the topic of 1D fans was broached Spurlock revealed that it was his idea to forgo the usual critics screenings in favor of putting journalist in the middle of the 1Der fan experience. “We can’t have press screenings. When we talked about first showing it I said ‘people have to see it with the fans for them to experience it as it should be seen.’ You get a sense of the fervor, of the excitement. To absorb the film surrounded by the fans is the best way to experience the movie.”

For Spurlock, out of all his previous films the one that best prepared him for This is Us was 2011’s Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, his behind the scenes look at fandom at the annual San Diego convention. “I think that film deals with fandom and dedication without turning fans into the butt of a joke,” he said, comparing the Comic-Com film’s fan emphasis with the 1Ders who share the screen with the band. “That same type of DNA is part of this movie. I’m a fan of lots of things but I’ve never been so dedicated to something that I will camp out for days to buy a ticket or catch a glimpse of someone. I’ve never made a sign to take somewhere to hold up or chased someone down the street to see them. With some of the fans we followed, I want to be there in the theaters for the first time as they see themselves on screen screaming and jumping up and down in front of the boys. As excited as they were on camera, I want to see what they’ll do when they see themselves on film.”

The film goes beyond the band’s life backstage and in concert. Several scenes of the boys exploring cities on tour show the other side of the fan experience: getting trapped in stores when mobs quickly form on the street, crushing throngs grabbing at the boys before they can safely shelter themselves in waiting cars, crowds waiting outside the band’s hotel who cheer the minute a band member steps near the window (one of the more humorous scenes Spurlock captures is Liam going to his hotel window, Evita like, and bringing the crowd to a screaming frenzy by simply raising his hand and then quieting them by lowering it, as though conducting a choir numbering in the thousands). The concert scenes–the 3D segments of the film–radiate with the charm that initially catapulted the boys to stardom as they perform hits “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Live While We’re Young.” And the backstage antics are a reminder that for all their superstardom, we’re following five young men barely out of high school. While capturing the eye-popping choreography on the stage (eye-popping in its use of 3D: Spurlock exploits the stage show’s visuals and the boys’ movements to great effect in the technology), there’s never a lack of cutaways to the ever-present 1Ders.

20130827-103741.jpg“What I love about them is they’re still excited: there’s still this incredible innocence for them.” Spurlock answered when asked how he saw the band change in the year he spent with them on tour in North America, Europe and Asia. “I think they’ve gotten used to the incredible mass of people around. As much as these guys are world famous pop stars, they’re still incredibly young and to get to experience these new things with them on tour was very special. Watching them play robot soccer in Japan or getting confused by what exactly to do with miso soup just reminded you that these really are 19, 20, 21-year-old guys.”

After 90 minutes sharing the same air with the One Direction fans, I felt a giddy form of exhaustion/contact high from my time in their world. I just took in a movie with them: I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by their intensity for a full year like Spurlock, or possibly much longer like the band themselves. I thought about the crowd scenes, the car chases, the masses waiting for autographs at almost every airport the band landed at and the screaming tweens I had seen that night. After the press conversation one question remained that I hadn’t been able to ask Spurlock during our time together: how fortunate for me that afterwords, we found ourselves at adjoining sinks in the men’s room.

“Thanks for coming.” Spurlock said, looking up while he soaped his hands.

“Thank you.” I responded. “Can I ask you one final question?”

“Sure.”

“What made you more nervous: searching for the head of Al Qaida in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? or almost getting crushed to death by 12-year-olds in Amsterdam while on tour with One Direction?” Spurlock took a moment and dried his hands.

“It was probably an equal level of self-concern in both situations” the filmmaker answered. “But the One Direction fans were a lot better organized.”

One Direction: This Is Us Opens in theaters everywhere Friday

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Tony Bravo

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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