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Judging Sundance

Published: Friday, Jan. 29 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Illustration by Aaron Thorup, Deseret News

PARK CITY — The way Morgan Spurlock sees it, he's simply "paying it forward."

The documentarian and television director got his big break during the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where he debuted his fast food cautionary tale "Super Size Me."

The movie became one of Sundance's breakout hits that year. And Spurlock received a directing award from the festival.

It was an experience that he's never forgotten.

"I owe everything, my entire career, to the Sundance Film Festival," Spurlock said.

"I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined that first time at Sundance. It may sound silly, but it was magical," he continued. "So, if anyone at Sundance ever asks me to do something, like jump, all I'd ask back would be 'How high do you want me to jump?' or 'Who do you want me to jump with?' "

Spurlock is repaying some of his "debt" to the festival by being one of its jurors this year. He's one of the filmmakers and other experts judging Sundance's U.S. Documentary Competition section.

Those awards and others will be announced Jan. 30 at the Park City Racquet Club in a ceremony that will be hosted by actor David Hyde Pierce and festival director John Cooper.

Other festival judges this year include actress Parker Posey, filmmakers Karyn Kusama and Allison Maclean, novelist Russell Banks, and Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum.

Spurlock calls it "a very important duty."

"In some cases, you can help make someone's career — as it did for me," he said.

And Spurlock's not exaggerating. At last year's Sundance festival, three awards went to the downbeat urban drama "Push" — later retitled "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." A special performance award was given to actress Carey Mulligan for the drama "An Education."

Both of those movies are expected to get serious Academy Awards consideration.

However, being a judge also has its downside, according to Spurlock.

"What I'd really like to be doing is watching movies all the time. Not just the ones that are required for me to do my job as a juror," he said.

As for what he and the other jurors are looking for in regards to films, Spurlock said that he is "looking for something original, something that's very truthful and honest.

"But you never know what's going to blow you away at the festival," he said. "Luckily I've been in the position as the person who was doing the blowing away."

Spurlock has kept busy since making "Super Size Me." He also produced and directed two seasons of the cable television series "30 Days," as well as a second documentary feature, the tongue-in-cheek "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?" That movie was shown at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, though it was not part of the event's competitions.

His most recent work as a director was the well-received "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!" He also directed a segment for the upcoming film "Freakonomics."

Based on the best-selling book, this documentary about economy features contributions from Spurlock and award-winning directors Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady and Eugene Jarecki.

While he remains dedicated to telling nonfiction stories, Spurlock said he's hoping to branch out in his career.

"I'd really like to make a narrative feature and am planning to do that soon," he reported.

"However, I'm very realistic about what my chances are. I'm not about to become the next James Cameron," Spurlock laughed.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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