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Freakonomics: The Movie

In this anthology film, directors Morgan Spurlock and Rachel Grady collaborated without working together (huh?) on the hit doc inspired by the international bestseller, now available on DVD.

Note: This interview originally ran upon the film's theatrical release.
Freakonomics is now available on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix




Economics certainly doesn’t sound like the most logical subject for a movie, but neither does it scream “bestseller.” Yet the book Freakonomics, the result of a collaboration between an economist (Steven D. Levitt) and a journalist (Stephen J. Dubner), surprised everyone by flying off the shelves upon its release in 2005. These two knew how to tell a story, and they picked fascinating lenses through which to view various aspects of human behavior and their societal outcomes. Striking just the right balance of storytelling and popular science, the book became a conversation piece throughout the country.


A sequel followed (Superfreakonomics), as did word that an unusual documentary had been commissioned, with a who’s who roster of doc directors attached to individual segments of the film, including Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong). Freakonomics (the movie), which had its world premiere as the closing selection of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, is an entertaining, thought-provoking showcase of these exciting directors’ work, covering hot-button issues like parenting, abortion, education, and cheating. The film turns the notion of dry documentary filmmaking on its ear, just as its namesake did for typically boring books about economics.


The producers of the film even decided to tackle an economics experiment of their own: Freakonomics (the movie) premiered on iTunes (in its entirety) weeks before appearing in theaters, allowing for the kind of instant, populist reach that most docs do not enjoy. It’s now showing in theaters across the country, and we recently caught up with Spurlock and Grady to talk about where they found their inspiration.



Morgan Spurlock directed the segment about the importance—or lack thereof—of what we choose to name our children, in terms of looking at the quality of parenting in general: how do we decide on a name? What impact does it have on the child’s life?


Tribeca: Were you given any direction at all about your segment—tone, length, format?


Morgan Spurlock: Just, “Go.” I think it was supposed to be between 16 and 20 minutes, but that was it.

Tribeca: Did you have in mind what piece you wanted to do?

Morgan Spurlock: I loved the Sumo [wrestling] chapter, but then I heard Gibney had [already signed on for that], so I said, “Okay, fine.” I had [recently] had my son, and the whole debate over what to name our kid had come out. It was a real debate; there were real conversations… We had [the name for a boy]: Laken was my great-great-uncle’s name, and it was something that I really liked, and that his mom really liked, so it was fine. The bigger question came: What if we had a daughter?


Tribeca: I like Laken for a girl, too.


Morgan Spurlock: Well, a year after I had my son, a friend of mine from high school named her daughter Laken. Oh! Well, there you go! Stole my kid’s name, did you? [laughs] But thank goodness we didn’t have a girl, because I really wanted to name a son Laken.


Tribeca: Were you always fascinated by names? You’ve got a pretty good one.


Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, I was the only Morgan in my school; I think I was the only Morgan in my county. I don’t think I met another Morgan until I was 16 or 17 years old. I was at the beach, and a mom or dad was yelling, “Morgan!” for this little girl who was down the beach. And now it’s kind of everywhere.


I always liked my name. I hated my middle name, which is Valentine.


Tribeca: Wow!


Morgan Spurlock: It was my mother’s maiden name. My grandparents had no daughters, so there was no one to carry on the family name, and my mom gave it to me; I was the last of her three sons. I hated it as a kid, because literally every first day of school in homeroom they call out your whole name. So it’s like, “Mary Elizabeth Bailey, Michael James Johnson, Morgan Valentine Spurlock…” [makes snickering noises] “Haaaa! Valentine!” I hated it.




Tribeca: Your segment is probably one of the ones I remember best from the book: Winner/Loser…


Morgan Spurlock: Yeah, Winner and Loser is a good one. Temptress—I loved that story too. Yeah, but if you name your kid Winner or Loser, what kind of terrible parent are you? It’s like that guy in North Carolina or wherever last year who wanted to name his son Adolf Hitler.


Tribeca: That’s child abuse!


Morgan Spurlock: Literally, they should be like, “Great, we’re going to take your kid, you’re not allowed to have children, and you’re getting a vasectomy today. [laughs] We’re taking away any possibility of you spawning ever again.”


Tribeca: Did you feel like you brought a new insight to this piece as a new parent?


Morgan Spurlock: I feel like I came at it from a good place, where it was very fresh to me. And, you know, just the stuff we found out—the fact that there are people who hire baby-naming experts to help name their kid. Really?!?! I’ll admit it was hard, but you’re so invested in your child’s future that you’re going to pay someone?


Tribeca: Well, these baby-naming books are bestsellers.


Morgan Spurlock: All the time! And websites, where you have to pay a fee to go on the site and look at baby names? Yeah. It’s bananas.




Tribeca: This whole marketplace that’s come up around parenting—what are your thoughts?


Morgan Spurlock: We touch on this in the movie. Everybody wants to be a good parent, and as Stephen Dubner says, “The fact that you would go out and buy ‘How to Be a Better Parent’ books—even if you don’t read them—shows that you are probably already a better parent than some people.” Because you already give a shit—you are already making an effort to be a better parent.


For me, I was fascinated with all these things. There were so many ways we could go with this—just talking about this whole parenting industry. It’s literally a billion dollar industry—from the time he’s born until he’s ready to go off to college.


Tribeca: Can you talk about your experience at Tribeca this year?


Morgan Spurlock: It was the first time I’d ever had a big movie at a gala like that [Closing Night]—which was spectacular! For me, it was an incredible experience. As a native New Yorker, the whole idea behind creating the Tribeca Film Festival—its heart is in the right place, its soul is in the right place, and I think its mission is in the right place: wanting to continue to not only support independent filmmaking, but to support New York filmmaking. For me as a New York filmmaker—I’ve made this my home, coming up on 20 years now—I love that it’s here, and hopefully, I’ll be able to come back.


Tribeca: What’s up next for you?


Morgan Spurlock: We’re editing Comic Con Episode 4: A Fan’s Hope. It’s a documentary all about Comic Con, which will be done in the spring. We followed 10 different characters from all over the world into Comic Con—all who were coming there with their own hopes and dreams and missions and things that they hoped to accomplish. We covered it through their eyes, rather than as just this big swath of “here’s what Comic Con is”—these are people who are very invested in what Comic Con stands for.


Being the consummate geek—who grew up reading comics and Fangoria magazine as a kid, and watching movies from dawn ‘til dusk—it kind of speaks to everything I love and care about.



Rachel Grady and her filmmaking partner Heidi Ewing directed a segment that did not originally appear in the book; instead, they followed an experiment that the economist Steven Levitt was working on during the filming of the movie: can underachieving students be financially bribed to improve their grades?


Tribeca: How did you get started on the project?


Rachel Grady: [Producer Chad Troutwine] started with Alex [Gibney], and Alex gave them our name. We read the book… and instantly started thinking, “How are we going to do what we do with this book?” We make observational films, and everything in the book is data-based—analysis of old data. How are we going to do what we do and do justice to this particular material?


Luckily, the economist [Steven Levitt] was doing this experiment last year that we were able to film real-time; it was definitely a Freakonomics experiment—kind of the next generation after the books. And for us, he was working with teenagers, which is something we love as subjects. So it was just Kismet, and we started filming right away. We also got some great characters and some wacky results, so it worked out perfectly.


Tribeca: Education is a hot-button topic these days in film—Waiting for Superman and other docs—especially those that focus on the business-ification of education. (Your segment kind of falls into that category too.) Why do you think that is?


Rachel Grady: Hopefully, it’s because people have realized that education is going to shape the next 50 years of this country, and it’s not in great shape right now. We have a serious skills problem, the stem of which is in the public school system, which—if you are not very affluent—is your only option. It’s also supposed to be what sets us apart as an advanced Western society—to have a good public school system—and we’re failing at that. So I hope people are starting to realize that this is really going to be problematic for a long time if it’s not fixed.


Tribeca: Was there something that really surprised you with the experiment?


Rachel Grady: I was a little skeptical that that little money would make a difference with kids: you get $50 if you are able to bring your grades up to all Cs and above, and several other disciplinary genres that you have to follow. And you get the chance to win $500. However, what the school system is basically competing with at the 9th-grade level is social acceptance; socializing and peer acceptance is king at 14 or 15 years old. I just don’t think $50 can compete with that.


Tribeca: You can’t even buy an iPod with $50.


Rachel Grady: Exactly. In this day and age, what’s $50? It’s sad to say, but it’s true. And it turned out that we were right on one side—for one boy, social/peer acceptance was the only thing he cared about—but on the other hand, some kids can be bought monetarily [laughs], and can then kind of catch the bug of wanting to get good grades for the sake of the good grades. We saw that with one of our characters, and that was kind of a surprise to me. (The other kid fell in where we kind of thought it would.)




Tribeca: Were you ever paid for your own grades?


Rachel Grady: I was not. I was not a great student, and that’s why I feel like I know a lot about peer acceptance. When I got to 11th grade, a little bit more mature, I realized that although I was popular, all the kids I was popular with were going to go on and get into colleges, and it didn’t look like I was going to. I changed my attitude, and I started getting good grades. I had to go through my own epiphany—that this was benefiting me in the long term. And everything else I was seeking was very short term. I had to come to these conclusions myself.


Tribeca: Did that help to motivate you throughout college as well?


Rachel Grady: Absolutely. Once I was on the right track, I became a good student. I was a bad student from kindergarten through 10th grade, and then a lightbulb went off. But that doesn’t happen for most kids. And it took a long time—it took me a year to become a good student: how to study, how to write a good paper, all the stuff that my peers had been doing since they were little.


Tribeca: So clearly, as a documentary filmmaker, you are not motivated by money now, either!


Rachel Grady: No. [laughs] There’s definitely an easier or better way to make a buck.


Tribeca: So what motivates you now?


Rachel Grady: I would say the number one thing is curiosity. There are a lot of gratifying things that come out of making films—the intimate relationships you make with people that are very unique and special: subject and filmmaker, there’s nothing else like it. And the things that I learn about myself, the world, other people, humanity—that is also a massive motivator, and it’s bottomless. So if we seek out interesting, rich topics, I’ll get that feedback loop that I crave now.


Tribeca: You are a friend of Tribeca—we showed Jesus Camp in 2006, and we recently screened 12th & Delaware at our Tribeca Cinemas Doc Series. Were you happy to come back with Freakonomics?


Rachel Grady: It was fabulous! We are big fans—we’ve grown with the Festival, but also it’s our hometown. I thought it was a great closing night film.


Tribeca: So had you seen the other pieces?


Rachel Grady: No. Literally, before Tribeca, none of us had seen the other segments. It was really fun—it was actually the first time at a premiere [of mine] that I was watching the film. Because I hadn’t seen it, where usually I’ve seen it 8 billion times, and I’m watching the audience for reactions. So it was a real movie experience for us.




Tribeca: Was your part unchanged? Or was there an uber-director who wove them all together?


Rachel Grady: No, it was totally intact. There was no editing of any of our pieces. It was a very filmmaker-friendly, respectful experience.


Tribeca: You just had a baby very recently. Thinking about Morgan’s piece on baby names, how did you decide what to name him? Did you think about it when you watched the film at Tribeca?


Rachel Grady: Definitely! I was wondering, “Am I doing him a solid or not?” I named him Desmond, and I thought it was a name that you could live with for 80 years. I thought it was a very warm name, of a kind person, and it had a good baby name—Desi—and a cool teenage name—Des—and then he could be Desmond when he’s a grown-up. I just went with my gut on that one.


Tribeca: How will you motivate Desmond in school? Do you think that’s your job, or will you let him come to it on his own?


Rachel Grady: I think a combination. You can guide, and you can offer, but ultimately, hardwiring of the individual is going to be at least 50% of what you’re dealing with, which of course I don’t know yet; he’s only a month old. Maybe he’s going to be someone who loves school! I wasn’t, but I hope he’s different; it makes it a lot easier. [laughs]


Freakonomics is now available on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix.


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